Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Squid and the Whale

There's a scene towards the end of The Squid and the Whale where the older son tells the school counselor one good memory he has, and that's when he and his mother visited the huge display of a giant squid fighting a whale at the American Museum of Natural History. It's a moving moment, and the only time I felt moved during this entire movie.

It's not a bad movie. With its raw dialogue and tough situations, it's just painful to watch.

A college professor and equally esteemed writer decide after many years to separate and then divorce, leaving in their wake two children who act out and are encouraged to take sides in the dispute. The two parents are so inappropriate in their behavior towards each other and the children that the children show obvious signs of stress.

If you want a primer on how not to be a parent, watch The Squid and the Whale. The father is an egotist, a pseudo-intellectual who thinks he's right in everything, and the older son wants to be just like him, so much to an extent that he tells his new girlfriend that she has too many freckels. The mother tells her kids about the affairs she has had during her marriage, and, almost as a reply, the younger son leaves his masturbatory waste on the walls of the school library.

Would you want to watch this?

The only reason I chose the film is because of the fine work by actors Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. This movie does not disappoint in that realm, but it's hard to enjoy their good work among what feels like real ruins of a marriage.

Thumb's down.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Good Luck Chuck

I've spent far too many days and nights watching academy award-nominated films. I am so happy to be saddled, finally, with a film like Good Luck Chuck.

Surely I jest. I have no idea how a film like this gets made. Fine cinematography, A-list actors. Cute penguins. Good production values. But a careless, exploitative, stupid script that reads more like Two Buck Chuck. There is not a single funny or charming or witty or redeeming scene in the entire film. There isn't even a comma where it should be.

The idea here is that a Goth-inspired 10-year-old places a hex on equally young Charlie when he refuses to make out with her at a party. Flash forward a few years and you've got Dane Cook warding off women because they believe that they have to have sex with Chuck in order to find their true mate. Well, Dane's Chuck really doesn't ward too many of them off. There is an amazingly tasteless montage of all the women Chuck exploits, as he's exploiting them literally. About 30 of them.

I'm still trying to fathom why Jessica Alba would do a film like this, and all I can imagine is that she wants to break into the comedy genre. Hopefully she'll find something better. Dane Cook chose wisely when he acted in Dan in Real Life, but this later choice is pure disaster.

We know how the movie will end, and the characters seem so sweet that we want the best for them. It's the getting there that is so painful.

Thumb's down.

Friday, January 25, 2008


It’s the hottest day of the year in this part of England. Inhabitants of the estate listlessly wait for the heat to dissipate, either by napping or swimming, or talking and taking slow walks in the garden. That is, the upper class can do this. The other class prepares the evening meal, changes the bedsheets, cleans. It’s a place we’d love to visit, but only if we’re in the “have” category. The “have-nots” have an altogether different reality, not the quality of novella daydreams.

Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old girl in the house who fancies herself a playwright. She puts together dramatic stories and urges visiting children to act out the parts, however unwilling they are. Atonement is the story of Briony and the two main players in her life, her sister Cecilia and the son of one of the housekeepers, Robbie. There is also a third character in this drama: Class. While you can see the palpable sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie on this steaming plantation, class separates them, and we wonder if they can surmount this challenge. But they never get a chance to find out, as on that hot summer’s day, a series of events changes the lives of all three forever, particularly when Briony reports something that's false.

In the ‘50’s, this film would have been separated by an intermission. The first half would tell the story of these people in the mid-1930’s, and the second half would show them after World War II had begun for Britain. It has the sweeping, epic feel of a Gone With the Wind, showing the excesses of the upper crust crushed underfoot when war begins. There are some stunning scenes, shot on location in the U.K., of troops and machinery waiting for the battle at Dunkirk. The film is worth watching from the standpoint of the cinematography alone.

This is a rather slow film, languorous in its approach, in its introduction of all the characters in the house. It’s not a long play time, but it certainly feels like it. The film feels about 30 minutes too long.

Joe Wright's directing and Christopher Hampton's screenplay managed the difficult job of telling a descriptive novel in visual scenes, and these two, along with some deft editing, played with time and place to push across the impact of each scene more fully. It's a masterpiece of storytelling.

