2017: Part 1

Band Aid. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Notes from July 5, 2017: After a decade of producing films and co-writing screenplays, in addition to her blossoming career as an actress (currently starring on the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces”), Zoe Lister-Jones makes her directorial debut in Band Aid, which she also wrote and stars in. Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play Anna and Ben, a suburban husband and wife who are on the verge of divorce. In an attempt to save their marriage, they decide to channel their anger into songs by forming a band in their garage and letting the arguments inspire some musical creativity. An excessively kooky neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen), joins Anna and Ben on drums, and before long the couple begins to see a future for themselves both personally and professionally.

All of the different roads to success are rocky, and some of Anna and Ben’s problems are mediated by Dave, some of Anna’s friends, a marriage counselor (Retta) and Ben’s mother (Susie Essman). These scenes of marital discord show Zoe Lister-Jones’s strengths as an actress and director, although the writing is occasionally mediocre; a scene near in the end of the film in which Anna’s post-traumatic stress over a miscarriage is explained in heavy-handed generalizations about femininity and motherhood that seem to have been culled from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The comic and tragic sides of the narrative are unequal in their respective developments and Fred Armisen (as delightfully weird as you would hope) seems to be acting in an entirely different universe from his co-stars, which is more often distracting than quirky. Even so, most of Band Aid’s music hits the right notes, particularly the wonderful “Love and Lies” and the energetically cathartic “Mood.” I also appreciate that Zoe Lister-Jones worked with an all-female crew, resulting in some first-rate cinematography by Hillary Spera (High Road, Black Rock, Wildlike). Band Aid isn’t likely to sweep any stages come awards season, but it’s a more than pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Baywatch. Directed by Seth Gordon. Notes from June 30, 2017: You can guess it just from knowing that the movie exists: the 2017 big-screen reboot of Baywatch was created solely for the purpose of objectification. There are no stunning new revelations made about the sexual/emotional natures of men and women, the value of teamwork or the importance of integrity; there is just the awareness of the camera constantly finding excuses to gawk at well-flaunted body parts. I could pick apart the finer points of the plot concerning the crime-fighting Florida lifeguards played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of the most likeable dudes in the movies, it goes without saying), Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass and others – I’m sure that critics with more patience than I have noted the wasted opportunities of casting Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez in boring roles that could have been played by not-comedic actors – but what I really want to discuss is the level of audience participation in the theater where I saw Baywatch, and how it intersected with desires for objectification.

Three vital issues could be gleaned from the screening where I saw Baywatch, all information provided by the tweens/teens sitting in the row directly behind me:

  1. Internalization of Hollywood’s standard attractive/unattractive binary: Zac Efron’s reverse uncanny valley abs give him a “desirable” body (the loudest of the girls screamed “Zac Efron! Bae! He’s mine, guys!” during the opening credits), whereas Jon Bass’s physique automatically goes beyond the “undesirable” range into “ewwww, disgusting” territory (the noises that the girls made at the sight of his chest were pitched somewhere between groaning and terrified shrieking)
  2. Weird noises made when Pamela Anderson made her cameo at the end of the film (during which she does not have a single word of dialogue, by the way) lead me to believe that young people don’t know who Pam Anderson is and/or they have deeply judgmental feelings about her looks (what a shock, people complaining about a fifty-year-old woman’s appearance)
  3. The worst and most confusing of all: toward the end of the film – I can’t remember which exact scene, but it was something making plain that Priyanka Chopra’s villainous plans were about to fail – one of the girls behind me made the comment, “Yeah, take that, you slut!” (The other girls giggled in response, maybe out of embarrassment but possibly in agreement.) What is it about Chopra’s character that connotes slut? Did the main tween read the character’s confident, unabashed sexiness/sexuality as the defining quality of her badness? Did race/ethnicity play any part in the tween’s conclusion about the character? What does this remark tell us about how young girls perceive girls and women in media today?

The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once said that the advantage of an “amateur production” over a Hollywood movie was that a smaller project is not “expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.” Baywatch is precisely the type of big-budget time-waster that Deren opposed, designed to be a silly and fun exercise in surefire entertainment. Should I wish that I could have turned my brain off and enjoyed the stupidity more, or should I be glad that I have the voice of Maya Deren whispering in my ear, reminding me that there is always more than one way to tell a seaside story?

