Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

The Film: The Kids Are Alright

The Actors: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowski, etc, etc.

The Dealio: Jules and Nic are a longtime suburban couple in an upper-middle class California neighborhood. Nic is an OB/GYN and Jules drifts from almost interest to almost interest with the avid clinginess of someone desperately trying to justify having been a stay-at-home mom for more years than she is entirely comfortable with. Nic, too, is becoming short-tempered about what she sees as Jules' flightiness - especially with regard to the myriad opportunities in which they have both invested time and talent..not to mention moolah. None of which have prospered. Their two children- via a sperm donor (Ruffalo's restauranteur/organic farmer/general sleeparound chap, Paul)- are getting to an age- mid to late teens- where they are curious about the person who is their biological father. And decide that they want to, at the very least, meet him. Predictably, 'the moms' are aghast at the possibility that this person who so conveniently dropped in and out of their lives twice, and to good, if impersonal effect so long, long ago, might actually become an important part of their children's lives. What would this mean to them? How would this affect their family? And, in the end, how would each cope with the inevitable changes this meeting would bring?

The Grading Session: 4.19 pengies out of 5. Although 95% of this tale was dead-on accurate, it was a bit irksome to me that it was felt to be necessary to have one of the moms be sexually attracted to Paul. (Oh, come on. I am not plot-spoiling: they showed some sequences about this in the trailer). No doubt this was felt to be a valid plot line, given that, in many marriages, there is an outside force that bursts upon the scene, first tempting, and then threatening. But it struck me as the one 'off' note in the otherwise entirely engaging and well-wrought film.

Lessons Learned: Well, natch this one: Laser is a boy's name. Who knew? Next up? Would never go to Bening's Nic. For an OB/GYN- who must be on-call virtually 100% of the time- she drinks entirely too much to be able to answer a page and go in to work. Lastly: in every relationship where much is invested, the work required in order to keep the relationship afloat requires a daily recommitment and max effort. Everything else about the relationship is simply detail.


The Flick: Inception

The Contributors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Cillian Murphy (or, as I prefer-'casting alert: weird character ahead'), Michael Caine (yep, that Michael Caine), Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Lukas Haas, Pete Postlethwaite, etc.

The Dealio: In the very near future, it will be possible to obtain what is described in this movie as 'a very unique type of security'. This is one in which the unconscious mind- i.e., one's sleep state- is held for ransom, or even bartered for biz bennies. Leo's Dom Cobb is touted as one of the best in the world at this type of op, and is given the assignment (by competitor Watanabe's Saito) of entering into the dreams of Murphy's young heir and plant the idea of his deconstructing the energy firm his father built. See, doing things this way makes the victim of the theft think the idea to do what his competitors want is his, and his alone.
Of course, with a Christopher Nolan film, nothing is ever as simple as this. There are all sorts of red herrings, double-backs and redoing of sequences...out of sequence.
This is not a film which allows you much time to sit back and let the action/plot wash over you like art. Nope. Here, your are expected to take a vigorous interest, roll up your sleeves and get involved. And if you think there is a powder-room parade in your future, well...dream on.

The Grading Session: 4.71 pengies out of 5 (What soundtrack? Myself? J'adore Piaf more than wartime Brits adored jam, and especially Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Still...) And what's the deal with that fly? Having been schooled by movies like The Sixth Sense, I am now spring-loaded to be suspicious when I see a repetitious element. And that damned fly kept showing up. Now, granted, I did not stay for the outtakes and the gag reel, that's true, but there was no resolution on the fly. I kept thinking, 'Does the presence of the fly mean 'dream time' or 'real time'? This is very disruptive to a mind like mine. I thrashed around with this throughout the entire movie, until it began to be a point of especial focus in every. last. scene. And, yet...well, in the end, it apparently meant nothing. Nada. Zip-squaterooch. Chris,honey. Darling. Listen up: 5 yard penalty for the freakin' fly.

