Movies: Vice

Honestly, I didn’t know half of what this movie told me. I mean, I knew Dick Cheney was, well, a dick. Unapologetic and shady. But the way he laid the groundwork for our nation to nosedive the way it has? I had no idea.

Not that I’m surprised either.

I won’t say I’m any big fan of Adam McKay films. I like them okay—Moneyball, The Big Short—but they usually feel like lessons. Which I think is kind of the point. McKay wants to teach us things, and he’s looking for interesting ways to do that… I think? And I don’t mind that aspect at all. So I have to wonder why his movies are just okay for me. Is it because I don’t find the actual subjects that interesting? Is it because his sense of humor doesn’t entirely align with mine? Or that I feel like I’m being talked down to a bit?

So… yeah. This is a good movie, and informative. I can definitely see why it won makeup awards, and why Bale took home an Academy Award. But as with other McKay movies, I still walked away with a bit of a shrug.

And yet… Maybe because I do pay attention to politics now (and baseball and mortgages don’t particularly interest me), I was also quite amazed by how much damage and undermining Cheney managed to do and get away with. How many loopholes he sniffed out and exploited that, to this day, are being stretched to fit as many of these assholes through as possible. If nothing else, Vice is a call for major political reform.

It’s a little long and jumps around a bit; I found myself skimming Wikipedia partway through to get an understanding of the timeline. But also I’d been drinking wine, so maybe my issues were not universal.

Do I recommend it? Sure, to people with interest in politics and/or a hatred of Republicans. In case you needed fuel for that fire. I mean, Vice is entertaining in its own right, but… I wouldn’t say it’s entertaining enough for just the average, indifferent viewer to sit through and enjoy.

Books: You Are a Badass Every Day by Jen Sincero

So… yeah. I haven’t read any of Sincero’s other books; I just found this one at the library and thought I’d give it a go. It’s not really a book meant to be read from start to finish, though, I don’t think. It’s more like a daily devotional. Actually, I feel like it needs to be put on one of those thought-a-day calendars or something? Or maybe the book needs to be expanded so that there’s an entry to read each day of the year?

As it stands, this is mostly very short bits of rah-rah encouragement and instructions on various meditation techniques. It’s a lot of “visualize what you want, feel it, and it will manifest” kind of stuff. I can understand and appreciate the sentiment, but I also feel books like these shortchange the real, true hardships some people face in life. Rather than deep and/or helpful, it comes across as somewhat glib. Part of that, I’m sure, is just that the entries in this book are so short; they’re not meant to dive deep. But there is a certain kind of self-help that feels like victim blaming, as though to say, “You could think and wish and visualize and meditate your way out of this if you just tried hard enough.” Um…

I also feel conflicted when books like this one highlight eating healthy foods. I know I should eat healthy, but between books (and online articles) like these and my nutritionist, I’m tipping toward self-loathing and guilt whenever I eat something I want to eat rather than something these people would approve of. And while this book doesn’t dig in when it comes to taking care of one’s body via eating and exercise, there’s just enough there to make the author sound judgmental. I don’t appreciate that.

So this isn’t a terrible book, but I do think it’s underpinned by some not very good things. And the bottom line is, I didn’t find it particularly helpful or inspiring or anything either. It didn’t say anything new or enlightening, just a lot of the same stuff you can find all over the internet and on motivational posters. Meh.

Books: The Ravenmaster by Chris Skaife

Chris Skaife is the current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. That means he’s in charge of the care for the ravens kept at the Tower due to the superstition that, should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Tower will crumble and England will fall into crisis (or something like that). Here, then, is a quick and engaging read for anyone interested in ravens or maybe some British history. I finished it in one day.

Part memoir, part history lesson, part ornithological research, the book is a blend. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but Skaife’s conversational tone makes it an easy book to sail through. He talks about his time in the military, which is relevant because one must have 22 years of unblemished military service to become a Yeoman Warder at the Tower. He talks about his work at a tour guide, what it’s like to live at the Tower with his family, a little bit of the history and superstition, and of course, he talks about the ravens.

