Knee-jerk review: "A Star Is Born"

1. Let the record reflect that we saw this film almost a month ago, so we are stretching far the definition of "knee jerk." But it's our blog and we make the rules.
2. What still sticks with us all these many weeks later? The handheld, documentary-style vibe of the cinematography and all of its "sloppy" lens flares and grain.  The languid, unrushed pace of the writing - the dialogue scenes feature long silences and meaningful looks.  The idealized, romanticized world of musicians - whether it's downtown whisky bars, big loud stage shows, or plush mansion hideaways, this is a movie that loves to show you how cool it is to be a successful singer-songwriter.
3. There's a reason this story has been told in four different movies - there's something very compelling about the simplicity of the plot: newbie singer rises to the top of the industry just as her mentor boyfriend musician slides into irrelevance.
4. No, we never saw the other three versions.
5. Plus, there's Sam Elliott at his most Sam Elliott-ness.  He also delivers one of film's more raw and emotional moments when his little brother blurts out an unexpected confession.
6. It's not always subtle, but give the filmmakers credit for trying to add metaphor - repeated water imagery is a big one - and subtext to the story.  It has bigger artistic aspirations than many movies.  
7. We've long been a big fan of Lady Gaga.  She likes to project an aura of aloof weirdness, but underneath the makeup and meat dresses she's a 100% legitimate musical powerhouse. This movie does nothing to shake that assessment.
8. Weird to see Andrew Dice Clay in such a quiet, likable role.
9. Spoiler alert: we did feel a little queasy with the way the movie kinda, sorta glamorizes suicide as some kind of noble, selfless act.
10. That said, the movie pulls no punches showing the horrors of alcoholism, especially in the Grammys scene.  You'll know it when you see it.
11. "I just wanted to take another look at you."


Book report: 'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming (1954)

Growing up, we loved the James Bond movies and remember well the excitement of watching Moonraker (79), For Your Eyes Only (81), and Octopussy (83) in movie theaters.  At a certain point during our elementary school days, we collected most of the Ian Fleming James Bond paperbacks at a discount bookstore.  We spent a good chunk of seventh grade laboring through the the novel Goldfinger (published in 1959), surely our first realization that movie adaptations can take considerable liberties with the source material.

Recently, while packing for a Thanksgiving trip, we stumbled across that dusty stack of Fleming novels.  Flipping through Live and Let Die, we were surprised to see that it ran only 159 pages.  And so, thirty years after reading Goldfinger, we decided to give Ian Fleming another crack.  

Here's what we discovered… 

* Fleming - and by extension the character of James Bond - certainly has a romantic appreciation for the finer things in a secret agent's vocation.  That is, Bond enjoys the good life.  "Luxurious" is a frequent Fleming adjective.  The novel takes great satisfaction in describing in detail Bond's expansive meals, his fancy cocktails, his sleek wardrobe, and his first-class accommodations.  Bond stays at the plush St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan and enjoys a ride from New York to Florida in a two-room train suite.  Room service is always a must.  Indeed, there is a travelogue element to the book as the author points out the exotic details of Central Park and Harlem and then Florida and Jamaica. (FYI, Fleming had an estate on Jamaica and that portion of the book gets particularly bogged down in Jamaica minutiae.)

* Fleming's Bond has a nasty streak.  This is not a guy who kills only in self-defense.  He's also not a guy that seems to have much of a sense of humor.  This is all serious business, even the giant room service breakfasts.

* We were surprised to see so many similarities between the book and the 1973 film of the same name.  We expected bigger differences.  Both involve an investigation of the goings-on of an African-American crime kingpin named Mr. Big who has a flair for the dramatic in that he uses voodoo to manipulate his minions.  And both book and movie feature an an enigmatic female character named Solitaire (played by a very young Jane Seymour in the movie) who may or may not be psychic.  The movie wisely dumped the goofy Captain Morgan treasure angle (you see, Mr. Big has discovered Morgan's treasure of gold coins and is smuggling those into the US to fund his operation), which is certainly unique but ultimately just too hard to buy.

* Fleming isn't necessarily a bad writer.  But neither is he a wordsmith.  It gets the job done, no more no less.

* The novel's racist stereotyping of African-Americans is shameless and, frankly, unbelievable. Sadly, it's without question the book's most memorable feature.  We can assume the term "Negro" was widely used in 1954, right or wrong, but there's no excusing Bond (and Fleming's) smugly condescending attitude when it comes to the African-Americans he encounters, whether it's patrons in a Harlem bar, porters on a train, a CIA asset in Jamaica, or the generic henchmen of Mr. Big.  Those who aren't viewed as hopelessly simple-minded (note the frequent tsk-tsk discussion of how easily dimwitted African-Americans buy into voodoo) are marveled at for actually being smart and capable in spite of their supposed limitations.  It's all very icky.  We wonder how accurate this all might be in reflecting 1954 racial attitudes.

