2001: A Space Odyssey (A). I had seen this 1968 Kubrick masterpiece only once, many years ago, so I jumped at the chance to see it again at the Magnolia this past Tuesday night. It was just as long and as trippy as I remembered it. Basically, it’s about man’s first contact(s) with extraterrestrials. There’s a prologue in which a black monolith of alien origin appears to our ape-like ancestors and (apparently) gives them the idea to start using tools. Then we jump to the near future of 2001, when an identical monolith is discovered on the moon. Finally, the bulk of the film is devoted to an ambitious space mission to Jupiter, led by astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea, The Thin Red Line) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood, Kitten with a Whip) and aided by the superintelligent computer HAL9000. The special effects stand up amazingly well for their age. See it on the big screen if you ever get the chance.
Jurassic World (B). A one-sentence review would suffice: If you liked the other Jurassic Park movies (and don’t mind a certain lack of originality), you’ll like this one. The corporate types have finally made a go of dino-cloning, so that mysterious Costa Rican island is now a successful dinosaur theme park. But the public bores easily, so the park must constantly develop new and scarier species to keep the rubes coming back for more. Naturally, corporate hubris gets a little come-uppance from Mother Nature. Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) is an able hero and velociraptor wrangler, but the script doesn’t really showcase his genial charm like Guardians did. I liked Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) in the role of the tightly wound corporate honcho who has to deal with the rampaging reptiles (and rescue her nephews, who happen to be visiting the park the same day things go wrong), but the movie has taken some feminist flak for not making her character more heroic. Take the PG-13 rating seriously; there is some pretty bloody dino-carnage in this one.
Let us all pause to acknowledge that today is the 48th birthday of the greatest actress of this or any age, the fair Nicole Kidman. According to IMDB.com, she has four movies in post-production and two movies in pre-production, so we should give thanks for the blessings we will be receiving over the next year or two.
Mad Max: Fury Road (B). Does anybody else find it remarkable (or strange) that Mad Max director George Miller also wrote Babe and directed Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2? Anyhoo, I haven’t seen any of the other Mad Max films, but I was all geared up for a two-hour-long car chase through the Australian desert. The movie did not disappoint. It is visually stunning (even in the 2D incarnation I saw), and stuffed to the gills with insane flourishes that I found very entertaining. There’s not much plot. In a post-apocalyptic desert, a hideous tyrant named Immortan Joe keeps a largish population in thrall by controlling the water, the food, and an army of albino-mutant “war boys.” Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) is a lost soul who gets captured by Joe’s goons, but he gets a chance to escape when one of Joe’s top lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Prometheus) makes a break for freedom with Joe’s five beautiful and lightly clothed “breeders” in tow. The rest of the movie is a car chase involving the most ridiculously tricked-out, armed, and armored cars and trucks you can imagine. My special favorite was the giant truck that seemed to carry nothing but giant bongo drums (and drummers) and a heavy metal guitarist whose double-necked guitar doubled as a flamethrower. For a delirious, demented ride, Fury Road is this year’s movie to beat. (But be advised, it is rated R for “intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images. It’s not for the kiddies!)
Witness for the Prosecution (B+). This 1957 classic was directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and based on a short story and play by Agatha Christie. Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a celebrated London barrister with a knack for winning impossible cases. While he is convalescing after a heart attack, just such a case shows up on his doorstep—a murder case against a charming WWII vet named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power, Rawhide). His icy German war bride Christine (Marlene Dietrich, Morocco) is his only alibi, but she seems to have a secret agenda of her own. It felt like the murder trial itself took up about half the film’s 116-minute running time, but the trial scenes are well done, and my interest never flagged. Definitely worth seeing, Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Oscars, including a best supporting actress nod for Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as Sir Wilfrid’s overbearing nurse. The DVD’s extras include the movie’s trailer and some moderately interesting footage of interviews with Wilder about the movie.
Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David M. Ewalt (2013). This was an impulse purchase at Barnes & Noble. I’m an old Dungeon Master from the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1980s, so when I saw this paperback purporting to tell the backstory to the creation of D&D, I was easily hooked. It is an interesting story, told by a guy who played D&D back in the day and still plays today with some other grown men. In addition to explaining where D&D came from, the many lawsuits it spawned over the years, and the meteoric rise and fall of TSR, the company behind the product, Ewart also does some reporting on the “D&D and Satanism” stories that circulated in the 1980s. Beyond this, he also reports from some gaming conventions and even tries his hand at one of those live-action fantasy experiences out in the woods somewhere. If you ever played D&D or ever wondered what all the fuss was about, I highly recommend this book. At 259 pages, it’s a breezy read.
Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847, by Winston Groom (Alfred A. Knopf 2011). This book of popular history is not really my usual fare, but I saw a good review of it somewhere and then saw it on sale somewhere else. It is an interesting read, mainly about the Mexican-American War and the conquest of New Mexico and California by the United States. There are, as the title suggests, heroic marches across unforgiving wilderness, and also a few pitched battles that Groom describes in some detail. I was mainly struck by how few combatants seemed to be involved in the battles—the clashing armies seldom seemed to contain more than a couple thousand men, and sometime only a few hundred. Groom also gives a thumbnail sketch of what happened to the infamous Donner party (the band of settlers that got stuck in the mountains trying to get to California and wound up turning cannibal). I thought it was a good book.