Lessons Learned: Dreaming is not necessarily restful or even survivable. Also, if your spouse/partner is gas-lighting you- even in the name of science- well, karma is gonna exact a weighty payback sooner or later. Too, I must ask myself: what is it about Leo's characters that so angers his spouses? This has happened before and I smell a trend. Let's work on that, peeps. Lastly: what. is. with. this. damned. fly?! Discuss amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Being Stuck in a Biblio-Blah-Ble

Just flushed the third book in a row out of my Kindle.
Also ejected an audiobook from my car and reverted to Shout Out Louds and Flaming Lips.
Have three unfinished book-books sitting at my bedside- and one, the ever-popular 'purse-book'- languishing in place.
What the aitch is going on here?
The last time I was at this pass, I was coming off a hot biblio streak (The Help, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Water For Elephants and The Girls). I remember that I had to do what a fellow patron of my highly informal (think post-it notes on covers/cases, left in a drawer with a sign-out notepad) worksite book-club- calls 'cleansing the palate'.
I simply could not find a single book worth sticking with for more than 52 pages. No matter how much time and dedication I lavished on them.
I was forced to stop the books- in any/all formats- completely and move over into pure music (oh, yeah, and mags). This lasted me about 8 weeks which slipped by with nary a notice until temptation, in the form of City of Thieves and First, They Killed My Father, popped up in my path.
This rift between books and me is, based on recent history, temporary. Thank God. But what makes it happen? Within the past three weeks, I have tossed aside The Faculty Club, A Visit From The Goon Squad, American Music (and I loved this author's I Was Amelia Earhart) and One Day. The characters did not engage. Or the premise was too scattered. Or the plot was underdeveloped. Whatever, each of those books seduced, but was soon abandoned.
Here's my question: why does this happen- to even the most devoted bibliophiliac? More importantly, what can I do to bring it to an end? And, post haste!
Who's with me on this? Anyone? Anyone? Hellll-oooh-oooh...[cue crickets]

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Winter's Bone

The Flick: Winter's Bone

The Talent: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes (AKA 'Bugsy' in The Perfect Storm), Sheryl Lee, etc.

The Dealio: The Dollys are going to lose the dilapidated property that passes for the old homestead if their daddy- a suspected meth cooker- skips bail. Mom is in a numbed state similar to Alison Janney's pin-point sharp rendering in American Beauty. Daddy is part of an extended, very complex family of meth cookers who will do anything to keep their bidnez under wraps. Ree Dolly, 17 years old and imbued with an astounding sense of responsibility and dedication to her mom and younger brother and sister, sets out to find her daddy and bring him back to face the music. It is the old story of saving the family home, against insurmountable odds, when everything turns to slumgullion.

The Grading Session: 4.78 pengies out of 5. Much higher than I would ordinarily give a movie that had me alternately hiding my eyes and clenching my jaw throughout the bulk of the show. Most of this was due to the phenomenal work of Jennifer Lawrence. A newish find, Lawrence pulls you firmly into her camp right from the git go, and never lets you believe that she will ever fail in anything she attempts.
This entire movie was a study in atmosphere and, as such, builds on the initial portrayal of poverty, vague dread and unease, until, every time you see a female with a hatchet-face and a cup of coffee, your innards begin to jello-ise. BTW- are all of the females over the age of 30 related in this deal? Now that was some scary stuff.
In addition, tremendous job on the part of John Hawkes ('Teardrop'), a loser trying to overcome his past in order to do the right thing by his immediate family...but scared that doing the right thing may spell his doom.
Was trapped in the theatre with a gent of a certain age who felt duty-bound to engage me in a touch of pre-show chitchat. We were the only two in the theatre at the time, and, I guess he was feel wigged out at the prospect of watching the film with one other person who happened to be a female. He was pulsing me on several movies he had enjoyed in the recent past, and the common theme was, in his words, 'extreme violence'. Apparently a major mandatory component for him. I almost literally sighed with relief when a group of seniors (hey! wait! I am now a senior!) walked in and began discussing the merits of Rubio's fish taco versus Point Loma Seafood's smoked fish sandie for after the show. Talk about your hig-grade palate cleanser.

