Friday, December 31, 2010

He Said/She Said: The King's Speech

Unless I see a new movie in the waning hours of 2010, my theatrical filmgoing ends with The King's Speech - and what a wonderful finale that is.

I was actually rather surprised that I loved the film. Typically, I'm not into what a friend of mine once called "tea party movies" - otherwise known as period pieces. Years ago, while every critic was raving about Howards End, I could give it only a respectful shrug. Well acted, certainly - but stories of Brits struggling with their social status simply didn't ring many bells for me.

So what made The King's Speech different? Simply put, the story can't fail to be inspiring. Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, who has trouble cutting a regal figure, especially with the rise of the radio. In the old days, it was enough for a king simply not to fall off his horse. But Albert has a more difficult time than most because he has a debilitating stammer, which makes speaking in public an embarrassment.

Albert goes to see several speech therapists, all of whom fail miserably. Then, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) hears about a specialist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush)  with unorthodox methods. Albert reluctantly agrees to see him, scoffing when Lionel insists that his problems are not physical but psychological. The stakes get higher when it becomes clear that Albert's brother Edward (Guy Pearce) has little interest in being king.

My co-worker Hannah Poturalski enjoyed the film more than she expected as well. She writes:

I was pleasantly surprised while watching The King’s Speech from Director Tom Hooper (“EastEnders”) and writer David Seidler (The King and I). English films while usually always good in the end, aren’t top picks for me. I’d much rather watch American actors and directors. But I wholeheartedly enjoyed seeing into the life of English royalty and the hardships that connect all people by transcending culture and classes.

Firth and Rush both shine in their roles. The film surprised me by being so funny, and that's due primarily to Rush's work. His character has no qualms about breaking rules, cracking jokes and making people mad to get results. Most importantly, he sees a regal bearing in Albert that most people don't - and the crucial part is getting Albert not only to speak it but believe it.

With Firth's performance, that wasn't hard for me. Albert has tremendous issues, to be sure, but Firth must also convey a strength and resolve in spite of them, and Firth does so with the kind of sure-handedness that doesn't seem so much like acting. He simply is the king.

Hannah agrees, writing:

Firth’s character was able to go from stubborn and shy to opening up and letting himself have a true friendship with his unconventional but hilarious speech therapist Lionel (Geoffrey Rush). Rush almost stole the show for me. He played such a thoughtful character that just happened to use tough love as his approach for getting King George over the big hump that was his low self-esteem.

Truly, every performance, large and small, is outstanding. Helena Bonham Carter brings a pleasing light touch to her role as the long-suffering but steadfast wife, and even though his role is minor, Timothy Spall is a standout, absolutely capturing Winston Churchill. I'd love to see a biopic about Churchill with Spall in the lead.

Writer David Seidler and director Tom Hooper bring it all together with excellent craftsmanship. The movie could have come across like a filmed play, but Hooper opens up the action well, and Seidler strikes just the right balance in the story that keeps it from being too stuffy or maudlin.

It's giving nothing away to say the king succeeds in the end, but as Roger Ebert so rightly says, it's not what a movie is about, it's HOW it's about it. The King's Speech doesn't just talk. It sings.


I took a second look at the film, and if anything came away even more impressed. This time, I was able to pay more attention to the craft of the film, and I am no longer so surprised at all the technical nominations it has earned. They are all deserved, most especially for Danny Cohen's photography. Cohen cleverly frames the shots to drive home the point of how the king feels dwarfed by his duties, with wide-angle lenses enhancing the effect.

 The King's Speech is so good, it compels me to emphasize that in NO way is would this film be an unworthy Oscar winner. As Bertie himself might put it, those buggers who decry the film's status as the front runner can cut the shit. They really need to fucking get over themselves.

Read Hannah's full take here:


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oscar's One-Two Punch: The Fighter/True Grit

The Fighter

Upon hearing about The Fighter, one might ask, "What? Another boxing movie?"

Yes, when it's as good as The Fighter.

Most boxing movies are primarily just the boxer's story. There may be a few other key figures, but the boxer is always the central figure. What sets The Fighter apart is that it's truly about the dynamic that exists between the boxer, and his family and friends - some of whom are helpful, some who are poisonous, and some who are both.

This dynamic, sharply directed by David O. Russell, is shaped in such a way that for a good long while, I couldn't really tell where the story was going. Boxing movies tend to follow predictable patterns, but this one dances outside the lines and serves up the best kind of sucker punch.

Much has been made of the performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, and rightly so. Bale (whom I would argue is really a co-lead with Mark Wahlberg) once again puts his chameleon act on display, being nothing less than utterly convincing as a washed-up crackhead. Amy (have to call her by her first name) shatters her goody-goody image once and for all playing Wahlberg's girlfriend, who does not have a trace of Princess Giselle in her. And Leo is so convincing in her role, I actually didn't recognize her at first.

Not to be underestimated, however,  is Mark Wahlberg. He may have the least flashy role of the bunch, but he is the solid center around which everyone revolves. If he doesn't deliver, the movie doesn't deliver, but he and the movie do.


He Said/She Said: True Grit

This may be one of the Coen brothers' more disappointing works in that it plays much more conventionally than usual for such deliciously unorthodox filmmakers. Maybe that's what you get for making a movie as out there as A Serious Man, then following that up with a fairly straight-ahead Western.

But that doesn't mean it's not a very good film. It is indeed.

Unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges plays grizzled very well, and he makes a great Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne devotees may kill me for saying this but he outshine the Duke's performance in all respects. Wayne's Oscar-winning role was really not that much different from the typical John Wayne character, but Bridges' Cogburn makes for a lout of a man who nevertheless is keenly aware of who he is and what he needs to do.

The true star of this movie in my mind, though is young Hailee Steinfeld as the girl who hires Cogburn to hunt her father's killer. She is absolutely fantastic as a girl who simply won't take no for an answer, wearing down everyone around her with her unstinting logic and determination. This is the second best female performance of the year, after Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

Hannah Poturalski also enjoyed the dynamic between Bridges and Steinfeld, writing, "The continual razzing between Bridges and Steinfeld’s characters added a legitimacy to their character’s budding friendship. It was like they quickly became longtime friends. What I liked about the dynamic as well, was that Cogburn was one of the first people to actually take Mattie seriously on her adventure instead of dissuading her just because she was a young female.  The two actors were sensitive to their character’s motives and feelings and I really hope they make out well during the awards season."

For me, the movie fares best in the first half, when Bridges, Steinfeld and Matt Damon playing a Texas ranger let rip with the Coens' unique cadences of dialogue. It's more unsteady in the second half when the action becomes fairly standard and the third act resolves itself a bit too quickly.

By that point, however, the movie had won me over. It may be one of the Coens' more conventional movies,  but it's also one of their most flat-out entertaining. Hannah liked it even  better than I did, stating that "Ethan and Joel Coen certainly lived up to their potentials on this film. The atmosphere and quality was typical of the Coen brothers, and this is one of their most enjoyable films."

Read her complete review here.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

REVIEW: How Do You Know

There's a great little moment in How Do You Know when Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd are on a date. Both of them are having major personal problems and the date is off to a rocky start. Then, Witherspoon suggests the two of them simply be quiet.

Funny - that was my admonition throughout this misbegotten romantic comedy. The characters talk with such self-consciousness and self-importance that I wanted them to shut the hell up.

This should not have happened considering all the players here, who also include Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson and writer-director James L. Brooks. Brooks has given us some of the smartest dramadies in the last 30 years, including Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets. Sadly, none of these great talents is firing at all thrusters in How Do You Know. Worse, some of them are misfiring.

Witherspoon and Rudd both play people who have good reason to be messed up. At the ripe old age of 27, she has been cut from the professional softball team to which she has devoted her life. Rudd is facing a federal indictment, caused by the malfeasance of Rudd's high-strung, corrupt father, played by Nicholson. Then there's Wilson, a Major League Baseball player who also takes a shine to Witherspoon, and is a very well- meaning guy, but he has a lot of growing up to do.

Rudd, Witherspoon and Wilson have such an effortless charm that I couldn't help but like their characters, even if they were in serious need of Zoloft and/or Ritalin. Scattered throughout the film are lovely little nuggets like the aforementioned dinner scene, where, once Witherspoon and Rudd stop talking, they exchange glances that reveal their feelings for each other, even if their minds are slow to catch up with their hearts.

Regrettably, Brooks buries these moments under talk, talk and more talk that grates more often than it gratifies. The film lurches from scene to scene with no momentum and no connective tissue between the scenes. There was a good idea for a movie, but somewhere along the line, that good idea got lost. Brooks' screenplay was under-written before he shot it, and/or it was overcooked after he edited it.
The movie simply doesn't hang together very well at all.

Making everything worse is one of Jack Nicholson's most misguided performances - and it pains me to type that. Nicholson has done great work with Brooks in the past, winning Oscars with him twice. But that magic is gone. Nicholson's acting is weirdly manic, with his character launching into rants that seem to be there solely to provide a few "Jack" moments, but none of them register. Quite honestly, if I had to choose between this film and the Adam Sandler movie Anger Management, I'd watch Anger Management. At least Nicholson seemed to be having fun there.

And this is a small complaint, but it's indicative of how half-baked the whole movie is. The cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg's regular cameraman. Usually, even when he shoots movies that aren't known for visual style, like Jerry Maguire or Funny People, his lighting has a distinctive glow. Here, the cinematography is the kind of flat over-lighting that resembles a glossy sitcom.

This film is Brooks' low point, not even measuring up to lesser efforts like I'll Do Anything or Spanglish. Simply put, How Do You Know is not as good as it gets.


He Said/She Said : Black Swan

You can't trust anything Black Swan shows you. That's what makes it so enthralling.

Critic Leonard Maltin, who did not like the film at all, writes, "If you make the mistake of digesting the movie on a literal basis, you're in for a sucker punch." He's right about that. The logic-obsessed need not bother trying to question it. Matlin called this movie a fever dream. but it's truly a fever nightmare. And if anything, nightmares are even less trustworthy - and harder to shake - than dreams.

Portman plays Nina Sayres, a devoted, technically excellent Met dancer who's underdeveloped emotionally. Living with her loving but domineering mother (Barbara Hershey)  Nina has never truly grown up, or lived very much. When she tells someone she's not a virgin, I'd wager she's lying. It's not merely being poetic to say Nina is afraid of her own shadow.

Her company's choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has created a new version of Swan Lake, which features two swans - the white and the black. Nina is desperate for the lead role, and has no problem nailing the White Swan part - but struggles to convince as the evil Black Swan. Complicating matters even further is the presence of a a fearless dancer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), who seems better suited to play the Black Swan. The increasingly frazzled and paranoid Nina begins to believe that Lily is after her - but Nina has other demons to worry about.

