Alien: Covenant

Rhetorical question for Hollywood producers: how many times can you essentially make the same film over and over again before audiences stop giving you their money?

I saw the original Alien in 1979, and it remains one of the most terrifying moviegoing experiences I have ever had. Alien: Covenant is now the sixth return to that well, and the thrill is gone. Since the film is helmed by Ridley Scott, the director that started it all, the viewer hopes for the implied fresh take or a deeper exploration of the mythology, but those promises are left largely unfilled.

This iteration is too reminiscent of its forebears in terms of plotting, yet it lacks the original’s existential dread. Beyond the truly remarkable creature design (inspired by the art of H.R. Giger), what made Alien so effective was its carefully-paced, deliberate picking off of characters by a monster who was revealed slowly. All the subsequent films have become bigger and gorier and more effects-driven, without re-capturing the unrelenting terror of the first.

The only real interest in this version is the doppelganger androids, David (left over from Prometheus) and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender. There is a curiosity factor as the newer model faces off against the older one, but even that appeal collapses in a plot step that a seasoned moviegoer could see coming up the Milky Way.

When one of the scariest movie monsters ever imagined fails to generate a thrill, I think it’s time to hang up the spacesuits.

Paris Travelogue

Awkward, slight romance takes backseat to bucolic France

In the midst of the relentless summer blockbusters about superheroes and aliens and pirates, the beleaguered film critic can be forgiven for seeking out a movie about normal adult humans having realistic interactions. Perhaps that’s what the team responsible for Paris Can Wait aspired to create, and maybe they even decided to up the appeal by making those humans movie-star attractive, then placing them against the gorgeous background of bucolic France. Unfortunately, it would appear this was the only reason for the film.

Anne (played by lovely, winsome Diane Lane) is a married woman at a crossroads in her life. Comfortable but unfulfilled in a long-term marriage to Michael (Alec Baldwin), a successful but neglectful movie producer, Anne is emotionally shut down, dreading the life ahead of her now that her daughter has left for college. She tags along on her husband’s business trips to romantic European locales, but it’s clear that the romance does not truly stir her.

Thanks to a convenient plot device, Anne is unable to fly to their next stop, and so Jacques (Arnaud Viard), a French movie colleague of Michael’s, offers to drive her from Cannes to Paris. Of course, being French, Jacques is a consummate roué and gourmand, with a lunch reservation and a liaison in every stop along the way. A day trip turns into several days, chock full of impromptu picnics, sumptuous meals in luxurious inns and restaurants, and serious talk about life, love and food.

The plot points of Paris Can Wait are predominantly predictable, creaky even. The screenplay makes no real effort to explain or justify various characters’ motivations. We’re meant to accept it on the surface, and ultimately, that’s what this film is really about: beautiful superficialities.

Directed and written by Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis Ford Coppola, in her feature film debut, Paris Can Wait is essentially an exceeding handsome food and scenery tour. It’s pretty for the viewer to look at, and perhaps to wistfully aspire to such a bon vivant lifestyle. But we get no truly genuine glimpses into these characters’ interior lives. Even the teasing chemistry between the two leads is unconvincing and awkward.

Paris Can Wait is certainly appealing in a straightforward sensory way, but it has very little on its mind, and by the end of this culinary travelogue, I found myself regrettably longing for the more conventional summer movie pleasures of talking raccoons, menacing space bugs or a certain roguish sea captain. Sigh!

A Big Welcome to Wilmington

Merging classical, soul and jazz, newcomer Kaloni Baylor took home the title at Musikarmageddon Solo competition on April 1. Now she’s ready to hit the local circuit.

The young woman seated at the grand piano sang and played with poise, channeling vulnerable emotion tempered by her commanding presence. The woman, Kaloni Baylor, was one of 16 contestants vying for the top spot at singer-songwriter contest Musikarmageddon Solo at the baby grand on April 1.

A few hours and two more rounds of fast-paced eliminations later, it came as no surprise when 25-year-old Baylor was named winner of the third annual competition. The judges voted unanimously for her, and guitarist Joe Campbell was runner-up.