Lessons Learned: Beware of females with hatchet-faces, bearing cups of coffee...and chainsaws. No good can come of this. Also this one: meth-cookers, as a rule, would rather kill you day-ad, regardless of your age or gender, than speak to someone outside their circle. And lastly: the aforementioned meth cookers always seem to keep a heck of a lot of dawgs. No cats, but a pant-load of doggage. Discuss among yourselves.


The Film: Salt

The Actors: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schrieber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher, etc (Wouldntcha just hate being among the actors listed here as 'etc'. It's like bands listed on the playbill as 'and others'. Sheesh).

The Dealio: Evelyn -model gorgeous, whip smart and as agile as gutta percha- stands accused as a double agent by a CIA 'walk-in' and must prove her innocence. The jury, once the fit hits the shan- goes from about 50/50 on the subject of her innocence/guilt to an overwhelming verdict of guilt as this actioner-originally intended as a Tom Cruise vehicle- kicks, slashes, jumps and explodes its way to a final showdown.

The Grading Session: 3.91 pengies out of 5. Lack of memorable music is the least of this films debits. Figured out that this entire thaang unspools over about 2-3 days, during which Salt is involved in a slashing, a beating, a series of jumps first, from a bridge onto a moving 18-wheeler, then from the 18-wheeler onto a tanker (who, in his right mind, fires at an oil tanker on a crowded freeway?), then onto an armored truck- which hits its brakes and sends her spinning onto several lanes of a DC area highway, into a bona fide chopper high-jacking, with scant damage to her. I couldn't even manage to cross the street in downtown DC without fearing for life and limb. Evelyn. Honey. Do yourself a favor and take some lessons from the Jason Bourne playbook.

Lessons Learned: Angelina Jolie does not make a creditable male. Even with body makeup. Also- If you can not figure out who the bad guys are in this one before the general populace of this particular cinematic universe, I would be really surprised. Lastly: when Angelina Jolie is on the lam, there is no end to the relentlessly chic 'grabbed-on-the-fly' outfits she comes up with. Would that Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher had access to the same splendid resources during their moments of egress and flight. Still...better than Ator, The Fighting Eagle.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Flick: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Usual Suspects: Nic Cage, Monica Bellucci, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Alice Krige, and so on.

The Dealio: When just young pups, (about 1100 AD), three sorcerers became apprenticed to Merlin, the biggest deal of them all and the standard by which all future Dumbledores would be judged. The names of the three apprentices were Balthazar, Veronica and Horvath. As fate would have it, Balthazar and Horvath, (Cage and Molina, respectively), both fell for Veronica. Note, please, that historically, everyone seems to fall for Veronica. It's almost like a law. However, Merlin, himself, had much, much bigger fish to fry: Morgana La Fey, the roughest, toughest, meanest-spirited sorcerer in the fantiverse, had decided, in a very Highlanderesque manner, that There Can Be Only One...and it sure as heckfire ain't gonna be Merlin. Unrequited love being the souring thaang it is, it is simply a matter of time before Morgana flutters her lashes at Horvath- the loser in the Balthazar vs Horvath title fight for sole possession of Veronica's heart- and recruits him to what would, in galaxies far, far away be called 'the Dark Side',(hey! the line, 'These are not the droids you're looking for' was put into play here). In the inevitable showdown, most of the major players wind up on ice for the foreseeable future. Except for Merlin, who apperates to another dimension, but not before giving Balthazar his very own ring and the cryptic message that the Ultimate Merlinian is out there someplace, a child who will take over the fight against the up-to-no-good, power-hungry Morganians. All Balthazar has to do is locate this kid over the centuries and throughout the globe. This really is not as simple a deal as it may at first seem.
OK, SPOILER ALERT: that kid turns out to be Dave (Baruchel), who as a kid had a great imagination and a thirst for all things physics-related. As an adult, he is still pretty clueless about the opposite sex, but has ramped up his fascination with all things physics to an alarming level.

