Sunday, November 29, 2009

In A Word: fantastic

The Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Talent: Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Jason Schwarztman, Willem Defoe, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, Mario Batali, A Coupla Coppolas, etc.

The Dealio: From the subversive children's book by Roald Dahl, this is the story of Foxy and his wife, his distressingly unathletic son, Ash, their cousin, Kristofferson (athletic AND spiritual, plus quite a babe-magnet) and the entire woodland menagerie of your usual: lawyers, real estateagents, chefs, accountants, football coaches, doctors, like I said. The usual. Into the mix throw three of the meanest, ugliest farmers in the area. This is, at once, part caper, part romance, part father-son scratchiness, part cautionary tale (sometimes, an obsession, allowed to run to completion, is as destructive to everyone else it touches as it is corrosive and lethal to the possessor of that obsession).

The Grading Session: 5 pengies out of 5. The art of the thing was wizard, the voice characterisations, masterful. The story was ambitious, but did not shirk any of the elements. And the soundtrack was so spot on, as well (Beach Boys and Bluegrass!). It is so hard for me to believe what was accomplished without mega-budget special effects.

Lessons Learned: Two: beagles are, apparently, fools for blueberries, and puffed cotton, oft-times colored, makes a perfectly respectable stand-in for smoke. See it, see it, see it, do.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New Grading Session Scoring Device

Hi, all one or two of you who follow along with the adventures of blogging books and movies with me. I am given to understand that it is difficult to leave a comment, and hope I have fixed that- but am not overwhelmingly confident. Just hope you are enjoying what you read- agree or not.
I am going to make one very minute-but essentially blog-altering change: from now on, I will be scoring with penguins (or, more commonly, 'pengies') not stars. The range will be from 0 pengies (hardly worth getting out of bed to see on TV, let alone paying to see it in theatre), to 5 pengies (the ultimate movie-going experience, and well worth seeing multiple times, so you may as well go on and buy my humble opinion).
Hope you hang with me and also hope to hear from you!


The Flick: 2012

The Participants: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, Oliver Platt, and a cast- at least digitally- of millions.

The Dealio: End of days, based on a Mayan calendar-related threat and some junk science.

The Grading Session: 0.17 stars out of 5. Let me be perfectly honest here: I had a full-blown panic attack in the course of this movie. Which took me out of the theatre more times than I am proud of (which). However, in my defense, I have to ask "How many times can you be exposed to the catastrophic, wholesale destruction of millions, graphic scenes of California disappearing into the ocean, of people being mangled, drowned, obliterated, crushed, set on fire, blown apart, etc before you are totally in the realm of sensory overload. And the biggest rip to us (SPOILER ALERT!) was the scene where the ark couldn't close a door- thereby threatening every cussed thaang on the ark with drowning, simply because 'something bad will happen unless we clear out the jam first'. Something worse than frickin' armegeddon? Close the flippin' door, people! I'm just saying; things are already as bad as they can be! Close the bloomin' door NOW. Also- again, obligatory SPOILER ALERT!- were these arks supposed to float around forever, loaded with animals and humans, and only a finite measure of support infrastructure? Where was the food going to come from? I suspect cannibalism would have reared its ugly head in record time. I nominate Oliver Platt's character to become the first animal nom on his ark. And I am okay with this.

Lessons Learned: No more disaster movies for me.

The Blind Side

The Film: The Blind Side

The Actors: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, etc.

