At The Movies: Early Man

I don’t go to as many animated feature films as I used to. There seem to be so many of them these days, and most of them just don’t appeal to me.

But I will always make time for an animated feature by Nick Park.

The British animator has given us such delightful fare as “Chicken Run,” “Shaun the Sheep,” “Creature Comforts” and his masterpiece — the “Wallace and Gromit” series.

So yeah, I was looking forward to his latest, “Early Man.”

But alas, it seems even the great ones can have an off day.

fid17453It’s not that ‘Early Man” is a bad film. It’s cute. It has its charm. Kids will probably enjoy it. The animation is as sharp as anything else to come out of Aardman Animations.

It’s just not that funny. Or witty. Or clever. Or smart. These are the key ingredients of a Nick Park film, and they are sadly missing here.

“Early Man” is the story of a small band of cavemen led by  Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). The tribe lives in a peaceful valley where they survive by hunting rabbits.

Their peaceful existence is disrupted when a highly advanced (by Neanderthal standards) army of Bronze Age types moves in and kicks Bobnar’s tribe out of the valley.

The hero of the tale,  Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wants the intruders out and goes to confront their leader, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). If they want to win back their homeland, Dug and his friends must best Nooth’s champions in a game of football (or as we Americans call it, soccer).

Dug’s team doesn’t know the first thing about football, but since when has that ever been a detriment in a movie like this?

“Early Man” is, like I said, cute. It’s your typical underdog sports story that plays out just as predictably as you’d imagine. But I expect so much more from Nick Park. It does have a few brief moments of wit, but not enough to sustain an 89-minute movie.

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At The Movies: Black Panther

Remember when superheroes were primarily of interest only to nerdy white boys?

I do. I was there. Showing your love for Batman did not make you a popular kid in elementary or high school, I assure you.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. And now we live in a world where people throw online fits because “Wonder Woman” didn’t get any Academy Award nominations. A world where an actor playing a superhero in a new movie is currently on the cover of “Time” magazine. A world where that film — “Black Panther” — is poised to earn more than $150 million at the box office this weekend. In February.

Welcome, rest of the world. We knew you’d catch up with us nerdy white boys eventually.

So, “Black Panther.” Marvel Studio’s 18th movie in 10 years and its first with a black lead and a majority black cast. This makes it important, if you haven’t got the word. A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment. Good thing it lives up to expectations.

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Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, soon to be crowned king of the mysterious African nation of Wakanda. T’Challa, also known as the Black Panther, joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016 in “Captain America: Civil War,” where his father was killed in a bombing. Now, T’Challa has returned home to take his father’s place on the throne.

But first, a history lesson: Many years ago a large meteorite made of vibranium — the strongest metal in the world — crash landed in Wakanda. Over the decades the Wakandans used vibranium to create for themselves a technological utopia, far advanced and hidden away from the rest of the world. I’m not sure how a big hunk of rock can do all that, but hey kids, comics!

The only outsider to ever get into Wakanda, steal vibranium, and escape, is arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Klaue has formed an alliance with an American black-ops soldier named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). Klaue wants more vibranium to sell while Erik wants to get into Wakanda for more personal reasons.

T’Challa is surrounded by a complex ensemble of characters, all played superbly by the actors involved: Angela Bassett as the regal Royal Mother; Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister and the country’s chief scientist; Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, love interest and undercover operative; Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of security; Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, the king’s confidant and head of his border guards; and Forest Whitaker as Zuri, elder statesman and longtime family friend.

Rounding out the cast are Winston Duke as M’Batu, chief of a rival tribe; and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA agent who serves as the outsider (aka white person) point of view.

“Black Panther” is another solid entry in the Marvel canon and one of the better-made comic book movies. The villains (Klaue and Killmonger) are, for a change, more rounded and charismatic. The story has more depth and bite than usual. The movie isn’t afraid to address tough and uncomfortable issues.

But like so many superhero movies, the final reel is an overdone orgy of fighting and explosions. I’m still not sure what was going down with the Black Panthers’ throw-down on the rail line.

