(I Had) Trouble With the Curve

I wouldn’t ordinarily have been chomping at the bit to see this particular movie, but had the opportunity to see a free advanced screening, and figured I may as well take advantage of that.

Trouble With The Curve is yet another among the throng of baseball movies made over the years…so at this point, to keep it “fresh”, something different or at least entertaining must be done if another inning is being added to what can already be a slow game.  Unfortunately, this addition is as trite and stale as they come. Trouble is literally riddled with clichés from start to finish, from the characters to the story to the shots and everything in between.  Clint Eastwood (with his trademark Clint Squint) plays the irascible ~ and entirely unsympathetic ~ Gus, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves with three months left on his contract, who, between his deteriorating eyesight and his stubborn unwillingness to embrace technology of any sort, should be retired.  He has a strained relationship with his attorney daughter Mickey (predictably named after Mickey Mantle), played by the always winning Amy Adams.  He shows little love or affection to her or anyone, for that matter, softening only during a “conversation” he has with his late wife’s headstone at the cemetery, in a scene so on-the-nose it is shocking, not to mention painful.  In it he tearfully recites the ditty “You Are My Sunshine” in its entirety, only to be followed by the song actually playing over the scene.  Really?!

Sadly, that is only one example of the many obviously transparent moments throughout the film.  All too often we hear a character “thinking out loud”, as if we, the audience, aren’t perceptive enough to figure out what they may be thinking by ourselves.  It leaves nothing to the imagination, nothing of interest, nothing to surmise on our own, which is not much fun…not that there’s anything of much substance here to begin with. Continue reading

Youth Conquers Beasts of the Southern Wild

This year’s Sundance darling, Beasts of the Southern Wild, defies description.  Part fable, part real-life, it could take place at almost any time in modern history, though the locale is so clearly defined ~ to the point of being a character in and of itself ~ that you can practically smell it, hear it, taste it and feel it.  Beasts takes place in a Southern Louisiana Delta called The Bathtub ~ earning its name due to it filling up with water when it rains…and oh, does it rain, as if it won’t ever stop.  The living conditions there are meager ~ dirty, cramped and infested with all manner of creatures (some real, some mythical), yet the “residents” of the Bathtub (an array of eccentrics who fit into no clear category) are fiercely devoted and attached (for better or for worse) to their home, refusing to leave, even when a storm reminiscent of Katrina makes their already dismal living conditions virtually unlivable and the government tries to forcibly remove them.

The story centers around an extraordinary 6-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (played by soulful newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) and her distant, tough-loving father, Wink (beautifully played by another first-time actor, Dwight Henry) as they struggle to subsist amidst the many obstacles in their path: his failing health, the dangerous repercussions resulting from the aftermath of the storm, and their previous abandonment by Hushpuppy’s mother (an absence clearly felt by both).  Although Wink often comes across as unfairly harsh, it eventually becomes clear he is only trying to teach his young daughter how to survive on her own, as her impending orphanhood draws ever near.  Hushpuppy, who affectingly narrates the film from her point of view, goes about trying to make sense of the tenuous world around her, doing so with more courage, resolve, imagination and wisdom than most ten times her age.  She is a force of nature, a wonder to behold ~ and one gets the sense that at the tender age of six, the line between “actor” and child is practically non-existent.  It is she ~ with her touchingly delivered voice-overs, her steely and steady gaze, her tenacity, and her remarkable spirit ~ who brings a beating heart to the narrative, lifting the film to the heights it reaches.  It is quite a load to carry on such tiny little shoulders, but she bears it with strength, stamina and grace.  She is a firecracker, a revelation and alone makes the movie worth seeing. Continue reading

Jack White Does It Again

In marked contrast to my last post on Pop Princess Katy Perry, I am shifting over to a musician who has encompassed at one time or another nearly every musical genre other than Pop (and maybe Hip-Hop).  My love affair with the multi-talented and ubiquitous Jack White began years ago when I first saw The White Stripes perform “Seven Nation Army” at the Grammys.  I was riveted, particularly by the ghostly, yet strangely sexy man partially obscured by his wavy jet black locks.  He was electric.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  Henceforth began my exploration of The White Stripes.  Before I knew it, I’d ordered every one of their albums up to that point (Elephant still being one of my favorites, alongside Get Behind Me Satan).  I saw The Stripes in concert at the Greek Theater in L.A. in 2005 ~ they were exponentially more electrifying in person and needless to say, my loyalty as a fan was forever sealed.

