Saturday, July 27, 2013

This is not another lousy TRANSFORMERS!!

Though most of the summer blockbusters have busted from overload and hype, there is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: Guillermo del Toro's epic monster vs. monster robot PACIFIC RIM. Why? If you have seen del Toro's visionary masterpiece PAN'S LABYRINTH, then you know why. If you have not, SEE IT! It' s a magnificent combination of fairy tale, the Spanish Civil War, and a little girl who treads the thin line between the two. Del Toro's creative make-up for the various creatures in the labyrinth are both horrific and sublime, and this is brought to a gigantic scale in PACIFIC RIM.

It seems the threat from outer space has turned to monsters from the deep, as in "prehistoric" creatures featured in Japanese movies eons ago. So we get to see Mothra, Godzilla, and dozens of others of their ilk, but the fun surprise is seeing so many variations of the great designs for the ALIEN series. Del Toro uses these creatures freshly and drops in amazing details, some for laughs, some for clues. The movie itself is spectacularly beautiful, every shot flooded with lush colors of hope (mostly blues) and reds and oranges (guess what).

Believe it or not, there are human beings in PACIFIC RIM, played by talented actors. Idris Elba (THE WIRE) is a powerful presence as the head of the robot program with dark secrets. Rinko Kikuchi (who won an Oscar nomination for BABEL) plays a pilot whose family was killed during an earlier attack. She is mesmerizing as her mind melds with her co-pilot's (Charlie Hunnam) during battle.
PACIFIC RIM should appeal to more than teen age boys and sci-fi fanatics. It's got beauty, horror, and great visual impact. In comparison to the other blockbusters in the last few years, PACIFIC RIM is a Delacroix gone wild, while the rest are colorless sketches.

A footnote: If you are not watching CBS's knockout series of Stephen King's UNDER THE DOME, then get with it. Don't start in the middle. Go back and stream the earlier episodes from the beginning. Each one is a gem, and each ends in suspense and directions you never expect. The characters trapped under this suspicious huge dome are good, bad, and both, and they are all played by talented, forceful actors, young and old. It's not often when a network presents an intelligent and mysterious thriller and makes it work.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Every summer or so, we are lucky to get a respite from all the special effects disaster films. Usually the Brits do the honors, but occasionally America comes through (think back to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE). This year it's THE WAY WAY BACK,           
a low key comic drama about a family vacation to a beach house owned by an obnoxious control freak Trent, played to the nastiest hilt by Steve Carrell). Steve is wooing recent divorcee Betty ( Toni Collette), who is emotionally fragile and just wants taking care of. Her 14 year old son Duncan is resistant to his potential new dad, especially after he sees how he manipulates him and his Mom.

But help is on the way. One day Duncan finds himself at an old water park run by some engaging slackers, and his new job at the park and friendships with his fellow employees change his life. It's wonderful to see young actor Liam James inhabit the part of Duncan. When we first see him in the back of Trent's station wagon he is hunched into himself and looks like Hamlet as a young teen, but Owen, a punchy, punny manager, pulls Duncan out of his slump and shows him the pleasures of summer. Owen is played by Sam Rockwell with a relish that takes no prisoners. Sure, he's a thirtyish adolescent, but there's real caring within. This is NOT the usual Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler approach. There's also a spot-on comic turn by Allison Janey as a tipsy neighbor. She practically steals the movie. You can't wait for to come back on.

There are a few contrived moments in the film, but THE WAY WAY BACK is a family film that deserves a big audience. It's funny without being crude, it's loving without being mawkish, and it's beautifully acted and directed. SEE IT!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What to read? What to read!

