Friday, May 21, 2010

Little Bee

The Book: Little Bee

The Author: Chris Cleave

The Dealio: This is a novel about a 16 year old Nigerian girl who, when we first meet her, is about to be released, after 2 years in a detention center in England. And she has no idea what to expect. True, she has met one English couple in her home place, but remarkable and unbelievable events color that experience. Now, today, as she faces a life of freedom in England, she has no idea how to proceed. And everyone who offers her advice, has a secret agenda. So- what is she supposed to do?

The Grading Period: (This review is based upon an audio version of the book). 3.71 pengies out of 5. I had a lot of trouble reviewing this book,. Let me explain some of my...problems with the story. First, may I say that, rarely have I encountered an author with such soaring skill and eye-watering abilities. In fact, this is actually the start of my complaints: so lyrical and transporting is the writing that I was clearly envious of the writer's skill. However, I wound up feeling the characters undeserving of this sumptuous writing, undeserving of the sheer poetry of Cleave's tale. Next up to bat: by the end of the story, I despised each and every one of the characters, both for their general unlikability and also their rummy choices. Geeps! How would anyone with half a brain actually wind up making such rum choices? In the end, I hated them all. Not a good thing. Really.

Lessons Learned: If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck and acts like a duck...why are you so surprised when it lays an egg? Next: no matter how beautifully someone writes, if I wind up hating every single character in the book...for me, at least, this is not a great book. And I am sorry for this. I truly wanted to shout praises from the rooftops here. Instead, I will confine myself to saying this: Gorgeous writer. Hateful peeps. End of story.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Pacific

The Show: The Pacific

The Actors: Joseph Mazzello, James Badge Dale, Jon Seda and many others.

The Dealio: So, OK, Band of Brothers, perhaps the most significant, touching and global look at the European Theatre of WWII, was magnificent. I have watched this entire program at least 20 times- actually more than my sweetea, who watches it fairly often. I mean, there is no such thing as a boring or repetitious epi in the lot. Then, along came The Pacific, which was intended to provide a sort of historical bookend by depicting the Pacific theatre of ops. Everyone was hoping for a comparable look at this unique time in American history. Well, they got it...and they didn't. First of all, the entire European ops took place over a very contained area, over a very short period of time, and it was physically possible for one unit-Easy Company- to have participated in about every major campaign in the whole dog and pony show. The Pacific, though, was an entirely different sort of critter. The ops were widely spaced-both in terms of time and in terms of geography. No single unit really had access to the major campaigns, as men rotated in and out of their units, out of the area, on a regular basis.
Next, the concentration, the focus of The Pacific was on, for the most part, three major characters, all USMC, to be sure, but vastly different men, with natures and motivations as different as their backgrounds. Seda portrayed John Basilone, a Medal of Honor winner who moved, equally easily, between the world of combat, under unthinkable conditions, and the world of press releases, bond drives and H'wood-style fame. Next was Robert Leckie, a pre-war sports writer who seemed to feel more than was personally comfortable. Both a screw-up in the art of war and a genius with the written word, he also spent time in a 'rehab hospital' during the war in reaction to what he had seen. He was able to return to his niche in journalism after the war, and continued on to write close to forty books, including one about his experiences in the Pacific. Our third hero, Eugene Sledge, was the last addition to The Pacific. The son of a doctor (who had experience with the men who returned from the War To End All Wars, physically intact, but psychologically wounded in ways that they could never have known would stay with them their entire lives). Eugene was a boy with a heart murmur who was passed over as 'unfit' while his closest friends went off to 'do their duty'. Eugene finally got to enlist, was sent to the Pacific theatre, and there, he evolved from a soft-spoken, non-smoking/drinking innocent, to someone who was haunted for the rest of his life by nightmares and visions of what he had seen-and done- to survive.
Folks, this was no Band of Brothers. There. I've said it. Should you watch this show? Should you go so far as to purchase the DVD set when it comes out? Should you make the emotional investment? To quote my favorite Boston detective/wiseass, 'We'd be fools not to.' I really loved this program, looked forward to it, and sobbed mightily when it finished with a quick 'catch you up with the major players.' This was a series tougher to watch than BOB, with far fewer moments of humor and lightheartedness. This is not to say those elements went missing in The Pacific. They did not. But the harrowing moments, the relentless assaults, not only from the Japanese combatants, but also by the elements, a misunderstanding public back home and by those higher ups (yep, Dugout Doug, I am pointing right at you, dude)who made half-baked plans based on half-baked predictions of instant success and dominance over their enemy, took precedence, making this series, at times, almost too much to bear.
The actors all did a terrific job, forcing us to care about things as wide-ranging as what they were forced to eat ('Tonight's choices are: beef and rice...without beef; chicken and rice without chicken or pork and rice, but no pork...') to how they were forced to grin and bear it when sent back home to press the flesh and make people open their wallets for the cause.

