Feature Films: August2019


Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

People must love articles like "What it’s like to watch Endgame if you’ve never seen another Marvel movie" or "What it’s like to watch the finale [of Game of Thrones] if you’ve never seen another episode" because Slate keeps publishing them.

Those virgin viewers, however, never quite "get" the thing they're watching.

I could have written that article for Detective Pikachu as I've never played the game (cards or video), never read a comic, never seen the show or a movie. But the trailer was amusing and the grandparents had it when we went over, so....


Now, I don't think it was a very good movie (I could go on about why I think so but) but I was never the target audience so I'll refrain. It's possible that with the sort of background knowledge I brought to, say, Endgame, some of those problems would have resolved themselves. (Some of them.)

I am, however, filled with regret at the time lost, even though I thought the animation was terrific.

Remind me not to be tempted if someone shows up with a Hobbs & Shaw dvd, reminding me of that I found its trailer amusing.

Matilda (1996)

I've never seen this before. It came out while I was on my mission and I just never got around to it. Even with its good reputation---even after finally reading the book and loving it---not until the final son read the book and kept asking to watch the movie did we finally watch it.

And it's great!

On first view, I felt it was a little long, but I suspect no kid feels that way and that I wouldn't feel that way if I were to watch it again.

I expect I will.

Of the Roald Dahl adaptations I've seen (a minority of those in existence), this is probably my second favorite after Fantastic Mr Fox (competition: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

Also worth noting: the '90s extras on the dvd are fun.

The Blob (1958) & Beware! The Blob (1972)

Double feature!!!!!

I feel like I've seen The Blob before, my memory is set in the same place many of my I-think-I've-seen memories are set and it's in black and white, so ... maybe not.

First: the theme song is terrific. Why has this not been played at every Halloween party of my life?

Second: Steve McQueen and the other teenagers (especially the boys) are waaay too old.

Third: although it's just an okay movie, it's not hard to see why the concept at least became a classic. We really need a new version now, a family-friendly horror movie to capitalize on the slime phenomenon and global warming.

The sequel however is very very very very bad. The interminable opening sequence is embarrassingly bad and sets the scene for many almost as bad scenes to follow.

But I did like getting a sense of what the hippie stereotypes of 1973 were, and the barber scene, in another movie, could have become one of the great classics of comedy.

I'm sad there's no MST3K of this movie.

I guess I need to watch the remake now, while I'm hoping for, um, another remake.

Marjorie Prime (2017)

This film is so upsetting because it's just not good. The music is over the top and for some other movie (maybe this one). The camera won't shut up, always zooming or tilting or making other unnecessary choices.

And that's upsetting because the writing was fine (a little silly, but good---stop acting like someone/somebody/someone or hair/fur/hair are important, mystical bits of your genius) (also: throwing in one more suicide is not a daring bit of genius) (maybe just stop trying to prove you have bits of genius) and the acting was excellent. The layering was interesting but because of all the film's problems difficult to think about (I'm still doing the math trying to figure out just how old these people are today) (which is impossible---I'm sure this is "art" rather than sloppiness, but things do not add up).

In short, it's a campy episode of something like Electric Dreams with topnotch acting and a director with something to prove.

What a waste of material.

(I'm back to complain more. This time about the problem of filming a play. Yes! It's a story composed of people talking about ideas! Okay! You don't have to overdo the filminess in order to make it good! Sheez. Watch Fences to see how this can be accomplished a tad less egregiously and much more successfully. Although I'll admit Fences does have an actual plot.)

The Meg (2018)

Okay. This is a dumb movie stringing together a bunch of action cliches, but it was very fun and I have no regrets. Perfect popcorn movie.

It's not nearly as terrifying as Jaws, but it wisely made many, many references to multiple Jaws films. And other blockbusters as well. Star Wars, for instance---the Death Star and underwater fun with Episode I.

In short, if you watch this movie, keep thinking to a minimum, but you won't feel disresected as long as you come in knowing the deal is Let's Have Fun. It's just bright enough to keep its end of the bargain.

(Incidentally, we just had shark cake with a shark shirt and a Jaws game as presents for the erstwhile five-year-old who is the reason we watched this flick tonight.)

Bumblebee (2018)

When the teaser trailer for the first Transformers movie suddenly appeared before my eyes, that was one of the great moments in cinema. I've rather been so thrilled.

Then I saw the movie. And it was one of the biggest pieces of trash I've ever paid money to see in theaters.

Among its other sins, it cast Mark Wahlberg, had actions scenes that were utterly unreadable, thought urine was funny, was stupid throughout, thought fanservice was narrative, made me feel embarrassed for John Turturro, just plain sucked in every way.

