His Girl Friday (B-). Cary Grant (The Bishop’s Wife) plays Walter Burns, a charming but unscrupulous New York newspaper editor. Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame) is Hildy Johnson, his ex-wife and former star reporter. She shows up at his office with her new fiancé, a bland insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, Pretty Woman). Walter deploys every trick in his book to try to win Hildy back as both wife and reporter, getting her to cover the imminent execution of a convicted murderer who may have been insane. Widely considered one of the funniest comedies ever made, this 1940 release just didn’t do it for me. The dialogue is delivered at machine-gun-fire speed, but I didn’t think it was all that witty. The most remarkable thing about the picture to me was its amazingly cynical view of both journalists and politicians. In that sense, it certainly feels ahead of its time.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell. Okay, so I’m only a third of the way through this behemoth, but after all the thing is 1243 pages long. Johnson was a towering figure in British letters during the 18th century. He published hundreds of essyas, more than fifty biographies, a complete annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works, and almost singlehandedly wrote the best and most complete English dictionary of its time. He also hobnobbed with Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and he crossed (literary) swords with David Hume. And his friend James Boswell wrote this tremendous biography of his life, including numerous reports of the great man’s conversations. He comes across as a bit of a contrarian, more interested in getting off a good one-liner than in making a consistent argument. Just a third of the way in I have already come across these gems:
“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
After an unknown gentleman left Johnson’s company, he remarked that “he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.”
He was not an admirer of Americans. Once he remarked that failing to work for the spread of Christianity “is a crime of which I know not that the world has yet had an example, except in the practice of the planters of America, a race of mortals whom, I suppose, no other man wishes to resemble.”
And his famous response when a woman asked him how he had come to make a certain mistake in his Dictionary: “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”
Come Early Morning (C+). This movie did not live up to the buzz I had heard. Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy) plays Lucille Fowler, a single woman living with her single friend Kim (Laura Prepon, TV’s That 70‘s Show) in a small town in Arkansas (North Little Rock to be precise, although it is not named in the movie). Lucille has a decent job with a building contractor, but otherwise her life is a mess. She has virtually no relationship with her father, she drinks too much, and she has bad relationship-phobia. Thus, when a nice guy moves to town from Kentucky and tries to court Luce, she sabotages the budding romance at every opportunity. She also has some unhappy relatives, although the relationships are a little vague at times. Although I had heard great things about Judd’s performance, I thought it merely competent, even a little mannered at times. Perhaps part of the problem is traceable to the underdeveloped script or the direction, which are both by actress (and North Little Rock native) Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy). Still, it is not bad work for a first-time director, and Judd is certainly easy on the eyes. Being from North Little Rock myself, I enjoyed seeing the numerous scenes at The Forge (a bar my uncle used to frequent), and the characters’ casual references to other places I knew, such as Rose City, Levy, and a well-known Little Rock restaurant called Cajun’s Wharf.
The Nativity Story (A-). I was discouraged by the first wave of reviews that I saw, but then I saw a couple of favorable reviews and thought I should give The Nativity Story a chance. I’m glad I did. At first, I was a little concerned; the acting seemed a bit overripe, and the sound quality was not so good. But I was quickly drawn into the story, and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it. The film is generally very faithful to the Bible, and it brings to life the context that we tend to forget when we just look at pretty manger scenes and Christmas cards. In particular, the movie vividly depicts the grinding poverty endured by most of the people in Roman-occupied Israel and the casual cruelty and brutal punishments dished out by the Romans. Some critics have criticized Keisha Castle-Hughes’s portrayal of Mary as wooden or flat, but I thought her performance was appropriate. True, she’s not laughing or even smiling much of the time, but in addition to the harshness of life in ancient Judea she had to face the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy in a culture where that could easily lead to stoning. The fellow who plays Joseph also does a good job of conveying the hurt and shame of his circumstances. (Postscript–that fellow was Oscar Isaac, who would go on to bigger things, like a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) The manger scene is very nicely done.
