Marley and Me

By John Grogan

Ever since Juliette and I got our dog, Cooper, people have been telling us that we had to read Marley and Me. Juliette finally got around to it as part of her annual summer reading kick and convinced me to pick it up next. After V, I needed something easy to read that would get me emotionally involved. Well, this fit that bill perfectly. I'm always a little suspicious of bestsellers, but this was just great.

As a dog owner, there was a lot I found familiar, both in the highs and lows of Grogan's life with Marley. Cooper isn't anywhere near as neurotic as Marley, but he has had some bad times, and in Marley's antics I could recognize some echoes of Cooper's worse moments. And, likewise, the joy of having such a loving, faithful companion is something that, I think, all dog lovers will recognize.

It's strange how having a dog has changed my outlook on this sort of thing. Just a couple of years ago, I don't think that I would really have connected with this book. All of this dog stuff just seemed a little silly to me. And now? Well, I can tell you that by the end of this book I was literally bawling.

Marley and Me was hilarious and heartwarming in turn, and I have to agree that it's a must-read for any dog lover--assuming there are any left who haven't already read it.

Started: 7/12/2008 | Finished: 7/20/2008

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The Dark Knight

So, as usual, this review is very late. So late that surely everyone who wants to see it must have done so. I do have a good excuse this time, though. But enough of that--what did I think of the movie? Well, I have to say, I had very high expectations going in and I was not disappointed.

Naturally, most of the buzz surrounding this film centered around Heath Ledger, it being his last completed film. And, indeed, his performance as the Joker was simply amazing. Nicholson's Joker (in Tim Burton's Batman) certainly must have been a shock to people who were used to seeing Cesar Romero in the old TV show. But as far as Nicholson took his performance, Ledger did that much more with his Joker. The amazing--and kind of scary--thing about Ledger's Joker is that he seems so plausible. And that plausibility is, in part, what makes The Dark Knight seem like less a superhero movie than a thriller that just happens to have a superhero in it.

I think that difference in tone is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. I mean, we're all getting a little sick of the superhero thing, I think. There have just been too many of them in the past few years, and they're all kind of running together. It's mostly the same combination of special effects and superhero angst. So, seeing a movie like this one where the film doesn't really revolve around the title character is quite a breath of fresh air.

What else. I have tended to like Aaron Eckhart in the other movies I've seen him in, and I continue to like him in this one. (Just a note, the rest of this paragraph will contain some mild spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the Batman universe.) He did particularly well in this one leading up to his change into Two-Face, giving his performance just the right touch to show us an bright, upstanding District Attorney while hinting at what he will become. Unfortunately, he didn't really manage the transition into villain quite as well--his wrath at the end of the movie just came off as a little cartoonish.

As usual, Michael Caine was a pleasure to watch, and if Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal were good without being great, that's OK because the movie wasn't really focused on them. (It really only disappoints at all just because I've seen both of them do really amazing stuff in the past.) Similarly, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman got the job done and I can't find any flaws with their work here, but they also didn't particularly wow me--which they shouldn't have.

This is the last movie I saw before my son was born, which means it'll be the last one I see in the theaters for a while. I'm glad that I'm ending this run on such a high note.

Viewed: 7/19/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: A

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Mamma Mia!

I'm really disappointed that I saw this as a movie before I saw it on stage. Mamma Mia! has been one of Juliette's favorite musicals since she first saw it in London, eight years ago. (She's since seen it three more times.) So it's no surprise that she was excited about the film. Still, I was a little apprehensive, as I often am about film adaptations of stage musicals. After all, I just about died laughing when I saw Jason Alexander and Martin Short in the L.A. production of The Producers, but the movie version was so lame I hardly cracked a smile. As it turned out, I was right to be suspicious.

One of the biggest obstacles to successfully adapting a stage musical to film is that acting styles are so different between stage and screen. On stage, everything tends to be big, from movements and facial expressions to tone of voice. On the other hand, the camera can capture every tiny detail, so performances tend to be much more subtle and realistic. But subtle and realistic don't work well in a genre where people burst into song out of nowhere. Back in the days of, say, The Sound of Music, film actors were much more presentational in their performances, and, besides, Technicolor just didn't look much like real life. Nowadays, though, a movie has to actually work to be that way. When you look at films like Moulin Rouge or Chicago you see a much more stylized approach to the visuals and performances. Even films that take a more realistic style like, say, Rent or Hairspray, still have a feeling of fantasy to them. Mamma Mia! just didn't have that, and most noticeable way that affected the movie was to make the songs stick out like sore thumbs. That could have been alleviated with some better film and sound editing, but, unfortunately, it wasn't. Especially in the first half of the movie, the songs all just kind of came out of nowhere. It was very jarring.

