Whiteout (D). This 2009 turkey stars the lovely Kate Beckinsale, who has been in more bad movies than I can easily shake a stick at. (The Underworld movies, the recent remake of Total Recall, and Serendipity come readily to mind.) Early in her career, when she was appearing in films like Much Ado About Nothing and The Last Days of Disco, I thought she was a talented actress, but I possibly could have been deceived by her good looks and British accent. Anyway, this is another embarrassment to add to her collection, an amateurish murder mystery set in the exotic locale of Antarctica. Nothing stands out in the memory except the entirely gratuitous scene near the beginning in which Ms. Beckinsale starts out in full Eskimo gear and strips down to her undies in order to take a shower. Considering she must weigh about 80 pounds, it’s hard to take her too seriously as the U.S. Marshal tasked with solving the murder . . . before becoming a victim herself! Director Dominic Cera also directed the lame action flick Swordfish, so I can’t say I was really surprised at how bad this one was. Tom Skerritt (Alien) costars.
The Lone Ranger (B+). Why is so much hate getting dumped on this movie? I thought it was a perfectly good action/adventure movie, and any movie that can keep me entertained for 2 1/2 hours has to have something going for it. Armie Hammer (The Social Network) has charisma to burn in the title role, and Johnny Depp (The Rum Diary) plays Tonto as a sort of anti-Jack Sparrow: impassive and laconic, but with flashes of acerbic wit. The two team up after Hammer’s lawman John Reid is nearly killed in an ambush, but their partnership is basically one of convenience; they argue constantly as they pursue their separate but related paths of vengeance. The big fight scenes are well done, the main villain is an appropriately leprous-looking varmint played by William Fichtner (Blades of Glory), and there are a few sporadic scenes of surpassing weirdness apparently just to shake things up. Seriously, I do not understand why this movie has been panned so badly or why it has done so poorly at the box office. Do take the PG-13 rating seriously; it is pretty violent at times.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. I had never read any Thomas Hardy before, so I thought I’d give this one a try. First published in 1886, it has a real grabber of an opening. In 1830s England, Michael Henchard is a poor young man of about 20 or so. He’s walking about the countryside, looking for work, with his wife and baby daughter in tow. Henchard has a pretty bleak disposition in general, and he is somehow convinced that his family is to blame for his poverty. Then, when he gets drunk at a country fair he gets the bizarre idea to auction his wife and daughter off—and even more bizarrely, a passing sailor takes him up on his offer, and his disgusted wife departs with the sailor, baby in tow. By the time Henchard sobers up, they are long gone. This is only the first 28 pages of the book; then we jump forward 20 years, and the rest of the tale is about how the past catches up with Henchard, and whether he has acquired the wisdom to deal with it. I found the book somewhat soap-opera-like, with lots of coincidences and barely missed connections, but I was never bored. Indeed, I rather liked it.
Man of Steel (B+). I agree with much of what The Borg Queen had to say about this movie (click here for her review), but I think her B- grade was a tad too low. I was thoroughly entertained throughout this long (almost 2 1/2 hours) origin story about Superman. Henry Cavill (I Capture the Castle) makes a fine Kal-El/Clark Kent, and I thought Kevin Costner (The Company Men) and Russell Crowe (Les Miserables) turned in nice performances as his adoptive and biological father, respectively. The Borg Queen is perfectly correct that Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve) was miscast as Lois Lane–hard-boiled reporter is just not in her range–but she’s such a peach I was willing to overlook that mistake. The rock-em-sock-em ending was perhaps a little too long, but General Zod (Michael Shannon, Mud) was a very good villain. In my humble opinion, this is a very good popcorn movie. Hats off to director Zack Snyder (300) for breathing new life into the blue tights and red cape.
Downton Abbey – Season 1 (B+). Yes, I am a late-comer to this PBS phenomenon. I quite enjoyed it, once I got the hang of the thick British accents. The show is basically a soap opera about a family of British aristocrats, their estate (Downton Abbey), and their servants. Season 1 is set in the years just before WWI. Sir Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham is the lord of the estate, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Clash of the Titans) is his wealthy American wife, and they have two grown daughters (Mary and Edith) and one almost-grown daughter, Sybil. Unfortunately, the estate is subject to a “tail,” meaning it can be inherited only by a male heir—meaning, in this particular case, a distant cousin that no one really knows. It’s a scenario straight out of Pride and Prejudice, only set 100 years later. The show does not neglect the servants either, giving us some quietly virtuous ones to root for and some wicked villains to hiss as well. The formidable Maggie Smith (Becoming Jane) is a scene stealer as Robert’s tart-tongued mother, the “dowager countess.” I give the first season a slight demerit because one of the mainsprings of its plot arc seemed a little too outlandish and contrived, and another slight demerit because it is only seven episodes long. But the episodes are long (45 or 60 minutes each, I believe), and, on the whole, I liked it a lot.
