Friday, January 30, 2015

Going to Space With Dogs and Robber Barons

Robert A. Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, based pretty much solely on Stranger in a Strange Land (#10 on my top novels of all time list) and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers.

So it was finally time to delve into his shorter works, published in book form for the first time in 1992 in a collection of short stories, novellas, speeches, and tributes entitled Requiem and Tributes to the Grand Master.

The short story Requiem leads off the book and is the sequel to Heinlein's novel The Man Who Sold the Moon. It is the story of businessman Delos David Harriman, who is obsessed with being the first man on the moon. And further, he wants to own it. Published in 1951, Heinlein wasn't too far off from what panned out in real history in that Harriman's company succeeds in getting the first rocket to the moon in 1978. But he himself is not part of the first colonizing effort.

That is where Requiem takes over the story. The "tycoon and latter-day robber baron" is now very old and nearing death, and has still not personally reached the moon because his business partners always insisted they needed him on Earth. Once his business contract expires, he is no longer fit enough to pass the health tests required to travel to the Moon, so he enlists some junk spacemen at a carnival in Kansas City to illegally rocket him there. Harriman reaches the Moon and quickly dies on it.

Requiem is surely a satisfying end of the story for those who have read The Man Who Sold the Moon, but it is a fairly minor piece otherwise.

Where this collection picks up is with the novella Tenderfoot in Space. Charlie is a Boy Scout who loves his dog Nixie more than anything in the world. He even works hard to get the pooch some status in his troop.

The story opens as the boy is being questioned by a policeman who knows he is running away because he is unhappy that his family is preparing to leave on a colonization ship to Venus. And the family doesn't have enough money to pay Nixie's passenger fee.

Charlie returns home and, after much family drama, it's agreed that Nixie will be flash frozen, which greatly reduces his chances of surviving the nearly year-long rocket ride to Venus, but it's enough of a plan to satisfy Charlie. Nixie ends up surviving after they resuscitate him on Venus. He thrives there and even gets accepted as an honorary Scout in Charlie's new Earth-like troop.

Heinlein's setting description is exceptionally fictional, as the real Venus is filled with clouds, deserts, and volcanoes. The Venus described in the story contains a blanket of forests that often threaten to swallow up the colony of Earthlings.

Charlie becomes friends with a fellow Scout who was born on Venus and knows his way around. Towards the end of the story, the two boys and Nixie get disoriented in the vast forest. Nixie helps them find their way out, and the heroism he is awarded for at the end of the tale goes to show that Charlie's dad had been wrong in being so difficult about agreeing to bring the dog into space in the first place.

Requiem: ***1/2 out of ***** stars

Tenderfoot in Space: ****1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Advice: Check In to The Grand Budapest Hotel

In 2012, I ranked my favorite 6 Wes Anderson-directed movies, and it presented an argument for the quirkmeister being one of the world's very finest.

Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tennenbaums, Bottle Rocket, and The Darjeeling Limited, in that order.

Now, along comes The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is deserving of its Academy nomination for best movie, but that may only be because the out-of-touch Academy voters have been so woefully behind on recognizing him. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his last two, were nominated for best animated film and best screenplay respectively. But there was nothing before that.

The Grand Budapest Hotel falls in at #6 for me, not quite as good as Darjeeling, but quite a bit better than his arguable misstep The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

The cinematography alone makes it worth watching. Shot on locating entirely in Germany, there are also model-scale shots of the hotel, which add to many frames looking like great art pieces.

Jude Law plays a young author who stumbles into an interview of the elderly owner of the hotel, played by F. Murray Abraham. The movie is mostly a flashback to when the owner, named Zero, was just beginning a job as the "lobby boy" at the hotel. He is taken under the wing of Monsieur Gustave, who is played with brilliant nastiness, pompousness, and a desire for very old women by Ralph Fiennes (certainly among his finest moments, which is saying a lot).

When a royal old woman, played by Tilda Swinton, leaves Gustave a valuable painting named "Boy with Apple" in her will, her son (Adrien Brody) is enraged, setting off a Keystone Cops-like chase. Gustave and Zero get arrested and are sent to prison, where they plan an escape with Harvey Keitel, but then must avoid Adrien Brody's hitman, played by Willem Dafoe, which they do with a little help from a mafia of hotel owners seemingly led by Bill Murray.