The book, I think, is a little bit out of date already as (if I remember correctly from Skaife’s Twitter feed; he’s @ravenmaster1 btw) Munin has since passed and they have a new raven named Poppy. I kind of wish there were an ongoing blog, but I suppose Skaife is busy enough with everything else not to have to write posts too. (Or maybe there is a blog and I just don’t know it?)

Certainly, the ravens are the best parts of the book. Their antics are highly amusing, and at least once I teared up. But then, I love birds, and corvids in particular—three local crows have trained me to throw them peanuts, and I’m worried about them as we’re moving in a couple weeks. I’m sure I’ll make more crow friends at the new house… I hope…

In any case, I can’t help but agree with Skaife that corvids get a bad rap as birds of misfortune, harbingers of death, etc. They’re quite brilliant, actually, and if they turn up where death is it’s because they’re practical and scavengers. My crows recognize me and also my car; they know if I’m home because of the car, and they’ve been known to follow my car to my kids’ schools because they know I also keep peanuts in the car for them. They’ll follow me on my morning walks, too, so now I often bring a handful of peanuts in my jacket as well. They have me well trained!

In any case, I found this to be a fun read, though I’ve read from some that they didn’t like Skaife’s detours into his military history. But I think everything contributes to the big picture. Still, a book of anecdotes solely about the ravens would be great too. I can’t seem to get enough of that stuff.

Highly recommended for light reading and amusement.

Movies: Captain Marvel

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, four cats
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenplay by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Marvel/Disney, 2019
PG-13; 124 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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First, a little housekeeping: sorry I’ve been absent. I had abdominal surgery last Thursday and am only now to the point where I can sit up for any length of time.

Okay, now this movie. I really didn’t care for the first, oh, twenty minutes or so, though I understand why they were necessary. But I sat through those minutes thinking I’d made a terrible mistake. For me, it really wasn’t until Vers/Carol/Captain Marvel reached Earth that things got interesting.

An overview (no spoilers): During a mission, Kree warrior Vers is captured by the Skrull and ends up on Earth. So do the Skrull, so now she must save the world from them and find a way home. Things get complicated when Nick Fury arrives at the site of Vers’ crash landing.

All this is set in… 1995(?) btw.

I loved, loved, loved seeing Nick Fury get some real screen time, and Jackson and Larson work well together. I also really liked Ben Mendelsohn in this, and I felt the comedy in this movie was well done and balanced the action nicely. Plus, great soundtrack.

One thing that’s really just a personal issue: to me Brie Larson looked a bit like Pam from The Office (Jenna Fischer)? I found that weirdly distracting.

I also didn’t find any of the twists to be very surprising. That + the somewhat dull start to the movie is the reason I shaved a little starlight off my rating. But not much because the rest of the film more than makes up for its shortcomings. That is to say, even with the minor problems, this is better than pretty much every other Marvel movie I’ve seen.

Books: So Anyway. . . by John Cleese

Almost a year ago (late March 2018), my husband and I went to a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that was followed by a Q&A with Mr. John Cleese, who has always been my favorite of the Pythons. So now you know my bias. After said evening, I stopped at the merch table and picked up a signed copy of this book, his autobiography.

This is a very smooth read, as funny and curious and insightful as one might expect from Mr. Cleese. I could hear his voice in my head as I read it. And though I expected to be impatient to get to the parts about Monty Python, I found that I enjoyed pretty much every bit of the book.

I will say that Cleese skims the Python bits. I suppose he means to be diplomatic, but the book ends with this little dabble of Python, leaving me wanting more. Is there a second book? I want to hear about Fawlty Towers and all Cleese’s marriages, but… I suspect that’s not likely to happen. Serves me right, I think he’d say, for being a nosy little thing.

It’s just that he’s so witty and droll, and he was so much fun to listen to at the Q&A, that I can’t help but want more of that.

