Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders

A few weeks ago I read Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (and blogged about it here).  I didn't think too much of the novel, but decided to check out a movie adaptation of it.  I liked this movie more than the book.  The movie raised my respect for the book and made me wonder how much I missed in my reading.  Like any movie adaptation, much was skipped, in terms of story, and much was added, in terms of tone and emphasis.

The essentials of the story were well-preserved.  I should note that this Masterpiece Theater production is 4 hours long, so there's much more room for storytelling than the typical 90 minute treatment.  Alex Kingston is terrific as Moll, preserving Moll's combination of scheming and charm.  We also get an early screen appearance of Daniel Craig, 10 years before he became James Bond.  The other performances are excellent as well.

Moll, born to a convict in Newgate Prison, is separated from her mother at birth, and ends up being raised by a wealthy family.  She wants to be a gentlewoman, but, given the cultural milieu, her only means to do so is to marry a gentleman.  As one of the sisters with whom she lives says, without money, she is nothing; even with her exceptional beauty, no man of means would consider marrying her without money.  So she treats her pursuit of men as a business transaction, presenting herself as a woman of means while seeking men of means, while acknowledging that her only assets are her beauty and wit. 

One strength of this version is the emphasis placed on her internal moral struggles.  Faced with a moral dilemma, she repeatedly chooses the practical over the right.  Given the choice between virtue with poverty, and sin with prosperity, she chooses the sin.  She almost flippantly and amusingly weighs the options, often speaking to the camera, reality TV style.  At one point, after she starts stealing to make her living, she prays about her choices.  She wonders, given that we should pray, "Lead me not into temptation," why God places temptations all around her?  I wonder, even with the limitations of the station of her birth, if choosing the good would not have led her to a more stable, fulfilling life.

Like the novel, the movie presents a vivid picture of life in the 18th century.  The sets, costuming, and oveall atmosphere are all very effective.  Given the time limitations of the medium, this production faithfully tells Defoe's story in a way that's more engaging and entertaining than the book.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Zippy, my eight year old, has been begging for quite some time to watch Episode III of Star Wars.  The other 5 get regular rotation at our house, but we have held off on III.  Zippy tends to scare easily in movies (He buried his face in my lap at some point during The Tale of Despereaux), and has nightmares, sometimes related to movies.  He says that at some point I told him he would have to wait until he's 8 1/2; maybe I did say that, I don't know.  In any case, he turned 8 1/2 this month, so we watched Revenge of the Sith together today.

I know Episodes I-III have been widely criticized, but I still enjoy them.  Episode III is a pleasure to watch, with its beautiful, detailed scenes, the amazing space battles, and some of the best light saber duels of any of the six films.  I can't begin to contemplate the size and talent of the teams of artist and programmers who put this together.  A bunch of people sitting in a room with computers is not as cool as a scruffy crew with models and cardboard on big tables (as in the making of the original Star Wars), but the visual results are stunning.

But even stunning visuals can't overcome the horror of Hayden Christensen's acting.  I know he is supposed to be contemptible, but I can hardly stand to watch him in this movie.  When he whines about being placed on the Jedi council without have been make a Jedi knight, I kept thinking of Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "I want to be a Jedi knight now!"  And his sappy scenes with Padme are terrible. "I love you so much I can't live without you I'll join the Dark side to save you but not if I choke you first."  Dreadful.

So far, no nightmares for Zippy.  More than the intense parts, he liked the funny parts, particularly R2D2's interactions with the battle droids.  He immediately wanted to watch it again, and has declared that III is his favorite episode.  How can I argue with that?

Bottom line: 3 1/2 stars (It would be 4 if Christensen didn't raise bile in my throat.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sand and Sorrow: A New Documentary about Darfur

I always get a little suspicious of the "cause of the moment" types of movements.  So often, such trendy movements are fraught with misinformation, emotionalism, and empty actions.  Some of that may be true of concern over Darfur, but that does change the fact that what has gone on in Darfur over the last several years is shameful.

Sand and Sorrow describes the historical developments in Sudan that led to the genocide and displacement of people living in the Darfur region of that country.  It then discusses the resistance of other nations, especially the U.S., to get involved.  Ultimately, in a congratulatory tone, it demonstrates the difference that a grass roots movement in the U.S. has made, pressuring the U.S. government to get involved in brokering a peace deal.

I read a book a while back called The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur.  The author is an American soldier who joins a private contractor providing consultation for the African Union.  The film does not mention his book, but depicts the frustration he felt.  These soldiers from other countries were sent to observe and report what's going on in Sudan, but were forbidden to bear arms against the janjaweed, the horse riding militias, endorsed and supported by the Sudanese government.  The janjaweed, key perpetrators of the violence, sweep into villages, burning, looting, raping, and murdering, terrorizing the villagers and driving them from their homes.  The military observers, forbidden to intervene, must sit and watch while the janjaweed do their worst.

Although the Sudanese government long denied their involvement, after enough eye-witness reports from victims and non-Sudanese alike, the truth could no longer be covered up.  Some of the most powerful witnesses, tragically, are children, who, provided paper and crayons, depict some of the violence they have seen.

One of the key figures in the documentary, and in the Save Darfur movement, is Samantha Power, a Harvard professor who had recently published a book about the United States' inaction in the face of genocides throughout the 20th century.  Faced with what she heard about what was going on in Darfur, she was compelled to act.  Another vocal instigator was Nicholas Kristoff, a New York Times columnist who championed the people of Darfur, bringing their plight to the attention of the American people and government.

