Summer Movie Preview: August 2013

It's been a shaky summer for movies. All the big tentpoles are collapsing, and Hollywood is wringing its hands, wondering if they'll have to actually focus on producing well-written, well-acted, and well-directed films instead of just two hours of collapsing buildings or formulaic sequels nobody asked for. Uh-oh! I've been pretty pleased with the movies I've seen so far, but I haven't asked for much but diversion this summer. How will the movies of August fit into this trend? Let's take a look, and do the usual sift into Must-See, Rental, TBD, or Pass. Spoiler alert: All you have to do is read the titles for the upcoming month, and you can probably guess which category is going to catch most of them.

August 2

2 Guns: Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are bickering agents who reluctantly team up to take on a drug cartel. I saw the trailer, and it appears to be a pretty basic buddy cop thriller. It didn't look terrible or anything, but I have to admit that I'm finding this genre increasingly dull. (Pass)

300 Rise of an Empire: Speaking of sequels nobody asked for. (Pass)

Cockneys vs. Zombies: A bunch of residents in London's East End team up, and fight off an undead horde to rescue the elderly folk in a retirement home. Fans of zombie movies have sure gotten more than their fair share of properties lately. When are my tastes going to start getting excessively catered to? (Pass)

The Spectacular Now: This is a coming-of-age romance that I've heard a lot of chatter about on film sites and podcasts. It involves a popular guy who becomes interested in a quiet wallflower of a classmate who has more to her personality than meets the eye. I liked Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, so if this continues to make film geeks talk, I'll probably put it on the Netflix queue. (Rental)

August 7

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters: I haven't read the books (though I've been meaning to), and I didn't see the first movie (and don't really have any intention to), so this one looks like it'll be easy to skip. (Pass)

August 9

Elysium: Neill Blomkamp likes to delve into the harsh grimness of social justice through his work, and it looks like this one is no exception. It stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and takes place in a future where Earth is a ravaged, third-world slum, and all the affluent people have left for the glittering, titular space station. The movie promises to explore topics like health care, immigration, and class warfare, so whether or not I see it will largely depend on my mood at the time. It certainly looks like the most personal movie of August, and the one in which the most care was taken to make something special. (TBD)

In a World...: Lake Bell is an aspiring voiceover artist, and competes with her more established father for jobs. (TBD)

Lovelace: Poor Amanda Seyfried. She's a talented actress, but either her taste in scripts is awful, or she's got a terrible agent. Finally, though, she's got a role that can do her some good. Linda Lovelace was a '70s porn star with a tragic life, and her story is ripe for the biopic treatment. All the promotional material for this movie looks very promising, and even if I don't feel the need to rush to a theater to see it, it's likely I'll catch it at some point. (Must-See, but probably as a Rental)

Planes: Cars is easily my least favorite (and one of the least successful) property to come out of Pixar, so I'm unsure why people felt this spinoff about airplanes was needed. Add in a starring voiceover turn by Dane Cook, and you've effectively killed any modicum of interest I might have had. (Pass)

We're the Millers: Jason Sudeikis has to transport a bunch of weed to Mexico, and in order to sneak by the border patrol, he has a stripper (Jennifer Aniston) portray his wife, and a couple of neglected youngsters act like his kids. It looks fairly stupid. (Pass)

Prince Avalanche: Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch spend the summer repainting a road ravaged by wildfire, and in the course of their strained friendship, learn a lot about themselves and each other. Meh. (Pass)

August 14

The Patience Stone: A movie from Afghanistan about a woman who hopes an enchanted rock will leech her problems away. (Pass)

August 16

Austenland: Keri Russell stars in a movie about women who go to Jane Austen reenactment events, hunting for old-fashioned soul mates. I haven't heard much about the plot besides that, and though it sounds intriguing, my spidey sense is tingling. Maybe it's because Stephenie Meyer is a co-producer, and that's just not a good sign. (Pass)

Haute Cuisine: A French movie about a woman named Danièle Delpeuch, and how she was appointed as the private chef for François Mitterrand. (Pass)

Kick-Ass 2: I didn't see the first one, mostly because I don't get much out of movies that solely exist to glamorize ultra-violence. That sounds so preachy and moralizing, but I don't begrudge people that do find that kind of thing entertaining. I'm just not one of them. (Pass)

The To Do List: I didn't used to like Aubrey Plaza much, but lately, she's been growing on me. I have to admit this comedy about her applying her nerdy bookishness to unlocking the secret to losing her virginity piques my interest. A sex comedy from the woman's perspective is long overdue, and I may just watch this one to see how they bring it off. No pun intended. (Rental)

August 17

Ain't Them Bodies Saints: An indie in which Casey Affleck plays an escaped convict making his way across Texas to reunite with his wife. Though I've been beating up on blockbusters lately, that doesn't mean that every independent movie is a thoughtful, well-made gem. This one doesn't really appeal to me, but I'd be willing to rent it if it gets enough praise from people I trust. (TBD)

August 23

The Colony: I believe this one has been pushed back to September. Bill Paxton and Laurence Fishburne are part of a group of survivors forced underground by an impending ice age, and must fight to preserve humanity. I'll need to hear more about this one. (TBD)