Baylor’s composure cracked when she walked back on stage for her $200 prize—her eyes were watering and she was visibly shaking.

“I was so surprised,” she says a few weeks later while sipping juice at a Market street café. “My nerves skyrocketed that day for some reason, but being the only person on stage…it’s kind of freeing. It seems like it would be scary, but to have that time to speak or sing, it’s a release.”

The petite Baylor is unsure at first what made her stand out among the other singer-songwriters, including one or two other pianists. Finally, she says she hopes it was her songwriting—and her experiential method of sharing lyrics with the audience—that set her apart. On stage, she centers herself by visualizing her lyrics and their role in the music. From there, she tries to create a story and visuals for her audience. The tactic seems to work—the audience was enthralled.

Her songs usually are based on relationships, experiences or encounters, though typically written long after those events. “Later on, the memory comes back up, which makes the song come out easier,” she says.

One song she performed at Musikarmageddon Solo, “Big Wave,” was based on a dream she had during college. “It didn’t come out for a couple years,” she says. In the dream, she stood on a shoreline staring at the ocean until a tidal wave rushed toward her.

“The dream ends there. So it was good to get that out—to see something and put it on paper. I was really surprised and proud of myself for that one, too, because I didn’t realize how much of an impact a dream could make.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Baylor moved to Wilmington a year ago after graduating in 2015 with an environmental health degree from West Chester University. She’s now part-time at the Trolley Square Brew Ha Ha! and, of course, working on her music.

She began playing piano when she was 5, and as she grew up, her supportive mother drove her to piano recitals, school theater practice, church choir and more. Still, back then, music was more of a hobby. Her college years were catalyst for change. She became more serious about playing shows and developing her style—one she says is always evolving.

“There’s soul in it,” she says. “Right now, I’m trying to develop my piano playing and vocals more to get more on the jazz side of things.”

Baylor has a nine-song album, Soul, on Soundcloud.
Baylor has a nine-song album, Soul, on Soundcloud.

Baylor says she has come up with her own sound because of her varied musical background. The jazz and soul styles she’s currently working on are influenced by gospel from church choir and classical and baroque romantic pieces she grew up playing. She also has always been drawn to singer-songwriters like Carol King and the vinyl of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

She currently has a nine-song album, Soul, on Soundcloud, and promises another recording by the end of the year. Otherwise, she’ll be doing what she seems to do best: growing, and playing.

“Musikarmageddon Solo has helped me with this: being sure of myself,” she says. “I’ve always questioned, ‘Is this okay? Am I doing this right?’ But I’m feeling sure of myself and getting better and will continue working on being my own personal best.”

See Baylor perform at the Berry Festival in Wilmington between noon and 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 4. Find her music at soundcloud.com/kb_sunshine.

On the Rise at Firefly

With the state’s foremost annual musical event set for June 15-18, we’ve spotted some under-the-radar acts you need to know about

Spanning four days, nine stages and more than 150 artists, Firefly Music Festival returns to Dover International Speedway for its seventh year.

While many might be familiar with headliners like Bob Dylan, The Weeknd, Muse, Twenty One Pilots and Chance the Rapper, this year’s lineup also features a list of virtually unknown, up-and-coming artists poised to become top-billed acts.

Here are our top to picks among the emerging artists who will be performing in the Woodlands.

maggie-rogers-photo-by-katia-tamkin
Maggie Rogers (Photo by Katia Tamkin)

Maggie Rogers: A songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, she gained popularity last year after a video of Pharrell Williams hearing her song “Alaska” went viral. During Williams’ Masterclass at New York University, Rogers played the song, eliciting praise and a look of awe from the Grammy-award-winning producer. From there, her career was launched.

Her performance at Firefly will be somewhat of a homecoming—she studied at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown.

She sounds like: Joni Mitchell’s sober folk instrumentation and breathy vocals over subtle, hip-hop-influenced production.

