Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


Leave a comment

Movie reviews: Doris, Ricki, and Bathsheba

It struck me recently that all the movies I’ve seen recently have starred women—in two cases, women over 60.

Hello, My Name is Doris is the closest to a current release, and I did see it at the theatre. Doris, played by Sally Field, lives on Staten Island in the home of her recently deceased mother, whom she’d cared for many years. When she meets the handsome, newly hired art director at work, John (played by Max Greenfield), she develops an almost instant crush. Aided by the 13-year-old daughter of one her friends, she inches her way into his life, with an initially feigned by finally honest appreciation of the same music. Surely this can never be more than a friendship? But Doris can’t help hoping…

I appreciated this film’s rare recognition that an older woman can still have desires. And it is fun watching Doris and John’ friendship develop. Though courtship remains a long shot, Doris blossoms. She’s better able to cope with the other stresses in her life and ultimately get her life on a new trajectory. You can’t help rooting for this woman.

Hello, My Name is Doris trailer

By contrast, Ricki, from Meryl Streep’s Ricki and the Flash (2015), decided to pursue her dreams and passions long before the film’s start—even though this meant leaving a husband and three children. Her hopes of becoming a rock star were not realized, but she’s almost making a living performing in a house band, supplemented by cashier job at a health foods store.

Ricki returns to visit the family she hasn’t seen in years after her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) informs her that her daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter) has become suicidal over the collapse of  her marriage. The family has moved on to a different world than the one Ricki inhabits: upper class and straitlaced. The degree varies, but everyone in the family is a little hostile toward their absentee  mother.

I didn’t think this movie was quite as original or successful as Doris, but I still enjoyed it. That music played a prominent role didn’t hurt. The relative realism of the start is somewhat undermined by the determination to make this a feel-good movie. But it is nice to feel good. (And it was fun to see Rick Springfield as Ricki’s boyfriend / guitarist.)

Ricki and The Flash trailer

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) is about a young woman in Victorian times, Bathsheba Everdeen (Cary Mulligan), who has a refreshing independent streak.  She has no need of a husband, she declares, and this proves true when she inherits her own farm. But this doesn’t men from trying to woo her—and from a modern perspective, it’s almost hilarious how marriage proposals are offered without much preamble, let alone anything like a first date.

At any rate, through the course of this film Bathsheba has three suitors. That she doesn’t always choose wisely among them is disappointing, but admittedly, pretty much necessary to create drama. This is a gorgeous-looking movie, with typically great British acting. I can’t compare it to either the Thomas Hardy novel or the earlier film version, having not read or seen either. But it certainly wasn’t bad viewing after a weekend of appalling current events.

Far from the Madding Crowd trailer


3 Comments

Magic Mike marathon

When it comes to binge-watching, I’m a real lightweight. (I don’t really get how anyone watches TV for hours on end. Don’t you people have shit to do?) So this “binge” meant that I watched the first Magic Mike movie on Saturday night, and Magic Mike XXL on Sunday night. (In case wondering: Jean was otherwise occupied both nights, and therefore has no opinion on either film.)

Both movies are about male strippers. “Magic” Mike, played by Channing Tatum, stars in both.

magicmikelasvegas

In the usual critical terms, the first Magic Mike is the better film (80% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s directed by Stephen Soderbergh (something I didn’t realize til I saw the credits at the end). And it’s fairly gritty, showing there’s a certain hollowness to selling your body for money—even if you’re a man. We see how Mike has trouble forging a real, committed relationship with a woman. How he dreams of running his own custom furniture business, but keeps getting distracted by the easy money of stripping—though his stockpiles of cash do nothing for his credit rating and loan eligibility. And how an 19-year-old who joins the troupe (The Kid, played by Alex Pettyfer) quickly and dangerously gets caught up in the drug trade.

The most fun parts of this movie are the dance performances. In terms of lighting, costumes, and effects—not to mention how very handsome this particular troupe of male strippers are—it’s probably not so realistic. But that’s also likely why the movie became the surprise hit it was.