The Grading Session: 4.899 pengies out of 5. Although now, it seems to me like comparing apples to pineapples, I do get the connection: this was an homage on the part of the executive producers to the men-and women- who served in the Pacific during WWII. But do not compare the two productions. Take the time to give each a fair trial. I think you will be as moved as I was by the drama, vision and scope of each: different and unique in their intent and execution.

Lessons Learned: A couple of oldies, which are still true today. War is hell. Also, ordinary people, in the face of extraordinary challenges, rise up and do extraordinary things. Then, they pay the price for what they have done. Lastly this (and it is important to note, please): it does not matter who is in charge. Bad decisions are made by the higher-ups, and are paid for by the lower-downs. That is a crime, a shame and an unbelievably cruel truth. However, those sacrifices have also given us our continued freedom. For this, simply give thanks to those who have gone before, who stood watch, waded in and made the ultimate sacrifice.
Over and out...but not out of mind.

Robin Hood

The Film: Robin Hood

The Actors: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchette, Max Von Sydow, Mark Strong, William Hurt, Danny Huston, etc.

The Dealio: This time around the story proposes that the son of a politically active stone mason, (Robin Longstride...get it? Two Robins for the price of one), now an archer in the crusading army of Richard the Lion-hearted (an almost unrecognisable Huston), returns to England with a duty (returning a family sword) and under the guise of the real Robin of Locksley, who gave him the sword on his deathbed. Don't think I am giving away any crucial plot points here; this dealio occurs within the first 15 minutes of the film.
Once back in Nottingham, Robin realises that things have disintegrated into a sorry pass, indeed. While Richard taxed and stripped the land to support his, hopefully, soul-saving mission, now his bro, the nasty, duplicitous piece of work I will always remember from The Lion In Winter (faaah-bul-us film, that) as pimply-face dolt Johnny- steps up to the plate. Despite some pretty great, revolutionary stuff with the Magna Carta, overall, I would have to characterise King John's reign as more of the same, with bells on.
The background of this tale involves back-stabbing minions/minor royalty, greed, savagery and the standard reward for honor and loyalty being loss power, the strippage of the wherewithal to survive, materially, and lots of plotting the downfall of England on the part of the always reliable French.
As Ridley Scott styles it, there is nary a pair of tights in sight and almost no sword play, either. A taddy bit disappointing, that. Instead, archery and some wicked-looking, pretty lethal hammer-axe combos abound. There are bees and, therefore, ya gotta have mead; higgins-boats (How too-20th century of the French!); homespun gowns covering sheer silk underpinnings and lots of pretty decent music, including Lillibulero from Barry Lyndon.

The Grading Session: 4.791 pengies out of 5. Yes, I liked it. But at 2 hours, 20 minutes, could' ve used at least 20 minutes sheared off-with absolutely no loss of the overall tone and flavor of the piece.
Crowe and Blanchette are predictably grand- although it is Max Von Sydow, as the blind Sir Walter of Locksley, who showed up primed to kick butt and take names...acting-wise. His Walter is, at turns flinty and debilitated, wily and foolish, hidebound by custom and willing to bend the facts to suit the situation. Wonderful in a relatively minor role, Von Sydow makes away with each scene he enters...even if only in the background.
I revelled in the sumptuous scenery, the realism of the French king seasick, the horrible teeth and non-existent sanitation so typical of the time (I am always puzzled when I see whole armies turned out like they stopped on the way into battle at the One Hour Martinising. Well, none of that here). My date was touched by the strong father-son parts of the storyline and also by the change-up in the plot that allowed the real Robin of Locksley to reconcile with his father and settle a wrong, all in one grand game of bait and switch. Which, in turn, touched off another moving father and son reunion. Both of these, posthumous.

