Thursday, January 28, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

The Flick: Extraordinary Measures

The Actors: Harrison Ford, Brendan Frazier, Kerry Russell, etc.

The Dealio: Reportedly based on a true story. Why does that phrase, used to boost a movie, always fill me with mixed feelings? Well, none the less, here we go:
Frazier and Russell, fairly affluent parents of two children with Pompe Disease- and one without- are on the verge of despair as they seek some sort of magic elixir which will- if not cure the two, at least give them a level of improvement, and then a remission of the symptoms. Which are life-threatening.
Frazier does his usual, furrowed-browed turn as someone required to balance his intense emotions with intense salesmanship. It is entertaining to me to see just how prodigious his abilities to sell actually are: whether it is his believability as a caveman adrift in the modern world, his derring-do against the forces of the dread Mummy ('Same mummy. Twice'), or, in this case, a parent tortured by the spectre of an orphan illness hanging over his entire family. Russell (love her!) reliable, dependable, invested as the frazzled, yet, beneath it all, pretty cool mom, putting a brave face on all manner of threats to her little fam. Harrison Ford- who, I am sure, got this movie made, by sheer willingness to appear in the thing, plays a sincere, hard-working, scenery-chewing, establishment-stompin' researcher, and you can almost hear 'Please help are our only hope' swiped from that other little film he made decades ago.
Of course, there is the predictable 'race against time', clash of the medical-industrial machine against the little guy, the heartstrings-tugging involved in putting faces on a little-known disease. But is there a dollop of suspense, a moment of doubt, an instant when you wonder if things will kinda, sorta, work out for our valiant troop? Um. Not really.

The Grading Session: 3.09 pengies out of 5.

Lessons Learned: Again with the shorthand. I feel so condescended to when film-makers employ certain cultural shorthands to get an idea across, instead of just plotting, then portraying it on the screen:
You just know Frazier and Russell are great parents, because they can apparently find the one 'party/bowl/skate place' in the world that is completely disability-blind, totally accepting and populated with all manner of friends and pals who are also completely accepting, supportive and never-endingly patient. Where is this place?
Next, you know Harrison Ford's Bob is the one man in the whole universe for this job because he's not only a great brain, but impatient, grouchy, absent-minded, and wears cowboy boots jeans and an earring to work and listens to rock and roll in his lab. And, of course, because he has not only played Han Solo, Jack Ryan and the POTUS, but is, well, Harrison Ford.
Finally: Do not dress up an afternoon special as an groundbreaking statement on the importance of financing the development of drugs for orphan illnesses and tell me you are bringing anything new to the party.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Queen Victoria's Gene

The Book: Queen Victoria's Gene

The Author: D. M. Potts

The Dealio: So, the woman we now know as Queen Victoria turns out to have been cloaked in all sorts of mystery. This book attempts to pierce that cloak with an overdose of medical science and genetic study. On paper, Vicky looks like a bona fide- if not the most direct- heir to the throne. And then she deliberately broadened her base of political influence by singlehandedly, (well, Prince Albert did play a role, so not quite singlehandedly), marrying off her offspring throughout Europe to become pivotal players in the courts of the continent. I mean, have you ever seen pix of the Tzar, the Kaiser and the Prince of Wales all together? Man oh man, you can not tell one from the other!
Now, for the monkey in the wrench, as John McClane might say. There are just a few inconvenient factors: first, in so populating thrones all over Europe, Vic also placed the gene for hemophilia (and porphyria, but that's another story) into play behind the scenes., to tragic effect. Or did she? The author has made an exhaustive (at least, exhaustive for me to read) study of the genetic patterns possessed, first by the various offspring, and by the offsprings of the offsprings littering the thrones of Europe. And, finally, analyzing the genetic stuff of Vicky, herself.
Guess what? There does not seem to be the gene necessary for the hemophilia in Vic. Now, it is possible for there to have been a spontaneous mutation of this gene-ta-DA!- in QV. But, it is far more likely for Victoria to be hit by lightning-twice- in a crowded theatre in downtown Swansea, featuring a 24 hour retrospective on the entire Star Wars oeuvre than for this to have happened. Aaaaaand, if the spontaneous mutation did not occur, then the obvious conclusion is that there is an, um, how should I put this? Suspicion that someone other than Victoria's mom's husband contributed to this particular gene pool.
Someone get a rope.

The Grading Session: 3.1 pengies out of 5. I mean, I like science as much as anyone, but I confess that the first few chapters of this thing read like the notes for a presentation to the International Genetic Studies Convention. It is only towards the end of the second half of the book that we get the really good, tabloid-style 411. Sorry...too little, too late. I'll just have to wait for the Andrew Morton take on the subject.

Lessons Learned: Genes are tricky things and, when you least expect it, they can well and truly sneak up and bite you on the escutcheon. That'll leave a mark.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cinema Babble sadness

The Tooth Fairy and Legion. Really?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Confederates in the Attic

The Book: Confederates in the Attic

The Author: Tony Horowitz

The Dealio: Tony has tons of fond memories of time spent, as a child, in the attic with his grandfather reading, studying, savoring the world between the pages of a book on the American Civil War. And not just any book: the same book his immigrant grandfather used to learn English.
Decades pass, and, one day, Tony, now a grown 'family man', spots a gaggle of re-enactors as they wander past his Virginia home, looking for 'their' battlefield. What follows is an odyssey through towns sprawling and minuscule, attempting to duplicate what his new acquaintance Rob-(well-documented as the go-to guy for portraying dead Rebs)- dubs 'the wargasm': a free-wheeling, no holds barred, gruelling attempt to sweep through all the major battlefields, (including my all time fave: Gettysburg. Why, yes, my family has been dragged there too many times to count), within a handful of days. Along the way, he meets not only people whose business it is to re-create the battles as accurately as possible, (the diet! the bugs! the smelly, wet clothes! the inappropriately generic eyeglasses! Rob's infamous skill, 'The Bloat'!), but also, those who study the battles trying to learn from them, and those who still have vested interests in how the battles are portrayed and memorialised in history books.

