I Saw the Light

My parents instilled in me a love for movies and music. Two of my mom’s favorite singers are Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Joaquin Phoenix did a damn fine job of portraying Cash in Walk the Line, while Tom Hiddleston transformed into Williams in I Saw the Light. The former film is a textbook example of how to make a biopic. The latter? Not so much.

It’s a shame, since Tom Hiddleston is so transformative in the role. Over the course of a few weeks, with coaching from Rodney Crowell, (who is one of my favorite singer/songwriters) Hiddleston learned how to play guitar, and sing and yodel like Hank Williams. I tried for years to learn how to play guitar, and all I figured out was that I have zero musical talent.

In an article for The Telegraph, film critic Robbie Collin explains how Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story exposed the cliches inherent in biopics; in particular, those about geniuses of any variety. I have never seen Walk Hard for fear that I will never be able to take another biopic seriously. Collin states that Don Cheadle and Danny Boyle each watched Walk Hard before making films about Miles Davis and Steve Jobs, respectively, in order to avoid the patterns often found in the genre. I do not know if I Saw the Light writer/director Marc Abraham has seen Walk Hard, but he did avoid the well-worn trope found in most films: narrative.

If you are anything like me, your middle school book reports contained an overuse of the phrase “and then.” Hell, I still use it all the time in reviews and recaps. I wish I could say that Abraham employed an episodic type of storytelling. When it’s done well, I enjoy the format. Some people hate it, and those people are wrong.

Denis Leary famously described Oliver Stone’s movie about Jim Morrison and The Doors by saying: “I’m drunk, I’m nobody. I’m drunk, I’m famous. I’m drunk, I’m dead. Big, fat dead guy in a bathtub” Hank Williams was the opposite of fat, and he died in the backseat of a Cadilliac, but if all your information about him came from this movie, you would say the first part is an accurate distillation of his life. No pun intended.

Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) marries Audrey Sheppard, (Elizabeth Olsen) who is also his business manager, but holds an ambition to be a singer in her own right. The thing is that Audey can’t sing, which must have been a difficult thing for Olsen to portray without crossing the line into farce. In the movie anyway, Audrey wasn’t as awful as a lot of “singers” I have heard in church services and at funerals over the years, (the phrase “cat caught in a Cuisinart” comes to mind) but she’s no Patsy Cline either.

Hank’s mother, Lillie, (Cherry Jones) is no fan of Audrey’s, and it has little to nothing to do with her singing ability. I like Cherry Jones, but it’s for the best that she only had a small role. Not just because the film is a disappointment, but because I live in the South, and everywhere I go, I see (and hear) the husband/wife/mother/mother-in-law dynamic play out.

One of the problems with I Saw the Light is that I didn’t come away with a lot of new information about Hank Williams. I did learn that his life-long back problems were caused by spina bifida, which was a late in life diagnosis. But like a lot of stuff in the movie, it was mentioned only once. I get the feeling that sums my experience with I Saw the Light: I watched it once, (and a second time with the commentary track) but never again.

Star Warsj Heir to the Jedi

Heir to the Jedi began life as an Expanded Universe novel, so take that into consideration if you want to lodge a complaint. It’s not an excuse; just an info-nugget. I don’t know why the Lucasfilm Story Group decided to make Heir to the Jedi part of the new canon, but I’m glad they did. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise.

It cannot be easy to write anything Star Wars related, because you know how the fans are. Of all the main characters, Han Solo must be the most fun to write, since he’s always getting into trouble. I like the Leia stories that mix action with politics or the behind the scenes aspects of war. The Luke Skywalker stories that take place between episodes IV and V must be difficult to formulate, because you need to pinpoint the exact time during those three years when the events take place. The writer (in this case Kevin Hearne) has to know just how much Luke has learned about the Force and when he learned it, otherwise the timeline gets thrown off its axis.

