Sunday, May 20, 2012

Biblio Babble: Stepping Into The Shoes of a Master

The Book: Lullaby: A Spenser Novel

The Writer: Ace Atkins steps in for the late, great Robert B. Parker.

The Dealio: Sharp-talking, Southie-dwelling 14 year old Mattie Sullivan  is Spenser's latest client. What she wants is justice and some closure in the matter of  her mother's murder  four years ago. One hapless mook is in the joint doing time on the rap, but Mattie, who witnessed her mom being hustled into a car by two well known drug dealers  the same night she was killed, knows, just knows, that they got the wrong man. She  hires Spenser (for the price of a dozen doughnuts: six chocolate glazed, six cinnamon-topped) because he looks like a tough-guy. But, Mattie is tough, too and used to handling things herself. Naturally, she has to add one condition: she's gonna  be in on all the important stuff. Much in the manner of True Grit, but without Rooster Cogburn, the couple heads up a mismatched crew including Hawk and all the usual players, hell-bent on finding out what really happened that night. And why both Mattie and Spenser are suddenly the focus of a long-dormant crime family. Good stuff, this, with lots of snap and sassiness, irony and smart-aleckiness. Welcome back, Spenser. You have been missed.

The Grading Session: 4.79 pengies out of 5. It is wonderful to have Spenser back again. Although many carp that Atkins is not letter-perfect, I find loads to like about this incarnation of Spenser and company. I look forward to more. And not very patiently.

Lessons Learned: No one will ever replace Robert B. Parker, but Ace Atkins fill-in role is as  sleek a fit as a broken-in just right Braves cap. Also this: it is such a pleasure to listen to these stories on audio CD. Joe Mantegna has done Spenser in the past- and I hope he continues to read these tales. Perfecto!

Cinema Babble:Hate The Book...

The Flick: What To Expect When You're Expecting

The Peeps: Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Cameron Diaz, Brooklyn Decker, Dennis Quaid, Anna Kendrick, Chase Crawford, Chris Rock, Ben Falcone, Matthew Morrison, Roderigo Santoro, Thomas Lennon, Joe Manganiella, etc, etc.

The Dealio: This incomprehensibly best-selling book was turned into a sort of RomCom for the nesting set. Every stereotype related to the expectant state is brought out, dusted off and played for laughs. Of course, you also know that there will be moments of poignancy, loss, crude humor, over-wrought daddies-to-be and new daddies, hormonally amped mommies-to- be and new mommies, and lots of boob jokes. That's about it. Heck, yes, I brought a date.

The Grading Session: 2.0009 pengies out of 5. Questions? Please see above. I have history with this particular book, as I was a labor and delivery and complicated OB nurse in my past professional life. I have seen seemingly normal, intelligent women and men turned into raving loons by the competition amongst those in their cohort to whom this book  is a bible. If you don't a) read this, cover to cover, and memorise every syllable, and then b) incorporate every nuance of the recommendations therein into your daily life as a new parent...then you clearly don't care to bring your A Game to the party. The parenthood party. Folks, stop the madness and grab the reins. This is only one of many sources of 411 and needs to be approached with some sort of balance and perspective. Making it into a RomCom, (and not a terribly intelligent one, at that), is about the best fate I can think of for it. Stuffed to the gills with a New Years' Eve/Valentines' Day sort of ensemble cast placing all the Hollywood types into cute, trendy and popular relationships, this one seems familiar because it is! My date spoke, thusly, thirty minutes into the thang: 'You had about enough?'. But, no, I was oddly fascinated by one of the very minor stories, involving  the two youngest peeps in the film- Anna Kendrick's Rosie and Chace Crawford's Marco and ex-high school crushes who are now competitors in the local food-truck scene.  Their story alone seemed to have a sweet, tender and yet angsty touchiness to it that appealed to both of us.

Lessons Learned: (Already knew this one, but worth passing along): never lose focus when making homemade caramels. And don't even think about trying to taste-test  when at the molten stage. You'd think the name of that stage alone would warn you of the dangers. But they smell so heavenly, and...just a little taste? Next thing you know, you have no fingerprints.
Also this: there is no such thing as the magic unicorn of pregnancy, so stop wishing that this could happen to you. You've heard of the expression 'only in the movies'? Yup, that one you can take to the bank.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cinema Babble: Not Really, It Just Felt That Way

The Flick: The Five-Year Engagement

The Peeps: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, etc, etc.

The Dealio: One year after meeting Violet (Blunt), sous-chef Tom (Segel) proposes. She accepts. And then follows a series of interruptions with their plans, during which this totally cute and root-forable couple descends into Rom-Com Hell, taking the movie- and us- with them. There are unfunny sequences involving loss of a toe, a child shooting an arrow into a woman's thigh, cheating and attempted cheating on both sides, really inexplicable facial hair, selfishness and ambition blinding one lover to the other's needs, unhappiness and sacrifices. Never has so much been done to so  promising a story to kill off any funny, any joy, any romance.

The Grading Session: This movie is totally undeserving of any pengies. So- it will be awarded the first-ever, dreaded Mackerel. Pengies eat mackerel.

