Friday, July 12, 2024

THE LADY IN THE FAKE

In theaters this weekend:

Fly Me to the Moon--Scarlett Johansson plays a Madison Avenue marketing hustler brought to NASA in Florida in the late '60s to help re-sell the Apollo moon mission to the public, and thus to an increasingly reticent and tight-pursed Congress. Soon the astronauts are sporting Omega watches in print ads, and Tang drink mix is being touted as the beverage of space travelers.

Those of us who go back that far may remember this advertising blitz; I certainly consumed unhealthy quantities of Tang around that time--any quantity was probably unhealthy--because of its supposed outer space connections. But in this lavish period romcom, it's the highly fictitious set-up for the meet-cute between Johansson and Channing Tatum, as a serious-minded NASA launch director.

He falls for her at first sight, then when he learns who she is he's outraged at her interference. And it truly is outrageous; she even hires actors to play some of the less charismatic or more camera-shy NASA staffers in TV interviews, Tatum included. But of course, over time his resistance is worn down by her adorableness.

Johansson is pretty adorable, at that. She wears the chic '60s outfits like she was born for them, and her purse-lipped, mischievous little smirk is winning as always. Tatum is in his comfort zone here, too; likably bland and dim and stalwart. The stars have a comfortable romantic rapport, and they're well supported by a roster of character players, like Woody Harrelson as the jovial mystery man who hires Johansson, Jim Rash as a prima donna commercial director and Ray Romano as Tatum's loyal sidekick. There's also a gorgeous black cat.

Between the cast, the vintage atmosphere and retro styles and settings, and a terrific soundtrack, the movie, directed by Greg Berlanti (of Love, Simon) from a script by Rose Gilroy, would be ludicrous and fluffy but inoffensive enough, even charming. But in the middle of this buffoonish burlesque of NASA history, there are attempts to generate genuine drama and poignancy over the earlier tragedy of Apollo 1 in 1967 that strike a sour note.

Worse yet, in the severely overlong second half, the plot goes off the rails. Harrelson's government spook makes Johansson stage, you guessed it, a fake moon landing, as a contingency in case the real one fails. She reluctantly goes along with this, unbeknownst to Tatum, as the real landing is taking place, even though she feels like she's betraying him.

This extended finale is clumsily staged, but that's not what's offensive about it. The "Fake Moon Landing" narrative is one of the quintessential paranoid American folk legends, likely arising, I've always suspected, among the many people who insisted that the moon landing was a ridiculous folly and would never succeed--arising, like so much else in our toxic national discourse, from the common American inability to admit it when we're wrong. Fly Me to the Moon means it all facetiously, of course, but this doesn't strike me as the most auspicious time in our country's history to lend even that much credence to a conspiracy theory.

Friday, June 28, 2024

PAINT MANAGEMENT

May before last The Wife and I went to Chase Field for "Paint at the Park" Day...


...in which our seats in the roomy, comfortable "All You Can Eat" section beyond center field were supplied with an apron, a paper plate with various blobs of acrylic paint on it, a couple of brushes, a paper towel, a plastic cup of water for rinsing, and a small canvas. We were then given instruction in painting a serene desert landscape by night, with the moon as a baseball sailing overhead. This was my finished product...

...currently hanging in my garage.

It was quite fun, so yesterday we went again. This time, instead of a canvas, we were provided with a small wooden placard with letters outlined on it...


...and the instructor guided us through making the word HOME, decorated with Diamondbacks colors and motifs. I found it much more difficult than working with the canvas, but it was still fun. Here we see The Wife's crisply realized, gift shop worthy finished product...


And here's my masterpiece, which looks as though I painted it while wearing boxing gloves and riding over sand dunes in an off-road vehicle...


The game, against the Minnesota Twins, also left something to be desired. Starter Jordan Montgomery gave up six runs in the second inning, and his relievers Scott McGough and Bryce Jarvis did little better. The D-bax bats did entertainingly come to life a bit in the fourth inning against Twins starter David Besta, making his Major League debut, and Ketel Marte whacked his 17th homer of the year, but it was all way too little too late; the final was 13-6.


The Wife and I stayed to the bitter end, consoling ourselves with copious All-You-Can-Eat hotdogs and other goodies not good for us, and also with the knowledge that we were leaving the park having created art that transcended the disappointment on the scoreboard...
 

Monday, June 24, 2024

AGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

Now in theaters:

Thelma--Played by June Squibb, the title character is a widow in her nineties, living on her own in a lovely house in Encino, California. She's intelligent and proudly self-reliant, but she nonetheless falls prey to a scam; somebody claiming to be her beloved grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger) calls up claiming to have had an accident and to need $10,000 fast.