Souvenirs: The California-based group will return to the East Coast with their brand of melodic punk and emo—a loud, unyielding sound driven by multipart guitars and minimalist melodies that serves as a heavy acknowledgement to post-hardcore and shoegaze.

They sound like: The dry and deliberate songwriting style of Pavement mixed with the meticulous guitarwork and stalwart emotion of bands like American Football and Mineral.

munaMUNA: Coming off the strength of their inaugural album About U, this Los Angeles trio will make their First State debut on Saturday, backed with an arsenal of hits centering on love, loss and gender identity—all tightly compacted into infectious pop jams.

They sound like: An extension of the avant-garde pop sound and aesthetic founded by Kate Bush and reiterated by contemporary acts like Haim and Jessie Ware—complete with shimmering guitars, glossy synths and anthemic singalongs.

sunflower-bean-photo-by-ruby-maxwell
Sunflower Bean (Photo by Ruby Maxwell)

Sunflower Bean: Blending themes of psychedelic rock, dream pop and grunge, they balance call-and-response male and female vocals with moody instrumentation ranging from blistering to calming. The result is an assiduous sound from a group deemed 2014’s “Hardest-Working Band” by indie music blog Oh My Rockness.

They sound like: The unhinged fuzz and unconventional arrangements of Sonic Youth and Dungen, with the light touch of synth and chorus unique to acts like The Wake.

Hamilton Leithauser: Best known as the former frontman of famed indie trailblazers The Walkmen, Leithauser has been touring and releasing music since the band’s hiatus in 2014. His most recent endeavor is a collaboration with ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij titled “I Had a Dream That You Were Mine.” The record garnered critical acclaim with a sound that sits at the intersection of traditional folk songwriting and early-aughts indie, with elements of doo-wop and rock and roll.

He sounds like: An intentional nod to the driving rock and catchy indie pop trademarked by The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, combined with the loose sway and swagger present in early Frank Valli & The Four Seasons singles.

Warm Brew
Warm Brew

Warm Brew: Hailing from Santa Monica and Venice, Calif., Ray Wright, M.C.s Serk Spliff and Manu Li are the three vital and talented elements making up this young hip-hop collective that pushes G-funk-era rhymes and beats into modern rap. Their rhyme schemes and deliveries are dynamic, juggling storytelling, hooks and boasts with bravado.

They sound like: Early Warren G and DJ Quik production merged with the cool, collected timbre of verses from L.A.-based artists Snoop Dogg and YG.

New Madrid: The Southern rock band will stop by while in the midst of a national tour, carrying with them the no-holds-barred and high-energy live show that makes them a must-see this year. Their latest album, magnetkingmagnetqueen, is an amiable and ambitious take on indie rock.

They sound like: All the freewheeling energy found on Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special,” with a slight lean toward the psych and Southern rock sound of the 13th Floor Elevators—masterfully translated into accessible indie rock.

Louie Louie: Just off a national tour in support of Beach House, this Philadelphia four-piece have become known for delivering loud, tight and animated sets, all while sporting handmade costumes stitched by drummer Jenna Robb.

They sound like: The style of lo-fi, garage-rock forged by the Sonics and the Kinks, merged with the punk mentality of Chastity Belt and surf-rock slant of La Luz.

hdbeendope
HDBeenDope

HDBeenDope: With a flow demonstrating methodical skill, conveyed with fineness and unaffectedness, this Brooklyn M.C. has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. HDBeenDope’s lyrics feel like a manifesto, highlighting the nuanced highs and lows of life in a city where, if you don’t shift the narrative, one will be forced on you.

He sounds like: Nas and Mos Def at their most measured and raw, delivered with the foul playfulness of Foxy Brown and early Chance the Rapper.

Joie Kathos: At a time where the neo-soul and R&B field is crowded with new acts that appear to be indistinguishable from the last, Joie Kathos stands cool, composed, and backed with a SoundCloud catalog full of sleeper hits. The Philadelphia native’s bass-heavy grooves and resolute instrumentation provide her with room to also assert herself as a lyricist and trained dancer.