But what truly makes “Black Panther” stand out is how black it is. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the film revels in African landscapes (real and futuristic), costumes, music, attitude and style.

 

 

 

Trivia Night, Taco, And The Power Of 8

Friday night was the 16th annual Trivia Night to benefit the Center for Autism Education. We have been participating in this event for at least a dozen years, probably a couple more.

The greatest challenge of Trivia Night is not answering the questions, it’s putting the team(s) together. Each team sits around a long table, 4 chairs per side. That means you can have a maximum of 8 people per team. You can have fewer, but you’re still going to pay the same amount for the table so you might as well max it out if you can.

The tables are crammed into the Elks Lodge and if you have 8 people it’s going to be a tight fit, especially when you factor in winter coats, purses and snacks. You wouldn’t want 9 people even if you could have them.

27990576_10155916164430856_562729201_o (2)In the beginning it was just me and my Journal peeps. (Laurie goes to volunteer and occasionally sneak us answers. This year she was in charge of selling tickets for the booze basket. She didn’t sneak us any booze. That’s why they trust her.)

 

 

Over time we grew out of our table because someone would have to drop out one year so we’d bring in someone new but then the original person would want back in the next year and we couldn’t just punt the new person and we’ve never had the same lineup 2 years in a row, so, you know…expansion.

And then Laurie’s friends decided they wanted to participate so, you know, expansion. And then I wound up at the ARC and people there wanted to participate so, you know, expansion. We have it pretty much down to 2 tables a year, with lots of mixing and matching of people. Fortunately we all get along.

Usually I take charge of putting the teams together but last year Laurie jumped the gun on me, which was fine by me — let her deal with it. And all worked out fine, except she forgot to invite my ARC pals, and I heard about it later. So this year I made it a point to invite all the usual suspects and we quickly had our 16 participants.

Then Trent decided we needed 1 more.

“I’m bringing a friend. Is that OK?”

At first I thought she was joking. We went through this same conversation some years back and I had to politely explain to her how math works. As she continued to press the issue, I realized that she was serious.

Since we usually have at least one person bail before showtime, I just let it be. Sure enough, a week before the event Mary Beth had to bow out. And then Trent had to excuse herself as well. And then Yellow took a pass — for reasons that were TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE. “I had to work hard today and I’m tired” is not a valid excuse for leaving your teammates in a lurch.

Meanwhile, I started thinking maybe I should invite my new Etrailer buddies. After all, as long as there are enough of them for their own table, it should all work out. I invited Leah, who didn’t know what a trivia night was, then Amy, who used the excuse that she would be having a baby about that same time, then Victoria, who said she would be celebrating Christmas that night. Some people will do anything to get out of trivia.

I had given up on the idea when I was talking to my editor, the other Leah, who expressed interest in putting a team together. Does the CAE appreciate all that I do for them? I think not, it’s all about Laurie and how she volunteers all the time.

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Team Etrailer

Now I had to tell my current teammates that, in addition to competing with a bunch of strangers for trivia glory, we would be competing with Team Etrailer.

“Are they going to beat us?” says Erica.

“I doubt it. Unless there is a category on trailer hitches and automotive supplies we should be good. Besides, this is their first time — we’ve got a dozen years professional experience over these guys.”

Game night finally arrives and plays out like usual. It was the same guy running the show as always and creating the same issues: too many horse races, too many needless videos, too much time wasting in general…the thing just goes on too long. Is anyone at the CAE reading this? I point this out Every Year. I couldn’t even get everyone in the team photo because they were all in such a hurry to leave when it was over that I missed some people.

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27654966_10102482333545794_2611231809675373539_n (2)Still, it is a fun time. My team started out strong but then we fell a few points behind and once that happens you can never dig yourself out. I blame Yellow and her slothfulness. She probably knew who Taco was.

Stevie’s team maintained a solid lead for most of the show but stumbled in the final rounds. I think it was Sports that did them in. And Taco.

