A few movie reviews (and re-reviews)

When you are convalescing and your domain does not extend much past your driveway because you cannot drive a car, you eventually end up watching DVDs and online movies. So here are some mini-reviews of movies I have seen while holed up.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain certainly is an odd movie that is supposedly factual. It takes place in the fictional Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw, which is based on the actual Welsh village of Taff’s Well. There is a mountain just outside the village, or is it just a hill? Everyone assumes it is a mountain and boasts about their mountain (“The first mountain in Wales”) until during the First World War, two Englishmen come by to survey it for the government. One is Reginald Anson, played by the devilishly handsome Hugh Grant. Apparently, the RAF needs to know to make sure their planes don’t fly into it. The distinction between a hill and a mountain is apparently whether it exceeds one thousand feet. The village is crestfallen to discover that their mountain is sixteen feet below a thousand feet. Their village pride drives them to extremes, so they begin a major landscaping project to bring sod up the hill and make it big enough to qualify as a mountain.

There are a number of memorable characters in the movie, including Morgan “the Goat” (Colm Meaney). While the men are away at war he spends his time bedding most of their wives. There is also the Rev. Robert Jones (Kenneth Griffith), the revered village vicar who feels called by God to make the village hill a mountain. Anson and his colleague end up boarding in a room at the tavern, and meet up with Betty (Tara Fitzgerald), whose job it becomes to distract the men while the villagers try to turn the hill into a mountain. In the process, the country girl Betty and city boy Reginald fall in love. Overall this is a gentle movie that feels quintessentially British, although really it is quintessentially Welsh. For a movie, its premise does not sound marketable but it is at least unique. Overall, it is likeable enough movie, worthy of a rental if you enjoy gentle romantic movies. As a light romance, it hovers somewhere between a B and an A. So I give it a 3.1 out of four stars.

The Last Detail (1973)

I remembered seeing The Last Detail when it first came out but it obviously did not make much of an impression because all these years later I decided to watch it again. It might have been my first R rated movie, which, if true, meant I passed myself off for seventeen. The movie has only three characters of note, all enlisted U.S. sailors: Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), Mule Mulhall (an African American, played by Otis Young) and Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid). Billy and Mule have a temporary detail to haul Meadows to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their journey by bus and train from the naval station in Norfolk takes them through many of the cities in the northeast.

Nicholson only plays one kind of character, so Buddusky is the smart-ass world-wise sailor. He feels sorry for Meadows, who was sentenced to eight years for trying to steal from the commander’s charity fund. Meadows is hopelessly naïve if not stupid, and is also a virgin. Buddusky convinces Mule to make their trip north a long one to make sure Meadows has a good time and gets laid before being locked in the clink for eight years. An unpretentious and gritty movie, it looks like it was not directed at all. Mainly the movie feels like a movie wherein Nicholson gets to do what he does best: be kind of oily and repulsive. As you might expect, Nicholson chews up the scenery, leaving the other actors more like bit players than supporting actors.

Their adventures include a New York whorehouse, observing some sort of vaguely Buddhist chanting ceremony and a wasted trip to the house of Meadow’s mother in lovely Camden, New Jersey. Although in color the movie feels like it is in black and white as it is typically murky outside. Moreover, the scenery in the bus depots and train stations are as ugly as these three sailors. Overall, I wished I had not seen the movie again and should have realized I had purged it from my brain for a reason. Frankly, it’s not that good and I’m surprised IMDB.com viewers give it 7.5 stars. Perhaps this is the sort of movie only enlisted people can appreciate. If you have to see it, take the time to find the late Gilda Radner as an extra in one of the scenes. This was before Saturday Night Live and she was an unknown. Otherwise, avoid. My rating: 2.5 out of four stars.

The Answer Man (Arlen Faber) (2009)

I generally enjoy a light romance so figured The Answer Man would pleasantly kill ninety minutes or so. While certainly not a bad romance, it’s not a good one either, principally because of Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) is a character not unlike Billy Buddusky, and is hard to love. The movie must have been renamed because IMDB shows the name as Arlen Faber. Perhaps it was renamed because the movie did so poorly in the box office.

Faber is a thoroughly annoying author who twenty years ago wrote a book where he reputedly had conversations with God. It sold millions of copies but turned him into a recluse. He hides in an attractive row house in Philadelphia. About his only contact with the outside world is his agent Terry (Nora Dunn), who is trying to get him to appear on the 20th anniversary of the publication of his book. In fact, Faber never had conversations with God. He made them up, and when he truly needed conversations with God because his Dad was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, the big guy stayed silent.

Shortly after the movie starts, his back gives out. He ends up (literally) crawling down the street and into Elizabeth’s (Lauren Graham) newly opened spine clinic. He immediately is enchanted with Elizabeth. Arlen’s only hobby seems to be trying to get rid of copies of his many books. He tries to give them away to a young twenty-something bookseller named Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci). Kris is recently out of rehab and is back living with his drunken father. He tries to manage the bookstore but it is failing and it looks like he will lose the store. The three sort of come together because they all have Arlen in common. Elizabeth and Arlen sort of fall in love, then sort of fall out of love, and Kris’s father dies suddenly. Arlen tries to be a father figure to Elizabeth’s boy. It’s all way too predictable. As much as I tried to imagine that Elizabeth and Arlen might fall for each other, I just couldn’t make the connection.

The movie is mildly amusing but truly nothing special as romance movies go and five times easier to figure out than the typical light romance, which means the movie is very shallow. You don’t need to avoid The Answer Man but there is no particular reason to seek it out either. If looking for a light romance, pick something else off the shelf. 2.8 out of four stars.

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