Saturday, July 25, 2009


This movie, improvisational and rambling, wasn't all that funny. But when i described it to Will, I couldn't stop laughing. The set-up was so improbable and ridiculous, I had to laugh. Will denied that the conceit of the film was even possible, claiming, "It's not because it's me--no guys would ever do that--or talk about that."

I was mostly happy because I didn't know that the film was set in Seattle but I figured it out before any of the characters mentioned it.


What was Will so sure two straight guys would never do? Even jokingly decide that making a porn of the two of them screwing was a good idea. In the context of an artsy party held at a house called "Dionysus" these two estranged college buddies decide that the most boundary-pushing possibly entry for the local free paper (The Stranger) sponsored amateur porn film fest called "Hump!" would be a film of two straight guys getting it on.

Thus, the rest of the film revolves around an elaborate game of chicken--each fellow trying to get the other one to back down first, but both wanting to see how far they can push themselves.

While some of their conversations went too far, I enjoyed every scene in which the married guy's wife appeared. Her expressions of understanding, horror and perplexity were priceless and spot on. I was a bit worried that she wouldn't have a role other than "wife" but it was gratifying to see her emerge as a valued and full-fledged human being by the end of the picture.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

La nonna Sabella (Oh! Sabella)

Saw this at the AFI Silver (in Silver Spring, MD) as part of a series of Italian films. It was pretty silly but also fun to watch.

Sabella is an imperious grandmother who dominates everyone she comes into contact with, particularly her younger sister who has been engaged to their next-door-neighbor for twenty years. Sabella doesn't approve of the groom and keeps her easily intimidated sister as her caretaker. When Sabella's grandson arrives, because she pretends to be on her deathbed, the order Sabella has created is overturned. The grandson refuses the wealthy match Sabella has arranged and conspires with his great-aunt's fiance to get them together. It's all done (or over done) with a lot of humor and "typical Italian" emotive-ness.

Not deep, but entertaining.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Drag me to Hell

Thoroughly enjoyable, scary, ridiculous, well-played horror flick. The lead actress is tough and sympathetic and you can definitely empathize with her. Sure, the set-up is ridiculous but it allows you suspend disbelief enough to get scared enough to enjoy the film. Good for a date, that's for sure.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

It wasn't good but it wasn't terrible. I adore Liv Tyler--she is luminous and pleasure to watch, though I'm not sure she does much acting. Maybe it doesn't matter. Ed Norton (Bruce Banner) was good and an improvement over Eric Bana. Norton is so low-key and that is perfect for this role. I enjoy watching Norton more in smaller pictures but he can easily carry a blockbuster.

The plot is rather incidental to the action in this movie. It left me time to ponder how, post angry flare-up, the Hulk always manages to find a waterfall in the midst of a shady forest as a retreat? And, the age-old question: how does he not wind up completely naked?

Possible favorite moment of the film: the Hulk gets angry at the lightening and throws a huge rock into the sky! Charming.

The culmination of the action was a Hulk versus big-scary-Hulk-like-creature show down. The creation of the scary Hulk-like creature was woefully under motivated. The battling was well staged, but the outcome was never in much doubt and the lack of suspense made it not so interesting.

Even so, the ending was ambiguous--we don't know what will happen to the Hulk. Also, the door is left open for a monster tie-in with some other recent superhero types, which would be a lot of fun.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008


This is full of spoilers, be warned.

I'll say it was a fine movie but one thought kept running through my mind as I watched, "Why are they talking that way?" the jargon/slang used by the teenage protagonists was too clever by half. I am no enemy of quirky slang dialog in teenage movies—I thought it was used to great effect in Brick. But Juno went too far in this regard. Also, the theater was crowded and the laughing stepped on many of the lines. I would actually need to see it again to hear everything. Did I like it? I'm not sure. I liked a lot about it but I didn't seem to find it quite as hilarious as everyone else. Was it the woman's Knocked Up? I don't think so. It wasn't from a "full grown" woman's point of view—it's the story of a sixteen-year-old girl. A relatively mature one, but not an adult. Knocked Up mostly took the man's perspective—a grown man who acted like a sixteen-year-old. It's not equivalent. It's not about a woman who should be, but isn't, ready for adult responsibility. It's about an almost adult girl who isn't ready and knows it and figures out a way to be responsible (I guess). You know what bothers me about this picture? It's not the short-shrift given to the abortion option, which, thankfully is at least presented. It's the short-shrift given to the sex that leads to the unplanned pregnancy. Now, it may be silly to ask that sex be motivated between teenagers. They are teenagers! They all want to have sex all the time! Ok, I was a teenager and I remember what it was like. That's not what it was like for me. Juno is a girl who is very cool and smart and, perhaps we're all meant to identify with her, but I only sort of did. The sex is never shown, which is good. But it's never clear how it comes to be. I wanted to know more about her relationship with the boy. It's still a boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-fill-in-the-blank-girl story. Where are the details? Why must it be so elliptical?

And, why are they talking like that?

Possible favorite line: "I'm a cautionary whale." Particularly amusing from the too-tiny-to-be-believed Ellen Page.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I loved Rushmore and I liked The Royal Tenenbaums and I didn't see The Life Aquatic.

I'm not sure what I think about The Darjeeling Limited. Visually, it's lush and colorful and humorous. It was interesting to watch. The shots were framed precisely. The plot was slim and nonsensical. The action was fractured and inscrutable. Some scenes jumped out and others fell flat.

Two things struck me, though. One was a close of up of Angelic Huston. She is getting more beautiful as she gets older. She has one of the most fantastic faces in pictures and her lingering close up is one of the highlights of the film, even though it lasts for less than a minute.

The second thing had to do with those who do good works in foreign lands. In the movie, three brothers end up visiting their mother, who doesn't want to see them. She is living in a convent in Nepal helping orphan children. We later find out that she didn't go to their father's funeral. When they see her, they ask her to come home and she says, "They need me here." That made me think, "But your family needs you too. And, don't you have more responsibility to these people, who you gave birth to, than strangers? If it weren't for you, they wouldn't exist, so if they say they need you, you ought to pay attention."

Whew, it pissed me off then and it still does! Not the point of the movie, though, I suspect.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rendition (2007)

I watched this on my own and found it a rather draining experience. The story is horrifying and the scenes of torture were torturous. I had to close my eyes in parts. Yet, it wasn't too graphic, rather more emotional and disturbing than violent (but plenty violent too). Of course, the movie had a serious message, and one that I strongly agree with, but I wish they could have figured out a less heavy-handed, direct, "on the nose" way of putting it.

As for the acting, Reese Witherspoon is good but has almost nothing to do in this movie. I prefer her to show some humor. Maybe that's why I enjoyed her first scene, where she plays soccer with her young son and smiles. That's all the smiling we get from her. After that, all we get is lot of close ups of those big, blue, pleading eyes. Most of her acting consisted of being pregnant and walking…very…slowly.

