Last Night at the Lobster (book review)

Book review by The Movie Snob

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stuart O’Nan (Viking 2007). This tiny novel (146 pages) was well-reviewed in a couple of my magazines, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. It’s not bad. Manny is the manager of an underperforming Red Lobster restaurant somewhere in New England. Management has decided to close the store, and the book covers its last day of operations. As a manager, Manny is responsible and omnicapable; as a person, he’s a bit of a mess. He’s got a pregnant girlfriend that he doesn’t seem to be in love with, and he is in love with one of his waitresses who has moved on to another boyfriend. As a small slice of life in the restaurant industry, it’s kind of interesting, and even as a personal story it’s not bad. But I wouldn’t rave about it.

My Grandfather’s Son (book review)

Book review by The Movie Snob

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Clarence Thomas (Harper 2007). This autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas actually ends just as he begins his tenure on the Court over fifteen years ago. In direct, unadorned prose, he tells his story. He was born in rural Georgia in June 1948, and his father divorced his mother and left Georgia in 1950. For his first seven years, Thomas lived in extreme poverty, but then his mother sent him and his younger brother to live with her father and stepmother, whom Thomas grew up calling Daddy and Uncle Tina. He grew up in their modest home, excelling in his schoolwork and absorbing his grandfather’s creed of something like “rugged individualism.” Race issues were never far from his mind, then or later, and in his college and law school years he dabbled in black radicalism. After Yale Law School he fatefully took a job with Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. When Danforth became a senator, he took Thomas to Washington. There he soon joined the Department of Education and then became chairman of the EEOC, a post he held for several years. In the summer of 1989, President Bush nominated him for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and he joined the court in March 1990. In the summer of 1991, at age 42, President Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court, and after a series of memorable confirmation hearings, he was confirmed by a vote of 52–48. Thomas gives his perspective on all these remarkable events.

Of course his account of the Anita Hill hearings is interesting. Naturally he adheres to his testimony at the time, in which he categorically denied all of her accusations and insisted that he was unaware that he ever said or did anything to Hill that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment. (Even though I was in law school at the time, and the hearings were the subject of widespread debate, I watched none of them. I suppose I did not believe that there was any way the truth could be clearly established, short of one side or the other recanting.) What I remember thinking was much more remarkable at the time was his testimony that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade with anyone. He mentions this matter briefly in the book, and it had not occurred to me that Thomas himself was only a law student—halfway through law school—when Roe was decided. Moreover, he says that at that time he was “agnostic” on the matter, by which he apparently means mildly and instinctively pro-choice, and given his absorption with the rights of blacks (hardly surprising for a black man who had grown up in 1950s and 1960s Georgia) it is perhaps more conceivable that his testimony was true. My closest friends in law school and I probably argued about Roe (and our other favorite topic, affirmative action) ever other week, but I can’t say that I have had all that many discussions about them since. So I’m inclined to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Anyway, it’s an interesting book, and, at only 289 pages, a much less daunting read than Andrew Peyton Thomas’s 590-page biography of the justice from 2001. But don’t expect a lot of personal revelations about his family — he says little about his brother, and virtually nothing about his mother, father, and sister. He clearly values his, and their, privacy.

Shoot ‘Em Up

DVD review from Nick at Nite

Shoot ‘Em Up

Clive Owen (Children of Men) and Paul Giamatti (San Andreas) are golden. These days, these two seem to do little wrong. Owen should have been the new James Bond and Giamatti is Oscar worthy as the ultimate everyman in all of his roles. This frantic movie features Mr. Owen and Mr. Giamatti squaring off against one another with all sorts of gunplay and mayhem. The plot is a little hard to follow and is certainly late in developing. However, the plot is an inconvenient aside to all of the one liners and action sequences. This is not a particularly smart movie, but it is fun. If you have an aversion to violence and gunfire, sit this one out. If your favorite line in the first Matrix movie is “… we are going to need more guns …,” I suggest you buy this movie on DVD. I give it an “A.”

