Sunday, July 15, 2018

MovieMonday: Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

This is the third Hotel Transylvania movie, but the first I've seen.  It features Adam Sandler as Dracula, a vampire who runs a monster-staffed hotel and is in the middle of a rough patch.

In this comedy's universe, Dracula isn't nocturnal and doesn't crave mammalian blood, which rather negates the concept.  But he is a longtime widower, despondent and lonely.  We learn this when he looks for love on Tinder -- yikes! don't tell the kids; this is a PG-13 outing -- and only swipes left. 

His daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), misdiagnoses the problem and decides that what the Drac Pac needs is a relaxing vacation.  She books the whole monster crew on a cruise that launches, of course, from the Bermuda Triangle.

There are further plot developments involving romantic love ("zings") and danger, but the point is to watch the Transylvanians cavort and dance to music provided by Drac's son-in-law, a human DJ named Jonathan (okay, Andy Samberg).   

Other cast members of note are these:
     --Frank-enstein (Kevin James of "Mall Cop" fame) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), 
     -- Werewolf Wane, the exhausted family guy (Steve Buscemi),
     -- Dracula's crotchety father, Vlad (Mel Brooks),
     -- Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key of the comedy team Key and Peele), 
     -- Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade),
     -- and Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), who "zings" Drac but who may not be what she seems.

The music and animated character movements are done well and are delightful to watch.  They also react to old pop music, including everything from "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to "24K Magic," which perhaps is there to make the whole project appeal not to young movie-goers but rather their parents and babysitters.

This is clever and fun for the grownups, but it is worth asking whether kids' movies now are pitched to the adults who buy tickets and not the presumed audience.  

The pace, like everything pitched to children now, is frenetic.  And it is well done, relative to the genre.  Still, the associated product promotions include plastic character sets, stuffed animals, McDonalds' Happy Meal promotions and even a birthday-party set of tchotchkes for children as young as three years old.  All seem to have been negotiated by Sony, whose marketing is subtle and subdued compared to that of Disney.

The movie was the top seller over the weekend, trouncing a flawed Dwayne Johnson pic.  Profits are expected to be even greater after its release in European and Chinese markets.

I had a nice time watching the film, but I didn't hear a lot of laughter from the children in the audience.  Fun as it was, it's tempting to wonder whether entertaining them was the point. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

MovieMonday: Three Identical Strangers

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."*

This oft-quoted philosophical observation describes the concern of this documentary about the fates of identical triplet boys who were raised by different families and only met by coincidence when they were 19 years old. Two of the triplets are still alive and trying to make sense of it all. 

The boys were born in 1961 to a 17-year-old girl in New York City.  Six months later, a well-regarded adoption agency placed them with three different families -- one prosperous, one middle-class and one working-class -- and never told the families that each boy had two identical brothers.  

The film opens with the remarkable story of how the boys came to find each other.  They reveled in the discovery and became close, enjoying each other's company during a yearslong flutter of media fame.  

What was learned later was that they had been separated by design and that the adoption agency had cooperated with a scientist who tracked the each boy's development for comparison with the others.   The young men and their parents were rightly angry about the withheld information and about the triplets' use as "lab rats," as one of them puts it.

Studies of identical siblings separated as infants are valuable to scientists and ethicists.  They offer clues to how much of our personalities, and indeed our lives, are determined by our genetic backgrounds, by our childhood circumstances and by our own efforts.  Even so, the circumstances of the triplets' research remain indefensible. 

(The adoption agency closed years ago, and not just because single motherhood and abortions became common.  The agency had been sued at least twice; once for failure reveal to adoptive parents that their son was born to two schizophrenics who mated in an insane asylum and, in another another case, not revealing that a child had been born to an alcoholic mother and a heroin-addicted father.  
         In addition the agency separated at least 12 sets of identical twins and assisted with research of their personalities as they were being raised by different families.  The twins-triplets research data and information have been stored and barred from release until 2065; a movement is afoot to open the records to the adoptees and their families.)

The movie continues with revelations of the triplets' differences and difficulties over years and discussions with journalists, relatives and the remaining two siblings.  It ruminates on the relative influences of their DNA and their childhoods.  