Lessons Learned: Never underestimate the transformative power of greed and ambition. Especially if both occur in the same weasily person.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Iron Man 2

The Flick: Iron Man 2

The Participants: Robert Downey, Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, etc.

The Dealio: OK, so when we left our titular hero, he had just identified himself as Iron Man to the general public. The story picks up a beat or two later, and things are not going well for the man in the iron pants: his suit is slowly poisoning him and weakening his heart. In addition, he is scorching through the batteries with which he is able to maintain and reinforce his stamina with the level of destruction one usually only sees in a cell phone or digital camera. He is working and reworking the research that led him to the current level of scientific development, but it is clearly not enough, since his chest and neck are starting to look like a trailer for Scanners. The government wants that suit, Tony Stark wants to settle the score against a competitor in the arms production race who, clearly, feels inferior to Tony, but wants to come across as the man of the hour. Against this backdrop, lurches an upcoming 'important birthday' and a Senate witch hunt, a crazy Russian with a vendetta and the after-effects of a remembered, uncaring father. Tony decides to turn over the management, the day-to-day of Stark Industries to Pepper Potts (Paltrow), then dedicate himself to the pursuit of the perfect battery for his decrepit ticker.

The Grading Session: 4.11 pengies out of 5. Bonus points for AC/DC on the soundtrack. While the original IM was pretty breathtaking, and, had I been blogging then, I would have awarded pretty close to 5 pengies, I couldn't, in good faith, do that this time around. Why not? Glad you asked.
First of all, while the storyline was ambitious, probably a touch too much so. We are sent off onto tangents like Tony's health, the war on terrorism, old vendettas, the nature of war, the nature of excess and that old bugaboo, father-son relations. A storyline this complex demands a lot from screenwriters in order to support and expand the original inspiration. It simply was not there. While the beginning of the film was all fiery technique and great set-up, the middle of the film seemed to sag, losing ground, exhausted, mirroring, if you will, Tony's worsening physical condition and increasing disengagement with the day-to-day. Instead, what was probably easier to do, overall, was to fall back on special-effects-heavy violence.
And, really, what is the point of having such fine actors as Paltrow, Johansson and Jackson so under-utilised as to appear to be virtual cardboard cutouts of their characters? As my boss would say, 'Missed opportunities!'
My official movie-going partner slash weaponry expert was appalled by the plethora of mistakes in the area of munitions. Tsk-tsk, y'all. These, above all, are really so simple to get right. Why not put in the extra effort?
Lastly, this was an interesting addition to the series, and Robert Downey, Jr still obviously has a zest for the part and does a great job of staying in the moment...wherever that particular moment takes him. I think Cheadle did very well stepping into the War Machine's boots. Speaking of which, what was up with the physical characteristics of the suits designated for the various military branches? I saw nothing that shouted 'Army', Navy', Marine Corps' etc. Was it mere laziness or a simple misstep? Either way, it cost you-with us, at least.

Lessons Learned: So very, very many. But I will try to keep it lean.
1) Got really frickin' tired of Whiplash's nuclear whiplashes. OK, I get it. He's a bad hat. With very poor dentition and some pathological fingernails.
2) Ever notice that, however high tech the assault purveyors are, they only do a great job for about the first 45 minutes of the battle? After that, the outcome of the fray seems to rest on something philosophical, basic or meant to be seen as such. ('I need a partner. Can we come together?' That, apparently, is all it takes to overcome overwhelming evil might).
3) It is really creepy to see DJ AM deejaying in a party scene. Creepy, and oh, so very sad.
4) And this is vital: do NOT leave the theatre until you see the MPAA rating run by. With this series, there is always juuuuuust a little more to be seen.

