Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Book Lover's Devilish Journey...

In The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, rare book ‘finder” Lucas Corso is hired to authenticate a lost chapter of the Alexandre Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers. This leads him on a journey to find two copies of a rare book called “The Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.” The book supposedly can be used to contact the devil himself. Corso becomes embroiled in a chase for this unearthly tome, as various allies & enemies try to either aid him or hinder his progress.

Perez-Reverte’s novel features many in-jokes for bibliophiles and lovers of classic literature. Chapter sub-headings include quotes from famous fictional characters, including Poe’s famous detective, Arsene Lupin. As Corso tracks down the book, many pages features drawings, quotes & clues that aid Corso in his search.  We find out information as Corso does, along the way. Much of the trivia & in jokes revolves around The Three Musketeers, as characters & situations reflect those in the famous adventure novel. The novel has elegant settings & interesting characters, including obsessive book dealers, forgers, devil worshippers and a mysterious girl whose origin (and motive for helping Corso) is unclear.

The most well drawn character is Corso himself. He is a lover of books, but has been corrupted by the nature of his work. We get inside his head, and understand how he thinks. He’s been an unscrupulous man, and, as the search goes on, he starts to doubt if he’s taken the right path. The plot keeps you intrigued as the search for the book goes on, with trips to Spain & Portugal along the way, colorfully rendered by the author. The book is a treat for mystery fans that like working out all the angles of a puzzling story. Portions of the novel were turned into the movie The Ninth Gate (1999), starring Johnny Depp, but significant changes were made to the story for the screen adaptation. The Club Dumas is an intriguing book, and fans of literary mysteries will enjoy Perez-Reverte’s thinking man’s thriller.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jason Segel Meets "The Muppets"

The Muppets are back, and Jason Segel’s got them. The gang’s last appearance on screen was in 1999’s Muppets From Space. Enter Muppet fan Segel & co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who went to Disney in 2008 with an idea for a new Muppet film. Segel wanted to do justice to the characters, and make an old school Muppet movie; well, he got his wish. The Muppets (2011) is lighthearted fun in the classic Muppet tradition, with laughs, songs, star cameos, and of course, the Muppet characters we all know & love.

Gary (Segel) lives in Smalltown, USA with his brother Walter (the newest Muppet, created especially for the movie). They’ve grown up loving The Muppets, and are big fans of their shows & movies. When Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a trip to California, Walter wants to go along, so he can see The Muppet Studios. But when they arrive, the studio is in dilapidated condition, and the Muppets are no longer together. During the tour, Walter overhears Statler & Waldorf (the hecklers from the TV series) talking with oil magnate Tex Richman, who wants to acquire the land where the studio is located. Unless The Muppets can come up with the 10 million dollars needed to save the studio, the land will go to Richman, who has plans of his own for the property.

In the best “let’s put on a show” tradition, it’s up to Walter, Gary & Mary to help the gang get back together, and put on a telethon to raise the money to save the theater. Along the way, we get re-acquainted with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear & the whole gang. The slightly off kilter humor that appealed to both adults & kids during the The Muppet Show’s original run from 1976-81 is in evidence here, as are some clever songs & parodies (you’ll never think of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the same way again). Bret McKenzie of the musical comedy duo Flight of The Conchords wrote the original songs for the film. Segel, Adams and The Muppets enthusiastically perform them, along with a reprise of the classic “The Rainbow Connection.” Oh, and The Muppet chickens get to sing Cee-Lo's "Forget You."

Of course, there are also the cameos, from the likes of Alan Arkin, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, and many others (look fast for Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters). And it wouldn’t be a Muppet movie without some zany humor & bad jokes, a few tugs at the heartstrings, and some lessons learned by all. Jason Segel & Amy Adams look like they’re having the time of their lives, and Chris Cooper is appropriately nasty as Tex Richman, the villainous oilman. In this age of fast paced & video game based movies, The Muppets is a refreshingly retro film, well directed by James Bobin with a sense of joy & sheer delight that is infectious.

The Muppets really is one of the best films of the year. It succeeds at being exactly what you want: an engaging, funny, heartfelt Muppet story that can be enjoyed by children of all ages. It’s a movie made with love by people who really care about & appreciate these classic characters. They’ve really done right by them, and I think the late Jim Henson would be proud. One final note; make sure to get to the theatre on time, as the film is preceded by a new Toy Story short from Pixar, that pokes sly fun at the “fast food toy” trend. It’s a really great night at the movies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love & Other Drugs: A Good Movie Struggling For Identity

Director Edward Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs (2011) is an interesting movie, an adult love story that has more depth than most of the romantic comedies we see from Hollywood these days. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, who becomes a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer in the mid 90s. Jamie is a smooth talker and a ladies man, and he uses these skills to charm doctor’s assistants into letting him talk to their bosses. He tries to convince them to prescribe Zoloft instead of Prozac, so he can meet his sales goals and get a prime gig in Chicago. On one of his excursions he meets a patient named Maggie, who is suffering from early onset Parkinson’s.