Of course the documentary had to takes some jabs at the Bush administration, and depicts Obama as senator taking a supportive role in the beginning of the Save Darfur campaign.  I am confident, however, that American inaction is not a symptom of hard-hearted Republicans, but of the ineptitude of government no matter the party.  There's also the reality of politics: after 9/11, the Sudanese government enthusiastically aided the U.S. in the War on Terror, so the U.S. government was reluctant to come down too hard on their domestic policies, no matter how horrible.

Politics aside, the Save Darfur movement seems to have drawn people together from a wide swath of the public, including Christians, Jews, and secular groups, political conservatives and liberals alike.  Sand and Sorrow is a well-made, disturbing look at this ongoing conflict in a distant corner of the world.

Bottom line, 4 stars.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New in Town

Some movies are like Christmas candy: predicable and super sweet, but ultimately forgettable and not very memorable.  New in Town is one of those movies.  Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger), young, beautiful, driven, and on her way up in corporate America, finds herself transplanted from Miami to rural Minnesota to oversee the retooling of one of her company's plants.  Definitely a fish out of water, she ruffles plenty of feathers, but falls in love with the hard-working midwesterners, especially Ted (Harry Connick, Jr.).  You can fill in the blanks on this story: the corportation wants to cut jobs, then close the plant, then Lucy has a change of heart and wants to save it.  Ted and Lucy's first meeting is a clash of opposites, then Ted gets the girl, then loses her, then gets her again.  Midwesterners are portrayed with condescending affection.

Culture shock begins at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.

Lucy's relationship with Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) is more fun to watch than her relationship with Ted.  When Lucy arrives, she asks Blanche if she is her executive assistant; she replies, "No, I'm your secretary.  Would you be need one of those?"  She's a scrapbooking, baking Christian, and mirrors everything Lucy is not.  On their first meeting, she asks Lucy, "Have you found Jesus?"  Lucy glibly replies that she didn't know he was missing.  Lucy gets a big laugh out of it, but Blanche fails to see the humor.  Later she asks Lucy if she looks down on the Minnesotans because they, among other things, bring up Jesus in the course of regular conversation.  It's so refreshing to see everyday evangelism modeled, even in a very simplistic way, in a mainstream movie.  I'm challenged by Blanche's openness and frankness in bringing Jesus into her daily conversations, even with her new boss.

This movie attains the heights to which it reaches: a cute romantic comedy with a few laughs and a predictable plot. Like Christmas candy, enjoyable and sweet, but ultimately forgettable.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

War, Inc.

Just because a movie is bad doesn't mean it's completely useless.  War, Inc. is a bad movie, but it makes some good points in humorous ways.  It almost seems like a movie that would have been made by the satirical newspaper The Onion.  They have some great stories and wonderful satire, but whenever they try to extend their humor past the brief article or short sketch, it loses its punch.  Same with War, Inc.

The theme of the military's outsourcing of war is cleverly done.  The soldiers are all employees of a company called Tamerlane, which has sold ads on all the tanks, uniforms, planes, etc.  The U.S. has devastated the nation of Turaqistan and is now bringing democracy (rather, commercialism) to the people.

The plot is really too confusing to get into.  There are plenty of funny moments, and lots of great one-liners and sight gags, some that even make a good point.  If John Cusack and company aimed to create a biting critique of American involvement in the Middle East, this ain't it.  Some OK performances, some good satire, but a tiresome, overdone movie.  Don't waste your time.

Bottom line, 1/2 star.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Righteous Kill

I don't know if you can go wrong with DeNiro and Pacino on screen together.  They hadn't been in a film together since Heat in 1995, and Righteous Kill was a worthy reunion.  Both of these seasoned actors were at their best, and the chemistry they share makes the sum better than the parts.

DeNiro and Pacino, long-time partners in the NYPD detective squad, are on the trail of an apparent serial killer.  The killer definitely needs to be caught, but they do hold him in some admiration, because each of the victims is a known criminal who has slipped through the cracks of the justice system.  Coincidentally, each of the criminal victims has some sort of prior connection to the crime-fighting pair.  Evidence begins to indicate that the suspect must be a police officer, and fingers start pointing in the direction of Pacino and DeNiro.

I don't want to give anything away, but the question of vigilante justice intrigues me.  Given an obvious failure of the justice system, is there ever a place for a "righteous kill"?  When the wheels of justice move too slowly, not at all, or even backwards, can one justify the murder of the guilty?  The biggest part of me screams, "Of course not!" but there is a part of me that does relish the idea of the bad guys getting their due.  (Don't worry, I'm not armed.)

Righteous Kill moves along briskly, at times maybe getting a little to clever and confusing, but for the most part engages the audience and keeps them guessing.  I enjoyed this movie to the end, even thinking I'd like to see it again.  Check it out.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Priceless (Hors de Prix)

I loved Audrey Tautou in Amelie, one of the more charming, memorable movies I've seen.  So to see that she was starring in a new romantic comedy got me pretty excited!  Suffice it to say, I should have just watched Amelie again.

Many romantic comedies start out by showing how pathetic the lives of the main characters are.  That's often the point: they are pathetic, they find each other, and meaning and happiness come their way!  But if they're too pathetic, the movie can be pathetic and lose the sympathy of the audience.  That was the case with me and Priceless.

Irene's (Tautou) goal in life was to bed and eventually marry some rich guy who could set her up for life.  So she seduces rich men, and eventually gets engaged.  Meanwhile, Jean (Gad Elmaleh) works in an exclusive hotel that caters to rich men who bed young seductresses.  Late one night, Irene mistakes Jean for a potential sugar daddy.  They have a memorable one night stand.  When they meet again a year later, they have another one night stand, Irene's fiancee finds out about it, and Irene learns that Jean is not wealthy, but a hotel employee.  So not only did she lose her rich fiancee, but her back up plan fails as well.