Drinking Buddies: A modern romance set in a brewery. I like a lot of the stars (Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, etc.) - but I'm not a fan of the mumblecore movement as a whole, and what little I've glimpsed of this movie makes it appear to be as annoying as the other members of the genre. (TBD, but a likely Pass)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: I know this will be difficult to believe, but they made a movie out of a young-adult fantasy series. I know! I was shocked, too. So there are demons and monsters and whiny love triangles, and it all seems squarely aimed at a target audience that I am very clearly not a part of. (Pass)

Thérèse Desqueyroux: An adaptation of a 1927 novel, starring Audrey Tautou as a housewife that stifled by the tedium of provincial life and the intellectual mediocrity of her husband. So she attempts to poison him, and gets caught. Ooh! Intriguing. (TBD, but sounds like a good candidate for a Rental)

The World's End: Being a gore wimp is tough sometimes. I have no doubt that I would really enjoy Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but I had to skip them because of the splatter. The World's End is another Edgar Wright movie, this time about an alien invasion interrupting a group of friends during a pub crawl. I guess I'll have to pass on this one, too, but I'm bummed about it. (Pass)

You're Next: A run-of-the-mill horror flick starring nobody I've ever heard of. This sentence will be the last thought I ever give to it. (Pass)

August 28

Closed Circuit: Following a mysterious explosion in a busy London market, two lawyers involved with the high-profile trial of the main suspect are caught up in a dangerous web of conspiracy and governmental cover-ups. I like a good thriller as much as the next guy, but I'd like to see some initial word-of-mouth and reviews before I sign up. (TBD)

August 30:

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane: A dumb slasher movie. Good thing I don't care about it, because the entire plot (including the twist and identity of the killer) are given away in the Wikipedia summary. (Pass)

Getaway: Ethan Hawke teams up with hacker Selena Gomez to track down his kidnapped wife. Noooooope. (Pass)

One Direction: This Is Us: Ahahahahaha! (Pass)

Satanic: A movie so ignored it doesn't even have an IMDb page. Here's their full report: "Box Office Mojo added a movie called Satanic to its schedule of upcoming releases, with a release date of August 30, 2013. The listing says that Haley Bennett (pictured above), previously seen in The Haunting Of Molly Hartley, Kaboom and Joe Dante’s The Hole, will star—and that’s all the info that seems to exist on-line." (Pass)

The Lifeguard: This one is odd. Kristen Bell plays a reporter who leaves her life in New York City to go back home to get her high school job as a lifeguard. About to turn 30-years-old, she begins a relationship with a troubled 16-year-old. It looks like it's just getting a limited release. I don't know how comedic or dramatic this movie is supposed to be, and though I like Bell and some of the other stars, it's tough to gauge my interest. (TBD)

August TBD

Don Jon: The release date for this one has actually been pushed back to October, which does seem to suit it better. It doesn't really fit into the summer landscape. It's Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut, and stars him, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, and Julianne Moore. He plays a womanizing dudebro who learns an important lesson about how people treat each other, of course, but I have to say that I'm really looking forward to this one. Gordon-Levitt chooses good projects, and I've liked him in everything I've seen him in, so I'm sure I'll be in for this one. (Must-See)

The New Girl in Town

I like getting those email alerts that Netflix has added a season of television to instant streaming. So far, it has yet to inform me of something I'm not interested in watching. A week or so ago, I got one that told me the first season of New Girl had been added, and I dutifully added it to the queue. And even with twenty-four episodes to plow through, I'm already done.

That's because New Girl is a quintessential Laundry Show. It's perfectly pleasant, often amusing, and even made me laugh out loud half a dozen times or so. The cast is competent. The storylines are zany, but not totally ungrounded in reality. In fact, I have no specific nitpicks or complaints that I can tease out to explore how this show could get better. By the same token, there's nothing really outstanding about it, either. There aren't any individual episodes I can name as particularly engaging or hilarious. There were stretches where I could feel my attention drifting. I watched several episodes in a row, but if I had to leave the room for something, I didn't bother to pause it.

Not every show can be outstanding, of course. There are plenty of shows that I enjoy on a milder level than the ones I consider highlights. If and when the second season of New Girl gets added to the stream, I'll definitely be watching. I'll just be paying my gas bill and writing out my grocery list, too.

New Girl - Season 1: B-


Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em

This blog has a built-in filter. Since I'm not an actual reviewer or critic, I don't have to go to movies that look terrible, so if I was your only window into the summer movie season, you'd think things have been going pretty well. That's not so. This has mostly been a terrible summer for movies, and thankfully, I don't have to suffer through After Earth or Grown Ups 2 or The Lone Ranger to prove it. I can just go to the movies that look like they've got something special to offer. So today, I'd like to discuss the socioeconomic messages of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, and how they don't really work within the context of a dystopian society.