The two have a one-night stand, and initially, neither partner is eager to pursue a relationship. Jamie has never been able to commit, and Maggie doesn’t think anyone can either see past her illness, or deal with the issues associated with it. Meanwhile, a new drug called Viagra is developed, and Jamie becomes a great success selling it. As he develops deeper feelings for Maggie, Jamie tries to show her his feelings are genuine. Maggie tries to come to terms with her feelings about her illness, and finds some empathy and kindred spirits while attending a medical convention with Jamie.

Gyllenhall is good as Jamie, a guy who’s coasted by most of his life on good lucks & charisma, who now has to deal with a real relationship for the first time in his life. Hathaway is excellent as Maggie; she gives a three dimensional portrait of a person struggling with an illness, and the perceptions society has about ‘sick’ people. The script is co-written by director Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz & Charles Randolph. Zwick & Herskovitz were the co-creators of TV’s Thirtysomething (1987-1991), and their writing here has the same strengths (such as strong dialogue & realistic situations) that were the hallmark of that series. An additional note: while the movie is based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy, the love story portrayed in the film is nowhere to be found in the book. However, the details of how the pharmaceutical industry trains its salespeople, and markets its products, add another interesting facet to the story.

Sadly, the movie is saddled with a pointless subplot about Jamie’s well to do brother, who moves in with him after being kicked out by his wife. Essentially, the character allows the movie to indulge in the crude humor and silliness that are more at home in recent films like Bad Teacher or Hall Pass. There’s nothing wrong with that type of comedy, but it has no place in this film, and it hurts the rhythm of the main story. You feel like you’re watching two movies, and the hybrid just doesn’t gel. The movie is still worth a look for the performances of Gyllenhaal & Hathaway, and the fine supporting cast, including such familiar faces as Hank Azaria & Oliver Platt. Director Zwick also makes good use of music in the film, using songs of the period from groups like the Spin Doctors & Fatboy Slim.  But the movie's struggle to balance its two sides ultimately makes it a near miss. The film is now available on Blu-Ray & DVD.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Darkness Inside Us All

Stephen King has long been acknowledged as a master of horror fiction, but what makes his tales resonate with readers is that you can identify with his characters. They are often ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances; some are good, some evil, but King gets inside their heads in a way few authors do. Some critics may vilify him as an author of popcorn fiction, but I think that description sells his best work short. In Full Dark, No Stars, his 2010 collection of short fiction, we get four novella length tales, as well as a bonus short story in the paperback edition. Here’s a brief rundown of the stories:

1922: The opening tale finds a farmer contemplating the murder of his wife, over their disagreement about selling some land. How he accomplishes the murder, with the help of his son, is a scene worthy of some of King’s best short fiction. And what follows is a Poe-style tale of conscience, guilt and terror that could only come from King’s pen. There are some truly chilling scenes in this dark tale.

Big Driver: A mystery writer avenges a brutal attack in this dark tale. Some interesting interior monologues, and a likable main character distinguish this story that asks: how far is too far to go when you decide upon seeking revenge?

Fair Extension: This story is perhaps the closest in style to King’s earlier short fiction, as a cancer-stricken man with bad luck makes a deal with a devilish figure to extend his life, and bring himself some good fortune.  But there is a cost to making that deal, and the man must decide if he’s willing to have success at someone else’s cost.

A Good Marriage: A happily married woman discovers a dark secret about her husband in this story. Do you really know the person that sleeps beside you at night? And what would you do if you found out your spouse had another side you never knew about?  This is an intriguing story that answers that question.

Following a brief Afterword by King, the paperback edition features a bonus short story titled Under The Weather: Just why has Brad’s wife been ill for so long? And why hasn’t anyone seen her? This short tale will give you the answer.

The characters in these stories are all well drawn; some are likable, some are not. But as you read you find yourself wondering if you would make the same choices these people do, given the same circumstances. We may all be just a step away from opening that dark door inside our own souls. It’s to King’s credit that he continues to write compelling fiction that has gone far beyond the “horror” label. If you’re looking for a book that will draw you in, and have you turning the pages all night, Full Dark, No Stars is a worthy addition to your library.