Tropic Thunder (B). I laughed out loud a few times during this movie, but I can see that it would not run to all tastes. A director is trying to film a Vietnam war movie in Vietnam, but his star-studded cast is giving him fits. The grizzled Vietnam vet who wrote the book the movie is based on (Nick Nolte, Another 48 Hours) proposes to take the pampered stars down a few pegs by dropping them deep into the jungle and making them rough it for a while. Unfortunately, they get dropped near a Burmese heroin-processing plant, and it takes the actors a while to realize they aren’t making a movie any more. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) is particularly funny as an multi-Oscar winning actor who utterly immerses himself in every role, including this one as a black army sergeant. His interaction with a black rapper who’s also in the cast is very entertaining. Ben Stiller (Meet the Parents), whom I usually don’t like, is decent (and directed the movie too!). Jack Black (School of Rock) doesn’t have much to do. As I say, not everyone will be amused. I thought one of the funniest scenes involves somebody getting blown up by a landmine, and Stiller’s character thinking it’s all special effects, but it is undoubtedly a little ghoulish too.
The Dark Knight (B). As they say, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Sure there are exceptions for stuff like love, a baby’s smile, or Nicole Kidman. But most good things pall if you get too much of them, and this movie falls into that category. To be sure, Heath Ledger (Monster’s Ball) is riveting as The Joker. Christian Bale (American Hustle) is fine as the caped crusader. The action sequences are terrific, and some characters meet surprising fates. But at 152 minutes, it is just too much. For the last 20 or 30 minutes, I started wondering just where The Joker could possibly get that much dynamite and that many hired goons. My friend, CBG, once opined that the increasing length of action movies can be traced to The Return of the King, but it seems to go back much further to me. From that first Batman with Michael Keaton (Birdman), it seems to me that the trend has been more of everything–more villains, more explosions, and more minutes. The Dark Knight is like two very good action movies, played back-to-back and only slightly compressed. I emerged from the theater feeling good and pummeled. Less would have been more.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick (published by Library of America in Four Novels of the 1960s, 2007). I believe I have previously reviewed the other three novels in this collection elsewhere on this blog. The movie Blade Runner was based on this short novel, and although I have never seen Blade Runner all the way through (for shame!), I am pretty sure it is a lot different from and more straightforward than the book. But the basic gist is probably still the same–the protagonist is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose job is “retiring” androids that have killed their human masters and are trying to pass as human beings. Now six androids of the latest and most advanced model are on the loose on the West Coast, and when one of them puts Deckard’s boss in the hospital, it’s up to him to stop them–if he can. Good story, although I’m not sure it all entirely made sense.
The Bleacher Bum contributes our first ever beer review. (That Guy Named David hangs his head in shame.)
The ultra light beer market is getting really competitive. Michelob Ultra has been the frontrunner, but other beer companies are getting into the mix. I tried Budweiser Select a few weeks ago, while watching the Texas Longhorns dismantle the Florida Atlantic Owls. I was pleasantly surprised. It was very smooth, tasted like beer, and had no aftertaste. It wasn’t great though. Last night, I thought I would try MGD 64. In high school, Miller Genuine Draft was my favorite beer. It is what my uncle and older brother drank. So, it is what I stole from them and drank in my parents’ garage.
MGD 64 was awful from the first sip to the last bitter end. It tasted and smelled terrible. It tasted like stale 7-UP mixed with sour lemonade with a shot of cologne. I drank one and put the rest in the refrigerator. I will finish the six-pack (I don’t throw away beer no matter what.), but I doubt I will enjoy it. Avoid at all costs….unless it is free.
Michael Clayton (Pay Per View) – This movie eluded me for some time because I could never find another soul that wanted to see it. I finally had to go at it alone. I am glad that I did. The movie is about a “fixer” (George Clooney, The American) at a mega-law firm in New York. He is a lawyer that circumvents the law instead of practices it. He does the shady deals, buys off the politicians or judges, gets things, and loses evidence to win cases. The firm greatly needs his services when its lead litigator (Tom Wilkinson – excellent) suffers from a mental breakdown in the middle of the firm’s biggest case. The case is a class action lawsuit where 460 people were stricken with cancer because of a weed killer. (Erin Brockovich with a touch of A Civil Action.) Clooney is extraordinary. He is heroic, lost, cunning, and downtrodden all at the same time. The movie partially loses its way because the background story is boring and underdeveloped. Also, the antagonists of the movie are less than dynamic. However, it is a movie that will be enjoyed by lawyers, business executives, and people that work in public relations. It deals with several issues that arise in corporate America.
