Saturday, December 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

People, including me, tend to think of Woody Allen movies as being a bit too intellectual, a bit too heavy on the dialogue, light on the action, but a good look at complicated relationships. But if you go back to Annie Hall, it's nearly a perfect film with the right amount of humor, insight into relationships, pithy and humorous dialogue, everything. Midnight in Paris, I'm glad to say, is that kind of delightful film that brings it all together.

A young engaged couple, he a writer and she, well, I'm not sure, travel to Paris with her parents and find that their relationship is crumbling under Parisian scrutiny. As their differences become more and more distinct, Gil (Owen Wilson) wanders off into Paris each night, and each night he finds more than just Parisians enjoying a late supper or a drink. He finds his literary heroes.

Day vs. Night is a huge contrast in Midnight in Paris. During the daytime, we get to spend exhaustive, boring hours with bad American tourists. While at night, we join Gil as he exchanges repartee with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and so many other brilliant artists of the twenties. And the distinction could absolutely drive you to give up on our day-to-day trivialities and swing for the fences. Or give up being American all together.

I thought it was curious that Allen used a Brit (Michael Sheen) to portray a know-it-all American, who meets the family by happenstance in Paris. Sheen, as always, does a fine job.

I did not for a second believe Owen Wilson to be a budding author, having been successful at writing Hollywood scripts before this moment, but Wilson is affable enough for us to think that's he's in a mismatch of a relationship, that we're on his side, and that we're hoping for better relationships for the lad.

Aside from nitpicks, the casting is superb. Rachel McAdams strikes a perfect note as Gil's beautiful fiancee but all together too interested in touristy applications. All of the characters we meet when Gil goes back in time are wonderfully cast, particularly our Hemingway, played by Corey Stoll. He carried off the manly yet sensitive Hemingway we think of when we hear about Papa. But we'd love to spend time with every single character we meet in these Parisian back alleyways.

Each moment Gil spends with those bygone artists is enchanting. You wonder who else he might have met if he had continued to meet the carriage at midnight each night? Whom would you like to encounter?

Thumb's up.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Tin Tin is, of course, the Steven Spielberg-engineered motion-capture phenomenon of a movie. And while the animation is simply unbelievable, you get over that in the first five minutes, and watch the characters go, go, go.

It's non-stop action for the three main characters: Tin Tin (played by Jamie Bell), our boy reporter, his helpmate Captain Haddock (played by Andy Serkis) -- who is in love with anything in a liquor bottle -- and the villain Sakharine (played by Daniel Craig). And it's a very simple plot -- Tin Tin finds clues to a buried treasure, and all three try to find it.

There's no getting to know characters. There doesn't seem to be any time for it. So while I admired the motion-capture technology and how real Snowy (Tin Tin's dog) looked -- I swear, I could see every piece of fur on the dog -- there's no there there. There were one or two sequences that were amazing to watch, but that was about it. Rush here, rush there -- that's not enough for a solid movie. Everybody is as thin a character as they could be and still "live."

This could play well as a kids' movie, although I think that even children would get bored with it after awhile.

While I'm amazed at Andy Serkis's performance as Cap'n Haddock, I hope he gets a best actor nomination this year, but not for Tin Tin. For Caesar.

Thumb's down.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

There was one point in the beginning of the new Steve Carell comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love where I thought I knew what would happen next. I guess I had written the script in my head, totally predicting what would come next, because I had seen so many comedies along the same lines. And, in fact, Carell himself had been in one of the first comedies of that ilk (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin), so it was a natural assumption. But something happened. The movie took a left, and, in doing so, became a very good movie.

A middle-aged businessman's ("Cal") life changes unexpectedly when his wife (played by Julianne Moore) suddenly asks him for a divorce. He seeks solace in a bar, but doesn't know the first thing about bar etiquette. A young but smooth operator (Ryan Gosling, playing "Jacob") takes pity on him, and shows him how to change his appearance, change his attitude, and pick up women.

And so Cal's first try at this turns out to be a real success with a wild woman (Marisa Tomei) in bed. And he's set free to confidently deal with the many women he meets, always in bars. But rather than show us funny bit by funny bit (and that was a funny bit), weird date by weird date, the film stops showing us examples of his sexual forays, and takes us back to the characters. And that was the right thing to do, introduce us to all the characters in this character-driven movie, and let us get to know them.

