Weekly Round-Up: April 16-22, 2016

  • Boyz n the Hood (1991) – Very impressive story about good kids growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Authentic performances and dialogue elevate this film into true art. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Iron Man 3 (2013) – My favorite so far in the Iron Man saga, with our hero facing genuine PTSD after the nutso events of The Avengers. There was so much going on I had trouble following the story, but with so much happening I was still entertained. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Some movies, like American Graffiti and GoodFellas transcend their immediate narratives, serving as both a quality story as well as a cinematic time capsule, a window into a specific time and place. Boyz n the Hood is one such film.

It focuses on two friends growing up in South Central Los Angeles and the diverging paths their lives take; Tre is an intelligent, yet apprehensive, virgin who can’t wait to get out of Los Angeles, while Ricky is already a father, plays football, and has a 2.3 GPA. Most movies would let the story end there, and build up some condescension from Tre or resentment from Ricky, but there’s none at all – they go about their lives on their own, and all their interactions are positive, genuinely moments of friendship.

Nothing about Boyz n the Hood, frankly, is shallow or short-sighted. It’s a stunningly dimensional film, with a cast of well-rounded and believable characters: Tre’s father “Furious” who instills high values in his son while reminding him of the realities of societal prejudice; Ricky’s mother, both critical and optimistic for her son’s future; and most notably, Ricky’s brother “Doughboy” (portrayed by Ice Cube), an ex-con who sits around drinking all day but is so charming he steals the show.

It almost feels like 1970s Steven Spielberg could have directed this movie, with a rich “slice of life” foundation upon which the drama unfolds. One of my favorite scenes was Doughboy’s welcome home barbecue when he comes home from prison, with the men playing dominoes on one half of the backyard and the women congregate on the other. It’s comedy, sexual politics, and nostalgia all in one.

Who wouldn’t invite them to their barbecue?

Even when the drama hits, it’s not straight from the immediate band of players – an omnipresent, yet mostly absent, threat finally attacks as an unexpected escalation. The enemy is not a participant in everyday life, but an indirect Other, a sleeping giant waiting to strike.

I applaud Boyz n the Hood not only for its steady change-over-time story about two friends growing up under difficult circumstances, but for how well it shapes its characters into fully realized human beings. These could be anybody’s neighbors, brothers, wives. Most of us don’t live in South Central, but this story can speak to anyone with its powerful portrayal of community.

Weekly Round-Up: April 03-09, 2016

  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – Certainly the strongest of the prequel trilogy, this chapter follows the young Anakin Skywalker on his path to becoming Darth Vader. Ian McDiarmid steals the show as Senator/Emperor Palpatine in all his cackling glory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Spectacular sequel, with a terrific cast of new characters and respectful restraint for bringing back familiar faces. One of the finest films of 2015, and maybe just maybe my favorite Star Wars film. REQUIRED.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) – My favorite movie. Got to see this as a Throwback Thursday screening at El Capitan Theatre, with producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise speaking about the film’s production. REQUIRED.
  • The Jungle Book (1967) – Bizarro yet truly inspired Disney film bringing together the dark romance of the jungle with swingin’ jazz music. Like Pinocchio, this features a cast of memorable villains, notably the dry wit of Shere Khan and the subtle predator King Louie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Weekly Round-Up: January 03-09, 2016

Happy New Year! Now that we’re post-holidays, we get back to “ordinary time” and a more regular cadence of movie-watching. 🙂

Last week, I saw:

  • In Cold Blood (1967) – Genuinely creepy, though occasionally slow crime drama. This was especially fun to watch as I’d just finished the In Cold Blood novel days earlier. RECOMMENDED.
  • Inside Out (2015) – First time watching this with audio commentary by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen. Really enjoyable, with lots of tidbits and occasional meanderings (like calling up Bill Hader and Michael Giacchino mid-way). REQUIRED.
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) – Love her or hate her (I fall into the camp of the former), Madonna is a true tour de force of entertainment and this documentary is a terrific look into her insane lifestyle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Music of the Heart (1940) – My first film viewing from the Rita Hayworth set I was gifted over the holidays, this is a charming musical comedy (with unexpected racism) about a talented singer on the verge of deportation, who finds refuge among the immigrants of the Lower East Side. RECOMMENDED.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – One of my favorite contemporary films. Genuinely moving and tremendously uplifting romantic comedy-drama. REQUIRED.
  • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) – I hadn’t gotten around to finishing this (despite several attempts) until this viewing – glad I had, as this musical comedy is a menagerie of satirical characters, particularly an evangelical “consumer rights advocate” and the indecisive Texas governor. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a cult classic a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, as this film similarly blends raunchy comedy with sweet, earnest characters. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mentions for Mad Max (the original) and Capote, both of which I started but couldn’t finish.