Not wanting to give up on romance with Irene, Jean follows her to another hotel, and ends up as the lover of a rich widow.  So he and Tatou secretly carry on their relationship while living with their rich lovers.  They meet for late-night liaisons, comparing notes as to who go the most expensive gifts. Pathetic, and yucky.  She's certainly attractive, but why would he fall for her like that, knowing how she's whoring herself?  And why follow suit by whoring himself?

The best that can be said of this movie is that they both come to realize that sharing their love together, even if they're poor, beats enjoying the wealth of those they do not love.  As we read in the Proverbs, "Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred."  Even though this was a comedy, I left it feeling dirty, a bit creeped out by the idea of living the way they did.  Yuck.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Battle for Terra

I like to see other studios besides Disney come out with movies.  Not that I have anything against Disney or Pixar, but it seems like their dominance doesn't leave room for other studios to compete.  Granted, Battle for Terra is not as good as most of what Pixar has had to offer, but it's a decent movie that was overlooked by most.

Even though the animation and storytelling may not measure up to, say, Wall-E, Battle for Terra explores interesting questions not typically tackled by sci-fi kids movies.  More than just a space opera, Battle for Terra poses the following scenario: what if Earth becomes uninhabitable (of course by evil pollution and war; I won't get started on this subtext of scaremongering that we see in too many kids movies) and mankind is forced to seek another planet on which to live, then, upon finding a suitable planet, realizes that said planet is already inhabited?  That is the start of Battle for Terra.  As it turns out, the atmosphere of the newfound planet, which the humans name Terra, is poisonous to the humans.  They have a means by which they can make it breathable, but it would mean killing the current inhabitants. 

Of course, the humans proceed with the plan.  Apparently, humans never learned their lesson after bringing smallpox to the Americas.  So it's up to a crash landed human and his new friend, the liberal-minded Terran to team up and save the planet and the humans.

Again, this is not a bad movie, and it's nice to see some alternative to the Pixar domination, but not quite as good as it could have been.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taking Lives

This movie had two things going for it: a soundtrack by Philip Glass, one of my favorite composers, and Angelina Jolie in the lead role. Even though she may be best known for her quirky marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, her excessive number of tatoos, or her tomb raiding as Lara Croft, I think she's a terrific actress. (I'm not the only one; she has won an Oscar, some Golden Globes, and received a bunch of nominations.)

So the soundtrack was great, Jolie's acting was great, but the whole package didn't come together too well for me.  Taking Lives is about a serial killer who assumes the identities of his victims, lives as them for a period of time, then moves on to someone else.  Jolie, an investigator with the FBI, gets called in to help with a murder investigation that leads, through Jolie's brilliance, to uncovering this killer's patterns.

I am suspicious of this type of movie, that portrays the killer as a super-brilliant schemer who not only gets away with a long series of crimes, but toys with the investigators.  The killer comes close to framing one of his associates for the crimes.  Jolie, the super-smart, tough-as-nails investigator gets drawn in by the killer here and nearly ends up as a victim.  Despite its weaknesses, Taking Lives tries hard and is not a bad thriller.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Friday, December 11, 2009


As a bit of inspiration leading up to Sunday's White Rock Marathon, I decided to pick up this biopic of Haile Gebrselassie, who Runner's World calls the greatest distance runner of all time.  Gebrselassie, an Ethiopian, has won a world championship or set a world record at every distance from 1500 meters to the marathon.  (Let's just stop right there and say WOW!)

The film focuses on Gebrselassie's performance in the 10000 meters at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  Most of the film flashes back to his childhood in Ethiopia.  One of 10 children living on a farm, Gebrselassie's childhood was marked by work in the fields, taking the pack of donkeys to fetch water miles away, and running barefoot 6 miles to school.  Running a 10K in the morning and another in the afternoon gave him a training foundation that served him well competing in 10Ks later!  (It is said that he still runs with his left arm crooked, as if holding school books.)  If he was late to school, the teacher slapped his palms with a ruler; if he was late coming home, his father beat him.  How's that for motivation to boost your PR?

He longed to be a competitive runner.  He enjoyed watching races at the local track and following reports of Ethiopian running stars on the radio.  He competed with a local running club, then, against his father's wishes, decided to move to Addis to train full time.  He placed 99th in his first marathon, but quickly became competitive.

Gebrselassie is known to be a humble, modest, and generous individual.  Even as he runs, his exuberance inspires.  I aspire to matching his effortless, joyful gait (though I am not so self-deluded as to think I could come close to matching his pace!  If I beat double his marathon time I'm doing well!)  This picture of him winning the 10000 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics says it all.

Besides highlighting the life of this inspiring runner and the odds he had to overcome as a child to become a professional runner, Endurance beautifully portrays life in Ethiopia.  The soundtrack is perfect, featuring Ethiopian music.  There are long sequences in which there is little dialogue, or dialogue in the Ethiopian language that is not translated for the viewer.  It gives the feel of being a fly on the wall watching real life rather than watching actors portraying real life.  Many of the later scenes star Gebrselassie himself, as well as his father and wife, adding to the realism.

Although it was not a major feature of the film, Gebrselassie starts the film out speaking of the importance of prayer.  He says, "You hard work, and the God help you.  If the God not help you, your work is nothing."  I wish we could learn more about his faith through out his career.