So who came out on top in our group? You guessed it. Team Etrailer, in their first year of competition, finished in third place.

Once I let my jealousy subside, I pretended to be happy for them.

(In case you’re curious, Taco is the one-hit wonder who recorded a synth-pop remake of Irving Berlin’s classic tune “Puttin’ on the Ritz” back in 1982. You didn’t know that? Neither did anyone else.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Stage: The Sound of Music

So I’m sitting on the couch watching “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” when The Wife comes to me and she says,

The Sound of Music opens tonight. Let’s go!”

“Uh, Wizard World Comic-Con opens tonight.”

“You’re not seriously going to compare a nerd-celebrity meet-and-greet to one of the greatest musicals in the history of musical theater, are you?”

“Uh, No?”

“Do you really want to miss a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic for a 30-minute Q-and-A session with Sebastian Stan?”

“Uh, No?”

“Then get dressed, because the hills will be alive with the sound of you screaming in pain if I miss The Sound of Music over a comic book convention.”

And so it was that The Wife and I made our way to the Fabulous Fox Theatre last night for the opening performance of a weekend run of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.

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Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

What can I say about The Sound of Music that hasn’t already been said?

This classic collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II made its Broadway debut in 1959, but is best known for its 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. It features the timeless tunes “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” Edelweiss” and the title song.

It’s based on the memoir “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” by Maria von Trapp and tells the story of a young woman who is kicked out of a nunnery for being too spirited (not in the religious sense) so she’s sent off to serve as a governess to seven children. Their father, a strict disciplinarian and military man, finds Maria too chaotic at first but is soon drawn in by her siren songs about the joys of singing. Oh, and the Second World War is looming in the background.

But then, you already knew that. Mostly because you’ve probably seen the show or are not culturally illiterate, and possibly because you remember reading my review of the musical from the last time it was in town.

The current production stars Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria and she’s terrific. Wiley sings the classic tunes with gusto all while maintaining that essential Julie Andrews-like charm. The young actors playing the von Trapp children are equally adorable and talented. The adults are equally talented but not quite as adorable. Lauren Kidwell, as the Mother Abbess, belts out a tremendous version of “Climb Every Mountain.”

The show boasts impressive set designs, costumes and orchestration. Comic-con probably had better costumes, but I doubt Sebastian Stan can sing as well as the von Trapp family singers.

The Sound of Music is playing through Sunday. www.fabulousfox.com

At The Movies: Hostiles

Joseph Blocker is a captain in the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s. He’s done some pretty horrific things in his country’s service while clearing the land of its native inhabitants.

Yellow Hawk is a Cheyenne war chief. He’s done some pretty horrific things in service to his people while trying to stop the U.S. government from taking over the land.

How these men deal with their violent pasts in a still violent world is the subject of “Hostiles,” a bloody and engaging new Western by writer/director Scott Cooper.

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Hawk (Wes Studi) has spent the last few years in prison in Fort Berringer, New Mexico, and is slowly dying of cancer. The president has decided to grant the Indian leader his last request — that he and his family be allowed to return to their tribal lands in Montana.

Blocker (Christian Bale) is given the thankless and dangerous job of escorting Hawk and his family on their journey. The two men have a bloody history together and Blocker wants nothing to do with Hawk, but with his pension on the line he puts together a small team to make the fateful trip.

Not far down the road they encounter the burned out remains of a farmhouse. Inside they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of an attack by a Comanche war party. Out of her mind with grief, Rosalie is persuaded by Blocker to join the group.

Blocker and his company will encounter a great deal more violence and tragedy before reaching their destination.

Based on a story by Donald E. Stewart, “Hostiles” is a dark tale with a smidgen of hope. Pretty much everyone involved is scarred in some way before they begin this journey and those who survive will not do so unmarred.

It’s a tense and compelling movie highlighted by another strong performance from Christian Bale. Masanobu Takayanagi should also be noted for the film’s impressive cinematography.