Wearing many hats, Jack is far from a one-trick pony ~ he is an accomplished musician skilled in various instruments (most notably guitar), a singer/songwriter, and a record producer.   Whether forming other successful bands like The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, producing (and playing on) country stalwart Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album Van Lear Rose or even making the occasional acting cameo in films, there is virtually nothing the man can’t do.  And he is clearly passionate about it all, a quality that absolutely comes through, especially in his live performances.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see him live on multiple occasions ~ with The White Stripes and with the Raconteurs, including special behind-the-scenes access during the shooting of a Raconteurs video thanks to a friend who was a producer on the White Stripes documentary Under Great White Northern Lights.  It was a thrill just to get to watch him at work, in his element, not to mention pretty cool to be in the iconic Capital Records building for the first time ever!

When I learned Jack was touring for his recent (and first ever) solo album release (Blunderbuss), I was of course all over procuring tickets to see him.  I repeatedly hit the “refresh” button on my computer as the seconds counted down to the 10:00am Ticketmaster sale time.  In spite of being right on the dot with the time, I was still only able to find a single ticket available…in the balcony.  It’s one thing to attend a sit-down, mellow concert alone (no problem for me); it’s another thing entirely to attend a show alone you know will be rocking and rolling.  But I didn’t see an alternative when the alternative meant not seeing him.  So, because I love him that much, I purchased that single balcony ticket, resigned to rock out solo.

My backstage pass.

As the concert weekend drew near, I saw that he’d added a second night…and through a series of unforeseen circumstances, I wound up NOT going the night originally intended and instead went the second night with the wife of the friend I mentioned above, who not only had infinitely better seats (which got even better as the night drew on ~ more on that in a moment), but who also had backstage passes.  Funny how things always work out for the best in the end, right?

Further icing on the cake:  In Jack’s current tour, he rotates between an all male band and an all female band.  While I’ve got absolutely nothing against a stage full of men, I have to say it was a treat to get to witness Jack’s performance backed by a cadre of feminine energy and talent.  There’s something fantastic in the contrast between Jack’s rockabilly sound (and look) and six women dolled up in flowing dresses and tresses.  They include a bass player, a pedal steel guitarist, a fiddler, a keyboardist, a back-up singer/tambourinist and a drummer (Carla Azar of Autolux) who (forgive me, Meg) put Meg White to shame!  She was outstanding.  So much so that at times she actually diverted my attention from Jack, which is saying a LOT.  And lucky for Jack, as he was a bit on the hoarse side (hazards of doing back to back shows?), his lovely back-up singer did more than back him up on occasion, at times outright filling in for him, and amazingly, managing to mimic his sound so well there were times I couldn’t tell which of them was singing!  Sure, it was a bummer Jack’s voice wasn’t in top form, but NOTHING detracts from his stage presence and guitar skills.  That’s his true gift ~ a gift that happily keeps on giving. Continue reading

Katy Perry Sugared Me Sweet

Although my Top 40 radio days are long gone, I must admit I find Pop Princess Katy Perry‘s music ~ and persona ~ infectiously irresistible.  So during a recent trip home to visit family, my 10-year-old niece had little problem twisting my arm to take her to see Part Of Me, which documents Perry’s latest world tour, her struggle and subsequent rise to stardom, and elements of her personal life.And I’ve gotta say, I enjoyed every minute of it.  I laughed, I cried, I was moved, I was even inspired.  Perry has traversed quite a path from gospel/Christian singer (she was raised in a strict Pentecostal household by a preacher father and his wife) to the fearlessly daring pop force she is today.  After all, her first hit single was “I Kissed A Girl” (and she liked it).