Gustave and Zero make it through these adventures, and the movie then reveals how they came to their eventual demises, with the benefit that Jude Law's story of the wild history of this hotel's employees does indeed live on.

**** out of ***** stars

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bad Words Battles Unlikability to Become So Good

Jason Bateman's character Guy Trilby has issues. Those issues certainly make Trilby unlikeable and threaten, for a while, to make Bad Words unlikeable.

But then that risky setup unfolds and turns a ridiculously awful premise into a really compelling and creative one.

Bateman also directed the movie and clearly had a vision and a passion for the story. Trilby has a childish streak that is rooted in abandonment issues. It becomes clearer throughout, which helps slowly build suspense for the viewer, why he has entered himself into a prestigious national spelling bee.

Meanwhile, he leaves poop at his hotel's front desk, drives his reporter "friend" batty with his brooding silence, and befriends (in a roundabout way) one of his competitors, an independent and stubborn youngster.

Bateman is excellent as usual, with some unusual dramatic acting mixed in with his comedic talents. His supporting cast is excellent too. Kathryn Hahn is his "love interest," in a plot point that kind of fizzles but perhaps rightly so. Philip Baker Hall is classic as usual as the spelling-bee chief. And it's no wonder the adorable Rohan Chand will play Mowgli in The Jungle Book: Origins. He helps make Bad Words so good.

If one chooses not to view Bateman's character as a sorta sociopath, the movie is a funny, dramatic, and touching look at how damaging a childhood-deprived life can turn out.

**** out of ***** stars

(Also, I would place this at #6 on my list of the best Jason Bateman movies.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy Forgets to Be as Awesome as It Should Be

I miss a lot of superhero movies these days. How could you possibly not? But I was genuinely excited about the offbeat and obscure Guardians of the Galaxy.

Unfortunately, it ends up mostly being a cheap knock-off of Star Wars (which is certainly better than a cheap knock-off of most things). Root is a mix of Chewbacca and C3PO. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord is a mix of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Zamora is Princess Leia. I don't know what the raccoon Rocket is. And Drax is the Thing meets Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Quill (played by the always-likable Chris Pratt) is the only one who really gets a backstory. His mother dies back on Earth and he didn't give her a proper goodbye. After aliens abduct him, the only thing he has to hold on to his Earth family with is a Walkman with the songs of the 70s that his mom loved, like "Hooked On a Feeling" and "Come and Get Your Love." The soundtrack, needless to say, is one of the best things about the film.

The humor works most of the time and the bad guys are also a hoot to watch, especially the Star Wars-like Ronan and blue-skinned Yondu. The backstory on the characters and the plot of everyone chasing a silly little orb around the galaxy are where Guardians falters. By the second half, the story really drags down the entire production.

A few seemingly easy fixes and this one could have been a classic.

*** out of ***** stars

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Harry Potter for Grown-Ups" Successfully Explores Characters Amidst Magic

Where I was frequently a little bored recently reading the first Harry Potter book, The Magicians is, as the New York Times put it, "crudely labelled as Harry Potter for adults." As a result, I liked this tale of kids at magician school quite a bit more.

Authored by Lev Grossman and set to become a series on SyFy, it's about Quentin Coldwater, a young man in Brooklyn who is about to go to college when he is swept up to attend Brakebills, a school for magicians in Upstate New York.

The best part of the novel is Quentin's relationships with his friends in Brooklyn and then at the school. I didn't care that much about some of the magical and fantasy stuff, although most of it is very creative. But I was gripped by what would happen to Quentin and his friends.

Quentin is lumped with a talented batch at Brakebills called the Physical Kids (because they can manipulate physical forces). They form bonds through heavy socializing, and Quentin becomes romantically involved with Alice, who has powerful magical skills. Eliot, Josh, and Janet round out the troupe to fly as birds to Brakebills South in Antarctica for a semester before graduating and all living together in debauchery in Manhattan. The end of the novel sees the group being joined by fellow Brakebills alumni and punk fighter Penny as they slip into the magical world of Fillory that they had all read about as children.