Nah, I'm just yanking your chain. It's a movie with giant monsters versus giant robots! Directed by someone with an actual eye for style and storytelling! How could I pass it up? While Pacific Rim is somewhat formulaic (it's essentially Independence Day with the monsters coming from below, rather than above), the execution is extremely well done. In the near future, giant monsters (kaiju) erupt from under the ocean floor, and begin systematically wiping out coastal cities. Humanity is able to fight back with giant robots (jaegers), but the battle escalates when the kaiju get bigger and the bureaucratic global military community is unwilling to continue financially supporting the jaeger program.

So what's left? Why, a ragtag bunch of soldiers dedicated to making the most of the few remaining robots! A single pilot can't handle the burden of a jaeger, so a duo of pilots with mental compatibility must work together to bring each kaiju down. After losing his brother to one of the monsters, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) builds rapport with rookie Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), but she's been benched by the military's leader (Idris Elba), who has raised her and doesn't want her to come to harm. There are also a pair of scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), who each have their own theories about the kaijus' motives and plans.

The battles between the kaiju and jaegers are shot and edited extremely well. Unlike other blockbusters that shall remain Transformers, I never had any issues figuring out what was going on, and could easily tell where both the good guys and the bad were positioned. The film does suffer from a few ailments that afflict most big, summer eyegasms. The characters aren't particularly developed. The comic relief is overly hammy. Despite the premise that Mako is a strong, proficient solider, there's a bit of the let's-save-the-helpless-woman trope going on. None of these issues ruin the movie, though, and del Toro compensates for them as best he can while still serving up some dazzling spectacle. His eye for detail is incredible; this is far and away the movie I've most enjoyed visually so far this year. And for an extra little bit of fan-service, it was awesome to catch GLaDOS' voice as the military complex's computer. Now that's who you want to hear when a mechanical giant punches an enormous fish monster in the face.

Pacific Rim: B

Song of the Summer 2013 Contender: "Get Lucky"

I harbor no delusions that I'm selecting the "official" song of the summer this year. I may go on about which tunes I'm getting a kick out of, but as far as society goes, it's clearly been narrowed down to "Blurred Lines", which I like, Icona Pop's "I Love It", which I hate, and this one.

Yes, it's "Get Lucky", performed by Daft Punk, featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.

I feel silly even outlining reasons this is in contention. Just listen to it! The backbeat! The breezy tone! Woe unto anyone in the next car over when this comes on, because my body instantly gives into the rhythm every time. If anything meets the textbook definition of what a summer jam is supposed to be, it's this song.

Even if the song weren't as popular as it is, I'd be into it. I've always liked Daft Punk, and really got into N*E*R*D a few years ago, so of course I like the blending of those two sounds; they work well together. "Get Lucky" may not wind up being my personal top choice of the year, but it's certainly one of America's. And though there may be a song or two that edge it out in terms of overall quality, it's top dog as far as jams go, and will always be welcome on the playlist.

Song of the Summer Odds: 3:2

Tiny Toon Adventures

When it comes to animation, I don't just limit myself to just unhealthy marathons of television shows. Let's not forget unhealthy marathons of movies, too. I didn't plan it this way, but for some reason, I've been putting the weighty dramas and action-packed thrillers on the back burner lately, and letting animated films rise to the top of the queue.

A Cat in Paris (2010)

This is a French movie, but I streamed it through Netflix, and the only way to do that was with an English dub. I'd probably have preferred French with English subtitles, but this movie was so visually stunning, it just about made up for any issues I may have had with the vocal performances. The movie mostly follows the titular cat, who spends its days with a little girl and her mother (who is the chief of police), and its nights with an agile thief. The two stories converge when a gang of mobsters arrives. The gang is attempting to steal a valuable statue, and when they threaten both the girl and the thief, the two team up to evade capture. The script may be a bit slight, but its minimal nature helps shift the storytelling to the animation, which is gorgeous.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Even if I'm not a fan of the punctuation in that title, I am a big fan of Aardman Animation films. After the Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run, how could I possibly pass this one up? It's in the same style as those earlier works - a silly, clever adventure story. A band of terribly inept pirates wants fame (infamy, really) and glory, but they're constantly outshone by the more rock star type of scallywag. They attempt to win a pirating contest by robbing Charles Darwin, but when Darwin figures out that the pirate captain's parrot is really the world's last living dodo, the pirates aren't the only ones to hatch a sneaky scheme or two. Toss in a belligerent, snide, pirate-hating Queen Victoria, and you've got a pretty fun movie. Not as memorable as earlier Aardman works, perhaps, but still an amiable way to pass an evening.

Despicable Me (2010)

Well, I just finished saying that I had no desire to see Despicable Me 2 until I saw the first one, and that I was in no hurry to do so. Then whoops, it wound up being top of the list for movie night with Kyle. I wasn't expecting much from it; the marketing material made it look fair-to-middling. And that's basically what it was. Steve Carell voices a villain named Gru who aspires to be feared throughout the world, but is thwarted by other villains out-performing him. In his bid to steal the moon, he concocts a ruse where he adopts three orphan girls. It's no surprise that he winds up genuinely caring for them, and the villain becomes a hero in his new role as supportive parent. It's a cute movie. Unlike the two above, there's less for adults to latch onto, but I can certainly see why kids adored it. The only thing that bugged me about it involved Gru's little gibberish-spouting minions. I didn't dislike them, but there was a clear, desperate, Gretchen Weiners attempt to make "fetch" happen. You'll practically hear the little "cha-ching!" noise out loud when you see how aggressively the movie pushed the minions as something so awesome - and here's the key - so merchandise-friendly. So while I liked the movie, I still have no desire to seek out the sequel. I'll happily leave this franchise to the younger generation.