The acting is wonderful. We’re beginning to appreciate James McAvoy more and more, when he first captured our attention as Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia, to a man whose life changed on the false word of one misguided little girl. Keira Knightley, who possibly received too many accolades for her early work, is truly maturing into a fine actress; this is a difficult role to play, and it’s the best thing she’s done so far. Young Saoirse Ronan is amazing as the young Briony, but her older counterpart, actress Romola Garai , is also worth noting. Veteran actresses Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have only minutes in the film, but emotionally anchor it.

The full emotional brunt of the film, of the measure of atonement offered by Briony, did not hit me until the end of the film. And that’s the way it should be.

Thumb’s up.

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress - Saoirse Ronan, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Original Score - Dario Marianelli, Best Costume - 2007

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Expectations were high. I expected it to be a depressing, strange little film, especially considering the subject of teenage pregnancy. I expected not to like it, like so many “artsy” small films I’ve seen lately. I'm not ashamed to say that all of these expectations were wrong. It was not depressing at all, well, at least, not by the end of the film. And this little “weird” film is one of the best of 2007.

Juno is a 16-year-old highschooler in a small town in the Midwest. We first meet her at the drugstore, where she’s running out of pregnancy tests to try. You can guess what symbol she kept reading on the disposable testkit. How she deals with this problem is the plot of the movie.

I don’t want to give anything away about this film because it’s such a delight. There are so many funny bits among the ruins here that I found myself sputtering with guffawed giggles. The casting is absolutely brilliant. Young Ellen Page lights up the screen. JK Simmons as her father is a hard-working bluecollar guy, not stupid at all, but with a direct kind of wit. Juno’s stepmother is played by Allison Janney, who is great in whatever she’s in but who really found what this parent is all about. Jennifer Garner is amazing; you’ve never seen her like this before. And Michael Cera was last seen in a Judd Apatow wet dream; he is absolutely the nerdiest leading man you’ve ever seen.

It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s drama. It’s the human comedy. Go see Juno.

Thumb’s up. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress – Ellen Page, Best Director – Jason Reitman, Best Original Screenplay - 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

The challenge for the viewer in a film like this is that, as you’re watching the film, you’re thinking, “Um……naw!”

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a painfully shy man who lives alone (but right next to his brother and sister-in-law) in a small town that seems to be continually in winter. One day Lars orders a life-size doll. Normally such dolls are ordered for sexual purposes and are hidden away, but in Lars’ case, he’s ordered a girlfriend and prominently displays her, acting as if she’s the real deal. The couple and, indeed, the whole town goes along with the ruse on the advice of his doctor.

That’s pretty much it. You see? You’re saying to yourself – or maybe even out loud – “Um….naw!”

Except that the movie is more than the synopsis. A very cleverly written screenplay, deft direction alternating between drama and comedy, and fine acting set this movie apart from just another indie-with-a-weird-idea. It is weird, that’s for sure. But the secret to this film is how the town reacts to Lars’ new girlfriend, and how true that reaction feels.

You’d also think that there isn’t enough here for a full-length movie, but there is. The time – spent in watching the townspeople getting to “know” the girlfriend – gives us a chance to meet all of these people, shake their hands, and sit down with them for a cup of coffee. And we also get to know Lars just a little bit better, a good thing since he was always “hands off” before the girlfriend arrived.

See? We’re thinking of her as a real person, too.

Thumb’s up. Nominated for Best Original Screenplay, 2007.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Once is an Irish film, an ode to unrequited love.

We find our guy standing on a street in Dublin, singing his heart out and playing guitar as a busker, for whatever change he can get. He meets our girl (Marketa Irglova) when she hears his song and tosses a coin into his hat. The story explores their relationship with each other, with their previous relationships as background, in his attempt to professionally record his tunes.

We never meet the woman who leaves our guy, played with great charm and profiency by Glen Hansard (of the Irish band Frames), but we certainly hear about her in the songs he sings. Music not only pervades the movie, it is the movie, punctuated only by some small moments of dialogue and action. Thankfully the music is really good. It had better be, because most songs are played all the way through with little action. There is one brilliant sequence, however, where the girl is trying to write lyrics to one of his songs. She runs out of batteries on the borrowed CD player, runs down to the corner store to pick up some more batteries, plugs them in, and goes back to singing the lyrics to his guitar, all as she walks down the street back to her apartment.

