God, Man & Hollywood (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob

God, Man & Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ, by Mark Royden Winchell (ISI Books 2008). I enjoy reading about movies almost as much as watching them, as my bookshelves will attest. This is a collection of essays about several movies that Winchell takes to be “politically incorrect,” meaning out of whack with the cultural attitudes that are fashionable in Hollywood, plus a chapter of very short synopses of 100 additional politically incorrect films. Admittedly, I did not read the whole thing–like I usually do with collections of this sort, I read only the pieces about movies I’ve already seen or will probably never see, so as to avoid spoilers about the ones I will probably catch one of these days. As for the ones I read, I thought they were enjoyable and well-written. I’m not sure Winchell really delivered on the dust jacket’s promise–to reveal “the surprisingly politically incorrect notions at the heart of eighteen classic films”–because I never really felt like I had been hit with any particularly surprising insights. But I enjoyed his essays regardless.

Rocket Science

DVD review from Nick at Nite

Rocket Science

This is not a movie about rockets or science. It is a movie about a kid with a stutter who joins his school’s debate team to hook up with a girl. I laughed some, was mildly disturbed some, and sat in bewilderment at other times. This movie does not have an afterschool special feel to it. It has a good message, but not the ending you would expect. Our star does not become the star debater. He does not win the girl. I am not sure what he learns, I think it has something to do with trying. Loved the soundtrack. Think Juno meets Garden State. I give it an “A.” Check it out.

Slumdog Millionaire

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Slumdog Millionaire (B). Before seeing this movie, I read a review in which the reviewer claimed that this is one of the best movies he has ever seen. That’s far too extravagant a claim, in my humble opinion, but it is worth watching. When the movie opens, we see a young Indian man named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) enduring a harsh police interrogation. It quickly develops that he is accused of cheating as a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Much of the movie then consists of flashbacks as Jamal tells a savvy police inspector how he came to know the answers to the various questions and why he wanted to be on the show at all. We see Jamal’s childhood in the slums of Bombay, growing up an orphan with his older brother Salim. We also see him befriend a little girl named Latika, who is of course destined to be the great love of his life. It’s a nice little tale, if rather heavily dependent on coincidence. Perhaps not what you would expect from director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later).

Seven Up! and 7 + Seven

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Seven Up! and 7 + Seven  (A). I have wanted to see these films for a long time, and The Borg Queen’s subscription to Netflix was my ticket. In 1964, some British film people assembled 14 seven-year-old children from various social classes and interviewed them. They interviewed some individually, and some in small groups. Since then, a researcher on the first installment (Seven Up!) named Michael Apted has revisited those same 14 people every seven years and filmed the results. (I didn’t realize Apted is a successful commercial director too, having helmed movies such as Gorillas in the Mist and The World Is Not Enough.)

So I watched and thoroughly enjoyed these first two installments. The kids are very cute and genuine in the first film, but by the second one some of them have become a little guarded. A girl from the top of the upper-crust, in particular, seems to be deciding already that her participation in the project was a bad decision. A boy who was living in a group home for poor children in the first installment seems a sad and downtrodden 14-year-old. Three upper-class boys who are largely indistinguishable in the first movie are developing distinct personalities in the second one. And so on. I’m looking forward to watching the later installments to see which of the kids refuse to participate further and which of them challenge the filmmakers’ apparent belief that socio-economic class is destiny.

The Man Behind the Gun

DVD review by the Movie Snob

The Man Behind the Gun (C-). Back in the day, Randolph Scott was apparently a pretty popular Western movie star. Today, he is apparently largely forgotten. Personally, I had never heard of him until I read an essay that praised of some of his movies for their moral ambiguity. (The essay also pointed out a scene in Blazing Saddles that would have sailed over my head, in which the heroes invoke Randolph Scott to shame the cowardly townspeople.) Anyhoo, I found a cheap DVD of three of Scott’s movies. This, the first one, is not very good. Scott plays an Army major sent to southern California on a secret mission to prevent that part of the state from seceding and becoming a slave state. It’s just so-so. But props to a young and skinny Alan Hale, Jr. as one’s of Scott’s sidekicks, before he went on to fame and fortune as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. and somewhat less fame in The Giant Spider Invasion.

Quantum of Solace

Movie Man Mike checks in with a new movie review.

