Tuesday, April 21, 2009

State of Play

Russell Crowe is back. After watching him in a thoroughly disappointing Body of Lies, and especially his small role in that film, I wondered if his career is over. And especially with that added weight he put on. But he is definitely here in State of Play, including that extra poundage.

But extra pounds work for a newspaper reporter who spends hours at his desk, pounding out the next story. He's slovenly, long hair that may or may not have been washed within the last week. A jacket that's been used far too many years. A world-weary but charming smile.

He knows all the tricks. He knows how to talk to security guards, medical examiners (neat little part played by Viola Davis, lately of Doubt), hospital nurses. He can't afford to pay them anything, so it has to be all charm. And he knows how to weasle a line from a source by promising just enough. We sense right away he's a great reporter. And who better to play the role than Russell Crowe, who can lift an eyebrow imperceptibly to tell us just what he thinks of a blogging reporter.

When there are two unrelated deaths -- a petty thief and a congressman's research assistant -- Cal McAffrey starts putting more than two and two together, that leads him deep into a conspiracy. He teams with a young rookie writer, a blogger, no less, by the name of Della (Rachel McAdams), who learns, firstly, that she can't print a story without corroborating it. And at the end Cal has to figure out whether this story, this conspiracy, is worth risking his life, and maybe selling his soul, to uncover it.

This movie was a lot of fun from beginning to end. The cast is first-rate even if you wonder if they made the right choices (they did): Helen Mirren as a newspaper editor who is learning how to deal with a new world where newspapers are not king, Ben Affleck as an up-and-coming congressman, and Robin Wright Penn as his wife.

And, speaking of newspapers, this is the first movie we've seen that acknowledges the predicament of the modern-day newspaper. It's in danger of becoming a dinosaur, and it's also being taken over by those who watch the bottom line. That story actually propels part of the plot in State of Play.

But I hate the name. Turns out, there was a British version of the movie over 15 years ago. I can't imagine that it was as much fun as this one.

Thumb's up.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

This little-seen movie is based on a book by Toby Young, who leaped from total obscurity in London to a stint at Vanity Fair, where he flirted with being seen with celebrities and nearly becoming one himself, before he was tossed back to obscurity. This movie is his autobiographical slap at those celebrities.

And so we meet Sidney (Simon Pegg), a Brit who hates all things intellectual who prints his own celebrity rag, mostly with photos of him being tossed out of a party or being slugged by Clint Eastwood. Sharps magazine Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges) hires him to, well, mainly amuse himself, as there seems to be no journalistic talent whatsoever in Sidney.

The movie is a laughfest from beginning to almost end, or at least it tries to be. Many of the jokes fall flat, and most are of the stupid variety: a pig let loose in a party, Sidney wearing offensive t-shirts, a dog meeting his demise in a crude fashion (didn't we see that in Something About Mary?), a sassy transsexual, and many others. Most of what works involves any scene with Jeff Bridges, who is his drollest in this very funny role as Sidney's boss. It's also true that Pegg himself pulls some of the gags out of a hat, out of sheer magic, through the sheer force of his personality. But even he can't rescue the most stupid of stunts, a result of poor writing.

While I do feel sorry for Kirsten Dunst's career, cast here as Sidney's love interest, what she does she does do well. Her character is quite believable in that she wanted a deeper career as a writer, but found herself paying the bills with gossip news.

In spite of all the negative, I still liked most of this film. I liked watching Sidney climb the ladder, spar with both Dunst and especially Bridges, and I liked some of the celebrity twits getting their comeuppance. After all, we all want to see Pegg's character do well in spite of the fact that most of the time he's a clueless jerk.

Thumb's up if you have the stomach for it.

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Ne Le Dis A Personne (Tell No One)

I picked up the DVD of Tell No One (French language with English subtitles) because several movie reviews touted this as one of the best of 2008. I have to respectfully disagree.

One of the other reasons I saw this movie was the appearance of Kristin Scott Thomas. But, in truth, she's in it very little. However, due to the strong acting of the rest of the cast, you don't really miss her.

Pediatrician Alexandre Beck misses his wife Margot, who was brutally murdered eight years ago. When two bodies are found near the crime scene, the police come around and Alex becomes a suspect once again. They start closing in on him when, all of a sudden, he gets an email....from his dead wife.

This is a murder mystery reminiscent of Hitchcock, where the wrong man is accused and the protagonist (played by Francois Cluzet) has to run like hell to clear himself and find out the mystery of the reappearing wife.

We're in the mystery from the beginning to end, fighting emotionally for Alex to succeed. However, while there are a few clues tossed our way, most of the explanation of what's really happening is dumped on us literally at the end of the movie. I would prefer to have it set up in a murder mystery so that I can figure out what's going on, and discover the clues with our hero.

Still, it's a different kind of mystery, one we've never seen before, and with Cluzet's strong lead, it's an interesting movie.

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Heath Ledger, as the story goes, immediately called his agent after finishing Brokeback Mountain to get him something more studly. Hence, Casanova.