Heir to the Jedi, like a lot of recent stories, takes place just after the Battle of Yavin, but prior to the Star Wars comic book series. So, Luke has a lot to learn. He’s starting to figure out how use the Force to move objects, which could come in handy if he found himself hanging by his feet in a wampa cave, and his lightsaber is on the ground, just out of reach.

Some readers say Heir to the Jedi starts off a bit slow, but unlike some of the other Star Wars novels, I did not find this to be the case. I read half of it in one sitting. It did take a few pages for me to accept that the novel is written in first person. Okay, I admit it, I hated the conceit at first, but once I got into the plot, I forgot about it until I picked up the book again to finish it off.

I think the reason some people say the story starts off slow is that the plot as described on the dust jacket doesn’t really kick in until around the midway point. First off, Luke flies to Rodia to discuss purchasing armament. Then he and Nakari Kelen travel to a remote moon to find out what happened to a collection crew that work for the biotech firm that’s owned by Nakari’s father. This is not to be confused with a collection crew that works for Jabba the Hutt.

This is a prelude to Luke and Nakari rescuing a cryptographer named Drusil Bephorin from the clutches of the evil Empire. She made a deal with the Rebel Alliance: if they make sure her family is safe, she will help them out.

Drusil is a Givin, and it’s their custom to greet others by exchanging math equations. And not the simple stuff either. I’m talking about the things you’d find on Stephen Hawking’s chalkboard. Somewhere, Russell T. Davies just slapped his forehead and said, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Since Drusil is super smart, and what they refer to in the Star Wars galaxy as a “slicer,” it would be far too easy for Kevin Hearne to make her into a Lizbeth Salander knockoff, but he didn’t. Drusil does have a bit of Lizbeth’s directness and matter-of-fact attitude, but she really reminds me of Jaylah from Star Trek Beyond. It’s a total coincidence, but I thought it was cool.

Star Wars: Lando

Everybody’s other favorite smuggler has his own comic book series. Yay! I only wish I hadn’t used up all my “Most Interesting Man in the Galaxy” jokes on my review of the “Idiot’s Array” episode of Rebels.

As per usual, Lando Calrissian owes someone a large amount of credits. When he thinks he has paid off his debt, it turns out to be a first installment. That’s when he is presented with a plan that will see him come out ahead for once. All Lando has to do is steal a ship and turn it over to Papa Toren, and he can keep the cargo. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things I noticed is that Lobot speaks. Who knew? I don’t know exactly when this story takes, but I am guessing that it is prior season one of Star Wars: Rebels. I say that because in Rebels, Lando was getting into the mining business.

What really matters is the story, and it’s a pretty good one. If you like Lando Calrissian, then give it a shot.

Writer: Charles Soule; Artist: Alex Maleev; Color Artist: Paul Mounts

Bream Gives Me Hiccups (a sort of book review)

Jesse Eisenberg wrote a collection of short stories, and the the response has been mostly positive. But there are those who have been less than kind. Some view Eisenberg as a dilettante, and others as an interloper. It’s like when Bruce Willis tried to be a musician, or when Gwyneth Paltrow does anything.

The Washington Post review of Bream Gives Me Hiccups is less of a hatchet job, and more of Willem Black shouting to the heavens, “When do I get to see the sailboat!?” I cannot criticize this attitude, for it is my default mode. I don’t want to come across as a projectionist, but it sounds like someone has shoeboxes filled with rejection letters from publishers, and a wall covered in participation ribbons, and it just doesn’t add up.

I don’t know what this guy is complaining about. He’s writing book reviews for one of the most famous newspapers in the world (the one that brought down a US president, for Pete’s sake). I’m a dude who is typing this on a bootleg Blackberry that doesn’t even have the word “dilettante” in its autocorrect. I had to look it up in an actual dictionary!

Why can’t people be more than one thing? It seems like everyone has multiple jobs just to get by. Michelangelo was a painter and a sculptor; that’s two things. Lots of writers are also alcoholics, both of which are time consuming activities.

