Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I go out walkin' after midnight.

I saw Walk the Line, starring Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, last weekend. It was a fabulous film. While the movie tells the tale of Johnny Cash's rise to fame, I thought Reese Witherspoon was the real star of the picture. She fully realized June Carter as a sassy, strong woman who was gun-shy after being burned by love and the judgement of her fans. She won a Golden Globe for her performance last night, and I heartily hope she is recognized by the Academy as well. Both Witherspoon and Phoenix sing all of their songs in the film, and I thought they both did a great job. Their portrayal of a relationship the blossoms slowly, over time, is beautiful. The film follows Cash from his childhood in rural Arkansas, through his service in the armed forces, and eventually to his music and recording career. The main focus seemed to be his relationship with Carter, who saved him from his addictions and proved to him that he was worth loving. I enthusiastically recommend this movie.

I also recently saw The Pacifier, starring Vin Diesel as Shane Wolf, a Navy SEAL who is tasked with guarding the four children of a mudered scientist. Wolf's real agenda is to somehow recover a copy of a top-secret program that the scientist was working on when he was murdered. Well, what can I say about this movie? It was VERY predictable. I could call out who was evil and who was good in the first five minutes. Also, it was quite cliche. The jokes, the sight gags, the plot - it's all been done before, in one way or another. Some of the lines are laughable, and not in a good way. On the up side, it did show Vin Diesel in another light, something that his career probably needs if he ever expects to break out of the action/adventure roles that he's typecast in. Brad Garrett, unfortunately, played the wrestling coach at the local high school. He was more than a little over-the-top, and it all fell flat. I give this movie one and half stars.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Pretty hairy

I saw two movies this past weekend: Syriana and King Kong.

First, Syriana. I thought this was a great film, although I found it very difficult to watch at times (and not just the torture scene - OUCH). The way the movie was written reminded me a little bit of Traffic. Several different characters are introduced, and the viewer watches as their story lines weave together. The story is basically all over the map, but this is the very quality that allows the audience to realize how everything is connected with everything else. For example, Prince Nasir (played by Alexander Siddig) is the heir apparent to an oil-rich middle eastern country. Instead of kowtowing to the United States, he signs natural gas drilling rights away to the Chinese, who offered a more attractive bid than the Americans. Educated at Georgetown, Prince Nasir has forward-thinking ideas about how to advance his country, improve its infrastructure, and help his people. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) works for an energy trading company in Europe. Through a tragic event, Woodman and Prince Nasir become confidantes, and Woodman offers Nasir thoughts on how to implement his somewhat revolutionary ideas.

In the meantime, the merger of two major energy companies in the United States prompts a government investigation. Because of Prince Nasir's preference for the Chinese, the company naturally prefers his younger brother to take the throne rather than him, and they exert their considerable resources (including members of a top law firm) to try and make that happen. Shakeups at the company cause workers to be laid off in the Middle East, resulting in alot of young Arab men out of work. Alternative work is nowhere to be found. Two of the young men are subsequently drawn into the world of religious radicalism, and they eventually become terrorists.

Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is a battle-hardened CIA agent who has a specialty in the Middle East. Barnes is hired to assassinate Prince Nasir (in order to protect the U.S. oil interests in the region), but the plan goes horribly awry. The end of the film culminates in a tragic death.

While all of the performances and production values are of high quality, what makes this movie tick is the feeling that you're being let in on something both tangled and secret. Syriana is fascinating, delving into a complex web of variables that influence foreign policy, the rulers of sovereign nations, prices at the pump, politics, and the clandestine practices of the United States. I found it so interesting that I went out and got See No Evil, the book that the movie is based on. More on that when I finish it.

King Kong was equally thrilling. I thought that, for the most part, director Peter Jackson got everything right. First of all, the ape was absolutely amazing. Incredible realism, thanks in large part to Andy Serkis, who helped lend him the kind of physicality that made Gollum come to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (I noticed that Jackson hired many of the technicians he worked with on Lord of the Rings for this film. Good call. The production values were incredibly high.) Secondly, Jackson had the foresight to cast real actors in what basically could have been strictly a special effects movie. Naomi Watts, in particular, was luminescent as Anne Darrow. The sunlight on her wondrous face delivered some of the most moving moments in the entire movie. (And knowing that she was drumming up intense fear, amazement, and heartbreak by probably looking at nothing more than a green screen makes me appreciate her abilities even more.) Jack Black is imminently detestable as movemaker Carl Denham, and Adrien Brody rounds out the cast as playwright Jack Driscoll.

This movie is long, like, three hours long, but you won't notice it. Early scenes are filled with exposition, Denham's madness to complete his film, and Darrow's relationship with Driscoll. Once our crew lands on Skull Island, the plot picks up considerably. The natives (which are not portrayed in a particularly favorable light, I'm afraid) offer Darrow up as a sacrifice to Kong, and the brave crew decides to travel inland to rescue her. This is where the movie slowed down a bit. The scenes with Darrow and Kong were delightful, but the scenes of the following rescue party got a bit tiresome. I mean, how many creepy jungle creatures can we be expected to endure? One after another, after another, after another. Okay, we get it. The jungle is full of creepy crawlies. And then, there is an absolutely crazy scene between Kong and, not one, not two, but THREE Tyrannosaurus Rexes. Please. It got to be a bit too much for me, so I took a bathroom break.