It's a simple title, alluding to the one time, that one chance, you meet the person you were meant to be with. And the story is simple, although continuously not taking the path you expect. The acting is raw, the singing is as much, and very appealing. And I guarantee you the songs and the story will stay with you after the credits have run their due.

Richard Roeper, of Ebert and Roeper, said that Once was one of his top 10 films for 2007. I wouldn't rate it that highly, but it is a nice little film that does some things you've never seen before.

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Funniest Comedy Films, Ever

There’s a difference between funny and funny, comedy and comedy. There are so many different types of comedy, the ability to catch lightning in a cinematic bottle, and we won’t go into them here. For the purposes of this blog, the comedy I’m talking about is laugh-a-minute film, not clever. I love clever films, witty dialogue, but for the purposes of this article, we’re talking basic funny: what films had me laughing the most.

This is in no particular order. Feel free to put them in order yourself, or suggest some other undeniably funny movies.

1. Dumb and Dumber.
Okay, certainly not highbrow. But arguably one of the best timed, acted and just damn funny movies ever. And there’s no doubt that stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels contributed heavily. Whenever I mention this film to friends, regardless of age they all come back with scenes, different scenes, that made them laugh.

2. Some Like It Hot.
Billy Wilder, say no more. This is clever dialogue, witty situations, terrific cross-gender acting. Jack Lemmon is just incredible in the role of a, well, a woman who is just too cute for Joe E. Brown to ignore. Nobody’s perfect.

3. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
The movie is funny before Neil Patrick Harris gets there, but it goes into the stratosphere upon the arrival of NPH. This movie will be become a classic.

4. Blazing Saddles.
Don’t forget Mel Brooks, whose films appear on my list twice – and an argument could be made for more. Cleavon Little will be sorely missed. Madeline Kahn found a vehicle worth her talents. “It’s twue! It’s twue!”

5. Young Frankenstein.
So many jokes, some hitting you smackdab in the face, others almost flying over your head. Nice knockers. Frau Blucher.

6. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The story isn’t really worth your while, and it’s been done more than once. In this version, Michael Caine and Steve Martin compete for the laughs, each quite successfully.

7. Airplane!
It’s a laugh from the first minute, when you realize Leslie Nielsen isn’t the same guy you’ve seen in so many serious movies.

8. Back to School.
Rodney Dangerfield at his very best. No, beyond that. My favorite line happens when Thornton Melon asks the teacher out on a date. I can’t, she says. I have class. “Well, maybe we can go out when you have no class,” replies Thornton.

9. Monty Python and the (fill in the blank).
Clever and silly, all at the same time. The best may be The Holy Grail. And the Knights of Ni.
King of Swamp Castle: “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”
Prince Herbert: “What, the curtains?”

10. The Wedding Crashers.
God, I never laughed so hard as I watched Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn break into wedding after wedding, romancing the wedding party, and having a lot of fun.

Honorable mention:

*** The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis’ best.
*** Miss Congeniality, the vehicle for Sandra Bullock, but made great by co-stars Michael Caine, Candice Bergen and William Shatner.
*** Napoleon Dynamite. Dry humor, lit on fire.
*** What’s Up Doc, Peter Bogdanovich’s best, and the introduction of Eunice, er, Madeline Kahn.
*** Borat. I’m ashamed to admit it. I laughed like hell through this movie.
*** Bad Santa

Friday, January 11, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Look at this cast list. Harvey Keitel, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Jon Voight. Oh, and Nicolas Cage is the hero. You expect a lot with a cast like that.

Nicolas Cage is a national treasure. No, not really, and especially not in his later films. But this National Treasure franchise is still making him a lot of money, as it's the most popular film at the boxoffice these days.

You want a plot? Oh, cripes. Okay, here it is: Treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) looks to discover the truth behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by uncovering the mystery within pages missing from assassin John Wilkes Booth's diary.

Following the plot, however, and hoping for (1) historically accurate information, blended with fiction, and (2) some sense at all in human behavior is asking a bit much. Especially if you saw the first National Treasure. It all adds up to: don't expect too much.