I wasn't alone in enjoying these movies; both A Cat in Paris and The Pirates! Band of Misfits were nominated for Academy Awards, while Despicable Me got a Golden Globe nomination. It raises a head-scratching question. For some reason, animation is still routinely considered to only include kids in the target audience; every time I bring up watching an animated show or movie, I have to preface it with something along the lines of "But it's not a kids' movie..." But despite Despicable Me's kid-friendly focus, I think it's high time to put this preconception to bed. We're in an era that includes Bob's Burgers and The Secret World of Arietty and A Cat in Paris - cartoons have officially grown up.

A Cat in Paris: B+
The Pirates! Band of Misfits: B
Despicable Me: B-

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #8: South Pacific

After being casually dismissive of an entire era of musical theater during the last assignment, it may seem strange that I'd choose to throw myself right back into it for this one. This is where circumstance comes in. It was a lovely summer evening to hang out at the Muny. A friend I don't get to see much was going to see South Pacific there. And he had an extra ticket. Voila!

I knew very little about this show going in. I was aware of its existence, of course, and am naturally familiar with songs like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Some Enchanted Evening", since they have filtered down into popular consciousness. But as far as plot and such goes, I went in blind. It's actually a really progressive show, given that it was first produced in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein wove two stories about interracial love into the show, one that is stymied by internal prejudice, and one that is beset by fears about societal rejection. Another very refreshing thing about this show is that the characters have no problem voicing their feelings. I don't mind the "I must keep this secret from so-and-so" trope if it's used well (and sparingly), but it's gotten a little tiring to see a story's main conflict revolve around a problem that wouldn't exist if people just sat down and had a five-minute conversation. Not so in South Pacific. If someone's in love, they say so. If someone's angry, they say so. If someone would like to use a burgeoning romantic relationship to obtain valuable espionage information, they say so. If someone has done something in the past that they're not particularly proud of, they admit it up front. I very much enjoyed that aspect of the show.

Unfortunately, I also enjoy things like tying up loose ends and good pacing, both of which South Pacific botches. Both of these problems are most evident in the story arc of the marine Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat, a young Tonkinese woman. Brought together by Liat's mother, the two of them fall in love and have sex almost instantly. I think literally forty seconds pass between their introduction and their Love For the Ages is consummated. Romeo and Juliet would take a look at these two and be, like, "Whoa, slow down, Trigger." Later, after Cable refuses to marry Liat, he goes on a dangerous military mission, during which he is killed. Liat and her mother, not knowing this, approach the show's main character (Nellie), and tell her that Liat insists on marrying Cable. Nellie says "there, there" and leads Liat off-stage. And that's it. That's the entire resolution to the major secondary story of the show. That abruptness of both beginning and end was very off-putting.

The main story (that of Nellie and plantation owner Emile de Becque) makes more sense, but brings to light the other issue with South Pacific. You know the famous songs I brought up before? They're great, as are a few of the others ("There Is Nothing Like a Dame", "Honey Bun", and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" are particularly good). But that's five songs in a pretty damn long show. There are vast stretches that are pretty uninspired, and tunes that are supposed to pack an emotional wallop ("Bali Ha'i", "Younger Than Springtime", "Happy Talk") left me cold.

I'm really glad I saw this show. Not because it's a fantastic work of art - I'd say that it's not great, but it's inoffensive and has charming bright spots. But like all Pop Culture Homework Projects, it gave me a better sense of the type of entertainment people have flocked to over the decades. You should have seen all the old ladies around me in the audience when Nellie launched into "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair". They began to sway in their seats, their eyes shining. It's obvious that South Pacific has been a huge influence on a generation of American culture, and even if it's not destined to have the same effect on me, I always find it heartwarming to watch people get so enthusiastic about their favorite works.

South Pacific: C+

Artistic Integrity

Analyzing which ads amuse me and which ones enrage me is an interesting way to do a little self-examination. Last time I felt a commercial was bad enough to warrant specific mention, it was because I have a big problem with the character portrayal. The company seems to be suggesting that this is either the type of person they believe their typical customer represents, or that it's the type of person we should aspire to be. "Aren't these people silly and fun? Tee-hee!" Bleh.

This next ad that pushes all the wrong buttons fails because of the same type of problem - that of the obnoxious protagonist. Take a look at this popular lady:

The takeaway message for me is less about the supposed features of the offered product, and more that we're being told that this incredibly rude bitch is someone we should want to be like. "The Birth of Venus" cannot hold this woman's attention for more than three seconds, but a picture of her friends eating candy or sporting an afro draw her in like a tractor beam. If you have any reservations that she doesn't know that what she's doing is unacceptable, take a look at the glance she gives her boyfriend before surreptitiously checking her phone. It's a look that plainly says "Can I get away with this? Oh, good. He's enraptured with this retarded painting. I'm in the clear."

