Monday, November 17, 2003

Love Actually is all around

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper of The University of South Alabama

To make a cake, you take a dozen separate ingredients, stir them together and add some heat. The result is a delicious treat everyone can enjoy. This is the recipe for the romantic comedy, "Love Actually." It takes several very different couples, (some romantic, some not so much) adds a lot of heat, and a delicious aroma of love fills the air. This holiday (cheese) cake should be served with Christmas dinner.

Starring a charming, winning cast of British and American performers, "Love Actually" proves that "love actually is all around," and you can find it in the most unusual places.

The story begins at Heathrow Airport, where people are greeting their loved ones during a voice-over by one of the characters. The audience does not know anything about the character, but it is unmistakably Hugh Grant's voice. He says the best place to find proof of love is the arrival gate at the airport.

He also says, "When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love."

This is the perfect way to set the tone for a movie about finding love in all situations.

It is later revealed that Hugh Grant is playing the new prime minister of England, who has an instant attraction to a member of his staff, who looks oddly like Monica Lewinsky but has the social "graces" of Bridget Jones. However, unlike the Lewinsky situation, the prime minister keeps professional distance and even moves her to a position of less proximity to him to remove the temptation.

Other notable relationships include Liam Neeson as a widowed man and his young stepson. He is trying to move through his own grief so he can help his stepson deal with the death of his mother. Of course, the stepson is also dealing with relationship problems, as he is experiencing love for the first time. He is desperately trying to catch the attention of a girl in his class, but the love is unrequited. Or is it?

One of the most amusing couples meet under rather unusual circumstances. They are stand-ins for the actors in a very racy movie. The scenes involving these two are quite hilarious, but are not for those offended by nudity.

The heartbreaking part of this movie is saved for its two most accomplished performers, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson is perfect in the role of an older wife who fears her husband is cheating, and Alan Rickman is inspired as the lecherous husband who gives an expensive gift to a young, beautiful employee.

Perhaps the most romantic couple involves two people who cannot understand each other, literally. Colin Firth (Bridget Jones' Diary) plays Jamie, a writer who caught his wife cheating. He retreats to write his book and finds himself falling in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who doesn't speak a word of English. The chemistry between them is undeniable and the climax of this story does not disappoint.
There are many other seemingly unconnected relationships going throughout the film, including a single British man who determines his soul mate lives in America because "they love [the British] accent over there," and a wonderful performance by Keira Knightly (Pirates of the Caribbean, Bend it Like Beckham) as a young bride who discovers something surprising about her new husband's best friend.

As the story progresses, the intricate connections between the couples are revealed, creating a somewhat confusing web of people. The confusion only lasts a moment, though because the interconnection is not the most important aspect of the film. The most important aspect, of course, is the presence of love in the most unlikely places. The film ends in just the right place, at the arrival gate of the airport with loved ones greeting each other.
The performances from all involved were charmingly sweet, making this an uplifting experience for moviegoers and a great holiday film. It is an entertaining bit of fluff from writer and director Richard Curtis, who also wrote the screenplays to "Notting Hill," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Bridget Jones' Diary."

"Love Actually" is a film to see if you need to affirm that love actually is all around.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Revolutions Bytes: Unplug The Matrix

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper of The University of South Alabama

With a tagline like "Everything that has a beginning has an end" fans of "The Matrix" trilogy expected more from the final installment, starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss.

With an absolutely spectacular first installment ("The Matrix") and a less-than-stellar second ("Reloaded"), the trilogy had two directions it could go. "Revolutions" could either redeem the trilogy from the mess that was "Reloaded," or it could go spiraling down into a flaming pit of destruction. Unfortunately, it went the way of the pit.

"The Matrix" was a spectacular bit of filmmaking with technological advances no one had seen before its debut in 1999. Its bullet-time technology was introduced and became an industry standard. After realizing their awesome bit of technology was being used on everything from the latest "Charlie's Angels" movie to a (fabulous) episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" a couple of years ago, no doubt the Wachowski brothers decided to try for newer and more exciting technology.
This obviously meant more fight scenes and giving Neo more super powers, even in the real world. This is where the movie lost me. This whole time I was thinking the rules did not apply within the matrix because it was not the real world. So why could Neo do things in the real world that a normal person would not be able to do?

The messiah image was made even clearer in this film, and there is a moment when Neo is lying on the floor, arms stretched out and legs together in a familiar way. The fight for Zion was much too long and drawn out, as was the final confrontation with agent Smith and Neo. It was almost as if the filmmakers were screaming to the audience, "Look what I can do with my computers!"