The Back-Up Plan

The Flick: The Back-up Plan

The Participants: Jenny from the block, Alex O'Laughlin, Robert Klein, Linda Lavin (almost unrecognisably perfect as JLO's grammy!), etc.

The Dealio: Zoe (JLO), has reached a point in her life when she incessantly hears the increasingly blaring ticking of that ol' demon bio clock, and she, improbably, without a promising man in sight (Diagram that sentence, please, before moving on in the review). After first terrorising her sole male employee by asking him to be her baby-daddy, she comes to her senses and goes ahead with her bonafide back-up plan, and is inseminated by an anonymous doner. Naturally, this being a H'wood production, minutes later, she 'meets cute', relatively speaking, the fella who will become the man of her dreams, Stan (Alex O'Laughlin, whom I kept expecting to grow fangs and bite JLO's neck. Sorry, see what a little mental cross-pollination can do to movie-viewing?) . Let's get everyones resumes out of the way: Zoe left the corporate world-of course she did- to open a pet store, which, judging by her clothing, book-signing events and great home-space, is the most lucrative lifestyle swap since the Beverly Hillbillies. Stan, contestant #1, is an up and coming farmer,(yep, you read that correctly), who specialises in the creation of artisenal cheeses (yeah, read that correctly,too), while living on his inherited, sumptuous farm and ruing dropping out of school to help his family. He is currently struggling to finish up school at night, leaving him in severe sleep deficit, and unable to pass a basic economics course (I kept expecting the ex-Miz Biz tycoon to step in and help a bruthah out, but, man! that just never happened).
On with the story: naturally, three things happen in quick-step: the insemination 'takes', Zoe falls for Stan, and vice versa, and before you can say, 'snafu!' they are on the outs because he thinks she is nuts and she thinks he has a short attention span. Oh, yeah, and after a lovely evening in the cheese-barn (yes, yes, yes, you read this correctly) followed by a literal roll in the hay, he invents a cheese inspired by her. (YES! You read that correctly).
Spoiler alert! Needless to say, eventually, after she wipes out a tree on his property and spills red wine all over her silk dress, and falls asleep during the econ final, they realise they were meant for each other. Lots of relatively cute and funny things happen along the way. Read on...if you dare.

The Grading Session: 3.998 pengies out of 5. This is not a bad movie, or a movie you should go out of your way to avoid...or go out of your way to see. But it is a harmless, familiar tale with a few really interesting contributions: as mentioned previously, Linda Lavin has now reached the point in her career where she can beautifully and appropriately play a grandmother. This, initially, really shocked me. Until I recalled that I, too, would be age-appropriate for this role. If I could act. Which I can not. Robert Klein was extremely engaging as Zoe's OB/GYN. The scene where he attempts to desensitise Stan about the entire process is one of the most entertaining in the entire film. And then, there is the presence of Cesar Millan (playing himself) at a book-signing at Zoe's pet shop. This, alone, was worth the price of admission. Although, I admit to a certain disappointment that he did not do his trademark 'TSSSSST!' when a clear opportunity presented itself.
As an ex OB/GYN /delivery room nurse myself, I must lodge one complaint that I see duplicated with dismaying regularity in such romcoms. Here 'tis: is it really necessary to portray 'alternative birthing methods' as the exclusive domain of nutters and extremists? I am fed up to my teeth with having to sit in an audience, listening to roars of laughter, fuelled by depictions of aggressive, crazed women pursuing their personal versions of 'natural childbirth'. It's almost an allergic reaction, I spoze, on the part of sceen-writers to the 40's-50's cinematic representation of childbirth as a clean, neat, sterile, soft-focus event that has nothing to do with hard work or bodily fluids. Is there no amusing place in between absent trotting out, once more the dog-eared stereotype of the aggressive, man-hating, borderline-lunacy depicted-for a laugh-as the modern day version/vision of childbirth? I'm just sayin'.
Whew. Gotta climb back off that soap box. Um. Sorry. Had to be done. I'm better now, though.