On Stage: School Of Rock

I’m usually hard to please when it comes to movie comedies but one recent film that did hit the right chord with me was “School of Rock,” the 2003 musical comedy that had just the right mix of Jack Black, humor, kids and rock.

It surely came as no surprise when it was announced that the movie was being retooled for Broadway in 2014. What may have surprised some was the news that musical icon Andrew Lloyd Webber would be involved in the project. It’s a long way from “Phantom of the Opera” to the “School of Rock.”

Working from the screenplay by Mike White, Webber (music), Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Julian Fellowes (book) crafted a theatrical experience with all the fun and exuberance of the movie.

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 The cast of the School of Rock tour. © Matthew Murphy

 

Rob Colletti stars as Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock god (with emphasis on wannabe) whose enthusiasm is greater than his talent. Fed up with his antics, his partners kick him out of his band right before the big Battle of the Bands competition.

Dewey retreats to his bedroom, in an apartment that he shares (without paying rent) with his best friend Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner) and Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Patty wants Dewey’s freeloading days to end.

While moping about the house, Dewey answers a phone call from Horace Green, a prestigous prep school. The school is looking to hire Ned for a substitute teaching gig. Dewey decides to impersonate Ned to earn some much-needed cash.

At first Dewey plans to bluff his way through the day with lots of recess but when he discovers several of his students are talented musicians he comes up with a new class project. Now he just has to raise his students’ confidence levels, whip them into shape as a band, and keep their parents and the school principal (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) unaware of what’s going on.

“School of Rock: The Musical” follows the film pretty closely, cutting out bits here and there to make room for more music. The score features three songs from the movie – including the title track – and a dozen songs written for the stage, highlighted by the anthemic “Stick It to the Man.”

Colletti does a fine job capturing the manic energy of Jack Black, while the young cast members (too many to name) prove to be just as talented — or maybe moreso — as the adults in the show. The kids are alright at jumping up and down, singing in harmony, and especially at rocking out.

School of Rock runs through January 28 at the Fox Theatre. https://www.fabulousfox.com/

At The Movies: The Commuter

If you’re looking for a decent but hardly spectacular action-thriller, “The Commuter” offers a comfortable, familiar ride.

Liam Neeson stars as Michael McCauley, a former cop who has spent the last 10 years selling insurance. One day he hops onto the train for the long commute into the city only to learn that he’s been laid off. McCauley is 60, has no job prospects, and hasn’t managed to save a dime. Oh, and his son will be starting college soon.

MV5BMTc0NDg1MjI4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDIwMTEwNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR73,0,630,1200_AL_After commiserating with former partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) at a bar, McCauley boards the train for home. He’s seated across from a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who begins tossing odd hypotheticals at him: Would he be willing to locate a passenger on the train and point that person out for a large sum of money? No questions asked.

When the hypothetical becomes all too real, McCauley rejects the offer. At which point Joanna threatens harm to his wife and son if he doesn’t cooperate. McCauley has until the train reaches the end of the line to find the person of interest and decide what to do about it.

“The Commuter” is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who gave us other Liam Neeson action-thrillers like “Non Stop” and “Run All Night.” The pair know how to tell a tense and gripping story, even if it is a pretty stupid one.

Neeson continues to be a magnetic, if unlikely, action hero. He’s the centerpiece of the film, so it’s a good thing he’s up to the task. The rest of the cast is fine but they’re not really given much of anything interesting to do.

Like all films of this sort there are twists and turns and friends who may be enemies and enemies who may be friends. It all goes off the rails (literally) by the end when the good guys and bad guys have to be sorted out amid much chaos.

The central problem I have with the film is the central idea behind the film. The bad guys pulling the strings have eyes everywhere, ears everywhere, and can do pretty much anything. So why resort to bribery and threats to get a retired cop (who probably isn’t going to go along with your plan) to find your mystery person? Why not just hire a professional investigator?

It wouldn’t be as thrilling, but at least it would make sense.