Saturday, February 27, 2010

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day tells the intertwined stories of various Hollywood actors as they make up and break up in Los Angeles, all due to the pressures of the most romantic day of the year.

Much has been made of the cast, which seems to embody most of Hollywood, young and old (but, let's be serious, mostly young): Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Carter Jenkins, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift, Jessica Alba, and Shirley MacLaine. As writer/screenwriter Katherine Fugate informed her audience at the Xena convention last month, it's convenient for an actor to do a week's worth of work with a repertory of other actors, not having the whole thing financially rest on their shoulders if it doesn't do well.

The movie is not terribly funny, but it is terribly cute, occasionally romantic, and a couple of the stories (out of many) are touching. Also touching is seeing Shirley MacLaine making up with Hector Elizondo as her former self plays on the screen behind her. It is also fun to see Anne Hathaway as dating Topher Grace while trying to keep up with the sexy phone calls she gets, a way of paying off her student debt. And casting Julia Roberts as an Army captain was a nice touch, even though she's too old for that real life role.

The only real problem with Valentine's Day is that it dragged considerably, particularly when Ashton Kutcher's rather mundane story as a florist on this most important day was onscreen. Still, charm goes a long way. You'd think he'd get tired of smiling incessantly.

Still, $60 million worth of people found it charming on opening day. And I did, too, at least in parts.

Thumb's up.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Brideshead Revisited

I remember watching the T.V. miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited which introduced us to Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. Andrews, especially, captured the soft and vulnerable soul of Sebastian, the teddy bear-hugging college student who introduces his friend to champagne and strawberries. Jeremy Irons and the rest of the cast were also memorable.

Flash forward some 27 years and you have the 2009 movie starring Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, the college student who leaves his father's small apartment as well as his stilted relationship with him for the passions of college, represented quite easily by Sebastian Flyte (actor Ben Whishaw). Sebastian introduces Charles to life's simple pleasures, pleasures usually reserved for the rich, which is what Flyte is. Sebastian takes him home one weekend, and Charles falls in love with Brideshead, the huge manor of the Flyte family, ruled over by an imperious Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). Even moreso, he falls in love with their style of living, and falls very easily into it upon visits. Charles thinks class and money are the only things holding him back from joining this adopting family, but there is one more force, more powerful than the other two, one that separates him irrevocably from them.

I found it truly amazing that the entire story, emotions and all, and the grandness of Brideshead could be condensed into a two-hour-plus movie. The movie obviously takes liberties with the book but makes it all palatable, and even fills in discoveries for us. The film even takes us to gorgeous Venice, and fills in the story nicely with tales from Sebastian's father.

The acting is mostly a hit, although I found Whishaw's Sebastian to be a caricature instead of a fully developed and lovable character, more to be pitied and even laughed at. Goode's Ryder is as complicated as he should be, seduced and seductor both. Michael Gambon is quite compelling as Sebastian's father, who escaped to India to get out from under her ladyship's rule. And Emma Thompson is surprisingly good, convincingly narrow, as Lady Marchmain, a woman who could single-handedly make a mess out of her children's lives.

I highly recommend Brideshead. And, for an easy comparison, see the original 1982 production, if you can. At that point, you might have the best of both Bridesheads.

Thumb's up.

Alien Trespass

Alien Trespass is purportedly a spoof and yet an homage to all those 1950's sci fi films I watched as a kid. However, it's less than either of those, unfortunately.

Instead of invoking Them! or The Beast with (fill in the blank), it's more like an original story with several of the same cast of characters. The closest fifties' film Trespass reminds you off is The Blob, Steve McQueen's first movie, only the teenage stars aren't as charismatic or effective, and the alien beast isn't a blob.

Trespass would've fared better if it had been able to make fun of -- we call that a "spoof" -- those old favorite movies. But it doesn't, really. It misses the mark almost every time. The movie may invoke nostalgia in our brains for these old movies, but there's no payoff.

It's great to see Eric McCormack, the only recognizable name in the movie, act as our scientist whose body is taken over by an alien. But even he can't save this loser. Best to go rent The Blob, or Them! or, even better yet, Forbidden Planet.

Thumb's down.