This “Honest Trailer” for Magic Mike perfectly captures its sad story / hot dancing dichotomy

Magic Mike XXL is not directed by Stephen Soderbergh. And in the “usual critical terms,” it’s not that great a movie (62% on Rotten Tomatoes). The plot is super simple: It’s three years later! The guys are reuniting for one last big strip show! Road trip! Yet it nonetheless often doesn’t make much sense. Why are they stopping at this house? What is that girl from the beach doing there? What is the timeline of this movie?

And yet, and yet. In a world where so many movies are made for teenage boys, it’s hard not to have fondness for a movie so clearly made just for women. (Straight women, anyway.)

magic-mike-a-435

The first movie focused mostly on Mike, The Kid, and MC Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). The Kid and Dallas aren’t in the sequel, so everyone else in the troupe gets more time, especially Matt Bomet as Ken and Joe Manganiello as Big Dick Richie. And what men they are: strong, gorgeous, masculine, but also sweet, sensitive, and funny. None of them have wives / girlfriends at the moment, so they are able to devote themselves to the goal of making women of the world happy.

And they’re very inclusive and non-judgmental about that goal. You kind of plain? That won’t stop Richie from doing a big dance number just to make you smile. Racial diversity comes in after they visit club whose clientele are mostly African-American women (and they pick up a couple African American men to join the group). A bit old to get out to strip clubs? No worries; the men will come to your house to show you “it’s still your time”. Larger-size women get the same worshipful on-stage treatment as their thinner counterparts—and nobody throws their back out. There’s even a scene in a gay club, just so it’s clear these guys don’t have a problem with that, either.

giphy

Richie working the pop machine in a bid to entertain a grumpy shop girl

The stage performances are such a blatant attempt to appeal to women’s fantasies, it’s almost hilarious. Into rock stars? Here’s Ken, singing (nice voice, too), then stripping! Want to be married to a bad boy? He’s Richie in a tux with a big ring: but after the “wedding”, he’ll take off his clothes and throw you in a sling! Want to be painted? Have some guy lick whip cream off your thighs? Or just dance with a guy who looks like Tatum Channing? Done, done, and done!

So, you want a decent movie with a side of hot guys? Then Magic Mike could do the trick. But if you’d rather shut your brain off and enjoy a fantasy, just go for Magic Mike XXL.

Magic Mike XXL official trailer


2 Comments

Oscar round-up

I expect I’ll tune in for Chris Rock’s opening monologue tonight, but can’t see me sitting there for the following 3+ hours watching it live, with commercials. Even though I do have some opinion about what I’d like to see happen (though mostly, it won’t).

Best picture / Directing

I rented Spotlight from iTunes last night. It is indeed a very good film. I was only vaguely familiar with the story—of the extent of the Catholic Church’s covering up pedophile priests in Boston—so I was along for the ride as the reporting team’s investigation uncovered more and more disturbing facts.

So I’ve now seen five of the eight Best Picture nominees, and three of five Directing. The Revenant I have no interest in ever seeing. Three hours of Leonard di Caprio going through horrible experiences in the bush. Yeah, no thanks. Bridge of Spies—I know nothing about that movie, really. Room—definitely want to see it. I was able to handle the book; should be able to handle the movie. (But Jean wasn’t so sure he could, so this wasn’t a theatre outing for us. Same as Spotlight.)

best-picture

But how to rank what I have seen?

If I went with my heart, it would definitely be Brooklyn. It was just so lovely, and the only one from a woman’s point of view.

With my head, maybe Spotlight with a slight edge over The Big Short?

Though for pure entertainment, hard to beat The Martian. So suspenseful. And overall liked it more than Mad Max: Fury Road, even though that one did manage to keep me interested in a big car chase, which is no mean feat.

And I really think Mad Max: Fury Road was the most impressive directing job of these.

Other film categories

Inside Out had better win Animated Feature Film, and I stick to that despite not having seen any others in this category. That was just one of the best pictures of last year, period. I note it’s up for Best Original Screenplay, too.