I have no idea whether or not the story is true, but it would make sense that, for any 26-year-old who was afraid of being typecast as a gay cowboy, there would be some fear and there would be some action. Unfortunately, Casanova, while supposedly the story of the famous Italian lover, is not worthy of Ledger's talents.

The movie starts out charmingly enough. Casanova is caught in the act -- in a convent, no less -- and sets up a comic circumstance we'll increasingly expect but which is delivered haltingly.

Casanova the movie is almost Shakespearean in nature, with lots of nom de plumes and mistaken identities. And it's filled with some wonderful character actors, like Oliver Platt and Jeremy Irons, who can play comedy well. Unfortunately, the writing is not up to Will's standards, and we're left with a smile or two, but nothing substantial.

The love interest, Francesca (played by Sienna Miller), is supposed to be a forward-thinking woman in a land and time where that equates to heresy by the Bishop (Irons). She's been wisely using a shell, who turns out to be a drunk who can neither read nor write. This is an interesting woman for Casanova to be fascinated with, but not enough is really made of this subplot. It's a line or two, and then gone.

In the end, in a movie about Casanova, we expect, well, truth be told, a lot of women, sex, and a glimpse into what made Casanova so casanova-ish. But what we get is a slice-of-life that includes neither women nor sex -- as he casts aside all to pursue Francesca -- and no glimpse at all as to what made him a legend. The viewer gets the very real feeling that we're seeing a Casanova a little too young to have built such a reputation. And we are.

This film, fortunately, will not be the one that holds Ledger's memory. Thumb's down.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

I Am Legend

I Am Legend is one of Will Smith's most successful films, but I had been avoiding watching the 2007 film. I had the DVD, but hadn't watched it until tonight. I had watched Omega Man, and was appalled at what they had done with it. Oh, it started out well, but you can only watch Charlton Heston muttering to himself for so long.

But in walks Smith and this new version, a version much closer to the Richard Matheson story. And, I'm happy to say, that all those worldwide moviegoers weren't wrong: I Am Legend is a successful mixture of sci fi and horror, and Smith himself carries it all. Because, let's face it, if we have to be in a circumstance where there's one guy left in the entire world, it had better be someone we like.

Will's character and a beautiful German shepherd named Sam are apparently the only sane creatures left. A cancer cure -- put together by, gasp, Emma Thompson -- killed most of the Earth's inhabitants and changed those she cured into zombies. And these zombies are like nothing you've ever seen. Bald, snarling, driven, with huge teeth and superhuman strength. No wonder Will and Sam don't venture out at night.

In an adventure like this, we want to know two things: how does he survive, and how does he keep from going crazy with solitude? And we get both answers, with a great ending that inspires and grabs the heart.

Thumb's up.


Seven Pounds

Seven Pounds is a mixed-up mystery of a movie that features a great cast. It's also one of the slowest, most boring movies I've seen lately.

Rosario Dawson, especially, shines as a woman with congenital heart problems who is helped by Will Smith's character. Smith, however, doesn't seem at ease in the role, and doesn't allow us access to his character's motivation. He's just sad and confused. And that makes this a tough movie to watch.

The movie is in drab browns, sepia tones, almost as if Smith's character can't see the colors of life. Again, it's a drab palette, and hard to scare up any interest. There is one respite: an aquarium of two jellyfish that Smith keeps in his motel room. That scene gives us points of light, relief really, from the despair the movie wraps its arms around.

Thumb's down.

Monsters Vs. Aliens

The Aliens are coming, the aliens are coming! The military has counterattacked and failed. There's only one answer: the Monsters. Gosh, that solution never would have occurred to me.

But there you have it: the plot. Monsters vs. Aliens ain't Shakespeare, or even sci fi-disguised-as-The-Tempest (Forbidden Planet), but it's an engaging, colorful romp.

We went to see the 3D version because, well, why not? The three-dimension effect is the best I've ever seen, ever since I used to read 3D comic books like Batman with the glasses included, as well as go to 1970's-issued 3D movies. Those effects were like an Atari computer compared to the current computers. These effects are eye-popping.

They're also head-splitting. I got a ferocious headache about a third into the movie. I took the cumbersome plastic glasses off, which gave me almost instant relief, but I put them back on again. Who wants to sit there for another hour with nothing to watch?

The movie is filled with lots of gags, jokes and homages you get if you've seen the old sci fi movies like I have. Like, Susan is 49-feet and 11 and three quarters tall.....just one quarter inch shorter than the 50-foot woman. When our President (voiced funnily by Stephen Colbert) goes up to the alien starship, the first thing he does is play the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind....badly.

I did wonder, however, about the end. Our Monster heroes were afforded freedom from government scrutiny after they slayed the aliens. But there's no Witness Protection Program for the 50-foot-almost woman; how can she disappear into society?

But stop worrying about what makes sense, and see the movie. Just take some aspirin with you.

Thumb's up.