The Grading Session: 4.71 pengies out of 5: Horowitz is a reliably entertaining and engaging writer with a self-deprecating streak of humor and a zest for unlikely adventures, (his Blue Latitudes turns the microscope on Captain Cooke- or Cookie, as we call him at Casa P+10- and is absolutely worth checking out), unusual in a self-professed eternal student, who loves comfort and convenience. Don't we all?

Lessons Learned: Even an eternal student need not be desk-bound when a beguiling adventure beckons. Get up, get out the maps, and get going! Plus this one: what, exactly do you do when your destination battlefield turns out to have been converted into a K Mart/Home Town Buffet combo. Should you be indignant and offended, or just stop, shop and grab a bite to eat? Decisions, decisions.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Book: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Author: Garth Stein

The Dealio: Enzo, our narrator, is a dog. Literally. A Lab-Terrier mix plucked from obscurity by Denny Swift, a race car driver famous for his ability -no genius- at winning in the rain. It won't take you long before you realise that Enzo spends far too much time thinking about things. Lining up his 'next life' and pining for opposable thumbs, the power of speech and a driver's license. But not in that order. Through the ups and downs of Denny's life, there is one constant- Enzo. And Denny treats the dog as though he already was in his next life- and is not only human, but a heck of a racer, as well. Enzo is asked to cope with Eve( Denny's eventual wife) and then Zoe (Eve and Denny's daughter, who, Enzo feels, he was clearly meant to protect and guide). And, of course, Enzo has to deal with the usual canine sitches-like his ongoing battle with the hated crows who. just. taunt- all of which which he views as temporary indignities, things to be gotten through so he can learn and make himself a better human. TV helps with his education in this area, but so, too, do tragedy, great joy, adversity and Denny's 'life lessons', doled out over the years of their relationship.

The Grading Session: 4.81 pengies out of 5. There are scenes later on in the story which filled me with agita and anxiety, which made me feel hollowed out. So, I simply have to deduct a few percentage points just for this. However, although fantastical in parts, (at what point when I was telling you that this is a book narrated by a dog who longs for opposable thumbs did you think you were not embarking on a fantasy? Either you buy into it...or you don't. Nothing in between), the whole feel of the story is funny and peculiar and endearingly...odd. I was taken by it immediately, and do recommend you give it a spin. Preferably while it is raining outside.

Lessons Learned: The car goes where your eyes go. Enough said.

The Assassination Vacation

The Book: The Assassination Vacation

The Author: Sarah Vowell

The Dealio: (this review is based on an audiobook, voiced by the author) I know, I know, you are cringing right now that anyone would actually choice to review a book with this title in such a threat-laden world. So Well, let's have a look-see: this is a very specific, highly niched history lesson. Picture a history class. Taught on the fly. By your favorite 'exotic' aunt. (You know the one: a little Goth, a little too much into the miniaturised model of the electric chair. Next, give her the voice of Violet Paar from The Incredibles, (It was Vowell who gave that character the power of speech in that movie, but you may also recognise her highly unique voice from her NPR show). Auntie, you have got my attention.
I have read a few books by Vowell, and she does have a quirky, darkly humorous take on hictorical incidents. Indeed. What she also has, is a rare enthusiasm and investedness in getting to the core of a thing, a person, an event. The Assassination Vacation represents these qualities very, very well, as she explores not only presidential assassinations, but their historical settings, the prequels and afterwords, the peculiarities that stick out so wildly, I wondered why I never thought about this in quite the same way. Sarah, sometimes solo, sometimes accompanied by her sister and young nephew, scrambles, chattily, incisively and interestingly through a combo travelogue/scavenger hunt that will take her- and her reader- to places as varied as the Dry Tortugas and Buffalo, NY. You may find this very hard to believe, but her irreverent, off-the-wall, ping-ponging interests and slightly skeptical viewpoint will have you laughing...and learning. The first is key to the second. And Vowell scores on both fronts.

The Grading Session: 4.81 pengies out of 5. This is the audiobook we put into the car sound systems whenever we undertake a road trip. That's entertainment...and, oh, that voice!

Lessons Learned: One of my all time faves: why Robert Todd Lincoln is referred to as (and, in my mind, at least, now eternally saddled with the label of) Presidential Death Mascot. Answer: he was in the immediate area during not one or two but three presidential assassinations.
And,too, there is simply no limit to the illogical and greedy lengths to which fringe 'museums' will go in order to obtain and showcase really weird things that once had interface with a prominent figure. Remind me to tell you about one featuring Andrew Carnegie's organ. Really. The musical instrument. What'd you think I meant?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

The Book: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

The Author: Daniel Mark Epstein

The Dealio: Actually, the title pretty much says it all. I have been intrigued since I was 10 years old by 'the long and the short of it', as A. Lincoln frequently described Mary and himself. Less than ideally suited from the earliest glimmerings of interest in each other, this odd couple went on- through unimaginable tragedies- to shape our perceptions of what a First Family is. Long before we were introduced to Miz Lillian and John-John, the American public had come to expect certain things from the families in the White House. Rightly or wrongly, this placed themthe- and continues to place them now- in a peculiar position: constantly in public view, constantly being judged , not only by people in their inner circle, but by everyone who gets news from one outlet or another. Constantly found to be wanting in some way. Add to that the unbelievable setting of the American Civil War, and here are the makings of drama on a par with Shakespeare.

The Grading Session: 4.24 pengies out of 5. (Note: this was a book on CD, read by Adam Grupper). In hopes of providing 'exhaustively detailed' 411, Mr. Epstein, in places at least, wound up being merely exhaustive, and exhausting. This is what one of my coworkers, and fellow book-lover, would label 'dense history'. And I agree. While it can be interesting to find out that Mary was quite a shopaholic, it is not even vaguely interesting to catalogue every knick-knack and kick-shaw she bought. Nor to read an inventory of everything in the various rooms in their home in Springfield. One other thing that was rather distracting for me-and this is no reflection on the author, understand- is the mispronunciation of various words by the reader. For example, the military order 'pree-SENT arms!' was pronounced 'present' (as in 'I hope I get a nice present for my arms'). The rank 'adjutant' was, moreover, pronounced 'aa-JUT-ant'. Not major, but so distracting, and, I simply must say, has this dude never seen Combat! or Gardens of Stone? Inglourious Basterds? No? Nothing?