To be fair, the special effects were great, but they just were not spectacular like the first Matrix. There were also some moments in the film when I actually laughed out loud, a response you wouldn't expect from a film such as this. Admittedly, one of these times was when the characters were trying to figure out how Neo seemed to be in the matrix when he wasn't plugged in and my friend leaned over and whispered, "He's gone wireless."

The ending was completely unsatisfactory and seemed to be leaving the story open for more. So, I guess everything that has a beginning doesn't have an end after all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

One For the Money, Two For the Dough

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper of The University of South Alabama.

In the quest to find something interesting and fun to read, most people listen to the recommendations of others. A friend came to me not too long ago and told me to read a series by Janet Evanovich about a New Jersey girl named Stephanie Plum.

There are nine books so far, and Evanovich is contracted for several more. The first book, "One for the Money," establishes the basic premise of the series and introduces the heroine, Stephanie Plum, and several other vital characters.

The story begins in Trenton, N.J., with Stephanie and Joe Morelli, an older boy from the neighborhood.

The first several pages are dedicated to her relationship with Joe from childhood "games" to the time he charmed her pants off when she was a teenager, to a 19-year-old Stephanie running into the 21-year-old Joe with her dad's car.

Her reason? The reader can only assume it was because he never called.
The story flashes forward to Stephanie at age 30. A repo man sent to take her car is following her. She has lost her job as a lingerie buyer and is looking for a new job, but has had no luck so far. (Her mother keeps pushing her to get a job at the tampon factory.)

She makes a deal with the guy to give her one more night with the car and heads for her mom's house for dinner. She's broke, so dinner with her parents is a cheap way to get a good meal, even though spending time with her parents is a reasonable person's idea of hell.

After suffering through dinner, Stephanie decides to figure out what to do to pay the bills. She goes to her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman with "interesting" personal habits. She blackmails him into giving her a job as a bounty hunter even though she has no idea what the job entails.
What follows is a story with the most endearing heroine in print, going through the most hilarious adventures, with the most outrageous outcomes possible.

A great deal of the humor in the Stephanie Plum books comes from the fact that she is completely inadequate for the job, but still manages to solve all her cases.

Luck plays heavily into the equation, as does the sudden arrival of Joe Morelli every time she needs him. And she needs him almost daily, since she hates guns and likes to leave hers in the cookie jar in her tiny apartment, guarded only by her hamster, Rex.

There is also the dynamic of Ranger, a fellow bounty hunter who has a lot of secrets. Stephanie calls him a superhero and always refers to his unknown residence as the Batcave. In later books, the presence of Ranger starts a love triangle centered around Stephanie's obvious attraction to both men and her inability to decide between the intense heat she has with Joe and the intense mystery that surrounds Ranger.

Other characters of note in this series are her parents, her crazy grandmother and Lula, a prostitute-turned-secretary at Vinnie's bonds office.

In addition to "One for the Money," the Stephanie Plum series includes "Two for the Dough," "Three to get Deadly," "Four to Score," "High Five," "Hot Six," Seven Up," "Hard Eight" and the most recent book, "To the Nines," which was released this past July. There is no official word on the release date or title of the 10th book.

This series offers a great escape from reality and will make even the most indifferent readers laugh out loud at the exploits.

Note: The tenth book was fabulous, and fans of the series have just recently been treated to book 11. I am waiting until my next long flight to read book 11, but I may break down and start before then. All reviews so far say the most recent book is the best in the series so far. I can't wait to see if I agree!

Monday, October 27, 2003

Demons, Pumpkins, and Ghosts... Oh My!

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper of The University of South Alabama

Happy Halloween, from The Casual Critic! One of my favorite Halloween activities is watching scary movies. After surveying the staff members of The Vanguard and JAG TV, I found I am not the only fan of scary movies. I asked staff members to list their top five scary/horror movies. Here are the three most popular, and as an added bonus, the Halloween movie I watch every year, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

The Ring
The most popular among student media staffers, "The Ring" is a terrifying journey. More mystery than horror, this movie is very well thought out and the clues are subtle enough, so even the most shrewd moviegoers cannot guess the end. I know this for a fact, because my best friend always figures movies out before the end, and she was completely surprised by the ending of "The Ring." The movie is about a videotape that looks like someone's nightmare. If you watch it, you will die in seven days. The reporter investigating the story watches the tape, and the movie counts down the days she has left until the seventh. It is very intense.
Watching this movie a second time makes it less scary, but it is easier to appreciate the clues given throughout the story. The DVD extras are great. One segment in particular shows an unlabeled tape in a Blockbuster Video store, waiting for some unsuspecting consumer to pick it up and watch it. "Before you die, you see The Ring"
Final Grade: B+