Law Abiding Citizen

The Law Abiding Citizen is Gerard Butler's Clyde Shelton, a small-time inventor who answers the door one day only to be greeted by a baseball bat to the face. He watches while his wife and daughter are slaughtered. Then watches again, years later, when Assistant D.A. Nick Rice, played by a dapper Jamie Foxx, makes a deal and lets the killer do three years in prison. Shelton sets up chain of events that convicts the killer, and his accomplice, in his own way, seeking his own style of justice, but he doesn't stop there.

It's a story we've heard before. Recently, we watched Jodie Foster in The Brave One avenge her fiance's death as well as others who seemed to deserve a deadly fate. Foster, however, regretted every move she made. Not so here. We can see the satisfaction in Butler's eyes as his plan comes through again and again.

In the first 20 minutes Shelton has avenged his family's death. What, then, could possibly be awaiting us? His revenge on the entire justice system in Philadelphia. A tall task, you ask, but not for Shelton, who isn't as small-time as he seems. He has new ways of killing people, of planning it, of telling Foxx's D.A. what he intends to do. And much to Foxx's consternation, and our growing apprehension, Shelton succeeds.

I'm a fan of Gerard Butler, but not necessarily of his acting, in which I find one pose: steeliness. Foxx is very good here, but you knew he would be, as a self-assured lawyer who has figured out the system and does everything he can to play the game well and protect his 96% conviction rate. It's great to see the mild-mannered, soft-spoken attorney change before our eyes. In fact, the entire cast is very good, and gives us people, characters, upon which we can anchor our feelings. Colm Meaney is terrific as the sarcastic, hard-nosed detective, and it's always great to see Bruce McGill, a veteran of the game as the city's District Attorney. A surprise here is Viola Davis, so terrific in Doubt, who plays the mayor; she's in the movie all too briefly.

There are a few moments which stretch incredulity -- maybe more than a few. The movie isn't as gripping as it probably should be, but the actors make up for the slow parts. For the most part, I found the movie quite watchable.

Thumb's up.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Serious Man

I can't believe the Academy has designated the Coen brothers' film A Serious Man one of the ten nominations for Best Picture of 2009. I could hardly watch the thing.

It's the thinly veiled modern story of Job, a nebbish of a man to whom bad things are happening, from his wife leaving his marriage for a mutual friend to kids who just want him to fix the T.V., or be a pot of money for a nose job. He talks to God, wondering why all this is happening to him, but God doesn't answer. Instead, God sends him a series of rabbis, a profession that isn't recommended highly in this film.

It's boring, it's depressing, it's more a recommendation for suicide than an inspiring film choice.

For Ruth's take on A Serious Man, visit her blog entry.

As for me, a Serious thumbs down.


I had breakfast today with a young man who considers himself a movie-lover, not a film aficionado. He told me that, in his opinion, Hilary Swank hasn't done a decent film since Million Dollar Baby. Amelia is a decent film, and she's wonderful in it, but it's not a great film.

Everyone knows the story of Amelia Earhart, the aviatrix (a quaint name for a female aviator back in the thirties), from obscurity in Kansas to worldwide notoriety as the female Lindbergh when she's picked for her first transatlantic flight by publicist George Putnam (Richard Gere). Or, rather, we don't know the story, at least the end of the story. She disappeared in the Pacific Ocean along with her navigator while trying to fly over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

Amelia doesn't really explain what happened, except to report what we already knew about mechanical problems with her plane. What the film purports to do is explain why a woman, why this woman, would be up there in the first place.

But there's no conflict in that story. So the movie gives us romance, and romantic suffering, as it shows Amelia being a little untrue to Putnam in her dalliance with a British business man (Ewan MacGregor). Unfortunately, this is all very boring, and adds little to her story, except for perhaps the ongoing theme of "I want to be free."

Swank looks so much like photos of Earhart that it's downright spooky. However, out of her mouth comes platitudes, again along the themes of freedom and flying is fun. Except for her one love affair outside of marriage, she's pretty much shown as perfect: not a hair out of place, that toothful smile always on her lips, and totally blameless in the fact that Putnam lied to the public about her exploits. (She wasn't the first aviatrix across the Atlantic, until she did it herself, unassisted, a few years later.) Unfortunately, "perfect" doesn't begin to explain the woman, what drove her, what made her the aviation icon she is today.

