Thursday, December 29, 2005

More reviews

I saw The 40 Year-Old Virgin DVD recently, so I thought I'd weigh in with a review. In this movie, Andy Stitzer (played by Steve Carrell) leads a dull life. He works behind a desk at a chain electronics store. He lives alone. He plays the tuba, reads comic books, collects action figures, and rides his bike to work. Andy has few friends, and he spends most of his time at home, alone.

One night, some of the guys Andy works with invite him to their poker group. (They are short one person, so they need someone to fill in.) During the evening of card playing, Andy's new friends find out that Andy is a virgin. Of course, everyone at the store immediately knows, and everyone wants to try and hook Andy up with someone to help him to lose his virginity.

But here's the thing that makes the story interesting. Andy doesn't want to have sex with just ANYONE. He turns down the store manager and a tipsy bimbo he picks up at a bar. Andy has his sights set on Trish (played by Catherine Keener), a pretty single mom who sells trinkets on ebay. The story of their romance makes for a funny, warm, and ultimately satisfying ending to Andy's adventure.

First of all, let me say that I am not usually a fan of bawdy comedies. Scatalogical humor usually does nothing for me. However, I thought this was a great movie, largely due to the performance of Steve Carrell and the script. (There were a few bathroom scenes that made me cringe, but I can get over that because the rest of the content is good.) First of all, Carrell's character is actually somewhat believable (exaggerated, perhaps, but believable), and Carrell can actually ACT. I thought he did a good job creating Andy's persona, someone who has resigned himself to the fact that he may never have sex, and who tries to live his life without the kind of intimacy that most of us take for granted. Secondly, Andy's cadre of friends from work all turn in strong performances, and they all have subplots of their own. (David, played by Paul Rudd, is getting over a brief relationship. Jay, played by Romany Malco, cheats on his girlfriend but cowers before her.) What results is an engaging ensemble comedy. Language, nudity, and adult situations are found throughout the film, so it is only recommended for adult audiences.

I've also recently finished reading Blue Like Jazz, a fascinating book by Donald Miller. Miller writes with a refreshing honesty and humility about Christian spirituality. This is not the kind of book I think of when I think of religious writing, but it may just be the most spiritual book I've ever read. Miller writes without filtering his thoughts and feelings through the ideology of the modern Christian church. His main messages seem to be that God wants us to love everyone. And he really means everyone - hippies, drug addicts, homeless people, Democrats, homosexuals. Miller is incredulous that today's church metes out its love to only those that follow its prescribed rules. He says in many passages that he feels the modern church judges people instead of loving them. Miller illustrates this assertion with stories about a motley group of his own friends and acquaintances, including Andrew the Protestor (a human-rights and environmental activist), Tony the Beat Poet, and Pastor Rick.

Miller's second main point is that we as Christians needs to wean ourselves from the intense self-addiction that most of us have experienced for our entire lives. Miller maintains that most people spend the majority of their time looking after themselves - feeding themselves, grooming themselves, working to earn money so they can satisfy their own needs and wants. I think this is one of the most true observations I have ever heard. We ARE addicted to pleasing ourselves. While Miller believes that we should love ourselves, he maintains that it is only when we think outside of ourselves and put the needs of others above ourselves that we are truly experiencing Christ-like love.

What I liked most about this book is that Miller is not self-righteous. He doesn't claim to have all the answers. He seems to believe that we can (and should) all break bread together. He thinks that the most effective witness for Christians is to love everyone, including (and perhaps especially) non-Christians, without trying to "sell" them on the idea of Jesus. I like it that Miller doesn't consider Jesus to be a product that he has to peddle on every street corner. Miller advocates loving people unconditionally as a powerful way to introduce them to Christ - they see Christ in you. I will be checking into Miller more in the coming weeks. He's definitely a Christian voice that I find myself identifying with.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Snowed in

I've been holed up for at least some of this holiday season, catching up on movie-watching and book-reading.

Last week, I got the chance to see Hitch, starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, and Amber Valetta. In this movie, Alex Hitchens (Smith) serves as a "date doctor" for men looking to impress the women they love. Alex helps men show themselves off to their best advantage during their first three dates. "Hitch," as he is called, believes that the first three dates, and particularly the first kiss, become a yardstick by which women measure where a relationship is going. Hitch primarily tries to help (mostly bumbling) men put their best foot forward with his advice, although his specialty seems to be getting women to notice their admirers for the first time. He even helps shy accountant Albert Brennaman (James) catch the attention of famous actress Allegra Cole (Valetta).