The film's director is Darren Aronofsky, and Black Swan fuses the style of two of his previous works: One is the gritty, documentary-like realism he brought to his most recent film, The Wrestler. The other is the hallucinatory style of his take on drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream. Black Swan has only one scene that deals directly with drugs, but the "can't believe your eyes" style melds amazingly well with the hand-held camerawork. Aronofsky ups the ante by using multiple images of doubles and reflections that are often divided by some kind of line, cannily revealing Nina's fractured psyche.

That psyche also shows through Portman's tour-de-force performance. The diminutive actress masterfully veers between a frightened waif and a woman scorned, and is utterly convincing as both. Nina wants to be a gentle soul but, her dark side is so potent, it terrifies her - and it shook me too. I am rooting hard for her to win the Best Actress Oscar. It's the performance of the year.

Her castmates are quite strong as well. Kunis surprises with her layered portrayal of a dancer who may not be all see seems. Cassell and Hershey are both striking as the people warring for Nina's soul, and it's nice to be reminded that Winona Ryder is still very talented in her role as a dancer at the end of her career - and her rope.

Still, it's Aronofsky and Portman who deserve the most credit for the film's success. Aronofsky puts you inside her ballet slippers - and Portman unforgettably portrays a soul at war with itself.  This movie is a psychological struggle, for both the viewer and for Nina Sayres. I came out of Black Swan with my nerves frayed and my head throbbing, even after a second and third viewing.

If you come out of this movie questioning it, and feeling troubled by it, I say good - that's as it should be. But I even  those who doubt it won't be able to forget it.

Hannah agrees with me, writing, "Portman absolutely shined in this film and I can’t wait to see how many awards she racks up as the season kicks off. She played the role with such grace and elegance and danced wonderfully. As the movie progressed she transitioned from innocent to strong-willed in a way that was engrossing to watch."

Read her full take.


Monday, December 13, 2010

My Meet Me in St. Louis vacation

Meet me in St. Louis, Louie, meet me at the fair/Don't tell me the lights aren't shining, cos the fair's not there ...

I just returned from a short vacation to St. Louis. Most people would use that occasion to go up in the St. Louis arch or visit the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

I ain't most people.

St. Louis is the setting of not only one of my favorite musicals, but one of my favorite movies of any kind: Meet Me in St. Louis, the 1944 classic starring Judy Garland. It's about a family that faces being uprooted to New York just as the fair is nearing completion in 1903-1904.

The film was based on a series of stories about the family of writer Sally Benson. She was a Hollywood screenwriter whose most notable credit was Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. (Not surprising if you think about it - both films reek of Americana.)

The stories were fictionalized but based on truth. Sally Benson and her family really did live at 5135 Kensington Avenue, as "The Boy Next Door" says. That address was not too far at all from Forest Park, the site of the fair. 

Here is the real house as it stood: 

My dad, who found this photo, pointed out:

You will notice that a window was installed where the front door used to be. They then bricked-up the original window for a smaller door (probably adjacent to the stairs) allowing the landlord to rent the house to two families.

MGM, as was its wont, upped the opulence when it built its version of 5135 Kensington Ave, on a full-scale street.

Sadly, both houses are gone now. Sally Benson's home was torn down in 1994 after it decayed and became uninhabitable. All that's left is a tattered vacant lot, as seen in this photo by me: 

MGM's St. Louis house, along with almost all of the backlot, was torn down in the 1970s as the cash-strapped studio tried to generate income from the sale of its vast real estate. Here's how the place looked in my youngest days: Old and worn out, just like MGM itself.

Don't you just love people's appreciation of history? (sigh)

Thankfully, some parts of the 1904 fair still remain. The St. Louis Art Museum was built for the fair and was the only structure that was meant to be permanent. My shot of it:

And a closer look:

Just opposite the museum and down the hill is a large lagoon around which the fair buildings were situated. Here's how it looked in 1904, as taken from the book St. Louis: Then and now:

And here's the view from the same vantage point, same book. In a strange way, this looks like this should be the "before" shot:

Here's my shot of the lagoon, taken from the courtyard of the museum: 

And here's a map that gives you a good idea of how the whole shebang looked:

After I visited here, my dad and I went to a pizza place called Katie's Pizzaria close to the park. It specialized in exotic, Mediterranean type pies which were quite good. What also stood out about the place was the decor. While I was there, they were projecting a certain movie on their big screen. See if you can pick it out:

And that was it for the movie-based portion of the trip, save for one thing: I saw Black Swan, which I will review very, very soon. Simply put, believe the hype.

Oh, and before I go, I must remember to thank my sponsor. Sir Critic's cinema has been brought to you today by an upside down letter U, or maybe a lowercase n, or a c turned sideways.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sentiment? In It's a Wonderful Life? Pshaw!

Many people dismiss It's a Wonderful Life, calling it sappy and sentimental - to which I can only say:

Oh, really? Haven't watched the film lately, have you?

I HAVE watched the film lately. Saw it on the big screen the other day at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Dayton, where I am now a member. And I've got news for all the naysayers. It's a Wonderful Life is scarcely sentimental at all. Point of fact, it's the darkest and most foreboding picture Frank Capra ever made.

Don't believe me? You're probably thinking of all the happy scenes in the movie, such as George Bailey twice proclaiming "I wish I had a million dollars! Hot dog!" Or the scene where the guy falls over in the chair at Clarence's proclamations that he's an angel. Or the scene where George lassos the moon.