Lessons Learned: Yes, it is possible to show a cute-meet one too many times. Or four. It is also possible to take totally likable leads with totally likable  personalities and turn them into hideous, thoroughly unlikable  stereotypes. It just shouldn't take more than two hours to get there. Lastly this: just cause a little bit of adversity brings forth some laughs and relate-ability does not mean that heaping it on makes it even better. Or even bearable. Your mileage may differ.

Cinema Babble: If Edgar Allen Poe was a PI

The Flick: The Raven

The Peeps: John Cusack, Brendan Gleeson, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, etc.

The Dealio: As if Edgar Allen is not having a bad enough year (or two)- out of work, money and favor- things just got a whole lot worse. Someone is killing people in Poe's own hometown of Baltimore, and using methods described in Poe's own tales. Naturally, the first suspect is (wait....wait...wait) the author himself. But with a series of alibis to match the dates of the killings, Poe is brought in to try to crack the case(s). Complicating the  situation even further, Poe has decided to make public  his secret engagement to the beautiful daughter of the one man in Baltimore who hates him a costume party where the copy-cat killer is vowing to make a huge, and very deadly statement. 

The Grading Session: 4.22 pengies out of 5. Cusack, on the whole, does a nice job of squelching his usual smart-aleck movie persona. But the   labored, depressing and grittiness-as-an-actual-character atmosphere of this movie is like lugging a damp, woolen blanket around town in summer. From the very first scenes of Poe/Cusack, sitting on a bench, staring up at the sky, as if seeking  a raven made out of clouds, we know that we will not be permitted to put that blanket aside for more than a few seconds. Whenever the going gets too frisky or  upbeat, prepare to witness yet another graphic atrocity committed in the name of plot-advancement. Still, a few very well placed glimpses into the workings of Poe's mind and imagination, as well as reminders of his surprisingly normal background (example? I remembered only after it was mentioned that he graduated from West Point. Yes, that West Point), kept me hanging in with the story till the very end. Your mileage may differ.

Lessons Learned: That really nice policeman/cohort who is behind you through thick and thin? He is either a dead man walking or the true bad hat. It's like a sort of rule. Also, Poe had a seriously disturbing imagination. No kidding! I keep trying to picture him switching genres to write a kids' book. Or, no! Wait! A  YA book. No, seriously, in that case, he would've  become a rock star among writers. Think about that for a moment. Lastly this: for a man with no money, scant friends and a (literally) hopeless attitude, how did Poe manage to rub shoulders with the high and mighty- and afford those nice duds? Answer: Hollywood!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cinema Babble: Not Exactly A chip Off The Old Block

The Flick: Dark Shadows

The Peeps: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace  Moretz, Jonny Lee  Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Alice Cooper, etc.

The Dealio: When young, rich dude Barnabas Collins refuses to proclaim his love for servant Angelique Bouchard, she sets out to curse both his family and him. The curse begins with his parents dying in an Angelique-engineered 'accident', ruining the family biz (fish cannery), moves on to inducing his one true love to walk off a cliff, and then, finally gets around to turning Barnabas into a vampire, burying him in a chain-wrapped coffin on the edge of Collinsport, and then moving on with her life. 
Fast forward: In the process of tearing up some ground outside town, in 1972, workmen unearth his chained coffin, and, of course, are unable to observe any sort of caution. They cut the chains and unleash, well, you know. Next up to bat, (Sorry. Had to be said), we have the old fish-out-of-water gig. Supposing that the fish was of the vampire persuasion. Barnabas is poised to re-enter the world to find things much changed. But, not everything is different: the Collins family is still cursed by loss of wealth and standing, mysterious deaths and haunted apparitions. Much fun is made with the re-imagining of this Dan Curtis series from the late '60's and early '70's, but there is also a definite foundation of creeping dread that permeates the whole. 

The Grading Session: 3.07 pengies out of 5. As someone so devoted to this 'Gothic soap' (the only soap I ever got involved with. Which), I had my mom write me weekly letters catching me up with the plot twists and detours when I went away to college, I had such great expectations for this film. My excitement grew when I learned that Depp and Burton were re-teaming to bring this to the screen. But, sadly, my first  emotion was one of disappointment. Can't say exactly why I felt this way, but I definitely felt that the spirit (ha-ha) of the thing missed the mark. The blend of camp (yeah, OK, that was present in the original, but not really in a self-aware, heavy-handed way. It was just something there, in the background, like another character. A minor character that left an impression). Here, the campiness is very self-conscious and gets in the way of the other strands of the story: revenge, salute to monster movies, commentary on our times, etc. Simplify, peeps. Simplify. And focus.

Lesson Learned: Here's a whopper: apparently a witch can make a person into a vampire simply by wishing it so. As a longtime student of such, I always thought the touchstone for vampirism was the neck-nibble. Also this: it is not a great thing, make-up wise, when a far off pan-shot makes the dark charcoal etched cheekbones on Barnabas' face look exactly like, well, stark, black, charcoal-etched lines across and down his white face. The secret to great cheekbones (or so I am told)? Blend, blend, blend.

