Monday, August 6, 2018

One If by Band Two If by Seat

Two reviews from a chair in the den and one from a standing-room-only club:

**** ****

Tully (2018)

To call Tully a chickflick is to understate the case, which I mention both as a warning and an inducement depending on the taste of the viewer. I don’t mean the term in the old-fashioned sense of a particular brand of romcom or in the more recent sense of some athletic heroine singlehandedly thrashing a platoon of burly men twice her size, but rather something much less formulaic. A few words about the screenwriter Diablo Cody are a good place to start to tweak the definition.

Diablo Cody had an unusual path to becoming one of Hollywood’s star screenwriters. Back in 2005 she published a book called Candy Girl about her life as a Minneapolis stripper. It caught the eye of film producer Mason Novick who thought it had potential for a movie. He contacted Cody and asked her to send him a sample script on any subject in order to see if she could write as well for the screen as she did in her memoir. Over the next few weeks, mostly at a local Starbucks, she wrote a script titled Juno. The Candy Girl movie was never made, but Juno was. Her scripts since then include Jennifer’s Body (2009), the TV series United States of Tara (2009-2011), Young Adult (2011), Paradise (2013), and Ricki and the Flash (2015). All of them are female-centric and are off-beat, down-to-earth, and literary in an idiosyncratic mix. My favorite, BTW, is Young Adult with Charlize Theron as an author of young adult novels. It’s hard not to notice that Cody’s protagonists are aging along with her, generally tracking behind by a few years; the one out of sequence film (she got ahead of herself on this one) is Ricki and the Flash about an aging rocker. All of her characters are humanly flawed (or inhumanly, in the case of Jennifer’s Body) and their heroism, when it emerges, is of a (typically underappreciated) everyday kind. Cody wrote Tully after the birth of her third child.

In Tully Charlize Theron is Marlo, a forty-something suburban mother who early in the movie has her third child. Her kindergarten son is challenging and possibly challenged (it’s still an open question), which further frazzles her nerves. Her daughter requires her attention, too, while her husband’s long hours leave her with the domestic load. Sleep-deprived by her new baby, she finds her capacity to cope has been sorely exceeded. Seeing her exhaustion, Marlo’s rich brother suggests that she get a “night nanny” who, as the name indicates, would arrive only at night and do everything with the baby but nurse, for which single task she would wake up Marlo before taking over again until daybreak. A night nanny arrives at the door. She is a 26-year-old named Tully who in energy, outlook, and body tone is everything Marlo once was but no longer is. I can hear the reader saying “I know where this is going.” While writing, Cody obviously could hear potential viewers say the same thing, because Marlo (joking, but not) openly expresses worry that the arrangement is “like a Lifetime movie where the nanny tries to kill the family and the mom survives and she has to walk with a cane at the end.” It isn’t. It is something much stranger, and yet understandable.

Recommended, but definitely not for those who require explosions, car chases, superheroes, and villains scheming to take over Gotham City. (I like those, too, by the way, but not exclusively.) It also may deter some viewers from having kids, though I think that response was unintended.

**** ****

The Humans by Matt Haig
The British author Matt Haig approaches most of his novels – even his children’s literature – at a slightly bent angle such as the family drama The Radleys, who are vampires, and The Last Family in England, which is basically King Henry IV, Part I but with dogs. In The Humans an extraterrestrial comes to earth when a Cambridge mathematician’s proof of the Riemann hypothesis regarding prime numbers threatens to end death and disease on earth while opening up access to the universe to humans without the need of pesky encumbrances such as spaceships. As is typical in stories of this kind, the existing advanced species Out There don’t much like the idea of unruly savage humans joining them in the wider cosmos. They know full well that humans have a history of inventing things they don’t use properly, e.g. “the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semicolon.” (By the way, years ago I blogged about the last of those in Save the Semicolon.)

The alien from Vannador replaces the mathematician Andrew Martin, and is tasked with killing anyone the real Professor Martin told about his breakthrough including his wife and son. Even if they don’t know the details of his proof, the mere knowledge that there is one is dangerous as it would prompt others to seek it. Despite his adaptive gifts, the alien makes social mistakes, the first being to arrive without clothes. He lives as Professor Martin and delays eliminating his family while he tries to find out how many people have learned about the professor’s success; fortunately, due to the cutthroat world of academia and the real Professor Martin’s own secretive personality, the number seems to be few. Much to the displeasure of his taskmasters, the Vannadorian is slowly corrupted by his human form. He is tempted to go off task as he gains empathy with humans generally and affection for his wife, son, and dog in particular.

The basic premise of an alien awkwardly trying to hide in plain sight has been done many times before in books and on screen. The TV show 3rd Rock from the Sun got six seasons out of it. However, this is true of almost any scifi premise. It’s a little late in scifi’s day for much real originality in premises. What matters is how well the material is handled, and Haig does a good job of it. There are few better ways to display the absurdities of human life than from the perspective of a putative alien. The redeeming human characteristics discovered by the Vannadorian also make an unoriginal list, but are no less persuasive for that.

Thumbs Up for amusement value.  

**** ****

Gone Fishing at the Stanhope House
Smallish music clubs are apt to come and go, but every area has that venue – maybe more than one – that lingers for generations. The Stanhope House is one such place near me. The building started as a stagecoach stop in 1794 and had various lives after that as rooming house, tavern, and restaurant. Some 50 years ago it became a music club specializing in blues. Despite its cozy interior (a choppy floorplan makes it effectively smaller than the exterior suggests) it booked heavy talent in the 70s including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The place was a frequent haunt of mine back in my 80s and 90s club-hopping days. Nowadays it mostly books local or lesser known talent (as one expects of an out-of-the-way NJ club) but there still are surprising exceptions including Samantha Fish a few days ago, who unsurprisingly sold out soon after going on the schedule.

Regular readers of this blog (there are a few) may recall my earlier mentions of the Kansas City blues guitarist. Her band keeps growing and now includes keyboard, horns, and violin. Samantha is not stylistically stuck in a single groove but churns out blues, country, rock and roll, and pop – not a lot of pop, but some including the title song of last year’s Chills and Fever album. The album is worth a listen, by the way, as is Belle of the West, her country-tilted second album of 2017. Her live performances are by far the best, however. She tours constantly and still can be found in relatively modest venues even though she has outgrown them ( I recommend finding one near you before that changes.

Samantha Fish @ Stanhope House, August 2018 – Heartbreaker


  1. I've seen Ms Fish play on several of her YT videos, and enjoyed it each time. I see where she's playing in Ft Worth, but I don't know if I've got the wherewithal to get off me duff to see her. I guess old age has got me too sedentary.

    1. I know the feeling, especially for appearances at outdoor festivals such as a nearby Crawfish Festival, which I skipped. Mostly it depends on how easy it is to get in and out; festivals often have difficult parking and access. If she (or another favorite band) is at a club in NYC (where there are expensive but available parking garages) or a club in NJ (most of which are easy to attend) I'll go. If the Fort Worth setting is well set up for the festival traffic though, I'd recommend going. It's a fun performance and the crowd is a full age mix.

  2. I have to say that I did enjoy "Juno" quite a bit. Your description of "Tully" has piqued my interest. Curious to see where the story goes. And Theron is pretty good in just about any movie she is in.

    1. If you do, you'll see why I'm a little cryptic about the plot. It's best to watch things develop with a fresh eye. Cody's depiction of motherhood is brutal. It is not a warning to not become a parent, but, as I said, some viewers might take it that way.