The thing is, I actually have no problem with the setting. I'm not some crotchety old man who will shoot a withering glance at someone using a smartphone in a museum. But there are ways they could have integrated this product into this story in ways that weren't so unbelievably annoying. Maybe this woman shares a photo of a painting that particularly speaks to her, and her social network responds with interest. Maybe she follows the museum's page, and learns something new and intriguing about the art she's surrounded by. Anything that would suggest that her experience is being enhanced by having access to Facebook would be fine. But it's the opposite; she's completely disconnected from the experience. She may as well be in a restaurant or a board meeting or on the toilet like the jerk in that last ad.

And again, we're supposed to like her, and to want to be able to do the things she can do. Far from being enchanted, I'm insulted by the idea that ignoring my boyfriend, my immediate surroundings, and some of the most significant cultural work ever created in favor of haircut photos is a character asset, when it's really a flaw. So, some unsolicited advice to the bespectacled gentleman at the beginning of this ad:

Sir, I know I don't know you, and I know that you're fictional, but you can do better. Much better.

You're Under Arrest

Like most beloved, short-lived shows that I came to long after they were deceased, I wasn't in the cult of Arrested Development. Don't get me wrong, I liked it - quite a bit, in fact. I just didn't see why people were rending their garments over its cancellation. But then, I felt like that about Freaks and Geeks and Terriers too, so it seems to be a natural by-product of not getting in on the ground floor. (Additional evidence - I did pitch a tantrum over Pushing Daisies' cancellation, and that was a show I watched from the first moment it aired.)

So, while I was definitely on board for a new season of the recently-resurrected Arrested Development, I didn't have a lot of emotion tied up in its success or failure. Mostly, I was just intrigued over the new Netflix model of releasing all the episodes at once. Nobody seems to know how to deal with this model. There's an interesting debate to be had about how to watch these shows, how to review them, and how to discuss them in the social media landscape. For now, though, let's just focus on the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.

Except that's not what happens at all in this fourth season. Scheduling difficulties meant that it was impossible to film episodes with all of the principal actors together, so each episode centers around one member of the family, and only includes a handful of the others. This method worked well for the most part, as it allowed for a barrage of callback jokes that are so ingrained in this show's DNA. Lucille may say something ambiguous in one episode, only for it to snap into place when we follow Buster four episodes later. Having so much time elapse between Season 3 and Season 4 meant they could play with flashbacks, too. In fact, the plots are so interwoven and self-referential that they sometimes go beyond clever, and into contrived.

There are a couple of other issues, too. There's a strange over-reliance on the narrator, who explains things that could be shown. The two-shots are terrible from beginning to end. I know, that's a nitpicky complaint, but the mismatch between people's mouth movements and the words coming out of the screen were so bad as to be distracting. Those are pretty minor gripes, though. The only major problem is that some of the early episodes suffer because they hadn't been filled in with callback jokes from the later ones. That may make the callback satisfying, but I feel like each episode should be able to stand on its own to a large degree. This is also why I don't accept "They'll resolve that in the sequel" to problems with movies and books.

In the final analysis, though, there was far more to like than dislike. All of the actors settled back into their characters capably. There were a ton of fun guest stars, both returning and new, and all of them were extraordinarily game. That goes especially for Liza Minnelli, who is marvelous as Lucille Austero, and who shoulders several interweaving plotlines of her own, to the point that she's basically a main character. The jokes are well-written; I laughed out loud at several points, especially in the outstanding Maeby episode, "Señoritis".

This is a season that will benefit from a rewatch at some point. There's a metric ton of jokes I'm sure I missed, and I'll no doubt catch more the next time around. I don't want Arrested Development to feel like homework, though, and while I'd give a general thumbs up to these 15 episodes, I can't pretend that I'll mind taking some time off from the Bluths.

Arrested Development - Season 4: B-

The Men Who Knew Too Much

One of the many things to enjoy about movie nights with my friend Kyle is that he's just a big a fan of genre-jumping as I am. We'll watch an indie drama one night, an animated movie another, and maybe wrap the whole evening up with some Mystery Science Theater 3000 shorts. He's on a Hitchcock kick lately, and I jumped at the chance to go over and watch The Man Who Knew Too Much, as it's one of the few Hitchcock movies I'd never seen.

We settled in, and watched a perfectly serviceable black and white movie featuring Peter Lorre. It starred some unremarkable actors who portrayed an English couple who, while attending a shooting contest in Switzerland with their daughter, witnesses espionage and murder. A dying spy passes along the details of a planned assassination plot, and the bad guys kidnap the couple's daughter to keep them from informing the authorities about the upcoming attack.

After the end credits rolled, Kyle and I stared at each other, puzzled. I mean, it wasn't a bad movie by any stretch, but how on Earth did something so milquetoast become a classic suspense film? A few minutes of internet research provided the answer. We had just watched the 1934 British version. Hitchcock did direct it, but when people talk about The Man Who Knew Too Much, they mean the 1956 American version, which Hitchcock also directed. Whoops!