Another problem? Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. What's more, he knows it. Man, there is little that is more uncomfortable than watching someone sing who knows he's doing a bad job. I respect Brosnan as an actor, but I really think he needs to stick to non-singing parts from now on.

And, of course, as always, I couldn't stand Meryl Streep. Here's an actress who is completely aware of the degree to which she is praised, and it comes out in every moment of her performances. There are few performers I've seen who seem more self-indulgent.

But, despite all that, it wasn't all bad. Juliette and I both particularly liked Amanda Seyfriend, who played Sophie, the girl looking for her father. As Juliette put it, she was "the perfect blend of beautiful and cute." I couldn't agree more--she was just radiant in this film, and her performance had this youthful exuberance that was delightful. What's more, she was an excellent singer, by far the best in the show.

Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were also quite good, and while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard were both shaky on the vocals, they did alright and were fun to watch.

So, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed this movie, but I got a sense of what the stage play must be like and I'm sure it's much better. Hopefully, having seen the film first won't have ruined it for me.

Viewed: 7/18/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: C+

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By Thomas Pynchon

This may be the best book I've ever read that I didn't like. Thomas Pynchon is described by some as the one of the world's greatest contemporary writers, which piqued my interest. And his reputation for dense prose didn't scare me too much, after all, I adore Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gene Wolfe. So, I figured, what the hell? Well, over five months passed before I was done with V, and despite the fact that the book was beautifully written, it was a real slog. I just didn't connect with it. Most of the time I didn't even really know what was going on. Individual lines or even entire scenes would be great, but seemed to have only the most tenuous connection to the rest of the book. Things just happened, for no apparent reason and with no apparent direction. I think that was likely the point--after all, life is, for the most part, aimless and random. But by the end of this book I didn't feel like it was really a worthwhile trek--rather than feeling entertained or enlightened or otherwise enriched, I felt like the author had been messing with me. Maybe I'm too much of a philistine to be able to appreciate a book like this, but if that's the case, I can live with it.

Started: 2/1/2008 | Finished: 7/11/2008

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Like just about everyone I know, I'm a big fan of Pixar. I still haven't gotten around to seeing Cars and Ratatouille, but I've seen the rest and I love all of them. In some ways, this movie is the best of the bunch. As always, the animation has continued to get better and more beautiful--which, considering that the first half-hour or so take place in the middle of a giant garbage pile, is saying something. But what really amazed me was the quality of the storytelling. It's an amazing accomplishment to be able to take two characters who each utter no more than four or five distinct phrases throughout the entire film and make them not only sympathetic but lovable and even relatable. There was virtually no dialogue for the first thirty minutes of the film, and yet it was never boring. And the exposition was about the smoothest I've ever seen. I don't know that I can say that this is my favorite of Pixar's films--for now, that honor still goes to The Incredibles--but despite that I think that this is one of the best executed animated films of all time. I don't know how Pixar is going to top WALL-E, but I can't wait to find out.

Viewed: 7/12/2008 | Released: 6/27/2008 | Score: A

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I've become quite a Will Smith fan over the past couple of years. Certainly the last two films I saw him in--I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness--were very good, and besides being a good actor, the guy just seems really likeable. That might be the only real problem with his run in this movie--the title character is a real jerk, but despite John Hancock's uncouth manner, I couldn't help but like him. Really, though, that's a minor complaint, and I quite enjoyed Hancock. It fulfilled pretty much all of my expectations, being funny with good action. It even managed a few moments of poignancy. All in all, a good experience.