Lessons Learned: Wow! So many! Here're a few:
1) The recipe for Blue Mass (one of the very few sovereign remedies of the time). It includes items such as crushed rose petals, powdered sugar...oh, yeah, and mercury. Kiddies, do not attempt to duplicate this one at home.
2) The aforementioned Blue Mass was widely used for treating syphilis.
3) That Lincoln- Susan, stop reading NOW- thought that he had contracted syphilis during a visit to a, um, place in the country. With that in mind, he began self-dosing with 3-4 pills per day and called off his 'serious interest and understanding' with MTL.
4) The incredibly cavalier attitude MTL had toward bestowing patronage and calling in monetary favors throughout her life as AL's partner. The incredibly cavalier attitude AL had toward personal safety and survival during and immediately following the Civil War.
5) The huge credence both Lincolns placed in omens.
6) How very close to falling to the rebels Washington, DC actually came. This particular passage was among the most dramatic and well-painted in the entire book. I was impressed and riveted.
7) How inspirational such a rococo tale can be: I told Prendie that I really, really want to write a story about this couple and this time in history, with a 'what if' slant to it. No, not 'What if George Pickett had a B-52?' That would just be...fanciful.

The Book of Eli

The Film: The Book of Eli

The Players: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals, Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Tom Waites (one of these days, I will sit down and blog a paean to Waites in film), Malcolm MacDowell, and so on.

The Dealio: Eli (Washington) is a guy who has spent over 30 years on a mysterious quest which came to him 'from a voice inside myself.' A man of few words, he is clearly not into touching or being touched by others-physically, emotionally...let's just say 'in any way'. He is also called 'The Walker', because he-duh!-walks every place he wants to go. En route to his final destination (unclear exactly what this actually is, Eli still remains resolute in his conviction that he is on the right path) drop assorted, nasty, avaricious characters, with whom he is forced to deal in a variety of most graphic ways. Amy- do not watch the first 6 minutes of this film. Even so, he is meant to be seen as a post-apocalyptic version of Caine from Kung Fu, Weedhopper- with much the same mindset and skills.

The Grading Session: 3.27 pengies out of 5. It truly pains me to drop down so many points in any movie which contains vivid and 'hooky' performances by Waites and Gambon, although I am wearying of close-ups of Oldman's pockmarked face, meant to say, what? This is the real deal? My sig other walked out of the theatre with the over-theme stuck in his brain. This is good. I also like that a unique gumbo of washed out blues, blacks and greys mapped the landscape and backgrounds of almost every scene, while the humans- or some of them, anyway- provided any touches of color. This was an ambitious undertaking, but it fell short in astonishingly basic ways, while soaring in the more difficult-to-translate-onto-screen applications. I am at a loss to know why this should be. Maybe. Oh, never mind.
Wait, OK, lemme put it this way: once we have learned to run, then ride bikes, then drive cars, then- for some of at at least- fly planes or helos, do we then forget how to crawl or walk? Also- why is it acceptable-when nothing genius occurs to the filmmakers- to fall back on in-your-face-violence, which serves no useful purpose in advancing the story, and then is so amateurishly chopped into that story?

Lessons Learned: OK, take a break, get up, walk around, stretch, get something to eat. We're going to be at this a while, as I have just mounted my soapbox. You have been warned.
1) It has come to my attention, repeatedly, that the terms 'dystopian' and, especially 'post apocalyptic' have become shorthand for lazy film making. Want some examples? OK.
The easiest way to show man's descent into total chaos and depravity is to make him/her become zombies or cannibals. It is especially helpful in identifying the bad 'uns to note a few simple characteristics which set them apart: they all have bad complexions, rotten teeth, stringy hair and bad hygiene. If you see someone who is not currently serving aboard a galley with really cracked lips, this is also sending a clear message: these are not good, helpful folks.
2) In the PA/D universe, apparently the first things to go are gas and water, but not necessarily in that order. How do I know this? Because what you see in any landscape involving roads, is that the roads are clogged with abandoned vehicles of every description. Emphasis on the word 'clogged', as in, no one can get through. However, the baddies seem to have unlimited supply to both (contrary to the above comment on hygiene. They have absolutely no intentions of wasting water on such trivialities). Chapstick is the new Krugerrand. Aaaand, the only people whose vehicles never seem to run out of gas are the-wait for it- bad guys. Unless, of course you boost a vehicle from the baddies. As to why the good-who are, in this same sloppy shorthand-also the have-nots, I wonder: where do they get the water and, for that matter, the chapstick, to maintain their high levels of cleanliness and lip perfection? I mean, Denzel's scarf was frakkin' pristine, y'all! Oh, yeah, and apparently, in this world, wet wipes from KFC are da kine: hoard 'em, trade 'em, use them medicinally. They will become a universal cure.
2) Aside from the above ways I have helpfully provided for you to tell heroes from bad hats, let's add another: despite being beaten and having her clothing ripped up, our heroine emerges without a mark on her lip or a tear to her duds immediately afterward,(although a cut lip catches up with her about 15 film-minutes later. Personally, I think film minutes are like football minutes: when there are 5 minutes left to play, this translates into about 90 minutes in football time. If there are 15 minutes remaining, crud! We're talkin' 3 more days of football. Perhaps film minutes work the same? Dunno). Anyway, back to our heroine who, post assault, is now sporting attire from the A & F Fall 'Post Apocalyptic Safari Collection': lovely suede boots (earlier, Eli was forced to steal boots from a dead man who- wouldn't you know it?- takes the exact same size as he does- as well as being in much better condition than our good guy's shoes. Now I am puzzled), a beautiful, becoming flannel shirt, tee, a couple of 'goin' to kick some serious touchus' jacket and pant ensembles, all set off by a nice gold necklace and a lovely violet scarf. Great designer sunglasses, too. I would have thought that, after the fall of civilisation as we know it, the gold, the scarg and the sunglasses would be long gone.
3) More signs of 'lazy film making': Everybody seems to rack rounds into shotguns with wild abandon, but never fire a shot. Pu-leez! I have to sit next to Prendie in these movies, and can see his lips tightening and a look of disgust forming on his cute face whenever this sort of scene spools out on screen. This is a stupid, amateurish mistake, but one which occurs over and over again in huge budget movies. How much could it possibly cost you out of your mega-budget to hire Dale Dye- or even Prendie- to make sure these things are done correctly? While we are on the subject of weaponry, one of my all time faves showed up in this flick: a Gatling gun! When was the last time you saw a Gatling gun in a PA/D movie? Also, who knew that a GG would be far more destructive than a rocket launcher? Given the nature of upstanding citizens' homes, as depicted in movies, (they are, frankly, always made of tissue paper and Swiss cheese. So neither a GG nor a rocket launcher is really, really called for. The bad guys just spent 15 movie-minutes shooting holes big enough to push a Hollywood ego through, without touching sides anywhere. Just get a big, bad wolf to huff and puff and...well, you know).
4) It is the hallmark of either a really good, or a really elliptical (um, that would be 'other than good') film that eavesdropping on 12 exiting viewers either lets you hear 12 different opinions on what the film meant. Either that or a fight breaks out. This film carried just such a hallmark.
So- really good? Or really other? You be the judge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Lovely Bones