95114614770e1f8118804bc009d4ff88767d6ce8c81180cc618ab8f645ab4fe4-370x492I can’t be quite as categorical in the Documentary category, where again I’ve seen only one of the nominees: Amy. Will say that it is very good, though. Wasn’t particularly an Amy Winehouse fan walking in. Certainly was walking out.

Haven’t seen a single one of the Foreign language film nominees!

Acting

Here I’ve really missed a lot of these movies, though I hope to catch some eventually. And there are definite favorites for these, right? DiCaprio best actor; Brie Larson (Room) best actress; Sylvester Stallone (Creed) supporting actor, and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) supporting actress.

At least on that last one, I can wholeheartedly support. She was amazing. See:

The Danish Girl movie clip: I want my husband

And I really liked Soairse Ronan in Brooklyn, though can’t compare her to Brie Larson.

Brooklyn movie clip: You don’t sound Irish

Best song

I only know three of them, and I think Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” might be the best of the bunch. Powerful.

Then all those other categories…

Sound mixing, animated short films, makeup and hairstyling, film production.. Lordie. This is why the Oscars go on 3+ boring hours.

 


4 Comments

Heart and mind: Brooklyn and The Big Short

Bit late to point this out now, but Brooklyn would be a terrific movie to see on Valentine’s Day. It tells the story of Ellis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates from Ireland to New York City in the 1950s. At first she is crippled by homesickness, but then she meets a boy… And takes courses in bookkeeping. And generally comes to appreciate her new country.

A death in the family brings her back to Ireland for a visit. She sees her birth place in a new light. Turns out there are boys here, too. Should her “visit” be extended?

Official trailer for Brooklyn (YouTube)

Brooklyn is a gorgeous movie. Both Jean and I were struck by the lighting, of all things (and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for that). And Ronan is excellent in the lead role, saying a lot with sometimes few lines. The plot is fairly simple; there are no explosions, special effects, car chases. It’s just the story of a bright young woman growing up and having to figure out what her heart wants.

It’s remarkably riveting to join in her journey.


So while that would have been an excellently romantic choice yesterday, since we’d already seen it a few weeks ago, we instead went to see The Big Short. Ying to Brooklyn‘s yang.

The Big Short looks at the few years before and up to the American housing stock market crash  of 2008, and specifically at the few in the financial market who saw it coming. The film has an interesting mix of protagonists (all male; that’s the industry, and the movie is based on fact): an autistic savant (Christian Bale) who works at a major investment firm; a group of cynical hedge fund managers, led by Marc Baum (Steve Carrell) who operate at arm’s length from a big bank; and two smart young guys who invest for themselves, with the assistance of a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

They all choose to short the system; that is, to invest in a way that bets against the conventional wisdom that the housing market is solid and could not possibly fail. And they all take a lot of grief for that position.

Understanding this movie means digging into the arcania of mortgage bonds and such. The films does this is an interesting way by literally stopping the story and cutting to someone such as Selena Gomez, to explain the concepts to us directly, using metaphors.

Official trailer for The Big Short (YouTube)

Jean found the film kind of depressing. I didn’t, because it was so interesting, and often funny. But I did feel conflicted about it. Not quite as much as when watching Margin Call, a movie that focuses on financial advisors at that moment that they realize the housing market and the bonds they are built are about to come crashing down, and they hurry to sell as much as they can, as fast they can, by lying to thousands of investors.

This movie’s mavericks aren’t quite as evil as that. For a time, they also are victimized by the fraudulent system that gives high ratings to what are actually high-risk bonds. They are hardly fans of the fraud, greed, and corruption that created this crisis—particularly Marc Baum and group, who hope this will lead to criminal convictions and banking reform. And while they are aware that this crash will cause a lot of economic hardship. it’s not clear how they could possibly have stopped it.

But it’s still a little uncomfortable that they instead profited, quite handsomely, from the crash. As a viewer,  you sort of want the crash to happen, to prove them right and the unpleasant, smug, venal financial experts wrong. But you also know that the crash means a lot of ordinary, innocent people are going to get hurt.

Brooklyn is good for your feels. The Big Short makes you think.


4 Comments

The Force awakens a Martian and Danish girl (with vampires)

Now that would be a movie! In the meantime, one has to be content with viewing these separately.