But consider:

*About 15 minutes into the movie, the druggist is beating George on his bad ear, making it visibly bleed.

*George is a great guy, but when you get down to it, he grouses an awful lot about how podunk Bedford Falls is when it looks like a perfectly lovely little burg.

*George reveals  his feelings for Mary in what has to be one of angriest, most violent declarations of love ever put on film. He shakes her - hard - and yells at her. There's a Hallmark moment for you.

*The vision of Pottersville is truly nightmarish, and the pacing in those scenes is relentless. Capra doesn't let up on George, making him not only hit bottom, butt bursting through the bottom of the barrel. Jimmy Stewart's acting in these scenes is not THAT far removed from his anguished portrayal of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo. It's why I chose the film still I did, rather than the image from the end most people use.

*Heck, even the George lassos the moon scene is rather lascivious, since it does have a naked chick in it -albeit within the realms of 1946's good taste.

But there are other, real-life considerations many people don't realize. Capra and Stewart made that film after serving during World War II. Capra saw many atrocities as a documentarian, and Stewart was one of the few Hollywood stars who DID see combat, piloting several air raid missions.

I believe their experiences are reflected in It's a Wonderful Life - and are a large part of why that film endures. Light is more effective when it has darkness to fight.  The reason the cheery scenes stand out so well is because they counterbalance all that despair.

My colleague Hannah Poturalski wrote about the movie too, noting

What I liked most about the film was being able to identify with the characters. With George Bailey I could really identify. He was a family man even from an early age and genuinely cared for people. It was because of this that he gave up his dreams for the good of the town. George seemed to be racing through life and didn’t take time to breathe and enjoy what he had.

Yes, at times things get a little sticky, especially toward the beginning, what with the talking stars and the moon that looks a Crunch Berry. But the movie earns those scenes.  It damn well deserves its angels' wings. As Ty Burr says in his book The Best Old Movies for Families, "Call it sappy if you like - but it's a movie made by people who have seen things they'd give anything to forget."

Keep that in mind and watch it again.  It only enriches one of the best films ever made.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Vacation review catch-up: 127 Hours and then some

I may be on vacation this week, but I never take a vacation from movies. Too often, though, I take vacations from writing about them and I aim to rectify that with another of my patented catch-up posts.

On the BIG screen

Enter the Void: I went into this film by maverick director Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) expecting a memorable experience. I got one, all right. Just not the one I wanted. The movie begins fascinatingly, with Noe using hypnotic visuals and/or an almost entirely subjective camera to explore life after death. At first, the approach is intriguing and enthralling, but gradually it wears out its welcome. For one thing, the characters he focuses on are dull. Then the visuals become repetitive, climaxing with the camera tracking in and out of a hotel as it explores several couples having explicit sex, complete with psychedelically glowing groins.  I left the film with a giant headache - and the conviction that I had just watched the work of a visually talented pervert. GRADE: D+

Fair Game: This dramatization of the Valerie Plame story is one of those solid, straight-ahead films that doesn't do anything particularly wrong, but doesn't do anything particularly noteworthy either. Doug Liman's film starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts smartly goes behind the scenes of an oft-told story, but with this kind of pedigree, I was hoping for something a little better than "fine." GRADE: B

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest: Most critics seem to think this is the weakest of the trilogy based on Stieg Larsson's books, but I disagree. I think that distinction belongs to the second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which seems rather ordinary compared to its bookends. What's remarkable about the series is that each film has such a distinct tone. While the first was a mystery and the second was an action movie, this one is a courtroom drama. Most impressively of all, the movie remains gripping, even though the dynamic lead, Noomi Rapace, spends most of the film in the hospital. GRADE: A

127 Hours: Danny Boyle's films tackle a variety of subjects in a variety of styles, but through most of them, there is a common thread: celebrating the vitality of the human spirit through dynamic visuals. This time, Boyle's achievement is particularly impressive, considering the limited setting. It's a true story about a devil-may-care young man, Aaron Ralston, who becomes trapped in a narrow canyon after a boulder pins his arm. That Boyle gets so much mileage out of such a confined space is impressive, but what truly elevates the movie is the extraordinary lead performance by James Franco. Only some unclear storytelling towards the end keeps this from getting highest marks. GRADE: A


American Grindhouse: This documentary about the grindhouse/exploitation scene made for a fascinating companion piece to the Moguls and Movie Stars series now playing on TCM. If the TCM series is about the glossy exterior of Hollywood, this film is about the sordid underbelly. Since it's only about 90 minutes long, it's a little shy on depth, but it has great archival clips and some fascinating interviews. My favorite tidbit: One interviewee's contention that the most recent grindhouse movie was not actually the Rodriguez/Tarantinio Grindhouse, but The Passion of the Christ. Available on Netflix streaming. GRADE: B+

Calamity Jane: I rented this movie expecting something of a retread of Annie Get Your Gun, but what I got was a movie that's actually even better than the MGM film of Annie. Doris Day is a delight as the ultimate singing tomboy, this may be my favorite of her musicals. Great song score too. GRADE: A-

She's Out of My League: Even though this looked like a knock-off of Knocked Up (geeky guy scores gorgeous chick), I found myself strangely drawn to it. I soon figured out why: the leads, played by Jay Barcuchel and Alice Eve, are very appealing and make a believable couple. Too bad everything surrounding them, particularly their one-dimensional buddies, is out of their league. GRADE: C+

Monday, December 06, 2010

More He Said/She Saids - Tangled, Eat Pray Love, A Serious Man

My colleague Hannah Poturalski was quite industrious over the weekend, turning in no less than three reviews of movies I'd already posted. 