Atonement

New from the desk of The Movie Snob

Atonement (A-). I have never read the novel on which this movie was based, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the heck out of the movie. The movie takes place in three discrete acts. In Act One, we are in 1935 Britain, on the country estate of some well-to-do folks. Keira Knightley (Love Actually) plays Cecilia Tallis, who belongs to the well-to-do family, and James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) plays Robbie Turner, the hard-working son of one of the family’s servants who has actually done well for himself at college. It is quickly revealed that the two are passionately in love despite their differences in social rank, and complications ensue because of a single, serious misdeed by Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan, a young actress to watch). To say more about the plot would be a disservice to you; I will conclude by reporting simply that I was always fascinated by what was happening on the screen and always wondering what would happen next.

Keira Knightley, in a very different movie

Tension

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Tension (B). This completes my viewing of my collection of film noir classics, and it ends on a high note. Our protagonist is Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart, Moby Dick), a mild-mannered pharmacist who is in love with wholesome girl-next-door Mary Chandler (played by the lovely Cyd Charisse, Singin’ in the Rain). Matters are complicated by the fact that he is married to a two-timing blond vixen named Claire (Audrey Totter, The Postman Always Rings Twice), and that when he meets Mary he is already up to his eyeballs in a complicated scheme to murder Claire’s lover and get away with it. Naturally, things don’t go entirely as planned. Our square-jawed, plain-spoken homicide detective engages in some very unorthodox tactics to get to the bottom of the case. Surely even in 1949 it wasn’t common for gumshoes to ferret out clues by dating one of the prime suspects in a murder case….

The Classical World (book review)

From The Movie Snob

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox (Basic Books 2006). For some reason I have really been into books about the ancient world the past couple of years. The biography Caesar: Life of a Colossus, set the bar extremely high, and this book in no way surpasses it. Maybe Fox just tries to cover too much ground–after all, the period from Homer to Hadrian is about 900 years or so. Anyway, the book is moderately interesting but no more. He adopts “freedom, justice, and luxury” as his guiding themes, but they are not compelling. Once or twice he applies modern moral standards to the ancient Greeks and Romans, to absurd effect. After describing severe Roman and Greek laws against adultery, he is aghast: “To modern liberal eyes, these laws are abominable. . . . We now execrate the Augustan laws, but we put the Athenians’ laws down to civic cohesion or fears about illegitimate citizens.” Um, actually nobody I know really worries about these laws, or even knows about them, but I’m glad to know Professor Fox is shocked by anti-adultery laws over 2000 years old. That said, if he’s out there picketing Arab embassies to protest honor killings too, I will have more respect for his outrage.

The Savages

Movie review from The Movie Snob

The Savages (A). If this movie doesn’t get some love at Oscar time, it will be a sin. Two of our finest actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) and Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes) play Jon and Wendy Savage, a brother and sister living in Buffalo and NYC, respectively. Out of the blue, they get word that their estranged father, who has been living in Arizona, needs their assistance. His long-time live-in girlfriend has died, and he is beginning to suffer from dementia. Dutifully and only somewhat resentfully, they get him back to New York and into a Buffalo nursing home. This is a matter-of-fact, slice-of-life drama, with realistic characters dealing with an all too realistic situation. Jon and Wendy have messy personal lives and have a few heated arguments, but they basically love each other and generally try to do the decent thing. Excellent movie.

Side Street; Where Danger Lives

DVD reviews from The Movie Snob

My traversal of Film Noir Volume 4 is almost complete. I recently watched entries eight and nine, Side Street and Where Danger Lives. In Side Street, an ex-GI (Farley Granger, Strangers on a Train) living in NYC with his young wife (Cathy O’Donnell, They Live by Night) in her parents’ apartment yearns to make good. While working as a part-time mail carrier, temptation gets the better of him, and he steals a folder from a shady attorney’s office in the belief that it contains a couple hundred dollars. It turns out to hold $30,000, and his attempt to return the loot (which is blackmail money) only gets him deeper in the soup. Not bad, but not great. Call it a C.

In Where Danger Lives, Robert Mitchum (The Big Steal) plays a young up-and-coming doctor in California. As if to demonstrate that doctors can be as dumb as anyone else, he falls in love with a patient–a woman who was taken to the hospital and left there by an anonymous gent after a failed suicide attempt. Once he’s fallen head over heels for the mysterious woman (Faith Domergue, This Island Earth), he finds out she is married to a rich older fellow played expertly by Claude Rains (Casablanca). Rains thumps Mitchum on the noggin with a fireplace poker, and Mitchum slugs Rains and apparently kills him. Suffering from a concussion, Mitchum lets his femme fatale talk him into making a run for the border (Mexico, not Taco Bell). Aside from Rains’s brief appearance, I didn’t think this movie was so hot. D+.