In Fillory, they discover The Beast that had traumatically killed one of their fellow students during class at Brakebills is Martin Chatwin, the protagonist of the Fillory children's stories. It turns out that the popular fictional books had not been fiction at all. And Martin's younger sister Jane had been pulling strings for years to find someone who could kill Martin, finally finding Quentin and his friends, all of which disillusions Quentin. After leaving Fillory, he works for a time at an investment firm, and again, eternally dissatisfied, goes back to Fillory as the book ends.

I'm pretty excited to read the followups to this 2009 book, 2011's The Magician King and 2014 The Magician's Land.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Non-Flashy Sci-Fi Her Offers Endlessly Sad Portrait of Love

Her was nominated for best picture at the Oscars last year and rightfully lost to 12 Years a Slave.

Still, I really love the concept by music-video-director-examplar Spike Jonze. The classic sci-fi plot of machine overtaking man is taken to fascinating psychological extremes, with Scarlett Johansson's playful and sexy voice as the operating system that the weird and exotic Juaquin Phoenix falls for hard.

The two turn in wonderful performances, as does Juanquin's sympathetic friend played by Amy Adams and the hilariously clueless Chris Pratt as one of his colleagues.

The way we all stare at our cellphones as we walk down the street makes this story seem like a near-future possibility. The massive and futuristic Los Angeles setting is also captivating, as are the goofball 50s pants worn by most of the male characters. That Phoenix basically falls in love with his cell phone/desktop is endlessly sad, but it is indeed a bit of a stinging metaphor for our burgeoning relations with our technology over the past 20 years or so.

Her moves a little slowly in places and sometimes unfolds like a long music video. Luckily, Arcade Fire's soundtrack treatment is gorgeous. For fans of Jones' works like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, and for lovers of non-special-effects sci-fi, this flick is a can't miss.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sugar Will Make You Fat, Too Bad There's No Escape

Several actions resulted from my viewing of Katie Couric's 2014 documentary on sugar called Fed Up.

I learned that processed sugar is 10 times more addictive than cocaine and heroin, and that pretty much all Americans are under its spell.

I made a new-year's resolution to cut back on my sugar intake. So far so good. I'm putting fruit on healthy breakfast cereal instead of eating Fruity Pebbles several times a week. I'm rationing the candy stash in my office desk and no longer candy binging to stay away in the late afternoon.

Fed Up is really effective. If you didn't already know sugar is dangerously bad for you, it makes its case persuasively. Reviewing the promotional activities of Coke and breakfast cereals, Couric shows us how we are programmed to crave sugar from the earliest ages. Then the sugar works to tell our brains that we are still hungry and need to eat more junk food to satisfy that craving.

She attributes sugar as the cause of obesity, and the science and anecdotal personal stories present a compelling case that exercise and better diets won't get us out of the fat farm. It's sugar that we have to somehow avoid.

Fed Up has been called the "Inconvenient Truth of the health movement." Of course, Congress has done little about climate change since that film was released. It's pretty sad to think they will do the same about the obesity crisis.

If they do, I might even splurge and drink 10 teaspoons of sugar, the amount that is in one 12-ounce can of Coke.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tony Kushner Takes Too Long to Explain His "Guide"

Back in 2003, Tony Kushner's Angels in America TV mini-series probably helped open up dialogue about gay rights to a degree, but its pompousness made it difficult to really love.

The same holds true with his latest, which just wrapped up a run at Theater J in Washington D.C. After the first of three acts in the three-and-half-hour The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, the couple next to Rachel, Dan, and I mumbled, "Where do we get our money back?"

I didn't totally agree. In fact, I thought the first act had the most laughs and was the most enjoyable.

The story revolves around patriarch Gus, who is selling the family's New York brownstone, which lures his children home to find that he wants to kill himself (because the world has moved past him?). Tom Wiggin is Gus and he leads a generally excellent cast, including great performances from his kids: the incestous-impregnator Vito (Tim Getman), the triangulating gay Pill (Lou Liberatore), and the worker-rights lawyer Empty (Susan Rome).

The performances were worth remembering, but for the life of me, just two weeks after seeing The Guide, I can't remember what my theory was on why Gus wanted to kill himself. Kushner should use this play to finally realize he doesn't have to take so long to explain any of his epic pet causes.

*** out of ***** stars