The Martian

The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who is abandoned on the surface of Mars when his fellow astronauts believe he has died in a sandstorm. Only, not so much. He has to find a way to survive on a desert planet, without any means of communicating with NASA.

maxresdefault

This was a really engrossing film. Mark has to work through one challenge after another: water, food, heat, communication. He has success, but also dramatic and unexpected setbacks. You can never quite relax into this movie. As Jean put it: “I wasn’t bored!”

The Danish Girl

mv5bmja0nja4nje2nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzixnty2nje-_v1_sx214_al_Shifting gears completely, The Danish Girl is based on the true story of artist Einer Wegener, who comes to believe he is really a woman in the body of a man: A not commonly accepted idea back in 1926.

Eddie Redmayne has the flashy dual role of Einer and the woman he transitions to, Lili Elbe—and he’s very good. But this is the story of a marriage, and Alicia Vikander, is just luminous and amazing as Gerda Wegener. At the beginning of the movie, these two are truly in love. Gerda initially sees her husband’s explorations with the Lili persona as an amusing game. When she realizes how serious the “game” actually is, her desire to be supportive conflicts with the fact that means losing her beloved husband.

As Jean put it: “That was a very good film.”

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Just wanted to mention this one—that I saw on Netflix—because it was so different from what was expecting, which was a bit of campy fun. But it’s actually a fairly serious look at the life of Abraham Lincoln and the challenges of the Civil War—only, there are vampires. Involved in the slave trade.  Fighting for the south.

I wouldn’t call this a “must see” film, but it was certainly a whole lot better than Jean and I were expecting. Great effects, too.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter trailer on YouTube

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Warning that this review is somewhat spoilery.

Continue reading


5 Comments

2015 TV shows Part 1: iZombie and friends

Is there any more First World problem than “peak television”? “Wah! There’s too much stuff to watch!” But it’s kind of true. Between the various streaming services, HBO, and the networks, there have never been more hours of quality viewing available. There’s no keeping up with it all (and also having a life).

So, no one needs another list of TV shows to watch. Nevertheless, with apologies and with recognition that it most certainly leaves out many fine programs that I didn’t have the time or the inclination to watch, herewith is my best TV viewing of 2015.

Note: I was going to attempt to describe each listed series in this one post, but then I realized that could get really long. And who would have time to read all that, what with all this TV to watch? So let’s just make this a series. (Though like any series, one subject to cancellation at any time.) What could be more fitting for this medium?

Within each category, programs are listed in alphabetical order, as I can’t imagine ranking such vastly different series against each other.

Under the radar

Programs that, seems to me, aren’t that well-known.

  1. The Americans – Shomi / FX: I wrote about The Americans earlier in the year. Season 3 on Shomi later this month!
  2. Borgen – TVO (originally on Danish television)
  3. Catastrophe – Shomi / BBC: I wrote about Catastrophe as well. Season 2 available about now…

 

4. Today’s feature: iZombie – Shomi / CW

The premise: Based on a comic book, iZombie stars Rose McIver as Liv Moore, an over-achieving medical resident who, as shown in flashbacks, is zombified at a party a few months before the series starts. In this world, zombies retain their mental capacity as long as they regularly consume human brains. Liv manages her dietary needs by working at the coroner’s office, where her partner, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, clues into her condition in episode 1. Everyone else in her life is mystified by her new behavior and look.

Adding to Liv’s challenges is that when she eat someone’s brain, she temporarily takes on some of their characteristics, be it passionate artist, warm country singer, reclusive computer genius, or psychopath killer. She also gets visions of what the deceased went through, and she uses these to work with police detective Babineaux (who thinks she’s a psychic) to solve murders.

iZombie official trailer

Notable participants: It’s produced by the same people responsible for Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero, and shares with that series the rapid-fire wit. As for the actors, though, I personally am not familiar with any of them. But Rose McIver is very good in what must be a challenging (but fun!) role. The casting, generally, is nicely diverse, and Robert Buckley, as Liv’s former finance Major, reminds me a lot of Scott Speedman.