Starting Out in the Evening

From The Movie Snob

Starting Out in the Evening (B). This is a quiet little independent movie about a once-famous novelist in his 70’s who is struggling to finish one last novel. Leonard Schiller (played by veteran actor Frank Langella, Good Night, and Good Luck) is as reserved a guy as you can imagine. He’s the kind of guy who never goes out, or sits down to write, without putting on a tie. Anyway, his wife is long dead, and his 40ish daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor, Ransom) is unliterary and a bit of a basket case. His world is shaken up when ambitious grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose, Wanderlust) persuades him to help her with her master’s thesis on his work. From there, the movie is a close observation of their relationship, as well as Ariel’s relationship with an ex-boyfriend who comes back into her life. I enjoyed it, although I didn’t find the ending altogether satisfying.

Enchanted

New from The Movie Snob

Enchanted (B). I thought this looked like a cute movie from the very first preview I saw, and it delivers pretty much exactly what you would expect. The beginning is like a generic animated Disney feature—the beautiful damsel Gisele is pining for a prince charming, who suddenly appears and proposes that they get married immediately. His wicked stepmother senses a threat to her power as queen and, in disguise as an old crone, pushes Gisele down a bottomless well. Then the clever hook—Gisele emerges from a manhole in New York City as real woman (played with perfect wide-eyed innocence by Amy Adams, American Hustle). A handsome but skeptical divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey, TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) takes Gisele in, while the prince, the queen, and her schlubby henchman all make their way from animationland to live-action New York in hot pursuit. Cute antics follow. The movie sags a little in the middle, but on the whole it is good fun for the whole family.

The Golden Compass

From the desk of The Movie Snob

The Golden Compass (C-). I am at least an auxiliary member of the Religious Right, and Catholic to boot, but once I saw that this movie is floundering at the box office (in the U.S. anyway), I decided to go ahead and see what the hullabaloo was about. (And, what a pleasant surprise, Nicole Kidman (Days of Thunder) turned out to be in it!) It’s a weird story about a weird alternate universe where people’s souls have physical manifestations—they are like animal sidekicks that can talk and change shape when you’re a kid, but they lose those powers when you grow up. A malevolent authority called the Magisterium is conducting experiments on children to try to separate them from their souls, apparently as a means to extinguish their free will and yield a citizenry of compliant, soulless zombies. The heroine, Lyra, has a golden compass that supposedly reveals the truth in any situation. Confusingly, it seems to speak only in an obscure symbolic fashion the first time she uses it, but then after that it seems to give her much clearer visions to reveal what’s going on. My reaction to this movie is much like my reaction to the Harry Potter films—for all the wondrous goings-on, it is surprisingly unmagical. I can’t recommend it.

La Vie en Rose

DVD review from Movie Man Mike

La Vie en Rose (A-). Marion Cotillard has received many awards and nominations for her performance in this foreign film. I now know why. Wow! She’s fantastic. She does a wonderful job bringing the life of French singer Edith Piaf to the screen. She convincingly plays Piaf (also known as “the little sparrow”) from about age 18 to the time of her untimely death at age 47. This film made me want to know more about the little sparrow and it made me want to buy some of her beautiful music. The film is subtitled and jumps back-and-forth in time, so you have to pay close attention to stay up with the story, but it’s a beautifully presented story of a woman who overcame a difficult upbringing and had a big impact on international audiences in the 40’s and 50’s. This is now on DVD and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I’ll be pulling for her to get an Oscar nomination for this one.

Movie Snob’s Best of 2007

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2007 column. As usual, the films eligible for consideration and inclusion in this prestigious work of film criticism are those that I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2007. As usual, this means that a lot of 2006 releases will be included. For the record, I saw 58 movies in theaters in 2007, up from 45 in 2006.