Quantum of Solace (B+). When the 007 franchise signed actor Daniel Craig to play James Bond, it brought in a new kind of Bond. Not only is Craig a blonde, he’s given the character a newer, more serious dimension. In Casino Royale, we saw him in a more serious relationship with Vesper Lynd. Now, in Quantum, we see the impact that the loss of Lynd has on him. Bond goes rogue and defies M (Judi Dench). As Bond pursues bad guy Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, The Grand Budapest Hotel), a world entrepreneur, we see a side of Bond that may be a little darker then we’ve seen before. The plot is riveting, and, of course, there is a Bond girl in this film, Camille Montes, played by Olga Kurylenko (Oblivion). This was a thoroughly enjoyable film. As with all Bond films, this one is packed with lots of action. My one criticism of the film actually has to do with the action scenes. The directors used a fast-track sequencing to present the chase scenes. The jerkiness of the presentation makes it hard to keep up with exactly what’s happening except in concept only. But at the end of it all, this Bond film left me asking the question, “Is Daniel Craig the best Bond yet?”

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

New review from The Movie Snob

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (C). Obviously a 40-year-old guy is not within the target demographic for this movie. I just went because The Borg Queen invited me to go with her and her two little sisters. The little ones enjoyed it just fine, but it was really nothing to write home about. Yes, these kids have charisma and talent, but the story was not particularly engrossing, nor were the songs particularly memorable. The one aspect of the story that rose slightly above the mediocre was a subplot that was a knock-off of All About Eve. But on the whole, the show was only mildly and blandly entertaining. Unless you’re about six.

The Constant Gardener

DVD review from The Movie Snob

The Constant Gardener (C+). I remember that this movie got good buzz when it came out, but I was surprised to relearn that Rachel Weisz (About a Boy) won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for this film. I found it rather unmemorable. Ralph Fiennes (The White Countess) plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat posted in Kenya. At the beginning of the film, he learns that his wife Tessa (Weisz) has been found, dead, under mysterious circumstances. Then we flash back for a while to see when they met and what events led up to Tessa’s untimely demise. Then we see what Justin does next. It is a pretty formulaic tale of corporate greed, treachery, and amorality, and some things happen that just strike me as very unbelievable. I was unimpressed. Also, doesn’t “widescreen” mean that you’re supposed to get the whole movie picture on your TV screen, with the black bands at the top and bottom? My DVD box says “widescreen,” but the movie is actually in full screen format. Annoying.

Firefly (TV series)

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Joss Whedon’s Firefly: The Complete Series. I have owned this thing for a long time, but I only recently got around to watching it. I enjoyed the movie Serenity a lot, and there were only 14 episodes, so I don’t know why it took me so long.

The set-up in the pilot episode is promising. Five hundred years in the future, man has colonized a fair amount of space. A central government called the Alliance arose, a civil war erupted, and the Alliance won. After the armistice, one of the defeated rebels, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Waitress), acquired a transport ship called the Millennium Falcon–er, I mean, Serenity, and now he and his small crew scrounge a semi-legal living out on the fringe of Alliance space. Life on the frontier is remarkably similar to the American Old West, and although there are laser guns and mechanical transports around, six-shooters and horses are more prevalent. In addition to Serenity‘s crew of five, we add a licensed Companion (a courtesan or geisha type) named Inara who rents a small shuttle from Mal, plus a “Shepherd” or monkish type named Book and the brother-sister duo of Simon and River Tam. Simon and River are on the run from the Alliance, which makes life difficult for Mal but also makes it difficult for him to turn his back on them.

There’s a lot to like about the show. For example, everybody’s favorite Star Wars character is Han Solo, and Mal Reynolds is basically what Han Solo would have become if the Empire had defeated the Rebellion at the end of Episode VI. Also, there are two potential shipboard romances. There’s the relatively uncomplicated one between Simon, who’s a brilliant doctor from a wealthy family, and cute-as-a-button Kaylee, the ship’s engineer. And there’s the more complicated one between Mal and Inara. Han Solo would never have put up with Princess Leia’s becoming a gal for hire, and Inara’s line of work doesn’t sit well with Mal either. That’s one of the more interesting, if confusing, aspects of the Firefly milieu. How well does this whole Companion system really work? Mal is not the only character who refers to Companions by another, less classy name when he gets riled up about something, and Shepherd Book is obviously a little disconcerted by the lovely Inara. (By the way, it’s a kick to see old Ron Glass from Barney Miller as Book.)