Perry is the real deal.  She writes her own songs, (which she seems to churn out with remarkable consistency and speed), 13 of which have become hit singles, five off of one record alone (Teenage Dream), tying her with Michael Jackson and becoming the only female in history to do so.  She has a remarkably powerful and beautiful clear voice to boot.  Perry demonstrates a sincere interest in and devotion to her fans (at times forcing herself to personally greet fans backstage in spite of utter exhaustion), and she in turn (deservedly) has masses of devoted fans, as evidenced by the sold-out shows and the adoring comments of the many interviewed throughout the doc.  She is unfailingly loyal, surrounding herself with and employing many of her friends and family from early on in her career to now.  Perry was by no means an overnight success, which makes it all the more gratifying to see her reach the enormous success she has today, particularly in light of her true talent, hard work, drive and never-give-up attitude, not to mention because she appears to be a genuinely good person. Continue reading

Bernie, Bernie, Oh What Have You Done?

Bernie is a Richard Linklater film unlike any I’ve ever seen…by him or anyone else, for that matter.  I knew very little about the movie going in, which I think contributed to my enjoyment of and appreciation for the film.  It is a sharply droll film with an unexpectedly dark undercurrent so subtly crafted, before you know it, you are every bit as engrossed by and invested in the story as are the real-life townspeople “cast” in the documentary-style narrative.  It is wholly unique in its structure, as it is not quite a “mockumentary” (in the vein of, for instance, Christopher Guest films such as This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting For Guffman – it takes itself more seriously than those), yet precisely because it is based on a true story and so many real-life residents are used within the telling of that story, it often feels like a (fantastically riveting and entertaining) documentary.

Bernie is the remarkably true story of Bernie Tiede (played by the multi-talented and arguably undervalued Jack Black), a small-town Texas mortician whose preternaturally cheerful, caring and generous disposition makes him wildly popular with townsfolk across the board, young and old, male and female alike.  He eventually wins over even the crotchety wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, played with delicious wickedness by Shirley MacLaine.  Bernie and Ms. Nugent form a curiously uncommon (and definition-defying) relationship that eventually tests even the perpetually patient and optimistic Bernie, causing him, in a moment of temporary insanity (or, one could argue, temporary sanity), to reach a breaking point that drives him to commit a crime you don’t see coming (unless you’re familiar with the true-life case, or have read or seen anything about the movie!)  This act precipitates a chain of events that has to be seen to be believed, culminating in a trial every bit as compelling and absorbing as any modern-day real-life crime drama. Continue reading

Magic Mike Lacks Luster

Director Steven Soderbergh cemented my interest in and appreciation for Independent Film back in 1989 with his seminal movie sex, lies and videotape, a film that was a game-changer for the Independent Film Movement ~ as well as for me.  Ever since, I have paid attention to Soderbergh’s film trajectory, which has taken some interesting turns and certainly doesn’t seem to follow any predictable path.  Like any frequently working director, he’s had his hits (the refreshingly smart and acutely comedic George Clooney and J.Lo-starring crime caper Out Of Sight, and the intelligently effecting Traffic, for which Soderbergh won an Oscar for Directing) and misses (Clooney didn’t get as lucky with Solaris).  Nonetheless, I’ve got to give Soderbergh kudos for experimenting with a broad range of material and genres.  So although it seemed an unlikely pairing for Soderbergh to direct a movie about male strippers, his attachment to it was the very thing that gave the atypical subject matter some interesting credit.  However, after having seen it, I can’t figure out why he chose to do it or why he wasn’t able to bring more to it than he did.