* It would seem that bombs and dynamite sticks were a big thing for bad guys in 1954.

* Bond likes to take a hot shower, followed immediately by an ice cold shower.  This happens more than once.

* There's definitely a procedural element to the novel's plotting.  Not much really happens.  Aside from a couple of abbreviated gunfights and a nice set piece at the end, most of the scenes wouldn't feel too out of place on an episode of "Law and Order."  The good guys talk to people, gather clues, drive around or take public transportation, get sidetracked by dead ends, crack lame jokes, discuss next steps, then repeat.

* At least one James Bond movie cliche may have come straight from the books: it doesn't take much for Bond to completely charm the female lead.  A couple of moments with Bond and she's swooning.  Solitaire's psychic ability is intriguing, but it barely pays off.  She's there as a plot tool only - the bad guy's girlfriend who betrays him for the good guys, then gets kidnapped in order to allow our hero to rescue her.  Yawn.

* No Walther PPK.  For those who care about such things, Bond uses a small caliber Beretta.

* Shark attacks play a huge role in the story, but it all feels rather quaint because - at least in our opinion - sharks don't eat people in the real world the way they do in the book. Maybe it's easier to see that truth today than it was for a 1954 reader without access to endless shark documentaries on television. It's another variation on the novel's whole "exotic world" travelogue vibe.  Look at this scary Harlem jazz club!  Look at how sharks in Florida eat people!

* That said, the book ends with a fairly tense sequence (ultimately included in the For Your Eyes Only movie) involving a ticking bomb on a boat and Bond and Solitaire dragged through the ocean over reefs to attract sharks. 

* Overall, it's a probably all an exercise in critical relativism.  It can be hard to appreciate what's new in the novel when in so many ways it probably blazed a spy thriller trail that countless others followed.  And so what seems musty and rather pedestrian today clearly struck a chord with contemporaneous readers in 1954 who found the novel exciting and thrilling enough to make it a best seller.


"The More You Know" (da-da-da-daaa)

From Mental Floss, a quick history of NBC's famous "The More You Know" public service announcements.  Genius.

Confessions of a Youth Volleyball Parent

* The more we watch volleyball, the less we understand the rules.  Just when we have it all figured out (you can only score if you're serving, you see), something happens on the court that completely baffles us.  We've now more or less given up and just crinkle our face to make it look like we understand everything and are carefully considering all levels of strategy and execution.  You think they're buying it?
* The worst is when the ball rolls to our feet and we have no choice but to put it back in play.  But who's serve is it now? We weren't paying that close attention. Well, we were paying attention but now with the pressure of everyone looking over to see where the ball went we can't remember who served last.  Does the ball go back to that team... or this team?  Invariably, we choose wrong and toss the ball to the wrong side, only to suffer the humiliation of an 8-year-old girl correcting our mistake and sending the ball where it actually belongs.
* Some of the other volleyball moms aren't drinking water from their fancy big plastic tumbler, if you know what we mean.  This isn't speculation. This has been verified.
* As exhilarating as it can be to watch your kid's team run up the score on a hapless opponent, it's just as disheartening to have your kid be a member of that hapless team getting steamrolled by a superior opponent.  We've experienced both ends of that particular scoreboard spectrum, once during the same two-hour period.
* Here are the six kinds of players you'll find on a youth volleyball team:
1 The kid who's afraid to touch the ball with anything approaching intent, so the player ducks away from an incoming ball, serves with a wet-fish half-ass swing that barely makes it to the net, and otherwise cringes the entire time they're out there.
2. The kid who might as well be on the junior varsity team now, making sophisticated digs and spikes and launching untouchable, rocket serves over the net.  How is that little kid already that good?  Sometimes they're even the shortest kid on the team.
3. The kid that's completely inconsistent, making MVP moves one moment, then flailing around cluelessly the next.  You never know what you're going to get.
4. The coach's kid.  Sometimes they're pretty good, but mostly they're not.
5. The hapless kid that tries so hard every time but just can't make anything happen.  They're returning one ball straight up into the rafters, shanking another into the face of the scorekeeper, or swinging with all of their might and completely missing (the ball never got within five feet of them).  They're trying, but it's a disaster every time.
6. The kid who's out there doing anything but paying attention.  This player is dancing and laughing or craning their neck around to look at the scoreboard or chatting with the player next to them or staring at the floor.  What they're not doing is staying focused and watching the ball.  This is probably your kid, FYI.
* You don't hit the volleyball with your hands.  You hit the volleyball on the flat part of your forearms.  We didn't know this.  That is apparently called by some "the platform."
* This whole youth sports thing isn't a cute little bit of recreation, people.  It's an industry.  The facility we use is packed with as many as ten games going on at once.  It's a cacophony of whistles, tennis shoe squeaks, ball thuds, and parental cheers.  And if everyone's paying as much as we're paying, that place is essentially a suburban Fort Knox.
* It's always fun when your kid's team is down by a point or two with the clocking winding down and there's zero urgency or hustle from anyone to try and get in a few more plays to get the go-ahead score before time expires.  In the final seconds, it's like everyone purposely goes into foot-shuffling underwater slow-motion when it comes time to reset and toss the ball back to the server.
* It can be very hard to maintain a positive, encouraging attitude when the ball drops straight down equidistance between three players on your kid's team and no one moves an arm or a foot even one inch to try and return it.  This happens multiple times during a game.
* We think that snack counter popcorn just came out of the popper.  How can it already taste so stale?
* To say we get tired of yelling "Rotate!" at games would be an understatement.
* As mentioned, we don't know much about volleyball, but even we have determined that at this level, teams live and die on the ability to serve a ball over the net.  There's just not a lot of returning.  But then you have these kids serving the ball by tossing it up and palm smacking it like they're Misty May at the Olympics (rather than underhand hit it out of your left hand).  If we weren't so lazy, we'd keep track of how many palm-hits actually go over the net and stay in bounds.  If it's more than 15% we'd be shocked.  But a majority of the kids do it that way regardless.
* We understand that in the world of youth sports, coaching usually comes down to whichever parent has been sufficiently guilted into volunteering.  It's the luck of the draw as to whether your $115 (and ten weeks of your life) will be spent with a coach that will patiently and competently teach skills or a coach that has no idea what they're doing and doesn't seem inclined to learn.  
* But if you're not going to volunteer, you really have no room to complain.  Ms. Cheese Fry didn't volunteer to coach this summer because she didn't think she'd do a good job.  Only now, seeing the coach we ended up with, does she truly know what it means to "not do a good job."  We're calling it a teachable moment.
* Maybe adults should end their workday by lining up and slapping hands with their coworkers with a mumbled "good game."  Would the world be a better place?
* Move your feet and get in front of the ball!