The Biblio Babble:
The Book: The Lovely Bones

The Author: Alice Sebold

The Dealio: Both the book and the movie start out exactly the same: 'My name is Susie the fish. I was murdered on December 3, 1973, when I was 14 years old'. Now, typically, this sort of statement, alone, is enough to wave me off of a story. But something about the writing compelled me to move forward. So, heart in mouth, I did. Here is the story (no spoilers, as you know, by page 2 who the perp was). Susie is a fairly ordinary 14 year old, just coming into her own in every way: her dad is indoctrinating her into the family hobby of building ships in bottles; she is coping, wonderfully, with an embarrassing brother, sister and, especially, grandmother. And, there is a new love interest in her life.
Then, one day, while she is walking home from school, taking a short cut, she encounters a neighbor. Unbeknownst to her, this foo' has been stalking her and has what we would call-if we lived in England- 'malice aforethought'. Long story short- he lures her, rapes her and then kills her. I must praise Sebold, who wrote this book, in part, as therapy for recovering from her own rape. Speaking strictly as a chicken of the highest order, I appreciate a writer who can get you to feel, to share her emotions, without putting your own through the mental wringer. Such is the case here. Instead of haring off into graphic description, Sebold, instead, allows us- her more timid readers- to use our imaginations. And I am equal to the challenge: I can so, so easily imagine the horror, the grief, the helplessness of this situation.
And then comes the additional element of Susie's family, who are equally divided: her dad and sister want to find the person who did this, and punish him. Her mom and brother- and grandie- want it to just be over, and for the family to return to normal. Whatever that is.
What I liked about this book- and what stayed with me for the longest time after I had read it- was the intricate facetting of the thing: part fantasy ( the 'Inbetween'), part mystery (who did it and would we ever see him brought to justice?) and part psychological study (why? and further more...why?). I found this extremely well-written, expertly paced and riveting throughout.

The Grading Session: 4.791 pengies out of 5. I feel duty-bound to subtract a few decimal points, due mostly to the huge spin-out to get to the end, where we could see a truly, remarkably just ending visit our villain. (Mini-spoiler: the perfect crime) Why? It is hardly necessary, (please see film review of same...following directly, in the same post). The movie arrived at the same point (although not identical, if you please) far more directly.

Lessons Learned: Man, this is so easy. Horrifyingly so: don't accept invitations from weird ol' dudes. No good can come of this.

The Cinema Babble:

The Film: Sha! The Lovely Bones

The Actors: Saoirse Ronin, Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Michael imperioli, Susan Sarandon, etc.

The Dealio: See above, as the story remains the same. Some details have been shortened, some have been removed, but this was a true and worthy adaptation of the story Sebold sank so much into bringing to our attention. This movie was very poorly graded by critics both local and national. Not sure why; perhaps much of this was due to the huge investment made by so many in all the characters, nuance , even in preserving the absolute purity of the book itself. Much ado ensued, upon viewing the trailer, that there was far too much emphasis on the Inbetween. I must disagree: I read the book and found that Sebold invested a great deal into depicting a wondrous place where souls, seeking the comfort and the balm of 'exactly what they wanted most' could actually get it. The visuals (hey! I recognise you, NZ, and salute Peej for being willing to go back to that well yet again, crafting something moving, poetic and visually scrumptious for us to chew upon, while we console ourselves about the horror of the crime which is central to the plot), were exceptional, although, at times, made me impatient to get back to the central plot. 'Round up the villagers with pitchforks and hammers! Get a rope, we are about to see justice done right...and right now! Sigh. OK, so it never really works out like that does it?

The Grading Session: 4.81 pengies out of 5. I subtracted a bit from the total for the lovingly lengthy linger on some aspects of the story, while we found ourselves screeching though others at the speed of sound. I am such an ingrate, never satisfied with simple truth and beauty. The soundtrack was okay. Only okay. I'm thinking more could have been done in this area. Question: were Deuter AND Anya out of town for this entire process of fashioning sound to accompany? But I nitpick: the final product was incredibly, wonderfully true to the source materials and well worth the investment of time.

