After Tocqueville (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy, by Chilton Williamson Jr. (ISI Books 2012).  In college I learned to revere the Founding Fathers and to appreciate the principles of limited government, separation of powers, etc.  And so I have had an instinctive fondness for the Tea Party to the extent it stands for those principles.  Yet, I have a nagging doubt whether the Founders’ design for 13 sparsely settled states can really work in a post-industrial country of over 300 million citizens.  I had hopes that this book would shed some light on the future of democracy, but it disappointed me.  The author writes in such broad and elliptical generalizations that I felt like I learned almost nothing, and at times the book felt like a mere exercise in name-dropping (with most of the names being modern political thinkers I had never heard of).  There were a few arresting passages, such as one in which Williamson asserts that liberalism, by which I think he means classical liberalism rather than the modern progressive version, is “the means by which the upper strata of society, including the intellectual class, has sought to escape the authority of religion while establishing itself as a secular church to which the lower orders are made subservient.”  And in an aside he remarks on “the liberalizing, the democratizing, and the ultimately demoralizing effects of Vatican II on the Roman Catholic Church, none of them beneficial and some of them catastrophic.”  But a few arresting passages do not suffice to make the whole worthwhile.  Maybe politics Ph.D.’s could get something out of this book, but it’s beyond me.

Skyfall

The Bleacher Bum sounds off with a new review.

Skyfall is the latest James Bond film to smoothly jump, crash, explode, and speed into movie theaters finely tailored with a cunning wit.  Skyfall is the third film of the franchise starring Daniel Craig as Bond…James Bond.  (There are unconfirmed reports that Skyfall might be Craig’s last Bond film, and he is to be replaced by Idris Elba.)   In Skyfall, Bond is out to recover a computer disk containing the true identities of all NATO spies before the spies are exposed. He has to go to Turkey, China, London, and Scotland on his mission.  Daniel Craig is getting very close to overtaking Sean Connery as the best Bond ever.  He handles the emotions of the character as well as he handles a gun or an Aston Martin.  Dame Judi Dench returns as M.  She is as driven and focused as ever while showing a touch of concern for her favorite operative.  Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, and Naomi Harris round out the primary cast.  If Craig is not the star of the film, it is only because director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) made the film more than just about chases, explosions, shootouts, cool gadgets, and Bond girls.  (Don’t worry – the Bond girls are prevalent).  In Skyfall, Mendes told a story of why and how these characters do what they do.  He just doesn’t show the what.  Grade: B+.

She Loves Me (stage review)

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

She Loves Me.  This was my first trip to Stage West, a theater over in a rough, industrial neighborhood on the south side of I-30 in Fort Worth.  It reminded me of the little productions that Irving’s Lyric Stage used to do—a little bitty theater with just six rows of seats.  I caught today’s matinee of this old-fashioned 1963 musical, which is based on the same original source material as the movie You’ve Got Mail.  In this version, which is apparently set in Hungary, Georg Nowak and Amalia Balash are working in a perfume shop, where they intensely get on each other’s nerves.  But unbeknownst to each other, they have been writing anonymous love letters to each other through a lonely hearts club, and the date for them to meet “for the first time” is approaching.  Both the leads do a good job and are decent singers; Alison Hodgson, who plays Amalia, looks like a young Naomi Watts.  The show runs through December 9, and I recommend it if you like musical comedy.  But it’s definitely not rated G; I’d probably say it’s really more like PG-13, based especially on a pivotal scene in a café where a lot of odd and sexually charged behavior goes on in the background.  Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it and recommend it to fans of musicals.

Pitch Perfect

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Pitch Perfect  (B-).  The ubiquitous Anna Kendrick (End of Watch) strikes again in this rather predictable tale about Beca (Kendrick), a college misfit who joins a competitive a cappella group, makes friends, and finds herself getting emotionally invested in their winning regionals, semi-finals, etc.  And about how Beca kind of likes this cute guy in a rival singing group, but she has to reject him because, you know, she’s emotionally distant on account of her parents’ divorce.  Aside from the predictability, the movie is also unfortunately vulgar and gross.  (Be warned: projectile vomiting plays a significant role in the movie.)  But in spite of all that, I still kind of liked it.  There are some pretty funny lines.  There’s lots of singing, Glee-style, and it’s always entertaining.  Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) and John Michael Higgins (We Bought a Zoo) are funny as the highly inappropriate commentators at the various singing competitions.  And the gorgeous Anna Camp (The Help) does a nice job of playing Beca’s nemesis, the tightly-wound but not entirely villainous leader of Beca’s a cappella group.  It’s really too bad they had to make the movie so crass.

The Piano Teacher (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee (2009).  I thought this, Lee’s first novel, was a real page-turner.  It tells two stories simultaneously, both set in Hong Kong.  One tale starts in 1941, not long before the Japanese conquest of the city during World War II, and the other is set in 1952; Lee moves the stories along by generally alternating chapters between them.  In the 1952 story, a provincial young Englishwoman named Claire Pendleton relocates to Hong Kong with her dull engineer husband, and she falls under the spell of a mysterious Englishman named Will Truesdale who survived the Japanese occupation and never left the exotic city.  Truesdale is also a central character in the WWII story, but back then he was hopelessly in love with a beautiful and wealthy Portuguese-Chinese woman named Trudy Liang.  What happened to her, and why isn’t she around in the 1952 story?  And what will happen between Will and Claire?  Those were the questions that kept me turning the pages; there is also some sort of skulduggery going on among the various characters in the later of the two stories, but I didn’t quite follow it or care enough to try to figure it out.  But the stories of the Japanese occupation and the three main characters kept me interested.  I enjoyed it.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (2012).  Go out and find this book.  It’s nonfiction, but it reads like a novel.  The author moved to India and, for almost three and a half years, investigated what it was like to live in a single specific Mumbai slum.  She got to know the people very well, and this book is basically her chronicle of the lives of just a few of them.  She doesn’t condescend or lapse into melodrama; she just tells it like it is, and the book is all the more powerful for it.  If there’s a main character, it’s a Muslim teen named Abdul, who works like a fiend as a garbage scavenger but whose world is rocked when he and his father and sister are accused of a crime and get dragged into India’s overclogged and corrupt legal system.  But there are plenty of other memorable characters too, like Asha, a woman who hopes to escape from the slum by gaming the corrupt political system herself, and her daughter Manju, who aspires to be the slum’s first college graduate.  It is a harrowing book for sure, but the people Boo writes about do not feel sorry for themselves–they just get on with the grim business of life (or, in a few cases, they decide it is too grim and give up).  I thought it was almost un-put-downable.

Smashed

A new movie review from The Movie Snob.

Smashed  (B).  Maybe my grade is a little generous, but I did like this little independent flick starring the winsome Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).  Winstead plays a young woman named Kate.  Kate and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul, The Last House on the Left) really like to drink.  A lot.  But when her drinking starts to put her into some scary situations, Kate reassesses herself, and with a co-worker’s encouragement she takes the scary plunge into Alcoholics Anonymous.  There she finds a nice and wise sponsor named Jennifer (Octavia Spencer, The Help) to help her through the rough patches.  Her marriage becomes one of those rough patches, since Charlie has no interest in stopping drinking, and it’s not clear that he and Kate have much in common besides that.  Admittedly, the movie has a bit of an afterschool-special vibe to it, and we never see that quitting booze takes any sort of physical toll on Kate at all, which didn’t seem very realistic.  But the movie’s heart is in the right place, and I enjoyed it.