Thirteen

A guest DVD review from Fidan K.:

Thirteen

This movie was a definite F. I first heard of this movie on Oprah and the show made it seem that it was about middle-class families living normal lives and that the debauchery the kids engage in is part of the new youth culture. I was intrigued to see what has become of the youth today and how so much could have changed from when I was 13 (only 8 years ago). The movie offered very little character development as to why the family and the kids are so misled and live haphazardly. The downhill turn of the protagonist, Tracy, was too fast to be realistic and the kids in the movie looked much older than 13. The movie offered no shock factor as drugs and other illegal behavior in teens is not surprising in low-income families with alcoholic moms and their cocaine addict boyfriends. Therefore, soccer moms can breathe a sigh of relief that things aren’t as bad as Oprah says they are.

Cold Mountain

From the Movie Snob:

Cold Mountain. (B+) I don’t know why, but I was distracted throughout this movie by constantly trying to figure out what had been changed from the book, which I read years ago when it first came out. It is certainly an engaging plot, reminiscent of The Odyssey, in which a wounded Confederate soldier (Jude Law) deserts in 1864 to try to return to the woman he loves in a small rural community in western North Carolina near Cold Mountain. The performances were good, although Nicole Kidman stays a bit too fresh and clean to be entirely believable as a hard-scrabble farm owner with only one helper (Renee Zellweger). I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t make it into “A” territory.

Bad Boys II; S.W.A.T.

Reviews from That Guy Named David:

Bad Boys II (C-)

S.W.A.T. (C)

Instead of writing two separate reviews for the same genre of movie, I’ve decided to consolidate the reviews of these two movies. I decided to rent them on Saturday because the girlfriend was not in town, and I realized that I would never have the opportunity to watch either should she be with me. Anyway, Bad Boys II is relatively entertaining for the first hour to hour and a half; however, over the next hour to hour and a half, it gets boring. Suffice it to say, it is waaaaay too long. There should be a federal law prohibiting any movie starring both Will Smith and Martin Lawrence from exceeding two hours. S.W.A.T., on the other hand, is not as long, but considering you know exactly what is going to happen at the end of the movie during the first 20 minutes, it makes for a pretty boring affair. I was disappointed in the acting by Colin Farrell, as I have enjoyed him in most everything else I’ve seen in which he has starred. These movies may have been a decent diversion on a rain-soaked Saturday; however, I wouldn’t recommend them unless you seriously have some time to kill.

Girl With a Pearl Earring

From The Movie Snob:

Girl With a Pearl Earring. (C) I saw this independent flick last week with a charming, affable, and witty friend of mine from work. The critic in the local paper just raved about this movie, but I was not overwhelmed. It tells the story of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a Dutch servant girl who gets a position in the home of master painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). He takes an interest in her, and she eventually sits for the portrait that is now known as “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” I didn’t think the movie was all that insightful into the artistic mind or process. Mostly it made me grateful I am not living in the 17th century — especially as a servant girl to a moody artist and his annoying family. My companion loved the movie, especially the part where Vermeer’s creepy old mother-in-law shrieked, “You are a fly in his web! . . . We all are!!!” In fact, she’s still quoting that line this week.

The Cooler; Peter Pan; The Station Agent

Reviews from the Movie Snob:

The Cooler. (C) The premise sounded promising. William H. Macy is a “cooler,” a guy whose luck is both bad and contagious. Thus, he is a gold mine for Alec Baldwin’s seedy Shangri-La casino, which he is proud to say is for the serious gamblers and not the “stroller crowd.” Unfortunately, the stroller crowd is where the money is, and Baldwin’s world is threatened by two developments: the owners of his casino want to modernize the Shangri-La to make it more profitable, and his cooler is suddenly red hot thanks to a new romance with a cocktail waitress played by Maria Bello. Baldwin’s character, a strange blend of sentimentality and sociopathy, reacts badly to all these developments. I didn’t find much to like about this movie. As a friend I saw it with remarked afterwards, he expected it to be more witty and less violent. I also deducted points for the frequent and gratuitous sex scenes. (Actually, I suppose the sex scenes were not entirely gratuitous, but there was way too much nudity going on.) But most of all, the movie didn’t make me want to suspend disbelief on the central premise, that Macy’s luck could turn from bad to good and back and forth so completely and so abruptly as the story unfolded. This Las Vegas fairy tale never made me believe in it.