Lessons Learned: Aside from the self-same lessons from the book? OK, how about this? Don't smoke in bed. Don't trust the creepy neighbor dude who seems to have no job and yet always has money to buy treats for kids and is always 'building a real fun adults allowed.' He is probably not Howard Hughes, and, besides, Howard Hughes was a bit of a loose cannon, don't you think? Would you have trusted him with your 12 year old? And lastly, don't break into aforementioned creepy dude's house to air quotes get the goods on him end air quotes. He is always watching and, sure as apples taste better than red, he will catch you in the act. I'm just sayin'.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

If I Stay

The Book: If I Stay

The Writer: Gayle Forman

The Dealio: On a Snow Day, Mia and her family decide to treat themselves to a car trip into the country to visit friends who live on a farm. Along the way, the unthinkable happens: they are hit by a truck. In a manner reminiscent of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Mia (the teen in question, a star cellist), observes the aftermath of the accident from a place which is neither Heaven nor Hell. Powerless to influence anything that happens, still bound up in her own grief, anger and pain, Mia moves from the scene of the accident to the hospital- at least, she is able to move about within the hospital itself, instead of being stuck in the ER!). Slowly, she begins to realise things about family, about friends and about the boy who had already begun to mean almost too much to her. Most importantly, she is learning about herself. And the biggest question she is asking herself is this: Should I stay? Or, she wonders, would it be easier, would it be better for me, would it be fairer to everyone gathered around her hospital bed for me to just go?

The Grading Session: 4.89 pengies out of 5. If only for the scene between Mia's grandparents, this book is worthy of your time and attention. Do you sometimes wish she weren't so self-centered? Well, sha! She's a teenager, and 99% of everything is dramadramadrama. But the funny images evoked of her Dad as a rocker-complete with 'oh, Dad, you are so embarrassing! clothes, the heart-wrenching scenes by the side of the icy road, the moments recalling the tiniest of things that, now, are somehow, devastatingly important- these will win you over and move you profoundly. In my humble opinion.

Lessons Learned: Repeat after me: a snow day is an excuse for hot chocolate and crock pots of soup-or stew. Not- emphatically not- for careening across the countryside. Literally. Also- as was so beautifully rendered in the movie Up- great adventures, great loves, great emotions are, in real life- comprised of all the tiny, precious moments that make our breath catch and our hearts beat a little faster. Recognise those and you will realise that you already have had enough great things in your life to put a scrapbook to shame. Oh, and get started now!

The Hate List

The Book: The Hate List

The Author: Jennifer Brown

The Dealio: A novel which revisits a Columbine-esque tragedy from a teen's perspective, this book also reminded me of Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, but with a more intimate point of view: that of a victim, who also might just have been 'in' on the plan.
Valerie is your typical, artistic, sensitive, Goth outsider with quarrelling parents and a younger brother who thinks she is just a little too weird to be actually related to him. Into her life slouches the rebel-without-a-pause- Nick Levil (neat how his name is almost French for almost evil, the only oh-puleez moment in this entire book). He reads Shakespeare, focussing in on Macbeth and Lear-tragedies which seem to underscore his life-philosophy. Nick sees himself as the avenging spirit, (angel would be an exaggeration, just like Levil is), who not only sympathises with Valerie, but helps her, eggs her on, in creating the infamous 'Hate List' onto which go the names of all who have run afoul of the hapless couple. Food-throwing in the caf', keying cars, nicknaming Val 'Sister Death'- none of this goes without unnoticed, and soon the hate list is both lengthy, and beginning to be whispered about. When an incident on the bus causes Valerie to gripe, 'I could just kill her for that!', Nick agrees...and promptly opens fire on the perpetrator of the incident. In-school cameras follow the destruction and violence as it escalates, and, when Val either pushes a would-be victim out of the way (saving her life) or slips and falls, but still manages to save the targeted student, Valerie herself is critically injured, and Nick kills himself. This all happens in the first few pages of this book. So. Now comes the delicate part: what does all of this do to the victims who survived, and the families of those who do not? What does it do to Valerie-a huge question mark hovering over her head as everyone around her- especially her family- tries to address the questions and the emotions that threaten to overwhelm?

The Grading Session: 4.78 pengies out of 5. I got through this one in one sitting, prohibited from putting it down by the unique, involving view of the teen at the very center of the controversy and the blow-back. Also intriguing was the responses of the people who encounter and interact with her from day to day. I actually felt her pain and horror upon returning to school for the first time since the tragedy. Some very evocative writing-and thinking- going on in this debut novel. Disliked the artwork on the cover. Big whoop! Who cares? Read it anyway.

Lessons Learned: 'Eyewitness' accounts and even raw video feed can give you some basics, but there ought to be a class in high school or college called 'Perspective: When the Eyes Lie'. Cuz what you see is not necessarily what you get. Too, it is possible for those closest to a person to still be surprised and shocked by them and their actions. Does that make you responsible for what they did? It does not. Does it make you wish you had paid closer attention? Definitely. that.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Crazy Heart

The Film: Crazy Heart

The Actors: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, etc.

The Dealio: This could be a film about Merle Haggard or Townes Van Zant or Waylon Jennings, or any other of a number of enormously talented 'outlaws' of country music with tragic pasts and abbreviated lives. Jeff Bridges, once again, personalises the worn-in, dog-weary, hapless Everyman whom time has bypassed in favor of a younger, hipper type who is unafraid to appear in concert wearing two earrings. There is more than a whiff of Kris Kristofferson about Bad Blake and his song-writing, poetic gifts, so far, are the lone survivor of his boozy, spit-in-the-face-of-fate lifestyle. Then a chance for something more drifts across his self-destructive path in the person of Jane and her little son, Bud. Now, I never have 'gotten' why perfectly normal-seeming females are so attracted to something in these rusted husks of manhood, willing to place, not only their own safety, well-being and future into such a person's very unsteady hands, but also that of their kiddies. But I've seen this portrayed so often in the moving picture shows, that, well, it must be true, valid and maybe even commonplace.
What is not so commonplace- unfortunately- is such a sad, sweet song of a movie. There is seldom a wrong step-or note- anywhere along the way. And, although you may wish for a few things done differently, that would simply not have been true to the vision and the reality of this film.
In addition to Bridges' pinpoint perfection in the myriad tiny details, there are spot-on turns from Farrell and Duvall (who continues to tickle by simply playing himself and enjoying the heck out of it). Gyllenhaal, to me at least- struck the lone sour note, and that was not her fault. It was written in the script that she trust her precious son to the unreliable Bad...and, speaking as a mom, myself, this simply would not fly in real life; we all know that no good can come of this.
The music- this is always such a litmus test for me- was so well-done that you don't tire of it, even when you hear different takes on the same tunes several times throughout the life of the film. Great sign of really good choices here. And a little old slice of semi-redemption at the end. Who could- really- ask for more? Not I.

