movie: Jack Reacher

To review: I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (no matter how far-fetched); like many “Reacher Creatures,” I was upset to learn that Tom Cruise would be playing him on the big screen. Where Reacher is something like 6’6″ and a looming giant and blonde, Cruise is short-ish and dark-haired. Plus I don’t really like Tom Cruise all that much. Husband is with me on all counts.

therefore this is a little insulting

therefore this is a little insulting

For these reasons we had made a point of not watching this movie up to now; Husband turned it down as the free movie on an airplane last year. But then came a quiet night at home when his channel-surfing was making my teeth grind, and it was free via some sort of movie-playing widget on the television (this is not my area of expertise), so what the hell.

Jack Reacher is based on the Reacher novel One Shot, set in Philly, in which an ex-army guy named Barr is accused in an apparent open-and-shut case: six shots were fired from a sniper rifle in a parking garage, and five civilians lay dead. Barr won’t speak to the police except to ask for Jack Reacher. Retired army cop Reacher is impossible to find, but lucky for the cops, shows up on his own to look into the case. Teamed up with Barr’s defense attorney – despite being rather convinced of Barr’s guilt himself – Reacher investigates, and finds (naturally) that things are more complex than they appear. In fact, there is a conspiracy, something Reacher’s fans will be familiar with. For that matter, Reacher’s fans will recognize all the elements: intrigue – problems with authority – fistfights and gunfights and ex-military camaraderie – explosive final scenes.

I had few and minor quibbles, and my reading of One Shot was so long ago that I didn’t fuss over digressions from the original plot. And despite a slight antipathy for Tom Cruise, Husband and I were both able to sort of …let that go and get into the movie. In other words, I had some hesitations but ended up enjoying this movie more than expected. Reacher’s pithy wit translated well to the screen, and the suspense and action were there and pretty solid – in spite of a totally ridiculous car chase (I mean REALLY ridiculous. besides which, in the books, Reacher is a self-acknowledged poor driver and rarely does it). I especially appreciated the moment when the Marine recognizes Reacher from his shooting skills, and that scene does come from the book.

Conclusion: I had concerns going in, but I confess I enjoyed this film. Cruise was tolerable; the humor, wit, action and suspense were all there; the plot is not to be argued with (says this Reacher fan). Touche, Tom Cruise.

Rating: 7 shots fired.

movie: Urban Cowboy

Husband was dismayed to learn that I hadn’t seen Urban Cowboy, set in my hometown and rather iconic; it stars the nightclub Gilley’s and is mentioned in one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. My excuse is (as usual) that I’m not real good with pop culture; also, this movie is older than I am.


So we put it on. Urban Cowboy is set at the beginning of the 1980’s, when young Bud Davis leaves his family on the farm and heads into Houston (actually, Pasadena, a dirty oil-refining suburb) to look for a job. He starts off by staying with an aunt and uncle; the latter works at the refinery and gets Bud a job. They also take him to the local, Gilley’s, a honky-tonk nightclub that was at the time the largest nightclub of any kind in the world (according to Guinness, says the Texas State Historical Society and others). There he immediately falls into the kind of lifestyle his mom back home probably worried about: drinking hard every night of the week and showing up to work hungover; and meeting Sissy, a beautiful, flirtatious youngster with whom he is quickly entangled. They drink, fight, get married. She wants to ride the new mechanical bull set up at Gilley’s, but he doesn’t want her to. So she goes behind his back and learns to ride it from a dangerous ex-con.

Bluffing, out of spite at one another, and both hoping the other will blink, Bud and Sissy take up with other people: she with the ex-con bull rider, he with a rich girl from “the city” of Houston with a fetish for “cowboys.” (One notes that Bud doesn’t really qualify, as he works at an oil refinery and like Sissy, rides only a mechanical bull, not the real kind.) The big “rodeo” at Gilley’s will culminate in Bud versus the ex-con on the bull, and will put back together again the couple we’ve been rooting for.

I have mixed feelings. The iconic Houston skyline (minus many buildings I know) and time-and-place details, not least Gilley’s itself (famous, but like this movie, before my time), were great fun. Bud and Sissy have a certain Sid-and-Nancy ugly rightness about them that feels good in some twisted way; they’re a symbol of good Southern cowboy coupledom that some part of me responds to. But the misogyny was too much for me. Sissy gets hit, only a little by Bud (the “good” guy) and a lot by her ex-con; then Bud comes in and saves the day, because he hit her less often and less hard and so we should… feel good about this? Yes, another time (and culture), I get that; but there’s only so much wife-beating I can stomach and still come away calling this a feel-good film.

For visuals, including Sissy’s shockingly sexy bull ride, I’d give this a better-than-average score, if only for its historic and cultural value. For its actual values, it loses points for the pit it put in my stomach. John Travolta and Debra Winger are nice to look at, though.