First, she saw Tangled and pretty much agrees with me that it's very good but falls short of great. She writes: 

Rapunzel is the original 1812 fairy tale from Germany. I remember reading the book as a child and I really enjoyed the Disney version. Of course, Disney just isn’t the same as it used to be, nothing can top The Little Mermaid, Cinderella andThe Lion King. I really liked the imagery; animation now compared to the 1980s and 90s is definitely much crisper now. It might be that I’m 22 now, but the songs in this film weren’t as classic and memorable as ones like “A Whole New World” and “Just Around the River Bend.” 

Read her full take here

Mine is here.

She also watched Eat Pray Love and was kinder to it than I was. She says: 

A point Robinette and I disagree on is the quality of Roberts’ performance. I think Roberts was perfect to play the part of Gilbert, and played it in a very compelling way. One moment of the film that really sticks out to me was when Gilbert hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for her friends in Rome and said she was thankful for being able to see happiness around her, but didn’t say she was happy herself. Like she almost didn’t deserve to be happy, which she overcomes by the film’s end.

Her full review is here.

Mine there.

Hannah also wrote about The Kids are All Right. I only wrote a capsule review of that film, saying: 

Outstanding performances from all five principals (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) combine with a canny, observant script to make this the indie film of the year. Attention, Academy: This is an EXCELLENT occasion to get Julianne Moore her Oscar. GRADE: A

Hannah quite liked it, too, as she details here.

Finally, she saw the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, and perhaps fittingly, that's our first serious disagreement. Though she appreciated my take on the film, she saw it quite differently:

Yes, yes I know it’s from Ethan and Joel Coen and therefore it must be amazing, right? No. The film had some great moments but overall it was plain useless because there was very little character interaction or development.

Well .... suffice it to say, it's too bad she didn't see the movie I saw - one of the best films of last year. 

I'll be back later with more reviews of my own, including short takes on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and 127 Hours. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

He Said/She Said: Love and Other Drugs

My rule of thumb for romantic comedies goes like this: I have to want the central couple to be together. Even if the film surrounding them misses the mark, even if I hate everyone else in the movie, it will get a pass if I like the two leads.

Unfortunately, Love and Other Drugs just gave that rule of thumb a hangnail.

Anne Hathaway is one of my favorite actresses. I like Jake Gyllenhaal too. I wanted their characters to end up together. They needed each other. They deserve each other. Both of them are major, albeit sympathetic neurotics. But the movie they're stuck is an even bigger mess than both of them put together.

My colleague Hannah Poturalski was similarly confused and writes: 

I was so hyped up to see Love and Other Drugs, but left the theater confused on whether or not I liked it — I loved the actors and the pharmaceutical side of it but the love side of it felt really forced at moments and the character flaws were old and tired.

Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is a slick pharmaceutical rep who has a way with ladies, with the emphasis being on ladies, plural. He's a smooth talker but goes through women like a Playmate-a-Day calender. He's a commitment-phobe who can't latch on to anyone - until he meets That Girl. 

That Girl is Maggie (Hathaway), who, like Jamie prefers no-strings-attached relationships, but her reason for shying off long-term love is a bit more dire: Maggie, not yet 30, is suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's Disease (a fact the film's advertising carefully hides).

Much has been made of the sex scenes in this film, but they're not so much intense or explicit as they are plentiful. Put delciately, our lovers romp around quite a lot. But then, so does the movie - in a destructive way. 

The film's co-writer and director  is Edward Zwick, a talented but frustrating filmmaker. At times he can make something as great as Glory. At other times he makes insufferable pap like Legends of the Fall Asleep.  The major stumbling block of this film is a failure of tone.

In one scene it tries to be a ribald romance, like Zwick's About Last Night ... Then, in the same scene it morphs into a Disease-of-the-Week movie. Then it turns into a will-they-or-won't-they love story, a la When Harry Met Sally ... Then it's a big-city comedy with over-intellectual banter that only Woody Allen can pull off because it doesn't exist in any place resembling real life. To quote Woody's Bullets Over Broadway, "You don't write like people talk."

It's a frustrating film because I wanted to like it. The cast on the whole is strong, and Hathaway turns in her second-best performance after her Oscar-nominated turn in Rachel Getting Married. Hannah, however, found her character tough to take: 

Maggie freaks out and becomes, to me, an unlikeable character. I can understand why she feels the way she does — she’s afraid Jamie will begin to resent her as her illness becomes more aggressive. But her character was just too dramatic for me. She seemed to contradict herself a lot ...

At times I admired Love and Other Drugs' zeal in tackling so many different issues, but  like many of Zwick's films, it falls short because it tries too hard. 

Hannah ultimately seemed to like it a bit more than I did, wrapping up her review this way: 

Director, producer and co-writer Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) overall did a great job. The film, for me, has a similar feeling to that of Valentine’s DayHe’s Just Not That Into You, and the upcoming No Strings Attached (can’t wait!) because of the high-caliber actors and hype.

