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Talking About Heads

This article debuted in January on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

The offstage rancor between David Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads has become just as legendary and captivating as their music. I cannot tell you what reverberates through my mind more often — the brilliant quirk of “Once in a Lifetime” or bassist Tina Weymouth pushing the rumor that lead singer Byrne once killed a child “using voodoo.” Drummer Chris Frantz, also Weymouth’s husband of many decades, doesn’t address witchcraft in his 2020 memoir Remain in Love but he does swat at Byrne more often than he praises him. Reading between the lines, I see a guy who is hurting for a warmth and a friendship from Byrne that will never come. Maybe his wife hasn’t told him about the voodoo yet.

It’s probably disheartening to have such a fruitful creative connection with a person who simultaneously cannot or refuses to connect on a more human level. The flip side of Frantz’s Talking Heads coin is the cosmic bond he’s shared with Weymouth, a union that has clearly helped him cope with whatever traumas life has delivered. Weymouth and Frantz don’t need Byrne, personally or professionally. When this wife and husband debuted their side project Tom Tom Club in 1982 it actually eclipsed Talking Heads in popularity (Tom Tom’s upbeat single “Genius of Love” earned gold sales and a Rich Little parody, two things Talking Heads had yet to achieve).

Crusty “Saturday Night Live” heads like myself might be wondering if Remain in Love mentions early ‘80s cast member Charles Rocket at all. Yes, Frantz talks about Rocket, whom he knew during his college years at RISD. There’s a palpable affection when the author writes about his late friend Charlie and the performances he gave as singer for a group called the Fabulous Motels. The Motels did a spoof of “Sweet Soul Music” where the refrain was “Do you like big men, y’all? Big strong men, y’all?”

Rocket’s music career extended to include a guest shot on Mesopotamia by the B-52’s. Frantz briefly touches on this release in the text but only to imply that David Byrne’s production made it one of that group’s worst performing discs. No shot at Byrne is too obscure or petty. Frantz even takes a swipe at some drawings a young David made that Byrne’s parents had hanging up in their home. I’m sorry he hurt you, Chris.

Byrne will most likely do his best to ignore the fact that Remain in Love even exists. I think he should film himself reading the entire book in real time and release it as his next art installation. That would be fascinating. Would he agree that it was a mistake to end his relationship with Twyla Tharp?

Chuck Off

This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

Chucky get iPad? No, Chucky is iPad. That’s the long and short of the 2019 Child’s Play reboot, a movie that drags the homicidal moppet into the 21st Century by turning him into a Siri-style smart device. It’s a keen and plausible route. Less plausible is the new Chucky’s visage — more Willem Dafoe than Cabbage Patch. Would consumers really go apeshit for a toy that looks like it’ll bust you in the stones even before it turns evil?

Well, Child’s Play is also a film that tries to pass off Vancouver for Chicago and winds up with something resembling Dayton. Any true Chuck head will tell you the problem here is that no one from the original Child’s Play films was involved with this remake. And yet the god Mark Hamill still agreed to speak the new Chucky’s voice.

Hamill excels at sounding diabolical (he’s been voicing the Joker for 30 years) but Chucky 2.0 doesn’t call for that. This isn’t the spirit of a convicted killer trapped in molded plastic, it’s a corrupt operating system that can’t grasp why you should never rip out a cat’s stomach. So Hamill’s “doll” has a measured cadence with just a trace of emotion, remaining placid even as the gruesome stakes are raised. That’s nothing like original Chucky, who carries on like Nicholson after a snootful of downstairs coke.

There are plot threads that don’t go anywhere in Child’s Play and a handful of character moments that fail to ring true, but nobody was expecting Scorsese level craftsmanship from the eighth Chucky movie. We came to see a toy kill people with drones and self-driving cars. In that sense, Child’s Play delivers, fully realizing the violent techno-terror haunting luddites in their sleep.

Only time will tell how heavily Willem Dafoe factors into the inevitable AI uprising. My guess is not very heavily at all but he’s surprised us before.

Another Age?

This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

Anyone with a heart and a brain can tell you America is a land of disillusion, a land of embitterment, a land of anguish. There are systematic problems we refuse to address, even when the fix is simple, because we’re indoctrinated to be racist, selfish, and lazy. So the American experience involves grim acceptance. We try to ease our hopelessness with irony. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

You can hear all this on the 1969 Phil Ochs LP Rehearsals For Retirement, the acclaimed folk singer’s response to the dark tumult we stumbled through in 1968. The revolution was over, Ochs felt, a point driven home by the picture of his own grave on Retirement’s cover. Here’s a man resigned to an acrid fate of racial injustice, state violence, foreign wars, and toxic masculinity. Ochs doesn’t let that destroy his beautiful, compelling voice, though, and he hasn’t given up entirely.