The Dealio: Based on a true story (oh, man, how many times have I heard that one?), this tale starts by setting the scene with affluent Ole Miss boosters, McGraw and Bullock, complete with perfect son and daughter, meeting a young man who attends the same cradle-to-college-style academy. They are well-off, he is disadvantaged- a product of The Projects, living by his own wits and the grudging charity of tenuous relatives. 'Big Mike' sleeps in a laundromat, picks up food after athletic events in the gym, and is barely scraping by at school because his head is in the clouds and he is 'scary looking' to others- including teachers. He is big... and brooding, never smiling and largely mute. A chance meeting after a game leads Bullock and McGraw's characters to take him in. Next, it is a short hop to their sponsorship of him, the hiring of a tutor (Bates, who believes in this kid from the git-go)to bring him along, intellectually, and the discovery, through some sort of inventory test (could someone tell me the name of this one? I would love to take this one myself!), which clearly indicates that young Michael abounds in 'protective instincts'. Would he walk into a biker bar to defend his family? Probably so.
It seems that football is the perfect place to kill two birds with one...well, you know. He can shelter under the protective wing of his coach- placing him in an ideal situation to develop some sort of skill which would make him appealing to colleges. That, and, more importantly, he also begins to experience, perhaps for the very first time, socialisation in an other-than-gun-toting, drug-using setting. The question is, will there be a happy ending for Michael? Oh, come on, you know the answer to this one!

The Grading Session: 4.29 stars out of 5. There are those who will protest that this film is the worst sort of pap- the hubris of these folks to feel that only the affluent whites can save the underprivileged youngster from an uncertain life on the streets. However, I choose not to go down that rabbit hole. I prefer to enjoy the over-the-credits scenes from the real story, featuring the real people, and let any glossiness that appeared to smooth the way pass on by. Why? Well, I spoze it's because I prefer to believe in the pure goodness of people's hearts and intentions. Each one of us needs to seize a moment, a situation, an opportunity to make a difference large or small. These folks, clearly, got that and saw an opportunity with Michael. And I believe that Michael saw one, too: the unique opportunity to make a better life for himself, and then to pay it forward. The fact that this is a true story of someone - one little person- who stepped up when she saw something was wrong, and did something about it-well, that gives me both hope and happiness. If it is possible for one individual to make such a big difference, it is possible for many to make huge changes. Let's see how much we can do when we flex our muscles and act, instead of waiting for someone else to get the job done.

Lessons Learned: It's an oldie but a goodie: you can't judge a book by its cover. And I am not speaking just about Michael Oher.

Pirate Radio

The Film: Pirate Radio

The Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson, etc.

The Dealio: In 1960's England, it was not so much a case of England Swings. It was more a case of sequestering potentially polluting rock to one inconveniently timed hour per day. This was done, of course, for only the purest of motives: for the protection of the impressionable children, you understand. Against this restrictive background, several adventurous, hardy and rule-shattering folks banded together to move the music into international waters,where- it was thought- they could operate without censorship. Inevitably, some of the politicians got exercised enough by these impudent, in-your-face 'pirates' to seek legal- and not quite legal- ways to kill the music.
That's the set-up, and this movie takes you inside one such operation, run by the aristocratic liberal played by Bill Nighy (possibly the most effortless scene-stealer in show biz today). The music is peppy, effervescent and, well, groovy, baby. Which, to my mind, makes the soundtrack The. Best. Ever. The folks responsible for providing it are an odd group comprised of the usual free spirits, but also some fairly cipher-ish types who wander in and out once in a while, causing you, the viewer, and even characters in the story to say, 'Oy! Who are you, then?' There is great good humor, rakish misbehavior and loads of stereotypes. But there is never any back story on anyone except Rhys Ifans' character (not the most interesting, interestingly enough. I could have learned more about Bill Nighy's founder of Pirate Radio's motivation and story). More, please? Might I have a skosh more?

The Grading Session: 4.16 stars out of 5. More joy, more meat, more back story. But don't change a thing about the music. It doth truly swing like a pendulum do.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes music fuels such fierce emotions that people do rash, dangerous and noble things in the defense of their muse. And, BTW, when has the censorship of music (or books, for that matter) ever resulted in anything more than a united backlash of support for free expression?

Monday, November 23, 2009

This Was It

The Film: This Is It!

The Contributors: Michael Jackson et al.