I can't give Zwick that much credit. At times I admired hia zeal in tackling so many different issues, but  like many of Zwick's films, this one falls short because it tries too hard. Love and Other Drugs talks a lot about viagra, but what this film really needs is Valium

Read Hannah's full take.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

He said/She said: Morning Glory

Norma Desmond famously asserted in Sunset Blvd. "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."

Not Morning Glory. This underappreciated gem starts with a small picture - quite literally. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) frames the image so that it fills just a small portion of the screen. Then, as the scene progresses, the image gradually expands until it fills the wide movie screen. 

That's not only an apt metaphor for a movie about a TV show - it turns out to be an apt metaphor for the movie as a whole, which is smarter than most films of its kind.  My colleague Hannah Poturalski agrees, writing, 

"I was so excited to see Morning Glory, and it was way better than I thought it would be. The plot became increasingly interesting as the film went on and didn’t feel as stale as typical rom-coms."

After workaholic TV producer Becky (Rachel McAdams) gets canned from her longtime job at a local news program, she finds another position in New York, but its not exactly dreamy. It's producing the lowly fourth-place morning show that's behind "whatever the CBS show is called," as her acerbic producer (Jeff Goldblum)  puts it.

Becky struggles initially, with most people telling her she'll quit or be fired. Everyone else has. But she hits on a brainwave. She fires the jackass male anchor and decides to hire her hero, news anchorman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), who alienates everyone he meets. He wants nothing to do with the morning show. When Becky pitches him the job, he caustically responds, "Half of your audience has lost the remote,  and the other half is wating for the nurse to turn them over."

That kind of sharp dialogue by writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) helps Morning Glory rise above most of what passes for rom-com these days, but not all of McKenna's writing is so smart. 

The movie's worst fault is that McKenna tries to shoehorn in a romance between Becky and one of her co-workers played by Patrick Wilson. It feels forced; it seems to be there just because these movies are "supposed" to have a "hot" romance. As Hannah puts it: 

"Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) played the love interest, and while he was dreamy, his character was weak and one-dimensional. I hated how he and Becky’s relationship went straight to sex and didn’t seem to have any depth."

Besides, Morning Glory didn't need that relationship at all. It already had a romance, just not a sexual one. The relationship between Becky and Mike is the heart of the picture. Ford and McAdams have great chemistry together. Their characters' personalities are quite different, but both are devoted to being tops in their fields, and they bring out the best in each other. The other key anchor, played by Diane Keaton, gets somwhat overshadowed, but she still has some fun momets as her character softens from a hard-bitten cynic to a fun-loving reporter.  

For Hannah and myself, the picture resonated for personal reasons. Being an entertainment editor, I have often felt the uncomfortable push-pull between entertainment and news. Hannah, who is a relatively new reporter, writes: 

I liked most of the movie taking place in the work area. It made it harder for characters to reveal their true selves because they had to act in a professional setting. But then they grew together like a family and were able to be informal and caring. I thought the mix of characters was awesome because you never know what kind of personality you will meet at a new job.

Morning Glory has been somewhat overlooked as the holiday juggernaut snowballs, but those who discover it just may find it to be a welcome ray of sunshine.

Read Hannah's full take here.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

REVIEW: Tangled Rapunzel

Disney's Tangled literally glows, particularly when our heroine Rapunzel, and our hero, Flynn are riding in a boat watching the launching of countless lanterns that float like luminous orbs around them. It is the single most magical, romantic scene in any Disney film since the ballroom dance in Beauty and the Beast.

If only the rest of the movie were that great.

Make no mistake, Tangled is very much worth seeing. I recommend it highly. But in a number of ways, it's a beautiful disappointment. No one should have expected it to stand alongside the triple crown of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. But except in fleeting moments, it's not even as good as last year's Disney movie, the criminally undervalued The Princess and the Frog.

I've always hated the fact that Disney switched the title of the film from Rapunzel to Tangled. Most people know immediately what Rapunzel means, and even if they don't, it doesn't take much explaining: princess with really, really long hair. A generic title like Tangled sounds like it could be about anything from people who can't tie knots very well to defective hairspray products.

In a way, however, the title is appropriate in ways the filmmakers never intended. Tangled is a better title for the movie's tortured development process than for the film itself. It began in the hands of master animator Glen Keane and then ended up in the hands of the folks who made Bolt. The look changed from a moving oil painting to a pretty but less adventurous visual scheme. The lead role went from Kristin Chenoweth to Mandy Moore.

That's not to say all the changes are for the poorer. The hero, voiced by Chuck's Zachary Levi,  is dashing and witty. Rapunzel's sidekick, a chameleon named Pascal, is silent, but visually hilarious. Flynn's horse, Maximus is a rare breed - a handsome steed who is actually mostly antagonistic toward its rider. The villain, Gothel (Broadway vet Donna Murphy) poses as Rapunzel's mother but is actually a greedy woman who kidnapped Rapunzel to use the magical healing powers of her hair. Gothel is the best kind of villain - one who can seem supportive at one moment, only to turn dastardly the next.

Best of all is Rapunzel herself. She is one of Disney's most fascinating princesses - a neurotic mess with magical hair who's a lot of fun to be around. In a very funny and touching scene, when Rapunzel leaves her tower for the first time, she alternates between jubilation at being free to despair at being disobedient and afraid of the outside world. Much as I love Kristin Chenoweth, Moore turned out to be an ideal choice for the role. I've always through Moore was an underrated talent, both as an actress and as a singer.