Endurance is a beautiful, moving film, not just for the runner or fan of distance running, but for anyone who enjoys inspiring stories in which the good guys win.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

What a masterful film. I loved this movie. I hesitate to say much about it, because before you finish reading this review, you really should go get a copy and watch it.

World War 2, particularly the Nazi crusade against Judaism and the concentration camps, provides boundless material for great films and literature. Witness Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, The Hiding Place, Treblinka, and many more. Add this to that list. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does not have the scope of Schindler's List, but much like Life is Beautiful, looks at the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, and shows how man's involvement in the concentration camps profoundly impacts his family. 

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) moves to the countryside with his family when his father (David Thewlis) gets a new post at Auschwitz. Of course Bruno, a little boy, has little concept of the war going on about him, except that his dad is a soldier, and, by default, a hero. Bruno gets a glimpse of the "farm" near their new home, but he wonders why there are no animals, why there are guards, and why the workers spend the day in their striped pajamas. When he sneaks away from the house to explore, he comes upon the fence line, and strikes up a friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy inside the concentration camp. They immediately connect, being the same age, but immediately see the differences between their worlds when exchanging names: Shmuel: "I've never heard of anyone called Bruno." Bruno: "Shmuel? No one's called Shmuel." 

As the days go by at the new home, Bruno and Shmuel become close friends, but Bruno still remains clueless about the camp and its role in the war. Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga), however, does realize it and is appalled by her husband's acceptance of and participation in its function. She becomes more and more disturbed by it at every turn. No lover of Jews, she still is uncomfortable with the camps, and can't bear the thought of burning them in ovens

Bruno's innocence and openness to anyone contrasts with the ugliness of the camp next door. His tutor, who intends to keep Bruno and his sister up on all the latest propaganda being taught in the German schools, goes on about how "The Jew" has caused countless ills in the world. Bruno asks "I don't understand. One man caused all this trouble?" He asks if there is such a thing as a nice Jew. His tutor replies, "I think, Bruno, if you ever found a nice Jew, you would be the best explorer in the world." Not only does he find Shmuel, he also finds the nice Jew who works around the house. When Bruno falls off his swing and cuts his leg, the worker cleans it up and bandages it for him. Bruno learns that he used to be a doctor, and can't understand why he would give up being a doctor to come peel potatoes at Bruno's house.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough. Four stars.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Contract Killers

Jane (Frida Show) is one angry assassin.  During a quiet dinner with her husband or boyfriend (I don't think this was ever very clear), they are poisoned by the wine.  When she wakes up, she discovers him dead on their bed.  She calls in to her CIA contact, but quickly realizes she's a target.  And for the rest of the movie, she's running away from people trying to kill her.

She works for a black-ops department of the CIA as an assassin, but she's not sure if she was double-crossed on the last job she pulled, or what her handlers were really up to.  To be honest, I'm not really sure either, nor did I really care.  Take this movie at face value: a direct-to-video b-movie that tries to be flashy and cool with its action sequences, flashbacks, and fancy editing.  But it ends up with a jumbled, confusing, almost unwatchable mess.  There's nothing really new here.  It reminded me of a TV series that would shortly be cancelled because it's not that good.

Sorry about the short, non-insightful review.  But I just wish I had never picked up this movie.

One star.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Meet Bill

File this one under "depressing comedy."  Maybe the rest of the world can relate better to this movie than I can, but I was put off from this movie, almost from the beginning.  Bill is unhappy with his life.  He works at his father-in-law's bank, which pays nicely, and he has a beautiful wife, but he's miserable.  He dreams about opening a donut franchise, to get out from under his father-in-law's financial umbrella.

Then, by planting a hidden camera in the bedroom, he learns that his wife is having an affair with a local TV news personality.  Of course he goes nuts, attacking the guy on the air.  But when he confronts his wife about it, her only response is to be appalled that he did not respect her privacy.  Bill wants to win her back, so he starts exercising, cutting down on sweets, and shaving his chest (surely the way to a woman's heart).

He becomes a mentor to a high school student at his alma mater.  The student becomes a sort of life coach for him, arranging to have the sexy lingerie saleswoman speak to Bill when Bill is with his wife, in hopes of making his wife jealous, and later arranging a sexy sleepover for Bill.  Oh, and getting him stoned.  Marijuana solves all of life's problems, right?

So this movie had some funny moments, but not many.  And plenty of morally objectionable moments, too, especially for a movie that seemed to want to be clean and uplifting.  The happiest, most admirable couple in the movie was Bill's brother and his lover.  The nice, domestic gay couple comes to Bill's rescue, providing a disturbing contrast; the movie wants the viewer to see how happy the gay couple is when all the heterosexual couples around are making each other miserable.

Bill's wife's affair, while it deeply affects Bill, is treated by everyone else as no big deal.  And when Bill's secret video of the act of infidelity lands on the internet, no mention is made of the fact that the only  people who would have had access to post it were the police.  Bill also seems to think that since his wife was sleeping around, it's OK for him to have a little one-night stand as well.

I'll go ahead and give the end away: Bill and his wife get back together.  Good.  I like a message that says marriages can be saved.  But amid all the other messages of the movie, this positive message rings hollow.

Bottom line, don't waste your time.  One star.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff called to see if I could go with him to hear the Philip Glass Ensemble play Glass's score to Dracula at the Winspear Opera House.  I love Glass's music, have been wanting to go to a performance at the Winspear, and would relish the rare opportunity to spend time with Jeff.  Alas, none of it happened.  Things change when we have a half dozen kids between the two of us!

