TWIN CRITIQUES: HEY, PRETTY GOOD: Stuff from the Past Few Years I Mostly Liked
Note: This piece is one of two yin/yang appraisals of my recent years of pop-culture consumption; refer to its twin for less favo(u)rable opinons.
Despite these years being rough on everyone except the wealthy and complacent (and even they were mildly inconvenienced, thoughts and prayers), some good stuff got made and released. I have a friend — he’s a friend to many, but I’m happy to know him — who partakes of almost everything in terms of movies and music, yet you should know that, having myself toiled for years as a Professional, Award-Winning Cinema Critic (a vocation which eats a massive glob of time and energy), I have evolved to take zero pains to be comprehensive about anything, except maybe routine hygiene. Especially since entertainment venues became superspreader sites — I’m no hypochondriac, just reasonable — my access to Cinema shrunk to home viewing for Movies, and became nearly nonexistent for Films (an artificial distinction I generally support: Movies Fun; Films Important). I might review books separately. These are simply my views on material I did manage, in this case and in this article, to dig.
I’ll start off with music documentaries, since these brought me the most joy. First and foremost, applause and congratulations to Questlove, for the magnificent Summer of Soul: by far the best feature film of any sort I’ve beheld in several years. I’m not virtue signaling: I loved it. In 2021, USC via the Mouse made a “screening” available online, and from Sly to Stevie, Mahalia to Mavis, with insights from Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Sheila E., Redd Foxx and Chris Rock, I was astounded and delighted by what was emanating from my little screen. It’s a miracle that the tapes of the Harlem Cultural Festival survived for 50 years (until approached, Mr. Questlove himself hadn’t heard of the festival — directed in 1969 by Tony Lawrence, videoed by Hal Tulchin — and his amazement at the material could be why the project feels so humble and so real), and putting the footage of the “Black Woodstock” in the context of the times, plus present-day interviews, really illustrates how far we’ve come — and in some cases reveals how far we haven’t. I greatly enjoyed this masterful documentary, whereas plainly some people really need to watch it, until they get it. It’s time to turn off Hee-Haw, you pickup-truck bastards. Summer of Soul: ask for it by name.
Some overlap exists between Summer of Soul and a slightly earlier documentary I also adored: Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which I’ve viewed several times on Showtime, and each time — having met Motown’s charming founder Berry Gordy, and having interviewed the miraculous Smokey Robinson — I am filled with gratitude for the cultural revolution these two lifelong friends and their vital associates have achieved. Different but equally valuable: Summer of Soul largely delivers the you-are-there concert experience of a few weekends in Harlem; whereas Hitsville ranges wider, from the humble beginnings of Mr. Gordy’s childhood in Detroit, across decades of increasing global prominence for his company, and his vision. Featuring the music and words of Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, Diana Ross, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Little Richard (who visited my school when I was a kid, to tell us to avoid drugs! message heeded!), the world-changing Marvin Gaye, and more luminaries than would fit in a tidy paragraph, Hitsville is a must-see, and must-hear, documentary. Oscars for co-directors Benjamin Turner and Gabe Turner, and everybody involved in Hitsville, say I! Make like a thousand Oscars, if that’s enough.
