Upstream Color (F). Back in 2004, director Shane Carruth made a splash with Primer, a time-travel film he made for $7,000. I didn’t care for that movie, and I really didn’t care for this one. At first it’s a somewhat gross sci-fi movie about a thief who can basically hypnotize you into doing anything he wants you to if he can make you swallow a weird (alien?) grub. But that generally coherent plot dissolves into a series of increasingly weird and random-seeming scenes, mostly involving a guy played by Carruth and a woman played by new-to-me Amy Seimetz. But there are lots of scenes involving pigs in a pig lot, too. And a few scenes involving people that apparently have nothing to do with anything else in the movie. The Thoreau book Walden is also prominently featured. It doesn’t add up to a coherent movie, and I have read that Carruth intended it to be that way. How it is scoring an 81 on Metacritic is beyond me. Avoid this movie, unless you like stuff that is weird for the sake of being weird.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (D). I deliberately waited until this one arrived in the dollar theaters, but I still got burned because it was showing in 3D, so it wound up setting me back $3.25. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans) star as the sibling pair of fairy-tale fame. Now they are all grown up and hire themselves out to kill pesky witches. It’s a grim, muddy, super-gory movie with no panache or sense of humor. Famke Janssen (X-Men: The Last Stand) plays the main evil witch, and IMDB.com reports that she has said she took the role only to pay off her mortgage. An attractive Finnish actress named Pihla Viitala somewhat relieves the drabness of the production in her couple of scenes. Rated R for “strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language.” That pretty well sums it up.
Oblivion (C-). This new sci-fi action movie starring Tom Cruise (Rock of Ages) is pretty much a mishmash of ideas you’ve seen in other, better sci-fi action movies. In the not-too-distant future, Earth is a wasteland after a war with an invading alien species called Scavengers. Although the Scavengers were defeated, the damage to Earth’s ecology was so great that humanity evacuated to Saturn’s moon Titan, leaving Earth to a few scuttling subterranean Scavengers that survived the war. But a few humans do still live on Earth—technicians who maintain some giant reactors that are slurping up the oceans, I guess to send the resources back to Titan, and the wicked security drones that protect the reactors from the Scavengers. Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go) are two of those techs. But Jack has these recurring dreams about a mysterious woman (played by Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), and he begins to wonder if he and Victoria are being told the truth by their far-distant commanders. The movie is too long, and the whole thing feels quite derivative. But some of the visuals are pretty cool, and Riseborough is a pretty, new face. (I just realized, she’s also in the current release Disconnect as the ethically compromised news reporter. I didn’t even recognize her!)
The subtitle tells it all and though it seems like hyperbole, it isn’t: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Dr. Brown’s TED Talks have gone uber-viral and that certainly helped catapult this book to the success it has enjoyed thus far. Nevertheless, it is an excellent call to and roadmap for living an authentic life–the primary ingredient of which is being fully present both physically and emotionally. Brown conveys the research she has done over the last decade or so in readable, digestible portions and sprinkles her Texan colloquialisms in just the right measure. One critic noted that this book is a rehash of some of Brown’s earlier work in more of a how-to format. Having not read any of the earlier books, I cannot comment. However, I feel confident that every reader will find some insight into wholehearted living and find implications for all aspects of life.
This collection of essays showcases Ephron’s (Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Julie and Julia) finely honed wit. She exposes the vain ploys women take to stave off the aging process. Ephron’s wry sense of humor in addressing topics like motherhood and marriage (when did “parenting” become a competitive sport?) make the tender observations all the more unexpected and rich. There are also some interesting tidbits about Ephron’s early life as a journalist. Girls, this quick read serves up laugh-out-loud moments and will appeal to a wide age range (even if we aren’t there yet, we can see it from here). Men, you may want to skip this one–unless you are curious why your woman is doubled over laughing.
Disconnect (B-). I don’t think this movie is getting a very wide release, so if you want to see it, you should probably jump on the opportunity. It feels very much like the movie Crash from several years ago, in that Disconnect involves three separate plotlines that are only faintly connected by having one character be involved in both Plot A and Plot B, and a different character be involved in both Plot B and Plot C. Anyhoo, this is a cautionary tale about some of the dark sides of our communications revolution. In Plot A, a young married couple that is grieving the death of their baby gets thrown into further turmoil when their identities (and all their money) are stolen. In Plot B, the most affecting storyline to me, Jason Bateman (TV’s Arrested Development) and Hope Davis (About Schmidt) play a married couple whose teenaged son falls victim to cyberbullying. And in Plot C, an ambitious reporter (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) at a small cable station gets in over her head when she investigates a weird website where perverts can pay to watch teenagers engage in various kinds of conduct, and she befriends a young man involved in the “business.” The acting is good, but the stories are a little clunky. A lot of the drama involves characters staring at screens and typing on iPads or keyboards. Still, it is worth seeing, especially for the story about cyberbullying.
Mom Under Cover is mad for Mad Men. (Arguable spoilers follow.)