What did you see last week?

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Madonna: Truth or Dare follows the Queen of Pop on an artistically groundbreaking tour at arguably the height of her popularity. But this film is not only a glimpse at one of the biggest stars in music, at possibly her most important moment; it is the ultimate rock documentary.

The film opens in media res: the Blond Ambition Tour is coming to a close, and Madonna feels mostly numb. She’s too emotionally drained to feel really anything. As the documentary goes back, it’s not hard to see why: between battling the rainy season in Japan for weeks on end, losing her voice, juggling family & friends both beloved & estranged, her relationship with Warren Beatty, plus the threat of criminal charges.

She comes under fire from the Toronto police department, the Vatican, and even her father for a her racy performance. Her updated take on “Like a Virgin” was a genuine controversy back in 1990, and it’s not hard to see why. (Even Miley Cyrus hasn’t pulled something like this!)

In one of the film’s best scenes, Madonna addresses these concerns head-on. She defends herself to the press:

My show is not a conventional rock show, but a theatrical presentation of my music. And, like theater, it asks questions, provokes thoughts, and takes you on an emotional journey: portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation. I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one – and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.

This nugget is an important one: “I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one.” Many artists, back in 1990 and certainly today, present everything as part of their own brand. Their songs, performances, concerts, are representative and autobiographical of them in some way. Not to say that the Blond Ambition Tour doesn’t have autobiographical elements, but she clarifies that it describes a lifestyle rather than endorsing one, functioning as “a theatrical presentation of [her] music.”

It is often taken for granted that what a pop artist does and says represents them, rather than some persona or character; we do not allow them the artistic license we do a fictional author, a film director, even a traditional musical theater songwriter. This is likely where much of the controversy comes into play: we don’t see Madonna, onstage, as a fictional being within the constructs of her Blond Ambition universe; she is she, herself, which may be why the content is so nerve-rattling for some.

Of course, this is the central conflict of Truth or Dare. At times it is less a concert tour documentary and more an existentialist assessment of Madonna, or any rock star. Her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty comments “she doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk.” This isn’t hard to believe, given her numerous onstage & on-screen antics, though doesn’t quite fit with whispers about her later in the film: “Madonna does feel more in control when she doesn’t extend her personal emotion, her love, her exposure to sensitivity, too much.” “Madonna’s very difficult to reach. She’s put up many barriers.”

This disconnect is what makes Madonna: Truth or Dare so exciting. Not only do we play witness to two worlds – the grainy, black-and-white labyrinth of hotel rooms and backstage arenas, foiled with the electrifying technicolor concert footage – but multiple, conflicting personalities of Madonna. Like the Blond Ambition Tour, this film makes no clear statement. You don’t walk away feeling one way or the other, but are left with a series of impressions forming a complex image of a supremely talented yet deeply fractured individual.


Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Weekly Round-Up: November 29 – December 05, 2015

This past week took things to a prehistoric level, with no fewer than three viewings of dinosaur movies:

  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – A gorgeously animated, delicately told prehistoric western about a young dinosaur and his pet human finding their way home. (I liked it so much I watched it twice last week!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) – Strong melodrama about the romance between a widow and a younger man, and their struggle against societal pressures. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991) – A young male prostitute goes on an international search for his mother. I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why people like this movie. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Pather Panchali (1955) – The story of a struggling family living in rural India. Beautifully shot and genuinely moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shame (2011) – A sex addict reaches his breaking point when his sister comes to stay with him. Tremendously directed for how seriously it takes takes its subject matter. Certainly not for everybody, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if you’re okay with emotionally draining sex scenes!
  • Jurassic World (2015) – Mindless CGI sequel/remake of Jurassic Park. The scenes of Jurassic World as an operating theme park are the film’s strong suit. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – Thoughtful, emotional story of a retired composer and the people close to him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about My Own Private Idaho or Jurassic World? Let me know in the comments!