Also in music: The Blues Brothers introduced child-me to Aretha Franklin (among other legendary artists — eventually I shook hands with James Brown at the Hollywood Bowl), but adult-me found Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace on HBO all by himself: this production by Alan Elliott and featuring a full band and the Southern California Community Choir is worth seeking out, if you’d like to peer back 50 years into another angle of history- and herstory-making music (it even includes “The Old Landmark,” he says knowingly). Speaking of more half-century looks back, I watched part of the revised Beatles doc for which Peter Jackson in his infinite hubris absurdly takes “directed by” credit (he was seven years old and on the other side of the planet when it was filmed), and it seemed okay. Haven’t seen the Bowie doc, but Rodney loved it, and we can trust Rodney. And thanks to some other legitimate online hookup — I miss lockdown screenings! — I enjoyed the vintage footage cobbled together to make The Sparks Brothers: love those guys. Oh, and I think ’twas another Showtime doc: XTC: This Is Pop, same theme as the Sparks doc (“Check us out! We keep reinventing ourselves!” — though they always sound like themselves to me, which is a compliment), but a tighter edit, which I generally prefer to the bloat of leave-’em-wanting-less. Sure, Andy P. can lean curmudgeonly, but he’s brilliant and funny, and he lives on, on the DVR (along with Sign O’ the Times, especially since Prince’s death is still raw, I just couldn’t delete it). This is my piece, intended for being as indulgent as I like, so I add that I lit up at the footage of Andy ’n’ Colin wandering on Sunset in the same clothes they wore to the Apple Venus, Vol. I signing at, alas, the long-gone Virgin Megastore. I was there! I was then! (I was working for far less than a living wage in a hellish show-biz office and didn’t have the scratch for their new album, but they cheerfully signed my vinyl of Black Sea.) Also Showtime: Lisa Rovner’s Sisters With Transistors: check it out, and you’ll feel cooler than you actually are.
Did I see any new-ish horror I liked? Hm. No. Somebody probably made something good, and perhaps I missed it. Instead, I dug (up) old horror, Universals, Hammers (hey, I got some as a gift! thank you!), the original Salem’s Lot miniseries, and all the Poltergeists — from which I know a surprising number of people. (For horror I actually watched and didn’t like, see the other article.) Wait — wait — stop press: I haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s Nope yet, but I watched Us twice: saw the twist coming before Peele was born, and quite a mess, but really audacious, and I admire that! Okay: Us. I was okay with Us. One new-ish horror movie I didn’t particularly mind. Two, if you want to go back to 2016, for Split: truly creepy and disturbing, and how did McAvoy not win all the awards? The system is broken, man.
Onscreen violence, same as real-life violence, I abhor (unless it’s theatrical enough to be entertaining, and not merely a bratty assault on the viewer’s senses), and yet here are three kinda violent, and definitely underrated, movies I rather enjoyed (despite, not because of, their violence): Rock the Kasbah, The Spy Who Dumped Me, and Shaft (2019; nearly called “Son of Shaft”). Each of these movies I initially caught because they’d been shunted off to premium channels during a free-sample weekend or whatever, and in each case the heart and humor caught and kept my attention, so I bought ’em, with money (okay, used, and way cheap; but previously somebody paid full price). Each of these movies is also very much about women in a “man’s world,” with Leem Lubany as the eye of the storm of Kasbah as the thinly fictionalized version of Setara Hussainzada from Afghan Star (plus Zooey Deschanel and Kate Hudson lending hilarious and heartfelt support). Three years later, Susanna Fogel’s Spy/Dumped made me LOL as few films do, with hapless Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon embroiled in, and breathing ribald new life into, the moribund James Bond shtick (“People are trying to kill us; we’re not fucking parking in Lot C!” Ha!) And not enough good things can be said about the latest Shaft, a fresh and funny family adventure in which director Tim Story picks up the story from the late John Singleton’s version (19 years prior, seems like yesterday), and allows the “women of Shaft” (Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp) to add depth to the sly, macho stylings of three generations of Shaft: Messers. Roundtree, Jackson, and Usher. All three of these movies feel like something crude, crazy, and human you used to be able to catch at a decaying showplace or dubious drive-in with splices, hisses, and pops, back when movies weren’t uptight as hell, and I strongly advise you to ignore the uptight-as-hell critics who hurled rotten tomatoes at them. Critics dumb, movies smart. Q.E.D.
Stuff that won awards: Hm. Minute-for-minute, I watched more of the awards shows than the nominated films. I know a meganarcissist who keeps showing up and trying to linger in front of the cameras. He’s an amusing codger, in a puerile way, and his desperate Boomer appetite for attention relieves the younger, smarter, handsomer me from having to behave like that. Red carpets in general tend to entertain me more than the Important Films being plugged on them — but yes, I’m respectful when something truly great comes along. I felt irked when Spike didn’t win at the Globes, yet entertained when the misshapen caveman from his film got visibly uncontrollably angry about it. And speaking of furious, I liked the seventh and eighth Fast/Furious movies, but cannot in good faith include the ninth one in this article. Still, why aren’t those ever nominated for Best Picture? Like, the sixth one was really good . . . or was it the fifth? . . . no, definitely the seventh . . .