She sounds like: The inventive aptitude of Erykah Badu and Frank Ocean, mixed with the fit-for-dance production of FKA Twigs and Syd Tha Kyd.

Six-pack Cinema & a Shot

It’s Not Easy Being Three

Six films featuring love triangles

Brooklyn (2015)
Set in the 1950s, this charmer from director John Crowley tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish village girl who emigrates to America to find work and opportunity. Despite her profound homesickness, Ellis gradually makes a life for herself in the quaint and heavily Irish New York borough and even falls in love with a native. Called back to Ireland by a family emergency, she finds herself caught, not only between two men but between two worlds. Ronan, as delicate and beautiful as porcelain, holds the screen throughout. And Yves Belanger’s lambent cinematography and Michael Brook’s stirring score help make this intimate film even more lovely.

I Love You, Man (2006)
Realtor Peter (Paul Rudd) is facing his impending marriage to Zooey (Rashida Jones) without an obvious candidate for best man, because he has zero male friends. He finally connects with Sidney (Jason Segal), and launches a full-on bromance that unintentionally threatens his wedding plans. The plot of this romantic comedy is predictable and its stereotypical view of male and female gender roles obvious, but the chemistry between Rudd and Segal is consistently amusing, as is Rudd’s patented “stunted male” persona.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
This Spanish curiosity is from the oeuvre of Woody Allen, who built his reputation on the comic documentation of the romantic aspirations of New Yorkers. In this refreshing alternative, Allen explores the adventures of two young American women traveling in Spain. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) both fall under the spell of a colorful libertine artist (Javier Bardem), but respond quite differently. The love triangle becomes a rectangle when the artist’s tempestuous ex-wife enters the dynamic. Penelope Cruz won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as that capricious Maria Elena.

Wedding Crashers (2005)
John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) are horndog bachelors who pursue new sexual conquests by, well, crashing weddings. But when they invite themselves to the wedding party of the Treasury Secretary’s daughter, they become entangled in that family’s affairs far more than they intended. This slight but funny film features Wilson and Vaughn playing perfectly to type, as well as great character work from Christopher Walken and Jane Seymour as the Secretary and his wife, Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher as the guys’ complicated love interests, and a fierce young Bradley Cooper as John’s entitled romantic competitor.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Coming on the heels of Speed, this romantic comedy solidified Sandra Bullock’s reputation as the Hollywood It Girl of the 1990s. In this film, Bullock plays Lucy, a hopeless romantic stuck in a dead-end job…and a dead-end life. When she is mistaken for a coma patient’s fiancé (don’t ask), Lucy gets caught up in a life of affection for which she has always yearned. Peter Gallagher is the coma patient, and Bill Pullman is the brother for whom Lucy is very likely the better match.

Casablanca (1942)
The classic Hollywood romance features Humphrey Bogart as cynical saloonkeeper Rick and Ingrid Bergman as his former lover Ilsa thrown together again in wartime French Morocco along with Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Julius Epstein’s taut, wry script (an Oscar winner) poignantly etches their heart-rending romantic triangle, while the story is enhanced by a sterling supporting cast that includes Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and the terrific Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Here’s looking at you, kid.
And a shot…

The Salesman (2016) Screening May 5 – 7 at Theatre N.
Directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Fahradi (who won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2014 for A Separation), this searing contemporary drama follows the story of husband and wife actors facing a family tragedy at the same time as they are preparing a stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. For a full schedule and more information, go to theatren.com.

Historical Romance Fulfills Its Promise

Human drama enriches story of Armenian genocide

Romance movies often use history as a mere backdrop, to provide exotic settings in which to place beautiful actors wearing elaborate period costumes acting out their emotionally gratifying stories. The public loves to see powerful emotions exhibited in attractive surroundings. Sadly, the actual history in these films is often given short shrift. Every once in a while, however, the filmmakers have a little more on their minds and use the romance as a conduit for telling a far more compelling and significant story. That, thankfully, is the case with The Promise.