So it is a great pity that she gets no great songs to sing. Tangled's single greatest Achilles heel is its pedestrian song score, one of the least memorable Alan Menken has ever composed. Menken needs a great collaborator to soar. Certainly no one can fill the shoes of the late Howard Ashman, but Menken has done strong work with Stephen Schwartz, his lyricist on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, among others. Unfortunately, his partner in Tangled is Glenn Slater, who worked with Menken on the similarly bland tunes for Home on the Range.

The Tangled songs are OK but no more than that, and worst of all, they sometimes get in the way of the story. For instance The song "I've Got a Dream" is not only a pale retread of "Gaston," but its goofy style clashes with the more sentimental tunes.

And the film as a whole suffers from that inconsistency in tone. When the film tries to be straightforward and romantic, it works wonderfully. But at times the filmmakers try too hard to be hip and contemporary, and the results are jarring.  Memo to Disney: Stop trying so hard to be sassy and hip. That is not your strength. Leave that to DreamWorks. Don't be afraid to be a bit retro, because if you focus hard enough on the heart of the story, the rest will take care of itself.

I find it ironic that one of the key story points is that if someone cuts Rapunzel's hair, it turns brunette and loses its power. Somewhere along the way, that's what happened when Rapunzel became Tangled. If Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin are the gold standard, then The Princess and the Frog is the silver standard, and Tangled is the bronze standard.  It's only occasionally excellent. Disney can - and should - do even better.


NOTE: I saw the film in 3D and found the effect very similar to what Pixar does with their movies. It's a nice bonus, but not essential to the film.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sir Critic is thankful for ...

Never mind the turkey - Thanksgiving itself gets killed every year.

The holiday gets so lost in the shuffle between Halloween and Christmas. There are loads of Halloween and Christmas movies, but precious few that cater specifically to Thanksgiving.

So that's why, for the first time I'm writing a Thanksgiving post.  I'd like to thank several parties who have contributed significantly and/or memorably to my film-loving journey.

Long-established directors who have worked at least as long as I've been alive, such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and especially Martin Scorsese. Thank you for reminding people that yes, they do still make 'em like that anymore.

Newer directors that have risen to prominence in the 80s and beyond, such as the Coens, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. Thank you for giving me the assurance that great, director-driven films will flicker for a long time to come.

Turner Classic Movies, for being the best channel on TV and for giving every filmmaker and film viewer something to strive for and to cherish.

Roger Ebert, for maintaining the platinum standard of film criticism, no matter what hurdles you had to leap.

TV screens are getting bigger, wider, and prettier. That's fine. But thank you to those who remember that no matter how fancy, or how much cheaper the home viewing experience is, it can never compare to the TRUE big screen. 

Amy Adams for being so damn lovable and talented. I'm thankful for you, even if you did get engaged to someone else and had his baby. I'm still looking forward to The Fighter.

Scott Copeland, for being my fellow film buff, and even more importantly, my best friend for almost exactly 20 years. Write more often when you can.

Allison Dickson, for so scarily mirroring my thoughts and especially for being a local friend again. You ought to write more reviews. You're better at it than you think you are.

Kimberly Scampone, for being my first protege and even for disagreeing with me fairly often. It's actually rather refreshing. My toenails are wearing down!

Merrilee and Todd Embs, for sharing my great love for TCM, for all the great movie nights, and crediting me for their deeper appreciation of film.

My new reviewing partner and colleague Hannah Poturalski for joining me on the He Said/She said blogging adventure. I look forward to working with you more, and I promise I'll get that Morning Glory review up soon.

Susan Egan, for being so sweet to me all these years and supporting and promoting my writings. I hope I get to see you again soon.

Angela Allen and Hilary Johnson, for being such cherished friends although neither of you is into movies (or the Beatles!) much. Thanks for understanding that being friends with me means going out to the theater every now and again or sitting down to watch one of my old favorites.

To my family near and far, who created, indulged and supported my movie mania for decades. If it ever gets tiring, just remember it all started with you.

And finally, to my audience - to everyone who has ever read my blogs/reviews even once. No matter how small or large you get, you are all very important to me, even if I'll never meet some of you.

Thank you one and all. Now go get more out of life. Watch a movie.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Yes, it delivers. And no, it should not have been one movie.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, is to be sure, a long tease of a movie. Watching it, I got the distinct sense that the real fireworks won't explode until Part II comes out next July. Still, it was fun to watch the long fuse burn and see the sparks shoot off it.

Some detractors have complained that nothing really happens in this movie, that it's all setup and no payoff. Furthermore, certain wags have said that splitting Deathly Hallows was merely a commercial move, not an artistic one.

I haven't read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet. I own it, but have only read the first couple of chapters, because I didn't want memories of the book to influence my viewing of the film. Even so, I can tell that splitting the book into two movies was the right thing to do.

Anyone who pays attention knows that JK Rowling jam-packs the Potter books with plot and details. To cut into them too far is to cut some of the spirit out. To those who say this should have been one movie, I ask "OK, genius - where do you make the cuts?"

Sure, you could argue that there are an awful lot of scenes of our heroes wandering through the woods and brooding as they try to find the pieces called horcruxes that would destroy Voldemort. And indeed, there are a few scenes where the pacing is a bit slack. There are too many fades to black, which stall the momentum of the story, But on the whole, the movie works because of those scenes in the woods, not in spite of them.