Ben Affleck directing the next Batman movie while also playing the title role is not taking a job from Lars von Trier. Nor Rob Schneider, for that matter. He has Adam Sandler subsidizing him, anyway. Do you think Sandler claims Schneider as a dependent on his tax returns?

Among those who gave Bream Gives Me Hiccups a favorable review are some people who work for NPR. Which is funny, since Eisenberg tends to poke fun at the sort of people who listen to public radio: wealthy liberals. But I am sure they didn’t get the jokes, for they tend to be a humor-free lot. To be fair, I find that to be true of rich people in general.

And critics.

And now that the hyperbolic b.s. is over: on with the review.

I agree with those who say the best part of Bream Gives Me Hiccups is “Restaurant Reviews From a Privileged Nine-Year-Old.” It’s sounds like it’s all there in the title, but there’s more to it. The kid’s parents are divorced, and he lives with his mom, who is not the most stable person ever. So, it’s only fitting that she’ll be played by Parker Posey in the TV version.

The unnamed nine-year-old is smart, but has a lot to learn. This is evident during a trip to Fuddruckers. It’s one of those stories that’s funny because the reader knows what is going on, but the narrator is clueless.

I like Eisenberg’s sense of humor. He has a strong grasp of the silly and absurd. For example, one story is called “Marv Albert is My Therapist.” And yes, I could hear Albert’s voice in my head as I read long. But I have been watching the Olympics, so it’s hard to avoid hearing him, anyway.

Some other entries feel like they could go off the rails at any second, while others do. That’s the thing about Bream Gives Me Hiccups: it’s fun. Jesse Eisenberg isn’t trying to change the world, or tell you how to live your life. And best of all: no harmonica solos.

Smokin’ Aces

Reviewers often use comparisons as shorthand, which is fine, if they are apt. I could say that Smokin’ Aces is like if Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie had a child, and when it grew up, it couldn’t get into a good film school. So, it went to one of those for-profit colleges just off the interstate–past the Waffle House, and behind the La Quinta–upon graduation, it wasn’t expected to amount to much, but made enough money to pay off its student debt, and eventually spawned a sequel, which promptly went straight to DVD. But what does that even mean?

Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Pivin, wearing a series of unfortunate toupees) is a Vegas illusionist, who wants to be a part of the mob. He gets his wish, but he goes too far. Now there is a price on his head: one million dollars. FBI agents Messler (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) get wind of this; and so does every psychotic assassin in the Western Hemisphere.

The mob lawyer (Jason Bateman, just flat out stealing the movie) who posted Buddy’s bail has dispatched a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck and his sleazy moustache) and his partners (Peter Berg and Martin Henderson) to bring Buddy in. Everything that could go wrong does. Early and often.

I alluded to critics comparing Smokin’ Aces to the works of Tarantino and Ritchie, but I don’t think writer/director Joe Carnahan was aiming in that direction. I think he just wanted to make a bat shit insane movie. On that front he succeeded.

If anything, Smokin’ Aces is more like a recent film: Suicide Squad. The differences being Aces is rated “R,” and the bad guys are being bad guys. The Tremor Brothers (Kevin Durand, Chris Pine, and Maury Sterling) are redneck neo-Nazis, who don’t give a crap about collateral damage. Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) are a team, who may or may not be a couple. Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) is a master of disguise. And Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) is an expert in torture. Yikes!

Meanwhile, Common plays Buddy’s head of security, and Joel Edgerton is a bodyguard. Then there is Andy Garcia, as the FBI agent what’s in charge of the operation. So yeah. There’s a ton of talent in the film.

On some levels, Smokin’ Aces is a big, dumb action movie. There are twists, turns, and surprises that kept me interested and entertained, but I never thought the story tried to be more clever than it appears. I prefer Smokin’ Aces to those films that think they are clever, but fail at every turn.

