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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Vineland — Book Review

It’s quite possible that growing up in the ‘80s makes reading a novel that takes jabs at the decade hard to appreciate. It’s also possible that Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland is a meandering, at times long-winded novel from (or at least about) a hippie that never got over the revolution his generation so desperately longed for.

Zoyd Wheeler has raised Prairie as a single parent into her teenage years. Living on disability checks through a twisted arrangement with the government, Zoyd — and Prairie — are finally forced to face his past, which forced her mother, Frenesi Gates, into hiding. Twists of fate lead Prairie through a maze of folks that knew her mother and the cause she fought for.

I first came across this book in college, and can’t say I got a whole lot more out of it the second time around. The number of characters with their own stories, or histories, detailed in the novel makes staying focused on the original story being told difficult at times. There is also a sense that everything is building to a climax of eminent importance, not only for the characters but bringing along with it some sort of profound insight into society. Yet, ultimately, the revolutionary movement they were looking for has the backbone of a bunch of people rallying against the government for the sake of rallying against the government.

The closest thing to a comment on every day society seems to be the agreed upon existence of a massive conspiracy being perpetrated by the government in which television is meant to distract people from societal ills. Ironically, Prairie discovers her mother through the abundant use of film the young Frenesi produced to capture the revolution. Certainly other commentary is offered on how “the man is keeping us down,” but nothing that equates to anything beyond one individual or group working the system.

Ultimately, Frenesi’s disappearance surrounds an affair with the “bad guy” working for the government to infiltrate her particular band of revolutionaries and the death of the their leader. Symbolic, no doubt, of the suggestion that the government stops at nothing to control us, it just took too many roads to get there for me.

Vineland has finally prompted me to adjust my scale for the first time in quite a while. I’m giving it a non-recommendation of not that good. It’s good enough not to skip, but won’t broaden your horizons nor entertain you.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

When the Levees Broke — Review

Spike Lee’s effort to offer the “definitive” story on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, fell short of the mark. While offering a decent summary of the events, the documentary (that premiered on HBO over Monday and Tuesday nights for more than two hours each night) went on too long and the predictable Lee slant suggesting that racism made the disaster worse leaves anyone with an objective eye scratching their head.

Ten or 20 years from now the summarizing of events may have more value than it does today. Sadly, the numerous montage segments of dead bodies floating in flood waters and other horrific images may also have value down the line, but are simply too familiar right now to have much impact. The attempt to offer the flavor of New Orleans’ musical history through seemingly staged parades was not only awkward, but considering the length of the film causes some serious “watchability” issues.

The interview heavy format struggles to keep viewers interested. It wasn’t until the second night that any emotion is evoked from the viewer as Lee follows an elderly woman back to her home after Katrina. Other stories, including a man forced to leave his mother’s dead body at the Super Dome, were sort of lost in all of the other interviews.

Certainly, Lee brought out plenty of worthwhile information. A computer-generated simulation of a category 5 hurricane called Pam that predicted devastation for the Gulf area went ignored. Cops were among the looters in the days after the disaster. A form of marshal law in one local parish, which refused entrance to those trying to escape the devastation.

He documents the incompetence shown by the Bush Administration in its response to Katrina. To be fair, there wasn’t much balance in this coverage, though I can almost give Lee a pass here as President Bush’s incompetence is well documented.

Lee does not get such a pass on his coverage of race in the affects of the hurricane. He allows people to suggest that whites were rescued before blacks without substantiation or rebuttal. The evacuation process is actually compared to the breaking up of families during slavery. He allows assertions that the levees were actually blown-up to flood the Lower Ninth Ward.

While showing the anger of Katrina victims is a worthwhile pursuit, allowing allegations like these to stand alone was simply weak. This was followed-up with a barrage of how bringing blacks back to New Orleans is critical, as if only blacks need to be returned home.

Lee offered a sad picture of unscrupulous businesses profiting from Katrina and a government bogged down in bureaucracy slowing the recovery. Yet, positioning this as racial issues hurts the film. For many non-blacks (including myself) who can testify to the fact that business and government screws us, too, the assertion no doubt leaves many wondering how a natural disaster became a racial issue.

Overall, When the Levees Broke will have some value as time passes. A good edit job would give it plenty more.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Yours, Mine and Ours — DVD Review

Romantic comedies rarely offer much in the way of suspense, or, for that matter, plot. Viewers pretty much know “the guy gets the girl” in the end, and hope for a few laughs along the way. With an emphasis on few, as in few laughs, Yours, Mine, and Ours is no exception.

