Movie Diary

a) Minions
Some of the best laughs I've ever heard from my older son were while watching the Despicable Me movies, and I'd never taken him to a movie theater before, so this seemed like a good occasion to take him to the movies. It's odd to see this as a parent, as someone who's always enjoyed these movies and thinks the minions are funny, at a time when adults everywhere are constantly announcing a weird performative distaste for minions and willful confusion about how these cartoon characters have an illogical backstory. That said, this movie really does lean into the silliness and embraces the fact that the stars are the movie are the barely verbal sidekicks from another movie. And there are some odd subversive moments that make the movie even more fucked up than it was to begin with -- jokes that imply the moon landing was staged and that the Pope is allied with villains, and a gag where a minion wears pants up to its eyeballs and unzips the zipper to reveal their mouth in the place where a vagina would be.

b) Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser
2001 was a dark time for America -- Joe Dirt was released in theaters, and my brother and I actually saw it, because Josie And The Pussycats was sold out that night (I'm not even sure how this was possible, since Joe Dirt grossed twice as much as Josie, but go figure). This time, my excuse is that Joe Dirt 2 was released on the streaming video Crackle, and I have the ability to watch Crackle on my TV, and I'm often up all night with a baby watching movies to pass the time (I don't know what the hell Crackle is but they have "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" so I've watched that on it). This is pretty much like the first Joe Dirt, i.e. terrible, but there's Mark McGrath instead of Kid Rock, and also poor Patrick Warburton (did I mention this movie is sponsored by Arby's? A movie with the actor who played David Puddy on "Seinfeld" has commercial interruptions from Arby's!). David Spade is still weirdly lazy about even giving Joe Dirt any kind of particular persona beyond a mullet wig, which makes it kind of less of an insulting white trash stereotype by default. There's a time travel subplot and some extremely dated jokes that are not excused by the time travel, and Joe Dirt eats a jellyfish and says "tastes like jellyfish."

c) What Happened, Miss Simone?
I always want to be more up on Nina Simone's music than I am, I just know an album here, a song there, and she was kind of already consigned to the history books by the time I was a kid. So this documentary really does a good job of just bringing her to life, lots of great concert footage and interviews where you get a full dose of her personality and her beliefs. I wish more documentaries just let the footage and the occasional talking head steer the thing and not get in the way too much.

d) That Gal...Who Was In That Thing: That Guy 2
That Guy...Who Was In That Thing was a documentary that profiled a handful of characters and examined the ups and downs of life as a jobbing actor. So this, of course, is the sequel about actresses, and it's really wonderful and illuminating, getting really talented people like Roma Maffia and Jayne Atkinson to speak frankly about their careers and the double standards of the industry. I love Paget Brewster in everything she does and she comes across really smart and grounded in this, which made me happy.

e) Beyond The Lights
Given the way pop stars capture the public's attention now with  tabloid soap opera storylines, there's a certain sense in making a drama that explores one of those situations on an interior level that we usually only get to imagine. But it could easily go either way, and it's pretty impressive how this movie avoids the camp, or uncanny valley resemblance to real pop music, in that usual entertaining but flawed "Empire" way, and ends up with a movie that feels kind of true and intimate. It helps that they do a pretty good job of constructing Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a plausible pop star and building out that world, and that she and Nate Parker have a powerful emotional push-and-pull dynamic that drives the movie. The way it ends kind of makes the whole thing feel like a rockist fairytale for people who wish this or that pop star would settle down with a nice boy and wear their hair natural and stop singing about sex. So as a music critic who tires of other critics clamoring for that kind of narrative, I disliked it, but as a movie viewer, I thought the whole thing was pretty strong.

f) Rosewater
As the movie that Jon Stewart took a break from "The Daily Show" to direct, and a test run for any movie he does after permanently leaving the show this year, Rosewater feels like it has a lot to prove. And though though there are some inventive visual elements, overall the whole movie feels kind of slack, like it has a story that it shouldn't have to work hard to make compelling but it ends up kinda dull anyway.

g) Whiplash
There aren't many Oscar-winning movies about playing drums, so I approached this with some trepidation, not sure if I would reflexively love it or reflexively nitpick anything that rang false. But I have to say, I was really impressed -- the director is a drummer who based the film on personal experiences, and his first film was a musical, so what the film captures really well is the physicality of drumming, the noise and the force and the speed and the sweat, comes across in all these close-ups of hands and wobbling cymbals and flying sticks. Whiplash was a short film before they adapted it into a feature, and it kinda feels like they didn't add much meat to the plot or the dialogue, the whole story could've still fit in a short. So they just fill the running time with these intense scenes of drumming and J.K. Simmons going on these epic angry tirades that he's done so well throughout his career and definitely deserved some kind of major award for. It was paced well, especially the way you get this really arresting drumming scene right at the beginning before there's any dialogue. After a while, the Simmons scenes wore a little thin, but overall I enjoyed Whiplash as this really potent tone poem that immerses you in the sights and sounds of a craft more than as a story.

