One for the Money

The Movie Snob shares his pain

One for the Money  (D-).  Has Katherine Heigl (The Ugly Truth) ever made a good movie?  I guess she hasn’t been in all that many movies yet, so she’s not like in Jennifer Aniston territory yet, with a list of awful movies longer than my arm.  But she’s heading that way.  Anyhoo, let the record reflect that today was the last day that I could use a free movie ticket at this one particular Dallas movie theater, so my options were extremely limited.  I knew this movie was supposed to be bad, but I thought maybe it would be “fun” bad.  No, it was more lifeless-on-the-screen bad.  Heigl plays a broke chick in New Jersey who decides to become a bounty hunter to make some dough.  Her first case is a rogue cop who is accused of shooting an unarmed man–and who just happens to be a guy who slept with her once when she was 17 and never called her again.  Nice.  Lots of faux-romantic dialogue, and lots of unbelievable run-ins with really bad guys who would’ve killed this ding-a-ling amateur within about 10 seconds.  Let’s just say if I had paid money to see this turkey, I’d be one unhappy camper.

Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob

Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies, by Marcello Pera (Encounter 2008).  I actually finished this book a few weeks ago, so my account of it may be a little inexact.  It is a dense work of political philosophy by an Italian who is both a professor of philosophy and a successful politician–Mr. Pera was president of the Italian Senate from 2001-2006.  His thesis is reasonably straightforward:  Liberalism, in the classical sense of a political philosophy that favors limited government, autonomy of civil society, free markets, and individual freedom, is ascendent in the West.  But liberalism has become unmoored from its Christian underpinnings, and a complete removal of those underpinnings will be the death of liberalism.  He contrasts classical secularism, which opposes theocracy and submission of the state to the church, and which he favors, with modern secularism, which is an ideology that opposes religion in and of itself as being antithetical to science, progress, and human flourishing.  He also critiques moral relativism and multiculturalism, and he talks about the challenge Islam poses for Europe in particular.

I am personally sympathetic to Mr. Pera’s argument (and the current Pope wrote a complimentary forward for his book), but I cannot say it left me fully satisfied.  For one, it seems to me that classical liberalism (which we generally associate with conservatism in America) has never really been ascendant in the West outside the English-speaking countries, and even there it is pretty well eroded.  Another, and bigger, problem is what to do if Christian belief simply isn’t strong enough to animate the West anymore.  Mr. Pera seems to argue that it is enough for Westerners to be culturally Christian, to acknowledge and appreciate the Christian roots of the better parts of their civilization, but I cannot see how this can be enough without a critical mass of actual believing Christians.  So it’s an interesting and thought-provoking book, but I cannot say I found it entirely persuasive, and it certainly does not give me much confidence for the future of liberalism.

Food, Inc.

The Bleacher Bum reports on a 2008 documentary.

Food, Inc.: I have been watching more documentaries of late. My first rule is that the information being presented has to be truthful and accurate.  Secondly, the information must be presented in an entertaining way. Food, Inc. abides by these rules. Food, Inc. looks at and examines how America’s farmers, ranchers, and businesses grow, develop, raise, market, sell, and deliver food to America’s grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias, and dinner tables.  At times, the documentary did get a little preachy against big business, but the information presented was researched well and was thought provoking. Several individuals with their personal stories touched me. I finished the documentary thinking that I had learned something and had been enlightened.  I suggest you take a bite of Food, IncGRADE: B+.

Higher Ground

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Higher Ground  (B).  Movies about devout Christians are, it seems to me, a rarity, so this one caught my attention when I read about it in Entertainment Weekly last fall.  It eluded me in the theaters, but then I saw it advertised on a Redbox, and I made sure to rent it.  The movie was directed by the lovely Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), who also stars as an evangelical Christian named Corinne.  Corinne marries her high-school sweetheart Ethan, who is a somewhat doofusy rock musician.  They apparently both have conversion experiences and become active members in a smallish fundamentalist church.  As the years pass and Corrine and Ethan’s family grows, Corinne begins to struggle with her faith and with unhappiness in her marriage.  Nothing huge or outrageous happens, which I appreciated.  According to EW, Farmiga is not a believer herself, but I think she tried really hard to understand and accurately portray evangelical Christianity “from the inside,” as it were.  At least, I never felt like the movie was being condescending.  Although I am not an evangelical Christian myself, the movie seemed pretty realistic.  It is definitely worth a rental, if you are interested in this sort of thing.