Jake Gyllenhaal, a CIA agent overseeing the questioning of Witherspoon's husband (the person subjected to "extraordinary rendition") in "North Africa" is tormented and inert and by far the best thing in the picture. He is the only one with any moral dilemma and with any shades of grey in his character. Yet, we know very little about him. Like the other characters, he's still a sketch, in service to the message of the film: extraordinary rendition is bad. Did I really need to spend two hours to find that out? Sigh.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

25th Hour (2002)

This picture illustrates that the universal is contained in the particular. It tells nothing and shows all in tiny, deliberate movements that give us just enough to work with. Though the story is simple and linear, it key moments are shown in flashbacks. It is the last day of Monty Brogan’s (Ed Norton) life before going to prison for seven years. He spends time with his dog, his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), his Irish barkeeper father (Brian Cox), and his two oldest friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper). The viewer might wish for more of these illustrations, but that would be telling. What makes the movie work so well is that all of the secondary characters have their own internal conflicts. Each is introduced with a few broad strokes that let us know enough about who they are, but more and more is filled in throughout the film. By the end, you totally get it.

There are some beautiful little scenes in this movie. Scenes where the big picture devastation of 9/11 and the little picture devastation of Brogan’s life are contrasted. Each highlights the other and thereby creates a sharper relief. But the film doesn’t put to fine a point on it, it’s just out there. We’re staring at it and it’s staring at us. And there it is, there’s nothing to be done. That’s the problem with life.

Monty could have had a different life, but he didn’t. His friends didn’t stop him, but they feel guilty for not trying. They’re angry at him. They lash out, they sublimate. Just like people do. The universal in the particular. This film give you something to chew on, something to think about and it does it with very little pretense and no flashiness. Who ever said Spike Lee didn’t have a good eye must have been crazy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

I love Soderbergh. He can do wrong, but he does more consistently interesting work in Hollywood than any other working director. What he made of this third installment of a nothing movie is impressive. The saturated colors, verging on Technicolor, really worked. I was expecting to admire the pretty faces (Clooney, Pitt, Damon) but I found myself more enchanted by Pitt against an almost midnight blue sky walking to a private jet. Or Damon expressing his frustration via cell phone while walking on a London street so tinged with blue that his hair almost looked black. And the building with the casino/hotel they target--is that building real? It was amazing. I could have looked at the arial shots all day.

None of that is to say that the action was bad (it was good) or the plot was confusing (for a caper film, it was straightforward). My first reaction: it was sufficiently entertaining. For a pleasant escape, it hit the spot.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Searchers

A classic John Ford (director), John Wayne (lead actor) Western. Did you know that I love Westerns? The Searchers is so good because the story is simple but the motivations are complex. The plot is straightforward, but there is a lot more showing than telling. I also love the scenery. While a lot of the film is shot on sound stages with painted backdrops there are also many breathtaking shots of the southwestern scenery. It's movies like this (or perhaps this movie in particular) that shaped my ideas about what to expect in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. I've been disappointed to never quite see anything like it in real life.

The story is a about a man, Ethan, and a younger man, Martin, the adopted son of Ethan's brother, who search for Ethan's niece, Debby, who was kidnapped in an Indian raid. The rest of the family was killed. The two men search for years for Debby and their quest is bitter, hopeless and relentless. The world they travel is harsh and unkind. They return to their community every couple of years to a usually warm welcome. They could make a home but Ethan won't give up the search and Martin feels the need to watch him. Why? Martin doesn't trust Ethan, who has a violent temper. Martin is afraid that Ethan would sacrifice Debby's life to seek vengeance on the Indians who took her.

The fascinating part of the movie is the undercurrent (it's not that under, really) of racism towards the Indians. In Ethan's eyes, becoming "one of them" might be worse than being killed. His relationship with Martin is ambivalent, too, because Martin is either 1/4 (according to Ethan) or 1/8 (according to Martin) Indian. Ethan loves and hates Martin. Some say Ethan is John Wayne's best role, better than his Oscar winning performance in True Grit. I think I agree.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Blades of Glory

Good, mindless fun. Not needlessly offensive or homophobic, just gleefully absurd. I would not call it good movie but I laughed a lot and never regretted being there. Escapism at its finest. Thoroughly unmemorable, however.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Lives of Others (2006)

What a great flick. I wasn't sure if I would like it, given all the great reviews. Good reviews=high expectations and the higher the expectations, the greater the chance of disappointment. However, this is a case where the description of the film is so uninspiring that it's hard to raise expectations too high. The plot revolves around the state police--the Stasi--in East Berlin in the 1980's, right before the wall came down. The Stasi begin monitoring the activities, via surveillance equipment installed in their apartment of a couple: an actress and a director. The film is simple, understated and quite powerful. This one actually deserved the Academy Award--it won for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Shooter (2007)

The saving grace, of course, was the presence of my boy, Marky Mark. He's quite a presence and fun to watch. Less speaking would have been good, though. Dialog was lacking, plot was…questionable, but at least there was plenty of it. Plot rich, anti-Bush action movie, it couldn't be all bad--and it wasn't. It just wasn't great.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Breach (2007)

Breach is a very subdued film. It deals with the worst case of espionage in US history, but there is no particular lack of urgency in the film. The acting, particularly Chris Cooper, is first class. Cooper is an understated wonder. A few review objected to the lack of exposition of his character, but I think that would be telling and Cooper shows you all anyone ever could know about Robert Hanssen, the real FBI agent he portrays. It would be nice to have an explanation for Hanssen's behavior, and the film provides clues, but I don't think it's a question that can be answered--and the film doesn't try. Ryan Phillippe ,who I generally find objectionable gives a quite credible performance. Maybe in another five to ten years, I'll actually start to look forward to seeing him in a picture. Sadly, I think Laura Linney was wasted--and the stereotyping of her as a bitter, lonely, cat-owner was completely egregious. Please! Could we see a little admiration for a woman who makes as a senior agent at the FBI, a notoriously patriarchal organization?

This was a well-crafted film, and not bad watching, but I didn't love it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Music and Lyrics (2007)

I liked this movie. It's a somewhat unusual romantic comedy. It centers almost completely on the creative process of writing a song. I know nothing about song writing, so I don't know if it could happen as portrayed in the film, but I bought it. Also, the chemistry between the leads--Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore--is palpable. I loved the way Grant played this--his character could have been smarmy and smug, but (full credit to the writers) he's a charming, lovable, not-quite-past-his-prime, hack. Someone who is actually content being a has-been. Willing to coast along, living a comfortable life, drawing on past glories and not getting too cynical or bitter about it. It's refreshing. And Barrymore, well, these days she can really do no wrong. But is she doing enough? I like her in comedies, but why isn't she a stronger lead, why isn't she getting bigger parts? Does no one know how to write for women? Oh, right, never mind. This was a fun and satisfying watch; I recommend it.