Mad Men Season 6 (2 Hour Series Opener) (A-)
The Mad Men season opener did not disappoint. Megan (Jessica Pare) and Don (John Hamm) on the beach in Hawaii sipping blue drinks signals a brighter more vibrant color palette this season. Ironically, death is the pervasive theme–and Don’s fascination with it. Not surprisingly, a few years have passed since the show ended last season. In typical Mad Men fashion, Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos) sprinkled clues as to the exact year throughout the broadcast: references to President Johnson, new stories about the first successful heart transplant, and hippies in San Francisco. The upcoming Cotton Bowl – Aggies v. Crimson Tide – confirms the date: December 1967.
Season 6 promises to delve into an experience Don had in Hawaii, one that may be unraveling him. Megan’s acting career has taken off; she’s landed a role on a soap opera. John Slattery is at the top of his game as Roger in psychoanalysis. Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) is thriving in her new job. January Jones still may be the weakest actor. Betty is still wearing the fat suit. She almost comically unconvincingly delivers lines to her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) about raping a 15 year old friend of Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka). Oh, and we learn the answer to the question posed in the Season 5 finale. Though Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Don appeared to switch personalities last year, did we really think think Don would change his stripes?
This quick but provocative read is aptly described by the subtitle: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Before you think “hokey”, give it a chance. Dr. Alexander spent 7 days in a coma caused by a rare case of E-coli bacterial meningitis. His case is so rare, that he is the only adult known to have contracted such a severe case of E-coli meningitis and the only adult known to have survived it. A self-described skeptic, Dr. Alexander had certainly seen miraculous cases in his medical career, but believed that, while they may have appeared to be miracles, there was surely a scientific explanation that just had not been discovered. In short, he worshiped at the altar of science. That was before his journey to Heaven. The book alternates between Alexander’s telling of his near death experience (NDE) and his explanation (after reviewing his medical records) of what could and could not have been happening in his brain. Alexander weaves in details from his personal life, the NDE literature, and neuroscience to create a convincing proof that the soul is real and Heaven exists right here, right now.
Community – Season Three. (B-) Quick refresher: Jeffrey Winger (Joel McHale, The Informant!) is a slick ex-lawyer who has been disbarred because he never got a college degree. So he has enrolled at Greendale Community College to earn a degree and hopefully get his law license back. Way back in the pilot episode, he inadvertently formed a study group with five lovable misfits—plus a rich old geezer named Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, Caddyshack), who is not lovable at all. The show is all about the study group’s escapades, and it’s full of absurdist humor about how terrible a school Greendale is. I strongly urge you to get a hold of Season One and give it a try.
Unfortunately, Season Three is not as good as Season One and Season Two. John Goodman (O Brother Where Art Thou) has a recurring role as the dean of Greendale’s air-conditioning-repair school, and the season-long plot arc in which he attempts to recruit Troy is just not very funny. Somewhat funnier is Abed’s season-long obsession with a British TV show called Inspector Timespace (a transparent Dr. Who clone). Early on there’s a really interesting episode in which the gang is gathered in Troy and Abed’s apartment for a housewarming party, and when the pizza delivery arrives they roll a die to decide who has to go downstairs to get it. For the rest of the episode they play that scenario out seven different ways, depending on who goes to get the pizza—kind of a butterfly-effect sort of thing. There’s also a funny episode that is an homage to Law & Order, right down to the theme music. And they get pretty good results repeating a gimmick from the second season: a clip show in which all the “clips” being remembered by the characters are actually brand-new scenes. But lots of episodes fall flat, like a Christmas episode done Glee-style, and one in which Shirley and Jeff take on some German foosball bullies. My favorite character, the cute and ambitious Annie Edison (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement) has some decent episodes. I thought Britta (Gillian Jacobs, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) got a little cheated on screen time, but her bits tended to be very funny when she was on.
As I understand it, Community barely escaped cancellation after the third season, the network fired series creator Dan Harmon, and they are now airing a shortened 13-episode fourth season. And last I heard a fifth season was still a possibility. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping they get their groove back.
The Host (C-). I knew this movie, based on a book by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, was almost certainly going to be terrible, so why did I see it? Because it stars Saoirse Ronan, a young Irish actress who has impressed me with her talent in pretty much every film I have seen her in (City of Ember, Atonement, Hanna, The Way Back). I wondered, would she be able to overcome the almost certainly bad source material she’d be working with here? The answer is: not entirely. The premise is mostly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mixed with a bit of Starman. Aliens called “souls” have taken over the bodies of almost every human being on Earth, leaving only a few pockets of human resistance out in the hinterlands. Ronan’s character, Melanie, gets captured and possessed by a soul within the first few minutes of the movie, but her alien possessor is surprised to find out that Melanie’s consciousness is still present inside her head and quite resentful of the occupation. Melanie persuades the soul to go AWOL with her body, and the rest of the movie involves pursuit by a dogged alien “seeker” (Diane Kruger, Troy) and Melanie’s efforts to persuade the alien in her body that maybe it’s not so nice to steal other species’ bodies from them. Unfortunately, the movie is weak in several respects. It’s too long (2 hours and 5 minutes) and draggy. The dialogue (including the occasional internal dialogue between Melanie and her alien soul) is frequently wooden, and the suspenseful moments are not very suspenseful. Several of the actors are just not very good. Still, Ronan deserves some credit for making her weird character at least somewhat believable and sympathetic despite the underwhelming script. In sum, the movie’s not a complete turkey, but I really can’t give it a thumbs up.