Viewed: 7/5/2008 | Released: 7/2/2008 | Score: B+

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

After years of rumors and hype about the possibility of a fourth Indiana Jones movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a lot to live up to. Whether it did or not is something you'll have to decide for yourself—and certainly there are a fair number of outraged fanboys out there—but, as for me, I loved it. In some ways it's a little goofier than at least the first two films, relying a bit more on one-liners, and Indy has gotten a little more superhuman in his toughness (especially considering that he's also nearly twenty years older than he was in The Last Crusade). But despite all of that it's still very much an Indiana Jones movie, and does everything that it should. It has great action sequences, of course, as it should, but it also brings back that sense of discovery that I remember from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, most importantly, it has Indy, himself, exactly as he should be. What I think was particularly good about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that by making Indy's sidekick young and male (unlike Marion Ravenwood or Willie Scott) and unfamiliar with Indy (unlike Short Round, Sallah, or Henry Jones, Sr.) we almost get to see him with new eyes. I'm sure that some of you will disagree with me, but I think that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a worthy successor to the Indiana Jones franchise, and I give it my wholehearted recommendation.

Viewed: 5/22/2008 | Released: 5/21/2008 | Score: A

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Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Once again, the Apatow crew have made a winner. This time it's Jason Segel who fronts the movie as the writer and star. Many of you will remember him from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, but my first experience of Segel was as Seth Rogen's sleazy roommate in Knocked Up. This certainly shows him in a different light as the heartbroken Peter, although I gather that it was really Knocked Up that was the departure for him. Anyway, I thought he was really quite good in this film, managing to come off as pathetic, likeable, and funny all at the same time. The rest of the cast did a good job as well, including Mila Kunis, who I'd never really cared for in That 70's Show, but seemed to be well cast in this film. (She's also become quite beautiful since I last saw her, which certainly helps for being the love interest in this kind of movie.) Of course, what was really great about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, like all the rest of the recent films that this group has put out, was the writing. Not only was it uproariously funny, but it had a sense of honesty to it that I've come to expect from this team's films. If you're in the mood for a great comedy, definitely check this one out.

Viewed: 4/17/2008 | Released: 4/17/2008 | Score: A-

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Smart People

As I am now apparently making a habit of lateness, you will probably have to wait until this comes out on video to see it. If you like quirky dramedies, though, it might be worth checking out when it does become available. Smart People is the story of Lawrence Wetherhold (played by Dennis Quaid), who is an intelligent but extremely arrogant and self-absorbed literature professor. His relatively dysfunctional family consists of a daughter (played by Ellen Page), a son (Ashton Holmes), and a "loser" brother (Thomas Haden Church). After Lawrence throws his back out, his brother moves in, ostensibly to serve as Lawrence's chauffeur (since he has lost his license), but more obviously to mooch. There's also a romantic element as Lawrence, a widower, tries to start dating again. It's not particularly new ground as indie films go but it's pretty well done. Dennis Quaid is usually good and this is no exception, and Thomas Haden Church managed to come off as a little pathetic while still endearing and down-to-earth. Church was also the main comic relief and he was effective in that capacity--I laughed out loud quite a few times. As for Ellen Page, well, it was interesting to see her after her Juno fame (though it bears pointing out that Smart People was filmed before Juno) but I think that her acting is a little one-note. She didn't come off as exactly the same character as Juno, but given that the character as written was completely different, it's telling that there were any similarities at all. Still, even though this one probably won't win her any awards, her performance was decent and fit the movie fairly well. All in all, I quite enjoyed this movie, so if your taste is anything like mine, keep your eye out for it at the video store.

Viewed: 4/10/2008 | Released: 4/10/2008 | Score: B+

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Married Life

Entertainment Weekly put Rachel McAdams' performance in this film in their "Must List," so I had high hopes that Married Life would be the movie that made me change my mind about her. Unfortunately, it wasn't--I still think she's just mediocre. It's a real shame, too, because the rest of the cast was pretty good. It's not the best I've seen out of any of them, but then, that bar is pretty high--Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, and Chris Cooper have all done really great work in the past. Still, with such a strong cast (McAdams excepted) and from the trailers, I was really hoping for a great movie. And throughout the film I kept feeling like it was right on the verge of brilliance, but it never quite got there. I ended up feeling a little disappointed. Still, it's not bad, and there was something vaguely comforting about the fuzzy colors and grainy feel to the film--I'd definitely recommend it as a rental.

Viewed: 3/22/2008 | Released: 3/6/2008 | Score: B-

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