The Artist (a concurring opinion)

The Movie Snob chimes in.

The Artist (A-).  I’ll keep it short, because I agree with Mom Under Cover’s review from a few days ago.  Who would have thought that a silent, black-and-white movie could succeed in this day and age?  This one does, and it’s a triumph.  The tale is a familiar one–the paths of an established star and a rising ingenue cross as their careers travel on opposite trajectories–but the telling is so fresh and lively, I almost guarantee you’ll be hooked.  I could feel myself smiling through a good chunk of the movie.

It’s Beginning to Hurt (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

It’s Beginning to Hurt, by James Lasdun (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2009).  This is a collection of short stories that I saw a favorable review of somewhere.  I quite enjoyed it.  Most of the stories are reasonably relatable, meaning they are about reasonably ordinary folks, but the characters often have some personality quirk or foible that makes them particularly interesting.  “An Anxious Man,” which won the National Short Story Prize in the UK, is about a guy who is, well, unusually anxious about stuff.  A professor confronts his mortality in “The Incalculable Life Gesture.”  A successful chap has an unexpected reunion with a college friend who has not lost his youthful radicalism in “A Bourgeois Story.”  A jewelry-store employee has an odd connection to an occasional customer in “Peter Kahn’s Third Wife.”  And so it goes.  With 16 stories in only 220 pages, I enjoyed reading a couple of stories each night before bed.

Moneyball

DVD review from Nick at Nite

Moneyball

Not the best baseball movie I have ever seen.  The best is either Bull Durham or The Natural.  I’d watch either repeatedly.  Moneyball not so much.  I’ve read the book.  It was engrossing.  Every baseball fan should read the book.  The movie – well – I got bored.  The book is an interesting blue print for making the Oakland A’s, the Red Sox, the Rangers, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays so successful (the A’s have fallen on hard times again).  I digress.  Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are an interesting odd couple.  The muscled (Pitt) and the out of shape (Hill prior to whatever brilliant diet he is on) trying to piece together a baseball lineup after the departure of the roided up Giambi and his mates.  They have little money so they must ignore their baseball scouts and put together a team based on what the statistics tell them.  It is a movie for nerds.  Baseball nerds.  I give it a “B.”  I do not give it a Golden Globe or an Oscar.

The Final Countdown

A new review from The Movie Snob

The Final Countdown  (D).  The Borg Queen roped me into watching this one with her, assuring me it was one of the finest cinematic products to come out of the 1980s.  Oof!  Not so much.  The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz is on routine maneuvers in the Pacific, and a civilian named Warren Laskey (Martin Sheen, The Way) happens to be on board as an observer and efficiency expert.  The carrier encounters a strange wormhole-type phenomenon that plays havoc with its instruments, and after the effect passes the top brass gradually figure out that they’ve gone back in time, to December 6, 1941!!!  Kirk Douglas (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) plays Captain Yelland.  Katharine Ross of The Graduate fame and Charles Durning (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) also have roles.  Very little happens in the course of the movie, and even less of it makes any sense.  On the plus side, the filmmakers got a hold of tons of stock footage of jets taking off, landing, and refueling, and it’s all right there on the screen.

The Descendants

Mom Under Cover says Hang Ten for The Descendants if you want to be in the know on Oscar night.