Amelia, and Hilary, may have done it for the fun, but where's the fun for the rest of us? Amelia is a beautifully shot picture with no real meaning or soul.

Thumb's down.

The Invention of Lying

I thoroughly enjoyed the last Ricky Gervais movie, Ghost Town, and found it funny with a heart. The Invention of Lying isn't quite as funny, and doesn't have as big a heart. That isn't to say, however, that it's not funny with a good message. It's just not as strongly written.

Mark (Gervais) lives in a world where everyone tells the truth. And, trust me, they do, constantly. So when Mark finally gets a date with his dream girl, Anna (Jennifer Garner), she tells him she's not attracted to him, really, and that they would end up having short, fat kids, so there is no future in the relationship, let alone a second date. However, when Mark tells his mother, who is afraid of dying and being surrounded by nothingness, that she can expect a better world beyond, Mark becomes viewed as a prophet who speaks to God, and he becomes a lot more interesting to Anna.

Gervais' sense of humor is terribly infectious, and you can't but identify with the short and chubby actor. Garner is a bit of a revelation in The Invention of Lying; we've seen her as a spy, as a ditz, as a serious mother, but I've never seen her do humor, and she's terrific in the role of Anna, a woman who knows she's perfect and says so with such charm and comic timing.

The only problem, perhaps, with the movie is the script: it's one idea, and it's hard to see where it can go. Screenwriters Gervais and Matthew Robinson, who also co-directed, try to turn this idea into a romantic comedy, but it doesn't really work. Still, if you like Gervais or Garner, and a really interesting idea, take a look.

Thumb's up.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Terry Gilliam's latest movie, is a little bit of a mess. It's not terribly linear, it's mostly confusing and depressing. But most of those issues are lost in one fact: It's Heath Ledger's last movie.

And, actually, as most of us know, Ledger didn't make it through the entire movie. He apparently filmed the half of the movie that takes place in reality, on one side of the imaginarium mirror, but not the other half. Gilliam, amazingly, was able to convince three of our finest actors to help complete the movie: Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp. And, also amazingly, we're supposed to believe that each of these actors is another side of Heath Ledger's character. Whew. And this addition of Tony #2, #3 and #4 works, to a certain degree.

It's a circus, a traveling circus, complete with old clown (portrayed by Christopher Plummer, who looks older and older, just in this role) and a dwarf. And there is a magical door, or mirror, where unsuspecting people are thrust into and are changed. The circus picks up a drifter (Ledger) who helps the dying travel show pick up some cash. But the drifter has a past they don't know about.

As I said, the additional Tonys on the other side of the mirror work, at least to impress us that people change on the other side of the mirror. But they also serve to remind us that Heath Ledger is no longer in the film, no longer among us. As Mick LaSalle said so aptly in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, we miss him all the more.

The only thing that's riveting about this movie is Ledger. He's magical, even in half a role. But there is no other reason to see this hodgepodge of magic and death. Thumb's down.

My One and Only

At last. George Hamilton has finally given something back to the industry that has nurtured him for so long. My One and Only is a fictionalized account of George's childhood, and while we're not sure when the real story and the fictionalized one diverge, the movie begins when his mother left his father for his bandleader's dalliances with the hired singers, and she takes her two children on the road.

Ann Devereaux is a lot like Blanche DuBois, a Southern belle who depends upon the kindness of strangers and every possible platitude to fit the situation. She's charming, she has feminine wiles, and she's out to find a husband, because in 1953 that's the only security an American woman could possibly have. In many ways, however, as the two boys watch, this strategy fails again and again. Sometimes in a funny way, sometimes in a duck-he's-hitting-me tragic way.

It sounds like one of those female road picture of the '40's, but it's much deeper and more serious than that. One boy is a little on the effeminate side, picturing himself an actor; it's hard to be an actor when you don't stay in any one town, or school, for over a week. And the other boy is George, a serious but sarcastic boy who's smarter than most of the world and really yearns for a normal life.

It's a good screenplay which is dressed by brilliant actors. Renee Zellwegger finally found a part that really fits her. Kevin Bacon, as the husband she leaves, is brilliant once again. The men they meet along their road journey are perfectly cast. And the boys are wonderful.