The next time movie night rolled around, what could we possibly want to watch other than the updated movie? Plenty had changed. The couple was now portrayed by names that we recognized (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day). They were now American. They vacation in Marrakesh instead of Switzerland. The wife was a famous singer instead of a markswoman. Their kid was an annoying son instead of an annoying daughter. The more modern movie also wisely filled in a lot of backstory, including the addition of a villainous married couple that the dying spy first mistakes our heroes for.

Both movies climax at the assassination site, which is a concert at the Albert Hall in London. The gunman plans to pull the trigger at the loudest point of the music, and the build-up to the fateful cymbal crash was definitely the best, most suspenseful part of the 1934 film. The 1956 film has more suspense from beginning to end, so perhaps the climax doesn't distinguish itself as much, but it manages to wring almost as much anticipation out of the scene. The outcomes of both the assassination attempt and the kidnapping are quite different in the two movies, which again, the more recent film depicts better.

The 1956 movie won an Academy Award for Best Song, and I'm ashamed to admit that I had no idea that "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" originated with this movie. I just thought it was a classic song that I picked up from Heathers. In any event, both films were worth watching, but for those who only have time for one man with an overabundance of information, definitely go with 1956. I'd be remiss if I didn't close this entry out with Kyle's recent Facebook post, which puts a real capper on this recommendation:

"We finally watched the really good version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. We really, really liked it, but our favorite character was Helen, an actor/singer friend of one of the protagonists. When everyone else was freaking out or seeming worried or awkward, Helen was there in the background with a cocked eyebrow and throwing shade at everyone, right down to her homely actor friend from the Midwest. We kept wishing Helen would appear in every scene to take a drag off a cigarette or to generally look like she knew more than anyone else. In the end, however, Helen hung out with her musician friends, got drunk, and passed out in the hotel room of the protagonists for HALF OF THE FILM. At the end, when they return to their hotel room, after having rescued their kidnapped son and foiling a foreign assassination attempt, the friends all wake up and act like, 'Oh, you're back ALREADY?' Helen looked the least nonplussed by it all."

"I want to be Helen."

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): B-
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): B+

Song of the Summer 2013 Contender: "Angel, Please"

All of the songs in contention so far this year were submitted to the Too Beautiful To Live podcast. The listeners and hosts are usually pretty adept at bringing worthy tunes to my attention, but they dropped the ball on this one. I only discovered this entry ("Angel, Please" by Ra Ra Riot) when my friend Joe sent out his own compilation of summer jams.

I've been hitting "repeat" on this one a shameful number of times. It's got all the hallmarks of a Song of the Summer: It's peppy and catchy and your body will soon be infected with its rhythm. I mean, it's about a man begging a woman not to leave him, but we all know that given a good enough backbeat, a song's lyrics can be about pretty much anything.

The only thing holding this one back is the slow section in the middle. I get what they were going for, but interrupting a jam, even intentionally, can kill a song's momentum. Luckily, "Angel, Please" bounces right back.

Song of the Summer Odds: 3:1

Then and Now

"Having been written at long intervals during the past seven years, this story is more faulty than any of its very imperfect predecessors; but the desire to atone for an unavoidable disappointment, and to please my patient little friends, has urged me to let it go without further delay."

Now that's how you write a preface. It's the introduction to Jo's Boys, the final novel in Louisa May Alcott's series kicked off by Little Women. When I finish a book and move on to the next one, I try to jump around in time or genre or tone. So partly by design and partly by happenstance, the last two books I read couldn't be much more different, even if they're both American fiction. They're separated by more than a century. One was written by a man, and one by a woman. One is the last novel in a four-book series, and one is a collection of short stories. And I'm really glad I read both of them, but for different reasons.

I own a well-thumbed copy of Little Men, and after reading it for the hundredth time, I found myself curious to explore more of the series, and in particular those characters, so I picked up a copy of Jo's Boys (1886) from the library. Louisa May Alcott would die just two years after its publication, so it's fortunate she chose to wrap up the series when she did. Unfortunately, the long writing process and her apparent disinterest in continuing the saga of the March family plainly shows through. It begins ten years after the events of Little Men, and pretty much nothing has remained constant from those days. The boys have dispersed, Plumfield has changed from a boys' home to a college, and Jo is now an acclaimed author, with fans beating down her door daily. The chapter dealing with Jo's disenchantment with her newfound celebrity was rather galling. Subtlety was apparently not a concern in 1886, and Alcott shows almost naked contempt for the readers who loved her work and wanted to pay homage. Other chapters had issues, too. Some of the characters still show the characteristics they displayed in Little Men, but several, from Nan to Demi to Daisy, have been drained of any personality whatsoever. Overall, it was a disappointing read, but I'm still glad I checked it out. It helps solidify Little Women and Little Men as the true classics (I haven't read Good Wives yet, but I intend to at some point).

The other book I finished recently was just published a few months ago. After loving Beautiful Ruins so much, I wanted to read more of Jess Walter's work, so I got my hands on We Live in Water (2013), his short story collection. The stories range from humorous to ponderous, but all of them were extremely interesting. Standouts include "Virgo", in which a jilted man who works for the newspaper wreaks his juvenile revenge through the horoscope column, and "Thief", in which a father wages a sneaky campaign to uncover which member of the family is stealing change from the family vacation fund jar.