The Descendants;  Grade B

George Clooney and Beau Bridges are Hawaiian?  I couldn’t really buy it though I found myself repeating that question in my mind throughout the movie.  Is Clooney’s performance Oscar worthy?  Hard to say.  He is unexpectedly adept at subtle humor.  I will confess I saw this film from the second row—which is way too close—I’m sure that colors my impression.  The screenplay is clever in parts, both drama and comedy, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election and About Schmidt).  The story opens as Clooney’s Matt King finds his wife, Elizabeth, (Patricia Hastie) in the hospital from a boating accident.   I was prepared for a long depressing story of a family dealing with the unexpected death of their mother/wife.  The story unfolds differently but is difficult to explain without giving away too much.  King is in the position of caring for his two daughters (though he apparently has never so much as made a PB and J sandwich) while his wife languishes in the hospital.  Oh, and he learns from his older daughter (Shailene Woodley) that Elizabeth had been having an affair with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard).  Surfers will recognize big-wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Elizabeth’s boating partner, Troy.  For my money, this film will probably win more awards than it deserves but it is worth a trip to the theater.

The Artist

Mom Under Cover says run, don’t walk (better yet, tap dance) your way to see The Artist.

The Artist; Grade A-

I was curious to find out if this homage to silent films lives up to the buzz.  Thankfully, it is a winner!  The only face you’re likely to recognize is John Goodman who plays a studio executive.  Jean Dujardin portrays George Valentin, a silent movie actor at the height of his career (think Clark Gable).   Peppy Miller lives up to her name (played by Berenice Bejo) as a young accidental actress on the way up.  Valentin’s descending career and the ascension of Miller’s creates the necessary tension.  The relationship between Peppy and George is the at the core of the film, though it is not the romance you expect.  Their chemistry however, is remarkable. The advent of the talkies and the Great Depression factor in Valentin’s struggles. Both actors make the effort of communicating using only facial expression seem natural and effortless.

French director, Michel Hazanivicus captures Hollywood in the 1920’s and is apparently faithful to the look of movies from that era.  One reviewer noted that the tight close-ups, kitschy transitions and German Expressionist-influenced lighting were as faithful to the period as the hairdos and wardrobe.  The score (Ludovic Bource) is bouncy throughout and as much a character as the actors.  It definitely evokes the music of the real silent movies. The tap dancing scenes are fabulous! The only criticism I have is the pacing about two thirds through . . . it does seem to drag before it picks up again.  Overall, a very entertaining flick.

Hall Pass

DVD review from Nick at Nite–two reviews, in fact

Hall Pass

Saw this movie twice.  Once on DVD, once with the spouse.  I thought it was funny the first time I saw it.  When I saw it with the spouse it was not so funny.  Like Jamie Foxx, “I blame on it on the alcohol.”  The premise of this film is that married men will not “shop” for a better deal if they are given the opportunity to hook up with someone else by their spouse – as the “shopping” experience will teach the married men how wonderful they actually have it with their spouse.  In the real world, this scenario results in a divorce or an appearance on Jerry Springer.  In the movie world, everything ends up okay for everyone.  Here is the problem with the movie, once you get past the multiple lapses in judgment by all of the characters – it is just not that funny.  First viewing I give it an “A.”  You must drink a minimum of three to four beers or two and half glasses of wine to get to this level.  Second viewing a “C.”

Contagion

Nick at Nite reviews a fairly recent release.

Contagion

I have thing for doom and gloom.  It is a little unhealthy.  I am all for any movie that has as its main premise the end of the world, the breakdown of society, and tall buildings lying in ruin.  From critically acclaimed fare, The Road, Night of the Comet, and Blindness, to critically panned fare, Waterworld, The Postman, and 2012 – I have seen them all.  I thought Contagion would fall into this category.  It does not.  However, it is a very good movie.  It is suspenseful.  It is interesting.  It is well acted.  The movie follows the progression of a deadly virus that strains the ability of the doctors, scientists, and government agencies to confront it.  Moral dilemmas abound at every corner.  No famous member of the cast is safe from a harrowing death.  The movie is not too graphic (one autopsy, images of sick people, and images of dead bodies in body bags).  It is a little scary.  I say check it out.  I give it a solid “B.”

