The Sparrow (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk?  That’s what The Sparrow is.  In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system.  Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world.  The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous.  Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee.  But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention.  Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIX

DVD review from The Movie Snob.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIX

Untamed Youth (B).  This delightful youth-exploitation film from 1957 stars blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) as a would-be rock-and-roll singer.  Unfortunately she and her sister are arrested in some backwater burg, and the crooked judge sentences them to be slave labor on a farm run by the judge’s co-conspirator.  Entertaining episode, and the disc features a short interview with Mamie as a bonus feature.

Hercules and the Captive Women  (C).  This is a cheesy European Hercules flick from 1961.  The title is inapt because there are no captive women in evidence.  Sure, the evil queen of Atlantis is trying to sacrifice her daughter to the gods throughout the whole movie, but that’s just one woman.  (Apparently the movie was sometimes called Hercules Conquers Atlantis.)  Anyway, this is a pretty average outing for Joel and the robots, and the extras on the disc are also unremarkable.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die  (A-).  Now we’re getting somewhere!  Mike and the bots have a great time skewering this 1958 horror cheapie.  A cute-ish blond girl is doing a little water-witching around her aunt’s dude ranch when she discovers an old chest containing the 400-year-old head of some evil guy who got himself executed by Sir Frances Drake.  The head can hypnotize people into doing its evil bidding, and of course its top priority is getting the water witch to find his long-lost body!  The riffing is great, and even a couple of the host segments are funny as Mike encounters the supposedly super-intelligent Observers.

The Pumaman  (B+).  Another fan favorite, this is a super-cheesy 1980 superhero movie about a guy who supposedly has the powers of a puma and who must use them to fight evil forces led by the great Donald (Halloween) Pleasence (whose name is misspelled Pleasance in the credits).  The guy is more Greatest American Hero than Superman, and his Aztec mentor constantly has to bail him out of trouble.  The extras on the disc are a bit unusual.  One is a complete and unriffed version of The Pumaman; why anyone would want to watch it, I can’t imagine.  The other is a lengthy interview with the actor who played the Pumaman.  He was a New York City lawyer who tried acting for about ten years and then went back to lawyering.  He was a good sport to be interviewed for the disc because he really didn’t appreciate the MST3K guys making fun of this movie!

Ad Astra

The Movie Snob sees a current release!

Ad Astra  (C).  This movie has done very well with other critics—currently scoring 80 out of 100 on metacritic.com—but I was underwhelmed.  It’s a sci-fi flick set in the near future.  Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut so unflappably cool he makes Neil Armstrong look like a bowl of quivering jello.  Strange, deadly energy pulses from Neptune start threatening life on Earth (and on the moon and Mars, which have been colonized), and it seems that Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman), who disappeared on a scientific mission to Neptune years before, may have something to do with it.  Before you can say “2001,” Roy is blasting off from Earth on a mission to contact dear, old dad and, with luck, save the world(s).  Lots of critics have compared Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is fair, but to me the more obvious comparison is the 2007 space thriller Sunshine.  Anyhoo, I found the movie visually appealing but much lacking in the story and character departments.  Roy is so locked down he is hard to empathize with.  Donald Sutherland (Forsaken) pops up in a small role, and Liv Tyler (That Thing You Do!) has the tiny and thankless task of flashing on the screen a few times as Roy’s estranged wife.

The Sub-Beacon (podcast)

The Movie Snob branches out.

The Sub-Beacon Podcast.  I get a fair amount of entertainment value out of podcasts these days, so I’ve decided to add them to the list of “things I review.”  This is the one I’ve been listening to the longest, although it was called The Weekly Substandard when I first started listening to it.  (It was an appendage of The Weekly Standard magazine, and when that magazine went out of business the podcast moved over to The Washington Free Beacon.)

Here’s the blurb for the podcast on the Apple podcasts webpage:  “Each week, geek out with Victorino Matus, Jonathan V. Last, and Sonny Bunch for a podcast about movies and pop culture.”  Or, as the hosts sometimes describe their program, “Dudes chattin’.”  The episodes generally come out every Thursday, are around an hour long, and usually focus on a single recent movie release.  If a superhero or Star Wars movie is out, they will almost certainly review it.  Recent episodes included discussions about JokerRambo: Last BloodAd Astra, and some Dave Chapelle comedy performances.  But the hosts talk a lot about their personal lives before they get around to the movie of the week, so get ready to hear plenty about Vic’s gout, his reduced gluttony diet, and his abnormally large head, Jonathan’s love for fine watches and his son’s amazing fastball, and Sonny’s antipathy for the beach and the outdoors more generally.  Vic and Jonathan are almost my age, so I can relate to some of their references to how things were back in the day.  In sum, I find the show pretty entertaining, although I must say that the humor does get a little high-schoolish at times, with double-entendres that barely qualify as such.

Cool Hand Luke

The Movie Snob takes in another classic.

Cool Hand Luke (B).  I think it’s hard to rate a movie that is well-made and interesting but also bleak and depressing.  That’s how I found Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 film starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and co-starring George Kennedy (The Naked Gun) in an Oscar-winning supporting performance.  Newman plays the title character, a decorated war veteran who lands himself on a prison road gang in the deep South after drunkenly vandalizing a bunch of parking meters.  Luke’s blasé attitude and ability to absorb punishment make him an object of suspicion among the prison guards but admiration among his fellow prisoners, who are led by a loud-mouthed fellow called Dragline (Kennedy).  In Luke’s shoes, I’d do my best to keep my head down and survive my two-year sentence, but after his ailing mother dies he starts the shenanigans that will get him in increasing amounts of trouble with the sadistic Captain (who has the famous line “What we have here is failure to communicate”) and his goons.  What’s Luke’s deal?  He’s plainly made out to be a Christ figure, and the movie kind of plays like a drawn-out Garden of Gethsemane sequence.  But what’s his message?  Love thy neighbor doesn’t seem to fit.  Resist authority?  What about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s?  Even if Luke’s punishment was excessive, he did vandalize public property, after all.  And why is he so rebellious?  He alludes to having grown up without a father, and maybe his wartime experience affected him somehow, but I still didn’t really get his motivation.  I guess some people are just ornery by nature.

Watch for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Harry Dean Stanton (Escape from New York), and Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H) in small parts as fellow prisoners.  Apparently Joe Don Baker (Mitchell) was in there too, but I didn’t spot him.