A note on my pet peeve regarding the age gap between male and female leads: the one here is quite wide (15 years). However, it's integral to the plot, so no objections.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Notes On A Scandal (2006)

This film had some chilling moments. Judi Dench was wonderful in that severe, imperious way of hers. Bill Nighy was wasted, but good whenever he was on screen. Cate Blanchett practically glowed in this picture. Her fatal flaw, I think, was being a little stupid. Maybe self-absorbed? Or stupid because she was self-absorbed? Something like that. I didn't find this a very deep film, but neither was it pretentious. I wouldn't want to see it again, but I liked it a lot more than I expected. The acting was great, especially because we Americans love to watch the way the Brits do it. The substance of the film was week, though. Not bad, not great, not a classic.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

Watching this film was a visceral experience. Many moments drew you uncomfortably into the scene and left you feeling shaky and on edge. One of the last scenes rivals the terror of most any war movie I've ever watched. Clive Owen was fantastic and I have no complaints about any of the other performances. The plot was fascinating and engaging--and grim and depressing. It was a mystery story, but the central mystery was never resolved. Really, that's the best way. It's just there, fueling the action, never to be questioned or fully understood. It gave the audience something to gnaw on but didn't distract from the action. You just had to accept it and see how such a fact might change the world. Yet, it didn't feel like a sci-fi or a mystery film. A good example of how "genre" movies can do a lot more if we let them. I definitely recommend it.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

A surprisingly enjoyable film. Don't be fooled by the preview--it's in Spanish, with subtitles, though I don't think that detracts at all from the film. The cinematography is luscious and eerie, bizarre and fantastical. The story is grim and sad and totally engaging. You don't need to separate fantasy from reality--it's just as enjoyable to watch not knowing where the boundaries are. It makes the incredibly sad ending a bit easier to take than it would be otherwise. The fantasy softens the blow.

I didn't realize until later that the sadistic military man in the center of the picture is the usually handsome and charming Sergi López. He transforms into an ugly man for this role. That's pretty good acting.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Night Nurse (1931) & The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The AFI had a double feature this weekend of of two early Barbara Stanwyck films. Being an old movie enthusiast, I've seen many of Stanwyck's films, but I wouldn't count her as one of my favorite actresses. I adore Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Judy Holiday, Claudette Colbert, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe.... But Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Stevens)? I wouldn't usually include her. Yet, she's in some of my favorite movies, or at least one, The Lady Eve. And she's in many more that I greatly enjoy. I think I need to add her to the list.

These two early films were quite entertaining. Night Nurse works mostly as a historical document of how nurses used to be trained. The plot gets complicated in the second half of the film and Clark Gable makes an appearance as a heavy. Not a great film, but fun.

The second feature, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, was a lot more interesting and a thousand times more bizarre than the first. The film is set in Shanghai during a civil war. The young American heroine is kidnapped by a renegade Chinese general. There is plenty to object to in the portrayal of the Chinese in this film, but in some ways it's rather progressive. And the ending is...unexpected. It's certainly interesting enough to recommend but beware of the racial stereotyping.

Monday, December 25, 2006

We Are Marshall

Lots of football, lots of crying.

Oh boy, was this movie sad. Of course, I knew it would be sad but I thought it would be balanced with uplifting. It was, just barely. Many touching and funny moments and a bizarre, but I thought charming, performance by Matthew McConeghy. Wasted towering talents (yet again) of David Strathairn and the dude from Deadwood (Ian McShane). Matthew Fox was ok, not great, but I'm not crazy about him anyway. And the women...what women? This is a football movie.

The football part is pretty good. I liked that part a lot. And it was easier to take than in other sports films where the outcome of the game has to move the plot. In this case, "based on real life" meant they could tell the story and not have the chance event of a game outcome be the mover of the plot. That made me like it more.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Deja Vu (2006)

Deja Vu was entertaining, mindless fun. Well acted, easy to watch. Plot-driven, suspenseful, action packed--with a silly sci-fi, time-travel twist. What fun! It wasn't a great movie. Possibly not even a good movie. It had a few, mild pretensions to be something larger than it was but not enough to bother me. (Set in New Orleans, dedicated to Katrina victims--but the movie doesn't deal directly with those issues.) The female lead, Paula Patton, came off as a thin (as in not as good an actress as) Halle Berry, but I enjoyed Denzel.

(Note: There must be an extreme age difference between Patton and Washington (he's 52), but I can't find her age listed anywhere. I'd guess she's 30 +/- 3 years. However, their romance is completely unconsummated, so it's not a huge deal.)

This is the movie to see when you want to be entertained, not think too much, but not be infuriated or insulted by idiotic romantic tropes or completely ridiculous plots. Well, the plot is ridiculous, but it's sufficiently entertaining to make it a forgivable offense.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Blood Diamond (2006)

This movie was brutal; like a kick to the gut. It was like watching a movie about the Holocaust--it couldn't be too grim. When there was a humorous moment, it was hard to take. You almost felt guilty for laughing. But you were also relieved to have a chance to laugh. The civil war in Sierra Leone is one of the most horrifying events in recent history. The rebels chopped off hands, arms, was unbelievable, unimaginable...but it happened. That's not to mention the recruitment of child soldiers, the enslavement of civilians in the diamond "mines" and the destruction of many cities and villages.

The film tried to tell a particular story but had grander ambitions. The grand ambitions took away from the impact of the small-scale story. What do we care about UN meetings decrying "conflict" diamonds? Show us more of what it was actually like to be in Sierra Leone during the war. Those scenes were harrowing. People being shot right and left, with no rhyme or reason, no sense of why any of it was happening. The film also managed to convey the way people act when they know there is a war going on close by but not right there--the way they pretend it's not happening.

Probably the best thing about the film was Leonardo DiCaprio. He played a South African and he nailed the accent. Similar to his recent turn in The Departed, he played a completely sympathetic anti-hero. He's turning into one of the best actors of his generation. Versatile, creative and magnetic. I never liked him much before, but after these two most recent roles, I've changed my mind. Jennifer Connelly, while adequate, was wasted in a thankless role as a brash American reporter. She saves the day more than once, but her acting was flat. And it was annoying that a nice white lady ended up being the savior for a couple of Africans (DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou). The plot was compelling and not entirely believable. Also, it was one looong movie, running about 2.5 hours. I'm not sure what I think of Hounsou's performance--he played a naive village fisherman who loses his family, which may account for the stunned look on his face for most of the movie. The ending is satisfying--perhaps a tad too much--though not exactly happy. I can't whole-heartedly recommend this film, but if you have any doubt that the diamond industry is evil you should probably see it.