Not even the appearance of Dinobots ever got me to watch another Transformers film. Once burned.

But then, when Bumblebee was in theaters and struggling sensible people were begging people like me to go to the theaters and vote with our dollars so the studios know that we care about things like a) plot b) coherent effects c) character. I felt an urge. But I didn't make it. Summer is short and there were more intriguing movies to watch, as it drew to a close, that needed my money.

Anyway. Now we've seen it.

It was okay.

It was still pretty dumb. Not in the fun way of The Meg, but not in the insulting way of the first Transformers either. In fact, although it has much less going for it over all, its fallshorts remind me of my complaints about its director's previous film, Kubo and the Two Strings. Although I don't think this one will improve much upon rewatching. Nor can I imagine rewatching it.

I do think Hailee Steinfeld is consistently good, though. I don't know that she's one of the great masters (time will tell) but so far she's been solid in True Grit, Edge of Seventeen, When Marnie Was There, and Spider-Verse.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

I'd seen the trailer and had hopes for this movie, but probably would not have seen it were it not co-written and -directed by a friend of a friend and had not my friend invited us to see it with him. I didn't even realize it had opened or was playing nearby.

It's good.

It's sort of like ... a cross between O Brother! and Napoleon Dynamite, but without any sort of satire. Which isn't to say it doesn't have its sharp edges, but I don't see how anyone could make this film out as making fun of anyone. That's not what it's about.

Although it's "about" some of the same cliches that have become a bit overpopular of late (eg, friends are the family you choose), it has an honesty about them that reminds us why such things became cliches in the first place.

It does have a couple moments of physical fantasy that are hard to place and the choice of ending is ... I can't decide how I feel about it. But largely it is a restrained and moving film, set in a part of the country we don't often see (and that won't exist in twenty years). Check it out.

Tell them a friend of a friend of a friend sent you.

The Dead Zone (1983)

I read an article about a year ago about this movie which convinced me I must see it. It was on Prime at the time, so I decided it would be an October movie, but when October rolled around, it was gone. The library did not then have the dvd, but, three weeks ago, I saw it on display in the library as part of a new set so I grabbed it and now have watched it. (Sadly, broken into three pieces, but that happens sometimes.)

The shape of the film is pretty interesting: the first half and the second half---almost of identical lengths---tell two stories essentially coherent and contained. The second requires knowing what happened in the first, but you could easily frame it as a sequel. That splitness is something I don't think I've seen before and it gives the film a certain wholeness, that surprises. Almost like an introductory first act become its own, fully satisfying film.

Years after knowing about the film, a year after taking it seriously, and three-quarters into watching it, I suddenly noticed the connection to Unbreakable. A film I've been meaning to rewatch for some time.

And, speaking of trivia, this is my first Cronenberg film (!). I suspect it's not typical, but it made for a fine introduction all the same.

And, speaking of introductions, how about our first view of Christopher Walken being him reading the final stanza of "The Raven"?

This is a story I imagine a lot of people are tempted to remake. This version would be abit more Trumpy than Nixony, but the risk of "promoting" assassination in this climate likely makes it impossible. At least as a large, theatrical release.

Dealt (2017)

I heard about Richard Turner from Penn and started watching videos, now including this documentary about him. His is an incredible story, one of the best close-up card guys in the world who, incidentally, happens to be completely blind. But to me, the real story of the documentary is how he, in his sixties, learns to accept his blindness rather than just shove it aside as he becomes more and more awesome. Arguably, one might say, the most interesting man in the world.

Somebody has to be.


Previous films watched

jan feb mar apr may jun jul aug sep oct nov dec








Comics comics and more comics


062) Giraffes on Horseback Salad by Josh Frank, Manuela Pertega, Tim Heidecker; finished August 10

Ah, the lost Salvador Dalí / Marx Bros. movie. The great what-if. And someone took what pieces could be found and turned them into a graphic novel.

I am glad this exists.

But I don't understand many of the choices made, starting with the biggest.

In the back of this volume are a few pages of the source material and they make clear that the biggest conceit of the book---the protagonist has Harpo locked inside him---is wrong. Harpo and the protag are pretty clearly separate characters from those shared bits. And I do not understand this choice. Even if you see it as subtext, why make it text? Surrealism is more than just weird images.

The art is pretty good and the jokes range in quality. The film could be done now (I would use the method from the new Lion King) but ultimately the lesson of this books seems to be let what-ifs remain what-ifs.

(See also Tale of Sand.)

I don't mean that.