By paring the action down to its bare essentials, screenwriter Steve Kloves forces the movie to rely on what has always been the series' greatest strength - the chemistry between Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

Watson has always been my favorite of the three, and she turns in her best performance of the series. Hermione has always been bright and resourceful, but especially in this film, she has to show strength and a vulnerable core at the same time. Watson is especially good at acting with her eyes. The look on her face when she casts a memory-erasing spell on some loved ones is heart-wrenching.

Grint's strengths have always been the comedic moments, and he has a few in this film, but this story forces him to tap into his dramatic strengths to show just how loyal Ron is. He disappears for a good portion of the picture, and when he returns, it's a powerful moment.

All this leaves Radcliffe playing something of the straight man this time, but he is strong as usual, and it's clear the next movie is when he will truly take the spotlight.

Deathly Hallows also boasts some of the best visuals of the series. Director David Yates seemed a little unsteady when he took the chair on Order of the Phoenix, but he has grown in strength and visual inventiveness each time out. The dazzling presentation of the Deathly Hallows, played in digital shadow puppets and narrated by Watson, is the best moment in the movies since the time travel scenes in Prisoner of Azkaban.

The Potter series has often been compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and what's particularly striking about Deathly Hallows is how much it resembles the Rings movies, especially The Two Towers: Heroes separated from their allies, take long trek on foot left mostly to their own devices, heading into ever more foreboding danger.

I know pretty well how the story ends, thanks to ever-so-pervasive spoilers. The fact that doesn't bother me is a testament to how strong Deathly Hallows 1 is. If this is Harry's Two Towers, then Part II is shaping up to be like The Return of the King. We'll find out in what now seems like eight very long months.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Memo to Disney: And no one lived happily ever after

I just read the story on the LA Times Website that says, in a nutshell, that Disney is shelving fairy tale stories for the foreseeable future. I hope to Tinkerbell that's not true. 

The article says 

""Films and genres do run a course," said Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who along with director John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation. "They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it … but we don't have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up." Indeed, Catmull and Lasseter killed two other fairy tale movies that had been in development, "The Snow Queen" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Now, in fairness to Mr. Catmull, after this piece was published, he had this to say on  Disney's Faceboook page: "A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with Tangled, a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come."

As Grumpy might say "Hah! Mush!" 

Quite frankly, I find Mr. Catmull's about-face more than a little suspect. Consider his quotes in a previous LA Times piece: 

“We did not want to be put in a box,” said Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, explaining the reason for the name change. “Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”
Pixar’s movies have been huge hits because they appeal to girls, boys and adults. Its most recent release, “Up,” grossed more than $700 million worldwide.
“The Princess and the Frog” generated considerably less — $222 million in global ticket sales to date.
“Based upon the response from fans and critics, we believe it would have been higher if it wasn’t prejudged by its title,” Catmull said.
Hmm. Sounds to me like Mr. Catmull has been less than 100 percent supportive of fairy tales in the not-too-distant past.Was he misquoted then too?
Here's something else that makes me suspicious: Consider this LA Times article that predates the others. 
John Lasseter said: “One of the first decisions we made, when [Pixar and Disney Animation Studios President] Ed Catmull and I came to Disney was to return to the sincere fairy tale,” Lasseter said. “I never quite understood why Disney hadn’t made a sincere fairy tale since ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ My two nieces would dress up in princess outfits all of the time. I realized there was this huge audience out there for this.”
Lasseter said this only about a year ago.  And now all of a sudden Disney is turning its back on fairy tales?  What gives? My suspicion is this: I notice that quotes about the Disney company lately come more from Mr. Catmull, who seems to be listening too hard to the marketing suits. We haven't heard much from Lasseter lately. I know he came in to co-direct Cars 2, and that may be eating up his time, but my educated guess is that Lasseter was stung by the relative underdperformance of The Princess and the Frog, and so has faded into the background - publicly, anyway. 
I wouldn't be at all surprised that someone at Disney (maybe even Lasseter?) saw today's LA Times story, and said "WHAT??!??!" So now Catmull is backpedaling, saying "No, no, no, that's not what I meant!" 
I really hope it's not, Mr. Catmull. Because if the LA Times piece was correct, then that saddens and angers me. 
In the LA Times Story, an "expert" is quoted thusly: "By the time they're 5 or 6, (girls are)  not interested in being princesses," said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. "They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values."
Oh really?
If the fairy tale is really so uninteresting to little girls, why did Disney just re-release Beauty and the Beast on disc? And if girls really don't like fairy tales anymore, who do so many of them pack the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques at the parks? They're not all under 5 years old, either. 

You say in the newest LA Times piece: "If you say to somebody, 'You should be doing fairy tales,' it's like saying, 'Don't be risky,'" Catmull said. "We're saying, 'Tell us what's driving you.'" If that's true, sir, and fairy tales really are out of fashion, isn't presenting a fairy tale itself a risk?
There is no doubt we live in constantly changing times. There is no doubt that tastes have changed over the years. Some of us may be lamenting the fact that this isn't our world anymore. It happens when you get older. 
But little girls will always be little girls. And there are many girls who are still little at heart even if the rest of their body is bigger. 
I really hope Mr. Catmull means it when he says the fairy tale isn't really dead at Disney. It wasn't so long ago that Roy Disney blasted the company for being rapacious and soulless. For awhile it seemed that Disney seemed to find its soul again. But now, I get the distinct feeling the bean-counters are riding herd. If Disney really does abandon fairy tales, it won't just be soulless. It will have broken a lot of hearts. 
Pull out the other glass slipper, will you?