Summer is the time to read; in fact, anytime is the time to read, especially for avid readers who like fine stories and stylistic flourishes. One intriguing novel is Meg Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS, an involving story that begins with a group of teens at a free-thinking arts camp. Their summers in the wilds include any artsy projects they choose, including extra-curriculars. The main character is Jules Jacobson, a decidely middle class girl who wants to be special. She's witty and is quickly accepted into a group who dub themselves "the Interestings," because of their upper class creds as well as many talents. The novel follows these friends through the next 30 years. While Ethan Figman grows up to create a smash tv show (Think Simpsons) and marries the beautiful and sensitive Ash Wolf, the shy but talented Jonah Bay whose life is thwarted by his childhood experiences flounders as an adult. And there is Ash's charismatic brother Goodman Wolf. You symbol hunters can do wonders with that name. The group sticks together, despite the large differences in life styles and wealth, and Jules marries a good but ordinary man Dennis. No more specifics, folks, because these friends go through some rough times, and they discover that though they may be interesting they're not always so "special." Wolitzer's ability to make an obvious theme more than just interesting pulls the reader through a complex but always compelling story. Some go off the deep end and recover, and some just keep falling. It's a journey well worth taking.

Colum McCann's new novel TRANSATLANTIC is reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's brilliant historical novel of 1975, in which the writer places an upper class white family, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter and a doomed black couple in the events from 1910 to the entrance into World War I, so that the fictional characters intermingle with the likes of Harry Houdini, Jacob Astor, Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, the girl in the red velvet swing Evelyn Nesbitt, and many more.
TRANSATLANTIC is far less fantastical but just as absorbing.
McCann links seemingly unrelated events with the trials of an
Irish maid and her descendants. We witness, along with a female reporter and her photographer daughter, the first transatlantc flight from Newfoundland to Ireland; the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland just as the potato famine begins; and Sen. George Mitchell's trip to Ireland to conclude the Good Friday Accords. In a fascinating tour de force, McCann pulls all of this and more into a moving, transformative novel.

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is a tricky (in a good way) novel about a upper middle class family in the years from before the Great War until after World War II. Ursula Todd dies again and again but lives alternate lives until she is an old woman. Atkinson suggests that we have possible outcomes depending on our choices or elements beyond our control. The Todd family is an array of sympathetic (except for the oldest son) people with flaws that often define them. Ursula has always been the odd one out, since she seems to have a second sight about the future and others' fates, but rarely a clue about her own. Atkinson, who wrote the complex and entertaining Jackson Brodie mysteries, handles all of these themes with grace, empathy and wit.

I recommend all three, but TRANSATLANTIC is the top choice.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Minority Report....Me Likum Kemosabe!!

With apologies to any group that is offended by my above title, I would like to recommend THE LONE RANGER (or in real terms, THE LONE TONTO with his sidekick, a really slow white marshall). The critics have been merciless in comparing this one to last year's megabombs BATTLESHIP and JOHN CARTER. Nonsense!  THE LONE RANGER, though 30 minutes too long, is a rough and tumble western with enough chases, gunfights, train crashes, and laughs to satisfy 13 year old boys and action movie buffs in their 70's.

Much of the old tv and radio shows' mythology remains, but this version makes Tonto the real force, both for ideas, action, and laughs. Some of the jokes are cornball, but many of the visual jokes and repartee between Tonto and the Lone Ranger are hilarious. I was with a family audience on Sunday, and they seemed to love this new take. The plot is fairly loose, as is the geography. Did you know that Monument Valley is in Texas? Did you know that the first cross-continental railway was in Texas? Did you know that the Arizona Indian cliff dwellings were in Texas? Hmmm. Did Rick Perry produce this movie?
But I dither. An unscrupulous railman wants to use the railway to ship silver to San Francisco, he also wants to kill Texas Rangers and blame it on Comanches, and he wants to steal the heroine and her son for his own.

Why Monument Valley? This movie is in love with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS and even uses scenes from the greatest western ever. We have the raid on the homesteaders with the same sounds and red sunset; we pass the same rock formations again and again; and we have the Search for kidnapped white woman and child. Homage to John Ford aside, these are impressive vistas. And we even have the famous LONE RANGER THEME when the marshall becomes the MAN. There are train wrecks, bridge collapses, Silver carrying the Lone Ranger across moving trains, et al. And all of this is accompanied by humorous asides mostly from Johnny Depp's Tonto. So, if you're looking for a rousing good ride, take on THE LONE RANGER.