The Exorcist
Having never seen this movie before, I was excited about renting and watching it. I've heard it is a scary movie and it ranked second place in my staff poll. I can see how it would have been a scary movie in 1973, when it was released, but I have obviously been desensitized by the "violence" of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and all the scary movies I've seen. "The Exorcist" is about a little girl who has been possessed. The spirit within her calls itself the devil, and it causes all sorts of interesting (and appalling) things to come from her mouth! If horrifying sexual suggestions and projectile vomiting coming from a little girl is your idea of scary or fun, you will love this movie. While I did say "The Exorcist" was not scary to me, it was horrifying, which makes it a great movie for Halloween.
Final Grade B

The Others
Nicole Kidman is ethereal and eerie in this suspenseful thriller. "The Others" is a story about a mother, her two children, and the servants who live in their house. Be prepared to have no idea what is going on while watching this movie, but at the end, you will find yourself surprised and satisfied with the way things turn out. It is creepy in a very psychological way, but there are plenty of what I like to call "cheap scares," where things are not what they seem, but before you realize it, they have made you jump out of your skin. "The Others" is a great Halloween movie and should be watched with... others!
Final Grade: A

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
My all-time favorite Halloween movie by my all-time favorite cast! I am a huge Peanuts fan, so obviously I would include this special in my Halloween movie picks. The special opens with Linus and Lucy choosing a pumpkin. Linus drags it to their house and places it on the floor, while Lucy wields a very sharp knife. The first line is "Ohhhh. You didn't tell me you were gonna kill it!" The dialogue only gets better from there, with such gems as Linus saying to Sally, "I thought little girls were innocent and trusting" and Sally retorting, "Welcome to the 20th century." "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is a seasonal special both children and adults can enjoy. I plan to watch it with my 7-year-old nephew this weekend. Final Grade: A

Monday, October 13, 2003

Bend It Like Beckham a kick in the grass

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper of The University of South Alabama

With its DVD release last week, "Bend it Like Beckham" continues to pull in profits.

Now, I don't normally like sports films, but this is more about cultural differences and relationships than about the sport. The film is set in England and follows the lives of two 18-year-old girls who love to play soccer.

One of the girls is Indian, and her family believes girls do not run around in shorts playing sports. Girls are supposed to learn to cook and get married. Jesminder Bhamra is played by Parminder K. Nagra (who recently started a stint on the popular television show E.R. as a medical student).
Jesminder (Jess) is playing soccer with her friends in the park one day when another girl sees her. She stops and watches for a few minutes. She later introduces herself to Jess as Juliette Paxton (played by Keira Knightley, the female lead in the summer's biggest hit, "Pirates of the Caribbean") and tells Jess she plays for a girl's team. She asks her to come for a tryout.

At the tryout, her talent shines through and wins the approval of attractive coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and she is offered a spot on the team.

What follows is a clash between family duties and commitment to the team, and Jess's dream to play professional soccer in America.

Of course, Juliette has her own family problems. Her mother is a busybody who wants her to be more of a girl. She urges her to give up soccer and get a boyfriend. Her efforts are punctuated with comments like, "There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a man."

During the course of the season, Jess has to sneak out of her house to go to practice, her sister finds out she is not really working part time and she falls for Joe. The problem is, (you guessed it) Juliette is already in love with him.

The feelings come out after a match in Germany, leaving one girl heartbroken and seemingly ending their friendship. It would not be right to reveal more!

Suffice it to say, "Bend it Like Beckham" is an interesting look at a culture totally unfamiliar to most of us.

The relationships are accurately portrayed between parents and daughters and between friends.

The soccer matches are fast and furious, and the players are skilled at the game. It is almost as exciting to watch as an actual match.

"Bend it Like Beckham" is an excellent escape movie, to be watched with friends. The Casual Critic thoroughly enjoyed this movie and even bought the DVD!

Final Grade: B+

Monday, October 06, 2003

Better Than Ezra better than Hootie

Well, Bayfest has come and gone. I have to admit, it was a great time.

I signed up to cover the Hootie and the Blowfish concert because I thought, like many others, it would be nostalgic, as they were at the height of popularity at a particularly fun time of my life.