Rating: 5 rides.

movie: The Great Gatsby

Well, we finally got around to it! Sadly, my friend Justin and I missed this one in theaters; I think it would have been oustanding on the big screen, but Justin has a large-ish screen at home too, so we did okay.

My first comment on this movie is that it is wildly visually pleasing, and impressive, and extravagant – much like the Roaring 20’s.

photo credit (click to enlarge)

photo credit
(click to enlarge)

The spirit of Gatsby’s parties, the lavish lifestyle, is well evoked. Actually, I am impressed with the faithfulness to the book in story, too; it’s been years since I’ve read it, so I may be missing the minor details, but the feel was right. Perfectly rendered are the beautiful women in outrageous costumes, with a tendency to turn their heads just so to catch their lovely profiles; Gatsby’s larger-than-life personality and biography, and his arresting discomfort in the shadow of Daisy’s presence; and Nick’s own retiring persona. There is a framing element added to the movie that was not present in the book; it’s a little unsettling for us book-purists, but minimally so, and I think I can understand how it felt necessary, to explain Nick’s narration.

And oh, did I mention the visual appeal? The women, the clothing, and the outrageous parties – not to mention Leonardo DiCaprio himself as Gatsby – are positively eye candy. Leo is at his best, exhibiting the boyish, almost childlike charm we knew him for in earlier years (singularly in the scene involving the shirts – “they’re such beautiful shirts”), an older man’s brooding, and all the rest of his handsome faces. It was easy to get lost in some of the scenes and scenery. The film is clearly color-enhanced; I’m no expert and can’t explain this, but the color is clearly doctored. This adds to a fairy-tale-like feeling throughout, which is not faithful to the book, but somehow works. In this different medium, the larger-than-life effect feels like the proper analogy to Fitzgerald’s book. Towards the sad ending, the movie transitions to the disaffected tone of the book with perhaps some abruptness. But really, it’s a damn fine job – and gorgeous.

Rating: 8 beads.

movie: Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary

pedaldrivenI can’t remember who told me I needed to see this film. Thank you, whoever you are.

Pedal-Driven is a documentary about the relationship between mountain bikers and the US Forest Service, regarding the former’s right or privilege to recreate on public lands. The conflict is fairly well summed up early on: public lands are our lands, so we want access to do what we like on them; but on the other hand, we (mountain bikers or mtbers) are not the only user group in “the public,” and even beyond present-day users, the USFS (Parks services, etc.) feel a responsibility to a future public as well. Therefore the needs/wants of today’s users (mtbers and others) are balanced against a need for conservation and preservation.

The USFS doesn’t want to be entirely anti-mtber, but they can’t condone the practice of building trails on public land without permission; this is illegal. But what is a mtber to do? To go through the proper channels is a 5, 10, or even 15 year process; at some point, we’re building trails for our kids to ride, which is nice for them, but who knows if we will get to ride those trails at all. Then again, builders of illegal trails risk having their work torn down at any moment.

While I’m not particularly on the side of illegal activities – and illegal building of anything on public land rubs me the wrong way – I sympathize with the mtbers, obviously, as I am one myself and understand the desire for trail to ride. Without trail, we can’t be mountain bikers. As I summarized them in my first paragraph, all those user groups indeed deserve their rights and their voices being heard. It’s a sad quandary. This film was in danger of just depressing me, early on, with the stalemates portrayed (centrally in Leavenworth, Washington, not far from where my parents have recently settled; also in the loss of trail systems in Montana). But it does circle back around to success stories like those in Oregon; hope is not lost.

I will say that, for me, one weakness in this film is in its specificity to freeriders. Freeride is mountain biking that involves jumps, tricks and stunts; it generally requires what we call “structures” (bridges, dirt jumps, big constructed berms, skinnies, teeter-totters), and structures are a good part of the USFS’s problem with illegal builders. Don’t get me wrong; they wouldn’t let you build natural-surface trail, either, but I think it would be less offensive than the construction in question. To give you some idea:

freeride(photo credit)

freeride, from the film (photo credit)

bridge work (photo credit)

bridge work (photo credit)

wooden berm (photo credit)

wooden berm (photo credit)