The Grading Session: 4.69 pengies out of 5. Nice little soundtrack-including some music purportedly generated by Tesla coils. Yeah. I know.
Everyone does their own bit of scenery-chewing- especially Krige and Molina, but Toby Kebbell (who?!), the erstwhile Drake Stone, magician to the masses, star of Vegas and H'wood, does his share of chomping down heartily on any available scene. The story even gives a nod to the Mouse House classic in a scene with animated cleaning supplies. Cage- who can be reliably counted on for a slow burn or two, turns in a-for him- nuanced performance as this newby he is tasked with training just. can't. seem. to. get. it. For the bulk of his performance,however, he is charmingly subdued, thoughtful and surprisingly mellow.

Lessons Learned: You go see a Nic Cage movie, you gotta rate the weird hair. It's like my rule. The tangled, greasy mess in today's submission rates about 3 pengies out of 5; not as bad as The Rock, not as slick as Honeymoon in Vegas or Peggy Sue Got Married.
Next: Magic spells and sorcerer's powers are good; CPR and an AED...far, far better.
Lastly, if you are seeing a lot of big, ole bugs start proliferating around! It may already be too late, but, shoot, don't just stand around staring, as if waiting for a pot of gold to materialise. Nothing good ever starts out with a wholesale manifestation of insects. Nothing. So, leg it, folks, while you still can.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Despicable Me

The Flick: Despicable Me

The Cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Julie Andrews (yes, that Julie Andrews), Russell Brand (yes, ditto), etc.

The Dealio: Incorrigibly nasty Gru is first upstaged by a newer, hipper baddie, then denigrated by Mom Gru (her de-energised 'eh,' in response to everything her boy does is the ultimate put-down: lackluster and beyond uninterested), then overwhelmed by fails in his newest scheme to reclaim the crown of 'Baddest of 'Em All'. Into his otherwise well-balanced, if unrelentingly negative existence wander three tiny orphan girls, looking to sell some cookies, meet some perspective parents and, oh yeah, maybe score a unicorn as a pet. Here's the problem: even though Gru goes to great lengths to prove he is really, really evil, he really, really is decidedly not. Of course, it takes the addition of the three little 'kittens' who show up on his doorstep to 'bring out' the real Gru, but I was willing to go along for the ride, and am pretty pleased that I did.
Am I saying this is the best movie ever? Nope. Am I saying this is the best 'saved by innocence' movie ever? Nah. Am I saying this is the best animated saved by innocence movie in history? Not even. But this is a fun, enjoyable movie with some pretty cool characters, a nice storyline and some terrific voice-characterisations.
Although this was pitched as a 3D movie, by now, you must know that I hardly ever succumb to the commercial pleas to upgrade to 3 D- I honestly never am tempter any more. I am not sure if it because the goggles give me headaches, the effects aren't really that special or I am truculent about forking over a bounty of fun-tickets just for the privilege. Either way, I saw this one in 2D. What a shock.

The Grading Session: A sweet and engaging story with some interesting voice acting going on, at times, this movie could be so heavy-handed it was as subtle as a sledge hammer to the melon. Example: the First National Bank of Evil is subtitled ' formerly Lehman Brothers'. Aw! Burn, burn, double burn. Gotcha now. (Response? 'Eh.')
Loved the minions, which was strange since, as long as this movie has been on the radar, trailer-wise, those minions have been omnipresent, and most annoyingly so. I think one of the funniest bits in the movie, though, was that Gru knew the names of each and every one. A sign, I surmised, that he was not bone-deep evil. Also loved the details of the minions fashioning a unicorn. And Gru first, scornfully reading a book to the girls, then creating a more Gru-appropriate one. Totally sweet. So, I guess I will have to give this 4.21 pengies out of 5. Final word: sweet, tempered with temper tantrums.