P.S. In fairness to Baywatch, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the precedent set by the greatest beach-action flick of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s pulse-poundingly awesome masterpiece Point Break (1991).

Fifty Shades Darker. Directed by James Foley. Notes from July 4, 2017: Who would I be kidding if I said that I was ever going to read E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy? I have too many other things to do, like watch more movies, listen to music and read novels that are actually worthy of my time. But I bothered to watch Fifty Shades of Grey just so I could get my toe in the pop-culture door concerning this particular worldwide phenomenon, and as bad as it was it wasn’t actually the worst film of 2015, so I figured that I might as well give the second installment of the franchise a chance too.

Blandly hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and perpetually nervous book-editing intern Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) return in this sequel, which is frustratingly devoid some of the stylistic touches of Grey’s director (Sam Taylor-Johnson). The film also suffers from a comparatively more boring soundtrack: the first film had a pair of genuinely catchy pop tracks, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and the Weeknd’s “Earned It,” whereas Darker’s main theme, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” is a thoroughly passionless duet between Zayn Malik and Taylor Swift. Darker observes the complications of Anastasia and Christian pursuing a “normal” relationship rather than their previous S&M-based affair. Before long, two of Christian’s former partners resurface, including a mentally unstable submissive (Bella Heathcote) and the much older woman who initiated Christian into sadomasochistic sex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger). Anastasia meets both of these women; violent encounters ensue.

Assuming that you can survive the onslaught of melodrama and the various sex scenes that are never a fraction as arousing as the series’ reputation indicates, Fifty Shades Darker is actually a fairly painless viewing experience. I like Dakota Johnson more with each film of hers that I see, so that’s a net positive; Jamie Dornan continues to bring little more than abs to his role, but he showed a fair amount of promise as an actor in last year’s overlooked WWII thriller Anthropoid, so I place the blame on E.L. James, screenwriter Niall Leonard and  director James Foley (who did strong work at the helm of the film At Close Range and also S2 E17 of “Twin Peaks,” which fans will remember as the pine weasel/fashion show episode) for Dornan’s blankness in the Fifty Shades films.

P.S. What Fifty Shades Darker lacks in eroticism, at least it makes up for in a line-for-line homage to Working Girl.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele. Notes from April 21, 2017: Believe the hype: the directorial debut by Jordan Peele (”MADtv,” “Key & Peele,” Keanu) is both a mordant satire of horror cinema and a truly disturbing window into the grotesque realities of racism in America. Get Out is a film that you definitely need to see in a movie theater, preferably a crowded one, since it’s a story that really benefits from a receptive and responsive audience. Reactions will undoubtedly differ depending where you live – I saw it at a three-quarters-full screening in a Regal multiplex in Manhattan – but I bet that no matter where you are, your fellow moviegoers’ collective feedback is as much a part of the experience as the film itself.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whom I last saw in the film Sicario a year and a half ago, plays our protagonist, a twentysomething African-American man named Chris Washington who works as a photographer and who agrees to go with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her parents in the countryside for the weekend. Rose is white, and she has not told her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), or her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), that Chris is black. Rose insists, however, that race is not an issue with her family; early in the film she declares that her dad “would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” As soon as Chris and Rose arrive in her hometown, though, it is obvious that something is amiss. We know from the film’s opening scene that all is not well in suburbia, when we see a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) attacked and abducted on a quiet street, but it takes time for us to see the full effect of that act and its many ramifications.

All of the aforementioned actors in the film give fine performances, but I must also highlight Caleb Landry Jones, who does a pretty good Heath Ledger impression as Rose’s mumbling, scraggly-haired, clearly unhinged younger brother, Jeremy; Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod; Stephen Root as one of the Armitages’ many friends, Jim Hudson; and my personal favorite supporting actor, Betty Gabriel (a newcomer to me, and this film made me an instant fan!), as Georgina, the Armitages’ housekeeper and a woman who holds more than a few secrets. My favorite shot in Get Out is an extreme close-up on Gabriel’s face, an image that every person who has seen the film will instantly recall.

