Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (C). This was my first time to see this 1989 “classic,” so my grade is a little generous to factor in the era in which it was made and the fact that a geezer in his 50s is not the target audience. That said, it’s really not very good. Rick Moranis (Little Shop of Horrors) plays an absent-minded scientist type who’s also a suburban father of two. He’s trying to invent a shrinking machine, which he unwisely keeps in his house’s attic. Through a mishap, his kids and the two boys who live next door get shrunk down to a size smaller than an ant. When the tiny kids accidentally get thrown out with the garbage, they have to cross the now-immense back yard to return to the house and then somehow draw their parents’ attention to their plight. The kids’ adventure part of the story is okay, but throughout the movie the humor is generally terrible. Extra demerits for the next-door dad character (Matt Frewer, Dawn of the Dead (2004)), a stereotypical boor who hounds his sensitive older son to be a football player and is otherwise generally unpleasant. The lovely Marcia Strassman (TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter) plays Moranis’s wife. I didn’t recognize any of the child actors, but The Borg Queen informed me that Jared Rushton was in Big.
Monsters University (C). I only dimly remember the 2001 animated film Monsters, Inc., and I think I liked it OK. Twelve years later, Pixar came out with this prequel, which I just saw. The little green one-eyed monster Mike (voice of Billy Crystal, The Princess Bride) has the ambition to be a “scarer” when he grows up, and he gets into Scare School at Monsters University. There he quickly gets crossways with another freshman, a big, blue, natural-born scarer called Sully (voice of John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane). And then it gets very predictable: opposites Mike and Sully are both kicked out of the program. Desperate to get back in, they team up, join the lamest fraternity on campus, and try to carry their fraternity to an underdog victory in the Scare Games in hopes of being let back into Scare School. Lots of vocal talent, including Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), and the formidable Helen Mirren (The Queen) as the crusty old Dean Hardscrabble, can’t lift this overly long (104 minutes) movie above mediocrity.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It, by Justice Neil Gorsuch with Jane Nitze and David Feder (2019). I wasn’t really planning to buy this book, but then I paid my first visit to Interabang Books, an independent bookstore (!) in Dallas, and I saw that it had signed copies for sale. Just a few weeks later, the store got wiped out in those crazy tornadoes! (I guess that all happened about a year ago? More?) Anyhoo, this book is a collection of speeches, essays, and judicial opinions by the man who replaced Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. He promises to out-Scalia his predecessor, writing with conviction about the importance of the separation of powers and textualism in statutory and constitutional interpretation. I enjoyed the book, but I was already sold on most of the ideas he’s selling; your mileage may vary. And I didn’t see anything in the book explaining who Jane Nitze and David Feder are or what they did on this book, which I was a little curious about.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (C). I think this was the first time I had ever seen this old Disney classic, and I doubt I will ever revisit it. You probably already know the story. A nice London couple has a pair of dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, and they have a litter of 15 pups. The wicked Cruella De Vil wants a dalmatian fur coat, so she hires two dim-witted thugs to steal the pups and stash them in Cruella’s crumbling country mansion—along with 84 other dalmatian pups she apparently got from pet stores. Pongo and Perdita have to rescue the puppies, with some timely assists from other animal friends. Even though it’s only 79 minutes long, it felt padded out, and the whole enterprise was only middlingly entertaining. I note that the movie is based on a novel by Dodie Smith, who also wrote the novel that I Capture the Castle was based on. That 2003 movie is well worth checking out.
Smallfoot (C). This animated feature has some things going for it. It’s a reverse-perspective story about a community of yetis who live high in the Himalayas and view humans (“smallfeet”) as legends. Then, one day, an ordinary yeti named Migo (voice of Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street) actually encounters a human (a crashed airplane pilot), leading him to begin questioning the village’s quasi-religious origin story and other odd traditions. In a nice touch, the “villains” are not thoroughly villainous. For example, there’s a (human) nature-TV star who’s losing his integrity because old-fashioned shows like his can’t compete with modern reality TV, and the pope-like yeti village leader actually has a reasonable motive for preserving the yetis’ ignorance of the real world. And yet . . . the execution is off, somehow. Few of the jokes really landed, and I didn’t think the handful of songs were very good. In sum, a pretty bland experience.