Lessons Learned: Women like those portrayed by JLO and similar actresses- women who are successful, beautiful and high-profile-apparently can't seem to get dates, let alone find/hang onto a long term relationship worth the investment of time and emotion. Who knew? Also- there is as much art in the creation of cheeses as in the creation of paintings, sculptures and other, more traditional art forms. This one I happen to agree with, because I feel the same about my toiletries. Art plus science. See?
And, finally, this: it will follow as surely as the night doth the day (as Willie the Shake hath said) that the nanosecond a woman opts for (successful) insemination, the man of her dreams will pop up beside her and sweep her off her feet and into a terrific relationship...sometimes artisenal cheese in hand.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


The Film: Babies

The Cast: Ponijao, Mari, Bayar and Hattie and their families, neighbors and attendant animals.

The Dealio: French film makers follow four babies and their families for the first year of their lives. From Namibia comes Ponijao, from Tokyo, Mari, from Bayanchanmandi (Mongolia), Bayar and from San Francisco, Hattie. The only dialogue is what naturally occurs, and it is not translated for the film goer by the producers. Still, certain things need no translating: if you think a child is being scolded, you are probably right. If you think mom and baby are playing a games, well, right again. And so on. Each of the babies has his or her own distinct voice and personality, right from the start: Ponijao is persistent and curious (he studies what his brothers do, then imitates, flawlessly and triumphantly). Bayar is smiley and brave (watching him walk amidst his family's cattle or watch a rooster walk up to him on a bed, and you witness a certain quiet daring and panache). Mari is the most stylish and fashionable, but also throws the most impressive hissy fits (her frustration with toys that simply won't respond to her earnest efforts to 'fix' are hilarious, but also can make you groan in shared angst when that peg just won't support the plastic doughnut). Hattie starts out in neonatal intensive care unit, with a plethora of tubes and machines that go BING! surrounding her tiny face. She is the explorer, the anxious study-er (her face falls when her cat comes into view then disappears again. And she can't follow on her own... not yet). The last but one scene-collage shows the babies taking their first steps. All seem to be having a nice time meeting mobility for the first time, but it is Bayar's face which sticks with me most: pure, unadulterated joy and triumph as he laughingly puts one foot in front of the other, and actually gets to where he wanted to go. There is a crow of satisfied pleasure that had everyone in the theatre laughing along. Delightful, that. The final sequence brings us up to speed with all four babies present day. I do so love when a film maker goes to the trouble of catching us up on the film's subjects. To me, this is such a link-in to the heart and soul of the film and the film-goer. Aaaah.

The Grading Session: 4.71 pengies out of 5. Some deductions come because of an almost total blackout of fathers: with the exception of a shot of Bayar's dad taking him, (papoosed on a wooden board and swaddled to a fare-thee-well), his mom and older bro home from the hospital on his motorcycle, we don't get to see him. We get about four scraps of scenes featuring Mari's and Hattie's fathers and none at all of Ponijao's. Would have been interesting and added to the film. The soundtrack was at times engaging, but I felt it missed some splendid opportunities here.
My background is as a labor and delivery nurse, so you know I really had to enjoy a film like this (will blog on The Back-up Plan other-end-of-the-spectrum sort of dealio). And I did.
PS- this film is rated PG due to inappropriate scenes. Which left me wondering: which ones would those have been?

Lessons Learned: First of all this one: if you are one of the first 20 people into the theatre to see this particular film, you will be given a free poster and tee-shirt. Schwing!
Next: brother and sisters: first friends and worst nemeses! There is something pretty universal and comforting about this dual role. To me, anyway.
Lastly: another universal: cats and dogs- and, sometimes, even goats- really do put up with a lot from their pint-sized cohabitors. Watching Mari, Hattie and especially Bayar with their cats, and Ponijao with 'his' dog, I had my mouth agape and my heart in my throat. The animals looked frustrated but willing to go along with a 'game' they really didn't get. These lovely creatures just do not get enough credit for their native intelligence and casually nurturing natures. Let's hear it for the critters!
Enjoy this film.