Bleacher Bum Movie Scale:
Sixty Six (B+). This is a fun film about a Jewish boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. All of his life, Bernie Rubens felt overlooked by his family and overshadowed by his older brother. So when he realizes that on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, the world will revolve around him for that one day, he begins to plan for the biggest celebration ever conceived. Unfortunately, Bernie’s father seems to have the worst luck of any person on the planet, all of which works to Bernie’s disadvantage, and which provides for some good comical relief. I don’t want to give away the ending, but there are some wonderful performances including that by Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech), as Bernie’s mother, and Richard Katz (Enigma), as a blind rabbi. My only wish was that Catherine Tate (Gulliver’s Travels), who plays Bernie’s aunt, could have had a different role that would have better showcased her comical acting talents. This movie is well worth the price of admission, and if you don’t see it in the theaters, it will make a great rental.
The Women (D). OK, here’s what happened. I was all set to go catch a matinee of Tropic Thunder, which apparently has a lot of shooting and explosions and stuff. Then my cousin Diane calls, to see if I want to go see a movie. Well, small wonder, Tropic Thunder is not high on her list. After 45 minutes of negotiations, we finally settle on this. I knew the reviews had been tepid at best, but still, you can’t deny it has a high-caliber cast–even a cameo from Carrie Fisher (Star Wars Episode VI: The One with the Ewoks)! Alas, it was terrible. Not witty enough to be a comedy, not involving enough to succeed as a drama, the movie just lies there on the screen, inert. And didn’t Meg Ryan (Joe Versus the Volcano) get some terrible plastic surgery on her lips a while back? They look like they’ve pretty much returned to normal now. I wonder if the 1939 version with Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel) is any better.
Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe. I had heard of Thomas Wolfe but knew nothing about him until my sister and I toured the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina. It is a boarding house that his miserly mother ran during the first decades of the 20th century. Tom’s father, an alcoholic carver of tombstones, refused to live there and stayed in the old family home down the street until illness finally forced him to move. Tom himself spent his childhood staying in one house part of the time and the other one the other part. Finally he left for college, traveled a great deal, and became a famous author partly because of this, his first novel. He died young at about age 38. After hearing his story, and hearing that this book is intensely autobiographical (apparently enraging many of the townspeople who recognized themselves in it), I just had to read it. It’s a long book (522 pages in my edition) and slow reading because of his ornate or operatic style. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. The protagonist and stand-in for the author is Eugene Gant, a sensitive and intelligent boy who can hardly fathom how he could be related to his crazy family. Wolfe is a keen observer of the dark side of the human condition–loneliness and bafflement at human mortality are two of Eugene’s greatest obsessions, and Wolfe writes of them very movingly. The tale runs from before Eugene’s birth and ends as he finishes college and prepares to leave for further studies at Harvard. Apparently Wolfe continued Eugene’s story in Of Time and the River, and I feel sure that I will look it up someday.
Elegy (C-). Ben Kingsley (Schindler’s List) plays David Kepesh, a professor of cultural studies and a successful critic who frequently appears on television and radio. Having run out on his family back in the 60’s or 70’s, Kepesh appears to have had a succession of meaningless sexual relationships—not uncommonly with his students. (Or, once sexual harassment became frowned upon, former students.) One semester he is smitten with a Cuban student, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and as soon as the ink is dry on the final exams he begins his pursuit. She puts up minimal resistance, and the rest of the movie is how this relationship between the aging professor and the only-slightly-older-than-average college student plays out. Kepesh is so Ben Kingsley–so unsmiling, so beady-eyed, so reptilian–that it is really difficult to suspend disbelief that Consuela could fall for him. Until the closing credits rolled, that is, and I discovered that the film is based on a novel by Philip Roth. I’ve never read Roth, but I know his work also inspired The Human Stain, in which the Nicole Kidman character falls for the Anthony Hopkins old-professor character. Hmmm. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the movie b/c the protagonist is a such a cold, self-absorbed jerk (always a big stumbling block for me when I try to enjoy a movie). But Cruz, I have to say, is really growing on me, after her dynamite performance in Volver and very good one in Vicki Cristina Barcelona. I’m even starting to think she’s attractive, which is a new development. On the whole, though, not a very good movie. Oh, I didn’t even recognize Debbie Harry of the rock band Blondie in a small role as the wife of a poet played (not very well) by Dennis Hopper (Apocalypse Now).