Click here for Mom Under Cover’s review of Downton Abbey.
World War Z (B). Zombie-apocalypse movies come and go, but not many can boast the star power of Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading). For that matter, not many zombie movies also serve double-duty as big wet kisses to the U.N., but this one does. Pitt plays a retired U.N troubleshooter who gets called back into active duty when a standard zombie plague threatens the survival of mankind. He jets all over the world, searching for some way to defeat or at least defend against the ravenous undead. Needless to say, he has lots of narrow escapes from creepy zombies along the way. I thought it was an enjoyable movie, although it was almost spoiled by one scene in which the human defenders act so ridiculously stupidly that I would’ve thrown my popcorn at the screen if I had had any popcorn. (For The Borg Queen’s review of this movie, click here.)
The Way Way Back (B+). Don’t get confused, now. This is not The Way, which is about pilgrims on the El Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, or The Way Back, which is about escapees from a Soviet concentration camp. This is a new coming-of-age tale from the writers who brought you The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Jim Rash). But I have to say I liked this movie quite a bit better than that one. It’s about a miserable 14-year-old boy named Duncan, whose divorced mother (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine) has dragged him to a beach house where they are going to spend the summer with her jerk boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, Hope Springs) and his unpleasant daughter Stephanie. Even a hint of interest from Susanna, the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer), can’t seem to cheer him up. But then Duncan finds a surrogate family while working at the local water park, led by the goofball manager Owen (Sam Rockwell, Moon), and things seem to be looking up. It’s kind of similar to the 2009 flick Adventureland, but I think I liked this one even a little better.
This Is the End (D). Mom Under Cover reviewed this movie a little while back (click here for her take), so I’ll add only a short note. I think my grade is lower than hers because my expectations were higher. The premise seemed so promising—a bunch of movie stars playing themselves are having a party at James Franco’s house when they are suddenly confronted with a real Book-of-Revelation-style apocalypse. But as Mom Under Cover hints, the vulgarity and crassness are beyond description—probably something like Your Highness, reviewed by The Borg Queen on this site. There are a few humorous moments, and I thought it was interesting to get Hollywood’s take on Christian eschatology, but overall I cannot say I enjoyed it.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (2011). The cover blurb from the New York Times says, “By far his best and most engrossing work of novelistic history.” I don’t know any of Larson’s other work, but this really is a history book that reads like a novel. In 1933, FDR had a hard time finding someone willing to serve as America’s ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just come to power. The honor eventually went to an unassuming history professor from Chicago named William E. Dodd, and he took his wife and two grown children to Berlin with him. This book recounts their experiences during the first year of his ambassadorship, especially Dodd’s and those of his 24-year-old daughter Martha. It is a fascinating tale, as they hear about and see little incidents indicative of the barbaric turn Germany was beginning to take. Martha, a gad-about, meets and flirts not only with Nazi officers but also with a fellow from the Soviet embassy (who was, unknown to her, part of the Soviet spy service). The book is so interesting and well written that I really found it hard to put down.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (2005). I thought this was a great novel. Apparently it was a #1 bestseller on both Amazon.com and the New Your Times list, but I don’t remember hearing anything about it at the time. The story is set in Nazi Germany. When the tale opens (in January 1939), an impoverished woman is on a train taking her little son and daughter to a little town outside Munich to leave them there with a foster family. But the little boy dies on the way, and nine-year-old Liesel is left alone with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. That happens in the first 29 pages; the rest of the 550 pages tell the story of Liesel’s next four years—her relationships with her crusty foster mother and kindly foster father, her friendship with the boy next door, Rudy Steiner, and of course the effects of the war. In a strange touch, the story is narrated by Death personified, a soul-collecting entity who is not human but who is not unsympathetic to human beings and their suffering. Zusak weaves a powerful spell with this story of ordinary Germans who were neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Nazi trying to get by and live decent (as in moral) lives amidst massive atrocities. (I get the sense that Zusak’s own parents may have fit this description.) Liesel is a marvelous character, but so are all the rest of them. I highly recommend this book.