I met up with two of my friends and we headed for downtown Mobile. After about 10 minutes of driving around to find a parking space, we were finally able to get to the stages.

Bayfest is always full of people, color, sound and the wonderful smells of all kinds of food, and this year was no exception. My diet prevented me from purchasing a funnel cake, but I still enjoyed the smell!

We arrived at the WABB stage in time to catch Better Than Ezra. All I can say about them is, they rocked. The lights were spectacular and the music was loud.

Even more impressive, they were having a great time. It's always better to see musicians who are having fun up on the stage because it is obvious they love what they are doing. The guys in Better Than Ezra love making music. Anyone in the audience this weekend could tell that right away.
Lead singer Kevin Griffin jumped around the stage, joked with the crowd and did impressions of Mariah Carey. Tom Drummond was the typical cool bassist one minute, plucking calmly at his guitar, then he broke out with a bass solo that rocked the house, stealing the crowd (and my heart)!
Hailing from New Orleans, these guys know how to party. For one night only, they brought the party to Mobile.

After the awesome Better Than Ezra show, I was even more excited to see Hootie and the Blowfish. The crowd grew, anticipation mounted and Hootie disappointed. They hardly addressed the audience at all, and when they did, it wasn't convincing. They looked like they were just up there performing, not having all that much fun. The crowd did erupt with applause whenever they played something from "Cracked Rear View," their most popular album.

I personally enjoyed their performances of "Hold My Hand," "Time" and "Let Her Cry" much more than their newer music. The reason I wanted to see Hootie was because of that 1996 album, not for the newer songs. Fun was had by all, but not nearly as much fun as Better Than Ezra.

I'd have to say the best moment of the concert was when Darius Rucker, lead singer, dedicated "Let the Circle be Unbroken" to all those who have died and will die for our country. It was a very touching, very American moment.

Now Bayfest is over and after a little rest and recovery time, I know I'll be excited for next year. To the organizers of this event, I have to say, bring Better Than Ezra back! I'd love to see the cool bassist, Tom Drummond again!

The rest of the guys can come too, of course!

Friday, August 01, 2003

Potter Not Just For Kids

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper for The University of South Alabama

Another summer has come and gone, and with it, the box office smash hits. Now, in the middle of the hottest month of the year, when we would all love to be in the icy movie theater, sipping our Mr. Pibb and munching on greasy, buttery popcorn (extra butter please), we are stuck with few entertainment options.

We could watch TV, but most of the new fall shows have not started and we are tired of reruns. Watching "The O.C." only takes up one night a week, so what do we do with the other six? We could go to the mall, but we are all broke from paying tuition and buying school books. (Why one teacher wants to assign six books for one class is a rant for another day!) It looks like it is time to fall back on a classic form of entertainment that provides both an escape from real life and intellectual stimulation: books.
For this week's column, the Casual Critic seeks to dispel any rumors or misconceptions about a very popular series involving the adventures of a boy called Harry Potter written by J. K. Rowling.

Most of you are rolling your eyes and shaking your heads. You're saying, "We're college students, far too mature to read children's books." Well, you're wrong!

Harry Potter is not just a series for kids. In fact, the percentage of adults reading these books is comparable to the percentage of kids. And they are not just adults with kids.

The adult themes in this series have never been more prominent than in the most recent book, "The Order of the Phoenix." More importantly, the number of adults hooked on the series has never been more obvious than at the midnight book release parties of this book earlier this summer. The Casual Critic counted about an equal number of young adults without kids and children with their parents. Yes, I was there at midnight with all the kiddies and their moms, though I wasn't dressed up as a witch like some people my age!

To further cement my place in the geek hall of fame, I will admit I was wearing a T-shirt I made with the Hogwarts crest on the front. But why is this series so universally popular?
Children love these books because they show a world full of magic and possibilities. The spells are fun and interesting, the trials and tribulations are parallel to those children face in school, and the friendships are faithful and loving.

Adults love them because they are given a reminder that there is magic in the world. The possibilities adults tend to forget as they age and the imagination they do not regularly exercise get a work-out. Speculation about what will happen next in the series is a favorite activity among adult Potterholics, and it is done with gusto.

Of course, Harry Potter was intended at first to be a children's series, but is has evolved into modern classic literature. Remember Tom Sawyer? Anne of Green Gables? Any of the fairy tales Disney has made into animated features? These are children's stories that became classics for adults as well.