I warmly recommend this movie and encourage you to see it. It is properly rated PG because of a few instances of violence — Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is shown in two short scenes of soldiers smashing into houses and women crying, but the film doesn’t actually show any babies getting hacked apart. A couple of times characters come upon the bodies of criminals crucified along the roads, but the film doesn’t dwell on those shots. I would guess this film is appropriate for kids maybe 11 or 12 and up.
Holy Father: Pope Benedict XVI, by Greg Tobin (Sterling Publishing 2005). This little volume (141 pages) is a pleasant, light biography of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Tobin starts with a quick (very quick) summary history of the papacy from Peter to John Paul II, then provides a nice summary of the 2005 conclave that led to the elevation of the new pope. Ratzinger’s biography then takes up the last 70 pages or so. I knew very little about his background, so this was a good introduction. (I did not know, for instance, that Benedict’s older brother is also a priest.) A nice stocking-stuffer for the Catholics on your Christmas list.
Wow. Boo, I hate this movie. Rarely can I say I hate a movie. I like a ton of bad movies. Ask anyone. I like Waterworld. I even laughed during parts of Ishtar. I tolerate a ton of mediocrity, even crap, for just a little slice of humor, action, gore, originality, etc … This movie simply stank. By the time we rented the movie, we had forgotten how bad the original reviews were; shame on us. Without giving the entire plot away, let me just say this is not a feel-good movie. It is not a good date movie. It is not a snuggle-on-the-sofa-and-share-popcorn movie. This movie is like someone selling you a ticket to see a Kramer v. Kramer type movie (not the Seinfeld Kramer) by conning you with a preview that makes you think it is Wedding Crashers Part II. This is not Wedding Crashers Part II. It is a “my dog died, my wife left me, and I lost my job” type of movie. Not a holiday uplifter. I give this movie a “G.” It is one letter past “F” in the alphabet, so that must mean it is worse, right? If this is the type of movie you are looking for, skip this one and rent Barefoot in the Park. Jane Fonda was still cute and the story is just right.
For Your Consideration (D). I have enjoyed the last three movies directed by Christopher Guest — A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, and most especially Waiting for Guffman. Why, then, did this one leave me sad and bitter? It shouldn’t have; the plot is actually quite reminiscent of Waiting for Guffman. In Guffman, a community theater in small-town Missouri is rehearsing a musical in honor of the town’s 200th anniversay. They freak out when they get news that a New York reviewer is coming to see their production. Hilarity ensues. In For Your Consideration, a little independent movie called “Home for Purim” is getting made by a cast of has-beens and never-weres. They freak out when Oscar buzz unexpectedly develops around their little movie. Hilarity never shows up. Even more than usual, Guest seems to have it in for his characters, especially the pitiful Marilyn Hack, played by Catherine O’Hara. In Guffman, the characters were people with day jobs who acted as a hobby, so it didn’t seem so mean for Guest to make them such terrible performers. In Consideration, however, the characters are supposedly professional actors, which is maybe why it seems so much crueler to mock the mismatch between their pretensions and their lack of talent. Even the reliable Fred Willard can’t save this turkey. Consider taking your money elsewhere.
From the same guys who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies comes this alternative private detective, Hollywood murder mystery. Filled with tongue-in-cheek dialogue and featuring understated performances by Val Kilmer (Batman Begins) and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) this movie is a pleasant surprise. Much of the humor in the movie comes from the characters’ interplay and the various plot twists that ensue, so I don’t want to give away any of the plot. I will say watch out for Abraham Lincoln at the end of the movie. I give Kiss Kiss Bang Bang an “A.”
I stayed away from this movie for a long time because I am not into movies made from random comic books that I have never read or heard of, e.g., Daredevil, Howard the Duck, Electra, etc . . . I only watched Sin City because I saw it on cable. Once I started watching it, I simply could not turn my eyes away from the film. Sin City tells the story of several individuals who stories are interrelated, but exist independent of each other (think Robert Altman’s Shortcuts, but less confusing). Some of the stories are compelling, some are not. All of the stories are violent. The film is done in black and white and apparently with significant green screen work. An interesting effect is the director’s use of color with an item or a few items in each shot. I am still not sure if I thought the stories were clever or if it was simply the imagery that was keeping me interested in the movie. Did I mention violence? There is gun play, mutilation, and torture scenes in this movie. There is also some nudity. Don’t let your kids watch this movie. I give it a “B” and say rent it or catch it when it comes on cable. Watch for Elijah Wood’s and Nick Stahl’s creepy performances. Really creepy.