Walter's writing style is as refreshing and engaging as ever, and far from setting Beautiful Ruins apart as a one-hit wonder, We Live in Water just reinforced the idea that I need to read more of his work. Of course, it may take a while to get to either Good Wives or another Jess Walter book. After all, my method must be honored; time to do some genre jumping.

Jo's Boys: C
We Live in Water: B+

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

With all the TV I need to catch up on from seasons past, it seemed silly to pay a monthly cable bill. Between Netflix and Hulu, there's always plenty to watch, and I can't remember the last non-network show I felt I must watch as it aired. Until stupid Mad Men came along. Last season completely blew me away, and I resolved to find a way to watch Season 6 week-to-week. I thankfully found a method of watching, and started prefacing all my Sunday social plans with "As long as I'm home by 9PM...." So was it worth all this planning? Read on, but be warned - spoilers ahead.

Really, there was never much chance that Season 6 could live up to Season 5, and it didn't. Even when Mad Men isn't at its best, it's still better than most of what's on TV, so that's not a huge complaint. Still, it must be pointed out that while there plenty of fantastic individual moments in Season 6, it didn't feel like it added up to as much as previous seasons; it was more about the parts than the sum. It seems that more and more characters are added every year, and with so many people competing for screen-time, too many arcs and plot threads were left half-realized or dangling. To give one example, a highly intriguing story about Joan trying to snag Avon as a client was kicked off. She deliberately cuts Pete out of the meeting, hoping to prove her worth as a partner by landing the client herself. She's assisted by Peggy and scolded by the senior staff, but pledges to handle the situation on her own. Does she succeed? Does she fail? Who knows? It's never mentioned again, and while it's completely plausible that it will come up in Season 7, it still feels like a loose thread. There are bits like this strewn across the season. Is Ginsberg about to snap? One of the season's strongest episodes, "To Have and To Hold", puts focus on Dawn for the first time, and it's fascinating. And that's it for her for the rest of the season.

And then there's Bob Benson. I don't even know what to say about Bob Benson. He's incited all sorts of fervent internet discussion, because he just doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. Is he a ghost? A government agent infiltrating the agency? Lucifer? Naturally, these are silly theories, but it's understandable that everyone continually scratches their head about him, because he appeared out of nowhere, and seemed to have absolutely no connection with any of Mad Men's ongoing story-lines (at least at first). It'd be like a '70s-era disco champion suddenly being a character on Downton Abbey. His motivations became a bit clearer towards the end, but he's still a very murky character, and one I don't know what to make of. It's not that I dislike him, per se; he just seems so superfluous.

All that said, the show did do a lot right. Don Draper has spent five seasons being able to get away with whatever he wants, because his creative genius and forceful personality always brought him through. In Season 6, though, Don is in steep decline. He embarrasses himself in public. He loses accounts left and right. Peggy openly despises him. His mistress dumps him. Sally is fed up with him. Even Megan is tired of his bullshit. Matthew Weiner has always been unafraid to take risks, and one of the biggest is changing Don from an often-lovable rogue into a straight-up hot mess that even the viewing audience could get sick of. Secondary characters got a chance to shine, too. This has been a great season for Stan, and the aforementioned Dawn episode helped show what this era must have been like from a different perspective. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were interwoven perfectly.

There's one final season on the horizon, and I'm giddy with excitement. Although this show is often more about the journey than the destination, I'm anxious to see how they'll wrap everything up. I had plenty of issues with this past season, but Mad Men remains one of the most intricate, beautiful, intelligent shows I've ever seen, and there's no way I'd ever miss its conclusion.

Mad Men - Season 6: B

Summer Movie Preview: July 2013

Woo! June was a big movie month for me! They weren't all winners, but I'm pleased to see that the movies I saw varied wildly; I like to keep things interesting. Now, onto July. Will we show our patriotism by infusing the economy with masses of movie-going dollars? Or shall we just sit at home and have a bunch of barbecues? As always, let's see what's coming up, and sift them into the Must-See, Rental, TBD, or Pass piles.

July 3

Despicable Me 2: I never saw the first one, and probably won't see this one until I'm caught up. And while I certainly wouldn't mind seeing either one, I'm not in a big hurry to do it. (Pass)

Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain: I like Kevin Hart, but see no need to seek out his comedy special in theaters. This sounds like a good Netflix choice some snowy winter's eve. (Rental or Pass)

The Lone Ranger: Despite my promise to go into movies with fewer preconceptions and expectations, there are some that I want to go through the critical and audience wringer before I decide to see them. This movie is a perfect example. I've never been very interested in the Lone Ranger story, and when everything I've read is about Johnny Depp's casting, rather than anything having to do with the actual film... Well, I'm suspicious. If it gets a very favorable response, I'll probably rent it someday, but it's unlikely I'll see it in theaters. (TBD)

July 5

The Way, Way Back: Now, this one looks interesting. This is Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's new movie, and stars Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, and Toni Collette. We're off to a good start! A boy getting bullied by his prospective stepfather (Carell) finds refuge at a nearby water park. I'll almost definitely see this at some point, even if it's not in theaters. (Must-See, though possibly in Rental form)