Knee-jerk review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

1. It's not bad.  Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, we know.
2. Probably helped that we went into the theater with pretty low expectations, what with all of the ongoing stories of production problems: fired directors, reshoots, acting lessons for the star.  What a mess.  All of that bad publicity can make it hard to evaluate the movie on its own terms.  Is it really good?  Or do we think it's good mostly because we know it could have (should have?) been much terrible?
3. Donald Glover shines as a younger Lando Calrissian, surprising absolutely no one.
4. We think the problem may be that the filmmakers are telling a story demanded mostly by the needs of Disney's ledger sheet.  No one's particularly eager to see exactly how Han Solo met Chewbacca or made the Kessel Run or won the Millennium Falcon from Lando.  Are they?  Do we need to see every throwaway line from the original trilogy dramatized and adapted into a $200 million feature film of its own?  (A similar problem faced 2016's Rogue One, but that movie at least delivered a story with new faces and a killer hook: just how did the Rebel spies steal the plans to the original Death Star?)  Better perhaps instead to just tell some random Han Solo smuggling adventure rather than exploring his entire origin story as if he were a Marvel superhero.
5. Lando's maybe-more-than-friends relationship with his droid L3-37 is pretty unexpected, if strange.
6. Some say a good movie needs only deliver two or three memorable moments and a strong ending.  By that yardstick, Solo more or less fits the bill.  There's a great ice train hijacking sequence in the middle, some fun double-crosses at the end, and also the satisfying moment when Han outplays Lando at sabacc (which seems to be a real game with rules and everything).
7. To us, Woody Harrelson can do no wrong.  He's just always great.
8. Some Star Wars fans had a problem with the casting of Alden Ehrenreich, whose previous big credit was a somewhat funny bit in the Coen Brothers' otherwise unfunny "comedy" Hail Ceasar.  This argument never made sense to us; actors have long reinterpreted characters and roles.  There's been two Dumbledores, five and counting James Bonds.  Even so...  While Ehrenreich does an pretty good job capturing that Solo swagger and crooked-smile charm, his whiny voice is markedly different from Harrison Ford's surly growl.  Turns out to be a bigger distraction than you might imagine.  In other words, we think the producers could have done better.
9. These Star Wars Story stand-alone sequels - as opposed to the numbered "official" saga movies - were originally envisioned by Lucasfilm to be a sort of sandbox series to allow up-and-coming filmmakers to create Star Wars stories with different looks and sensibilities.  Which is why Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who directed the hilarious The Lego Movie) were hired to do Solo.  The idea seemed to be to give the movie a completely different, quirky vibe.  But along the way, Star Wars executive changed their mind presumably when they realized that Lord and Miller were making a movie along the same line as The Lego Movie.  Shocking, right?  Why hire a blacksmith unless you want him to make you a horseshoe.  And so, the producers stepped in and asserted creative control (just as they had for Rogue One) by firing the directors and hiring Ron Howard(!).  You can sort of see the Lord and Miller screwball tone bubbling underneath Solo.  Howard may be an A-list director, but he's all competent polish and little genuine creativity and art (see also: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams).  While we understand the worry about letting Solo get too oddball... the easy answer would seem to be to cut the budget.  That is, make those stand-alones cheaper and leaner movies that don't need to gross $700 million worldwide to earn back their budgets. But Hollywood never asked us.
10. What all of this means is that while Solo has to date grossed over $200 million in the U.S., it's been deemed a failure and has reportedly led Lucasfilm to reconsider future stand-alone movies.
11. We can't take credit for this observation, but we completely agree: the appeal of Han Solo in the original 1977 Star Wars was that he's a selfish opportunist who ultimately decides to join the rebellion.  But here in Solo, he's already got a selfless heart of gold, his decisions driven by his determination to get back to his old girlfriend.  It just feels... off somehow. At the very least, Solo should show how a idealistic rookie criminal gets burned so many times he becomes the cold-blooded smuggler we later meet in that Mos Eisley cantina.  But Hollywood never asked us.
12. Fun, but perhaps too forgettable.