That aforementioned movie-mad friend, from a few grafs back, over a couple of years prior to the pandemic, treated me to Rampage, Bumblebee, Cats, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (featuring that same misshapen caveman; why is he paid to act? why is he in every top-shelf director’s latest movie? why is he?), and let us not forget the Hellboy remake [your clever rejoinder here]. Here are my forthcoming 256K Ultra-Ultra-Ultra Blu-ray case raves (pending studio approval), in order: “The best movie based on a videogame I’ve never heard of that I’ve seen this week!” “Yo, Hailee, when your hopeful beau helps you save the world from giant robot creatures, you hold his hand!” “My bud understandably hated it; whereas I give it a point and a half for derangement and tunefulness!” “Ignore the caveman, and pretend it’s still Johnny Depp in the lead, et voilà: watchable Gilliam!” and, “I wasn’t in the nerd pit for the previous two Hellboys, so this new one that flopped hard seemed all right to me!” Your source for critic quotes, right here; and unlike some well-compensated poseurs who’ve ridden in on real critics’ coattails, I’ve never purchased Twitter followers.
Oh, that’s right: There were some superhero movies, too. I liked both Wonder Woman movies (though I was excited about a third one sans Pine, alas), and I thought that the theatrical cut of Super Friends — er, Justice League — was terrific: just like Superman II, blending two directors’ differing visions served it well! (Whereas “The Snyder Cut” is really a dark miniseries, stuffed with superfluous trims and bland badassery, unsuitable as a feature film.) Fave of all: Shazam! (David F. Sandberg’s movie is flawless studio entertainment, and lots of fun), and I’m pleased it got released before WB made every wrong move imaginable. As for Spider-Man, I’m most fond of the perfectly pitched Raimi trilogy, so I think the other superhero movie I’ve liked most in recent times is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (a friend I trust hated it, which reminded me to carry a grain of salt; and I don’t even like the two main leads, but the blend of superhero and horror, and the rest of the cast, gave me what I want from this sort of material). I have glanced at the latest Thor, and at Shang-Chi, and I have a good feeling about watching them someday. I liked Spider-Man: Far From Home, fresh and fun, but No Way Home was very leave-’em-wanting-less, and in late ’21 as Omicron tore across the planet, even SNL (averaging about 30% funny per episode) opened with a gag about slowing the spread of Covid: “Stop seeing Spider-Man!” (I miss Stan, but he cut out at the right time.) I had an extremely unpleasant 2018 due to vile assholes, so I was remiss on seeing Black Panther on first release, but the Mouse remedied that by presenting it for free in early 2019, for Black History Month. Gratis, I went to a multiplex and loved it, and I am proud of the choice I made: during the sparsely attended screening, a couple of African American women were talking loudly throughout the whole movie, and seated in the middle, thus it was impossible to ignore their voices. But rather than being “that guy,” I thought of the times we’ve been enduring (often they more than I), and I decided to appreciate that they were there, and not to say a word to bother them. By sharp contrast, a former friend, who has blatantly proclaimed himself a racist, did not want to go. I went. (Thanks, Mouse, and whoever owns AMC.) I know the difference between real culture and history, and a comic-book movie, but I went. And I enjoyed. I’m glad everyone involved succeeded. And condolences. I’ll see the sequel when it’s available at home. I won’t cry into a camera about it like Kevin Smith did. I have a degree of good taste. Heck, I have a degree.