I'm glad I read it, but honestly I could have been just as happy reading the entire treatment and letting it play out in my mind. It's good this exists, but let's not confuse it as the original.

The only kind of film I've ever worked on are grotesquely unfinished movies, and that's what Horseback Salad was: grotesquely unfinished. This isn't the Dalí/Marx movie, this is something Josh Frank put together. As long as you remember that, it's a fascinating exercise, absolutely worth the hours put in; it is not canon.

But yay, fandom! I would have absolutely said yes if asked to help. And the end result would still have left me ambivalent. 'Tis the nature of the work.
probably five days with two weeks between the intro and the book proper


063) Snow White by Matt Phelan, finished August 12

I guess this Great Depression-set fairy tale isn't any less developed than a traditional fairy tale, but its one element of magic/madness didn't make much sense (being the one element) and Snow seemed to become an adult rather abruptly.

But the word-light watercolor comics are nice to look at. It's not a weighty entertainment, but it does entertain and does not take long to consume. It's the meringue of comics.
one walk home


064) Billie the Bee by Mary Fleener, finished August 16

This is a great bit of comicry. Fleener's first full book is a departure for her (but her psychedelic skills do get moments to shine), the story of an overlarge honeybee who gets to be friends with a rattlesnake, a coyote, and a coupla crass turtles, but she said at Comic-Con that the book was fueled by her readings about honeybees, so I expect there's more truth in here than I would have guessed had I just picked the book up at random.

She also mentioned that her work here was inspired by Noah Van Sciver---especially his backgrounds---and with that in mind, its easy to see.
three days


065) Manfried the Man by Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow, finished August 16

I would like to read the six-page gag that was the genesis (and feel like maybe I have...), but I came around to this book by the end. Both main characters (the cat and his man) had satisfying arcs that dovetailed just so, and even though the gagborn concept spent a lot of time in the mundane and the serious, it turned out fine.

The many-mans scenes---am I the only one who found them a tad ... uncomfortably pornographic---?
two days


066) A Fire Story by Brian Fies, finished August 20

I think I may have bumped into Brian Fies's original version of this, done with Santa Rosa ash still in the air, but I don't think I ever ran it down and gave it close study. It's remarkable now, to see how closely the book version follows the quick-and-dirty original done on crap paper with unfancy pens.

The full book version feels just as honest, but it's able to bring in other people's stories---in their own words---and bring us through the months of aftermath.

It's hard to fathom a disaster, even one so close by, one whose fumes we breathed, whose smoke closed our schools, whose ash coated our cars. This personal, visual account goes a long way towards bridging understanding.
a week or so




Unfinished Books: weird animals edition


End of the Megafauna:
The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals

written by Ross D E MacPhee and illustrated be Peter Schouten

I read a short blurb about this book in Smithsonian which suggested the writing was dull and sloggish which images were CANNOT MISS. I agree about the images. I disagree about the text.

I devoured every image and caption in the book, enjoying paragraphs here and there of the main text. I enjoyed those so much (and learned so much) that I then went to the beginning and started reading from page one. Then someone hid the book and then it was returned to the library. But I stand by my assertion that this is a fascinating read, wonderfully illustrated. There is more to the world, friend, than dinosaurs.

The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough:
Early Writings and Cartoons by Dr. Seuss

edited by Richard Marschall

After reading a Dr Seuss biography this summer, I wanted to supplement with some of the good doctor's ACTUAL work, rather than chatter about it. So I made my way through one and two and most of this volume as well.

It consists of his cartooning and humor writing during and after college (and even a bit of the advertising). I read most of the book and enjoyed it. The only reason I'm not finishing it is because it's a library book and I'm prioritizing other library books before school starts. If I owned it, it would get finished. (And maybe I should own it---it's pretty cheap.)

I don't know that his stuff is as great as the best of his contemporaries (I think first of James Thurber and Robert Benchley), but it's solid. If you like humor-writing and cartooning from the first half of the previous century, it's worth checking out.


Here's a fun book for you:


057) Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King, finished July 27

If this were my first Stephen King novel, it probably would have been the last. Although given props from critics (and an Edgar Award!), I thought it was poorly executed. I didn't care about any of the characters and so didn't much care abut their peril. The two characters I found instantly compelling both died in the first few pages. I did get to like the protagonist some and his love interest wasn't too bad---and so of course she was fridged.

The other characters were shadows of cliches. And, I hate to say it, but this was a bit of an old-man book. The young characters don't play like actual people of this century (eg, the way they talk about race or tech), the narrator takes a couple digs early on that reveal the author's political bias, King makes (at least) two references to his own work, and every reference to technology just feels fake--both vocabulary and facts. Our kid whiz runs the two best antivirus softwares money can buy. Someone can tell at a glimpse where someone downloaded a file from. It just...it makes me nervous to write about anyone twenty years younger than me---let alone double that.