The Best of 2011 Column by The Movie Snob

Happy New Year, faithful reader!  And welcome to the Movie Snob’s annual Year in Review.  If I saw a movie on the big screen in 2011, I may include it in this column, even if it was technically a 2010 release.  I saw 64 movies this year, and I hope you find something in here worth renting some time.  Although if you’re looking for horror movies, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Movie of the Year.  Well, my pick this year is actually a 2010 release: True Grit, by the Coen Brothers.  I have not yet seen the John Wayne original, but I can’t imagine it was any better than this rough-and-tumble Western about a young girl on a quest for revenge against her father’s murderer.  Excellent performances from Jeff Bridges as the broken-down old marshal who helps her, Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger who’s pursing the same man for a different crime, and of course newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the intrepid Mattie Ross.

Runner-Up.  I know it has caught plenty of flak, but I thought The Help was a tremendously moving story about life in the pre-civil-rights-era South.  Emma Stone proves her acting chops once again, and Bryce Dallas Howard does a fine job as well, but Viola Davis owns this movie as the long-suffering but dignified maid Aibileen Clark.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I give the nod to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco as a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Andy Serkis (in his usual motion-capture capacity) as Caesar, the first of the intelligent apes.  Maybe it was my imagination, but it just felt more intelligent than your average action flick.  Coming in a close second was Thor.  It was Apes’ opposite on the intelligence-o-meter, but I got a big kick out of this cheesy comic-book tale about familial dysfunction among the Norse gods.  Two smaller productions that I really enjoyed were Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper as a guy who gets into a lot of trouble after messing around with an experimental drug that makes him super-smart, and Source Code, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier on a weird mission to stop a terrorist attack by going back in time—and becoming somebody else.

Best Animated Movie.  Well, I had never seen The Lion King before, so I made sure to see it during its recent theatrical re-release.  And sure enough, I thought it was a great movie, and the best animated feature I’ve seen in a long while.  Among first-run movies, I will happily pick Tangled, which I thought was a very enjoyable telling of the story of Rapunzel.  The animation was first-rate, and so was the tale’s creepy villain, Mother Gothel.

Best Comedy.  This category is always a struggle, and I didn’t give any comedy a B+ or higher this year.  A few did qualify for a straight B, such as Cedar Rapids, starring Ed Helms as a wide-eyed small-town guy who cuts loose at a convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids.  Paul was an entertaining comic riff on the extraterrestrial-come-to-earth genre.  Bridesmaids is more than a little crude, but still pretty darned funny.  Crazy, Stupid, Love is more of a dramedy, I guess, but I think it had enough decent laughs to include it in this category.

Best Documentary.  There were several good ones this year.  I’ll give top honors to Disney’s African Cats, which follows two mothers (a lion and a cheetah) as they go about the business of raising some little ones.  I thought the cheetah’s story was especially amazing.  But I have to mention four other documentaries that I thought were very worthy.  Born to be Wild 3D, about habitats run by people who save and raise orphaned elephants and orangutans.  Project Nim, which is basically a biopic about a chimpanzee who was raised like a human child for the first few years of his life, followed by some sad years of being shuffled around and mistreated after the experiment was shut down.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a very interesting look at some ancient cave paintings in southern France that I had never even heard of before.  And finally Page One: Inside the New York Times, which raises but cannot answer the question of whether the Gray Lady can survive in the Age of the Internet.

Best Drama.  Setting aside this year’s runner-up for Best Picture, The Help, I’ll pick the winner of the 2011 Best Picture Academy Award—The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth.  It’s a touching story of friendship between the tongue-tied monarch and his unorthodox speech therapist.  Among 2011 releases, I really liked Of Gods and Men, the based-on-true-events story of a Catholic monastery trying to survive in war-torn Algeria.