The Grading Session: 4.999 pengies out of 5; I am subtracting a smidgen for portraying a mom who describes her son as 'the most precious thing in my life', then lets a guy with a yen for the next whistle-wetter take the responsibility for this same child without turning a hair. Major no-no.

Lessons Learned: Beauty and poetry come from the most unexpected sources. And when they do, they can absolutely steal your breath right away from you.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


The Film: Avatar

The Players: Sam Worthington, Zoe Soldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, et al.

The Dealio: Oh, come on...seriously?! You have to ask? This latest entry in the CV of tiny, art-house flix-meister James Cameron, takes a paraplegic Marine and throws him headlong into the Avatar Program, replacing his boy-genius, deceased twin bro. From then on, it's pretty much a case of Disney's Pocahontas in Space. OK, OK, I admit the special effects were really, really (special). Sumptuous, evocative, unreal and psychedelic. The voicing was evocative...except for our main dude. (More on that later). But, as wowsers as all this is, I was bothered by the 'let's throw everything at the thing and see what sticks' approach to a project which clocked in at 12 years in development and mucho dinero in costs. Couldn't we have used at least some of that time/money to move into a more unique storyline? I know my better half will say, 'Well, there are only 9 original plots in the entire world.' This is true. But, why do some approaches seem fresher and more intriguing than others? This one, for example, had great potential to break loose and change/challenge current thinking. It didn't.
Am I saying this is a bad movie? Am I saying 'Don't go see this!' ? Nope. Not a bit. I am merely expressing my disappointment.

The Grading Session: 4.01 pengies out of 5. There is an old saying that fits this sitch: 'To whom much is given, much is expected.' Much was definitely given (hundreds of millions of dollars and almost 3 hours of our time). Is it too much to expect that an editor be chosen who is unafraid to tell the emperor (uh, sorry, 'King of da World') that he is, well, nekkid? Trim out about 45-60 minutes from this behemoth (say one or two fewer scenes of taming the flying pterodactyls? One less eye-candy shot of Sam's and Stephen's pumped-up-itude? A sliver less of the ooooohhhhh! aaaaahhhhh! fluffy little animated flowers, and hairy/scary leapin' leopards? Would that have irrevocably damaged the purity and fidelity of the message? (AKA: there go the Earthlings again, messing up their world, then, in a manner that would've given Victorian era Empirists pause- slaughtering the 'inferior', indigenous population in order to glom onto to 100% of the buttload of whatever needful thaang they happen be be roosting upon, in their nayb'?).
Here is something: Sam Worthington is playing a US Marine? He is an Aussie, I am reliably informed. Well, OK, I know this is will strike many as splitting hairs, but it has always bugged me whenever someone slips back into their own accents in the course of executing a role. Once or twice, I can overlook, but this happened throughout the entire second half of the film. And, in a movie of this sweep and span, I'd think someone- esp. that noted perfectionist James Cameron, would want to get that piece right. I don't even excuse this in a cheap-smack movie, let alone one which cost so much, and took so long to get into the can. So- there ya go. You owe it to yourself to see this film, but you also owe it to yourself to think about how you would have made this film. This is the greatest fun of all for me- a person who has absolutely no talent whatsoever for film-making. In other words: the perfect critic. Really.
Lessons Learned: It is never acceptable to trash your own 'hood, then expect that you have the right to scoot on over into someone else's and evict them so that you can strip mine the crap out of theirs. Additionally, even if you are a science nerd, on Pandora, your avatar will be tall (about 10' worth), long-legged and graceful, wear cool clothing and cornrows and really blend. The ultimate 'Revenge of the Nerds'.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Hurt Locker

The Film: The Hurt Locker

The Actors: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie. Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly

The Dealio: Into Bravo Company, after the leader of one of the ordinance disposal units is...out of the picture, comes a whole 'nother kind of leader: Will James. SGT James has already defused 871 bombs/explosive devices, call 'em what you will. Now, he is part of a new unit. One problem: he prefers to work alone. His team sees him as 'the guy who will get us killed'; his superiors call him 'a bonafide cowboy'- and they mean this as a compliment. Everybody else is unsure what to think of him: his wife and infant son think he is coming home to them when his tour is finished (38 days at the start of the film). He thinks that marriage is just another something that is trying to kill him- and is not even sure he actually is still married.
Set in the midst of the war in Iraq, this is a film that makes you care about the players almost at once...then snatches them out of their usual comfort zone and throws them-and you- literally, into the face of a mysterious, unknown and unknowable enemy. As with Danger: UXB, (a fantastic, intricate and mesmerising take on the same subject, but involving an unexploded bomb squad in WWII, when the enemy was known and familiar, but the technology not), there is an enormous temptation to immediately identify with certain characters and feel the need to speak directly to the screen, to warn them not to turn their backs, not to cut this wire, or go into that house. You know the drill. The twist is, here, I just knew from the first 3 minutes of the movie, that it could only end one of two ways. Don't worry, this is not a spoiler, so no need for an alert. I would be truly surprised if anyone walking into the theatre would not quickly jump to the same conclusions.
The Grading Session: 4.83 pengies out of 5. Some debits due to the use of a Marine helo to transport the newbies to the desert (ya know, these are Army guys, and the Army actually does have its own helos). Additionally, my on the spot expert in such things states that alcohol is not so readily available in the US camps as the movie would lead you to believe. The acting was fabulous, although it doth seem a crime to throw away some of the strongest actors after just a scene or two. Sigh. Be it ever thus.