All of Hitch's advice seems to fall flat when he meets Sara Melas (Mendes), a gossip columnist for a local newspaper. After two disastrously bad dates, however, the two seem to have developed a mutual liking for one another. Once Sara begins to suspect Hitch's profession, though, the relationship goes steeply downhill. It will take all of Hitch's charms, as well as a (literal) leap of faith, to find out what love really is all about.

I thought this was a light, fun, predictable movie. All of the characters are likable and entertaining, particularly Kevin James as Albert Brennaman. (James does alot of cute physical comedy, and besides, I just like the guy.) It would be a great date flick, and there are happy endings all around. Not much harsh language, and no sex scenes to speak of. (The movie lives up to its PG13 rating.)

I also FINALLY saw Maria Full of Grace. Wow. While a bit of a downer at times, I found this movie fascinating and, ultimately, hopeful. Maria lives in Columbia, and she works long, humiliating hours at a flower plantation. She chafes under the supervision of her pompous supervisor, but her family needs her checks to pay for necessities such as medicine. After a particularly difficult day, Maria finally quits her job. Her sister (who, incidentally, doesn't even have a job) is thrown into an uproar. Shortly thereafter, Maria meets Franklin, a silver-tongued young man who is involved in the country's illicit drug trade, at a party. Franklin promises Maria big bucks and the chance to travel if she will serve as a drug mule, smuggling cocaine into America. Maria, who has recently discovered that she is pregnant, makes a desperate grab at the opportunity.

This was a very powerful film. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays Maria, turns in a truly star performance. Although the situations Maria is faced with are definitely high-stakes, Moreno never overacts or emotes. Maria is a thinker. She considers her decisions; even though most of her options are unpleasant, she weighs them carefully. Moreno portrays this measured quality wonderfully. I highly recommend this film. It's filmed in Spanish, with subtitles, but the performances are so good that you'll hardly notice. No nudity, some language, and very gritty material in some scenes.

Lastly, I just finished reading The Bad Girl's Guide to the Open Road, by Cameron Tuttle. A friend lent me this small, pink book because she thought I might enjoy reading it over the holiday. It's a fun, comedic chick book. The book encourages girls to get out of the ruts in their lives and hit the road. Packing light, eating junk, picking up cute hitchikers, and taking wild friends are must-dos, according to Tuttle. While most of the book's suggestions (such as using marshmallows to plug a muffler hole or jam a parking meter) are totally implausible, they do provide a few laughs. Not on my must-read list, but a nice, quick little book if you need a light pick-me-up.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Girls can be so mean

I finally got around to watching Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan, this weekend. In this movie, unaware Cady (Lohan) who has been home-schooled in Africa, is plunked down in a suburban high school because her parents think she may benefit from "socialization." Cady is quickly adopted by a clique of girls known as The Plastics, some of the most beautiful and popular girls in school. The group's leader, Regina George (Rachel McAdams), is a rich, gorgeous, and vengeful teenager. When Cady expresses interest in hunky Aaron, who happens to be Regina's ex-boyfriend, Regina immediately renews her relationship with him. With the help of some of her other friends, Cady immediately decides to retaliate.

I liked this film for its unflinching look at high school politics and popularity. The girls are obsessed with weight gain, clothing, gossip, and what their peers think of them, which doesn't sound too far off from my own high school experience. Mean Girls also explores the hierarchy of high school, with Regina lording power over her clique, and other students looking up to her because of her beauty, wealth, and position. Primarily, the movie tries to show how cruel girls can be to each other. Cady's mean friends turn out to be her own worst enemies.

Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live fame wrote the screenplay for the movie, based on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. She also stars as the school's divorced, overworked math teacher Ms. Norbury. Fellow SNL cast members Amy Poehler (as Regina's youth-obesessed mother) and Tim Meadows (as the school's beleaguered principal) also add spice.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Studio gripe.

Ok, I have a little vent that I have to share with you. I realize that Oscar competition is fierce, and I understand that studios want their Oscar-quality movies fresh in the minds of Academy members when they vote for the annual awards. However, it irritates me to no end that movie studios hold back their best films, their Oscar-worthy work, all year. THEN, during the holiday season, when movie-goers are busy, when they are wrapping gifts and putting up decorations, when they are already overcommitted with parties and social activites, when they are broke from buying presents and hams and garland, when they are exhausted, THEN the studios decide to release their best films, all at once.

Where were these gems back in June, when Herbie: Fully Loaded was being foisted on the movie-going public? Where was Walk the Line or The Chronicles of Narnia the weekend that Beauty Shop opened?