This personalization frames the issue well, for the triplets' case, but the movie ends with a conclusion that I'm not sure I trust.  Reality, as we know, is complicated stuff.  

Still, the story is a good one.  It is nicely filmed and paced, and it examines an issue that concerns us all.  

Sunday, July 1, 2018

MovieMonday: Uncle Drew

Kyrie Irving, the point guard for the Boston Celtics (and formerly for the Cavs) is the title character in this appealing new comedy. 

The movie grew out of a Pepsi Max campaign featuring Irving, whose middle name is Andrew -- Uncle Drew, get it? -- as a trash-talking gray-haired man in sweats who outdribbles and outshoots younger players in outdoor pickup games on blacktop courts.  The series of short movies has drawn many millions of viewers on youtube since 2013, which led to this bankable movie project. 

In the movie, Uncle Drew leads a team of older has-beens who demonstrate that age doesn't diminish talent and that obnoxious jerks deserve their comeuppance.  Not complicated, but satisfying at the metroplex.

The setup is this:  Dax, a pudgy basketball-loving orphan (Lil Rey Howery, the TSA agent in last year's popular "Get Out") lacks the skills to play competitive hoops but has his heart set on organizing a team to win the annual Rucker 50 basketball tournament on Harlem's famous set of outdoor courts.  

Dax meets up with Uncle Drew, who is a baller, as the phrasing goes, and who takes Dax on a road trip to recruit some old friends, played by veterans Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson and Reggie Miller. 

Together, they work through their issues to coalesce as a team.   Shaq's character has anger management issues and when he slugs another of the group, someone says, "That sucker punch is the first free throw you've ever made."  Inside basketball, that.

The bad guys are an arch-rival team called the Jets, led by Mookie (Nick Kroll) who further motivates Dax by romancing Dax's two-timing, bling-obsessed girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish).

The movie is not complex, but it's a pleasant diversion.


Last week I watched an "adult" comedy that was rated R and seemed unusually reliant on vulgarity and verbal obscenity.  Later, a young friend explained to me that the difference between getting an R rating and a PG-13 rating is that only one "fuck" is allowed per PG-13 movie. 

Skeptic that I am, I looked it up and found that my friend was right.  There was a "fuck" blurted early in "Uncle Drew," but the second one was sound-disabled out of tender concern for the ears of children and tweens.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

MovieMonday: TAG

"TAG," you may have read, is a movie about five middle-aged men who keep their group friendship alive by playing tag, the kids' game, for one month every year.

The idea for the film came from a newspaper story about a similar situation.  The article describes men going to some lengths to waylay and tag their fellows.  They are particularly anxious not to be "it" at the the end of the month of play and for the next 11 months until the game resumes.

In order to provide dramatic tension, the film has a central story question -- will Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), the single group member who never has been tagged, become "it" before the end of the month?  

The other four members are sketched in roughly:  Executive Bob Callahan (played by, duh, "Mad Men" star John Hamm), wastrel doofus "Chilli" Cilliano (Jake Johnson), thoughtful eccentric Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) and obsessive "Hoagie" Malloy (Ed Helms).  

"TAG" includes the usual hijinks, a remarkable amount of property damage and a shoehorned-in moment of pathos -- or is it? -- toward the end.  Its dialogue also is full "fucks" and dick jokes, which guarantee an R-rating, now standard for adult comedies. These elements fight for attention with the theoretical heart of the story -- men in their 40s who remain devoted to school classmates.  

It is likely the added elements are not consistent with the source material.  Of the 10 men in the original article, one is a Catholic priest and two others teach and coach at their alma mater, a Jesuit school.  I'm guessing the real tag players' conversations are less colorful than what's offered here.

In short, the movie is fun, but juvenile.  When I saw it, the audience was young and included a number of viewers appeared to be under the age of 17, officially too young to see it without their parents.  I doubt they were traumatized by the experience.


Over the last 20 years, an R-rating has become the standard for funny movies aimed at adults -- everything from Judd Apatow's output to the Hangover movies to the Deadpool franchise.  