Alex Pettyfer and Channing Tatum

Magic Mike has a fairly thin premise to begin with.  Mike (Channing Tatum, who apparently actually did do some “erotic male dancing” back before he hit it big and does indeed have the moves ~ and abs ~ to prove it!) “recruits” and takes under his wing a young stud struggling to find work (and his way).  Adam (Alex Pettyfer) quickly gets inducted into the group of strippers, inheriting the moniker “The Kid”, and soon gets caught up in some of the seedier aspects of “the business”…just as Mike begins to question his own place in it (which sounds potentially deeper than it ever actually gets).

By far the most enjoyable scenes take place at the nightclub where the group of men perform ~ dancing, disrobing, and often coming perilously close to baring ALL ~ for the throngs of screaming girls in their audience.  The crew is headed up by club owner/MC and sometime “performer” himself, Dallas, hilariously played by Matthew McConaughey, in the second role I’ve seen him in this month in which he has shone (he was fantastic in Bernie as well, which I will be reviewing soon).  He is pitch perfect as the smooth-talking, crowd-cajoling, rebel-rousing leader of the group and frequently steals the show.  In addition to Tatum and Pettyfer, the rest of the group is comprised of the smolderingly handsome Joe Manganiello (True Blood), whose stage name is “Big Dick Richie”, if that tells you anything, the so-good-looking-he’s-pretty Matt Bomer (White Collar), former wrestler Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriquez (CSI: Miami).  While the more recognizable of those names were hugely promoted prior to the release of the film, I was disappointed in how little they actually appeared on-screen.  (I felt a bit cheated on the Manganiello/Bomer front!)  Regardless, the scenes within the club, both backstage AND on stage, are highly entertaining, often extremely funny and provide the most thorough backdrop into the world the film inhabits (and intends to explore).  A sense of camaraderie and comfort exists between these men ~ it’s clear that they’ve formed a sort of family, even if that family is somewhat dysfunctional. Continue reading

So You Think You Can Resist So You Think You Can Dance?

I know I just promised a slew of current movie reviews, but after finishing last week’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance, I’m feeling compelled to sidestep (no pun intended) those briefly for a shout-out to a summer show you should be watching.  Before I continue, I should note that, aside from a 3-4 year devotion to Survivor back when reality TV first broke onto the scene, I am NOT a big reality TV fan.  I tend to gravitate towards more scripted programming when it comes to TV.  However, upon being introduced to this show a few years back, I was instantly hooked and haven’t missed an episode since!  If you’re not already watching it, this is a great time to start, as the “good stuff” is just getting underway and you’ll have managed to miss the sometimes overly drawn out and tedious (though still addicting) audition episodes, during which the Top 20 finalists (10 girls and 10 guys) are whittled down from the multitudes across the country who audition for the show (which is shot here in Los Angeles).  So the actual competition has only just begun.  If you have any appreciation whatsoever for dance ~ of any kind! ~ I defy you not to get hooked on this show!

The format is similar to most talent competition-based reality series:  Candidates are chosen by a panel of judges after a series of auditions and proceed to perform week to week. America has a chance to weigh in by voting for their favorites and then one (or two) contestants are eliminated each week until we’re left with the finalists.  It is essentially

Judge Mary Murphy & Producer/Judge Nigel Lythgoe

American Idol for dance (which makes sense as Idol is also produced by So You Think You Can Dance standing judge and producer Nigel Lythgoe).  Only for whatever reason, I enjoy (and respect) this show far more than I ever have Idol.  (And I grew up both singing and dancing, so it’s not a matter of appreciating one form of talent over the other.)  The show is for the most part clean, tight and moves along at a nice clip, making it’s two-hour running time fly by.  This is the first year they’ve eliminated a separate results show, which should tighten up the show even more, as well as free up another hour in the week.

The young dancers (no one over the ripe old age of 30 is eligible) are extraordinarily talented.  One gets the sense that they are there not to become famous by being on TV, but rather because they genuinely love ~ and live ~ to dance.  You can see and feel their passion for the art.  It comes through in their performances, very often moving me to tears or injecting me with a jolt of energy, causing my jaw to drop at their astonishing abilities and an inspiring reminder of the beauty and power of movement as artistic expression. Continue reading