But if you're willing to throw analytical thinking to the wind and dive in, well, you'll still be a bit disappointed. The people around me seemed more satisfied than I was with this movie. What I saw was a bunch of chase scenes but no real explanation of why they're chasing each other, and some really implausible situations. And that pretty much sums up the entire film.

But, Helen Mirren? My God! Does she need a new fur? And didn't Ed Harris turn in some Oscar-worthy performances in years back?

I tried to hold it together, I really did. But when Cage kidnaps President, uh, whatever (Bruce Greenwood), it was all over for me, although I must admit, that part was kinda fun. But the whole let's-all-show-up-at-a-national-park and see who wins -- that whole scene was rather protracted and for little reason.

The whole movie is too long. I would have cut it at, oh, never mind. I wouldn't have filmed it at all. Go see one of the fine films that came out in 2007. And duck when #3 comes out, as it inevitably will. This franchise is not a national treasure.

Thumb's down.


Every now and then you just want to get out of the doom-and-gloom of “serious” movies and get back to some real fun. In 2007 there seemed few of those movies. Stardust was a fun one. I’m happy to say that I’ve discovered another feel-good movie: Enchanted.

Enchanted, however, is more than pixie dust and dragons. It’s also a finely written movie that pokes fun, almost wistfully, at those animated Disney classics like Snow White and Cinderella.

We open with an animated story about a fairytale princess, Giselle (Amy Adams), who is suddenly thrust into New York’s dirt and grime by the evil Queen (Susan Sarandon). While Prince Edward (James Marsden) jumps into the reality abyss to save her, Giselle meets a divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), who offers her help.

This is billed as a romantic comedy, and romantic it is, fully. But it’s also high-achieving comedy, as I found myself giggling, laughing, guffawing all the way through it. A movie like this has probably been tried several times – I mean, it’s not a terribly new thought as Pygmalion screams to life – but it’s put together in a new way. And, with technological advancements, things can be done like never before, e.g., like sewing animated sequences into live action, seamlessly. It’s quite an achievement. I kept wondering, how did they do that? And then I’d go back to chuckling again at the silliness of it all.

The writing is stellar. Amy Adams had to play her naivete seriously so that we’d believe her, and she does a marvelous job. And it’s so much fun, especially when Susan Sarandon takes the reins.

Enchanted is built for kids but it’s appealing to adults because it does reach for a greater understanding of those concepts we as kids wondered about. Is there a happily ever after? Who is meant to be our soulmate, and why? In answering that last question, the truth of this movie may lie in the gentle fact that it just may be that person over there who sees the wonder of life so vividly.

Thumb’s up.


I never wanted to see Zodiac when it was out in the theatres, even though I try to see Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo in most of the movies they’re in. I mostly avoided this latest movie because I knew they never caught the Zodiac killer. How good, how satisfying could this movie be?

Plenty good as it turned out. Zodiac is one of the best films of 2007.

Zodiac is based on the Robert Graysmith books (played by Gyllenhaal as a socially awkward cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle staff) about a real-life killer in the Bay Area in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who killed viciously and apparently randomly, and who taunted the police with his cryptic letters. Kind of amazingly, the movie is less about the killer and more about how the people involved became obsessed with the case. Besides Gyllenhaal, the movie features Robert Downey, Jr. as Paul Avery, the reporter who covers the crimes for the newspaper, and Mark Ruffalo, as David Toschi, the detective assigned to the case. The film shows how this killer, these series of events, forever changed their lives.

The movie starts out in almost documentary style, and we chronologically follow along as the first crime is revealed, then the second. And we watch as Avery, Toschi and Graysmith are drawn in. And we’re drawn in as well, even though we know the outcome of the famous Zodiac case. And the movie reaches a certain if not complete level of satisfaction with its “aha!” moment, even though we know that no one went to prison for this crime. Still, the murder mystery in this film seems so fresh, so frightening, that we can’t wait for the next scene to lead us through the puzzle.