The Dealio: My son, Nick, said it best when we were discussing this movie/concert the other day: Michael has been off our radars for quite some time. But, I was in the mood for something a little...gentler than some of the films we've been seeing lately, so I went by myself. Well, welcome back, MJ...and, sadly, good-bye. Was suddenly reminded of what a remarkable, creative hyphenate MJ was. Did I notice that, when he was wearing the orange pants with the 'Tin Man' jacket his voice was not quite as strong as it had once been? Sure. Did I observe that, overwhelmingly, everyone on set kowtowed to him? Decidedly. Did I feel he was quite a world class micro-manager? Most assuredly. Did he spin out a quality project? Oh, yeah.
Michael had a wonderous, gigantic talent, and, for that alone, I respect this chance to glance behind the scenes, on what would have been- had even one of the concerts been played before his death- the gold standard by which all others would be judged for years to come. Even the raw-edged nature of what was simply a series of rehearsals, was absolutely fascinating. The young talents he attracted were relentless in their efforts to dig deeper and push harder than even they thought they could- and MJ egged them on in this pursuit of excellence. Although the film was not without (at times, gaping) holes, this was a joyous celebration of talent, history and innovation at the hands of a truly inspired individual. I liked so much the fact that people in the audience were totally plugged into the electric atmosphere, singing along, clapping, even cheering at a few points. It is just too bad that this tour never saw like of...well, night and stadium/arena/performance hall.

The Grading Session: 3.86 stars out of 5. Gotta ding him for the sycophantic tenor of the support staff and director.

Lessons Learned: It is better to burn out than fade away...if you are Michael Jackson. Oh, and don't be surprised if you see a huge, luxe $1000 set of this concert-prep vid being released in time for a major holiday in the next 12 months.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Box

The Film: The Box

The Perpetrators: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, among others.

The Dealio: Short and sweet: folks are offered obscene amounts of money by a shady character, to push a button. When they do, someone-someone they don't know- dies. The family agrees, and I can't really say more about this pic b/c I split right after the scene where Cameron's teacher gives in to a creepy, teeneaged boy's request to 'see ' her injured foot. In English class. That kid is in ecstasy, and I felt the need for a shower, broiling hot and with lashes of exfoliating soap.

The Grading Session: Zip out of 5 stars. They couldn't even get the Virginia accents right. To be fair, perhaps the rest of the film was Oscar-worthy. But...why do I not believe this to be so?

Lessons Learned: Cameron:recognise your limits, as an actress. If you are good at what you do in the arena of action/romance....stick with that. Until something irresistible, something of taste, scope and promise comes along. Then- go for it. This. Thing. Was. Not. That.

Men Who Stare At Goats

The Flick: Men Who Stare At Goats

The Actors: Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Jeff Bridges, and, oh, yeah, that fella from those Ocean's movies.

The Dealio: Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Based on a story too wackadoodle to be made up, MWSAG takes us inside, on the ground level, of a government project, top secret and so far out of the box, that there is no box to be seen anywhere. The goal? To create a New Earth Army with Jedi Knights as soldiers, instead of the standard GI GI. All this is seen and told through the eyes of an outsider, journalist Ewan MacGregor, a sad sack, forlorn guy from a small fish-wrappin' sort of paper, whose wife leaves him for their editor. Now, rudderless and filled with despair, the journalist finds himself scrambling after the most top-secret of all secret, and being guided by a passionate follower of a madman. Along the way, there are riffs on everything from Apocalypse Now to Star Wars (well, duh!) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With goats. Fainting goats.
You may think that this is a story about 'getting the story' and winning back some semblance of validation and affirmation of the glories of taking the road less travelled-albeit, through a desert. To me, it was more about finding the remnants of creativity, imagination and essential 'self-stuff' that may have taken refuge away from your everyday life, deep, deep inside you. Can you actually make goats die by simply looking at them? Can you thought-process yourself through walls? Really? That's beside the point. Which, to me is this: do you believe that you can? 'S all I'm sayin'.

The Grading Session: 4.3 stars out of 5. Great casting, metered lunacy, tricky harvesting from other films and a su-weet ending that says nothing. And everything.

Lessons Learned: What is the difference between being gullible and being willing to, at least momentarily, suspend disbelief?