Lessons Learned: Never underestimate the power of nepotism. Sometimes, too, the smallest word of encouragement can make all the difference in the world; not just now, but way into the future. And, then, this: when you start messing around with nature, it is not always you who pay the price. At least, not at first. But, buddy, let me tell you, the final stinger, when karma swings back around and gets ya? That'll leave a mark.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My Name Is Mary Sutter

The Book: My Name Is Mary Sutter

The Author: Robin Oliveira

The Dealio: MNIMS tells the story of a young woman standing at two thresholds: she is a midwife, like generations of women in her family before her. Problem is, she wants to become a surgeon- an unthinkable ambition for any woman at this particular time in history: the United States is about to become un-united by one of the most catastrophic events to visit the barely-out-of-its-adolescence nation.
A parade of characters both real (John Hay, Dorothea Dix, George McClellan, Clara Barton and, of course, Abraham Lincoln) and imagined (Mary and her 'lovely' twin sister, her mother, who taught her everything she knows about delivering babies, and is now forced to admit that Mary has outpaced her teacher, and a trio of men who love Mary, just as she is) pop in and out of the story, alternating American history with the tale of Mary's struggle to capture her dreams.
I love reading about the Civil War, and I especially like any book that provides details of the science of medicine at that time in history (hint: lots of blue mass, laudanum, whiskey and bleeding were pretty much the entire kit and caboodle). Without much knowledge of- or imagination to picture- microscopic threats, it is scant wonder that the toll was so high from non-battle related ailments- like dysentery, chicken pox and malaria.

The Grading Session: 4.12 pengies out of 5. Lost some pengies over the seemingly endless dwelling on bits of dialogue (especially between Mary and her mother, her first 'beau', her erstwhile mentors and Mary, herself). There were intriguing glimpses into the personalities of prominent figures of the time (Dorothea Dix, used to stomping over people's feelings without regard to tact, falls apart when a newspaper takes her to task for not visiting any of the improvised 'hospitals' she has popping up like mushrooms all over the Eastern US. Priceless.). And there is an enormously draggy recitation of entries Mary must make into a Sanitary Commission-mandated log book, which seems to go on for years. We gained nothing from this passage except sympathy for the tedium of paperwork required by the bureaucracy of the time. Hey- be it ever thus, Mary. Paperwork sux and this much has not changed a minim since then.
This review is based on an audio book, read by Kimberly Farr, who did a credible job- although her 'man voices' seemed fairly similar and, sometimes, hard to individualise. Overall, I was pleased with her efforts-especially as she portrayed Mary herself.
BTW- if it bothers you to read about the barbaric and primitive nature of the 'surgeries' of the day...skip this book. It could make you have nightmares. But if you, like me, are intrigued by the state of Civil War era medicine, and interested in a story about a woman who defied odds -and there were real-life women who did-this is a book for you.

Lessons Learned: Nothing you have not already heard before, but bears repeating, I think: women were discouraged from having any sort of professional ambitions at that time. Too, there were very few avenues for women to pursue surgery as a career until a woman opened up a medical school for 'ladies' shortly after the Civil War.
Next: washing one's hands is always a good idea.
Lastly: even experienced midwives or surgeons really were helpless to convert the lying-in room into anything but a horrendous crap shoot where anything could-and often did- go wrong.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Green Hornet

Hello, film lovers.
Just before the start of my latest adventure at the local-plex, (see The Last Airbender, or at least, the review of same on this blog), there was a trailer for The Green Hornet, starring the newly slimmed Seth Rogan. I am withholding my judgement for now: I am intrigued by the trailer, but there are so many Apatow-ian elements in the aforementioned trailer(Bacchnalian boozing, carousing, 'I-don't-get-it muzziness on the faces of the leads) that I was, at first flummoxed by the big reveal that it was actually a teaser for TGH. Could be intriguin'; could be dreck of the lowest order. Stay tuned.