The episodes are sort of a mixed bag–some good, some sort of indifferent. I think what makes me give the series less than a whole-hearted endorsement is that a few of the episodes have scenes that are just too dark or gruesome. I had little experience with Whedon’s famous brainchild Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but my very limited exposure to that show gave me the same impression about it. There’s an episode of Firefly in which a couple of series regulars get captured by a bad guy and tortured pretty severely right on screen. And another in which one of the female cast members is threatened with rape in a very brutal yet matter-of-fact fashion. To my mind, the episodes without this kind of material were much better than the ones with it. You should definitely screen each episode before you decide to let young children watch.

Guess that’s about it. Watch for a young Zac Efron (High School Musical 3: Senior Year) guest appearance as a young version of Simon Tam. Also, an attractive actress who guested on the show twice, Christina Hendricks, apparently now appears on Mad Men.

Finally, I’ll plug the movie Serenity again for anyone who enjoys Star Wars or Star Trek; to my mind it was sort of a blend of the two. It is rated PG-13, I think primarily for violence, but for some reason it didn’t turn me off the way some of Firefly did. But my friend The Borg Queen, who yields to no one in her fondness of SW and ST, found Serenity kind of disturbing, so I guess it’s hard to predict these things.

The Great Movies II (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob

The Great Movies II, by Roger Ebert (Broadway 2005). Although I don’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews, they are usually a pleasure to read. In this volume, he shares a hundred essays about movies he considers great, without trying to rank them against each other. (They’re in alphabetical order in the book.) Many of the movies are quite old, so to see them all would definitely require a Netflix subscription, and maybe a quarter or a third are foreign-language films. I was reasonably satisfied to find that I had seen about 20 or 21 of the movies in this list, and I was delighted to see This Is Spinal Tap make the cut. I don’t know what he sees in Annie Hall, but anybody who will put Spinal Tap on the list of all-time great movies (and quote the entire exchange between Nigel Tufnel and Marty DeBergi about custom amplifiers that go to 11) is okay in my book.

Northanger Abbey (book review)

Book review by The Movie Snob

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. This was the only one of Austen’s six major novels that I had absolutely zero acquaintance with, as either a book or a movie, before now. As I understand, it was the first of those novels to be written, but the last to be published, and it certainly strikes me as less sophisticated than the others I have read. Nonetheless, it is as enjoyable in its way as the others. It is the story of 17-year-old Catherine Morland, whom I can describe only as a country bumpkin. She has lived her entire life in a remote country village, and all of her ideas about the outside world have come through Gothic romances she has read. Then some family friends take her the resort town of Bath, where she gets her first taste of society. She makes new friends in Bath, and then goes to stay with them a while at their estate of Northanger Abbey. There is plenty of humor in the book as Catherine encounters for the first time in her life people who are willing to lie to her face in order to get what they want, and as Catherine’s imagination runs wild with Gothic-inspired fantasies during her stay at Northanger Abbey. I recommend this and all of Austen work.

City of Ember

From the desk of The Movie Snob

City of Ember (B). I enjoyed this little sci-fi adventure. Some sort of impending catastrophe will make the Earth’s surface uninhabitable for a long period of time. The best scientific minds come together and build the City of Ember far below the surface, where a remnant of humanity will survive for 200 years until the surface will, with luck, be habitable again. Now the 200 years have elapsed, but somewhere along the way the mayors have forgotten the City’s purpose and lost the instructions that reveal how to escape the crumbling City. Two teenagers stumble upon clues to the dire reality and the escape route, but the mayor and his cronies aim to stop them. Saoirse Ronan, who was excellent in Atonement, shines as Lina Mayfleet, and she receives able support from Harry Treadaway (The Lone Ranger) as her friend Doon Harrow. Bill Murray (St. Vincent) costars as the mayor, and Tim Robbins (Bull Durham) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood) also appear.

Happy-Go-Lucky

Movie review from The Movie Snob

Happy-Go-Lucky (B). This is the story of Poppy, a 30-year-old single schoolteacher living in London who seems to be always happy. Whether talking to a surly bookstore clerk or realizing her bicycle has been stolen, she is all smiles and constantly verging on outright laughter. She could be unbearable, but actress Sally Hawkins somehow makes Poppy pretty much thoroughly likeable. Part of her charm, I believe, is that she may be eternally optimistic but she is generally not stupid. When she sees a student engage in persistent bullying behavior, for example, she responds appropriately and without naivete. Hawkins did a nice job as Anne Elliott in the British TV version of Persuasion, and I hope we get to see more work from her soon.