As the late Robert F. Kennedy never reached the iconic status of his older brother, John F. Kennedy, Bobby should not be compared to JFK. Emilio Estevez (The Way) wrote, executive produced, and directed the film. The film follows the last day in the life of Robert F. Kennedy. The action takes place at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the site of Kennedy’s assassination. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Joshua Jackson, Estevez, and six other recognizable actors also star in the film. Look for a standout performance from Joshua Jackson. The actual footage of Robert Kennedy and his speeches are phenomenal, but that and the great casting don’t cover up for the lack of a plot or any intellectual dialogue. If you need a history lesson of a tragic day in our country’s past, then you must go see the film. However, don’t expect to be entertained during the lesson.
Bleacher Bum movie scale: Homerun, Triple, Double, Single, Strikeout
Casino Royale (B). Movie Man Mike has already reviewed this rebooting of the Bond franchise, so I’ll be brief. I liked Daniel Craig (The Golden Compass) as the new James Bond, and I liked the idea of going back to the very beginning, making Bond a newly minted double-0 agent who is still a little rough around the edges. Top spy M (Judi Dench, Philomena) refers to Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and he certainly is. The character development was unusually good for a Bond film, helping to show how Bond would become the character everyone knows. On the down side are many of the things that are always wrong with Bond films. It was too long. Although the technical gizmos are played down, there are still some pretty ridiculous action sequences. (How many times did 007 successfully run through a veritable blizzard of automatic rifle fire?) And much of the time I was hazy about who was doing what to whom and why, although some of the loose ends are decently tied up at the end. All totaled, I give this movie a 007 out of 10.
Ben-Hur (1959) (B). I didn’t really know what to expect from this movie, other than a heck of a chariot race. My first clue was the subtitle that I never knew the movie had but that was right there in the opening credits: “A Story of the Christ.” Charlton Heston (Antony and Cleopatra) plays Judah Ben Hur, a wealthy young Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine in the time of Christ. As the movie opens, Judah’s childhood friend Massala (Stephen Boyd, The Fall of the Roman Empire), a Roman, returns to Palestine as an ambitious military commander. The country is ripe for revolution, and Massala expects Judah to turn informant. When he refuses, an accident gives the Massala the opportunity to teach the restive Jews a lesson by sentencing Judah to be a galley slave and throwing his mother and sister into prison. From then on, Judah lives for revenge. Matters come to a head between Judah and Massala right around the end of Jesus’s earthly life, and the Passion of The Christ turns out to have a special significance for Judah. This 1959 movie gives Christ and Christianity a sweet and sentimental glow they sure don’t get any more. Not a bad movie, with great sets and, yes, an amazing chariot race. Now I know where George Lucas got the inspiration for the pod race in Episode I.
All the King’s Men (C). Although this movie is based on my very favorite novel, I steered clear based on the drubbing it took from the critics (and at the box office). But my cousin just read the book and cajoled me into seeing the film at the dollar theater. Thanks to my very low expectations (and the low price), I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but it still wasn’t very good. The story is a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Louisiana demogogue Huey Long as seen through the eyes of one of his cronies, a disaffected journalist from a genteel background named Jack Burden. There were some casting errors; Jude Law (Genius) is too good-looking to play Jack, Kate Winslet (Finding Neverland) is all wrong as Jack’s childhood sweetheart Anne Stanton, and Patricia Clarkson (Cairo Time) is likewise wrong as political operative Sadie Burke. Sean Penn (The Interpreter) is not too bad as the Huey Long character, Willie Stark, but for some reason he delivers his political speeches as though he suffers from some serious neurological impairment, bobbing and ducking and weaving seemingly uncontrollably. Director Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action) tried to cram way too much of the book into the movie, so the action moves forward in a very jumpy fashion, leaving key events and motivations underexplained. Still, if you know the book well, you will be able to follow the movie easily and may even get some enjoyment out of it. Low expectations will also help.