I heartily recommend My One and Only. Just don't think it's going to be a comedy. There are funny moments along the way, but each person in this story feels their own pain.

Thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Whip It

Ellen Page is Juno a little older and less pregnant in the same small town in Whip It, a story about a 19-year-old waitress who decides to break out of boring small town by joining a roller derby team.

I was prepared to watch a shlocky, ill put-together film, but I actually thought almost everything in Whip It worked. The comedy of innocent girl thrust into the tattooed throes of comic-but-serious roller derby women is priceless. And you gotta love their names: Maggie Mayhem. Smashly Simpson. And the drama works well, too. Drew Barrymore's first directorial effort really scores.

The only part of the film I wasn't pleased with were many of the exchanges Page's character Bliss Cavendar had with her family. But just sit back and enjoy the superb cast -- Marcia Gay Harden as her mother, a mother who's seen better days as a beauty queen, and underrated Daniel Stern as her put-upon father.

The roller derby queens are well-cast, too. Ever wonder what happened to actress Juliette Lewis? She's here as the slightly crazy roller derby player who doesn't like young upstarts. Kristen Wiig breaks away from Saturday Night Live as the roller derby maven who befriends our girl.

It's a sports movie, it's a coming-of-age movie, it's bored-in-a-small-town movie. See it.

Thumb's up.

Cold Souls

Paul Giamatti plays .... Paul Giamatti. Who decides to store his actor's soul so that he can adequately dig into Chekhov on stage and shed the overwhelming anxiety the role brings him. Who could resist?

Well, resist. This movie is not only boring, it's deadly depressing at times.

There's another little part, or three, about a Russian group of mostly women who deal in blackmarket souls, and that's a cute idea, but it doesn't go anywhere, at least in linear fashion.

Giamatti, as always, is a great actor, but he's so convincing he makes me ache with anxiety every time he's onscreen. Even with a different soul. Oh, well. Maybe I can go watch John Adams again...

Thumb's down.

The Princess and the Frog

A lot has been written about The Princess and the Frog, the first hand-drawn animated film from Disney in quite awhile, the first African-American star in a Disney animated film. I won't rehash all that, but I just wanted to give you some thoughts about the film.

I liked it a lot. The color palette of the film is wonderful, and it totally takes you into the New Orleans of old. However, and I thought this was kind of ironic: the African American little girl, Tiana, only appears for a little bit at the beginning and the end. Mostly we see Tiana as a frog. Yes, that's right. Along with the "handsome" prince, who, as a frog, started the whole mess when he asked her to kiss him to break the spell.

And I also thought it was interesting that race became an issue only because they didn't want race to be an issue. Her childhood playmate obviously stops playing with her because, as they grow up, they're of different races. But Disney wants you to believe it's totally a class thing. Not between rich and poor, but rather between the working hard and the lazy. By doing this, Disney totally drew our attention to the whole race issue.

Anika Noni Rose has an amazing voice, and nuance, and after this and her prominent role in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I'm confident we'll see a lot more of her.

Despite the above "issues," I think the movie works really well, and the moral of the story a true one for little girls. This little girl-who-grew-up gets the man, but only on her terms. And hallelujah for that.

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Lovely Bones

It's taken me a few days to compose my thoughts for The Lovely Bones. I really enjoyed the Alice Sebold novel about a young girl who is brutally murdered and then watches over her family from a heavenly way station. But, and it's true confessions here, I was hoping that the ending of the movie would be more satisfying than the one the book provided. It wasn't.

The movie takes the story in slightly different directions, even if they didn't change the ending. Some of the events of the family are changed around so as to be more dramatic. The story is still the same, however. Director Peter Jackson spares us the details of the rape and murder, although he gives us enough, scattered throughout the story, to ensure that we definitely know what happened. The film has no less of an impact, and I don't think it's appropriate for young teens to watch. Young teens that were Susie Salmon's age.

In December 1973, Susie Salmon ("like the fish") takes a shortcut home from school through a cornfield, and is approached by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who wants to show her the kids' hideout he just built below ground. She can't resist, unfortunately, and after he's done, he dismembers her body and burns it, keeping only a charm from her bracelet as a keepsake. He also keeps his book of diagrams as to how he built the shelter, and stores the book in a drawer in his house.