“So I pledge allegiance against the flag and the fall for which it stands,” he declares amidst the simmer of “Another Age.” “I’ll raze it if I can.”

Phil Ochs had already drifted away from pure folk by this point. In fact, Rehearsals For Retirement was his third foray into standard pop and rock arrangements with producer Larry Marks (better known as the original singer of the “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” theme). What the pair accomplish on Retirement is masterful, from the delicate piano lilt of “The Doll House” to the hammy brass that accents “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” There simply isn’t a false move.

Unfortunately, a fourth collaboration between Ochs and Marks wasn’t in the cards. Rehearsals For Retirement tanked and Ochs moved on to the bizarre final stage of his career. He began emulating the rock n’ roll stars of the 1950s in an attempt to, as he put it, “[get] Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” Fans felt bemused or betrayed by the singer’s glitzier attire and Buddy Holly throwbacks. Ochs watched his career evaporate as personal problems seized his life. He hanged himself in April 1976.

The tragedy of this concluding chapter makes Rehearsals For Retirement’s emotionally raw title track all the more heartbreaking. “The days grow longer for smaller prizes, I feel a stranger to all surprises,” Ochs quietly laments. “You can have them, I don’t want them…I wear a different kind of garment in my rehearsals for retirement.”

It’s a true indictment of our nation that the social and political themes of Rehearsals For Retirement continue to be relevant 50 years after its release. Maybe in 100 years we’ll have evolved. I’m not holding my breath.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generations

This article debuted in February on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was that rarest of things — a high quality tv show that actually made money, consistently and over a lengthy span of time. Seven seasons went by and figureheads could brag that “TNG” remained “extremely profitable.” They knew the ride couldn’t last forever, though, so the series concluded and the characters graduated to feature films. There was little wait for the “Trek” devoted; as soon as the masterpiece series finale “All Good Things…” wrapped production “TNG” began work on its theatrical debut, Star Trek: Generations. The movie was released just six months after “All Good Things…” aired in 1994.

Generations didn’t need any gimmicks tying it to the previous dynasty of Trek cinema, but they insisted on two big ones anyway. The film begins 78 years in the past where we witness the death of Captain James T. Kirk as he heroically rescues the Enterprise-B from a mysterious and lethal anomaly. That same anomaly, known in universe as the Nexus, brings Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard together at the end of Generations. Together they must thwart an evil scientist named Saron who is trying to bend the Nexus to his whims at the expense of several nearby planets.

It’s explained that if a person manages to get inside the Nexus it will allow them to experience their dream life. That’s what Saron wants, and Picard, whose emotions are brittle in Generations following personal tragedy, will eventually find himself seduced by what the realm might provide. This has all the makings of a classic Star Trek, and a lot of it is quite entertaining, but Generations has trouble striking the right cinematic tone. Like an oversized coat, some of it fits and some of it is lost to exaggeration.

Director David Carson had never helmed a feature film prior to Generations and he only made a handful afterwards. Yes, the scale gets away from him at times and the movie’s lighting is periodically insane, but Carson deserves credit where it’s due. He gives Klingon antagonists the Duras sisters a compelling sendoff. That sequence is perfect and will make you holler whatever the Klingon word is for “oh snap!”

So what does William Shatner’s rug look like in Star Trek: Generations? It’s pretty good. A fine rug to wear the day you die. And through all that running around and all those fisticuffs, it never slips once, boldly staying where real hair used to grow before.

Circus Jerks

This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were giving money to bad people.

The ghastly villains in Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) are authentic grotesques rendered in mountains of what appears to be rubber and latex. They’re also not in the same league as actual clowns, who, for a variety of reasons, strike much deeper fear in our hearts. One assumes the filmmakers didn’t use human beings in greasepaint for Killer Klowns because they were trying to create something “wacky,” not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of harlequin invasion movies.

Yes, we see these monsters land their giant intergalactic carnival tent somewhere in California, where they start shooting people with popcorn guns and entombing them in cotton candy. The thirty-somethings playing the teenage couple who witness all this don’t know what to do because the script never gave them parents. Our heroes, Debbie and Mike, go to the cops and convince Deputy Dave Hanson to help them investigate all this clown malarky. A bit of drama is squeezed out of the fact Debbie and Dave used to date. That’s the emotional component of the space clown movie.