Best Foreign Film.  I usually have a few to choose from in this category, but not this year.  The only notable movie that more or less fits this category is Carmen 3D, which is a film of a performance of the opera Carmen at the Royal Opera House in London.  I had never seen an opera and know nothing about it, but I really enjoyed this, my first exposure to the form.  And the songs are so catchy!

Honorable Mentions.    In the action category, I’ll give one thumb up to both Super 8 (which includes some really nice acting by Elle Fanning) and X-Men: First Class.  In the mood for a road trip?  Try The Way, or perhaps The Way Back.  The former is a labor of love by Emilio Estevez, about a handful of pilgrims walking the El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.  The latter is the supposedly, but apparently not really, true story of some guys who break out of a Stalinist concentration camp during a Siberian winter and attempt to walk thousands of miles to freedom.  And I have several more dramas for you if you are in a dramatic mood.  50/50 is about a young man who suddenly has to face the Big C—potentially terminal cancer.  It’s based on a true story.  Another Year is a 2010 character study about an older British couple, their grown son, and a sad single woman who is their friend.  If you’re in the mood for romance, check out Like Crazy.  The story is simple—two young lovers face a serious obstacle in the form of the immigration service—but the actors do a great job of conveying passion and heartache.  Another 2010 release I saw in 2011 was Rabbit Hole, a study of parental grief after the death of a child, and starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.  And before I sign off, I’ll give a quick shout-out to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the remake of Footloose, and Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, which you may still be able to find in theaters.  The 3D version of Hugo is probably worth it, in my humble opinion.

That’s it!  Best wishes for happy moviegoing in 2012!

We Bought a Zoo

From the desk of The Movie Snob

We Bought a Zoo  (C+).  This was a nice enough little movie, but not good enough to give a strong recommendation.  Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower and father to an angry 14-year-old son and an adorable 6- or 7-year-old girl.  He decides the family needs a change of scenery, so he starts house hunting.  Before you can say “resale value,” he has bought a house some 9 miles outside of town that is attached to, as the title indicates, a small, broken-down old zoo.  A small team of dedicated zoo employees led by the fetching Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, The Island) tries to help Benjamin get the place up to code so the jerkish state inspector (John Michael Higgins, A Mighty Wind) will let them reopen and start making money to keep the place afloat.  A nice concept, but at 2:04 the movie feels long, the relationship between Benjamin and Kelly is left curiously undercooked, and the talented Elle Fanning (Super 8) is wasted as the youngest zookeeper who inexplicably falls in puppy love with Benjamin’s rude son.  And a few curse words hamper the general family-friendliness of it all.  Its heart is in the right place, but you can definitely wait for the DVD.

Young Adult

A new review from The Movie Snob

Young Adult (B).  The writer-director team behind Juno (Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman) reteam for this dramedy starring the lovely Charlize Theron (Hancock) as Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old divorcee who lives in Minneapolis and has been making a living ghost-writing a series of novels for young adults.  She drinks way too much, her books have stopped selling, and she is generally dissatisfied with her life.  Then she gets an email announcing that her high-school boyfriend, Buddy Slade, and his wife Beth have had their first child.  Although she apparently hasn’t seen Buddy much if at all since high school, Mavis decides that getting Buddy back would be just the cure for her blues, so she packs her Mini Cooper and returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, with the avowed goal of wrecking his marriage.  Mavis is both monstrous and pathetic, but Theron invests her with enough humanity to keep me feeling a shred of sympathy for her.  The reliable Patrick Wilson (Little Children) turns in a nice performance as the thoroughly unremarkable object of Mavis’s attention.  Patton Oswalt (The Informant!) plays Mavis’s unlikely confidante, a classmate who was left crippled by a horrific hate crime–because some jocks mistakenly thought he was gay.  Not many laughs, but the movie definitely held my attention and didn’t always go where I thought it was going.  I liked it.