Before she can reach her daughter (Parker Posey) or son-in-law (Clark Gregg), Thelma has mailed the money. She's informed that there's little the cops can do, and her family tells her to let it go. But she can't. The theft has threatened her sense of independence, and left her furious, both at the perpetrators and herself.

She goes to see her old friend Ben (Richard Roundtree), who lives in a nursing home. She no longer drives, so she asks Ben if she can borrow his rather snazzy scooter to follow up a lead she's found on the scammer. Though he's horrified at what she wants to do, soon the two of them are zipping along the sidewalks of L.A. in the scooter, Thelma at the handlebars.

The writer-director is Josh Margolin, whose real-life Grandma, really named Thelma, was really targeted by such a scam. Though the real Thelma didn't fall for it, you can understand Margolin's impulse to dramatize such an infuriating, odious plot.

There's a certain raggedness to the movie's middle stretch. Margolin seems so delighted with the image of Thelma and Ben riding to vengeance on a scooter that he may have sacrificed a certain amount of narrative logic to it; it's hard to imagine that they couldn't have contrived a more efficient way to get across town. And Thelma's daughter and son-in-law seem underdeveloped and caricatured, though Hechinger's Danny is endearing. When this goodhearted but coddled and aimless kid in his early twenties bemoans his lack of life skills, plenty of us in the audience can empathize.

But the center of the movie, of course, is June Squibb's performance as Thelma. Now 94, Squibb has been around show business since the '50s--she was in the original Broadway run of Gypsy!--and in TV and movies since the '80s and '90s. She made an impression with her role in About Schmidt (2002) and got an Oscar nomination as Bruce Dern's salty wife in 2013's Nebraska, but this is her first star part.

She handles it with great skill, careful to keep Thelma from getting too twinkly and adorable, and giving her a reflective side. She also has a fine rapport with her costars, especially Roundtree, whose last film this was (it's dedicated to him). His quiet, dignified Ben has, unlike Thelma, accepted his declined status. He insists he likes living in the home, and playing Daddy Warbucks in the production of Annie there.

His idea of aging gracefully is not being a bother or a worry to younger people. In the buddy-picture structure of the movie, this makes him the fretful Danny Glover or Martin Lawrence to Thelma's Mel Gibson or Will Smith; he's quite literally getting too old for this shit.

The comparison isn't strained. Margolin's most fertile source of comedy here comes from shooting and editing the film like any tense urban action thriller; Nick Chuba's driving musical score helps a lot with this. When Thelma has to climb a steep flight of stairs or stand up on a bed to reach something in a high place, it's treated much the same as, say, Tom Cruise's daring feats in a Mission: Impossible movie, and you realize that, in terms of courage and risk, there really isn't much difference.

Friday, June 21, 2024

I DON'T WANT A PICKLE...

Opening this weekend:


The Bikeriders--There are many variations within the genre, but overall, biker movies tend to fall into two broad categories. There are those, exemplified by The Wild One (1953), in which the bike gang is seen from the point of view of mainstream society, and those, like The Wild Angels (1966) or Easy Rider (1969), where mainstream society is seen from the point of view of the bikers.

This new "wheeler" manages to have it both ways. Adapted by writer-director Jeff Nichols from the 1967 book by photojournalist Danny Lyon, the film traces the growth of a fictitious Chicago area club, The Vandals, based on The Outlaws, with whom Lyon embedded off and on throughout the '60s. It's very much an insider's view, focusing less on riding action than on the tempestuous relationship between Johnny (Tom Hardy), the club's founder, and Benny (Austin Butler), his beautiful, stoic, monosyllabic right-hand man. The Vandals begins as a racing and social club--Johnny, a truck-driving family man, is initially inspired by seeing The Wild One on TV--but criminality and ugly violence gradually creep in. 

Wisely, however, Nichols makes a mainstream viewpoint central to the film as well. The story is narrated to Lyon (Mike Faist) by Kathy (Jodie Comer), a respectable young working-class woman who stumbles into a biker bar one night to meet her girlfriend, and is unimpressed, not to mention understandably scared, by what she sees. She's unimpressed, that is, until she gets a look at the angelic Benny at the pool table, and can't keep an infatuated smile off her face. Despite Benny's anomie and recklessness, before long he and Kathy are a couple, and she's in competition with Johnny for Benny's devotion.

The beguiling Jodie Comer's Kathy is the live wire in The Bikeriders. A Brit of course, Comer lays on a Chicago accent as thick as a deep dish pizza as Kathy tells us, in hilariously bemused terms, about both the follies of bike gang life and her own folly in loving the seemingly emotionless, self-destructive Benny. Her sensible, self-deprecating take is pre-emptive to how many of us in the audience may feel, and keeps The Bikeriders from skidding into cornball melodrama.

