The Forum and the Tower (book review)

From The Movie Snob.

The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, by Mary Ann Glendon (Oxford 2011).  What a pretentious title, huh?  It’s awfully long for a 225-page book.  Harvard law professor Glendon’s purpose is to explore the uneasy relationship between scholars and politicians over the centuries.  Although the scholars’ influence can be considerable, Glendon highlights how seldom scholars achieve political power themselves (Cicero and Edmund Burke are primary exceptions she discusses; I imagine Woodrow Wilson also could have made the grade.)  It’s a pleasant and interesting read, consisting of short chapters discussing mostly dead white guys who are fixtures in any decent survey course in Western political thought–Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville being some of the principal players.  If you’re already a politics scholar, you won’t learn anything new here, but for the amateur this is an enjoyable book.

Celeste and Jesse Forever

New from The Movie Snob.

Celeste and Jesse Forever  (C).  This unsuccessful romantic dramedy stars Rashida Jones (I Love You, Man) as Celeste and the previously-unnoticed-by-me Andy Samberg (I Love You, Man) as her husband and best friend Jesse.  Despite their best friendship, Celeste and Jesse are in the process of divorcing, I guess because she’s a successful professional woman who works at a P.R. firm and he’s an unsuccessful artist who likes to go surfing and doesn’t own a pair of dress shoes.  So Jesse lives in an art studio behind Celeste’s house, and they still hang out all the time and carry on in a most annoying fashion–until something happens and Jesse decides he’s going to start seeing someone else.  The movie is really about Celeste and how she deals with this development, which is, of course, poorly.  But Jones never really gets us to care about Celeste, and Jesse is a cipher with no charisma or charm that I could detect.  Emma Roberts (Hotel for Dogs) has a couple of decent scenes as a petulant rock star who is using the services of Celeste’s P.R. firm, and the same for Chris Messina (Ruby Sparks) as a fellow who tries pick Celeste up after a yoga session, but they’re the only bright spots in this otherwise mediocre movie.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Beasts of the Southern Wild  (B).  This independent flick is about a remarkable little black girl named Hushpuppy (first-time actress Quvenzhane Wallis).  Hushpuppy lives on a Gulf-coast island of Louisiana known to its beyond-impoverished residents as the Bathtub, and she has never known anything else.  Her mother is long gone, and her father Wink is a sickly, occasionally scary drunkard.  He even makes Hushpuppy live in a hovel separate from his (at least until hers burns down).  Although Hushpuppy’s spirit is indomitable, life is hard in the Bathtub, and it only gets worse after a hurricane floods the island and the salt water kills everything the residents rely on for their livelihood.  Things are very realistic in the early going, but as the film goes on, things take on a more dreamlike quality, and we seem to see things more and more through Hushpuppy’s eyes and imagination.  There are moments that tug at your heartstrings, and little Wallis’s performance is outstanding (maybe even Oscar-nomination worthy?).  Worth checking out, for sure.

The Age of Miracles (book review)

From The Movie Snob.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker (2012).  Has the end of the world always been such a popular topic?  Zombie apocalypses and doom-by-asteroid seem to be especially popular these days.  The menace in The Age of Miracles is much quieter than these: the earth’s rotation is inexplicably slowing down, causing the days and nights to get longer and longer and longer.  At first merely inconvenient, the phenomenon gets increasingly serious as ocean currents, weather patterns, and all sorts of animal and plant life are affected by “the slowing.”  But I’m giving you the wrong impression of this book, because this is really the story of Julia, an 11-year-old girl.  The slowing certainly affects her life, but it has to compete for her attention with the other trials of childhood–loneliness, a secret crush, family troubles, and the other usual difficulties of youth.  Walker, a first-time novelist, does a very nice job of making Julia a believable and likable character, and I really enjoyed the book.  At only 269 pages, it’s a pretty quick read, too.

Ruby Sparks

A movie review from The Movie Snob.

Ruby Sparks  (B).  Okay, the premise for this independent flick is not the freshest.  Calvin (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine) is a well-known writer with a bad case of writer’s block and a recurring dream about a mysterious girl.  At his shrink’s suggestion, he starts writing a story about a stranger who meets him and likes his dog Scottie, and Calvin decides to make the story about his dreamgirl, whom he names Ruby Sparks.  Lo and behold, soon after he starts writing the story, the girl of his dreams materializes in his house.  Ruby, played by Dano’s real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan (The Savages), is clearly a graduate of the Zooey Deschanel Finishing School for Cute, Quirky Girls, and after verifying that he has not gone insane, Calvin understandably falls for her hard.  But Calvin is more than a little co-dependent, and when Ruby starts to want a little independence, a little space, Calvin is severely tempted to return to the typewriter (Yes, a typewriter.  Quirk!) whence she sprang and edit that particular aspect out of her personality.  I enjoyed it–Kazan wrote the screenplay and does a good job of making the characters behave pretty believably in a fantastical situation.  Worth a look.