Knee-jerk review: "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"

1. Far smarter and more clever than we had any reason to expect.  
2. It's the best kind of sequel: the one that's similar enough to the original to offer some level of comfort (i.e. innocuous game actually creates genuine peril to its players and creates a hostage situation - finish the game or else), yet innovative enough to offer something entirely new (i.e. rather than game elements invading the real world as they did in 1995 original, here our heroes are sucked into the fictional game world). As they say in Hollywood, it's the same but different.
3. The script crackles with humor and some nice Breakfast Club-style moments of awkward teenagers learning to connect and be better people.
4. But the movie also delivers a textbook string of big, fun action set pieces that parallels the escalating levels in a video game.
5. The cast is top-notch, with extra credit to Jack Black. He probably gets the most mileage out of his part as a vain teen girl stuck in a 40-year-old man's pudgy body.  But Kevin Hart also does his usual foul-mouthed exasperated shtick, which is a lot of fun if you like his shtick. And we do.
6. We remember well rolling our eyes when Universal Pictures foisted The Scorpion King on moviegoers way back in 2002.  We had zero interest in seeing that spin-off of the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise or witnessing first-hand the studio's seemingly misguided attempt to turn The Rock into a movie star whether we wanted him or not.  Boy we were wrong.  The Rock, now sensibly known as Dwayne Johnson, sure seems to be the real deal.  He's often one of the best things in his movies.
7. Sly Easter egg reference to the original movie and Robin Williams' character.
8. Strong, satisfying ending. Thank you, Colin Hanks.
9. We wouldn't want to hear those distant jungle drums either.
10. As a parent accompanying two Little Fries - a five-year-old and an eight-year-old - we didn't appreciate the erection joke.  We laughed, yes.  But we didn't like it.  Yeah yeah, we know the movie was rated PG-13.
11. Way better than we thought it would be. Fun and exuberant.

Knee-jerk review: "The Greatest Showman"

1. This big, sweeping musical often plays like a spinoff of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 masterpiece Moulin Rogue in the way it blends lush period art design with a slick contemporary look and modern-sounding songs.
2. It also remakes the sleazy scoundrel PT Barnum into a heroic entrepreneur, which can get a little uncomfortable if you stop to think about it.
3. To the filmmakers' credit, they do give Barnum a pretty significant flaw: a selfish desire to gain the approval of old money society at any cost, even if it means straining his marriage, risking all of his money, or even turning his back on friends and colleagues.  So we suppose it's not a complete hagiography.
4. We do wonder why the movie got made.  Exactly whose passion project was this?  Who was determined to make a musical about Barnum? 
5. Rebecca Ferguson has our attention now.  Striking.
6. In addition to being a musical, the movie also gives a big role to Barnum's freak show "oddities." The bearded lady has a solo, people.
7. So, all in all, it's a pretty weird movie.  Not to say we didn't find it entertaining and rousing. It's just... odd.  Note also that the TV spots make no mention of the songs or the oddities.  It's like they knew better than to show the "real" movie.
8. There's no denying the considerable charisma of star Hugh Jackman.
9. But the movie's two best scenes feature song-and-dance bits with Zac Efron (a fun two-handed number with Jackman and Efron at a bar, then a grandly choreographed acrobat sequence with Efron's love interest Zendaya).
10. Poor Michele Williams is underused, here asked to do little more than glow winsomely.
11. Engaging despite the overall strangeness of the story.