(Aside regarding my on-going issue with the age disparity between male and female leads: Jennifer Connelly is four years older than DiCaprio! Their relationship is romantic in the hopeless, impossible sense--as opposed to the sex sense.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

There were funny moments and there were offensive moments. Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat is astonishingly believable. My movie-going companion actually asked me, “Is he really from Kazakhstan?” (No, he’s an Oxford-educated Englishman--and he's Jewish.) The things that people said—thatBorat “got” them to say—were so outrageous, so racist, sexist and bigoted that I was more horrified than amused. It was not humor so much as a mirror held up to America reflecting the ugliness that we usually ignore.

Much as been written about the male nudity, which was an inspired bit of slapstick. Slapstick, when done well, can be as funny as anything out there. It also clarified to the audience that we were firmly entrenched in the theater of the absurd.

However, the moment I liked best was more silly than absurd. Let me set it up: in a quest to reach California, Borat and his companion buy a cheap car—an old ice cream truck. They also buy an animal for protection (yes, it's as odd as it sounds). That animal is a bear. In one scene, they can’t get the music for the ice cream truck to stop playing. A crowd of children starts running behind the truck thinking there is ice cream for sale. When the children get close, the bear sticks its head out the back window and ROARS. The children flee in terror. (I narrated this scene to my boyfriend and got so choked up with laughter, I could barely get the words out.)

It wasn't a great movie and certainly not a consistently funny one, but probably worth a look. It will not suffer from being viewed on DVD, either, given the purposeful low-quality look of the film.


And the last scene, where a busty celebrity was actually stuffed in a bag—I assume against her will—was very, very hard not to laugh at. It was the culmination of all the ridiculousness of what had gone before and I could hardly believe it was happening—that it could happen. Wild. I was simultaneously horrified, as I could imagine how scary it would be to be the person under attack, and hysterical, as I actually sawBorat manage, however briefly, to execute his bizarre plan. I'm not sure, even now, what to make of my reaction.

What did you think?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

I didn’t think I’d like it but I liked it. Call it the magic of lowered expectations. I also needed to see a movie where I could get out of my head, where I wouldn’t have to think, where I wouldn’t have to reflect on or evaluate my life. I thought a little about why I like James Bond—why anyone likes James Bond—or perhaps why any women like James Bond. Of course, he’s sexy and mysterious. He travels the world, is stylish, suave and masculine. All attractive qualities. But I identify with James Bond, not with the Bond girls. I want to be that sexy, stylish spy who travels the world and makes love without breaking hearts, leaving only satisfied, grateful partners in my wake. Ah, that’s the life.

Casino Royale is an origin story, which tend to be the best. It’s cold, brutal and action-packed. The titles were not the greatest but they were refreshingly free of naked ladies (sorry fellas). In fact, there’s damn little sex in this picture and more than enough violence. One of the first chase scenes is actually conducted on foot and is astonishing, exciting and completely held my attention. It contrasted the gymnastic agility of the “bad” guy with the brutish more direct approach of Bond. Perfect set up and was exceptionally fun to watch. In general, the action in this picture was more realistic than I’ve seen for a while—it’s more about the physicality of the actors (and stuntmen) and less about CGI effects.

Eva Green plays the female foil for James and I liked what she did. I did not buy her British accent (good reason for that: she’s French) but I did buy her repressed sexiness. (I would also like to air my on-going issue with casting: Eva Green is twelve years younger than Daniel Craig. What gives?)

I liked Craig as Bond. He was rugged and not too refined and very physical. He was cold and brutal, witty and sneering. His wisecracking fell a little flat—he is better on the move. Still, he is a Bond I could get used to.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Prestige (2006)

You may feel like you've already seen this movie or read about it, but that is because there is a similarly-themed movie (The Illusionist) currently in release. Both are set at similar times (late 19th Century) but the locations are different and so are the characters and the plot lines. Of the two films, I preferred The Prestige (2006). Why? It's not that the acting is better or the writing is better or the cinematography is prettier. No, I preferred it because it is much less pretentious. The Illusionist was a seemingly meaningful story that actually had no substance. There is no particular substance to The Prestige either, but there is an entertaining puzzle, good performances and a truly creepy (though not surprising) ending that actually did provide food for thought, though it wasn't particularly deep or meaningful. If you like magic, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, David Bowie (!) and creepy visuals, I recommend The Prestige. It's a good two hours spent and it won't leave you feeling cheated. All secrets are revealed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Departed (2006)

Good movie. It's true: Martin Scorsese is back to form. I was very surprised to find myself liking the Leonardo DiCaprio character better than the Matt Damon character--even though you're supposed to. I just like to look at Matt Damon so much more than Leo! I see it as a testament to good acting on both their parts that they were able to shift me my from my initial preferences. Also, (my boyfriend) Marky-Mark is fantastic in this film. It was almost a throwaway part, but boy does he chew it up! The hair? Awful! The dialog? Foul! The character? Hateful! But you completely respect him and buy him in this part. It does help if you like Boston (South Boston?) accents. The natives (Damon, Wahlberg) do it better than the rest of the cast, but they're all in there pitching. Last, but not least, the "old heads" in this picture are fun to watch, in particular, Jack Nicholson. I am crazy about Alec Baldwin these days and he is fine here. Martin Sheen? Perhaps dialing it in a little, but nothing too terrible. His accent is a weak point. I do like that EVERYONE in the picture is supposed to be from Boston and that local class differences turn the plot. This attention to detail makes us suspend our disbelieve enough to enjoy the preposterous stuff in this picture. Some gruesome violence, not for the faint of heart, and a little too much humor at the expense of corpses, but, still, a good ride. Oh, and, for once, a love story that is essential to the plot and pretty well done. I recommend it.

Aside: if we could have a picture with as many interesting roles for women of as many different ages and degrees of beauty...that would be something!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

I did not like this movie. I only went because one of the folks in my group insisted. The acting was fine--Forest Whitaker, as always, was excellent and, chillingly, quite convincing as Idi Amin. I recalled him, dimly, from my childhood and that he was a very bad man. In at least the first half of the film there is quite a bit of humor. But, do we need another film about Africa from the perspective of a white guy? For the most part, while I didn't like the white guy hero very much, I bought the story. However, the end of the film, which hinges on the raid on Entebbe, was preposterous. Completely unbelievable! Argh. Also, even the humor is hard to enjoy because, knowing that this is Uganda, under Amin, nothing good is going to happen. In fact, only bad things are going to happen--to everyone except the white guy hero. (Note: the film features an almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson in a substantial supporting role. She sports blond hair and a most convincing British accent. Turns out she's a natural blond and lived in England from age 2 to 11! Who knew?)