Notable Quotables: Barnabas: Love means never having to say you're sorry. However, it is with sincere regret that I must kill all of you.'  And Barnabas, to the TV, showing Karen Carpenter singing Top Of The World: 'Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!'

Cinema Babble: Super Heroes United...Sorta

The Flick:  The Avengers

The Peeps: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Paul Bettany, Jenny Agutter, etc, etc. Etcetera.

The Dealio: When Earth is threatened by  petulant demi-god (and adoptive brother of Thor), Hiddleston's  Loki , Nick Fury (Jackson), the apparent liaison between  the governing committee and the military/S.H.I.E.L.D., brings together a committee of his own: people with...distinct and 'highly developed, very specific skill-sets'. Total mayhem ensues as Iron Man, The Black Widow, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Captain America and Thor meet up en route to saving the world and, well, fight like a bunch of schoolyard toughs. The first 30-40 minutes spin out the set-up wherein an item called the Tesseract, apparently, the mother of all energy sources, has been stolen by Loki to fuel his goals of assuming control of Earth and everyone on her. More chaos, explosions, power-drains, mind-control and even a pan-dust-up among several of the Supes in order to sort out who is the baddest of the bad. Answer: Nick Fury, since he is the only one who doesn't get a mark on him from the interplay. Then onto the serious bidnez of  curbing evil, restoring peace and order and waiting for that always-entertaining, over-the-credits-reveal.

The Grading Session: 4.19 pengies out of 5. There is no earthly reason for this movie to clock in at over 2.5 hours. The mix of personalities should have delightful, enjoyable and loaded with tongue-in-cheek. Instead, the only time the dialogue seemed to snap and snarl was when Downey's Stark/Iron Man graced the scene. In addition to scoring almost all the best lines, he also seemed to be having the most fun with what he was doing (Hiddleston and Ruffalo got in a fair amount of satisfyingly engaging shots, though). Johansson and Jackson were completely underutilised and that's just plain sad. 

Lessons Learned: First of all,  it always has to be NYC or LA. Alien travel agents must be promoting the crap out of those two as must-destroy dream destinations. Next: OK, what am I not getting about gods? I thought there was definitely an element of immortality about them. But in movies of this sort, people- even other gods- are always trying to kill them. And this: in the immortal words of Axel Foley: 'I'm not fallin' for the old banana in the tail pipe trick.' Take note, all y'all: if the bad guys are trying to lead you someplace, just don't go. THIS IS ALWAYS A TRAP. Are you listening? ALWAYS. Lastly: if you are trying to fashion an alien force that will scare the scrambled eggs out of a group of citizens, you should definitely make 'em look like mechanised coelacanths, which totally would not be able to move and articulate, let alone fly. This here must be the stuff with which film-makers' nightmares are populated.

Notable Quotables: (all come from Tony Stark. Of course): 'Clench up, Legolas.' (to Hawkeye). 
'No hard feelings, Point Break. Ya gotta mean swing.' and "Shakespeare in the Park?' (both, to Thor) and
 'OK, Reindeer Games' (to  Loki. NOTE: Seriously? You could have chosen any sort of get-up and this is what you chose? Geez.)  
'You might have missed a few things while you were being a Capsicle.' (to Captain America). And, from Agent Hill: 'When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?' Stark: 'Last night.'

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cinema Babble: Seems Familiar...But In A Good Way

The Flick: Safe

The Peeps: Jason Stratham, Catherine Chan, James Hong, Chris Sarandon, etc.

The Dealio: Reminiscent of various Bruce Willis adventure-thriller flix, Safe focuses in on Luke Wright (Stratham), an ex-cop, now working as a cage-fighter, and losing on a regular basis. Luke has managed to fall  afoul of not one, but at least two, mobs. On the run, and warned not to make friends with anyone whose safety he values, Wright witnesses a young Chinese girl on a subway platform, obviously hiding from men he knows are Russian mobsters. Through a series of events, and against his better judgement, Wright winds up on the lam with the girl, Mei. Along the way, he discovers something pretty unique about her, and pretty surprising about himself. 
Given that this is your standard Stratham flick, you will know to expect meager dialogue- at least from him- max car-chases, punch 'em ups and explosive gunfire. What you might not expect is the toughness of the petite, self-possessed Mei, (Chan is a natural... in two languages). Though not as  riveting as the chem between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in The Professional, there is a lot to dig about this on-screen relationship.

The Grading Session: 4.81 pengies out of 5. Extreme, and -usually graphic- violence abounds. So, if this is not your cuppa.... As always, your mileage may differ.

Lessons Learned: First of all, don't tell any character played by Stratham what he can and cannot do. How many times do I have to say this?! Next: if someone is carrying a concealed weapon and thinks it is not going to be eventually used against them, they clearly haven't seen enough Bruce Willis movies. Or Jason Stratham movies, for that matter. Lastly: you must remember this: in this sort of movie- if not in real life- every put-upon dog will  have his or her day. And you may not be happy with the results if you are the one  doing the putting-upon (which).

Notable Quotables: Mei: 'What this means is bad business for you. Bad business for me, also.' File this one under classic understatements.