Plus, King relies on some tricks that I thought he was too good for---hokey cliffhangers, characters explaining things to each other while the narrator hides that info from the audience to build suspense. Crap like that.

I want to mention that this is NOT by first Stephen King novel, however, and that I will undoubtedly read him again. Some of his books I have found excellent and some forgettable, but this is the first I would call bad.

FYI, here are the novels (novels only) that I have read (in order of original publication): Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8, The Colorado Kid, Cell, Lisey's Story, Doctor Sleep, Mr. Mercedes.
about a week


058) Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, finished July 29

This is the second short-story collection this summer I've picked up on a New Yorker recommendation, intending to read but part, but then devouring the entire thing quickly thanks to circumstances providing much time to read and not much time to do much else. And, like the first, this collection was provocative and excellent.

Provocative particularly in the quality and daringness of the writing itself. I didn't care for all the stories equally in either collection, but the writing never stopped impressing me with its variability and pushy brilliance.

I mean---I've already written a golden shovel based on a line from the title story in this collection.

The following is a list of things I learned from Your Duck Is My Duck as I read it.
1. Writing about other's art is an opportunity to inject a work of fiction with something completely different, even absurd.

2. A short story can be made of moments far, far apart. Childhood, early adulthood, middle adulthood. Connected any way you want.

3. Deliberate symbolic/metaphorical titles with no pat explanations.

4. Audiences can understand cause and effect even if they lie not in a straight line and the in-between points are left out.
Terrific use of language. And some of the stories are pretty terrific too.
three days


059) The Cat Behind the Hat: The Art of Dr. Seuss, finished August 4

My biggest complaint about the biography of Dr. Seuss I recently read was it's lack of included art. It talked about what he had done throughout his career but include almost no examples. A book like this helpfully fills that gap.

I had anticipated this being exclusively his fine art, but in fact it runs the gamut which is great---I was losing hope of seeing any Seuss Navy stuff.

The text is brief but helpful. The highlights are two essays by the artist himself (both about art for children).

First, I have no doubt that Dr. Seuss was a great artist. I'm not certain he's a great painter. A lot of it seems simply hobbyist. Other works seems to have more promise. I guess I need to see a bunch of it live to make a decision. No question, however, about his draftsmanship and his voice. He was individual and masterly.
threeish days


060) Please, Please Call Me to the Bishopric by Jett Atwood, finished August 6

Jett's been publishing her cartoons in Sunstone long enough now to be THE visual voice of the magazine. Which is essentially what Stephen Carter says in his intro (first appeared here).

I see Jett's work as kinder than Bagley's or Grondahl's, but she's certainly working the same vein of humor.

two days (possibly not sequential)


061) How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr, finished August 8

This is yet another book I put on hold because of something The New Yorker said about it. By the time it arrived, I had forgotten what that was and when I saw the book's heft (over 500 pages!) I chuckled and said, I'm not reading that.

But I did read the intro which intrigued mightily. I thought then I would skim the last half of the book for fun facts and that would be that. But somehow (I blame good writing) instead I turned to the next page and was instantly fascinated. And so on to the next page. And the next. For hundreds of pages.

This is a history of the Greater United States and you should definitely read it. It answered questions I had (just what, exactly, has the US's relationship been, historically, with the Philippines), provided information on stuff I never thought to wonder about (why Alaska and Hawai'i became states when they did), context I never speculated on (how those statehood's impacted the Civil Rights Movement), new context for historical bits I thought I new a lot about (such as guano islands and English as lingua franca), significant historical details I had never heard of (Puerto Rico's frequently violent battles against their half-baked status), and more more more. Mindexpanding information on every page. I'm so much smarter having read this book and you should come over to be regaled now while I still remember so much.

The book also helped me better understand our current history. Names like Obama and Trump and McCain and bin Laden make more sense (or even appear inevitable) once this Greater history is laid out. Many of today's political crises are better understood when places in this larger context.

I've never felt so provincial as having my ignorance of American history laid out like this.

But this fruit is delicious.

I hope it makes me wiser than I have been.

(One small complaint. The title, though an excellent and marketable title, isn't quite the right title. The one time I was angry at the book was when a chapter ended, "And that's how you hide an empire." when, in fact, a more makesensible sentence would have been "And that's what it looks like when you hide an empire." The last bit of the book matches better when the title, but that's my complaint. As I said, it's a small one.)
perhaps two weeks