A Christmas Carol

The Film: A Christmas Carol

The Usual Suspects: Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey and, well, you know. Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman.

The Dealio: Well, I think you know the story, so all that remains is to let you know what I thought about this version. First of all, surprisingly, this was rated PG-13. And for a reason: some of the scenes were intense. I've read- you, too?- something along the lines of 'if you chose Jim Carrey to star in this and made him the major focus, why did you then rein him in?' Didn't notice much reining in, ak-shully. But did notice some areas which needed a skosh more editing. I apologise, I know I harp on this with boring frequency. But, here, we had waaaaaaaayyyyyy too long a relationship with 'mini-Scrooge' and the horses chasing him through every street, alley and culvert in London Town. I get it: the animation of the horses was awesome and harkened back to Darby O'Gill and the Little People (introducing Sean Connery!), a flick that scared the sleep out of me for one solid month. But, even though it may have taken the animators months and months to create the artwork, was it really necessary to make us, the unsuspecting audience, sit through this gag in real time?
It was highly interesting to note the comments of two little boys sitting behind us. One -with a very young-sounding voice- asked his companion (brother?) 'Is it all going to be scary like this?' And his bro/compadre whispering back, 'No. It's OK, though. I'm scared, too.' So sweet, and it swept me back decades.
And of course, the message comes through loud and clear: carry the holidays in your heart...all year long.'
The Grading Session: 4 stars out of 5. I am a huge fan of the voice talent. But. What is up with those EYES!? I have watched this studio for years- every since the Polar Express freaked me out with the woogie eyes and turned what should have been a sweet, simple message into a haunting, cautionary tale. Unintentionally. After all these years, and all the tech developments...I should think they would have figured out some way to mitigate the zombie eyes.
Lessons Learned: Out of the mouths of babes: first, Tiny Tim, who saw goodness and promise in everything around him, rather than concentrating only on the bad things that threatened to hem him in. But, also, from the young lads in the theater who were so earnest in their viewing that they disappeared into the film- and kept each other brave. Now, that's a message for ya!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Beautiful Boy

The Book: Beautiful Boy
The Writer: David Sheff
The Dealio: Pure and simple:this is a non-fiction account of a descent into Hell. Don't know how else to describe it. The author is a pretty well-known journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Wired, the New York Times Sunday magazine, etcetera. Here, he is writing about his oldest son, the beautiful boy in question, named Nic. Who was smart and funny and multi-talented and athletic and full of promise. And also an alcoholic and addict. His poison of choice was meth, and the spiral began when he was about 14 years old. This is a book recommended by a coworker/friend of mine who said, 'It is utterly fascinating and utterly nerve-wracking in turns.' So, I decided to take a chance. At times, I was wondering if I should have (had my head examined). But Mr Sheff is a terrific, humane writer with his finger on the pulse of his audience. By this, I mean, he leads you to the very brink of horror, suffering and despair, then refuses to throw you over that cliff. Instead, he offers you breathing room and a chance to recover when he moves on to information about addiction and rehab, the music scene, life in Marin (where you may be ostracised from the neighborhood picnic for bringing full-on meat hot dogs, rather than the tofu sort), the healing process, Alanon and movies (are you surprised to hear that he hated Sideways?). When I couldn't stand it a moment longer, I felt compelled to 'google' David and Nic and see their actual faces, to read about how they are doing now. To sort of touch base with them. BTW- Nic, also, has a book, 'Tweak', which tells more personally, his side of the story).
The Grading Session: 4.73 stars out of 5; towards the end, I had such an embarrassing feeling of retreading already covered mileage, and, truly, I do feel David is such a talented writer, there is simply no excuse for that. But I split hairs. This is a tough book to read, but it is also a glimpse into such an alien (I hope!) world, that I was glad I read (and survived) read it. And am glad to blog about it.
Lessons Learned: Not original, but here goes: 'You didn't cause it, you can't control it and you can't cure it.' This is a hard one to learn, but sometimes, love, sacrifice, caring, helping, hoping and praying are not enough. And I can not believe I actually just wrote those words.