However, I did find that the good ol' Fort Worth Public Library has a copy of the DVD with the Glass soundtrack!  So I checked it out.  This is the 1931 film, starring Bela Lugosi, with Glass's 1999 score.  On the DVD you can choose the option of watching the movie with or without the score.  The DVD features the score played by the Kronos Quartet, so the PG Ensemble probably played a different arrangement live.  A couple years ago I watched the old Jean Cocteau film La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) with the Philip Glass score, and figured this would be in similar style.

This version of Dracula, probably the most famous, seems full of cliches.  That's because all of the imitators have made cliches of this film, I would guess!  The hand creeping out of the coffin, the black cape, the funny European accent, all have been copied and parodied to the point of silliness.  That shows what a cultural icon Bela Lugosi's portrayal is.  I kept waiting for Lugosi to say "I vant to suck your blood!" but he never did.  I guess that came in later parodies. . . .

Speaking of parody, how about this.  Early on, when we first see Count Dracula and his wives coming out of their coffins at sundown, we also see a shot of what looks like a bee coming out of a tiny box.  Is that a joke?  Or is it some symbolism, since when a bee stings, it dies, and now this bee has eternal life in Count Dracula's castle?  Then we see a pair of armadillos emerge from a dusty corner.  Are they dead armadillos coming out to hunt for blood?  Do vampires change to werewolves, bats, and armadillos?  Or do armadillos symbolize some specific kind of evil in Transylvania?  I don't know.  It just seemed sort of odd.

On an interesting film history note, this DVD also includes the Spanish version.  It opens with a brief interview of the female lead.  (In the Spanish version, her name is Eva instead of Mina.)  She states that the English cast started filming in the morning, and the Spanish cast came in and used the same sets at night.  I didn't watch the whole Spanish version, but enough to see that there were certainly some differences.  The actress said the critics gave higher marks to the Spanish version.  It made me wonder how often that was the practice in that era of Hollywood, filming English and Spanish versions in tandem.

Something else I wonder about in the story is the fate of Van Helsing, the slayer or hunter of Dracula in many stories.  At the end, after he and Mina's fiance rescue Mina and kill Dracula, the reunited lovers leave the abbey, but Van Helsing stays behind, saying, mysteriously, that he'd be along shortly.  Does he return to Dracula to study the corpse?  Does he drink Dracula's blood to gain immortality?  I don't know.

Dracula is a fun movie to watch out of curiosity.  Obviously, special effects have changed the way we watch movies now.  In this version, the special effects mainly consisted of long stares from Lugosi.  None of the actual biting, or really even the bite marks, were shown.  We never see Count Dracula in his werewolf manifestation, and of course the bats look a little silly flapping around.

Glass's score, like any good film score, does not take the viewers attention away from the movie.  There were times that it didn't seem to fit stylistically, but for the most part added to the experience and intensity of the film.

If you have any interest at all in film history, monster movies, or the Dracula legend, definitely put this on your list to see.  Otherwise, don't go too far out of your way.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Easy Virtue

Easy laughs can be had from conflicting morals between stuffy traditionalists and trendy progressives.  Stuffiness is easy to caricature, but loose morals have their consequences as well.  Easy Virtue finds the matriarch of the Whittaker family awaiting the arrival of her son from his wanderings.  To her dismay, he arrives with his new wife, an American race car driver.  Chaos ensues.

Easy Virtue, based on the play by Noel Coward, captures the British upper class in the era between the wars.  John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), male heir to the Whittaker estate, finds himself caught between his duties as keeper of the traditions and status of the family, and his desire to embrace the looser morals and values of the era.  Larita (Jessica Biel), his bride, does try to put on her best face for the in-laws, but it quickly becomes clear that she does not fit with the proper, traditional, upper-class British ways.  Even though John is madly in love with Larita, and initially talks about moving with her to London to get out from under the pressure of the family estate, over time he finds himself torn between his duty to family and his duty to his bride.

There are lots of good performances in Easy Virtue.  Colin Firth is perfect as Mr. Whittaker, who, as it turns out, is going through struggles of his own over whether to remain committed to the Whittaker estate.  And Furber (Kris Marshall), the butler, provides some oh-so-proper comic relief as he quietly aids and abets Larita's rebellion.

Not to take away from the acting or plot, one of the most entertaining elements of Easy Virtue was the soundtrack.  It includes some standards of the swing era by Cole Porter, some songs written by Noel Coward, and, in an amusing twist, some more recent songs performed in a swing style, such as "Car Wash," "When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going," and "Sex Bomb."  This video, clips from the movie, plays the latter, and gives good taste of the style and tone of both the movie and the soundtrack.

The traditionalist in me wishes Easy Virtue would have spent at least a little time on the consequences of a morally loose lifestyle.  Larita's choices have already brought her a certain degree of legal trouble and internal strife.  The film leaves the impression that the honorable and reasonable people follow their wanderlust and shirk responsibility, while those who hold down tradition are suckers.  This is certainly not the first place where such a point is made, but whenever it is, I find myself wishing for some middle ground or celebration of those who keep to tradition.  Maybe Noel Coward is the anti-Frank Capra.  And maybe there is a place for both.

Easy Virtue, billed as a comedy, certainly induces lots of laughs, but, like any good comedy, has some thoughtful elements, social commentary, and historical context to add more richness.  Despite its morally and culturally ambiguous message, I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I like the tag line on the cover of the DVD: "You can't escape your lies." Transsiberian is a creepy good movie. Poor Roy (Woody Harrelson). He is an over-the-top, super-nice hardware store owner from Iowa. We meet him and his wife as they're finishing up a mission trip to China. While the rest of the team heads home, they embark on a transsiberian train trip. Roy, a train buff, is fulfilling his dream of taking a trip on this famous train route.