There are too many streaming series, and I just can’t pay all those fees, so my TV viewing is limited to whatever’s available when I’m available, especially if the shows do not involve public servants getting into (melo)dramatic situations. Routinely I watched Doctor Who, Scooby-Doo and Guess Who?, and sweet, sweet reruns of The Cleveland Show. Modern Doctor Who was at its best under Moffat (fear its new Disney overlords), but, despite the idiotic move of jettisoning Ryan and Graham (“My fam,” my foot!), the Thirteenth Doctor (until they kept screwing up the lineage) mostly survived heavyhanded ideological bludgeoning, and romped through some decidedly Whovian adventures. (Incidentally, why is there a ‘v’ in “Whovian”? Why not Whoian?) As for the show about the gross hippie and the huge dog who eat everything constantly, I’m rarely this picky, but I am puzzled about why the title of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! asks a question but features an exclamation point, whereas the new series (which, 50 years later and featuring a plethora of guests, achieves a similar charm) issues a command (Guess Who), but features a question mark: Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? ¿Que lástima? And while I’m quite pleased to hear my long-ago interview subject Kate Micucci (with Riki, as G&O) wonderfully voicing Velma, allow me to state that Matt Lillard’s constant squeaks, voice-cracks, and weird falsetto are doing Shaggy wrong. Casey would be displeased. I am displeased. But it’s still a really entertaining show: I hope they make more.
While there’s some irony in the casting of its lead, I love that, unlike the low, mean “humor” of Family Guy, The Cleveland Show gets in the sociological observation and absurd twists while keeping the characters likeable (perchance due to limited Seth: it’s always good to limit Seths; sorry, Meyers: collateral damage). Okay, I’m a decade late, but this family kept me chortling while disease ravaged our tiny, beleaguered planet. And possibly best of all for “mature” audiences (i.e. audiences who talk like kids on a playground) is the animated-series Harley Quinn: of course, right down to the baseball bat, the character is a lazy ripoff of Tank Girl, but man is that show funny — like, funny-funny, not you-sat-on-your-lazy-ass-watching-network-comedy-crap-through-the-’90s-so-you-have-no-clue-what-funny-is-anymore “funny,” I mean the real funny. No way am I paying for HBO Max, or any other Max, or Plus, so after the first two seasons, somebody hook me up for the new stuff. And make more Clevelands. Make When Harley Met Cleveland.
As long as I’m hyping animated stuff, I, along with Morgan Freeman apparently, adored the Lego Batman Movie. Helps remedy the damage caused by those miserable Nolans. And over at Sony, of course I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (that’s bang for your buck) — plus somehow I received an online screening of the wild and wacky Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, and I had a blast with it, as with the first three. Those animated Addams Family features from Universal or MGM or both are nothing to sneeze at, either. Yes, I am a “grown-ass man.” Who likes cartoons. Some cartoons.
Oh, fine, I watched a few “grown-up” TV things, too. Did a ten-episodes-each double-header with Showtime, as they concurrently broadcast The First Lady, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The First Lady initially took some guff from hasty critics, but I was impressed by its apparently reasonably accurate depiction of the rougher edges of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama (performances by Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and producer Viola Davis all aces — hey, ’twas my pleasure to interview Ms. Davis, for Beautiful Creatures, exactly a decade ago! Thank you, WB.) For those who can’t handle the fanciful, and for those who can, it’s a worthy watch. Considerably more fanciful (though still rough-edged) was The Man Who Fell to Earth, not a remake but a continuation of the classic Nicolas Roeg film (I’m aware of the book) starring David Bowie, with Bill Nighy taking over his role as the Earth-stranded spaceman who has become an F-bomb-spewing cantankerous lout. He’s memorable, but really casting gets no better than Naomie Harris and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the leads. (Haven’t had the honour of interviewing Ms. Harris — she’s the saving grace of the depressing recent Bonds — however it’s a little staggering to think that I interviewed Mr. Ejiofor, for Dirty Pretty Things, quite a while ago!) Notably, I’ve never liked anything Alex Kurtzman has touched, so The Man Who Fell to Earth was a first. Credit to co-helmer Jenny Lumet — I’m not into saying that people “created” something they didn’t particularly create — and a pity it’s not being renewed.