Last night a buddy and I saw The Eagles in concert at the American Airlines Center here in Dallas. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show, although our seats were terrible–pretty much behind the stage, and in the uppermost deck of seats. We could still see the performers fine, though, thanks to a big projection screen. The only thing we missed was being able to see what was shown on the big screen behind the stage, since we were kind of behind that. Anyway, the band played for over 3 hours (excluding a short intermission), and their sound was very good. They did quite a few songs from their current album, Long Road Out of Eden, which is pretty average stuff, but that still left plenty of time for most of their greatest hits from the 70’s, plus a handful of signature songs that Don Henley and Joe Walsh released as solo efforts. A partial songlist would include Hotel California, Heartache Tonight, Life in the Fast Lane, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Lyin’ Eyes, Witchy Woman, Take It Easy, One of These Nights, Boys of Summer, All She Wants to Do Is Dance, Dirty Laundry, Rocky Mountain Way, and Life’s Been Good. I was waiting for Glenn Frey to bust out some Smuggler’s Blues, but it never happened. I’m glad I finally got to see this band, even if it was on what Frey called their “Assisted Living Tour.” And it’s so nice to go to a show (a) that isn’t too horribly loud, and (b) where everyone’s not standing up the whole time. If this is geezer rock, give me more!
Raising Helen (D+). I did not care for this movie, although it packs a fair amount of acting talent. Kate Hudson (The Skeleton Key) is Helen Harris, a freewheeling single gal working in New York’s fabulous fashion industry. She has two older, married sisters, played by Joan Cusack (School of Rock) and Felicity Huffman (Christmas With the Kranks). Felicity and her husband are killed in an offscreen car accident, and Helen is stunned to learn that she is the designated preferred guardian for the decedents’ three kids (who include Hayden Panettiere of TV’s Heroes fame, and Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine). Mix in John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Helen’s potential love interest and Helen Mirren (The Queen) as her boss, bake for 2 hours, and you should have a heartwarming story about a young woman who learns what’s really important in life from three adorable dependent children. Instead, you get a clunky and irritating knock-off of the infinitely superior German movie Mostly Martha. Even the mediocre American remake of Mostly Martha, the Catherine Zeta-Jones movie No Reservations, was better than this. (Didn’t that movie feature Abigail Breslin as an orphan too? The girl’s going to get a complex!) The romantic subplot involving Helen with the Presbyterian pastor/principal at the kids’ school was especially painful to watch.
I am so late on the bandwagon that I am afraid there will be no room for me. A friend told me to see this movie. I am glad he did. You should go see it. It will resonate with you. It is a simple film with a simple story. Street musician meets quirky girl. Quirky girl plays piano in duet with street musician. Street musician and quirky girl find joy in the music they create together. No big explosions. No special effects. No CGI. This movie is stripped down. Watch it. You will be glad you did. Incidentally, the street musician is the lead singer of “The Frames.” A good group. He was also in the movie The Commitments. Once won the Oscar for best original song last year. I give the movie an A.
The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier (Knopf 2008). This is a fantasy novel about a magical Kingdom and what happens when its beloved Prince, heir to the throne, mysteriously disappears while out riding in the countryside. Meanwhile, in a tiny village in a remote part of the Kingdom, a girl named Timou is growing up with her father, a mysterious mage named Kapoen. He willingly teaches her the ways of magecraft, but of her mother, whom Timou never knew, he will not say a word. The Prince’s disappearance causes ill effects throughout the Kingdom, even reaching Timou’s village, and eventually Kapoen sets out for the City in the Lake to offer his services to the King. When he does not return, 17-year-old Timou sets out after him, and that quest sets in motion the adventures that are the main action of the book.
I haven’t read a fantasy novel in years, but I liked this, Neumeier’s first novel, a lot. Although aimed at a teenaged audience, it is sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy as well. It contains some violence and cruelty, but nothing gory or gruesome. And although it contains no sex, the Kingdom is not ignorant of the birds and the bees; indeed, the first main character we meet is the King’s illegitimate son, called Lord Bastard behind his back by the King’s subjects. All of which is to say this is no mere children’s tale, but a thoughtful and thought-provoking adventure story. I recommend it. (Full disclosure: Neumeier is a cousin of mine. Now, get out there and buy this book!)