Sunday, October 24, 2010


The Movie: Conviction

The Actors: Hillary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Loren Dean, etc.

The Dealio: In this true-story-based indoe, Betty Anne Waters goes to law school-sacrificing what her children describe as 'your whole life!'- in order to defend and, hopefully, free the younger brother she just knows was railroaded by an overburdened justice system.
Almost from the very start, we're meant to see that Kenny ('Muddy') Waters is and always was, trouble with a capital T. That's not exactly how his sister sees it, but surrounded by small town prejudices and mired in poverty and desperation, it takes a Jiminy Cricket of a friend (Driver's Abra), to help Betty Anne focus her energy where it can do the most good. I was especially charmed by Abra's throw-away line 'Hey! That's the other old lady in my class,' (Been there, been that).
People in the theater where I saw this film started crying about 15 minutes into the show, and just never stopped. While I am so sentimental I can sob until I am speechless (which Prendie would verify hardly ever happens) at the drop of a Hallmark ad on TV- but not here. More, I was appalled at the rush to judgement (no surprises there, really) and then the grandstanding and posturing that occurs- designed strictly as a sort of political CYA. Meanwhile, the hapless pawn in the entire game is left dangling by a thread. I know, I know: it is not perfect, but our justice system is the best over 200 years have been able to evolve. I am also aware that there are good, brave, smart people sweating bullets to improve things every day. Just hurry up, wouldja!?

The Grading Session: 4.71 pengies out of 5. The three main characters were all that a person-that I- could hope for: Hillary is intense, loyal, self-sacrificing as the little sister. Rockwell does his patented wild man with an unexpected streak of tenderness and his own sense of very canted loyalty. Minnie Driver gets to be both pert and caustic as the loud, irreverent heart of gold sister from a different mother. I always love it when a 'based on a true story' movie takes the time to catch us up with what happened next- although everybody in the theater gasped at the summing up of one pivotal character's trajectory. As a bonus, to me, personally, I'm sure, they included pictures of the real peeps involved.

Lessons Learned: Ain't no justice like small town justice.
Also- with all this newfangled science at our disposal, it is still possible to get away with murder.
Finally: there are simply no limits to what an obsessed, positively motivated person can/will do, if they feel their cause is righteous.


The Film: Hereafter

The Actors: Matt Damon, Cecille De France, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Derek Jacobi, etc.

The Dealio: Clint Eastwood- the director, Clint Eastwood- fashions a pretty thoughtful, and thought-provoking, film from the question below.
Three very different people come together on that point, and it changes the way they will continue their lives, once they are forced to confront the answers.
Damon plays George, a socially inert blue-collar worker, once a bonafide seer. His specialty, if you can call it that, resulted from a childhood illness. He is quick to remind those who yammer on about his 'gift' that, no, it is not a gift- it is a curse. He clasps hands with a stranger, and immediately, there is an arc of visual and emotional connectivity. In the past, the severity of his reaction to these connects caused him so much pain, he responded by shutting down, in every possible way, and sought relief in the least demanding of jobs.
DeFrance is Marie, a French journalist and media darling, vacationing in a tropical paradise (let's just call it 'Thailand', shall we?), when a tsunami hits, with widely publicised results. Caught in the throes of the wave, and presumably dead for several minutes, she surfaces to find that pretty much everything she thought she knew, valued and wanted for herself as been swept away in the wake of the gigantic, destructive wave.
Marcus is one half of a pair of physically all-but-identical twins of about 10 years, who is struggling desperately to figure things out without his dominant older brother.
All three who are desperate for answers, receive the usual socially acceptable response by would-be helpful others, 'It was meant to be', 'They are in a better place', 'There is nothing you could have done', 'They would have wanted you to move on,' etc. None of them are willing to buy any of this, and therein hangs the tale.

The Grading Session: 4.59 pengies out of 5. High marks for the trademark avid devotion CE puts into his soundtracks. This is one I will buy in future.
The work all the actors turned in was impeccable- although, in the first few encounters with the grieving, bereft Marcus, I felt a certain hesitancy and stiffness not noticeable when the twins interacted. Perhaps this was due to lack of experience, or maybe it was direction (as in, 'your character would find it very difficult to deal with adults after such and such an experience. Go with that'). This kvetch disappeared as soon as I got into the story and allowed myself to be swept along in the current. There were, also, numerous grace notes that I really savored: the cooking class was one such and added immeasurably to the texture and depth of the characters.