The Last Airbender

The Flick: M. Night Shamalan's The Last Airbender

The Cast: Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Noah Ringer, etc.

The Dealio: A higly mysticised riff on the Dalai Lama, if the DL could control the elements ( in case you were wondering: Earth, Air, Fire and Water). Apparently, the Fire pogues decided to sweep all the chips in the universe into their pile, and proceed to both use their fire-bending power to subjugate all the other elemental citizens to their will and forbid the employment of element-bending by all others. Punishment for backsliders? The stripping away of all the supporting references, and imprisonment/death of those who do not comply. Into this setting plops Aang, a semi-baked 'Avatar' (oh, yeah: much weeping and gnashing of teeth when Jim Cameron absconded with the obvious title for his latest little art house flick, I'll warrant). In the very best traditions of Highlander, 'There can be only one'. So, natcherly, this young fella can't help but be the fly in the Fire People's ointment, the monkey in their wrench. He has got mad skills related to air/wind management, but doesn't know jack about the other elemental realms. Seems he hookied, like, 3/4ths of his prep classes and ran off to join the circus...or whatever the culturally appropriate comparison might be, in this case.
The rest of the movie is spent alternately 'looking for a dragon' (get in line, mister...aren't we all?), flying around on the the back of a Muppet-y looking creature from The Never-Ending Stoo-or-eee, and avoiding Dev Patel's evil, disgraced Prince Zuko.
NOTE: Saw this in 2D, not the buck-stealing 3 D (now relabelled Real D 3 D' Yuh. What-Ever!)

The Grading Session: 3.998 pengies out of 5. M. Night, take note: I require more than flash-bang special effects and a comely bunch of amateur actors to persuade me to crack into 4+ pengie territory. And I really wanted to love this flick. Here's the beef- you should pardon the expression:
The lead was played by a youngster with the least convincing acting/emotive skills since that small blond kid in Epi 1 of Star Wars. He always seems to be trying desperately to grasp whatever complex combo of supernaturally slick moves he is supposed to be making, so that the actual acting has to be left to scrape by whenever Aang pulls an ever-soconstipated expression, (means he's thinking really deep thoughts, I spoze). The runner up in the 'don't I reek as an actor' prize goes to the spookily mis-coiffed Seychelle Gabriel, as Princess Yue. Instead of the look I try to impress upon parents in my Baby Care Basics class as the traditional tip-off that a diaper change is just around the corner, she merely looks as though she is channeling Paris Hilton wondering where her tan went.
The film clocked in at slightly over 1 hour 40-odd minutes (emphasis on the word 'odd'), but seems decades-long. The special FX grow increasingly tedious with constant repetition. And it really does not help at all that element-bending resembles nothing quite so much as a manic form of Tai Chi, ineptly executed.
Oh! Before I forget: Whoop, whoop, whoop! Spoiler alert!spoiler alert!spoiler alert! If this one does well, the title will be proven a lie- this is decidedly not the last airbender by any means, if there is gold in them-thar movies.

Lessons Learned: Have you got an hour? First of all- parts of this movie were filmed in Vietnam and in Greenland. Who knew each had a film-development dept? Next? Don't poke a sharp boomerang-y thaang into cracking good can come of this.
Too, never trust an ancient monk who will not meet your eye. Or a minister from a government which is trying to wipe you and your kind off the planet when he/she says, 'You have my word on this.' That just never works out to be true. Lastly: this was a pretty well-attended film, with a grab-bag of ages in the audience. The nanosecond the film ended, all but about 3 peeps -including yours truly- ran from the theater a gold-medal finalist in the last match of the Olys.