Spies in Disguise (B+). This Christmas 2019 animated feature totally slipped under my radar, but I saw it on “streaming” or something last weekend, and I was astonished at how funny it was. Will Smith (Hitch) voices Lance Sterling, an ace secret agent in the mold of James Bond turned up to 11. Tom Holland (Captain America: Civil War) voices Walter, a young nerd in the spy gadgets section of Lance’s agency. After Lance gets framed for stealing some top-secret something-or-other, he turns to Walter for help—and accidentally gets turned into a pigeon. (The movie was apparently inspired by a short called “Pigeon: Impossible.”) So Walter and pigeon Lance go chasing after the bad guy, while the agency is chasing them. I laughed out loud several times at the many James Bondian references and other random funny stuff (like a girl pigeon who falls in love with pigeon Lance and helps take out bad guys while actually intending to target the agency gal who’s leading the hunt for Lance).
Voyager: Season Three. Season Three serves up another 26 episodes of the trials and travails of the starship Voyager on its 70-year journey back to the Alpha Quadrant. I think the show’s batting average was a little higher this season than last; for season three, I dished out 10 B’s, 14 C’s, 1 D, and 1 F for a grade-point average of 2.27. The F goes to episode 7, “Sacred Ground,” which is, in my view, a poor handling of religion and faith that is unfortunately characteristic of Voyager and maybe all of Star Trek. The D grade goes to episode 20, “Favorite Son,” in which a planet of alien vampire women set their sights on Ensign Kim (Garrett Wang, Survival Island), of all people. But there are plenty of good episodes, such as episode 11, in which Q returns for some more hijinks, episode 17, in which Chakotay (Robert Beltran, Bugsy) finds a planet full of emancipated Borg drones, some of whom are trying to build a new, peaceful society, and the cliffhanger season-ender in which the Borg itself makes its first real appearance. I’m looking forward to season 4.
Descendants 3 (B). After a saggy and disappointing middle installment, the trilogy ends on a high note. King Ben’s plan to let more “villains’ kids” leave the Isle of the Lost gets scuttled after Hades (Cheyenne Jackson, TV’s American Horror Story) nearly escapes from the Isle. Meanwhile, envy gets the best of Sleeping Beauty’s daughter Audrey (Sarah Jeffery, Be Somebody) after Ben proposes to Mal, and she steals Maleficent’s staff from the museum (surely the worst guarded repository of dangerous artifacts in the world) so that she can conquer the world. The original VKs have to team up with Uma and her crew to foil Audrey’s wicked schemes. This installment features some of the best songs in the series, especially the father–daughter duet “Do What You Gotta Do” by Hades and Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants).
Descendants 2. (D) This sequel kicks off with a very catchy opening musical number in which the Villains’ Kids seem to return to their wicked ways by brewing up a bunch of magical apples that turn all of Auradon Prep’s goody-goodies bad. But that’s just a daydream, and the rest of this sequel is decidedly unmagical. Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron, Descendants) seems to have it all, but she is plagued with self-doubt and eventually decides to chuck life at Auradon Prep and return to the Isle of the Lost. There we meet our main antagonist Uma (China Anne McClain, Grown Ups), daughter of sea witch Ursula. Uma captures King Ben (Mitchell Hope, Let It Snow) and demands Fairy Godmother’s magic wand for his release. After a big swordfight in which the VKs rescue King Ben from Uma’s pirate ship, the movie drones on and on but nothing else really happens. I hear the third Descendants movie is better, and I know it has some catchy songs, so fingers crossed….
Descendants (B). This 2015 Disney TV movie captured my four-year-old goddaughter’s heart–or at least the musical numbers did. In this fairly clever tale, the princesses and other good characters from all the Disney movies have come together to make a lovely country called Auradon. All the Disney villains have been banished to The Isle of the Lost, just off Auradon’s coast and sealed with a magical force field. Through some strange system of governance, Ben, the teenaged son of King Beast and Queen Belle, is about to become king, and he decrees that four of the villains’ children will be allowed to leave the Isle and go to school with the good people’s kids at Auradon Prep. Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth, Bewitched) instructs her daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron, TV’s Liv and Maddie), to get the Fairy Godmother’s wand and use it to release the villains from the Isle. But will the handsome and kind Ben turn Mal aside from her wicked scheme?