Today, virtually all PG-rated comedies are children's movies, and even they often have mild epithets like "damn" and "bitch" and twerking animals wearing mankinis


Meanwhile, perhaps the most enduring comedy of the last 25 years is "Groundhog Day."  Here is a nice Variety piece assessing its significance and an interview with its screenwriter.  

"Groundhog Day," a PG film whose plot was unlike any seen before, was a difficult sell with producers in 1993.  If it were made today, it certainly would require the addition of multiple fucks, tits and dicks to satisfy expectations of current audiences. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MovieMonday: Gotti

Maybe Hollywood is better served when it makes movies about fictional gangsters instead of actual ones.

This movie sets out to be a character study of John Gotti, who worked (whacked?) his way to the top of the Gambino crime family before he was convicted of five murders and racketeering and sent to prison in 1992.  

In his defense, we learn that Gotti was fiercely devoted to his family, that he lived by the rules of his chosen profession and that he was generous to people in his Queens neighborhood.

The movie is punctuated by actual news footage of the Dapper Don, and it takes its story from a book by his son, John Gotti, Jr., who seems to have written it to settle scores against snitches and other associates who maligned his father.   

John Travolta gives his impression of a guy who says his first break, initiation into the Gambino family, came after he killed a man.  There followed two short prison terms, which taught him never to trust someone who hadn't done time.

Travolta's real-life wife, Kelly Preston, does a nice job as the mercurial Victoria Gotti.  Spencer Lofranco is overmatched as John, Jr., possibly because he looks 17 years old when he's playing a 17-year-old and also when he visits his father in prison 20 years later. 

One flaw in the film may be that it went through too many rewrites, too many producers and too many casting changes.  But I don't think that's it.

My guess is that the people who made the movie were so sympathetic to Gotti that they figured a recitation of his achievements -- often without context -- would convince viewers that he was basically a decent person.  The result is a fast-moving narrative that simply doesn't hang together.

The most heartfelt scenes come after Gotti's son Frank is killed in a car accident; we see the parents' grief and, a few minutes later, Gotti arranging to take the family to Florida so as to be out of town while the driver of the car is killed.  

But that's it.  The rest is shootings and grousing over drinks about other mobsters, interspersed with moments of father-son bonding.  

John Gotti was a real person who trafficked in crime and extortion.  His silk ties and big black cars were not paid for by Gambino membership dues. The families of people whose deaths he arranged were just as distraught as his family was when his own son died.  

It's not easy to turn someone like John Gotti into a sympathetic character. This movie doesn't make the sale.  

America's film fascination with gangsters goes back a long way.  There were Warner Bros.' James Cagney movies of the 30s, noir films of the '40s and "On the Waterfront" with Marlon ("I coulda been a contender") Brando in the 1950s.  "The Godfather" in 1972 kicked off movies and television series that show the professional-personal aspects of hoodlum life to this day.

Some of those movies and television series may have been inspired by actual characters, but I can't think of another biopic about a real-life modern-day mobster.  Maybe this one be the last. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

MovieMonday: Hereditary

Here we have a horror movie about a family afflicted by some some kind of curse.

We meet the group -- two parents, two teenaged children, nice house, Volvo wagon -- after the death of the mother's mother.  

At the funeral, the mother, Annie Graham (well played by Toni Collette), delivers a frankly hostile eulogy.  At home, Annie is working on an art project that consists of intricate miniature designs of the family home and also of her late mother's hospital room.

Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is an expressionless child who draws disturbing pictures, including one of her grandmother in her open coffin.  Older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) seems less strange but is bewildered and seeks comfort in his bong.

The father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a traditional family guy whose calm concern contrasts with the increasingly odd behavior of the others as events unfold.

And do they ever.  Odd things happen, and then are followed by even odder things.  Annie sometimes reacts as a mother might be expected to do, and then sometimes does not.  The recurring horror elements include headless bodies and insect invasions.

The title suggests that the dead grandmother bequeathed some strangeness to Annie and Charlie, and possibly to Peter.  It's not for me to tell the story here, but even when it has ended it remains something of a puzzle.