Peter Pan (2003). (B-) I had never seen any other version of the story, stage or screen, so I can’t make any comparisons for you. I’ve read that this version is truer to the book than most of the others, and that this version departs from tradition and increases the dramatic tension by actually casting a boy as Peter instead of a girl. And this tension was the most effective part of the movie, as Peter’s defiant rejection of all “grown-up feelings” in order to stay a boy forever inevitably leads to his parting from Wendy, who loves childish adventures but is too wise to want to miss out on the adventure of growing up. The rest of the movie – the admittedly good special effects, the swordfights, the surprisingly malicious doings of Tinkerbell – left me pretty much unmoved. Still, the children who made up most of the audience seemed to enjoy it, or at least they didn’t get too restless as far as I noticed.

The Station Agent. (B+) I really liked this quiet little slice-of-life movie. Fin McBride is a taciturn and unfriendly middle-aged man who is a train enthusiast. He is also a dwarf. Through an unexpected twist, he comes to own an abandoned train depot in the tiny town of Newfoundland, New Jersey, and he wastes no time moving there, hoping to get away from people and be left alone. But it is not to be. First he meets Joe, a loud young man who runs a coffee-and-hot-dog truck that he parks near the depot every morning. Then he meets Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a painter who is almost as withdrawn from the world as Fin is. The movie is basically the story of their friendship over several weeks or maybe months, as seen through Fin’s eyes. I really liked it.

The Movie Snob’s 2003 Year in Review

The Movie Snob’s favorites from 2003.

Well, my favorite movie that I saw for the first time in 2003 was actually a 2002 release, The Pianist. None of the 2003 releases I saw can really compare. It is a very powerful film about how one man survives the Holocaust in Warsaw, Poland. Check it out on DVD if you haven’t seen it yet.

Among comedies, A Mighty Wind is my pick for best movie of 2003. Maybe this faux documentary about folk singers from the 60’s getting together for a reunion concert isn’t quite as funny as Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman, but it is still very good. Running a close second is the instant classic School of Rock, starring the inimitable Jack Black. Freaky Friday and Finding Nemo get honorable mentions in this category.

For drama, my pick is Dirty Pretty Things, a gritty film about the harsh life of illegal immigrants in London. Mostly decent people, their desperation not to be deported exposes them to all sorts of dangers and indignities. Of course Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is in a class by itself, but in the end I thought it was just too much of a good thing. I Capture the Castle, an excellent romance and coming-of-age movie, was one of the few movies I saw in the theaters twice. For a slightly darker take on love and attraction, check out the little-seen indie flick xx/xy. And Mystic River was an effective and haunting movie, even if in the end I didn’t completely buy it.

Bubba Ho-Tep

From the Snob:

Bubba Ho-Tep. (B+) Although many of my friends apparently disagreed, I thought this movie had a sure-fire premise: Back in the 70’s, Elvis Presley got tired of the drugs and the fame, and he went and switched identities with an Elvis impersonator (who then soaked up the drugs and fame until he died of heart failure on the King’s bathroom floor). (For another decent movie based on a similar premise, see The Emperor’s New Clothes.) Today, the King is bitter, old, feeble, and living in a nursing home in East Texas. There he spends most of his time in bed, meditating on his decrepit physical state, missing ‘cilla and Lisa Marie, and wondering about the meaning of life. That part of the film is entertaining enough, but then an evil soul-sucking Egyptian mummy shows up and makes things really interesting. I know you won’t see it, but you should.