For the uninformed, I will now offer a little synopsis of the Harry Potter series thus far. Don't worry, I'll try not to spoil anything for you if you are planning to read the series.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcer's Stone" is the beginning of the saga. Harry is a young English boy who is just turning 11 when he finds out he is a wizard. He had lived with his aunt and uncle most of his life and was told his parents were killed in a car crash. This is not true. Harry's parents, Lily and James Potter, were actually involved in an effort to defeat the most evil wizard who had ever lived, Lord Voldemort. When Voldemort tried to kill the infant Harry, his magic bounced back on himself and he was assumed dead. Harry survived the death curse with only a small lightening-shaped scar. He discovers the real way his parents died from Hagrid, an employee at Hogwarts. Hagrid is the person who shows Harry his first glimpse of the magical world. This world is only accessible only to those who have the ability to see it. Harry is one of these magical people.
He goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is much like the boarding schools in England. He meets a boy his age named Ron Weasley on the train to school and they become friends instantly. Harry discovers everyone in the wizarding world knows his name and wants to see his scar. He is a legend in a world he has never even been a part of.
During his first year at Hogwarts, Harry learns a great deal about the wizarding world. Though some of this knowledge comes from Hogwarts teachers, most of it originates from Hermione, a girl in his year who is very intelligent and well-read. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have some great adventures in their first year. To find out more about them, read the book or rent the movie! Admittedly, the first book's audience was children, but it makes for a very quick read and a great escape.

The second book in the series is called "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Also aimed at a younger audience, this book goes through the second year of Hogwarts and involves another adventure. This time, Harry wonders about his ancestry and hopes there are no skeletons in that closet. He agonizes about his place in the wizarding world and tries to prove himself brave and noble. He manages to save the day with intelligence, magic and sometimes pure luck, much in the same was as in the first book. One of the most touching ideas in this book is the fact that true loyalty is rewarded, something we would all do well to remember in daily life.
The third book starts to deal with meatier issues and is easier for the adult reader to sink their teeth in and enjoy. There are many opportunities for analysis in the symbolism and subtle hints dropped by the clever Rowling about what is to come. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" begins with the summer before Harry's third year at Hogwarts. He is now 13 years old. He learns about a man named Sirius Black, who escaped from the wizarding prison. All the adults around Harry think Sirius is planning to come after Harry and try to kill him because they believe him to be in league with the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. I don't want to say anything else because I fear it will spoil the book, but let me assure you, it is a favorite among many adult fans because of the surprise ending. A movie version of this book is being released June 4, 2004. By all accounts, this movie is incredible!

Book four is called "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." If you haven't already caught the pattern, it spans Harry's fourth year at school and he is 14 years old. This book is a bit different. There are not a lot of classroom scenes and there is very little interaction between the three kids, who are still friends, but have some rocky moments in their relationships in this book. It mostly focuses on what is called the Tri-Wizard Tournament. It is an Olympic-like contest with 4 contestants and somehow Harry's name was chosen even though he did not enter. That mystery is revealed in the last pages of the book, so I will not share the information here. The tasks the competitors have to perform are difficult and the reader often wonders how Harry will pull through. He manages, as always, to come out on top. Unfortunately, this book ends on a very dark note, setting the tone for the next three books. The evil wizard, Lord Voldemort returns.

The most recent release, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," came out this summer. It was a best seller before it was even published. This book is dark and at times, scary. Harry is now a full-fledged teenager, at 15 years old. He went through a traumatic experience the year before and he has come out of it much moodier and more serious. Phoenix was actually quite hard to read because all the characters had such a hard time with their lives at some points. The reader cannot help feeling horrible for the characters and what they are going through. It is beautifully written and still has all the wonderful elements we Potterholics have come to expect from Rowling, including the snappy dialogue between the three friends. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to help each other deal with all the difficulties they face during this book, and I think their friendships are going to be stronger for it. The last chapter in this book is called "The Second War Begins." This says all it needs to say. The sides of good and evil are setting up for a major battle, much like the first war in which Harry's parents lost their lives.

There is no word yet on when the sixth book will be published or even what the title will be, but I guarantee you there will be many adults joining me at the bookstore at midnight when it is released. I hope this review has convinced you that you need to be there too.
One of the greatest stress relievers we can have is to get lost in a good book. The entire Harry Potter series offers the escape we need when the stress of classes and jobs gets too overwhelming. So take some time out this year to get lost in the halls of Hogwarts and learn that there is some magic in the world, even if it is only within the pages of a well-written book.

Note: The sixth book in the series is called "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," and is being published in July of 2005.