Besides the incredibly powerful messages that Get Out bears about racial hatred and stereotypes taken to gory horror-movie extremes (although they’re not too far removed from actions we have seen or can imagine in real life), the film also revels in similarities and homages to numerous iconic motion pictures both in and out of the horror genre; at times I recognized kindred spirits in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Last House on the Left, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and, reaching beyond the cinematic realm to the literary world, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” (Incidentally, if you are familiar with Stephen Root’s career, you will be reminded of one of his earlier film roles when his character appears in Get Out. I won’t say anything further to spoil the entertainment factor.) (Additionally: there is an instance when a character listens on an iPod to the theme song from a certain film classic of the 1980s; nobody in my theater laughed out loud, but trust me when I tell you it’s a perfect moment that crystallizes exactly what Jordan Peele wanted to get across in that particular scene.) It is obvious that Jordan Peele has not only the creativity but also the technical skill to be considered one of Hollywood’s most exciting and thought-provoking new directors, capable of developing cinema that is both enjoyable for the masses and rich in meaning – an ability that not every young filmmaker can claim.

Snatched. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Notes from June 20, 2017: The only way for me to see Snatched was on the big screen with a friend four weekends ago, since I’m not certain that I would make the effort to watch it on TV myself. I won’t deny that I have some fun watching Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer play a mother and daughter who reconnect after years of storminess when they go on a trip to Ecuador that soon leads to them being kidnapped and subsequently running all over Colombia. Snatched mines more genuinely amusing comedy than I expected from the ridiculous situations that Schumer and Hawn find themselves in, and I appreciated the supporting performances by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack as two resourceful women vacationing at the same resort as our two heroines, Ike Barinholtz as Schumer’s uncomfortably weird older brother, Christopher Meloni as the hypermasculine adventurer who tries (and fails) to help the ladies on their treacherous journey and Al Madrigal as a well-meaning but incompetent worker at the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

As disappointing as it is that Snatched sticks with expected stereotypes for the South American drug lord villain and his henchmen, there are some funny moments mined from the predictability. The opening scene is great (I won’t spoil the punch line), and there’s a ridiculously entertaining encounter with a tapeworm later on in the film. Also, as a woman, I appreciate Amy Schumer’s physical presence onscreen; I don’t recall her size ever being the focus of any jokes, and it’s refreshing to see her walk around a few times in a bikini without having to display any embarrassment or shame. Snatched is full of clichés about learning to love and accept yourself and your family, and very little of the humor felt fresh, but overall I found the film more enjoyable than nearly every critic led me to believe.

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Friday Music Focus: 6/23/17

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Friday Music Focus returns with eleven brand-new or recent songs to enrich your sonic experiences in 2017.

Courtney Barnett, “How to Boil an Egg” (single, 2017). From a YouTube user comment: “0/10. recipe was difficult to follow, eggs were terrible.”

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie,”On with the Show” (appears on the album Buckingham/McVie, 2017). It’s not easy to write a good pop song. It’s probably even more trouble for artists who have been around for decades, constantly being compared and contrasted with the entirety of their own lengthy history. To be totally frank about my own music-awareness deficiencies, I don’t know the entire Fleetwood Mac songbook, so I’m not judging Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie’s new duets album (described by The Guardian’s Jude Rogers as “like togetherness put on, not poured out” and by Pitchfork’s Sean T. Collins as “fun—just not fundamental”) against the weight of a half-century-long catalog. I am therefore delighted to be so unbiased as to consider “On with the Show” a pop gem. In fact, it gives me the same joy that case/lang/veirs’ lovely tune “Best Kept Secret” did last year. How could that possibly be a bad thing?

The Dirty Dishes (Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally and Fred Armisen), “Love and Lies” (music video made for the film Band Aid, 2017, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones; studio version appears on the album The Dirty Dishes EP, 2017). The new movie Band Aid, which was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, stars Lister-Jones and Adam Pally as a couple who tackle the thorny problems in their marriage by writing and performing songs in a band they form in their garage. The trio is rounded out by a neighbor (played by Fred Armisen) as their unendingly kooky drummer. “Love and Lies” is the best of the movie’s original songs, and its music video (also directed by Zoe Lister-Jones) points out the fact that the film had an all-female crew behind the scenes; seeing Armisen pretentiously micromanage the video shoot is icing on the cake.