Shortly he and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) meet up with Carlos and Abby, who share the cramped train compartment with them.  Carlos, a charming but suspicious acting Spaniard, and Abby, a detatched, moody American, say they've been teaching English abroad and are simply gadding about.  But everything about them, as friendly as they seem to be, raises suspicion.  At one stop, Roy and Carlos wander around looking at the trains while the ladies shop.  Carlos returns but Roy doesn't.  Jessie panics, and at the next stop the three of them check into a hotel to await Roy.  Here's where things get interesting.  Carlos tries to take advantage of Jessie, a move he doesn't live to regret.  Roy shows up, giddy from his adventure, and he Jessie hop on the train to continue their journey.

They are met by Grinko (Ben Kingsley--does he play any role that's not creepy?  OK, Ghandi wasn't exactly creepy, but other than that. . . .)  He's an investigator, going after drug traffickers on the Transsiberian.  Surprise, surprise, Carlos was suspicious acting because he's a drug trafficker!  And he snuck some of his goods into Jessie's luggage!  And Grinko is really a bad guy!  And he wants the money Carlos stole!  Roy and Jessie get stuck in the middle of all of it, and Jessie's lies to cover up her bad choices just make things worse.  The result is a gripping ride with some nice twists. 

One thing I would have liked to have seen developed is Roy and Jessie's faith.  Roy, a church-goer and a short-term missionary, marries Jessie, a self-proclaimed wild child.  Does she not share his faith?  Is she a new Christian struggling with her past, or a non-Christian tolerating Roy's devotion?  What role does Roy's faith play in the choices he makes?  This is decidedly not a Billy Graham film, but since their trip to Asia starts with a short-term mission, it might have been interesting to see how their faith informs their choices.

There's a little bit of gore in Transsiberian, some shoot-em-up violence, and some intense action.  The movie's not driven by that but by the dense plotting.  I think this was direct to DVD.  It's better than many movies in the theaters, though! 

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

State of Play

Don't you love it when you pick up a movie you've never heard of, hoping that it will be decent, but knowing that most of the time you'll be disappointed, then you watch the movie and wonder why you have never heard of it because it's so much better than most of the garbage that's out there? That was my experience with State of Play.

This isn't really a new concept. An unkempt yet respectable investigative reported at a big Washington newspaper stumbles into a big, big story that reaches into the very halls of power. (By the way, I always think of Russell Crowe in Gladiator. I don't know if he put on weight for this role, or if he's just gained some weight. But he does not have an action hero physique in State of Play! Presumably he'll shape up for Robin Hood.)

Washington is agog over the latest big scandal. An aide to Representative Collins (Ben Affleck) has apparently committed suicide on the Metro tracks. When Collins breaks down at a hearing, it's quickly discovered that he was having an affair with the aide. Meanwhile, Crowe, who happens to be an old buddy of Collins, is looking into a homicide, which everyone assumes is drug related. He gets a lucky but unnerving scoop when he uncovers a seeming connection between the murder and the aide's suicide. Determined to get to the bottom of it, he drives his editor (Helen Mirren) crazy chasing down leads.

Yes, complex personal backstories, random connections, coincidental meetings, and implausible moments clutter the plot a bit. But it's all woven together in a way that kept me guessing and cheering for Crowe. I especially liked the use of the spy camera perspective, giving the impression that watchers were everywhere. And they were!

On a policy note, the question of using private contractors for domestic surveillance and Patriot Act enforcement. The story drives State of Play; this policy question is in the background, but it adds an urgency and reality to the story.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for a political thriller, but I really liked this movie. Turns out it's based on a BBC miniseries. I might have to track that down, too.

Bottom line, a strong 3 1/2 stars!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Max Payne

Video game movie adaptations are always questionable, in my mind. I remember reading in a movie review, maybe it was for a Tomb Raider movie, that watching the movie was like watching someone play the video game. I have never played the Max Payne video game; I don't guess I ever heard of it before this movie came out. (Not much of a gamer am I.) But if playing the game is anything like watching this movie, I'm sure I'd just as soon not play it. On the other hand, maybe watching someone play Max Payne would be more fun than watching this movie.

On the positive side, this movie is very visually interesting. The settings and backdrops seemed consistently simple and uncluttered, yet purposeful in the details. The action sequences were cool, too. Also on the positive, Marky Mark Wahlberg has turned into a decent actor. This role was a little one-dimensional, so he came across as wooden, but he fit the role and performed it well.

Wahlberg plays a policeman in the cold case division. He obsesses over finding the killers of his wife and child, and stumbles onto a secret military development program that produced a potent street drug with terrifying side effects. He shoots lots and lots of people.

I feel inadequate to discuss Max Payne, having never played or seen the video game. I have no idea whether it is faithful to the game or strays far from it. I would assume that the movie provides the back story for the video game, so fans of the game might like it. But the movie was not compelling enough for me to want to pick up the game or explore Max's story further.

Bottom line, 1 and a 1/2 stars.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pink Panther 2

I grew up loving Steve Martin. I wanted to be a "wild and crazy guy." I think I even had one of those arrow-through-the-head props. I also grew up watching Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panthermovies. So I admit I was predisposed to enjoy this movie.

It's been a long time since I've seen Peter Sellers's Pink Panther
movies, but it seems to me that Steve Martin has remained faithful to the spirit of those classics. His physical comedy, while probably a bit over the top compared to Sellers, definitely fits the role. He also includes plenty of the linguistic humor. I remember Sellers trying to ask the hotel clerk if he had a "message" but the clerk kept trying to tell him where he could get a "massage." In Pink Panther 2, the security password in John Cleese's office is "hamburger" but for some reason only Martin's garbled French-ish pronunciation counts.