Despite a fertile concept and some very unique special effects, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is a middling affair. The actors can’t commit to playing this as seriously as Jaws or as broadly as “Mr. Ed.” This lack of conviction deflates the humor like last week’s birthday balloons. Soon we’re trapped in our own figurative glob of cotton candy.

At least the clowns look good. That’s where all the money went, which we know because the producers cancelled a Soupy Sales cameo after learning the price of his plane ticket. Imagine being Soupy Sales and getting that phone call. Hey, imagine having to make that phone call. On par with death by alien circus jerks.

Ambiance of Unease

This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were giving money to bad people.

Halloween really shook up the squares when it first materialized in 1978. “Absolutely merciless” is how Roger Ebert began a breathless review that also includes the phrases “violent and scary,” “terrifying and creepy,” “frightening,” and “terrifying” twice more. The Los Angeles Times ran its write-up under the bold headline “SLAUGHTER, FEAR IN GRISLY ‘HALLOWEEN.’” Staffer Kevin Thomas called the slaughter in question “realistically depicted” and said director John Carpenter’s voyeuristic camerawork “makes the film a complete turn-off about halfway through.”

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby asserted that “the point of [Halloween] is to cause us as much distress as possible in the safety of our theater seats”; if only Canby had lived to see the Saw franchise. Graphic, invasive images have become such a steady part of our 21st Century media diet (whether we invite them or not) that Halloween is now a quaint showing. Yet Carpenter’s provincial horror continues to succeed on an uneasy ambiance fueled by the distressing truth that a killer doesn’t need a motive.

Anguish paints the face of Michael Myers the handful of times we see him unmasked but we never learn what, exactly, is up his craw. He’s just a disturbed young man who the system has failed. One of his health care coordinators admits as much; when Dr. Sam Loomis gravely intones that he “spent eight years trying to reach [Michael] and then another seven trying to keep him locked up,” one wonders why he didn’t spend the full 15 on rehabilitation. That’s got to beat the alternative — hoofing through suburbia, five minutes behind every smart-mouthed teenager Michael dispatches.

Demure and bookish, Laurie Strode seems like she’s got even less of a chance against Michael than her brassy cohorts. Surprise! Laurie’s instincts take over once this knife-wielding shadow reaches spitting distance and she goes on the offensive. At one point, Laurie gouges a coat hanger into one of Michael’s eye. Anyone else would take the L after receiving such a deep gouge but our antagonist merely calls a time out (they’ve made nine sequels to Halloween, so excuse the spoiler). Is this our first hint Michael Myers could be supernatural?

Not exactly. Much earlier in the film, when Michael makes his daring escape from the mental health facility where he’s lived since the age of six, he commandeers a station wagon and speeds off into the night even though it is highly unlikely he’s ever been in the driver’s seat of any kind of car before. This is the Halloween plot issue people love to shred like iceberg lettuce. Well, look, maybe this kid’s a tool of Satan. Maybe he’s just got an incredible can do attitude. You can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it — anything except killing Laurie Strode (or escaping your own horror franchise; they’re making two new Halloween movies as we speak).

By the way, if you think Michael Myers looks a bit like Joanie from “Happy Days” when they yank his mask off at the end, you aren’t crazy. The actor is Tony Moran, Erin Moran’s older brother. Small world!

Welcome To The Jam (Again)

I read an interview with Joe Dante the other day where he said the Looney Tunes should have been retired after 1960. I can’t argue with the man. In my lifetime, they’ve only been impressive in Roger Rabbit and that’s because Disney had the final vote on quality control. The original Space Jam is okay but Shawn Bradley is funnier in it than any of the Looney Tunes. You could remove the Looney Tunes entirely and still have a decent movie about NBA players fighting aliens. The animation is just a gimmick. And to paraphrase Chuck Jones, the real Bugs Bunny wouldn’t need Michael Jordan’s help to win a basketball game.

Now we have Space Jam: A New Legacy, which is more of a remake than a direct sequel. If you’re the type of person who can spend hours staring at that poster where Kermit The Frog is dressed like Garth Brooks, this movie will be your Star Wars. Everything you’ve read is correct — A New Legacy is just a commercial for Warner Bros. IP. Would you believe they’re treating most of this stuff as poorly as the Looney Tunes? Scooby Doo, Fred Flinstone, and Space Ghost make brief cameos that are visually on par with the Patterson Bigfoot clip. Meanwhile, the camera lingers on several real life human extras in screamingly awful Batman costumes. They’re on the sidelines of the big showdown, practically rubbing elbows with the main characters, even though they should be on house arrest at a Spirit Halloween.