Monday, October 02, 2006


Before seeing Idlewild I read a review that said it was an interesting mess--which was quite correct. The music is good, the acting is wooden, the plot is nonsensical. The story is also melodramatic. I hate melodrama but can abide it in support of a good musical. There are good actors in this film but their performances are disappointing. And why, why, why is the BEST musical number playing under the closing credits? If the film had more numbers like that, it would be about 50% better. Probably best to wait for the DVD on this one--I bet the extras will be worth seeing.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson begs the question, "how fucked up can you be and still teach 8th grade history?" The answer? Very. On why he doesn't keep a copy of Mein Kampf out on the shelf, "'Cause it's just not cool to be a Nazi anymore, baby." No, he's not a Nazi. He is one fucked up individual. Perhaps a true tragic hero--but his tragic flaws are much more in evidence than any virtues. He dresses in anachronistic '80s style, including a digital calculator watch and pink power tie. A young girl, his student, befriends him and saves him…or does she? The end of the film doesn't advance you past where it started. The acting is fine--Ryan Gosling is fantastic. Shareeka Epps is astounding--tough, vulnerable and completely her own confused, conflicted person. The journey is fine, but since our (anti) hero learns nothing at the end, I wondered why we made the trip.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

It delivers. Perfect balance of serious hard-ass attitude from SLJ, matched by complete idiocy of secondary characters and a sense of humor about the subject matter. Some poignant early scenes lead to tragi-comic mass death on an airplane that is beset by the twin horrors of an electrical storm and a cargo hold full of…well, I don't want to give it away. Not for the squeamish, the violence is cartoon-ish enough not to be terribly offensive and only occasionally shocking. I got one actual scare from this film, which is rare for me, and plenty of good laughs.

Friday, September 01, 2006


A low-key, working class drama. Decent acting, no rah-rah hero worship. Only one unnecessary montage set to sappy music. Love interest is actually integral to plot. Needed more character development. Stupid Disney. I still liked it. Didn't cry as much as I expected. That is to say: not at all. Also, I'll pretty much watch anything with Marky Mark in it, but is it my imagination or is he looking a little rugged these days? I'm just sayin'…

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Illusionist

The film was pretty, charming, entertaining. Striving for substance, but never achieving it. Ultimately hollow. See it, but don't expect any deep meaning. It wants to be deep, it just isn't. Jessica Biel is surprisingly (and pleasantly) more watchable than anything I've seen her in before. Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti are pros, as usual. (Aside: why are we asked to believe that Ms. Biel (24) is the same age as Mr. Norton (37) (they are childhood sweethearts in the movie)? No wonder women are afraid to show their age. Men playing late 20's are actually in their late 30's, while women playing 30-somethings are invariably younger.)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Big Momma and Madea

Does it disturb anyone else that there are two movies out (Big Momma's House 2 and Madea's Family Reunion) featuring black men masquerading as heavyset older black women? What is this about?

I didn't see Big Momma's House (and I'm planning not to). I did see, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which is where the character "Madea" (a bastardization of "My Dear") originated. The latter film was an adaptation of Tyler Perry's "chitlin' circuit" stage play. (Perry is a wonder--he's produced, written and directed several plays with Madea and made a ton of money doing it. HIs acting isn't bad either.)

There is a difference. In Big Momma's House, the masquerade is part of the plot. The man playing Big Momma knows he is a man. I'm assuming this is the less interesting film because such impersonations as plot devices are tiresome (Mrs. Doubtfire, anyone? In fact, I under stand that in the sequel, Big Momma poses as a nanny!)

The Madea character is a woman, not a man in drag. The actor playing Madea is a man. As far as the plot is concerned, Madea is a woman.

I'm just wondering why there are no black women who can play these parts--or at least Madea's part. And why are men originating the characters? Are they vaguely reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel's mammy from Gone with the Wind? Maybe. That character was subservient (but she was a servant), almost childlike creature--though she was superior to many of those around her. Madea, at least, is a confident, funny, self-reliant woman. She is a caretaker and she also knows her own mind. She was one of the best things about Diary of a Mad Black Woman, since the main plot was pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Now Madea gets her own movie. Good for her/him, I guess.

Here are my impressions of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which I saw almost exactly a year ago today:

DMBW is an adaptation, by the original author, of a very popular play on the “chitlin’ circuit.” These are broad morality plays aimed at an African-American audience. Indeed, that is the audience that was drawn to the movie theater. Union Station has the only theater in NE DC, and usually has a high percentage of African-Americans in attendance, but for this film, I was the only white person in the audience. I’ve been the only white person on the bus in DC many times, but in the movie theater? This was a unique experience. I also did not seem to be the only solo viewer of the film. The audience had the full age range, and there were quite a few men, but there were also a large number of African-American women “of a certain age” on their own or in groups.

How was the film? It was maudlin and funny and sweet. The subplots were more compelling than the main story, whose characters and actions were cut out of cardboard. I can’t really recommend this picture, but it was entertaining. Some of it was very, very funny. The Christianity was heavy—but also realistic. The best outcome for heroine could only be achieved if she got divorced and forgave her ex-husband. (Guess what happened?) The audience was into it, yelling advice at the heroine, deriding some of her decisions and hollering approval at others. They laughed, they commented, they were part of the show. It is my understanding that the same thing happens at live performances on the chitlin’ circuit. Actually, the hootin’ and hollerin’ phenomenon is common at Union Station, and I have friends who refuse to go there for just that reason. As long as you are prepared for it, it’s fine. For DMBW, it was completely appropriate—perhaps it was the whole point.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Transamerica (2005)

Written and Directed by Duncan Tucker

Partial cast
Felicity Huffman......Bree Osbourne
Kevin Zegers.............Toby

I was planning to see something else, but ended up at Transamerica. I figured I'd be getting one more off of my Oscar ™hit list, so that was something. Felicity Huffman grabbed a best actress nomination for her portrayal of a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual. Given that Huffman has a kind of ugly/pretty face to begin with she's probably a good choice, looks-wise, for this part. She is also a good actress, Desperate Housewives notwithstanding.

Was it a good movie? I'm torn. A lot of it was forced and stilted. A lot of it was sweet and good natured. It didn't shy away from some real ugliness (drug addiction, sexual abuse). It didn't try to pretty things up. Yet, the mostly happy ending was perhaps a little too easy. The transformation, of the heroine, a literal and emotional one, came a little too easy.

I have no idea if Huffman's performance was believable. I haven't met any pre-op transsexuals (at least to my knowledge) so I have no frame of reference. I suppose I would cheer more if I saw a man take on this role, but it's a casting dilemma. I keep thinking of John Lithgow in The World According to Garp. He was a very masculine post-op transsexual. I don't remember if I found him convincing in the role, but it sure made a lot more sense.