Snow White and the Huntsman

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

Snow White and the Huntsman  (D).  I never in a million years dreamed I would see this movie and look back fondly on Mirror, Mirror, but there it is.  In this version of the fairy tale, a beautiful witch named Ravenna (Charlize Theron, Prometheus) grabs a kingdom by killing its king and locking his daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart, Zathura), away in a dungeon.  I’m not sure why she doesn’t just have Snow White killed right then, but some years later Ravenna finds out she can use Snow White and become immortal somehow.  Then Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest, and Ravenna persuades a drunken brute known only as the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods) to track her and bring her back.  After that, it’s a long, boring slog through all sorts of hooey to get to the long, boring climactic battle.  The dialogue is terrible, the romantic angle is virtually nonexistent (even though a superfluous second suitor for Snow is eventually thrown into the mix), and nothing makes much sense.  I was also sad to see some real actors wasted playing the dwarfs, like Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) and Toby Jones (City of Ember).  Stewart continues to be a not very good actress, and she’s really not the fairest of them all.  Skip both this movie and Mirror, Mirror, and go see a decent fantasy movie like Brave or the recent live-action Alice in Wonderland.

P.S.  Yikes!  IMDB.com reports that Snow White and the Huntsman II may be in the works!

The Neighbors Are Watching (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

The Neighbors Are Watching, by Debra Ginsberg (2010).  This suspenseful little novel is set in a cul-de-sac in a quiet, middle-class area of San Diego, or maybe one of its suburbs.  The residents of Fuller Court have plenty of secrets, and one of them explodes into plain view one hot July day when restaurant manager Joe Montana and his wife Allison come home to find Joe’s very pregnant 17-year-old daughter Diana waiting for them in their driveway.  This comes as a bit of a shock, because Joe has never seen his daughter, and Allison had no idea she even existed.  Needless to say, Diana’s appearance rocks the Montanas’ world, and the ripple effects of her arrival touch several of the other homes on Fuller Court as well.

A couple of months later, some of California’s infamous wildfires are pressing towards Fuller Court.  The official word comes that everyone is supposed to evacuate.  And, amid the confusion, Diana disappears.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  The mystery of Diana’s disappearance is pretty compelling, and along the way Ginsberg does a good job of shifting the focus from house to house so that we get to know quite a few of the neighbors pretty well.  Some are relatively decent, others are pretty thoroughly bad, but all of them are believable.  I recommend it.

Bad Religion (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat (Free Press 2012). Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and, I believe, their token conservative.  (He’s also the movie critic for National Review.)  Anyhoo, his argument in this book is that American Christianity has lost its moorings, and that this loss of orthodoxy is helping fuel the economic and political crises of the day.  That’s a tall order, especially since America has been a nation of heretics pretty much from the beginning, at least in the usual telling of the story.  But what he means is that, over the last 50 years or so, the more orthodox versions of American Christianity (the ones that tend to emphasize original sin, the weakness of our fallen nature, our strong dependence on God’s grace in order to be saved) have lost their ability to attract and inspire a critical mass of adherents that will in turn strongly influence the nation’s culture and politics.  He spends almost half the book describing the relative strength and influence of mainstream American Christianity during the fifteen to twenty years right after World War II, focusing on a few influential figures like Billy Graham and Bishop Fulton Sheen.  But the social revolution of the 60s and 70s hit the main Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church like a tidal wave.  Denominations that embraced the revolution tended to wither; those that adopted a stance of resistance did a better job of retaining adherents but retained very little influence on the direction of the culture.

In part II, Douthat analyzes the modern heresies as he sees them.  There are “real Jesus” types who rely on apocryphal gospels to tailor a Jesus to their specifications.  There are prosperity gospel types like Joel Osteen.  There are “God within” types like Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose religion shades into narcissism.  Others indulge in the “heresy of nationalism,” oscillating between messianism when their party is in power and apocalyptism when it’s not.