It seemed that Zodiac was released at a rather weird time of the year, weird, that is, for award nominations. Perhaps the studio didn’t think an old story that had no real ending was worth promoting. I predict that several Oscar nominations are forthcoming for this fine film that takes us back into a scary time, a rather obsessive time for several individuals.

Thumb’s up.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Lookout

I can say quite easily claim that this is the best film I’ve seen in 2007. It absolutely blew me away.

It all starts with the story, but thankfully doesn’t end there. Scott Frank, who has several other screenplay successes (Get Shorty, The Interpreter), has written an involving tale about characters you learn to care for. And he has found the right actors as well to play these memorable parts.

Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man whose life was turned upside-down when he suffered a car accident a few years earlier. He tries to maintain a normal life, but we find out that he has memory problems and other trauma symptoms caused by the tragedy. He rooms with Lewis (Jeff Daniels) who is blind and helps Chris navigate the world. However, Chris meets a magnetic former high school acquaintance (Matthew Goode) in a bar who has other plans for him.

I’ve only seen Gordon-Levitt in Third Rock from the Sun, and although he did an admirable job there in the slippery medium of comedy, that experience didn’t prepare me for the way he disappeared into his character. Through his skill, you find yourself feeling sorry for the character for living the consequences of the one big mistake he made in his life, and hoping beyond hope that he’ll make good decisions in the future. Jeff Daniels has a volume of film roles behind him; this is clearly one of his best. And Matthew Goode – I first saw him in Match Point, and had to look him up. Who is this guy? I’m glad I did, because when I saw the credits, I didn’t recognize the actor. He had completely changed his appearance, his manner, his voice. He is both vile and fascinating.

The movie is simply filmed, directed by first-timer Frank, who's telling a drama and yet with rather complicated action sequences. I found myself holding my breath to discover the fate of these characters in the taut action and unfolding twists toward the end. The film is slightly reminiscent of Memento, with its tricks of memory. But in one particular way it’s different: The Lookout doesn’t frustrate you by leaving you wondering what the hell just happened.

Watch The Lookout. Watch what happens.

Thumb’s up.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

More One-Minute Reviews


This is a fun action pic, with one action sequence topping the next in outrageous fashion. Paul Giamatti is the funniest killer you’ve ever seen, and Clive Owen is a great Bondsian guy with a strange sense of ethics and a wise crack for every situation.

Downside: There’s no charm here, or sense as to where everybody’s going.


Line up all the scenes you’ve shot for a movie, and then throw darts to determine the order in which they’re shown. It’s that sort of movie.

However, if you can hang in there through the confusion, and watch these three people collide in life, the impact is worth it.

FRASIER, Season 6

I’ve been watching the seasons in order of the Frasier show, a show I never watched when it was on primetime because, hell, who had time? This show just gets better and better as time goes on and they learn about their characters more and more; gosh, the writing just never falters.

My favorite of this year: Three Valentines, particularly the 10-minute or so scene where Niles has no dialogue. He’s getting ready for a date, decides that the creases in his pants aren’t right, gets out the ironing board, and somehow manages to not only set his pants on fire but the couch as well.


Very gritty, excellent story-writing and acting. Highly recommended if you’re a BSG fan (and even if you’re not, this can be watched without all the background). There’s one storyline about a young Adama and a hybrid Cylon that I just don’t get, but that’s okay. Some young geek will explain it to me one day…

Thursday, January 03, 2008

One-Minute Movie Reviews

I'm catching up on DVDs I have but hadn't watched yet. These three seem to show why I waited.


Uneven comedy that proves that Kevin Costner isn’t dead yet. Another sighting: Shirley MacLaine, who has all the best lines. (“Come on in. I’ll put on a pot of bourbon.”)


Stunning visual effects that only last a few minutes. No action. Lots of monologues. Mostly snoresville, but a few good ideas. But the lack of Ivanova kind of clinches it.


Proof is the movie version of the popular stageplay. Curiously enough, both starred Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie has some terrific acting, hard to deny as Anthony Hopkins is a force as her mathematician father who’s losing touch with reality. And Hope Davis, who plays her sister, is a wonder to watch and steals every scene. But Gwyneth is tiring, and the whole thing sags in the beginning and especially at the end. And, at the end, you’re gonna demand proof that you didn’t just waste two hours of your life.