Movie of the Year: It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film —The Lives of Others totally blew me away. Set in Communist East Germany, it is the story of a member of the secret police who is assigned to spy on a playwright. He bugs the playwright’s apartment and spends hours listening to his activities. The playwright starts out a true believer in Communism, but as his faith erodes, so does that of his unseen listener. If you can tolerate subtitles (or know German), rent this movie a.s.a.p.

Best Drama: This was a rich category. Some critics found Amazing Grace, the story of the British parliamentarian who fought and eventually buried the slave trade, too schmaltzy, but I totally enjoyed it. Renee Zellweger impressed again as revered children’s author Beatrix Potter in the charming and moving little film Miss Potter. Into the Wild features lots of great performances, and amazingly got me to sympathize with a protagonist I felt sure I was going to dislike. I have a hard time picking just one, but if forced to choose I would have to give the nod to Into the Wild.

Best Comedy: Like last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, this year’s winner is more of a dramedy, a movie about a serious subject that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Featuring great performances by Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner, among others, the award goes to Juno. First runner-up is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the send-up of Walk the Line and similar biopics. It made me laugh from beginning to end. I would also cite the French movie The Valet, in which a hapless car parker is suddenly hired to pose as the boyfriend of a supermodel, in order to conceal an affair she is having with a married tycoon. It’s a very enjoyable romp. Honorable mentions to the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory and the overly maligned Evan Almighty.

Best Action/Adventure: There wasn’t much competition for category winner The Bourne Ultimatum, which was just as slick and exciting as when it used to be called The Bourne Supremacy. Seriously, I can’t recall a single difference between the two, except in this last one we find out that Jason Bourne was Catholic before he became a government-programmed assassin. Go figure. Children of Men was not as impressive in the thrills department but was far more thought-provoking. Beowulf was a lot of fun, at least in its IMAX 3-D incarnation. That last Pirates of the Caribbean movie wasn’t bad, although it was awfully long.

Best Documentary: I didn’t see very many this year, but in the short list of contenders is an excellent movie. In the Shadow of the Moon is a very interesting look at the Apollo missions, and it features interviews with lots of the mere handful of men who have actually been to the moon. Alas, Neil Armstrong was not among them, and there is only the slightest allusion to the fact that he has apparently become an odd recluse somewhere.

Best Foreign Film: Setting aside my Movie of the Year (and The Valet, which I put in the Comedy section), there were some other foreign flicks that are well worth your time if you can stand subtitles. Actually, the first one has substantial portions in English. After the Wedding is a Danish film, I think, about the unexpected events that befall a Dane who has returned home from his work at an orphanage in India. Very interesting. I also really liked the Penelope Cruz movie Volver, even though I don’t much care for Ms. Cruz herself. Pan’s Labyrinth is compelling, but it is a very dark film. Brace yourself for lots of cruelty if you see it.

Honorable Mentions. I don’t mind a good chick flick from time to time, and two of this year’s honorable mentions fit that category: Becoming Jane, which is about Jane Austen, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which is about, well, you figure it out. Stardust was an interesting attempt to become this decade’s version of The Princess Bride. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s a good effort. Babel was a good movie. Did it win the Oscar? I forget, but it was a good movie nonetheless. And last but not least, check out this year’s little movie that could: Once. It’s a sweet indie film about an Irish street musician and a Czech girl that he chances to meet and make some music with. But don’t get the soundtrack. I did and regretted it. Just see the movie.

Sweeney Todd

New review from Movie Man Mike

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (B-). I probably give this movie higher marks than it deserves because I have a soft spot for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and because I can appreciate the creativity in the lyrics of the musical numbers. But I had a hard time with the subject matter of this film and the graphic blood-letting. This is nothing short of a bad horror film. I mean really… a film about a barber who slits his clients’ throats and his landlady who cooks the body parts and then sells them as meat pies? And it’s a musical, no less! It doesn’t get much more gruesome than that. To be fair, the lyrics of the songs are clever, and Jamie Bower and Jayne Wisener demonstrate their considerable singing voices. I had to wonder if I would have had a different reaction to this one if the blood had not been so graphically displayed and if there had been a more comedic tone to the killing, but the seriousness with which the whole thing was presented was really unsettling. If you must see this one, you might wait for the DVD.