What’s good about it: I like that that this series has self-contained, weekly murders to solve along with ongoing, season-long storylines. And that the characters have complexity and evolve and are generally likeable (even the villains). And that it’s mega-funny, yet delves into complex moral issues of what it means to be human. Happiness is complicated and rare for these characters (especially Liv and Major), but it’s not a depressing show.

It’s not quite at Buffy levels, but like that show, there’s more to it than its title and premise would suggest.

Any qualms? Whenever the characters apply actual science to zombie-ism (Liv and Ravi are doctors, after all), it doesn’t quite work for me. Zombie-ism just doesn’t seem scientifically possible.


 

  1. Mozart in the Jungle – Shomi / Amazon
  2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Netflix

Critically acclaimed

We’ve all heard these ones are good. I generally agree—though some are likely overrated.

  1. Agent Carter – CTV / ABC
  2. The Jinx – HBO
  3. Transparent – Shomi / Amazon

(I’d add Netflix’ Jessica Jones here—or in some category—except that we haven’t finished the first season yet.)

Popular successes

A fair number of people watch these shows. The public isn’t always wrong.

  1. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – CTV / ABC
  2. Amazing Race Canada – CTV
  3. Grace and Frankie – Netflix
  4. Silicon Valley – HBO


2 Comments

Gone Girl (the book)

Yes, I know, y’all read this three years ago, when it was new and hot. But I just finished it. So cast your mind back…

(But if you not have read it (or seen the movie] yet: Spoilers ahead.)

Gone Girl coverWhat it’s about, basically

Nick Dunne’s beautiful wife Amy disappears on their anniversary date. The house shows signs of a struggle, but almost in a staged way. The police have to consider Nick a suspect.

What I liked

This was an awesome vacation read. It was very gripping, the plot’s twists and turns continually holding my interest. A perfect way to while away the hours on the sun deck.

But I also found the narrative structure very intriguing. Despite the fact that the story was being told in the first person by Nick—we still weren’t getting the whole story. He was keeping secrets not only from the police, but from us, the readers.

This (along with some of the movie publicity, I must admit) becomes a clue that we should possibly also doubt Amy’s diary entries that intersperse Nick’s telling of her disappearance in the first part of the novel. Who can you trust?

What I had some issues with

The story’s structure is such that we’re supposed to find some equivalencies between Amy and Nick, I think, but, but… Amy is a murderous, vengeful psychopath. Nick is a bit flawed and weak.

Of course, Amy’s extremes made for this very enthralling plot—but it was very extreme.

About that ending

I talked to a number of people about this book and the movie. A lot of people hated the ending. A few people thought it was just right. But love it or hate it, one thing they had in common was: They couldn’t quite remember what the ending was. Only their feelings about it. Curious.

Well, at this point, I can still remember the ending, and I wasn’t crazy about it. It seemed a rather odd choice. And yet I wasn’t sure how I would have preferred that it end. I was briefly determined to see the movie, as I had somehow got in my head that it ended differently than the book, and I was curious to see an alternative. But further research dashed my hopes: It has the  exact same ending, apparently.

Guess I’ll wait to see the movie when I forget the ending, as that seems an inevitable occurrence…

What the book says about marriage

I’ve heard this “it’s an indictment of marriage” theory, but frankly, I don’t think this book says anything about marriage in general. Heck, given the narrative structure, we don’t even learn about Nick and Amy’s specific marriage. Not really. We only find out about it through a lying diary and the fog of memory (his and hers). It’s all past tense, and at a very tense time for both!

Really, I think, the only lesson you can take is: Try not to marry a murderous psychopath.

Can we blame Amy’s parents?

This was another theory i’d heard before reading the book, and then I kept waiting for Amy’s parents to do so or say something that would give a hint as to how they had turned her into what she was, but… Bupkus. Sure, they weren’t perfect. She was an only child, they literally elevated her to “Amazing Amy” status through a series of books they wrote, but not every spoiled kid turns into this.

It’s probably best not to try to find deep meaning in a fun vacation read. Even one written with such skill.