If you’ve never seen the Looney Tunes before, Space Jam: A New Legacy will give you zero insight into their personalities. You might literally believe that Elmer Fudd is just a short guy from Austin Powers. That’s all they give him in this movie; they animate Fudd over the Verne Troyer reveal from The Spy Who Shagged Me. The premise here is that an evil computer algorithm has convinced the Looney Tunes they should be involved with more exciting franchises, so they’ve all left Looney Tune Land for stuff like The Matrix and Mad Max. See? The movie told the Looney Tunes they were boring and they agreed! And they don’t return to Looney Tune Land because they miss it. They return because the story necessitates that they partner with LeBron James to defeat Don Cheadle and his ragtag crew of NBA mutants.

There is a “serious” death scene for one of the characters in A New Legacy — “th-that’s all, folks!” they sputter melodramatically — but it doesn’t mean anything because the whole thing is reversed two minutes later. So not even a movie this big and dumb and critic-proof can escape the Marvel influence. Death is meaningless, life is meaningless, let’s smash our toys together. On the other hand, if they made 25 more Space Jams perhaps they’d eventually land on something interesting.

Space Jam: A New Legacy made me laugh once, when they dress Foghorn Leghorn up like Khaleesi from “Game of Thrones” so he can soar by on a dragon and throw out some catchphrase. I think that’s the most meaningless thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It deeply amused me.

CORRECTION: Bunsen Honeydew is the Muppet who dressed like Garth Brooks. I can’t believe I misremembered that thing I only saw once.

“How Can I Murder Myself 123 Times?” Unsolicited Multiversin’ on Jet Li’s The One

– if we’re to believe this futuristic entry from 17 years ago, hundreds of mirror universes exist around our own, and there are in fact ways to move between them; get this, though—if you can find and kill your mirror self in one of these extra realms, you gain physical and mental power; Jet Li’s charming villain Gabriel Yulaw is the Bo Jackson of eliminating his doppelgängers, much to the chagrin of multiverse cops played by Jason Statham and Delroy Lindo; soon Yulaw finds himself in our dimension, on the hunt for nice guy Gabe Law (also Jet Li), husband to a veterinarian (Carla Gugino) and basically some schmoe you could have a beer with

The One wants to be Terminator 2 meets Men in Black meets The Matrix meets “The Patty Duke Show”; the resulting broth is a dissatisfying cartoon, even in the martial arts sequences that ostensibly hold this film together; so many computer fx are ladled over Li’s fights you never get a good sense of gravity, which the viewer needs to empathize with / root for either character

– it probably wouldn’t have hurt for every actor to take another run through additional dialogue recording; sometimes what they say is crystal clear, and other times it’s pure mud

– the most dated aspect of this early Aughts blunder is the blanket nu metal soundtrack; alas, it was never commercially released, so you’ll just have to turn on FM radio if you want to hear the dissonant grind of Drowning Pool, Disturbed, Linkin Park, and Papa Roach

– Jet Li’s final piece of dialogue in The One is remarkably stupid, so much so you won’t believe it isn’t more widely quoted in irony

– if nothing else, there are flashes here that suggest Li would have made a far better Batman than Christian Bale

– alas, the above screencap is all we get of Dreadlock Universe Jet Li

Unsolicited Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi Review


Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Directed by Rian Johnson
2017

Accepting reality is one of life’s most difficult challenges. Answers elude burning questions, or arrive with baggage you couldn’t expect. The wrong decision feels one hundred percent right; the right decision leaves everyone feeling wrong. These ideas form the core of The Last Jedi, an entry in the Star Wars saga that blurs the good versus evil / black against white mythos that’s been cemented in this entertainment monolith for decades. The results are dream-like, surreal, mostly captivating, occasionally bonkers—yet you witness a growth, not just with the characters but the franchise itself.

The Last Jedi picks up right where 2015’s The Force Awakens left off; Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the hermit Luke Skywalker, whom she hopes will join the Resistance against the First Order while training her in the ways of the Force. Luke, still reeling from events in his recent past, is wary of this young newcomer and the trouble she may bring to his doorstep. Meanwhile, a power struggle is coming to light within the First Order as Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) openly doubts the abilities of Darth Vader’s grandson, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is battling his own demons and is not in fact very present in mind for what the First Order believes will be the final push against General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her Resistance. There’s internal distress on that side, too, as spicy boy pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) bristle under Resistance leadership and ultimately go rogue.