In the meantime, Cal's son is in love with his babysitter. And the babysitter is in love with Cal. And... well, it gets even more complicated, always in a funny but strangely endearing way. You end up caring for all of these people, and you hope they find their way. And they do.

One of the best-scripted, best-acted comedies of the year. Carell is better when it isn't just physical comedy, when he has someone to play and somewhere to go. And this is the trifecta for Ryan Gosling this year; this young actor is simply amazing. But keep an eye on the rest of the cast: they will capture your heart.

Thumb's up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Help

Prepare to be catapulted fifty years into the past with The Help, which does an amazing job of showing us the other side of the servant relationship.

And by the "other" side, I mean more than one side. Black maids who worked for less than reasonable wages, who raised white children, loved them very much, often at the expense of their own, workers who knew more about the workings of the house than anyone else. Employees who weren't supposed to touch anything in the house more than they absolutely had to, who couldn't use the household bathrooms. Who were invisible to most people living there, except for the young children.

It's an amazing, transformative movie. While The Help is moving much because of its story, the actors push the story into our consciousness because of superb casting. The maids, especially, are alarmingly true. Viola Davis is the only one, I'm convinced, who could play the part of Aibileen, and thank goodness the writer/director was convinced of that fact as well. I have never seen Octavia Spencer ("Minny") and her work, but this just may be the role that puts her on the map. Only great actresses could be in the same frame as Ms. Davis and be noticed at all. But there are so many others who contribute to this piece: Bryce Dallas Howard, forgettable in Spider-Man, shines as the employer who is really a slave owner, determined to keep everyone, including white trash, in their place. Allison Janney is amazing as the mother of Skeeter, the young woman who decides to chronicle the maid's stories, a mother who seems forced into a role she's quite uncomfortable taking just because society demands it.

I spent a little time visiting in the south in the early sixties to know what was going on, even though I was only 12. I have some southern friends who vouch for the veracity of these tales. But I had no idea what all went on. And I would venture that what I witnessed was only a partial tale.

Thumb's up. Expect some action during award season. The Help will be right up there.

Our Idiot Brother

Ned is a really nice guy. He's so nice that he offers some weed to a uniformed policeman -- who begs him for it -- and ends up 8 months in jail. When he gets out, he happily takes the bus to see his girlfriend, who is shacked up with another man. And Ned's dog, WillieNelson. Worse, she's not giving Ned back his dog.

So he moves in with his mother, and eventually each of his three sisters. They have their own problems, which he inevitably complicates. Because, besides being a nice guy, Ned has a compunction to tell the truth. Don't you hate it when somebody in your family does that.

Is he an idiot? I didn't think so. He's a soft touch. No trace of sarcasm in the guy. Friendly. But not dumb. Maybe socially inept upon occasion.

I found this movie to be an absolute delight. The sisters are drawn indelibly by fine actresses, particularly Zoe Deschanel -- who is just knock-down gorgeous cute but really knows her way around a comic line -- and Elizabeth Banks -- you just can't take your eyes off her. Paul Rudd is their perfect foil.

There's nothing really ha-ha funny in this comedy. The situations are funny, and the characters play right along. Still, it's a feel-good movie as all three sisters eventually discover what a delight their brother really is, and decide to come to his rescue.

Thumb's up.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

This is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, certainly the strangest Christmas tale I've ever witnessed. Let me tell you, there is no resemblance to a Charlie Brown Christmas.

In the hinterlands of Finland, a young boy is convinced that Russians nearby over the border have dug up Santa Claus by excavating a mountain. Convinced by his books that this Santa Claus is a strange and evil creature, he is convinced of it when reindeer are slaughtered and children start disappearing.

While Rare Exports is strange going, it's not hard to understand at all. Part horror tale, part family Christmas story, it's not the kind of stuff you want to show your kids, particularly if they still believe in the Coca Cola Santa Claus.

Some caveats: The movie is almost completely in subtitles, as Finnish is the spoken language throughout. And there's a lot of male nudity regarding the....wait for it... elves. And it's particularly slow going in the first hour or so, but then the action speeds up towards the denouement. I almost gave up on the film a few times, but I thought the ending might be something I had never seen. I was certainly right about that.

The kid, Pietari, is played admirably by young Onni Tommila. He is so good at being an individual kid who never follows what his father wisely tells him that I would have tied him up a long time ago.

Thumb's up.