In another fun nod to the original, Clouseau is attacked in his own apartment. Only this time it's not his manservant, but the twin sons of his colleague, Ponton (Jean Reno), who attack him with their karate moves. Oh, and I loved when Clouseau, showing off his gadgets, pulled out what looked like a micro cassette recorder. It may look like a recorder, but it is, in fact, a pen!

After a string of robberies of high-profile artifacts, an international crime-solving "dream team" is formed. Of course it includes Inpector Clouseau. Then the unthinkable happens: the Pink Panther diamond is stolen in Paris! By ignoring the obvious and stumbling around, Clouseau manages to get to the bottom of the case.

Highlights include Clouseau's sessions with Mrs. Berenger (Lily Tomlin) who tries to purge him of his sexism, racism, and political incorrectness; Clouseau's exploration at Avellaneda's house while the rest of the dream team tries to draw Avellaneda's attention away from the security cameras; and of course his destruction of the restaurant, followed by an encore on the night of the grand re-opening.

Pink Panther 2 tells a fun story, but more than that it's just laugh-out-loud fun. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Bottom line: 3 stars.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Brendan Fraser does not have a history of starring in cinematic masterpieces. He has starred in the The Mummy Trilogyand Journey to the Center of the Earth, big budget special effects vehicles. And of course who can forget the goofiness of Blast From the Pastand George of the Jungle? Not to say these movies stink, but, well, they aren't that great.

Inkheart has some of the goofiness of Fraser's other movies, and plenty of over-the-top special effects, but the cooks got the proportions right on this one. It's a tasty treat. For an action-packed adventure movie, Inkheart, ironically, is all about the power of the written word. Fraser's character, Mo, or Silvertongue, accidentally discovers that when he reads aloud, the stories begin to happen in real life. For instance, when he reads "Little Red Riding Hood" to his little girl, a red hood magically appears. Unfortunately, not all that happens is as benign as that. A few years later, while reading an adventure story called Inkheart, the villians enter the real world. Even more unfortunately for Mo's family, when someone enters our world from a book, someone from our world transports to book world. While the villains populate our world, Mo's wife lands in the book.

The story begins with Mo, now a well-known book repairer, and his daughter Meggie, now a teenager, on a search for a copy of Inkheart. In the basement of a dusty book shop in a remote mountain village, he finds one. But no sooner does he get his hands on the book than Dustfinger, one of the book's characters, confronts him and his daughter on the street. Thus begin their adventures, tracking down and confronting the villians from the book.

Capricorn, the head baddie (who, incedentally, is played by Andy Serkis, portrayer of Gollum in the The Lord of the Ringstrilogy), somehow found another reader with the skill as Mo, and has a castle and crew read for him out of various books. Capricorn's goal is to have Mo read into existence the Shadow, a dark, demonic power from Inkheart, which he thinks will bring him ultimate power. Capricorn has discovered that Mo's daughter also has the power of reading things into existence, and forces her to read passages from Inkheart. The Shadow does appear upon her reading, but unknown to Capricorn, she and Fenoglio, the author of Inkheart, have been working on alternative passages. When those run out, Meggie begins extemporizing, writing on her arm what she wants to happen, then reading it aloud. Meggie's writing, rebuking the Shadow and thwarting its destructive powers, sending him back to the book, vividly recalled spiritual warfare, in which evil is rebuked in the name of Jesus.

There are few instances when words actually have power to act. God spoke the world into creation. Jesus spoke and people were healed. We can speak his name and see people healed and demons rebuked. Inkheart does not have any explicit Christian message, but it is, on one level, a fun reminder of the power of the written word, and on a deeper level, a potent reminder that God, the author of all our stories, has given us authority through Jesus to have power over the darkness and to bring the story to our own conclusion.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I love to run. I especially like to run long distances. (For more about my running endeavors, go here.) I had heard of this movie title, and think of it frequently when I am out on a long distance run. I usually don't feel particularly lonely. Alone, but in good way. I like this title because I like the loneliness/solitude/aloneness of the long distance run.

Unfortunately, I like the title of the movie much more than I like the movie itself. Originally released in 1962, the style reflects the times. There is some quality acting, to be sure, but the editing drove me crazy. Flashbacks can, of course, be very effective in films, but here they were just jarring.

The long distance runner in question, caught in a petty burglary, gets shipped off to a reform school which looks more like a private prep school than juvenille hall. The teachers notice his speed during a soccer match and recruit him to run the distance race against a neighboring prep school. As part of his training, they entrust him with the freedom to leave the grounds and run through the countryside. The movie flashes back to the events that landed him in reform school and culminates in the big meet with the other school. I won't tell you who won.

Like I said, I didn't like the style of the movie, and am not too fond of the story, and was pretty disappointed in the ending. But one thing I LOVED about the movie: the long distance running itself. When Colin leaves the school gates and runs through the fields, his joyful running inspired me. Leaping and bounding like a deer, or, more simply, like a child at play, he runs and runs.

Oftentimes, this joy and abondonment is missing during my runs. I tend to have a goal time and pace, a pre-set schdule for the day's run, and a focus on my GPS. I want to meet certain goals, but I also want to capture that joy of running that Colin displays. It's the same kind of attitude that Christopher McDougall conveys in his book Born to Run. His accounts of the running of both the Tarahumara indians of northern Mexico and American ultrarunners beautifully convey running for the love of running.