Starring the very compelling trio of Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale, The Promise is set during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and the beginnings of World War I. The Turkish majority, allied with Germany, began a systemic cleansing of its Armenian population in what most historians now consider to be the first modern genocide. It is believed that 1.5 million Armenians were killed during and after the war, an assertion of fact that the modern Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge. The Armenian genocide is surprisingly little known today, though the parallels to more contemporary tragedies such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Syria make it horrifyingly relevant.

Writer-director Terry George (who dramatized another historical tragedy with his 2004 film Hotel Rwanda) has again in this circumstance used a personal story in the foreground to give emotional resonance and context to a historical event that can be difficult to truly grasp.

Isaac plays Mikael, a poor villager of Armenian heritage living in eastern Turkey (when it was the Ottoman Empire). With the dowry money provided by his betrothal, Mikael leaves home to study medicine in bustling modern Constantinople. There he encounters a world very different from his own: vibrant but also tottering on the edge of war. He meets Ana (Le Bon), an Armenian artist and her companion, Chris (Bale), an enterprising American reporter for the Associated Press. Complications, both personal and political, quickly develop.

But George never sacrifices the import of the larger societal tragedy in telling the stories of these people. In fact, they serve as a sympathetic lens through which we witness the horrifying plight of the Armenians, a plight that has painful echoes in today’s headlines. George deftly finds the narrative balance between the individuals at the heart of this story and the sweep of history in which they live.

Beyond the inherent power of the story, The Promise is a very well-made film, with effective photography—both beautiful and brutal—from Javier Aguirresarobe, and a resonant score from Gabriel Yared. The supporting cast, many of them actual Armenians, help create a world within the film that is at once familiar and quite new.

The Promise is not a film destined for box office records, and perhaps not even awards, but it is one of those rare films that deserved to be made, and now it deserves to be seen.

Have No Fear, Dave Chappelle

Our man tries stand-up. It is not a total disaster.

Stand-up comedy is the most frightening thing you can do this side of warding off a pack of starving wolves with a foam bat. I know, because I recently agreed to perform a stand-up gig at the Wilmington bar 1984 (“Over 30 classic arcade games. Pinball. 21 craft beers”) as research for an article on amateur comedy for this stellar publication.

As the date approached, I began to lose sleep. I twice asked the editor to allow me to write about jumping out of an airplane instead. A sadist, he refused. I considered other alternatives—e.g., splitting town in the dead of night and moving to Moose Jaw, Canada. No stand-up there. Moose don’t do comedy clubs.

I should declare up front that I find the whole concept of amateur stand-up comedy inexplicable. What perverse instinct motivates a sub-species of homo sapiens to willingly risk public humiliation in a foolhardy attempt to amuse a potential lynch mob of other homo sapiens? And for zero pay?

People want to laugh, and some people are willing to pay big bucks to laugh along with a professional comedian. But there are plenty of other people just as willing to go to comedy open-mic nights to laugh at some poor schlub squirming helplessly on stage. Delaware is home to approximately a half-dozen bona fide comedy clubs and dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants that host open-mic nights for wannabe comedians. Which is not to say that the amateurs who show up at these venues aren’t serious about their comedy. They’re not up on stage risking life and limb on drunken whim. And they are legion.

Many people think they’re funny, and some actually are funny. But funny at the water cooler and funny on stage in front of a pitiless horde of laugh-hungry cynics are two very different propositions. To be a good comedian, you have to own your audience. Most of us can’t even afford to rent one. Stage comedy requires all kinds of talents, such as timing, rhythm, and the development of a unique comedic persona. You also have to decide what form of comedy you’re going to adopt. Actor and comedian T.J. Miller once defined the types of comedy as “sketch, improv, writing, acting, music, and badminton.” He forgot to add just saying to hell with it and telling jokes you stole from Carrot Top.

I originally intended to fire off some cheesy one-liners of the Rodney Dangerfield variety. One went, “I’m so old my idea of an exciting night out is going coffin shopping.” Another was, “I hate myself so much I had to outsource some of my self-loathing to South Korea.” But delivering zippy one-liners is both a difficult and rather outmoded form of comedy, which is why it’s referred to in comedic circles as “pulling a Titanic.”