Feist featuring Stephen Colbert, “Century” (performed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 6/6/17; studio version, featuring Jarvis Cocker, appears on the album Pleasure, 2017). My favorite track on Leslie Feist’s new album is updated with a contribution with my #1 late night talk show host. From the guitar riffs to the stage setup to the outfit worn by Feist, has there been a more satisfying musical performance than this on TV all spring?

Marika Hackman, “Boyfriend” (music video; studio version appears on the album I’m Not Your Man, 2017). Despite a glaring likeness to Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung,” Marika Hackman’s first single from her sophomore album (after 2015’s We Slept at Last) is an undeniable earworm. It has been called a riposte “to ignorant boys who try to delegitimize and objectify lesbian relationships,” or in Hackman’s words, “payback for all those times I’ve been interrupted mid-snog by some seedy wanker asking to join in.”

Hudson Mohawke featuring Remy Banks, “Passports” (from the “Silicon Valley” soundtrack, 2017). The artists at the helm of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” have an unrivaled track record for choosing the perfect song to play over any given episode’s end credits. “Passports” appeared at the end of last Sunday’s episode, “Hooli-Con,” and if we are to believe the lyrics as foreshadowing, the song points to the possibility that Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team will need to flee the country in this Sunday’s season finale (long story short: they committed cyber crimes). The “Silicon Valley” gang is usually the least cool bunch of dudes in the room, so the decision as to which song will cleverly underline that basic precept is incredibly important. “Passports” does that to the max in just over two minutes; it even seems to evoke the subplot involving Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) voyage to Tibet with the somewhat Eastern-sounding instrumentation.

Lorde, “Sober II (Melodrama)” (appears on the album Melodrama, 2017). I don’t hide the fact that I have never really joined in on the Lorde bandwagon. (The world seems to consider her the most talented young singer-songwriter around, but all I see is a Kate Bush wannabe utilizing current pop hooks.) It is therefore no surprise that Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, which is being applauded by journalists on every continent (I wouldn’t dream of making assumptions and excluding Antarctica), doesn’t wow me. The two songs that work for me, however, are the exuberantly upbeat “Green Light,” which has grown on me immensely in the last few months, and “Sober II (Melodrama),” about which I wrote these words after first hearing it: “oddly tantalizing – the strings make me finally feel the emotion that the album claims to be focused on – I wish the song lasted longer.” There may be hope yet for me as a potential Lorde devotee.

Ride, “Lannoy Point” (appears on the album Weather Diaries, 2017). “We’ll be wiser when we fall/Like the dinosaurs before/When we’ve swept ourselves away/A better sense can start again,” sings Mark Gardner on the opening track of Weather Diaries, the new album from British shoegaze/dream pop/Britpop band Ride (returning after a two-decade hiatus). The group takes on modern politics and Brexit, the aftershocks of which are felt throughout the album and give Ride a fresh (though, of course, obviously unwanted) source of inspiration for their new music.

Sigrid, “Don’t Kill My Vibe” (music video; studio version appears on the album Don’t Kill My Vibe EP, 2017). I don’t know much about Sigrid, a twenty-year-old singer-songwriter from Norway, but I was so impressed by her performance of this song on “The Late Late Show” last month that I’ve been replaying the single ever since. It’s a simple and effective pop song, the kind that instantly and happily lodges itself in your brain.

Slowdive, “Don’t Know Why” (appears on the album Slowdive, 2017). Like Ride, British shoegaze pioneers Slowdive spent two decades on hiatus. Their recent return with a self-titled album has garnered stellar praise, and “Don’t Know Why” is a beautiful highlight that pays homage to the shimmering, melting guitar tones of one of the group’s influences, Cocteau Twins. I hope that I get to hear this particular song when I see Slowdive in concert this November; I’m sure the reverb must be heavenly in person.

Texas, “Great Romances” (appears on the album Jump on Board, 2017). Like the critically lambasted Buckingham/McVie album, Texas has been derided for blandness. It’s not clear to me exactly what critics want out of frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri and her bandmates; they first appeared on the Scottish alternative rock scene in the mid-80s, so maybe the British music press is just bored with them. But I ask you: what’s wrong with a song like “Great Romances,” an enjoyable little number that bounces along? Sure, it borrows the beat from the classic Angels hit “My Boyfriend’s Back,” but is that a worse musical crime than Ed Sheeran copying TLC?