The Salmon family is at first reluctant to accept her death, but then the police find the playhouse and her hat. And her blood.

Throughout all of this, we watch Susie explore her new land. It's a way station to heaven, according to the other girl who resides there. And it's beautiful, especially with special effects. This Susie, however, is different from the book in that she's emotionally distraught that all of this is going on down below. She visits temporarily, but without substance, and although she has a connection with her father, is unable to show him what to do. Or whom to suspect.

Part of the book's charm is that Susie is rather placid, a storyteller, watching but not reacting. She wants justice, but I did not sense any need for vengeance. This Susie, however, seems to want both. And she leads us into wanting both as well. It is for that reason that I recommend the movie. Saoirse Ronan's Susie is one powerful little girl. And we feel her loss.

Also recommended is Stanley Tucci, rather unrecognizable in longish blonde hair. Mr. Harvey's smile seems legitimate, all the more scary when you realize what a vile thing George Harvey really is. And that this isn't his first crime. Tucci is unbelievably good. It's great to see some notoriety come his way, even though I may never be able to look at him in the same way again.

In spite of the rather unsatisfying ending, and the fact that the story is changed, I would have to say this Lovely Bones is a compelling story about a family that deals with the death of their jewel. Thumb's up.

The Boys Are Back

Australian Joe Warr (Clive Owen) seems to lead an idyllic life: he has a great job as a sportswriter, which takes him away quite often, and he has a wonderful wife and young son who adore him. One day, however, they discover that his wife (Laura Fraser) has inoperable cancer, and, very soon within the story, she dies.

The movie is "inspired by a true story" when a journalist's wife died and he was forced to actually be a dad. What complicates The Boys Are Back is that his teenage son from a previous marriage has announced that he wants to come stay with dad as well. The movie examines how Joe deals with his relationships with his children, helps the younger one grieve as he, too, is grieving, and, mainly, what mistakes he makes along the way.

This is the best thing Clive Owen has ever done, and I'm sure very few people will see it because of its unexciting themes. The difference is in the material, the original book from which the screenplay was written. While Owen is usually depicted as a risk-taking special agent or somesuch, he's very often in the most godawful written material. The Boys Are Back is a common theme, but presents an original way of handling it. The movie doesn't sugarcoat Joe's situation. If you think kids are tough to handle, and unpredictable, you'd be right.

I really liked the fact that the screenplay and director (Scott Hicks) didn't leap for the obvious for Joe: finding that next female to take over in raising the kids while Joe travels throughout Australia and to the Olympics, etc., for his work. Oh, Joe tries to do that, but the women in his life won't stand for it. That felt true, and, in retrospect, is quite humorous. In addition, Joe's "no rules" kind of parenting is funny in retrospect, but, as any parent could predict, rather funny in its disaster-making qualities.

I would recommend The Boys Are Back for a real tale of how a father deals with his new family. Thumb's up.


Moon concerns our astronaut, Sam, who's been alone on the moon some 3 years now. His only company is the ship's computer. Sam's job is to make sure all the mining equipment nearby still works satisfactorily. When we join his story, he has only three weeks until he's relieved and can rejoin his wife and daughter back on Earth.

I can't give away any secrets here, just to say that Sam Rockwell as Sam is a tour-de-force, and I was quite surprised to see that he wasn't nominated for best actor of 2009. Still, Moon is a small movie, and that may be the answer.

One would expect space exploration to be exciting, but this tale is claustrophobic and you feel Sam's loneliness. You wonder how three years by yourself wouldn't drive one just a little mad.

I never saw what was coming. I half expected Sam to say to the computer, voiced drolly but without irony by Kevin Spacey, "Open the pod bay door, Hal," but as much as Moon looks like 2001, it isn't. Still, like 2001, there are surprises in store for our astronaut. Surprises which tell you a lot more about Sam.

I liked the movie for the surprises and the interesting plotline, but the movie dragged through several parts. You would expect a mission where you're the only one for company to drag a little. Still, I think the movie is worth a look.

Thumb's up.