Onward (B). I don’t know if you have be a Dungeons & Dragons player to appreciate this recent Pixar offering, but it certainly can’t hurt. In the world of Onward, magic is real, as are lots of mythical creatures like unicorns, elves (who look more like trolls than like Legolas), centaurs, and manticores. But the creatures have given up magic in favor of technology, which is much more reliable, and now they live in a modern suburban society just like ours. Nevertheless, through a series of unlikely events, two very dissimilar elvish brothers, Ian (voice of Tom Holland, How I Live Now) and Barley (voice of Chris Pratt, Passengers), embark on a quest to find a magical jewel that will allow them to reincarnate their long-deceased father for one day. Will they succeed? Will their quest bring them closer together or tear them apart forever? The story is decent, but I mostly enjoyed the D&D tropes. The brothers’ encounter with a gelatinous cube deep in the bowels of a trap-filled dungeon is a highlight. (And if you don’t know what a gelatinous cube is, google it and click on “Images”!)
Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (B). I remember enjoying Wreck-It Ralph and thinking it had a surprisingly sweet story about friendship at its core. In this sequel, video-game characters Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Talladega Nights) and Vanellope (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock) leave the video arcade behind and enter the worldwide web on a quest to find a replacement part for Vanellope’s arcade game. The visualization of the internet is a highlight of the movie, as little avatars of the human users scuttle around from eBay to YouTube (or a lookalike) to everything else. Vanellope falls in love with a Grand Theft Auto-inspired neighborhood ruled by a tough gal called Shank (voice of Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman). In the most inspired part of the movie, she finds herself in Disney’s sector, which is populated by Star Wars characters, Marvel characters, and, of course, Disney princesses (many voiced by their original actresses). The movie starts to drag by the end (an hour and 52 minutes? really?), but it is still definitely worth a look.
Big Hero 6 (B). I finally saw this Disney film the other night, and I thought it was good. The Borg Queen took me to task for not giving it an A grade of some kind, but there’s no way it compares with Disney’s greatest films. (A few examples: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, and even Moana, which has risen considerably in my estimation since I reviewed it in these pages.) Also, I suspect Big Hero 6 would play better on the big screen; its futuristic setting was pretty but not immersive on the TV. Anyhoo, this is basically a superhero origin story. Teenaged Hiro is a genius at robots but really comes into his own only after his older brother dies in a mysterious fire and a shadowy villain starts stalking the streets of San Fransokyo. Hiro teams up with his brother’s nerdy science friends and with Baymax, a big balloony robot that Hiro’s brother had been working on when he died. With a few modifications, Baymax goes from cuddly nurse robot to high-flying action hero, and eventually it’s time for a showdown with the big bad. I was entertained. If you like superhero movies, Big Hero 6 is worth your time.
Voyager: Season Two (C). The Borg Queen and I watched every episode of season two in order. (I joined her in her quest to watch the whole series partway through season one, so I didn’t review it.) By way of background, I was big Star Trek fan in my younger days—saw every episode of the original series (most of them many times) and pretty much every episode of The Next Generation, but aside from the movies I pretty much dropped out after TNG. So far, Voyager is a decent enough entertainment. The premise is that some advanced alien technology has catapulted an advanced Starfleet ship named Voyager clear across the galaxy into the “Delta Quadrant,” and at normal speeds it will take Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, TVs Orange Is the New Black) and her intrepid crew 70 years to get back home to Federation space. Moreover, the Delta Quadrant is a fairly lawless place, full of villains like the cliquish, Klingonish Kazon and the ruthless but plague-ridden Vidiians, so it’s tough sledding. Anyhoo, I dished out Bs, Cs, and Ds to season two’s 26 episodes in roughly equal measure, so there were plenty of average and subpar episodes. If you just wanted to try the highlights, I’d recommend “Cold Fire” (episode 10), “Prototype” (episode 13), “Death Wish” (episode 18), “Deadlock” (episode 21), “Innocence” (episode 22), “Tuvix” (episode 24), and “Resolutions” (episode 25). The season ends with a cliffhanger that I found pretty meh. But if you like Star Trek, you should find season two reasonably tolerable. The Borg Queen tells me it improves in later seasons, so we’ll see . . . .
Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery (2019). Journalist Raftery proposes that 1999 was “the most unruly, influential, and unrepentantly enjoyable film year of all time.” His book takes a chronological approach, marching through the year’s biggest or most influential releases, telling us how they got made and what kind of impact they had, both at the time and in the long run. I guess he makes a pretty good case. 1999 was the year of The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix, Star Wars Episode I, Election, American Pie, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich, among the roughly 30 films I see identified in the table of contents. The book was interesting enough, and it did make me want to rewatch a couple of the films and see a couple more that I’ve never seen. But I think I would have preferred a book of straight-up movie reviews.
Love and War in the Apennines, by Eric Newby (1971). First, a word about how I came to discover this book. In the course of internet surfing, I came across a website for Slightly Foxed, an independent British quarterly devoted to books, especially books that have been forgotten and fallen out of print. Additionally, Slightly Foxed republishes worthy books that have fallen out of print. Curious, I subscribed to the journal and for good measure ordered a few of its reprints. Love and War in the Apennines is the first one I’ve read, and it is pretty good. It’s a memoir in which Newby tells part of the story of his experiences as a young British soldier during World War II. In August 1942, he was part of a woefully underpowered band of soldiers sent to knock out a Nazi base in Sicily. The mission flopped, and the Italians took Newby prisoner and shipped him off to mainland Italy. Most of the book is about what it was like to be a prisoner of war and then a fugitive hiding in the Apennine Mountains after the Italian government collapsed in September 1943, all the POWs escaped, and the Germans took over. Also, shortly before his escape, Newby met and fell in love with a Slovenian woman living in Italy; thus, the title. It’s a good read, and very impressive to a not-very-courageous couch potato like me. Newby wrote another memoir about his life after the war called Something Wholesale, and I look forward to reading it someday.
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (2012). This was Wolfe’s last novel, and I liked it better than his penultimate effort (I Am Charlotte Simmons) but probably not as much as A Man in Full, and certainly not as much as his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. This is mainly the story of Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop on the Miami police force who finds himself at the center of large, significant events three times in the course of the story. I found him a little hard to empathize with (because he’s kind of a self-pitying sap), but he does give us a window into various aspects of Miami’s unique culture(s). We also spend quite a bit of time with his ex-girlfriend Magdalena, who dumps him for her boss, a sex-addiction-treating psychiatrist who likes to appear on TV. We see some of Miami’s upper crust through her escapades and through her eyes. The tale, which also involves Russian oligarchs and art forgery, seems a bit implausible, and it’s a smidge over 700 pages long. But Wolfe’s writing is pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed the book enough to finish it.
Emma. (B+). Did we really need another movie of the beloved Jane Austen novel? I guess the box office will tell. This is a fine and, I believe, faithful adaptation of the book, so being an ardent disciple of the divine Miss Austen I quite enjoyed it. Anya Taylor-Joy was an interesting choice for the title role; her large, wide-set eyes give her a somewhat exotic appearance that may have worked better in her other movies like The Witch and Split, but she does a good job on the whole. In this version, I think Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria) at least looks quite a bit younger than he was in the novel (and the familiar 1996 movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam), and perhaps as a result this Emma–Knightley combination actually generates a little romantic heat. What else to say? The music stands out; there’s quite of bit of it, and a lot of it sounds like religious music of the period (or at least some long-past period). In this version, Emma’s older sister and her family come to Highbury for a visit and make a vivid impression; I don’t remember them from the book or prior movies. Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, or period pieces, or romantic comedies, I think you should like this movie.
P.S. Yes, the title of the movie really does have a period at the end, which I noticed on the opening title card. According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film has a period attached to signify it being a period piece.”
1776, by David McCullough (2005). I think this the first book that I’ve read by the prolific McCullough. I must have found it on sale somewhere, because I’m not a big Revolutionary War buff. (Quick, in what year did the British surrender at Yorktown? 1781. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Anyway, this is a brisk and engaging tale of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776. (I got the impression that some significant events were happening down in the Carolinas, but we don’t hear about them.) It was pretty much all news to me. First, Washington’s army drove the British out of Boston. Then he moved his army to New York, where the British soundly defeated him. They chased Washington’s ragtag army into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. All might have been lost, but for Washington’s inspired sneak attack on Trenton, followed by another successfully sally at Princeton. I was surprised to see how inept a commander Washington was in the early going of the war, but apparently he always learned from his mistakes. The book is good, but it could have been MUCH improved by a few battlefield maps to show us exactly what was going on at each of the critical points.
Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal). I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture. This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did. The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later. As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me. Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.
The only political podcast I listen to is the Commentary Magazine Podcast. Commentary is a monthly magazine about politics and culture; it is conservative in outlook, and, given that it was founded by the American Jewish Committee, it gives a lot of coverage to Israel and Judaism. In the twice-weekly podcast, magazine editor John Podhoretz dominates an hour-long conversation with three other pundits about current events. I started listening in 2019, so many or most of the shows I’ve listened to have focused on either the Trump investigations or the Democrat primaries. It makes me feel decently well-informed without actually, say, reading a newspaper or watching a debate. And the podcast’s tenor suits me—conservative, but generally finding lots of folly to marvel at on both sides of the red–blue divide.
Richard Jewell (B). This is a solid, interesting little movie about a real-life event that I only dimly remember. A nail-bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta while that city was hosting the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 (per wikipedia). According to the movie, the federal criminal investigation turned up no real leads, and the FBI decided to focus on Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the bomb before it exploded and seemingly saved lots of lives by alerting law enforcement and helping evacuate the area. (The actual bomber was identified and apprehended only years later.) Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) portrays Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) as a real odd duck—hugely overweight, socially inept, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris), and yearning to be a real policeman. Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) is an unscrupulous reporter dying for a scoop after the explosion, and Jon Hamm (Bridesmaids) is the integrity-challenged FBI agent who tips her off that Jewell is a person of interest. When she breaks the story, Jewell goes from hero to presumed villain in no time flat, and he turns to the only lawyer he knows, a solo practitioner played by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), to help him fight back. Hauser and Rockwell turn in fine performances, and the movie vividly demonstrates how the combined power of the government and the media can unjustly destroy an ordinary guy’s life and reputation (and really upset his mama).
Little Women (2019) (A-). I haven’t seen any of the numerous prior dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, and I haven’t read the book itself in decades, so I was a fairly clean slate. I just remembered it was the story of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) living with their mother “Marmee” in the North while their father was off with the Union army in the Civil War. Director and adapter Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) complicates the narrative by making the “present” some seven years later and having headstrong sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) remember the Civil War-era events in extensive flashbacks.
At first, I didn’t care for the movie very much, but it quickly grew on me. I think it was mainly the story—the little domestic squabbles, setbacks, and victories—that won me over. Aside from Ronan, who’s always good, and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated…) in a small but fun part as the girls’ rich and crusty spinster aunt, I thought the acting was merely adequate. Emma Watson (This Is the End) didn’t have a lot to do as oldest sister Meg. Laura Dern (Star Wars Episode VIII) mostly just beams happily at her wonderful daughters. And I thought Amy, the youngest sister, was miscast. I vaguely remember her as a flighty, spoiled, kid-sister type in the novel, but Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is a sturdy, husky-voiced gal who seemed more mature than all three of her “older” sisters. I expect she’ll be a better fit for her part in the upcoming Marvel movie Black Widow.
Knives Out (B). Director Rian Johnson (Star Wars Episode VIII) got quite a cast to sign on for this stylish new mystery movie. The whole Thrombey family has gathered at the spooky old country home of wealthy patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire) for his 85th birthday party. Then, as so often happens after these dreary affairs, the maid finds poor Harlan dead in his study. Was it suicide or foul play? The list of suspects is long: Harlan’s uptight daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday), her caddish husband Richard (Don Johnson, Tin Cup), Harlan’s hangdog son Walt (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), Harlan’s needy, new-agey daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense), plus a few grandchildren (including Chris Captain America Evans) and a couple of servants. Enter private investigator Benoit Blanc, who is played by Daniel Craig (The Invasion) and sports the broadest Foghorn Leghorn-style southern accent I think I have ever heard. Blanc quickly attaches himself to Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) as possibly possessing the key to the whole affair. It’s a fun and twisty ride. As is normal in mystery or caper films, I didn’t really understand what happened, even after it was all explained, but happily there’s this amazing new website called google.com that helped me find people to explain it to me after the fact.