h) The Judge
I'm not sure why this big actorly actor awards bait movie with Downey and Duvall got handed to a director like David Dobkin, whose movies are usually stuff like like Shanghai Knights and Fred Claus, whose biggest hit was Wedding Crashers. He does manage to pull off The Judge as a serious movie, but man, I've never seen a movie do less to justify a 140-minute running time, it just went on and on and after most of the plot had already taken place.

i) This Is Where I Leave You
Like The Judge, this is a grownup movie directed by somebody whose past work is fairly juvenile, Shawn Levy (Big Fat Liar, Night At The Museum, Cheaper By The Dozen, etc.). It's one of those bland ensemble dramedies where a bunch of actors you could never buy as related to each other plays a family in turmoil and there's a lot of cheating and slapping and punching and revealing of secrets and dramatic speeches. I liked it better when it was called The Family Stone. It's interesting to see Adam Driver outside of "Girls" and confirm that his character on that show was just all of his weird personal physical tics and mannerisms and that he'll probably always be a one trick pony playing that kind of guy.

j) Magic In The Moonlight
I have this habit of watching every late period Woody Allen just to be appalled at how far he's fallen from even competent filmmaking, on the basic levels of barely functional dialogue and performances by any given actor that pale in comparison to them in almost any other movie. I'm of the unpopular opinion that The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion was maybe the best of the last umpteen movies he made, if still only competent and mildly charming. And Magic In The Moonlight reminds me of that, easily the best of the recent bunch if only because he got a pleasant cast and didn't get in their way or hand them a totally ludicrous script.

k) A Million Ways To Die In The West
I get why this movie flopped, people only want to hear Seth MacFarlane's voice coming out of cartoon characters or a CGI bear or some shit like that, not his own disturbing face. But I actually really liked this, probably more than anything he's done since those early seasons of "Family Guy" before it got so stale. It'd be blasphemous to compare it to Blazing Saddles, one of my favorite comedies ever, but it is a fair reference point for how flatly A Million Ways takes all the romance out of the wild west and satirizes its meanest, bleakest realities. Would've been better with someone that it's not uncomfortable to watch in MacFarlane's role, but it was good.

l) 12 Years A Slave
Very intense movie, a lot of pieces fit into place really well, but I thought Michael Fassbender was kind of over the top, like he was in a different movie from everyone else, twirling his mustache. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as always, though, surprised he wasn't one of the people who got an Oscar for this movie.

m) Chastity Bites
A very odd, clever feminist horror comedy about an abstinence counselor who bathes in the blood of virgins to prolong her life. I watched it mainly for my beloved Allison Scagliotti from "Warehouse 13" and "Stitchers," and was very entertained by the premise, although the movie itself seemed to run out of steam pretty quickly.

n) Compliance
Ann Dowd gave one of the more compelling TV performances of last year, almost without saying a word, on "The Leftovers," and I was curious to see this film she'd won an award for. And man, it is really something, highly, highly recommended. It's basically a straight-ahead fact-based depiction of what happened, several dozens of times, where a guy called fast food joints posing as a police officer, and manipulated people into doing all sorts of terrible things in the name of a crime investigation. It just goes to such a dark place and it's all done so artfully and believably, really the whole cast hits the right notes and it kinda captures some little details of the food service industry, at least as far as my experience in it, that I haven't seen in any other movie. Also, it was directed by one of the co-creators of "Homestar Runner," that was surprisingly.

o) Southland Tales
For almost 10 years this has been one of those "legendary" "weird" flops where a director people were excited about got a bunch of big stars and then the movie lost a ton of money. I hadn't been in a rush to see it because I find the whole cult of Donnie Darko off-putting, but it's pretty wild. Way too long, and with only a handful of truly memorable scenes spread out across the bloated running time, but I still liked a lot of the out-there ideas in the script and then the general audacity of a lot of the choices they made.

p) Hard Candy
Another cult movie that I took like a decade to get around to finally watching. Pretty dark, compelling stuff, really held together by Ellen Page's performance that teeters back and forth between so many different extremes. I feel bad that she gave a performance this strong at such a young age and then she got famous for Juno and has done a processional of unmemorable stuff since then.
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