Community (Season Two)

A review from The Movie Snob

Community (Season Two) (B+).  I became a big fan of this sit-com during its first season, but I saw hardly any of the episodes from its second season (2010-2011) in “real time.”  So I was looking forward to seeing the whole season on DVD.  At first, I have to say, I was a little disappointed, but maybe my expectations were a little too high.  As the season went on, I enjoyed it more and more.  The show’s premise, for newcomers, is that a slick lawyer named Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) faked his college degree, got found out, and enrolled at third-rate Greendale Community College to get a degree so he can practice law again.  Right away he sets his sights on an attractive blond in his Spanish class named Britta, but when he lies about having a Spanish study group as an excuse to see her outside of class, five of their classmates also show up to join the nonexistent study group.  So the seven misfits become Friends, and they have all sorts of adventures and escapades.  In the first season, I thought five of the seven main characters were very entertaining: Jeff (who plainly has a decent heart beneath his jaded-lawyer carapace), Britta (who passionately embraces political correctness for fear that she doesn’t really believe in anything), Abed (a Muslim with Asperger’s who is hyperobservant and spouts pop-culture references nonstop), Annie (a bright, ambitious cutie whose college trajectory was lowered by a high-school Adderall addiction), and Troy (a dim jock who went to high school with Annie).  Shirley, a middle-aged mother of two dealing with her husband’s running out on her, is not as funny, but she helps keep the show grounded.  The only real stinker in the bunch is Pierce, a skeezy rich older guy played Chevy Chase, whose racist, sexist, homophobic shtick simply isn’t funny.

If you haven’t seen the first season, quit reading now and get it!  (And be warned, there are some SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen the first season already.)  If you have seen the first season, I’ll say that the second season is generally pretty good once you get into it, and it has a few real gems.  First of all, you’ll recall the big mess at the end of the first season: Britta and Professor Slater both professed their love for Jeff, who runs away and ends up making out with Annie (Alison Brie) right before the credits roll.  Well, the second season cuts through that knot right away, and the romantic complications are pushed way into the background (without ever quite disappearing).  Which is too bad, as I think the episodes that focus on Jeff, Britta, and Annie are usually the best.  And there are a few of those in the second season—especially one in which Jeff and Annie investigate a conspiracy involving Greendale’s night school, and another in which they both run for student body president.  But there are other highlights too:  one episode is an homage to zombie movies, another to Apollo 13, and still another to the arthouse classic My Dinner With Andre.  One episode is entirely about a game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  And the two-part season finale about a massive game of paintball gone awry is excellent.  And there are some impressive guest stars along the way, such as Betty White, Drew Carey, Josh Holloway, and LeVar Burton.  Also on the plus side, Greendale’s over-the-top Dean Pelton gets more screen time.

On the minus side, I still dislike Chevy Chase’s character immensely; he becomes pretty villainous over the course of the season.  But more to the point, he’s just not that funny.  Same goes for Ken Jeong’s crazy Senor Chang, who has been demoted from teacher to student and is desperate to join the study group.  Occasionally he has a decent bit, but generally he doesn’t work for me.  Still, on the whole, I give Second Two a big thumbs up.  The outtakes and deleted scenes on the DVDs aren’t much, but there are audio commentaries for every episode and some of those are pretty interesting.  The creators of the show try to push beyond the normal bounds of what a sit-com can be, and sometimes they succeed very nicely.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The Bleacher Bum sends in this review.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost ProtocolEthan Hunt (Tom Cruise) leads his team of IMF agents Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Carter (Paula Patton), and Dunn (Simon Pegg) to recover nuclear launch codes from a nuclear strategist who wants to start a nuclear war.  Hunt and his team have to carry out this mission without help from the IMF or the United States – a Ghost Protocol.  I saw the movie in IMAX format, and it was worth it. Everything about the movie was first rate from the stunts, gadgets, and locations. There were some moments were realism had to be forgotten.  Cruise, Renner, Patton, and Pegg (comic relief) turned in strong performances, which actually overshadowed all of the action and thrills.  Not enjoying this movie might be impossible. Grade B.