Talking about building freeride-style trail with structures, then, is a certain kind of conversation. And it has left out the even larger group of cross-country (XC) mountain bikers: this activity is performed generally on natural-surface trails (bridges thrown in for function – to cross a stream or gulley – rather than for the chance to catch air), and keeps the rider mostly on the ground or close to it. XC riders look different from free-riders: no full-face helmets, different bikes, even sometimes brightly-colored spandex. These are generalizations, and there are exceptions, and there’s crossover between the two groups; but the point I’m trying to make is that as an XC rider, myself, I felt a little left out of the story that this film tells. And that’s a shame; because really, we face the same challenges in using public land, in trail construction and access and our relationship to the public and the government. I would have appreciated a little more inclusive story being told here. On the other hand, maybe there isn’t such a story about XC riders – maybe our conflicts haven’t been played out so dramatically or on such a scale, or such a stage. I’m honestly not sure. And I haven’t been deeply involved in advocacy battles as of yet (except on a local scale where I’ve done some volunteer trail work), so I want to be clear, I’m not criticizing the fine folks portrayed in this movie. Their work can only benefit my kind of rider, too. And you never know, I may find myself in a full-face helmet high up in the air one of these days too! Who knows what the future holds?

As a film, I found Pedal-Driven to be very well put together and visually impressive. I had a few minor gripes with the soundtrack (some of it was great!), but you can’t please them all in that respect! I enjoyed seeing the riding, and I ended up on the hopeful side regarding access and advocacy issues. Most of all, I’m super glad that these issues are being discussed. So thank you, Howell at the Moon, for this movie! It makes me want to ride my bike!

Rating: 7 feet of air, of course.

movie: A River Runs Through It

rivermovieI was pleased when Husband found this movie for me the other night. I enjoyed the book by Maclean so much, and I had heard good things about the movie. Robert Redford’s involvement speaks well, too.

First of all, this film is very visually pleasing; the scenery is lovely (IMDB says it was shot in Montana and Wyoming – not onsite in Missoula, but convincingly nearby), the fishing scenes are appropriately peaceful, and the actors are attractive. Thank you, Hollywood, for a typical, unrealistic portrayal! Although Paul Maclean in particular was supposed to be a very good-looking young man; and whatever your feelings about Brad Pitt, I don’t think you can argue that his role as Paul is less than gorgeous. (See below.) Also pleasing are the glimpses of 1920’s flapperdom, particularly in the character of Jessie Burns (later Maclean’s wife), who is charmingly represented.

young Brad Pitt

young Brad Pitt

The film opens and closes with Norman Maclean as an old man, fly-fishing, accompanied by a voiceover (by Robert Redford) quoting from the book. This is appropriate, and effective. Otherwise, the film’s connection to the book comes and goes. The Maclean family onscreen is quite faithful to the Maclean family of the novella (although I found the Reverend a little friendlier in the book than in the movie), but the action diverges often. I missed the couple that happen upon Paul’s masterful fishing in the book, but at least the scene is represented in the film. I was perhaps most thrown by the scene in which the Maclean brothers take a daring whitewater trip in a “borrowed” boat; I could feel how disconnected this section was from Maclean’s own writing, and indeed, it felt out of character with the brothers as I knew them from the page. Coming early in the movie as it did, it was even more disjointed for me. When the fishing trips (two of them) with Jessie’s brother take place in the book, Norman and Jessie are already married; in the movie, they’ve just begun dating, and there’s only one scene. It is, however, well represented with both humor and outrage.

As of course is standard in book-to-movie adaptations, we get less in the film than we did on the page. Naturally I missed the parts we lost, because I loved the book so. This is to be expected. Part of what I missed was the immersion (no pun intended) in the world of fly-fishing that Maclean brings so fully to life, in such an interesting manner even to those of us who don’t care much for fishing. The depth of all the characters also naturally loses some development in a 2-hour movie. All things considered, this was an enjoyable movie – for its natural landscapes, peaceful yet tortured tone, and familiarity with the Maclean family of whom I cannot get enough. It doesn’t do the book justice, but no movie could, so I won’t hold much of a grudge for that.

Rating: 6 trout.

movie: United 93

I hesitated to contemplate before writing this movie review. 9/11 remains a charged, sensitive, and controversial subject in the United States; I believe the same is true worldwide, although presumably in a different sense and perhaps to a lesser degree. I can only speak for myself and, less so, for the country where I live; less still for the rest of the world. I’ll do my best here.

United 93 was released in 2006 and tells the story of United flight 93, the 4th hijacked airplane on 9/11, which was taken down by the passengers in a field in Pennsylvania. It shows the first three planes go down, and then follows UA93 in real time up to the finish. As Rotten Tomatoes notes, it’s “even more gut-wrenching because the outcome is already known.” If nothing else, a far less impressive movie than this one would be emotionally harrowing for anyone who can remember that day, I think, regardless of your politics or complicated reactions to the unfolding and varied understandings of what’s happening in our world and why; I believe a basic human reaction is horror.

I’ll say in a nutshell: I think the movie is well done. There are qualifications coming, but to start, it is a moving experience, the acting is convincing, and the drama is fully wrought.