Alvin and the Chipmunks

Nick at Nite makes it to the movie theater

Alvin and the Chipmunks

Two reviews. My son loved it. I hated it. My son was very happy. I was happy that he was happy. Movie has no redeeming value. None of the subtle humor or tact of any of the Pixar movies. It made me yearn for the old Alvin cartoons. Still I am not audience for this movie. My three year old son was the audience for this movie. He laughed and laughed and laughed. So, if you have a long break and need something to do, this is a good movie for your kids. I suggest taking a book for yourself or just sit and listen to your kids laugh. Either would probably be worth the price of admission. I would tell you something about the plot, but there doesn’t seem to be any point to doing so. It is about singing Chipmunks and the shenanigans they get into. I give it a “C.” My son gives it an “R,” hey it is the only letter he routinely recognizes. The grade is quite a compliment from him.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Nick at Nite goes to the dollar theater

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

The dollar theater is close to the house, so sometimes we see some strange or forgotten films. This was not strange, but it was forgotten. This Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) film must not have been too well received since we saw it in the dollar theater only a month after its release. The film deserves better treatment. It is a somewhat disjointed tale about a magical toy store, its owner, and the toy store manager. Jason Bateman (The Switch), plays an accountant who is thrown in as the straight man to all of the other characters in the movie. This is a good movie for the entire family. It is rated “G.” A rarity. It sends typical good messages of believing in yourself, finding a meaningful purpose to life, etc … As for plot the toy store has problems, its owner seems crazy, the toy store manager is a lost young adult, and the accountant is an unhappy bean counter living an unfulfilled life. Somehow they all work it out. I give it a “B.”

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score

DVD review from Movie Man Mike

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (B-). I was a fan of the Futurama TV series. Although it did not always set off my laugh meter, it was generally pretty entertaining. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that they had made a full length film (but not so surprised to see that it went straight to DVD) . Nonetheless, I was compelled to rent it. Overall impression—good. The story is about a race of aliens who use spam to take over the planet, including Planet Express and, of course, Bender. The aliens infect Bender with a virus and proceed to use him to go back in time and retrieve valuable treasures. The result is an hilarious time paradox. Much of the fun of the film is watching to see how the paradox unravels and how the characters deal with it. If you liked the TV series, you will enjoy the feature film. And, it appears that writer Matt Groening has other Futurama films in the works. Fans rejoice.

Atonement

New review from Movie Man Mike

Atonement (A). This is a powerful film. The acting is superb. The story is about an untoward event that takes place, a young child’s actions in response to the event, and the consequences of the child’s actions upon the people she cares about. It’s also about her coming to terms with her own guilt for her actions. Briony Tallis—the young child—is played by three different actresses, Saoirse Ronan (age 13) (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Romola Garai (I Capture the Castle) (age 18), and Vanessa Redgrave (a much older Briony). Each actress does a beautiful job of bringing this character to life, but I have to say that Redgrave just about steals the show with her final 8 minutes or so on the screen. She is simply fantastic. James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) as Robbie Turner and Keira Knightley (Begin Again) as Cecelia Tallis are each beautiful to look at and wonderful in their respective roles. Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) plays a chocolate factory magnate whose performance is right on. The only scene I take issue with was a minor scene involving Robbie’s mother, Grace, where she is protesting the arrest of Robbie. I don’t think this scene was staged quite right because I just didn’t feel it. Otherwise, the film is beautifully directed and scripted. Although the film is a bit emotionally heavy, it’s one you ought to see.

Charlie Wilson’s War

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Charlie Wilson’s War (A-). Maybe this wasn’t really an A- movie, but I just enjoyed the heck out of it. You’ve probably heard all about it — Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies) plays a Texas congressmen who is exceptional in no way except for his willingness to stick up for the people of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. He teams up with a Houston socialite played by Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) and a misfit CIA man played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), and together they put together back-alley arms deals for the mujahedin worth a billion dollars. Next thing you know, Afghanistan = the USSR’s Vietnam. Hanks and Hoffman are great, and Roberts isn’t annoying like she usually is. The supporting cast is also great and easy on the eyes, including Amy Adams (Enchanted), Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), and Shiri Appleby (TV’s Roswell). The movie does leave you very curious to know how much is fact and how much is fiction — from what I’ve heard, the real story was so unbelievable they had to tone it down for the movie.