So what happens is, I'm already running all over town preparing for Christmas and attending the various holiday parties being given. I'm tired, I'm counting my pennies, and I have very little free time to speak of. OF COURSE this is when every movie I want to see is released. And then the industry has the GALL to wonder aloud why people don't come to movies anymore. Humph. Well, if they'd plan their schedules more for the public than for Academy voters, they might be getting a bigger market share. There, I said it. It may not be accurate (I'm sure some industry insider could give us several paragraphs on why my above gripe is unfounded.), but that's how I feel.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Up in the air.

I finally got around to seeing The Aviator this week. While I wouldn't call it one of my favorite movies, I did enjoy it. Of course, the stand out of the cast was Leonardo DiCaprio, who did a wonderful job portraying legendary millionaire, filmmaker, and aviator Howard Hughes. The film focuses on Hughes' early life, when he filmed Hell's Angels and The Outlaw. (Thankfully, the film closes before the period of his life in which Hughes became a total recluse, addicted to drugs, wasting away, and suffering from various crippling phobias.) The film also pays some lip service to Hughes' work in the field of aviation, his endless quest for bigger, better planes, and congressional committee hearings that kept Pan Am from being named America's only international air carrier.

I am a huge fan of Katherine Hepburn, and Cate Blanchette, while she certainly doesn't look the part, did seem to capture her personality and way of speaking. The relationship between Hughes and Hepburn was a central one in the film, and Blanchette and DiCaprio played it with warmth and tenderness. For their performances alone, this film is worth watching.

Overall, I think this is a period piece, and Scorcese and his team did a deft job of capturing the period with costumes, sets, props, and styling. Though a pretty long movie, fun casting surprises (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and Alec Baldwin as Juan Tripp, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) keep it interesting.

Also, I finally finished reading The Sun Also Rises this week. It's written in the usual, stripped-down style of Hemingway, and it tells the story of several dissolute expatriate friends making their way around Europe. The narrator, Jake Barnes, is a war veteran with a unique injury that has rendered him impotent. The woman he loves, a beautiful noblewoman named Brett Ashley, craves a physical love that he can't provide, throwing them both into the agony of wanting what they can't have. The two leg it around Paris and Spain with an odd collection of friends, which includes a rather annoying Jewish writer and Ashley's drunk, broke fiancee.

I didn't actually like this book, but I kept reading it because I wanted to finish it. All of the characters seem to be alcoholics, and they seem to lead lives bankrupt of any real meaning. I didn't really like any of the characters, and I kept wondering why Ashley and Barnes didn't get together. (I mean, he's impotent, but surely they could physically satisfy each other in some way. It seems rather foolish to throw away what could be true love just because the physical aspect takes some work.)

Although I realize that this is considered a classic, I finished it feeling largely unsatisfied. (Which, perhaps, was the point.) Although the book isn't particularly long, it takes a while to read it. The plot doesn't move quickly. Anyway, I've read it now, but I don't think I'll read any more Hemingway for a while.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Two's Company

I watched In Good Company, starring Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid, last week. Wow.

In this film, Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), a happily married man with two daughters, is demoted from his job as a magazine ad sales director when his publication is purchased by a larger company. Serving as his new boss is Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), an upstart 26 year-old with little practical experience in ad sales. Making matters more complicated, Foreman's daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson) wants to transfer to NYU (a much more expensive school than SUNY, where she was previously taking classes), and he's just found out that he has another child on the way. Duryea's own life is no less complicated. His wife has just left him, and he knows that he's not quite qualified for his new job. When Careter meets Alex, he almost immediately falls for her, and the two must keep the relationship secret from her father. What results is a wrenchingly true portrait of human relationships.

What can I say about Dennis Quaid? First of all, he still looks great. And throughout his career, the guy has kept working. He turns in a great performance in this movie. His character deals with alot of difficult situations, and Quaid allows the viewer to see how Foreman struggles with many of his decisions. But Foreman always acts with the kind of touching, good-guy grace that endears you to him. I thought that overall, this was Quaid's film. He really shines in it, displaying all of the acting chops he's gained in a long career of experience. Topher Grace is wonderful as well as the smooth-talking, ambitious Carter Duryea, who suffers from loneliness and an aimlessness that he can't, at first, comprehend. Scarlett Johansson, as Alex, also offers a subtle performance. Some of her work near the end of the film is really exceptional.

This is not necessarily an uplifting movie. The characters are, by turns, depressed, hopeless, scared, annoyed. But life is messy. And this movie portrays real life, with all of its uncomfortable realities. While the film does not end on a depressing note, all of the character's struggles are not wrapped up in a neat little bow. Some ambiguity is evident in the ending.

This would be a good film for teens, as there is no nudity and little language. There are also no graphic love scenes.