My greatest concern while watching this movie – about which I knew nothing; I wasn’t even aware it existed until Husband put it on – was the level of respect given to surviving families, and the faithfulness to the real people involved. My brief research after viewing* indicates that director Paul Greengrass (great name) put in some effort to authenticate his characters, working out clothing and reading material and giving actors opportunities to study their characters’ lives and habits. This is good; this is what I was looking for. It won’t be perfect, of course. This being Hollywood, all the people are more or less beautiful (they don’t seem to produce a great many ugly actors), which I doubt (with all respect) was true of the real passengers on that plane. And Wikipedia states that ” there are some notable exceptions” to the victims’ families’ cooperation with the film; however, the source cited for that line of text says that “filmmakers said ‘Flight 93′ had the cooperation of all the families of the passengers who died on the flight.” So, I’m confused. Who cooperated and who didn’t? I don’t know and I’m not trying to make this into a research project; I’m simply pointing out some ambiguity. Further, there’s the controversy over the German passenger’s portrayal: read about it here.

Another chief concern is the commercialism: this movie was made to turn a profit, right? IMDB notes in its trivia section that “the filmmakers donated a percentage of the opening weekend proceeds to the Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The actual amount donated turned out to be $1.15 million.” However, I would bet that somebody still made a buck; and that obviously leads us to some concern. On the other hand, what’s more American than making a profit from every last thing that happens to us or anybody else?

What I’m getting at is this: to make a movie about 9/11 is a wildly challenging, potentially dangerous undertaking, bound for controversy. I find it a curious phenomenon. A number of movies have been made; this is the only one I’ve seen. (I’m going to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close one of these days, though.) I’d like to go back to my nutshell statement that this is a moving and well-done movie, not without some concerns, and owing much of its moving nature to its subject; but it earns the “well-done” part itself. I would recommend it with some reservations to someone interested in watching a movie about 9/11, but not everyone will be. I am about as removed from this tragedy as an American can be – I didn’t lose anyone I knew; I don’t even think anyone I know lost anyone – and I still found it pretty painful. So, exercise caution.

Finally, and I think this is obvious, this movie assumes that Americans are good and the passengers that wrestled the plane to the ground were heroes. The second assumption is pretty firmly rooted; the first offers room for debate. Within the United States, we’re so numb to these assumptions that we hardly notice them; but the comments on IMDB, for example, make clear that different parts of the world quite naturally react differently to 9/11 and to this movie. Noted. The world is a complicated place and very few things are cut’n’day or black’n’white. You can take it from there, I think.

Rating: 7 audio transmissions.

*Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, Wikipedia, The New York Times, Atlantic Review

movie: The Long Goodbye

longgoodbyeThis 1973 film is based on the 1953 book by Raymond Chandler, which I read so long ago (and apparently pre-blog) that I don’t entirely trust my recollections. I’m pretty sure there are significant divergences in movie form from the plot of the book – what else is new.

Raymond Chandler’s 1940’s-50’s private detective hero, Philip Marlowe, has been updated here to fit into 1970’s Hollywood. In the opening scene, Marlowe is awakened by his cat, who insists on being fed at 3 in the morning; upon awakening, the first thing Marlowe does is light up a cigarette, an action we will see repeated ad nauseam. (Husband and I guesstimate that at least 50 cigarettes are smoked in this movie by Marlowe alone. The only times he’s not smoking are when he’s lighting up or in police custody.) He then heads to the 24-hour store for cat food. Still smoking.

and brownie mix, for the hippie neighbor girls

and brownie mix, for the hippie neighbor girls

Marlowe’s friend Lennox asks for a ride into Tijuana following some trouble with his wife; after performing this favor, the cops show up to inform Marlowe that Lennox had just killed his wife, an accusation that Marlowe does not believe. Likewise Lennox’s apparent suicide in Mexico a few days later. Meanwhile, Marlowe takes a case from a ritzy blonde wife of a temporarily missing alcoholic writer who is so Hemingway:
This couple, the Wades, turn out to be tied up with the now-dead Lennoxes. Marlowe’s old-fashioned loyalty to his friend is poorly rewarded. He loses his cat. It’s a sad story.

Despite numerous plot changes from the novel (Wikipedia agrees), and the notable reset to 1970’s California, including violent gangsters and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger I had trouble recognizing, I thought this movie did faithfully reflect the iconic character of Philip Marlowe. I liked the humorous addition of the hippie neighbor girls (topless, with the candles and their yoga, a great distraction to Marlowe’s male visitors) and the (less humorous) gangsters, too. The ending in Mexico was the greatest divergence from the novel but I can appreciate it. Overall, a real win: this film keeps the spirit of the original and updates it somewhat, and great visuals and Marlowe’s pulpy, rough demeanor appropriately take center stage.

Rating: 8 portraits of James Madison.

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