Nevertheless, Huffman does a good job. And the costume designer was brilliant. Only a man would think that those outfits were something a woman would wear. Like with transvestites in show-girl-esque drag, Huffman's outfits are a hyper-feminized version of how even a prissy woman would dress. The only colors on display were violet, pink and purple. Oh my. And the shoes! Hilariously ridiculous.

Kevin Zegers, who plays her son, was good. Handsome, awkward and conniving. He was convincing too.

I don't know. This was a sweet bit of nothing built on a very ugly foundation. Guess you can turn anything into pap if you try hard enough. Ouch. I guess I didn't like it that much. Still, it was not boring and I enjoyed watching it. I give a lukewarm recommendation.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Something New (2006)

Directed by Sanaa Hamri

Writing credits
Kriss Turner

Partial cast
Sanaa Lathan....Kenya McQueen
Simon Baker.....Brian

While this is technically a romantic comedy, it takes serious aim at racial issues. Which is good. A good romance needs a little conflict, and while this conflict is easily resolved, it is real and interesting. Interesting because I think that it is not confronted very often in film.

A fellow blogger had a great post about why this movie is particularly meaningful for black women. I'd say it's just as important for the rest of us--the movie does a great job of showing why interracial romance is difficult. It's not just because family and friends aren't accepting and night club comedians take pot shots at you--though that doesn't help. The real problems is that it's almost impossible for a white person to understand the casual and overt racism a black person faces in her day-to-day life.

The story is a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot. Simon Baker does a fine job despite some unforgivably stiff lines. The effort to make him seem artistic and sensitive as a contrast to Kenya's (Sanaa Lathan) buttoned-up accountant sometimes fell flat--his dialogue needed some work. But, it wasn't hard to buy. The falling in love happened rather too quickly, but it was a slow process in movie-time. It was in the believable realm.

The losing of the girl happens because the boy won't listen to her frustrated complaints about how hard it is for her to advance in the corporate world because she is black (though she does advance). He is tired and doesn't want to hear it. He accuses her of having an ideal man in mind (an "Ideal Black Man" or IBM as Kenya's friends refer to him) and points out that he will never measure up. And they are kaput--at least temporarily.

It is one of the most believable movie breakups I can remember. The substance of their argument is so real. It's not fun to watch (a tiny bit of humor is thrown in to ease the viewer), but you can't blame either one--they both have legitimate points and either one of them could have given. The resolution to their problem takes a little time to roll around, not that you don't see it coming a mile away. It's rather sweet that Kenya's friends and family are won over in the end--it's more important to them that she's happy than that she marry a black man. And they let her know that it's ok to choose love. It's really very sweet.

So, besides liking romantic comedies, I also really like the male lead in this film. At least I thought I did. I used to watch this little show called The Guardian starring Simon Baker. I loved Simon Baker. Now, I think I loved his character on that show. On the show, he was brooding, unhappy, unavailable, tormented. He was a bad man trying very hard to be good. Sometimes he succeeded, but often he backslid.

In Something New, Brian (Simon Baker) is sweet and open. He's rather more blonde and blue-eyed than I recalled. It's not that he's not loveable, but I didn't love him anymore. Who knew I preferred tortured, lost souls to contented, self-assured ones? Uh, me and everyone I know, that's who.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Directed by Ang Lee

Writing credits
Annie Proulx (short story)
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (screenplay)

Partial Cast
Heath Ledger....Ennis Del Mar
Jake Gyllenhaal....Jack Twist

I have to agree with everyone that this is a good movie, but I'm not sure I would recommend it.

It certainly was a well made movie. The photography is among the most gorgeous I've seen in recent memory. It almost touches the graceful vistas of Days of Heaven. The opening scene of a wind battered tiny, empty western town is so beautifully framed that it makes the ugliness--the rusted trucks and dumpy buildings--seem beautiful.

The pacing of the film is also excellent. One of the hardest things to do in a film is convey the passage of time. At least a third of the film is devoted to one summer. The rest of the movie spans almost 20 years. Yet you are always situated in time. It's not always subtle, but it's clear and believable. (Some may quibble with the make-up used to age the actors. I admit that in the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal appeared with an obviously fake moustache and a tiny gut, I couldn’t suppress a twitter. Heath Ledger's make up was much better.)

The acting is very good all around. Heath Ledger is so good that he almost made me cry before I even knew there was anything to be sad about. I didn't love Jake Gyllenhaal as much, but his character, Jack Twist, isn't as likeable--his acting was just as fine. The women in the supporting roles are also quite good. And the folks who play Jake's elderly parents are totally believable.

So how was the film? Sad. When it ended, I remarked to one of my companions that I thought I would just go ahead and kill myself now. It was all hopeless and completely believable. Those people were so stuck, not just because of society, but because of their own beliefs...I just found it incredibly disheartening. And sad, terribly sad.

The scenery is gorgeous, the filmmaking is high quality and the acting first rate. Should you see it? I don't know. Can you handle the saddest little movie in the world? I sure couldn't. And I don't know that I learned anything either--gay men face prejudice? I knew that. They sometimes cause their own problems by not coming out of the closet? Check. Sometimes the consequences of coming out of the closest are dire? Check. Sometimes coming out is not an option.

But the movie is not trying to teach you those lessons. You need to understand that stuff to know why these two star-crossed lovers are, in fact, star-crossed. But even in Romeo and Juliet there is a sense of "if only." If only Romeo waited a few minutes longer for Juliet to wake up, if only their families weren't so stupid...if only.

In Brokeback Mountain, there was no "if only." Well, if only those fellas had lived in New York City, they might have lived happily ever after. Except these were two cowboys who never would have been happy living in the city. Except they both wanted families. There wasn't that much "if only," which is why it made me so sad. I guess I need a little ray of hopefulness in my hopeless love stories or I'd rather not watch.

The moral? I can't handle sad movies anymore. Bring on the light, preferably romantic, comedy.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Match Point (2005)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Partial Cast
Jonathan Rhys Meyers......Chris Wilton
Brian Cox.............................Alec Hewett
Penelope Wilton.................Eleanor Hewett
Emily Mortimer..................Chloe Hewett Wilton
Scarlett Johansson..............Nola Rice

The second half of this review is FULL of spoilers. I'll warn you ahead of time though, but use caution if you haven't seen the film yet. It requires some suspense to be fully enjoyed.

I feared this movie would be a disappointment. It wasn't, not really. I didn't love it, though. I found it thoroughly mean spirited and lacking in human kindness. I'd heard some glowing one-line reviews, but I'd tried not to read anything about the picture. This is definitely "late" Woody Allen. It deals with issues of marriage and fidelity and the approach is close to humorless. Funny lines are spoken but the tone of the film is grave and dour.