Douthat is pretty pessimistic about a revival of Christian orthodoxy, but he offers a few suggestions.  Faith must be (1) political without being partisan, (2) ecumenical without abandoning the specific confessions, and (3) moralistic but also holistic.  (Interestingly to me, he notes the weakness of a Christianity that focuses on same-sex marriage without discussing the scandals of heterosexual promiscuity and divorce.)  And finally, he argues for a renewal of beauty in art and sanctification in personal and public life.  All in all, I thought this was a very interesting book.

Zone One (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday 2011).  I’m not the biggest zombie fan in the world (that would be Nick at Nite), but I heard some good things about this novel, which is set in a post-zombie-apocalyptic America (primarily New York City).  The conventions of the genre are generally adhered to: a zombie plague springs out of nowhere; it turns people into mindless, bloodthirsty automatons; and if a zombie bites you, you turn into a zombie too.  Now, many months or maybe even years after the plague erupted, the surviving humans are hoping the corner has been turned.  A provisional government has been set up in Buffalo, and an effort is underway to reclaim New York City from the ravenous undead.  The protagonist is one of the New York City sweepers, a survivor who goes by the nickname Mark Spitz, and we learn the whole story of the zombie plague through his flashbacks and reminiscences.  Although I’m not sure Whitehead’s arty prose style would appeal to everyone, I enjoyed the rhythm of his writing.  If you have half a yen for zombies, you should definitely check this book out.

Bernie

New review from Movie Man Mike.

Bernie (B+).  This movie has been out for quite some time and I kept hearing good things about it, so I decided to check it out.  It’s still selling out!  Let me say up front that I am not really a fan of Jack Black or the genre of movies that he is known for, but I have to say that he was quite good in this film.  This story is based upon actual events in Carthage, Texas, and has appearances of many of the actual townspeople from Carthage.  The main character is a man named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who is an assistant funeral director.  Bernie moves to town and wins the hearts and souls of the townspeople, including rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), which is amazing because nobody likes Marjorie.  Bernie winds up killing Marjorie and is put on trial for the murder.  You would expect the townspeople to turn on Bernie, but he is so beloved that the townspeople come to his aid.  This is a black comedy and it has some hilarious lines in it, some of which appear to be impromptu commentary from actual residents of Carthage.  If you don’t see this at the theater, by all means rent it.  You won’t regret it.

To Rome With Love

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

To Rome With Love (C-).  Woody Allen continues his European odyssey with this entry from the Eternal City.  I love Rome, but I did not love this movie.  As best I can recall, four separate storylines play out and never really intersect.  A young architect (Jesse Eisenberg, Zombieland) is living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig, Damsels in Distress) and has his head turned by her visiting friend (Ellen Page, Juno) while a spectral Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice) looks on and offers advice.  A retired opera director (Woody Allen, Take the Money and Run) travels to Rome to meet his daughter’s fiance and discovers that the fiance’s father is a natural opera talent–to an extent.  In the most amusing story, an utterly ordinary Roman office drone (Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful) suddenly and inexplicably becomes a paparazzi-besieged celebrity. And finally a newlywed Italian couple from the sticks comes to Rome where the nervous husband is hoping to get a big-time job, but the couple gets separated, and he has an adventure involving a prostitute (Penelope Cruz, Volver) while she has one involving an Italian movie star.  I guess the movie is supposed to be whimsical, but it comes off as merely goofy, in my book.

The Watch

The Motor City Reviewer gives you fair warning.

THE WATCH

Could possibly be the worst movie ever made.  A complete waste of time, talent and money.  Ben Stiller is going the way of Adam Sandler, making stupid movies with 8th grade humor and story lines.  The average age of the audience had to be in the low teens (even though it was rated R) and they of course loved the movie.  This is a bad, bad movie.  The lone bright spot in the movie is Jonah Hill.

Ted

A review by Motor City Reviewer.

TedA shock comedy with some really laugh out loud moments.  Ted is a Teddy bear that comes to life when an 8 year old Mark Wahlberg wishes upon a star.  Ted and Mark embark on a 30 year relationship of smoking dope and being slackards.  Amazingly, the going-nowhere Mark meets up-and-coming young professional Mila Kunis, and they fall in love.  The plot is very pedestrian as  Mark and Mila deal with Mila’s boss who is always hitting on her, and Mark and Ted deal with a stalker Dad and son who want Ted as their own.  Ted is part Wilfred (the talking dog from the FX series) and part Southpark.  He says all the things people think, but would never say in public for fear of being called a racist, bigot or red-neck.  Ted spares no one, making fun of all races, genders, and sexual orientations.  The scenes between Ted and the owner of a grocery store (his boss) are worth the price of a ticket alone.