Ideas that the Star Wars prequels fumbled to infamy are presented here with grace and wonder. There are also moments in The Last Jedi where they roll the space dice and come up with droid eyes. Of course, this echoes the film’s aforementioned themes—you can’t always get what you want, reality can be a bitch. Director Rian Johnson has broken away from the formulaic feel that many believe hampers The Force Awakens; at the same time, Johnson (who also authored the script) deepens the chemistry between the leads, bringing resonance to the fact this war for the galaxy’s heart is extremely personal.

And yes, the rumors are true: this might be the Star Wars with the most jokes. One liners, visual gags, even bits reminiscent of Monty Python. The levity is appreciated as it bridges the gap between emotional set pieces. Don’t forget, The Last Jedi is two hours plus. A little editing may not have hurt, but perhaps that would decrease the perfectly feverish ambience.

FINAL SCORE: Three and a half porgs (out of four).

Unsolicited Bartokomousin’ Across Eight Seasons Of “Perfect Strangers”

– Hulu recently added “Perfect Strangers” to its streaming stable; my first question after spinning the episode wheel for about a week straight is, since Bronson Pinchot’s Balki is just a sanitized version of the brief but memorable role he plays in Beverly Hills Cop, do you think “Perfect Strangers” ever tried to get Eddie Murphy to make a guest appearance? Also, do you think anyone from Beverly Hills Cop chagrins Bronson Pinchot for spinning this character into television, even though legend tells us Pinchot himself improvised it while filming Beverly Hills Cop? Do you think they ever asked Judge Reinhold to be on “Perfect Strangers?”

– the chemistry between Pinchot’s affable, earnest Balki and Mark Linn-Baker’s cynical, beleaguered Cousin Larry is often utterly crackerjack; when the writing plays to their strengths the laughs flow like water and you can see how this goddamn thing ran for eight seasons; this is probably how “Perfect Strangers” survived so many supporting cast hiccups (the actress who plays Twinkacetti’s wife in the first two seasons returns in the third as an unrelated newspaper gossip columnist; very confusing if you’re watching “PS” totally out of order on a Tuesday night, face deep in kung pow chicken)

– yes, there is an episode of this program in which Balki is accidentally hypnotized into believing he is Elvis Presley the night before his tax audit; this is in season four, so it is plausible by this point that Balki might be paying some kind of income tax on his earnings from the newspaper’s mail room

– yes, there is an episode of this program in which Larry brings home 58 live turkeys just a few days before Thanksgiving because he’s convinced he can make a buck off last minute shoppers; there’s nothing funnier than imagining Larry and Balki succumbing to the will of 58 live turkeys in their kitchen and living room, and imagine it is what you have to do—the budget apparently only allotted for two to three birds at a time

– yes, there’s an episode where Balki claims to have met and befriended Carl Lewis after a showing of Benji: The Hunted; Balki’s enthusiasm for this film is very endearing

– over the course of “Perfect Strangers” Larry and Balki meet, awkwardly date, and fall in sitcom love with their upstairs neighbors, Jennifer and Mary Ann (their partners respectively); these parallel romances remains chaste for the most part, even when they all wind up living together, although every once in a while something truly ribald slips by—like the time Balki admits Mary Ann really knows how to “toss his salad”; this occurs in a much later season when all the Friday night heat was ostensibly on Urkel

– people forget “Family Matters,” the show which begat Urkel, is a spinoff of “Perfect Strangers” (before she was mother to Laura and Eddie, wife to Carl, Harriet Winslow was elevator operator to Larry and Balki at their newspaper job); though he pops up on several other ABC TGIF entries of this era, Urkel never came to pay his respects to the cousins, which is fucking nuts because “Perfect Strangers” is the only TGIF show that takes place in the same city as “Family Matters”; even stranger, Mark Linn-Baker crossed over to “Family Matters” in one of its later seasons, but not as Larry, as some other guy

– the episode where Balki takes on the persona of hip hop star Fresh Young Balki B is less incredible than memory; the several minute applause break I recalled for the introduction of Larry as MC Cousin does not occur

– in the seventh season the King of Mypos (Balki’s fictitious homeland) comes to visit and of course dies unexpectedly; this turns into a Weekend at Bernie’s type deal but you’ll be more amused by how many times the dead guy thinks he’s off camera and starts moving his face around

– the final season of “Perfect Strangers” is inexplicably only six episodes, but don’t worry, they cram in pregnancy, a sporting good store, a Myposian death curse, a game show, and a two parter in a hot air balloon

– the only reason they should reboot this show is so we can learn if Bronson and Mark can still execute the Dance of Joy; it was foretold they would not be able to at this advanced age in the season three episode “Future Shock”; surely this is one of the top betting pools in Vegas