Lessons Learned: Some people were born to do one certain job in life. That is what 'lifers' are all about. They are never completely comfortable doing the same, ordinary things as the rest of us, every doggone day. Thank God for them, says I, as how else would we be able to get people to put themselves in harms' way more than once? And we do need them to do so. We depend upon that. For those who do this, I say 'thank you!' For those who don't, I say, 'thank God, you have an appreciation, a longing, for something beyond the work. For life in all its multiple shadings, varieties and ordinariness. For all its predictability. I would guess that life led the other way- while great for those of us who don't- would be a pretty isolating, misunderstood and lonely existence. Or...I could be wrong. Thoughts?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Up In Th Air

The Film: Up In The Air

The Actors: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman (does he ever play a good guy any more?)

The Dealio: Ryan ( Clooney) is a hired gun who works, moving from site to site, firing people, because their employers are too chicken to handle this themselves. As such, he has carved a career for himself not only in amassing at least 10 million lifetime air-miles, but also seminaring others on the fine art of sharking through life without commitment. On a trip which goes exactly the way these jobs usually do, he meets a woman who describes herself as him with anatomical differences. His hard-earned shell begins to, at the very least, fray around the edges. Upon arriving 'home', a depressingly anonymous, soul-sucking rental-apartment for those who spend minimal time in their 'castle', he has a surprise awaiting him at the office: his boss ( Bateman, as a weak-principled, strong bottom liner) introduces him to the wave of the future: a recent college grad who has figured out how to save time and money (and potentially wreck everything Ryan has spent his professional life creating for himself) by firing people over the Internet. Ryan baulks at the 'depersonalisation' of the entire thing, but is overruled. The best he can do is to take his young apprentice on the road with him to see, first hand, how much better the trad (well, sort of trad) ways are to the souped up, fast-paced version she is espousing. Along the way there are cute-meets, tragedies, disillusionment, a really funny karaoke scene, and ultimately an understanding of the impact of what they do.

The Grading Session: 4.12 pengies out of 5. This movie is being heralded as a possible Picture of the Year, but I just ain't buy it. I liked the movie, thought everyone acted their touchuses off, but there was a certain lack of spirit which compelled me to mark this effort down a bit. Once again, I had to ask myself: what were the other endings that didn't make it? I know there had to be at least 2 others. Result: I walked out of there feeling...defeated. Harrumph.

Lessons Learned: You can call it whatever you like. You can do it however you think best. But, face it, fired is fired and unemployment seems to be the leitmotif for this moment in time. And watching a movie about it, set in the framework of a commitment phobe who finally tries to connect with someone- is just too depressing.

It's Complicated

The Flick: It's Complicated

The Actors: Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, John Krazinski, Rita Wilson, Mary Kay Place, Lake Bell and the most obnoxious male-kid in recent memory.

The Dealio: Jane and Jake divorced, after 20 years of marriage and 3 childrenm so that Jake can marry Agness. Now, 10 years later, there is a reunion of sorts prompted by Jane and Jake's youngest child's graduation from college. The entire clan re-situates to a plus NYC hotel and, well, one thing lead to another and, before you know it, sparks begin to fly between the two exes.
Into this mix, dump a newly divorced architect- Steve Martin, who is sweet-sweet-sweetie-sweet, but has clearly had some sort of plastic intervention. Then there is Agness' drive to have a child with Jake, which has taken all the fun out of their relationship and substituted nastiness, jealousy and suspicion--in this case, well-founded. Then there is Krazinski's Harley, who is very quick, indeed, on the uptake, realising that there is a whole lot of 'very French ' naughtiness going on behind others' backs. What to do, what to do?

The Grading Session: 3.68 pengies out of 5. Oddly enough, I thought I would like this movie much more than I actually did. I love-love-love the leads, and there are such tender and tough moments of confrontation (with fears, with advancing age, with the inevitability of failing at something that means the world to you), but was ultimately disappointed in the carry-through. My steadfast co-observer remarked, 'I wonder how many endings they went through before they lit on this one?' And I agree- which seems to be the problem. Should you go see this thing? Well, yeah, especially if you just saw Precious the day before...which I did. Sometimes there is great need for the palate cleansing that goes with movies like Meatballs, or Miss Congeniality and, well, It's Complicated. There is also some terrific gal-pandering: beautiful home, successful business, attractive friends, great relationships with the offspring- all post break-up. Which is as soothing as a trip to the spa, and a lot less costly.

Lessons Learned: Although it looks good on paper, or in your imagination, it almost never works out that you can revisit the scene of the crime and make everything turn out the way we feel they just-doggone it!- ought to(which).

The Young Victoria

The Film: The Young Victoria

The Actors: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, etc

The Dealio: Let's call this 'Victoria: The Early Years'. Prendie is convinced that this is the first in a 3 picture portrayal. After all, can one ever get too much Victoria?
We have the opportunity to see her as a small child, constantly being groomed for 'the job' by her mother and her mother's lover, an Irish upstart whose sole goal in life is to grab the bux and the power and roll around in both for the bulk of his life. Into Victoria's young life come a confusing confliction of male 'advisers', starting with the aforementioned Irish upstart, Conroy. Next is her uncle, King William, who sees her as the best of a bad lot, but can't get her mom to bring her to court more often than once every year (why not? He is, after all, the King!). Next up is Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister, but certainly not her last: using Victoria to advance his own agenda, and cutting her off from everyone who would deny him. Then Bobby Peel and the Duke of Wellington march through with barely a ripple on the surface to indicate how important they were to the formation of the image most of us have of Victoria: a tight-laced tartar in white bun and black attire, constantly disappproving of the state to which this old world has fallen. She is tossed between these men like a particularly desirable bone as she tries to find her way, and is reduced to near-surrender when a new male shows up on the scene. Albert. Thing is, is he truly interested in Victoria, the woman? Or is he serving solely as an undercover spy/puppet for her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (AKA Leo the Nutter)?
Albert, starting out as an unenthusiastic gopher for Leopold, blossoms, over time, into the force to be reckoned with of Victoria's dreams. Does he go along with her unquestioningly? Absolutely not. Do they fight? Absolutely. Do they fall in L-U-V love? Absolutely. Through changes in government, an assassination attempt, 9 kiddies and the Irish Potato Famine, the Young Victoria documents, not only the massive affairs of international politics, but also the tiny moments of intimacy and passion which molded Vic into the most dominant female royal since Liz 1.
And, oh! those clothes!