Lessons Learned: There appears to be a societal shelf life to grief and grief recovery: people will give you only a limited amount of time to 'get over it' before they lose patience and are ready to give your discomforting and messy emotions a wide berth. And then they, themselves, do move forward.
Next: No matter how secure you think things are, that security is an illusion: there is always another flavor of the month queued up, ready to roll over you, leaving you scrambling to find level ground again.
Lastly: Martha Keller is still making movies. Who knew?

What's Goin' On Before The Show

For the past few weeks, when I go to see a movie (but, oddly, never when I see one with Prendie), I have been treated to scenes from True Grit, version 2.0. Prendie has been hearing a lot of buzz on the SASS site and related blogs about the movie, and I am purely pumped to see that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon feature largely in this. I felt so-so about the original, so maybe I am the wrong person to even comment on this, but I can not wait to see this one! I suppose part of it is seeing Damon doing what is commonly referred to as 'The Glen Campbell Part', but, I think that more than this, I am pleased with the selection of Jeff Bridges in the starring role. So- let's get moving, already; I feel a Christmas day outing to the movies comin' on. Who's with me?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ape House

The Book: Ape House

The Author: Sara Gruen

The Dealio: Gruen returns to a topic clearly close to her heart: the place where human experience intersects with animal existence. In this case, the animals in question are Great Apes (bonobos), who share a language lab in Lawrence, Kansas with a team of researchers and volunteers. The scientist closest to the bonobos is Isabel, a young woman with a toxic family history who considers the Great Apes at the lab to be her real family. A few pages into the story, the idyllic world of the language lab is literally blown apart- and Isabel is severely injured, by an explosion. The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath of the bombing, and what it means to all the characters involved- including the great apes who call the place 'home', Isobel, John Thigpen- a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (or 'the Inky', as it is called here), the other scientists and volunteers, even the protesters who line the drive of the lab daily, completely misunderstanding the mission of the place.

The Grading Session: 4.01 pengies out of 5. Let me start by saying that I absolutely loved Gruen's last book (Water For Elephants, which is being made into a movie, starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon). This time around, all the Gruen-esque touchstones are there- highly adorable creatures, moments of thoughtless and automatic animal cruelty, lessons in an arcane and minuscule segment of society (animal language labs in this case, circus life, in WFE), redemption in doing the right thing against all odds and adversities. But, where we were given real, live characters to root for in the last book, this time around I found myself losing patience with pretty much all of the humans- although I continued to enjoy our interactions with the bonobo 'family' to the very last word.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes, it is simply impossible to go back to the same- or a similar -well and squeeze out one more evocative tale. I am thinking here of Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wall, which would have made a wonderful first look at the author's family, but felt both anemic and reckless coming, as it did, after The Glass Castle. Ape House suffers from the same situation. Perhaps, if I had never read Water For Elephants, I would have been in raptures over Ape House. But...probably not.
Next: If you think someone can be cruel and unfeeling towards animals, then be kind and caring towards humans, well, I have a bridge near NYC I can letcha have cheap.
Lastly: forgive me if I have said this before, but it bears repeating: editing is the most blessed of all careers; if done with style, appetite and care, it can transform a story- written or scrolled before our eyes, in a dark movie theatre- from everyday to extraordinary.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


The Film: RED

The Actors: Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Mary Louise Parker, Karl Urban, John Malkovich, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, Julian McMahon, Brian Cox, etc.

The Dealio: Retired (Extremely Dangerous) CIA agents are being killed off with extreme prejudice. There is a long lead-in to the why of it all, but along the way to there, we get to meet assorted agents who have pitted their own necessary accommodations with on-coming years and their desire to keep their hands in, doing what they did best. Think of it as The Expendables with good actors. Yeah, I know. I know! Willis was in both. But in TE, he got a minute here and there to smirk and sidle into and out of the flick. Here, he was actually given some dialogue and plot with which to work.

The Grading Session: 4.31 pengies out of 5. Was Goldfinger a better spy movie? Um. I'm gonna go with a yeah on that one. Did Goldfinger have as much fun? Well. That depends. Have you ever wanted to see Queen Elizabeth handling a RPG? In a white silk formal? Okay, then. I'm just sayin'.
Improbable, fantastical, top-loaded with action and contrasted with a sprinkling of tenderness and unexpected sweetness in some of the interpersonal relations, this film was never boring, but never high art, either. In short: Don't be so intellectually snobbish and demanding: go see an entertaining film that showcases some highly talented actors playing against type...and having a...well, a blast. Literally.