House of Sand and Fog

A review from The Movie Snob:

House of Sand of Fog. (C-) The reviews have been very favorable, but I just couldn’t embrace this film. Maybe it hurt me that I haven’t read the book. The premise is that Jennifer Connelly is a single woman whose house in San Francisco is seized by the county and sold at a tax auction. Ben Kingsley is an Iranian expatriate who buys it for 1/4 of the house’s value. Things escalate from there. None of the characters is appealing or sympathetic, and I have a hard time liking any movie like that. I just didn’t care for it.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (book review)

A book review from the Movie Snob:

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everitt. I was unfamiliar with Cicero’s life story and quite enjoyed this biography. One thing that impressed me a great deal was how violent politics could get in ancient Rome. And how lucky we are in this country not to have riots and murders as frequent accompaniments to elections, the passage of new laws, and the outcomes of criminal trials.

Big Fish

A new review from That Guy Named David:

Big Fish (A)

I told The Movie Snob that this movie was the best I have seen in the past several years. Maybe I overstated a bit, but that would follow the premise behind this story. The movie is directed by Tim Burton, renowned for his directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (he also directed such little-known movies as Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands). He is also known for being a bit of a freak, which fits in well with this movie. Without giving too much away, Big Fish is about a son (Billy Crudup) going back to see his dying father (Albert Finney). The father is known for being a bit of a storyteller, and the son desires to find out what his father was really like when you strip away the embellishments of the stories. In essence, the movie becomes a showcase for how our lives are all made up many individual stories (some embellished, some not; and I want to emphasize to The Movie Snob that the federales are not an embellishment). Anyway, the storyline is great, the imagery is classic Tim Burton, and the acting is superb, all of which makes this a must-see coming into the movie awards season.

Master and Commander; The Barbarian Invasions

From the Movie Snob:

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. (B+) Although this movie got a lot of good reviews, it was never high on my list of priorities. I finally saw it this weekend at the instigation of a friend of mine who’s a former Navy doctor, and I was duly impressed. It’s a straight-ahead tale about swashbuckling in the service of king and country, with no post-modern apologies for Eurocentrism or colonialism or anything else. Russell Crowe’s Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey reminded me of a certain James T. Kirk — an imaginative commander who’s not afraid to act on his own initiative when his orders run out. Only the proto-Darwinian musings of the ship’s doctor seem a bit out of place, but this is a minor quibble with an exciting and well-made adventure film. Maybe this is really more of an A-.

The Barbarian Invasions. (B+) This is a Canadian movie mostly in French. Remy is a 60ish college professor who is dying of cancer, and his son Sebastien is a successful businessman. The two are estranged, apparently because Remy’s philandering ways destroyed his marriage and because Sebastien’s pragmatic capitalism is an embarrassment to Remy’s conventional academic-style liberalism. Nevertheless, Sebastien answers his mother’s call to be with his father in his last weeks, and that is pretty much where the movie begins. To my surprise, the director does not assume that Remy’s perspective is self-evidently superior. For example, the Canadian health-care system is portrayed as a bureaucratic nightmare; even more surprising, a member of Remy’s cohort of friends is even open-minded enough to argue the intellectual greatness of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Although the Catholic Church comes in for a bit of abuse, even that is somewhat counterbalanced by a warmly compassionate nun who works in the hospital. A thought-provoking film about a universal subject.

Book Reviews

Some book reviews from the Movie Snob:

I was sick with some nasty head cold over most of the Christmas holiday, so I had a lot of time to sit around under the blankets and catch up on some light reading. First on the list was a book I got last Christmas called The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century, a collection of works by French sociologist and intellectual Raymond Aron. They are interesting works, largely from just before and just after World War II, and Aron wrote with clarity and foresight about the totalitarian nature of the Nazi and Soviet regimes and the inevitable crumbling of European control of their overseas colonies.

Then I read the new book Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum. This book has gotten a lot of good reviews in the magazines I read, and it is indeed a good overview of the entire history of the Soviet concentration-camp system. Although Applebaum does not write from an insider’s perspective, like Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, she does leaven her account with lots of quotations from her personal interviews with camp survivors. If you’re going to read one book about the gulag, this is probably the one to read. But I have to say, if you’ve read The Gulag Archipelago or the book from a few years ago called The Black Book of Communism, this book will feel like a little bit of a repeat.

Finally, I can happily recommend My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, by Norman Podhoretz. Part autobiography and part warning against Buchananite anti-Americanism on the political Right, this is a very enjoyable little defense of the many virtues of the United States.