The author says he survived "paroxysms of pure existential dread" prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
The author says he survived “paroxysms of pure existential dread” prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

As I ran through my options, I became increasingly terrified. I spent a sleepless night trying to decide if the joke “I ordered the western omelet. Unfortunately, I forgot to say hold the shoot-out” was funny or not. In the cold light of day I realized it wasn’t. I actually considered “So I’m captured by pirates and the captain orders me to walk the plank. And I’m like, ‘Sure, where’s the leash?’” And I had to give up on “If at first you don’t succeed, Russian Roulette is probably not your sport” because it was a variation on a joke by Steven Wright. The last thing I wanted was for some Steven Wright scholar in the audience to stand up, point a quivering finger at me, and cry, “joke thief!”

One thing to be said about stand-up comedy: it tells you who your real friends are. Real friends are willing to suck it up and come to lend moral support. I have no real friends. I showed up at 1984 with just my girlfriend in tow, and it was obvious she’d have preferred attending a funeral: she was dressed in black. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t appear hostile. There wasn’t a heckler in sight, and I didn’t spot a single rotten vegetable lurking about the premises. And my fellow performers were supportive.

Situated at the center of an unprepossessing strip mall, 1984 is a cozy enough establishment with a horseshoe bar in its center and the much-vaunted array of arcade games lining one wall. The stage, at the front left of the bar, is big enough to support your average bar band. There were maybe two dozen people in the audience the night I performed, and they were polite enough to stay off the arcade games during the night’s entertainment, thus sparing us amateur comedians from having our efforts drowned out by the sounds of exploding race cars and heavy machine gun fire. The show itself was a seemingly ad hoc affair that took its good old time opening. It was hosted by a comedian who cracked a few jokes before welcoming each new “entertainer” onto the stage.

After putting my name on the list of that night’s comics I had a chance to chat with Jia Din, who has been doing amateur stand-up for five years at clubs in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Din performs a wonderfully hangdog form of stand-up. She stands on stage, adamantly refusing to make eye contact, and delivers devastatingly funny lines about the emptiness and sadness of her life. When I told her I liked her shoe-gaze shtick she said, “It’s not a shtick. I try to look at the crowd but… “ Din leaves a lot of sentences unfinished. When I asked her why she does stand-up she told me, in her deadpan way, “Basically I’m lonely and I have no friends and this is as close to making friends as I get.” I think she was serious. That said, hers is as rational a reason for doing the completely irrational as any I’ve heard.

I suffered paroxysms of pure existential dread as my moment approached. But when my name was called and I mounted the stage, a strange thing happened: I was calm. My mind didn’t go completely blank, as opposed to Donald Trump’s just before he tweets. I started with the true story of a girlfriend who told me she was breaking up with me because, in her words, “I belong to the world.” To which I’d replied, “What are you, a National Park?” It got laughs. I gained confidence. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was beginning to see why people did this. I was the King of Comedy. A God of Guffaws. Move over, Dave Chappelle.

Then I told a joke that flopped. The crowd was completely silent. And I realized I wasn’t the King of Comedy, just another schlub standing before a Supreme Court of hanging comedy judges pleading a case that had more holes in it than a donut shop. The room swam before my eyes. I detected what appeared to be a rotten tomato in the shadowy glow of the Walking Dead pinball machine. I prayed to God to please, please, let me self-combust.

Then I remembered Sam Kinison’s dictum, “Comedy attacks, man,” and went back on the offensive. I launched into a long bit about how the World Health Organization has stated that hope is a disease that afflicts almost 82 percent of the human population—a number that could skyrocket should optimism ever go airborne. The crowd laughed. I tossed in some jokes about what a misanthrope I was, and how I was the only kid on my block with A Child’s First Book of Human Atrocities. Again they laughed. I was saved.