High school sweethearts Frank Beardsley (Dennis Quaid) and Helen North (Rene Russo) find each other again after each has been widowed for years. Their first chance meeting occurs while both are on dates with others. Shortly thereafter, a second not-so-chance meeting at their high school reunion ends with the two married. Her 8 kids and his 10 are less than thrilled, and eventually have little trouble exposing the fact that the straight-laced Coast Guard Admiral and a laid-back handbag designer may have a few differences they should have considered before marrying in a rush.

Never really a bad idea, eh?

The older generation will have to forgive me for thinking of this as an updated version of The Brady Bunch. (Don’t worry, I realize it’s a remake of the 1968 Yours, Mine and Ours, I just never saw the original.) There’s even a live-in maid, though instead of a dog the family has a pet pig.

The storyline wasn’t much better than the old sitcom, either. The kids eventually realize that, instead of fighting each other, becoming allies to break-up their parents — and, therefore, being rid of each other — is a better plan. (Ok, so they’re meaner than the Brady kids.) Of course, once the plan works, a few regrets settle in.

To be fair, this was a Nickelodeon production, but even the kids will want more. There’s just nothing that stands out. Russo and Quaid are fine, but the kids are fairly nondescript. Andrew Vo, as Lau North, comes the closest to being memorable playing a sassy, decorator-type in a little kid’s body. But I think there were just too many kids to allow even his solid performance to shine through.

There’s definitely a chuckle or two, but no hearty laughs. It also moves, possibly too fast early on, and isn’t very long so no one will get restless before it ends. If you don’t expect too much from Yours, Mine, and Ours, you can watch it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Guess Who? — Movie Review

Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac star in the not-too-funny, but not-too-bad Guess Who. A remake of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, I have to guess this story of interracial romance worked much better as a drama. I never saw the original, but the remake (billed as a comedy) just wasn’t very funny.

Percy Jones (Mac) is not thrilled when the boyfriend with a great job — which he knows because he’s done a background check — that his daughter is bringing home turns out to be white. Simon Green (Kutcher) doesn’t help things much when he starts telling lies meant to impress Jones. Their relationship gets stranger and stranger, and Green’s lie of omission about quitting his job to fiancée Theresa (Zoë Saldana) threatens to make the whole thing mute.

There was plenty of talk in the DVD extras about going beyond the racial component of the story. The filmmakers actually accomplished this with tension between Jones and Green that was based on a lot more than race. The problem was that they kept going for the laugh and breaking the story’s momentum.

A strong early scene shows Jones grilling Green on his lack of experience with playing sports. It was a big, imposing father giving his daughter’s boyfriend a hard time, though a definite racial undertone was present. Pushed hard, Green went with a lie about NASCAR to get Jones off his back. If it ended there, it would’ve been fine. Instead, they kept going back to it for punch lines.

Another scene attempted to tackle the issue of racial jokes. Green stumbles into having to tell some “black jokes.” It was just so awkward that the potentially poignant scene is destroyed.

When the humor was put aside, Mac and Kutcher had some very strong scenes. When the wife (Judith Scott) and girlfriend/daughter end up ticked at both of them, they find ways to connect that aren’t sappy or phony. Saldana and Keisha Jones helped the film overcome the comedy label a bit with strong performances.

Somewhere between my worth watching and just entertaining, I give Guess Who? the latter, lesser rating.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Beach House — Book Review

The Beach House offers up exactly what would be expected from a best-selling “thriller” — a light read with a few not-terribly-surprising twists, and an over-the-top ending. It’s nothing readers can sink their teeth into, but works well enough if you’re looking for something to take to the beach.

Jack Mullen, a law student in New York City, looks to expose the truth about the death of his brother, Peter. Helped by a group of devoted friends, a wily ex-judge grandfather, and, of course, an eventual love interest, Jack runs up against a town-wide cover-up. Eventually, he risks everything by going up against his own law firm. Throw in a glimpse of the rich life, a poor vs. wealthy battle line, along with a sex scandal, and you’ve got James Patterson’s second offering with Peter de Jonge.

The biggest problem here was predictability. The opening pages make it clear Peter is murdered, Jack instantly suspects this fact the minute he hears of his brother’s death, and nothing ever causes him to waver. The only real question becomes why there’s a cover up and how Jack will prove it. (Without giving anything away, the key word is “will” because there’s never any doubt about that particular outcome — and if I have given anything away, well, you’re just not paying attention.)

So, all that was left were the inevitable twists. While a few were inventive enough, the fact that one of them is a sex scandal was just plain weak. Ultimately, the resolution is so absurd it has very little impact, and the lack of consequences faced by the “do-gooders” who have gone well passed any legal boundaries pushes things into the ridiculous.

Take The Beach House to your own vacation spot, and read it for fun while looking for something better.