Presently I’ve next to nothing to say about current popular music, because the popular music of my childhood and teen years really is vastly superior to what’s being produced today, and I haven’t cared much since the early ’90s ruined everything. I seem to have enjoyed new albums from Tom Bailey, Paul McCartney, and Simple Minds — but I would. A friend sent me a couple of cool CDs, but hey, I’m not giving everything away for free here. Um, I switched on the radio in a parking lot and heard a song called “Royals,” and that was pretty good. Oh, and I tuned in to SNL for Eddie Murphy (Christmas 2019: a rare 100%-funny episode!), but I stayed for Lizzo (twice). Apart from that, you bland, thieving, unimaginative Millennial hellspawn: enjoy your derivative pabulum. My vintage vinyl survived the filth who ransacked my childhood home. Ha-ha, filth. You lose.
(I actually love musicians. As long as they’re not also assholes.)
Hey, that’s right: I’ve “attended” exactly two concerts in the past few years. (I pined for Midnight Oil on their Final Tour, but logistics made it impossible to go, so I’ll just be happy with seeing and hearing them from the gift-shop monitor of the House of Blues on Sunset during a completely sold-out late-’90s show whereupon they made the floor rumble. That classic House of Blues — so many great shows, from ABC and Billy Bragg to Camper Van Beethoven and, yep, Prince in wee-hours-jam mode — has been razed and replaced with some modern mixed-use monstrosity, but I treasure my concert memories, even the awkward ones.) Anyway, during the peak of the pandemic (thus far), the ever-reinventing Todd Rundgren instigated a 25-date “tour” based entirely in Chicago, the Clearly Human Tour, with each night dedicated to a different region, giving the surprisingly convincing impression that they were on the move. An invitation to his “Los Angeles” show with his incredible band reached me, and despite always peripherally liking him without becoming a Todd-head, I decided to “go” — and man, was it good! The electric sense of excitement that can only come from a live show that’s actually live while you’re watching it burst right out of my tablet, if you can believe that (believe it). Sensational. Plus he handled the pandemic intelligently, testing and social distancing, and picked up the tab himself. Thank you, NoCap, thank you, Todd.
The other concert, for which I paid, was one of many routine online thingies from a brilliant fellow I’ve enjoyed (and once interviewed at Largo on Fairfax) since the ’80s, and he never-ever disappoints, and he performed the extremely casual show from a kitchen and partly as a duo, and I’m not going to name him here because it was a sort of sloppy little affair, during which it was claimed that our contributions were being put toward cat food. The songs, as usual, were terrific, however there comes a point when the audience would prefer the entertainer to be somewhat, let us say, elevated. Martha Stewart’s litterbox commercials befoul a considerable amount of television as it is. You’re not five. Don’t go there. Lift us all up. Thank you for your service. And next time don’t defer requests, if you please.
Rounding out and wrapping up, praise to those farting-corpse Daniels for making the obviously-awards-sweeping Everything Everywhere All at Once (a huge step up! you made a great movie and/or film with an astounding cast!); and I enjoyed watching hipsters freaking out over Malignant, without actually having to watch it myself. Indeed, since their Rogue One review won me over in 2016 (that’s punk rock), I’ve allowed the improbable Wisconsin-based internet demigods at Red Letter Media to do the heavy lifting in watching and reviewing a lot of stuff for us: thank you! (I’m pretty good at filtering my general view through somebody else’s opinion. Saves a lot of time and energy. Though we both watched and liked From. There’s a show called From! It’s like Lost, except good!) Let’s see . . . I’ll see RRR eventually, and I’ll probably watch the Venom sequel someday, because Andy Serkis can do no wrong. And why not, let’s conclude with the subcategory of Cutesy Werewolf Movies: Werewolves Within, saw the “twist” coming before everyone involved was born, but it’s an adequate little diversion; yet I’m giving the edge to the deceptively similar The Wolf of Snow Hollow, which is a little more gross, and a little less fun, but Riki Lindhome totally owns it (two G&O references in one article; I am nothing if not loyal), plus it’s more of a nail-biter, which, you know, you probably want in a werewolf movie. Thanks, Epix — as you imminently become “MGM Plus” (?), you’ll be missed? Are we done? Yeah. The 2020 releases read like the bottom of a Redbox machine, so let’s stop here.
I liked some good stuff! Keep making good stuff!
13 January, 2023
P.S. Coming soon: book reviews.