The Grading Session: 4.91 pengies out of 5. An incorrect gun was used, I am told, in one scene. The actors all do a terrific job, although I think VR should feel flattered by her portrayal by Miz Blunt. Everyone was spot-on and perfect, throughout. I also give thumbs up to the effort to catch us up with the remaining few (50+) years of Vic's reign, especially (spoiler alert! Oh, come on! you know this, right?)- Prince Albert died at the age of 42- 20 years into the marriage.

Lessons Learned: Well, actually, this is a lesson I haven't yet learned, but am longing to(which): What turned Victoria from an avid participant in what she called 'the marriage deed' to a person who, singlehandedly, embodies, to this day, the ultimate in sexual repression and prudery? Oh, wait, I think I just got it: the longing for a miracle to restore her dearest consort to her, and a jealous and vindictive streak unleashed when the aforementioned miracle did not eventuates. Thoughts? Anyone?

Sherlock Holmes

The Film: Sherlock Holmes

The Actors: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams

The Dealio: OK, so, Sherlock Holmes, as seen through the prism of Guy Ritchie's lens. This is a more vital, visceral (lots of punch 'em ups, violent encounters...OK, I did say this was Guy Ritchie's interpretation, did I not?),updated (no deer-stalker hat, Dr. Watson is a babe!), eye-winking version of the more trad, placid, cerebral detective. But, I must say, as a long-time fan of Sherlock, in all his recreations, both literal and cinematic, 99.9% of the result was achieved righteously: not too much fudging, and pretty well true to the source materials.
Here's the story: Sherlock is involved in a case that, ultimately, results in a peer of the realm being brought low and, well, hanged. Except that, now, there are reports that he is reappearing and wreaking his revenge upon all who sent him to the gallows to begin with. Can Sherlock's turn be long in coming? Think you know the answer to that, but half the fun is getting there. Strong performances by a slew of supporting actors- including, oddly, Mark Strong, as the ultra-villain.

The Grading Session: 4.295 pengies out of 5. Points off for a few items: 1st, at the time, London was known as The Big Smoke, because of the wholesale smog and pollution from the factories that housed the Industrial Revolution. In this movie, the city was as pristine and sparkly-new as a starched shirt out of a bandbox. 'Supwidat? It's a small thing, I know, but this matters to me, since the city was also a character in this movie- and an important one. Another small quibble is one that frequently occurs to me (and so I was thrilled that Austin Powers highlighted it, humorously): why all these infernal Rube Goldberg devices to kill, when an ordinary everyday explosion would fill the bill? ('No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die...slowly, tortuously, over the course of 12 hours!' Pu-leez). Otherwise, cakey! Aaaand, was I the only one to scent a whiff of the 's word' (sequel)? Stay tuned, Holmes fans everywhere!

Lessons Learned: Some literary figures wear out their welcomes with the speed of sound. Sherlock Holmes- inconsiderate, drug-addled, ego-driven genius that he is- is still, more than 124 years into his life, a force to be reckoned with (which).


The Film: Precious

The Actors: Gabourey Sidebe, Mo'Nique, yeah, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravits, Sherri Shepherd

The Dealio: To those of you off-planet in the past 3 months, this is the story of a 16-17 year old girl. That sounded way-simple, but the story is definitely not. Portrayed by Sidebe, Precious, our heroine, is a large, stoic, doughy, complex cipher of a woman. She has been heartbreakingly done-wrong-by. What a world-class understatement! Pregnant for the second time by her father, (she already has a daughter-Mongo- with Downs' Syndrome), living with a resentful, vicious, vindictive, abusive ignoramus of a mother, the only consistent message in her life is not 'Yes, you can', but 'No, you can't, you dummy...and why would you even want to try?'
From the very first scene, we are let into Precious' real life. Her internal life. The single facet of her existence which allows her to feel possibilities, hope and power-not yet realised, to be sure, but there, none the less. Not since the feather-weight movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a more reliable, fully realised, subversive inner life been depicted. It is this which stokes Precious' hidden strength and enables her to get up each day to take care of the ordinary business of life, as oppressive and dark as that may be. Is.
In some reviews of this movie, I have read that there is a great, 'uplifting' positive ending to the piece. To me, there is not, unless you judge the positives using a pretty steep grading curve. And that is when it hit me: the movie itself was like Precious' life: full of moments of unrelenting tragedy and violence, but made more palatable by the instants-surely no more than fleeting moments- when a beam of light shows through. And there were notable moments: a guidance counsellor seeing through her iron reserve to the needy woman within and moving her forward in her goal to get an education and make something of herself. A teacher who challenges her, then challenges her again and again-and helps her to meet her challenges and tune-up the way she looks not only at herself, but at the outside world. Incredibly empowering, involving and uplifting. So, yeah. Guess you have to grab your uplifts and positives where you can.
I actually had to pick a day to see this movie. Pick a day when I felt 'up' enough not to carry this movie around with me like a lead weight for weeks. Well, that plan was only partially successful, because I have carried this movie around with me ever since seeing it. Each time I think about it, I gain new insight, find new facets, am moved more deeply, unexpectedly.

The Grading Session: 4.83 pengies out of 5. This is not a movie for people offended by raw language and situations. There are so many in this film. However, it is pretty much a done deal that Sidebe will get a nom, if not an actual Oscar for her complex, touching portrayal. Mo'Nique will also probably get a nod in the supporting category. She deserves it.
Hated the music- which is a major consideration for me. And, as a nurse, I baulked a bit at Lenny Kravitz' characters statement in the film: ' I am a nurse. A nurses' aide.' OK...which is it? These are not synonymous terms, so clarify. I was just surprised the writers didn't make him a doc.

Lessons Learned: Dwell in the realm of possibility. It may save your (internal and external) life. Literally. Without the hope, the fantasy, the ideal to guide us, where is the motivation to continue to get up and surge forward? Word.