The hero (later to become the anti-hero) is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who I thought was supposed to be something of a fox. I whispered to my companion, "He's not very good looking." She agreed and said that he can be handsome or ugly depending on the film. That's probably true--he has one of those flexible faces. In this film, however, he was not handsome.

Early in the film he embarks on a mild campaign of self-improvement, reading Dostoevsky (foreshadowing) and listening to opera. You don't know whether his efforts are sincere or calculated. In fact, the answer to that question is never resolved though I think it's easy to lean towards calculated, both answers are possible.

Chris seems to be getting along swimmingly with an upper-class girlfriend and her family when he meets the woman who threatens to be his undoing, one Miss Scarlett Johansson. She is engaged to his girlfriend's brother. Their meeting is played nicely over a ping-pong table. Tennis pro that he is, he stomps her and she handles it...smoothly.

I expected not to like Nola, the character Johansson plays, because previews led me to believe she was a one-note seductress. That is not at all the case. Until she is transformed into a shrieking harpy at the end of the film she is probably the most sympathetic character. She is complicated, confused, strong and vulnerable. A rather more sympathetic female character than Allen usually lets into his later works.

But things spiral out of control in the second half of the picture.


After the affair of Chris and Nola starts to go wrong, the film turns to one of Allen's favorite later tropes: murder and mystery. Though we have the inside knowledge, we don't know what the outcome will be--that is, will he get away with it.

Some viewers may find themselves rooting for the anti-hero as he commits a heinous crime. I found myself cringing and thinking, "No, no, no. Stop now. There is still time to stop." Later, when an Inspector (British style detective) sits straight up in bed inspired by the solution to the crime, I was cheering for him. But he is foiled by a very clever plot twist that looked like it would be Chris's undoing and turned out to be his salvation.

In this movie, the bad guy wins, the innocents suffer or remain ignorant and life goes on. It left me a little queasy.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Directed by Otto Preminger, starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. I had never heard of it before, but it was showing at the AFI Silver, so I decided to check it out. It was a good film, though not a great film, which might be the reason. It was no Laura though. Tierney's performance is relatively tiny, though I lover her no matter what. She has almost perfect features, a perfect figure and that silly "Broadway British" diction. She is almost unreal in a way no modern star is. Maybe Faye Dunaway in years past comes closest.

The real draw for me, though, was Dana Andrews. I really love Dana Andrews. Is it because he's not quite as well known today as other stars of his era (1940's-50's)? I don't know how well he was known in his time. But I adore him. The Best Years of Our Lives? Great stuff, I tell you.

He was very good in this. Lots of close-ups and lots of showing. Except for the ending, which was satisfying, but whoever was in charge felt the need to make explicit a few things that were better left to the imagination.

Still, I enjoyed the film. The black and while was gritty and realistic looking, even though the plot was almost but not quite believable.

Definitely glad I saw it.

Last Holiday (2006)

This was not a good movie, not even close, but it was enjoyable, amusing and except for the pat ending, easy to watch (i.e. not cringe-inducing).

I will watch almost anything with Queen Latifa. Unfortunately most of her parts are crap, but she is one of the most commanding presences in contemporary film. I'm not kidding. She is so likeable that she brings joy to almost any role. She seems to be specializing in under appreciated these days, which is a tad absurd. You look at her and it's hard to imagine that this woman, even as a girl, was ever under appreciated. Maybe that's why it works. It's a little joke between her and the audience. You watch, knowing, that in the end she will be the most appreciated person on screen. She will get the man, make the money and fix everyone else's problems. She will never apologize for her color, her size or her gender. We know, she knows, but no one else in the movie does and we get to watch while they learn to appreciate her.

Oddly, her performance in Last Holiday was muted throughout. She begins the film as a painfully shy, sensible shoe wearing retail sales clerk. At the end, she is an international woman of mystery. Yet, she was so quite, so soft spoken, even after her transformation, that I wondered when she was going to shout, guffaw or burst into song. Her performance was an exercise in control and subtlety, which was completely unnecessary in this film. What is Ms. Latifah trying to prove? She is still likeable, though.

I hope she finds a worthier project soon. These lightweight, "feel-good" pictures of hers are killing me.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yours, Mine and Ours (2005)

I'm afraid there may be something seriously wrong with me because I want to see Yours, Mine and Ours. It has to be bad, doesn't it? Probably full of toilet humor and poorly executed slapstick. Maybe I want to see it because I have a soft spot for the original, which starred Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. I don't know if my friends realize that I like family-themed films. My mom knows and she doesn't understand. But how can you not like With Six You Get Eggroll, The Parent Trap, or Look Who's Talking? These aren't necessarily good movies, nor are they movies I would put on my Netflix© cue, but if any of them come on TV, I can't turn them off. I sit there and watch to the bitter end each and every time. I'm afraid not even the little sister (not my actual sister) may be willing to sit through this one with me. If I have to go alone, I will. You know what they say: the heart wants what the heart wants. My heart wants to see Dennis Quaid and a million little kids running around. (Oddly, I do not find the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen appealing in the least. The original was ok.)

The appeal of these films, and similar tv shows, is that somehow these wacky blended families make it work. The are meant to be together, they find happiness and the kids all love each other. Or, in the case of "The Parent Trap"it was all a big misunderstanding and true love conquers all. It also provided wish fulfillment: I always wanted a twin sister.

I finally went to see "Yours, Mine and Ours" with work friend, Nancy. It turns out that Nancy has the same love of blended family type of films (and the same complete lack of interest in Cheaper by the Dozen, despite the presence of Steve Martin) as I do. Don't know what her excuse is, she comes from an intact family.

We went to see it at Union Station. As we walked to our theater, we were a little concerned by the mobs of small children surrounding us. Apparently, they were all there to see Narnia or Harry Potter because we had the theater completely to ourselves. We chatted and heckled loudly through the entire film. I had very, very low expectations and was completely satisfied by the experience. A pig played a supporting role in the film causing me to say more than once, "Everything is funnier with a pig."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Syriana (2005)

I'm sure Syriana is a fine movie (or maybe not), but all I cared about was getting to the non-subtitled parts so I could close my eyes. Perhaps it wasn't the best movie to see on almost no sleep. I have to say that it doesn't speak well for the film that it didn't get me to perk up at all. And I didn't like it enough to see it again.