I did not want to leave the stage at the end of my routine. I finally understood why amateur comedians risked failure for no pay. Making people laugh is more addictive than crack. One hit of applause and I was hooked. So, I went back to 1984 the following week.

And I totally tanked. Bombed. Went down like the aforementioned Titanic. Standing there was both demoralizing and terrifying, and brought back unpleasant memories of my second-grade teacher and first heckler, who dashed my comedic hopes by writing on my report card, “Mike wants to be the class clown.” That “wants” still rankles.

Except—and this is the truly scary part—that debacle of a few weeks ago didn’t cure me. I hanker for another shot.

Last month, eternity welcomed Don Rickles into its bosom, prompting me to think perhaps it was some cosmic sign that a space had been cleared for me among the universe of comedians. I lie awake at night thinking up new bad jokes. Like the one that goes, “I’m easily distracted. When I set my mind to a thing, it generally bolts off to urinate on the nearest bush.” Or, “I had to give up beer because it was giving me terrible hangovers. So, I switched to nonalcoholic beer but had to give that up because it was giving me terrible nonhangovers.”

Yeah. I can hardly wait. I’m going to step back into the spotlight and absolutely slay ‘em.

Simple Gifts

Family drama delivers payoff

Comfort foods have that designation because they reward our occasional taste for the expected rather than the unexpected. No surprises in that meat loaf and mashed potatoes; and sometimes that’s just what we want.

I think there are also comfort films—cinematic stories for which we could call out the plot points one after another that still deliver a predictable, even sought-after emotional reward at the end. Gifted, a new family drama from director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), is such a movie. I felt like I had seen it before, multiple times, and yet I found it surprisingly satisfying.

Gifted tells the story of child genius 7-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) and her underachieving guardian uncle, Frank (Chris Evans). Mary appears to have the aptitude to follow in her mother’s mathematic prodigy footsteps, while Frank struggles to preserve some sort of normal kid life for her. When he declines to enroll her in a prestigious school for the gifted, his mother (Lindsay Duncan) emerges from a long estrangement to challenge his custody of Mary. What ensues is an unsurprising conflict between accomplished, lonely success and a thread-bare but loving home life. Of course, it’s not really a fair fight, despite the teasing twists and turns.

Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate appear in minor roles as a caring neighbor and Mary’s supportive teacher, but the film really belongs to Evans and Grace as the family pairing at the core of the film. Evans, most familiar to contemporary audiences as Captain America in the Marvel Avengers films, demonstrates a quiet, charismatic authority as Frank. Grace, already a seasoned veteran of TV and film work, hits all the right notes as a clearly precocious child with an amazing gift for high-concept math. The two have a comfortable chemistry that sustains the central tension of the story.

Director Webb caught Hollywood’s attention several years ago with the whimsical 500 Days, a remarkably distinctive romantic comedy. Exploring no new ground here, his direction, as well as Tom Flynn’s screenplay and other production aspects of Gifted, are all serviceably sturdy.

A reader might think that this is a negative review, or at least one that gives the film no better than a passing grade. But, that’s the thing. Despite the faint praise, I really enjoyed the movie. It doesn’t have an OMG! moment at any point, but it still delivers a “comfort food” finale, just the way I sometimes like them. Please pass the gravy.

Beauty and the Beast

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, you know that Disney has created a new live-action version of its classic animated fairy tale, starring Emma Watson (Harry Potter) as Belle and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as the hirsute cursed prince. One might wonder why we need a live remake of one of the most perfect Disney films ever made, and of course, the answer is money. (And by the way, there are more live translations on the way—a lot of them.)

Nevertheless, the movie has abundant charms, starting with the stellar song score by composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman, with new lyrics by Tim Rice. Watson and Stevens are both appealing in the leads. And the numerous CGI characters—all bewitched housewares, if you remember—are exquisitely rendered, though maybe just a little creepy.

The production numbers are so opulent and furiously edited that they can be overwhelming, but the overall look of the film (set and art direction, costumes and cinematography), are truly stunning.
Any remake suffers by comparison with our cherished cinematic memories, but this new Beauty and the Beast is a worthy companion to its hand-drawn predecessor.