July 12

Crystal Fairy: Michael Cera travels across the desert with a shaman to find a hallucinogenic cactus. I mean, never say never, but that doesn't sound very promising. (Pass)

Dealin' With Idiots: Jeff Garlin meets with the parents of young basketball players. OK, well, I'm not a huge Garlin fan, I hate basketball, and the title is off-putting. I'm pretty comfortable guessing that I can let this one slip by. (Pass)


The Hot Flashes: Brooke Shields, Wanda Sykes, and Camryn Manheim form a basketball team to take on a group of high school athletes. What did I just say about basketball? I like the cast, and would be interested to see what they can do together, but not as this story. (Pass)

The Hunt: Mads Mikkelsen has been tearing it up (literally!) on Hannibal, and won a Best Actor at Cannes for this film, in which he becomes the target of mass hysteria after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a child. It's not a movie I'll rush right out to see on opening day or anything, but I'd very much like to see it at some point. (Rental)

Pacific Rim: Like The Lone Ranger, this is another highly-anticipated movie that I'm just not sure about, and I'd like to see the critical/audience reaction to it before I decide. In theory, giant robots battling giant monsters sounds epic, and Guillermo del Toro is a great director. I've seen the trailer, though, and it left me oddly cold. This would be a good Rum Movie, but if I can't put that together, I guess we'll just have to wait and see. (TBD)

July 17

Turbo: Some children's movies appeal to me as strongly as if I were the target audience. This is not one of them. I'd be happy to take my nephew to a movie like this, but if I don't have some actual child accompaniment, I doubt I'll work up the effort to see it. (Pass)

July 19

The Act of Killing: A war documentary. No matter how good it is, this type of movie is usually not something I enjoy. (Pass)

The Conjuring: A horror film along the same lines as Insidious. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farminga are supernatural investigators who assist a family that needs an exorcism. Meh. (Pass)

Evidence: Stephen Moyer and Radha Mitchell track down a murderer who strikes at a gas station. That's not much to go on, but is at least mildly interesting. Then I looked it up and found out it's a found-footage horror flick. BZZZZZT. (Pass)

Girl Most Likely: Kristen Wiig is an interesting actress. I think she's extremely funny when it comes to straight-out comedy, but can she really sell the dramatic bits of movies? The trailer for this one was pretty intriguing. Wiig has a strained relationship with her mother (Annette Bening), and sleeps with Darren Criss, and stages a suicide attempt. So like I said, I'm not really sure this character type is one that screams "Get me Kristen Wiig!" but I'm willing to see how it goes. (Rental)

Only God Forgives: This is a moody movie starring Ryan Gosling and was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, but is apparently not named Drive. It's a Thai gangster movie, and according to Entertainment Weekly, involves a "heap of mother issues". No, thanks. (Pass)

RED 2: I liked the first RED quite a bit, but I'm not sure it was begging for a sequel. This sounds like it would be a fun date night movie in front of the television. (Rental)

R.I.P.D.: This one sounds supremely weird, even for a movie based on a graphic novel. OK, so dead law enforcement officials protect the living inhabitants of Earth from monsters, and when people look at Ryan Reynolds' ghost cop, they see a Victoria's Secret model. Still with me? It's entirely possible that this movie can skate by on its strangeness alone; stuff like this can make for a fun movie. Jeff Bridges usually doesn't steer me wrong. I guess I'd call myself cautiously optimistic about this one, even if it has the potential to suck harder than any other movie on the July calendar. (TBD)

July 26

Blue Jasmine: This is Woody Allen's latest movie. It stars Alec Baldwin and Cate Blanchett as a married couple, and when Baldwin wants to trade her in for a younger model, Blanchett heads to San Francisco. I never saw To Rome With Love, but I've been enjoying Allen's recent work, so this one should probably at least stay on my radar. (TBD)

Fruitvale: This is a tough one. I liked Michael B. Jordan in The Wire and Chronicle, and Octavia Spencer is always good. That said, I really don't see the need to relive the horrific killing of Oscar Grant by an Oakland transit cop. There's nothing I can do about the injustice, and I won't be able to wring entertainment out of seeing the story dramatized. I wish the movie and its stars all the success in the world, but I will not be in the audience for this one. (Pass)

Stranded: Christian Slater is an astronaut whose team gets stuck on the moon, and encounters monsters. That sounds eminently skippable. (Pass)

The Wolverine: Lots of tough choices this month. The last Wolverine movie... Well, I can't say it sucked, because that would imply it was interesting enough to be bad. Will setting this one in Japan help liven it up? Have anyone learned their lesson from that last debacle? I don't know the answer to either of those questions, and I'm reluctant to plunk down money for a ticket until I do. (TBD)

July 31:

The Smurfs 2: Sure. If you pay me $10 million to see it. (Pass)

July TBD:

Passion: This one appears to be all over the map as far as a release date. It may not even be until autumn. It doesn't matter, because the description I found (a German advertising executive and her assistant battle over creative credit and other career issues, and apparently use lesbian advances as a tactic) doesn't really appeal to me. (Pass)
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