By the time I got back, the story was moving along again. Darrow is rescued, and Kong is drugged into a stupor so that he can be taken back to the mainland. Once there, he is put on display for the entertainment of city-dwellers. However, he escapes his chains, finds Ann once again, and makes his way to the top of the Empire State Building. The final scenes of the movie, between Kong and Ann, are some of the best in the film.

I cannot tell you how important it is to go see this film in the theatre. We sat very close to the screen, with Kong practically breathing down our necks. Thrilling! And of course, I was a total puddle when Kong fell to his demise at the end of the movie. It was all beautifully done, and obviously created by people who have a great affection for the story of King Kong. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Singin' and drinkin'

I love champagne with my gospel! The Mississippi Museum of Art will host a Champagne Gospel Brunch in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 16, 2006 at 10:30 a.m. The event will feature comments by Mike Espy and music by the Port Gibson Heritage Singers. This event also offers a great opportunity to see some of the exhibitions the museum has on display - Backbone: Dean Mitchell's Images of African-American Men or Kathleen Varnell: Recent Transitions in Clay.

Space is limited, so if you want in, you have to call 601-960-1515 by January 12 to make reservations. Cost is $15 per person.

Looking forward, looking back

Well, it's been about a year since I started blogging, so I thought it might be a good time to take stock. My original intent for this blog was to keep up with my physical activity and start a fitness support group online. WOW, has THAT fallen by the wayside! Ironically enough, though, this has been a fairly good year for me, fitness-wise. I have consistently gone to the gym, with no long absences from the treadmill and stairclimber, and I must say that I'm feeling pretty fit these days.

Even better, I've read alot of great books and watch alot of great movies. I've had many a delectable dinner and seen my fair share of fun live productions. I've hiked the Grand Canyon, seen the red rocks of Sedona, and slurped down a prickly pear margarita. And I've met alot of cool people along the way. What more could a woman want?

So I say - thank God for the old year, and bring it on in the new one!

Monday, January 02, 2006

What's up, doc?

I made this carrot cake recipe for some friends who came to lunch last week. The original recipe was for a sheet cake, but I made cupcakes instead. (Just cut the cooking time by about half.) I also halved the recipe, with no adverse results. (The recipe below makes ALOT of cake.) Moist and delicious!

Carrot Sheet Cake
Cooking spray
9 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 cups finely shredded carrot
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 13x19 inch baking pan with cooking spray; line bottom of pan with wax paper. Coat wax paper with cooking spray; set aside.

Place butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed for 5 minutes or until well-blended. Add eggs and egg whites, one at a time, beating well after each addition until pale and fluffy. Beat in 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.

Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix after each addition. Stir in carrot, raisins, and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Sharply tap on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack, remove from pan. Carefully peel off wax paper; cool completely on wire rack.

** My notes - the original recipe, from Cooking Light Magazine, did not include the raisins and walnuts, but I think they make an excellent addition. Also, the original recipe also had a cream cheese frosting recipe to go with it. While I think the cake/cupcakes could benefit from frosting, the recipe they gave for it was a clunker. I'd rather have it plain and save the calories! Lastly, I just put paper liners in the cupcake pan, and the little cakes came out fine. (No cooking spray for me!)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Remembering the Alamo

I saw The Alamo this week, and I left it with mixed feelings. The film tells the story of the 1836 battle at the Alamo. (The structure was initially built as a mission, but, because of its strategic location and sturdy construction, it was usually used as a fort.) The Alamo comes under seige by Santa Ana's Mexican army. Far out numbered and cut off from help, a handful of soldiers and volunteers, which include American legends Davy Crockett (played by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jim Bowie (played by Jason Patric), brace for a fight to the death. The Mexican army, several thousand strong, storm the Alamo, and all within perish. Sam Houston (played by Dennis Quaid) eventually exacts vengeance for the losses suffered at the Alamo, granting Santa Ana his own life in return for Texas, thus ending the struggle for Texas' independence.

First of all, because I am certainly not an expert on the history of Texas, I can't vouch for every jot and tittle of the film's historical accuracy. Because the legend of the Alamo is so well known, however, and because its story is so inherently dramatic, I did find that the plot resonated with me as an American. The star of the film is clearly Billy Bob Thornton, in a layered turn as Davy Crockett. The script for this movie cleverly casts Crockett as a man struggling to live up to his own image. Scenes in which Crockett admits that he can't turn tail and run (and much later, when he refuses to "surrender" to Santa Ana) because of his reputation are some of the best in the film. In fact, most of my favorite scenes were those in which Crockett took center stage. He makes a heartbreaking fireside confession to some of the men one evening, and he also shines in fiddle-playing scenes. Honestly, if the movie had been more about Crockett and his experience at the Alamo, I think it would have been a better, tighter film.

As it was, I felt some of the other characters (in what perhaps was meant to be an ensemble cast) did little for me. Jason Patric as Jim Bowie came closest to being a rounded, developed character, but didn't quite make it. William Travis (played by Patrick Wilson) was probably next in line. Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston wasn't given much to work with, script-wise, but he did his best. All in all, I thought the focus of the movie was too broad. For example, it might have behooved the film more to focus on fewer main characters and perhaps end with the fall of the Alamo, and then have white script on a black screen to explain how Houston's army triumphed over Santa Ana shortly thereafter.

Anyway, there is some language and much rather graphic battle violence in this film, so I wouldn't recommend it for families or young viewers. (I can't believe it was rated PG13. Even I had to cover my eyes at points, and I'm almost 30!) More than anything, I took away from this film a real desire to visit the Alamo and remember the men who died there. I would love to see it with my own eyes.