I generally don't care for horror movies, but this one held my interest because the family interactions made it more interesting than the traditional strangers-gathered-to fight-a-menace tale of older such films.  The pacing and cinematography are very good, and the theme is supported by a fine musical score.

Ari Aster wrote and directed the film, his first feature-length movie, but professionals and Vimeo fans have enjoyed "Munchausen", his much shorter family horror movie that stars Bonnie Bedelia.  If you're on the fence about seeing "Hereditary," you might watch that 2014 piece first.

Turned Into Absurdity

A couple years ago, I read this unintentionally amusing sentence in a newspaper.

The 25-year-old turned himself into the Hudson County Regional Fatal Collision Unit 
at about 3:45 p.m. on Monday, Suarez said.

Wow, I thought to myself.  That would be something to see.

The problem was the word into.

We do know that people are capable of changing themselves. 

With plastic surgery and flexible ethics, a woman can turn herself into a big-bosomed porn actress.  

With talent and hard work, high school drop-outs can turn themselves into famous overachievers like Quentin Tarantino and Aretha Franklin.

But, as for turning oneself into a Fatal Collision Unit?  Never heard of it.

Into and In To

It is not difficult to see how the confusion arose.

In and to are both prepositions, and each requires a noun or pronoun as its object.  And the word into is also a preposition.

But in is flexible.  Sometimes it is a descriptive word, an adverb.

Some examples:
Harvey dropped his test into his teacher's in-box. (Preposition)

Harvey turned his test in to his teacher.  (Descriptor and preposition)

Harvey turned his test into his teacher.   (Ha ha ha)

You can see where I'm going here.
Harvey Weinstein

Just over two weeks ago, the recently notorious film executive began his legal journey as a criminal defendant.  Some of the headlines:  
Harvey Weinstein charged with rape after turning himself into police

Harvey Weinstein turns himself into police

LIVE: Harvey Weinstein turns himself into police

Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has turned himself into police. 

Harvey Weinstein turns himself into New York police

JUST IN: Weinstein turns himself into police

And here is the lede from a news story published by an outfit  that I know for a fact employs trained journalists.

Embattled film mogul Harvey Weinstein was seen carrying two books 
with him when he turned himself into police on Friday morning 
in New York City on charges of rape and sexual assault.

I could go on -- and on and on -- but I believe I have made my point.  

We all have seen television dramas in which an officer of the law describes herself or himself as "a police."  But when Weinstein appeared in the courtroom for his arraignment, he wasn't a police; he was just the same old Harvey.

Conor McGregor

The into malaprop also figured prominently in April reports after UFC fighter Conor McGregor got his Irish up outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  The first seconds of the cellphone video below show McGregor lobbing a hand truck at an innocent bus.

McGregor probably regards such behavior as necessary to maintain his credibility in the mixed martial arts community.  But officials took a different view.  And so, afterward, we got the following headline, among others:  

Conor McGregor turns himself into police after attack on bus at UFC 223 Media Day 

And language from two mainstream publications:

UFC star Conor McGregor has turned himself into police in the wake 
of a backstage melee he instigated that has forced the removal of 
three fights off UFC's biggest card of the year. 

Conor McGregor turned himself into the New York City Police Department 
after he was wanted for questioning after he attacked 
a UFC bus containing fighters on Thursday and injuring one person. 
(This sentence is a textbook-ready example of bad newswriting, BTW.)

The into misuse appeared also on various MMA websites, but it didn't originate there.  It seems that either the Associated Press or CBSSports, or possibly both, led with the into construction and that the smaller outfits picked up the error and neglected to correct it.

My considered opinion is that if McGregor wanted to change after that unfortunate incident, he should have turned himself into a bus, instead.


What is it with New York and prominent criminal prosecutions?  Harvey Weinstein spent the majority of his career in Los Angeles, where most of ingenues and starlets are, but the NYPD was first out of the chute investigating and charging him.  

       Now there seems to be a battle afoot between the Manhattan district attorney's office and the state attorney general over which gets to lead the very prurient and very newsworthy court case.  Even the governor has voiced a point of view.