In short, this is a fun read if you happen to like John Cleese. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people who only like Python because there isn’t actually that much about them in the book. Anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of other books that cover all that. Mr. Cleese’s life is much more than Python, and it turns out to be all fairly interesting.

Movies: Searching

Here is a little film that I’m so glad I stumbled across. John Cho plays David Kim, a single father forced to delve into his teen daughter’s social media life when she goes missing. This is a movie for the digital, short-attention-span era. It mimics our online lives by making it all so familiar: text messaging, logging into things, checking email. That may make this sound dull, but it’s not at all. It’s the unraveling of a mystery as the audience nods in agreement: Yes, that’s what I’d do, too.

One must ignore some of the obvious issues, such as the fact a police detective would not leave it to a family member to search for clues and reach out to people. However, if you’re able to overlook these weaknesses, the overall experience is a good one. The film moves quickly, with many blind turns to keep it interesting.

I learned about Searching from Lessons From the Screenplay, which covers the way the writers had to create new formats for writing all the digital content. If you’re interested, the video is here. You may want to watch the movie first, though, if you don’t want a few things spoiled. (Though having watched Lessons first did not ruin the movie for me at all.)

This is a film I can wholly recommend. Well worth the time.

Movies: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy is an actress I feel I would enjoy as a person, and as an actress in general, except that she tends to star in the kinds of movies I don’t like at all, by which I mean raunchy comedies. I’m not a bathroom humor kind of girl. I did see that Ghostbusters remake, however. It wasn’t anything special in my book, but it wasn’t as terrible as everyone made it out to be (in my opinion, though perhaps my nearly nil expectations made it easy for the movie to surpass them).

I say all this as preface to the fact that I think McCarthy does a very fine job here in a dark dramedy. In CYEFM, she portrays Lee Israel, an author-turned-forger. This is based on a true story, mind. Israel had been a biographer who, in the 90s, couldn’t seem to keep up with trends. In desperation, she turned to creating fake letters supposedly written by famous people. After being caught, she went on to write the book this film is based on.

Did I enjoy this movie? Actually, it incited quite a bit of anxiety in me, mostly because there is a pet cat being semi-neglected. What’s remarkable, though, and worth admiring is the way McCarthy makes Israel both unlikable and still sympathetic. I know the writing and directing have something to do with that, too, but the result inhabits that very tenuous space, which is a requirement to pull the movie off at all.

Likewise, Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner in crime Jack is equally spot on.

CYEFM is well done. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a “good” movie because that would depend upon your personal criteria, but it is well written, well directed, and well acted. It’s a movie that will probably stay with me longer than the typical popcorn flick. If you count any of those things as “good,” then this fits the bill.

Movie: Bohemian Rhapsody

I like the music of Queen, and I find Freddie Mercury a very interesting person. What I’d really like to do right now is dig up a good biography of him because this movie… falls short.

Bohemian Rhapsody skims the surface of the formation and rise to fame of Queen, with a focus on Mercury. Yet that focus does not delve, and what the movie mostly serves up is a series of vignettes about how some of their best-known songs were conceived. That’s fine, I suppose, and there are some great musical moments, but it doesn’t do much to create tension.

From what I can tell, they tried to manufacture some tension by:

  • showing some record execs that didn’t believe “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be a hit
  • showing Freddie being in love with Mary, even slightly jealous about her falling in love with someone else and having a baby… except that really wasn’t explored very much
  • showing Freddie partying hard while the rest of the band wanted to go home to their families (in, like, one or two scenes)
  • showing Freddie often being late for things
  • showing Freddie being offered a solo contract and the band reacting badly
  • showing Freddie breaking the news of his illness to the band

None of the above is deeply examined by the movie; each is a mere plot point in what really is just a kind of film timeline of events. And timelines aren’t all that interesting to watch.

Nor is this timeline accurate. I won’t bother to list it all here; Wikipedia has done it for me. And while Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the first (or last) movie to play fast and loose with the truth, the fact that it does so in order to up the tension—and yet the tension remains nil—is part of what makes the film fail in my eyes.