American Ultra

There are times when it’s hard to hang with stoners. I often find the only way I deal with them is to my own buzz going. I don’t partake in their particular narcotic, because I am paranoid enough as it is, thank you very much. My weapons of choice this evening were one of those big cans of Heineken, and a bag of chocolate covered pretzels. At one point during the movie, I thought there was some melty chocolate on my thumb, but it turned out to be a smudge from a Sharpie. That was a disappointment. And so was American Ultra.

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a store in Liman, West Virginia, (get it?) and he has no idea that that he was once part of a supersoldier program called “Wise Man,” that has since been mothballed. CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) tries to activate Mike because fellow agent Adrien Yates (Topher Grace) has created a new program called “Tough Guy,” and his soldiers are on their way to kill Mike. Mike kills two of the soldiers, and spends the rest of the movie on the run with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

Nima Nourizadeh made a great looking film, with insane, over the top action scenes, but I never felt drawn in. A lot of the jokes fell flat, but I am not even sure they were ever fully inflated to begin with. So I guess part of the blame lies with screenwriter Max Landis. The story idea is solid, and the actors were all doing the best they could with what they were given to work with, but it never came together. Eisenberg and Stewart have great chemistry together, as witnessed in Adventureland. The rest of the cast, including Tony Hale and Bill Pullman, deserve much better than this.

American Ultra feels like it wants to be a Matthew Vaughn or Edgar Wright film, but maybe that would be asking too much. The idea of a stoner Jason Bourne sounds like comedy gold, and it should have been. You may ask, “What do you expect from a movie about stoners?” My answer would be: “Did you see Pineapple Express?” That was a fun movie. Maybe Lionsgate should have brought in someone like Joe Carnahan to shake things up a bit. You ever see Smokin’ Aces? That’s an underrated film if there ever was one.

Damsels in Distress

Francois Truffaut liked to watch a film multiple times before formulating an opinion. This is a luxury that most critics don’t have or want in this “Gotta get my opinion out there first” world we live in today. In a sense, they are like sportswriters on a deadline, except that there is no pressbox in the theatre to file their reports from. I have seen Damsels in Distress twice, (the second time while listening to the commentary track) and I think I have a handle on it. It’s a different, yet somewhat similar movie to those Whit Stillman made in the 1990s. And it is quite good.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is a new transfer to Seven Oaks college, and she soon meets Violet (Greta Gerwig). Violet, along her friends Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose, (Megalyn Echikunwoke) volunteer at the campus suicide prevention center. They also feel it is their duty to better the lives of their fellow students. One way they do this is by dating guys who are in dire need of their “help.”

Seven Oaks is portrayed as an Ivy League institution, but it seems the ivy has wilted, or has been sprayed with some type of defoliant. Maybe it’s not ivy at all; it could be kudzu. For one thing, the campus has Roman instead of Greek frat houses. Also, a disproportionate number of the male students are barely functional idiots (an exception being the character played by Adam Brody). I cannot see how they would be admitted to a directional or state school with slack admission policies, much less one that is supposed to have an air of exclusivity. Oh wait… I just figured it out: Rich parents.

In a way, Damsels in Distress reminds me of Cold Comfort Farm; the film version of which starred Kate Beckinsale. Both stories are about young women who take it upon themselves to “improve” the lives of others. Whit Stillman is a fan of screwball comedies and RKO musicals, and both influences can be seen in Damsels. Violet longs to start a new dance craze, because that is just who she is. This movie also features line dancing in a country & western bar. That last sentence is not something I thought I would ever type in regard to a Whit Stillman film.

While Damsels in Distress takes place in the era in which it was filmed, it feels like it could have taken place in the Eighties or Nineties. It would make for an interesting triple feature with Heathers and Clueless.

Apropos of nothing: there is no concrete connection to any of Stillman’s other work, but there are cameos by Carolyn Farina and Taylor Nichols.

Damsels in Distress was released in 2012, while Love & Friendship came out eariler this year. So it seems that Whit Stillman is back on his one film every four years schedule that he employed in the 1990s. If so, I look forward to his next work in 2020. I just hope he doesn’t take another fourteen year break after that.