I was expecting a satisfyingly complicated plot. I like that. This plot--well, it wasn't complicated as much as it was opaque. I'm not even sure what the point was. To figure that out, I'd need to see it again. And I don't want to. My buddy, Spesh, who is the Political Commissar for film (meaning he decides whether a film has good politics and I argue with him about it), was disappointed in its politics, but I'm not sure why. The Commissar doesn't need to explain his opinions. I was just disappointed. Those high expectations will get you every time.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Walk the Line (2005)

I liked Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon's performance was one of the best things about the movie. She always good, even when the movie she's in is crap. In this case, she picked a good movie and made it better. She is an interesting actresses to watch, mostly because of the underlying intelligence she brings to every role. Joaquin Phoenix was no slouch either and had the lost, sexy appeal of the real Johnny Cash.

A choice bit of dialogue:
Johnny Cash (to Sam Phillips): Do you have a problem with the Air Force?
Sam Phillips: No.
Johnny Cash: Well, I do.
Cash sings "Folsom Prison Blues" and you get exactly how much he hated being in the Air Force.

The movie is full of light, small touches--and some bombastic ones too. A good amount of time is devoted to showing Phoenix and Witherspoon perform, but their chemistry is as palpable on stage as off, so it works. They did all their own voice work and it was the right way to go. There is nothing inventive or unique in the plot or structure of this bio-pic, but the leads are enchanting and watchable.

The best part of the movie is that it does a lot of showing and little telling. Not much time is wasted on exposition, you are plunged right into the action. The technique allows us to connect the dots, but the guiding hand of the director doesn't leave much room for drawing the wrong conclusions.

Cash was an imperfect man who never pretended to be anything else. His story is worth seeing for that reason alone.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Shop Girl (2005)

Directed by Anand Tucker
Written by Steve Martin

Claire Danes: Mirabelle
Steve Martin: Ray Parker
Jason Schwartzman: Jeremy

The story is simple. A young women works at the glove counter at Saks in Los Angeles. She is bored. She is from Vermont, which seems to be the explanation for any of her un-L.A. like behavior. She is also an unprolific but talented artist.

She meets Jeremy in the laundry mat. She meets Ray Parker at work. Each of them woos her. Jeremy in a awkward and unsentimental way. Ray in a smooth, older guy way--with nice dinners at restaurants and overnight visits to a designer-furnished personality-free house.

The heart of this movie is cold. The people move around each other but they never touch. The core of the film is Mirabelle's relationship with Ray Parker. They have different ideas of what the relationship means. It's a common trope in all films about relationships. He wants something with no expectations and sex. She wants...well, it's never stated. There is one scene where she describes the relationship to her girlfriends--it's the only time we know that she has a life outside her apartment, Ray's house and Saks--and she seems giggly and excited about the potential of the new romance. But that's it. The rest of the time she says nothing, expects nothing from Ray and gladly accepts whatever he offers without asking for anything.

The film is about the way people don't connect. How sex ties them together, but only in an illusory way. It's an anomic, glum view of the world where real connections don't exist. The acting was fine, the film was slow and the message was vague. There is a happy ending but this is far from a happy film.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

I thought the acting was fantastic. I hate him, but Clint Eastwood is good. I like Hillary Swank, and though some of her dialog was creaky, she was a completely believable character. You felt the pain of these characters. And, did I mention Morgan Freeman? Outstanding. The only thing to criticize in this film was the ending, which was something less than believable. Some of the dialog and the transformation arc were problematic--but still, there was a good deal of humor, some touching pathos and those really fine performances. I didn't love it, but I sure liked a lot of things about it. I would recommend it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In Good Company (2004)

I knew it wouldn't be great and it had some pretty serious flaws. Topher Grace is fantastic. His face is so fluid and expressive, slipping from sincere to slick to heartbroken in one wipe. He is young and adorable and I wonder if he'll get better looking as he ages, gets weathered, puts on a bit of weight. I prefer the slightly older mid-thirties look these days, but I could live with the extreme youthfulness of Topher (though a more pretentious nickname I can't imagine). Scarlett Johansson is also pretty fantastic. She's got a perfect body and a pretty, blank face--but it's that mouth, her lips that are the unavoidable focus of her face. I also love Dennis Quaid and the almost believably middle-aged Marg Helgenberger.

Unfortunately, the core of the movie is hollow. The theme is to find something in life that is meaningful to you and work at it. Choose to do what you love. That's a great theme and Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is the exemplar of it. A company man at the same sales job for 23 years, master of the soft sell, who true believes in his product. Great. But--he's an ad man. An AD MAN. And the movie is holding that up as the ideal job with meaning? Really? His product is ad space in a Sports Illustrated type of magazine--how, exactly, does advertising in Sports Illustrated make the world a better place? Or, is the movie simply saying that if you think advertising in Sports Illustrated makes the world a better place then you are a good person for selling the ad space. Sorry, doesn't track.

Also, Dan acts towards his daughter like a jealous boyfriend. Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), who is Dan's new boss after a corporate take-over, starts a secret affair with Dan's daughter, Alex. That it is secret at first makes sense, but the continuing secret doesn't. He's maybe six years older than she is (her age is not clear, she's either 18 or 20, so he's either 8 or 6 years older), which, while not exactly cool, hardly seems shocking. And, for God's sake, it's Scarlett Johansson, so she acts like she's 40, while seeming as innocent as a 5 year old. The minor dénouement of the picture happens when Dan follows Carter to an assignation with Alex--lunch in a fancy New York restaurant. Wow, that's pretty scandalous. Dan's question to his daughter is, "Are you sleeping with him?" Luckily, she's too smart to answer directly and eventually says, "Dad, what do you want me to say?" Dan then tells Carter to stand up and when Carter does Dan slugs him. Carter falls to the floor and professes his love for Alex. She runs out of the restaurant after her DAD! Is this bordering on incestuous or what?

If it were me, well, my dad might not like the guy and he would let me know, but punching him?? Ridiculous. But, when Carter says he loves Alex, I believed him. I didn't believe Dan punching him. I believed Alex running after Dad. And when Dan says he liked Alex better when she was five she responds, appropriately, that it is a terrible thing to say. One thing for the script--while not a good movie, they don't fool around trying to turn a clever phrase. The characters get to speak in pretty much regular human language, at least the middle class American version of it.

There is also an upside-down morality to the work-place story. Dan several times has the option of quitting in support of his (former) employees. He never does, but he is still heroisized. Maybe because he has two kids, a pregnant wife and a second mortgage he's not expected to make a sacrifice. At the end, when he is restored to his old job and rightful power, partially due to Carter's willingness to sacrifice his own job, he does NOTHING to save Carter. It takes Dan a whole month to offer Carter his job back.

What is the focus of this picture? The romance? The office? The bucolic suburb? The city versus the suburb? (Classic worn out trope of the bad city (NYU) versus the safe country (anonymous SUNY campus). Is it a coming of age story (Alex)? A redemption story (Carter)? A revenge story (Dan)? I like the idea of all of these themes floating around in the same picture, but this one doesn't figure out how to bring them together in a way that resonates.