Yet I know many who love this movie. And I will say the actors do a tremendous job with what they’re given. I was a teensy bit distracted by Malek’s false teeth at first, but I got used to them as the film went on. Yet, despite that toothiness, I’d say this movie is largely toothless.

Movies: The Favourite

Political intrigue. Backstabbing. Sex. And big costumes. What more could anyone want from a film?

The Favourite is a take on Queen Anne of Britain’s (r. 1707-1714) relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail [Hill] Masham. While most historians believe that Anne was not a lesbian, this film depicts otherwise. I don’t know if this is simply to titillate the viewers or to create a fulcrum of tension, but I guess it’s entertaining anyway.

Sarah is Anne’s right-hand lady-in-waiting, and she’s taken it on herself to issue orders not only in the Queen’s stead, but to the Queen directly as well! One wonders why Anne would have allowed someone to behave in such a way towards her, but Olivia Colman’s portrayal is wonderfully nuanced. In this take, Anne is insecure as well as ill and leans on the more forceful Sarah for support. Sarah accepts this responsibility—indeed, she nurses Anne’s self-doubts by undercutting her confidence, all the while saying it proves she is a true friend because she will not lie to make Anne feel better. Well, this may be accurate to some extent, but there are ways to be truthful and kind. Sarah is not the latter.

Along comes Abigail, who is kind, and who learns at the hand of Sarah how to also be false. You can see where this is going.

What’s interesting to watch is the way the scales tip as the movie goes on. At first Sarah is the clear villain, but then she becomes the victim of Abigail’s growing ambition. Did she get what she deserved? The real casualty here is, of course, poor Anne, who loses a dear friend (and, in this version, lover). Again, one wonders however whether she is better off without Sarah as her shield/crutch.

So is the movie as good as the hype? I enjoyed it very much, though felt it was gratuitous in some places. Well, costume dramas often can be. And I loved the bunnies. Colman definitely merits the accolades she’s received, and I’d give Weisz an edge over Stone, but both are very good in this film. It helps to know a bit of the political history in order to follow the plot, but even if you don’t, you can get the gist of things. Overall, if asked to give a star rating, I’d say 4.5.

Movies: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Voices by: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (screenplay); Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Matthew Fogel (story)
Warner Bros., 2019
PG; 106 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)

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I’ve often said that the real problem with making an excellent movie (or television show, or writing an excellent book) is that it sets an expectation for everything after to be at least as good or better. And that level of excellence is impossible to sustain. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a saying for a reason.

Hollywood, however, has zero sense of going out while on top. It likes to run franchises into the ground, eking out every last bit of money from movie goers. In fact, even when things are terrible, it will keep making more of them if people keep paying to see them.

Don’t be afraid. The second Lego movie is not terrible. It’s just not as good as the first one, and that’s not at all surprising. The first one was fresh and unexpected. This one had a lot—perhaps too much—to live up to.

If you recall the end of the first film, little sister and her Duplo blocks had invaded Bricksburg. This movie picks up five years later and tackles the theme of growing up, losing one’s imagination, and sibling rivals. It’s a lot to pack in. But basically, Bianca (that’s the sister) takes some of Finn’s (that’s the brother) Legos and he goes on a quest to get them back. This quest takes the shape of Emmet having to rescue his abducted friends.

That’s as much as I’ll tell you; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. I will say there are a number of references (such as new character Rex being billed as a “raptor trainer” a la Chris Pratt’s Owen in the Jurassic World franchise… Oh, and yes, there are raptors).

Bottom line is that I did laugh a few times, and I did find the movie super cute. But it also felt like it was trying a little too hard in its themes, leaning a little too much on the music, and it just doesn’t breathe. The new characters aren’t given much development, and the familiar ones are too one-note here.

Still, my kids loved it, and they came home and *gasp* went to play Legos together. So… that’s a win.