Six-pack Cinema

The Kids Are (More Than) All Right!

Six films about special children and their families

Akeelah and The Bee (2006)
Akeelah, a bright but head-strong girl from South Central Los Angeles, enters her school’s spelling bee to avoid other punishment for her absences, and surprises everyone (including herself) by winning. To help her move on in the national competition, her principal recruits a demanding English professor (Laurence Fishburne) as her tutor, but first Akeelah (Keke Palmer) must overcome her own insecurities and troubled family. The plotting of this drama is predictable (like virtually all the films in this list), but the performances by Palmer, Angela Bassett, and Fishburne are nuanced and far-too-rare in Hollywood films.

Matilda (1996)
The irrepressibly winsome Mara Wilson (who stole the cinematic show throughout the ‘90s) stars as Roald Dahl’s title character in this heartwarming and funny family film. Matilda is not only a genius; she turns out to have telekinetic powers as well. Misunderstood by her boorish parents (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman) and much of her school, Matilda is inspired and, in fact, rescued by her sympathetic teacher, Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). DeVito also directed the film. Despite the fantastical elements of the story, this version emphasizes sweetness at the expense of author Dahl’s more usual acerbic side.

Finding Forrester (2000)
Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) directed this earnest drama about an inner-city youth given the opportunity to attend a prestigious prep school due to his combination of intelligence and skills on the basketball court. Displaced from his familiar surroundings, Jamal (Rob Brown) struggles to find his place until he befriends a reclusive author, William Forrester (Sean Connery). The tutelage of Forrester helps Jamal confront the classism and racism of his new school, while Jamal in turn helps the author out of his self-imposed exile.

Shine (1996)
Based on the biography of piano prodigy David Helfgott, Shine won an Oscar for Geoffrey Rush (who plays the artist as an adult), but the film also details his earlier years when the young Helfgott (Noah Taylor) strains under the tremendous expectations of his abusive father. His success leads him away from the pressures of his father, but the demands of a professional career trigger a complete mental breakdown. Will Helfgott be able to stage a comeback as an adult after years of institutionalization? It’s the movies…what do you think?

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Josh, a prepubescent chess prodigy (Max Pomeranc), is torn between the dueling influences of his two mentors, Bruce, a disciplined and methodical tutor, and Vinnie, a street hustler who holds court in NYC’s Washington Square. Fearful of becoming like the damaged soul of the American chess master of the film’s title, Josh rejects the disciplined education and seeks the enjoyable side of the game. Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne play Josh’s rival coaches, and Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen are his protective yet awestruck parents. Steve Zaillian, more known as an ace screenwriter (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York), makes a rare directing effort that is as sturdy and well-traveled as his own screenplay.

Midnight Special (2016)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Loving) adds to his unconventional but compelling body of work with this strange tale of familial love amidst supernatural phenomena. Roy (Michael Shannon) and his strangely gifted son Alton (Jaeden Liberher) are on the run from the government and from a mysterious cult to which they once belonged. Both pursuers want to possess and possibly use Alton’s inexplicable abilities…which won’t be revealed here. As in his other films, Nichols displays in Midnight Special an uncanny ability to create a deeply disquieting yet fascinating mood that drives the film more than the actual elements of the story. I can’t wait to see his next effort.

And a shot…

Personal Shopper (2016) Screening April 7 – 9 at Theatre N.
From Olivier Assayas, the French writer-director of the ethereal Clouds of Sils Maria, comes this tense, introspective story of urban isolation and quiet yearning. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, the personal buyer for a spoiled young starlet. She spends her days going around tony stores in search of the latest fashions. But Maureen, gifted with psychic abilities, spends her free time searching for an otherworldly sign from her recently deceased brother. Stewart, who won a Cesar (French Oscar) for her work in Sils Maria, continues to break free from her Twilight shackles with challenging roles such as this. For a full schedule and more information, go to theatren.com.