None of this is to say that the movie's other elements aren't top-notch. It's full of fine performances: Hardy, sporting a sort of buzzy, mild-mannered Brando voice, has a quietly tragic appeal as Johnny. By the nature of his character, Butler is asked to play Benny very close to the vest, but he brings a star presence to the part. Damon Harriman, Boyd Holbrook, Emory Cohen and others are strong in supporting parts, and Norman Reedus drops in as "Funny Sonny," an unnerving representative of a California club. As the frazzled Zipco, who wanted to serve in the Army, Michael Shannon makes his big monologue a knockout.

The Bikeriders is also one of the best-looking movies of the year, stunningly shot in Grant Wood-esque midwestern tones by Adam Stone. Like the biker pictures from the period it depicts, it seems to be made up of images of real people, objects and places, lovingly captured but rock-solid. In our computer-generated era, this is refreshing; for all its brutality, this movie takes the world in a love embrace.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

ULTRA BEAUTY

Now on Netflix:

Ultraman: Rising--The very name Ultraman is a madeleine for me, evoking powerful childhood memories, often thrilling, just as often frustrating. As a kid in rural northwestern Pennsylvania in the early '70s, I used to try to tune in UHF Channel 29 from Buffalo, New York, on weekday afternoons to see reruns of the late '60s Japanese TV series about the solar-powered superhero who battled all manner of bizarre kaiju threatening humanity.

When the weather was clear, especially in the summer, I would often have a good signal, and I'd get a clear picture of the weird psychedelic paint swirls out of which the show's opening title would take shape. When the weather was lousy or wintry, I'd usually get nothing but snow, and great would be my indignant disappointment.

In the early iteration of the show that I loved (1966-67), created by Godzilla special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, Ultraman was the alter-ego of Clark Kent-esque Hayata, an intrepid member of the "Science Patrol." This agency was tasked with animal control duties on the myriad massive monsters that regularly inconvenience Japanese society and threaten its infrastructure. When the situation became sufficiently desperate, Hayata would excuse himself and press a button on the "Beta Capsule" he carried, thus transforming himself into the sleek android giant, who would then fight the creature in question with a combination of martial arts and a variety of rays he could shoot from different parts of his body.

Ultraman's might was short-lived, however. Very early in the fight, a small warning light in the center of his chest would begin to flash, and the narrator, in the English-dubbed versions I saw, would gravely intone (if memory serves): "The energy which Ultraman draws from the sun diminishes rapidly in Earth's atmosphere. The warning light begins to blink. If it stops blinking before he returns to the sun, Ultraman will never rise again!" Or something like that. It seemed pretty urgent, every episode.

The franchise has continued in Japan throughout the decades, over dozens of series with differing characters, as well as movies, comics, video games etc. I never followed any of them. This animated feature from Netflix, however, is of American origin, though it's set in Japan and is an unmistakably loving homage. Directed by Shannon Tindle from a script he wrote with Marc Haimes, this one gives The Big U a new alter-ego, a handsome baseball star named Sato, who is estranged from his father, a scientist who once had the Ultraman secret identity gig.

Early on, a winged monster's baby imprints on Sato/Ultraman (voiced by Christopher Sean) and regards him as his parent. The story involves our hero's efforts, aided by a flying robotic sphere (Tamlyn Tomita) to protect the baby from the schemes of the kaiju-hating Dr. Onda (Keone Young), and also to mend his relationship with his Dad (Gedde Watanabe).

The old show was deeply silly but visually elegant; this new feature is visually elegant but balances the silliness with a sincere attempt at solid characterizations and relationships. It's an entertaining movie, but it does have a large downside, at least for me: I found the baby kaiju grotesquely cutesy; it looks like a mutant human baby in a tacky Halloween costume. It's like an Anne Geddes photo gone nightmarish.

In general, I could have done with more full-grown kaiju action. But the finale of Ultraman: Rising is fairly spectacular, and there's a lot to like in this movie. I would welcome future installments in this series. I particularly like the idea of an Ultraman who treats kaiju as humanely as possible. Or, rather, ultra-humanely.

Friday, June 14, 2024

SUMMERTIME VIEWS

There may not be a cure for the summertime blues, but going to summer movies has long been a source of temporary relief. Your Humble Narrator had fun chatting with Mark Brodie of KJZZ's The Show...


...about some of the big midyear releases; listen to it here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

THUMB AND THUMBER

Check out my review, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Space 55's Roger & Gene...


...playing at Metropolitan Arts Institute through June 16.