Bottom line, for the movie alone, I'll give it 2 stars.
But for some running inspiration, it earns 4 stars.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy is an endearingly pathetic young lady who has lost her dog, Lucy. She doesn't have much cash, but is trying to make her way to Alaska. Trying to save a few bucks, she shoplifts some dog food. She's caught by a store employee and hauled off in a squad car. After spending several hours in jail, she returns to the store where Lucy was tied up outside. She's gone, of course. To make matters worse, Wendy's car has broken down. Much of the movie is Wendy trying to figure out what to do next, trying to find her dog and dealing with her car repair. There is one recognizable actor, Will Patton, who's been in a bunch of stuff. I remember seeing him on "24" recently. And Michelle Williams as Wendy is terrific. But the movie has a sort of homemade feel to it, as if the other actors are real people who just happened to be around when filming began.

Not much happens in the movie, on one level, but for Wendy it's everything. Her world is crashing down. What we never learn is why this is her world. How did a seemingly bright, resourceful young lady end up driving cross-country from Indiana with her heart set on Alaska? In one scene Wendy calls up her sister. Her brother-in-law sounds pretty sympathetic, but her sister shouts at her, accusing her of calling for money. What's the story there? I don't have a ton of sympathy for Wendy, as likable as she is. But if I knew why she was there, what was behind her trek, maybe I would feel for her more. Anyone who has ever had a dog can empathize with her when she loses Lucy, of course, but I want to know more about Wendy.

By way of explanation, this style of leaving things out seems to fit the director's style. Kelly Reichardt teaches film at Bard College. On the DVD, she included, as it says on the case, "a collection of experimental gems from the Film Faculty at Bard College." I think she must have done so to contrast with her film. They are so pointless and bizarre, it makes Wendy and Lucy, a stripped-down, low budget, pedestrian film, look like a major, special-effects-filled, plot-driven blockbuster by contrast.

I do have to mention the dog. I'd like to take her home.

Bottom line on this one: 2 stars

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Ah, the tender love a father. . . . OK, so maybe Liam Neeson's character's love for his daughter wasn't expressed so tenderly in Taken, but it certainly knew no bounds! The preview for this movie gripped me, and it didn't disappoint. It's an action movie, to be sure, but it's action driven by a father's unrelenting desire to rescue his daughter from the grips of a human trafficking ring.

Bryan Mills is an unassuming man. He sheepishly shows up at his daughter's birthday party and is treated like the hired help by his ex-wife, who married a multi-millionaire. His daughter Kim shows genuine appreciation for her dad's gift, but it is immediately overshadowed by the step-dad's gift horse, which she doesn't look in the mouth.

It turns out that Mills was in the CIA, and was serving his country abroad, leaving his wife feeling a tad neglected. So now, years later, regretting neglecting his family, Mills has quit and moved to be near his daughter in hopes of reconnecting with her. So when she begs his permission for her to travel to Paris with her friend, he swallows his better judgment and lets her. He warns her that it's not a good idea, and insists that she stay in close contact with him while she's in Europe.

Good thing, because his worst fears are realized when she's abducted immediately upon arriving at the apartment where she would be staying. I know it sounds a little far-fetched, but it's actually pretty believable. Through some quick thinking and lucky breaks, Mills gets enough information to start his one-man hunting party. Suffice it to say he is willing to kill anyone in his path to get his daughter back. And lots of people get in his path!

Often times we as parents feel helpless to provide our children with whatever they need. Whether providing daily needs, treating an illness, coping with a disability, walking through hardships, dealing with pain, or whatever they face, parents sometimes go to extreme, heroic measures to fulfill their parental responsibilities. Let Bryan Mills be an inspiration. Behind the special-forces, hand-to-hand combat, espionage skills--which few of us can relate to--is the commitment to pull out all the stops to be a parent--which every parent wants to do.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

On a side note, the world of sex trafficking is amazing and mysterious to me. Assuming the trade as presented in the movie reflects reality, there isn't a punishment bad enough for those criminals. Thankfully, some people are doing something about it. One group is the International Justice Mission. They are on the ground, putting themselves on the line, not just addressing sex trafficking, but other injustices as well.

Young @ Heart

Imagine, if you will, a choir of men and women in their 70s and up singing The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Or how about "I Feel Good" by James Brown. This group in Massachusetts pulls it off with style! This film is a documentary about a few weeks in the life of this amazing vocal group as they prepare a new show. The filmmaker captures the joy the singers get from singing and performing together. The groups director, much younger than any of the singers, doesn't coddle them and hold back in rehearsal, but is demanding and critical, pushing them as any good choir director would. The viewer sits in rehearsal with them, and gets to know many of the singers on a more personal level.

That would be enough to see, but the film goes much deeper. Not to give too much of the movie away, but, as you might expect in any group at that age, you will occasionally lose someone. If you are a movie crier, you might shed a few tears in the second half. Anyone would be inspired to see how the group responds to adversity, banding together in their love for one another and their common love of singing.

The singers of Young at Heart dispel many stereotypes about aging. They are very different from one another in many ways, and have varying levels of health and independence, but they have purpose and focus as they sing together. If I make it to 80 or 90 or more, I hope I still have a passion that will keep me going the way these folks do!

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

By the way, I picked this up because I thought they had done a Brave Combo (one of my favorite bands) cover. Turns out they do sing one of their songs, but it did not make it into the movie. But you can listen to it here, toward the bottom of the page:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Resuscitating a dormant blog

One interesting thing about blogs is that they tend to stick around. I started this one over 2 years ago, stopped adding entries after a few weeks, and abandoned it. So it's been sitting, I guess on a server somewhere, unattended, unviewed. I still watch a lot of movies, so I'll add a few more posts.