Lessons Learned: Apparently, you will know that your spy-significant-other loves you if (s)he shoots you three times in the chest, instead of going for the more trad double tap to the melon. Not to mention that Mary Louise Parker apparently has about 12 more muscles in her lips, which she uses to extremely wonderful effect throughout. Wait...did I just mention it, after all?
Also: retirement may sound great, but often is simply a matter of not doing the things you used to be able to do before. With panache.
Lastly: although it is largely a fantasy, it surely is suh-WEET to think of a bunch of retirement-aged old dogs putting young pups in their places. Suh-weet, but ultimately, not jolly likely. Or is it? What is that saying? Something along the lines of: Age and deviousness will always out-trump youth and vigor. Make it so.

Waiting For Superman

The Film: Waiting For Superman

The Peeps: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, George Reeves, Bill Gates, Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Bianca and Francisco.

The Dealio: The state of public schools in America gets ready for its close-up in this documentary which interweaves the back stories of representational children from across the US with facts, figures and lots of talking heads. If you are looking to be lifted up by film's end- this is not the movie for you. If you are looking to be shaken AND stirred, look no further.
The film makers introduce the viewers to 5 very different kids. We, who are watching, become invested in this one or that. Then comes the (repeated) moment of truth when the almighty, moment of truth lottery drawings are played out, against the backdrop of various venues. There are tears - of joy and relief, and of bitter disappointment. Swooping in close to the face of one little girl- fingers and arms crossed and tears running down her face- I wanted to scream in frustration for her agony and tenuous hope.

The Grading Session: 4.09 pengies out of 5. This earnest little movie really needed a bit more editing, as some of the sequences went on for far too long, re-explaining concepts that had already been driven home quite smartly minutes before. The soundtrack was fine, but I felt myself bristling at the use of An American Idiot during an early sequence, then wondered if I was being overly sensitive.

Lessons Learned: Lots of visionary people, in high viz positions, are trying to put things right in the arena of public education, using innovative and game-changing strategies.
Also: am I the only one to experience tentatively rising hope from the rapid-fire photo gallery of prominent people- including Presidents, presidents of companies, artists, astronauts and scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, public figures and bona fide geniuses- who all went to public school.
Lastly: apparently, the #1 reason our schools are in such dire straits (sorry, Dire Straits!) is that unions appear to be using tenure to protect bad teachers' and principals' job security. Whether this is actually true or an unjust over-simplification, I defy you to watch this portion and not feel your blood begin to boil.
Is there anything we, the concerned, can do to help? There is always something. A suggestion? Start by voting all the issues- but only after getting some education on them.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Book: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Author: Aimee Bender

The Dealio: This book starts out as- to me, at least- a YA version of Like Water For Chocolate (loved, loved, loved). Young Rose Edelstein, you see, is suddenly aware that she can taste emotions. Whether it is the touch of surly with overtones of bitter resentment in a bag of potato chips born in a co-op, or the lemon cake baked by her mom for her birthday (sadness, loss, frustration and loneliness), Rose is literally buffeted by the vagaries of what she eats. School becomes a particular trial for her. Lunches from home reek of her mother's despair and isolation. But the food proffered from the lunch line also begins to take on the threat of shark-infested waters. Here be dragons. And not the good kind. Her family clearly does not get what is going on with her: dad is busily providing food and shelter, but is distracted by everything else. Mom is climbing out of her skin, but recognises that something is wrong; she is just not sure what to do about it. Brother Joseph- the family genius- appears to literally float above and beyond the family unit, with increasingly brief and occasional pit stops to interact glancingly with family members.
This was a story into which I could not wait to leap with both feet. My interest continued for the first 3/4ths of the book. Then....what happened?!

The Grading Session: 3.97 pengies out of 5. Serious debit-age for the last quarter of the book. I have heard that the author explained this severe right turn in the midst of a lyrically mystical and involving tale to drag in inexplicable scenarios, never resolved- as 'a widely acknowledged psychological condition' as well as a way to 'allow the reader to reach his/her own conclusions.' Well, I will just have to disagree with you: this wondrously evocative tale was totally trashed by the ambiguous, bated-breath aspects of the end-segment. I believe that I deserved better return on my huge investment in this story, these characters and the possibilities which were smooshed flat by the 'wind-it-up-quickly' syndrome. Sigh. Such a shame.

Lessons Learned: Many maladies can be cured by learning to cook well. Also, apparently, many maladies-especially of the psychic type- can be expressed and soothed through cooking. Why, it is almost as if the very nature and inspiration (breath?) involved with creating food is...magic. But Amy? I bet you already knew that.