Sunday, August 15, 2010

REVIEW: Eat Pray Love

Never have I identified so strongly with a movie I disliked as much as Eat Pray Love.

Now I know some female readers might be thinking, "That's because you're a guy."

Not so. I had been looking forward to this film all summer. I like Julia Roberts and I have a newfound appreciation for its director, Ryan Murphy, the creative force behind my new favorite TV show, Glee. Furthermore, I like movies of all types, including chick flicks, so long as they have a brain in their head and/or are enjoyably silly.

Alas, Eat Pray Love has a brain in its head, but there's a cold fish where its heart ought to be.

As a former colleague of mine (a female) so colorfully put it, "The premise, as I understand it (is) -- young, successful and wealthy woman has it all but decides she's not happy (boohoo) so she takes a year to travel around the world to find herself. Oh, PUH-LEEZE. And BARF!"

Part of me says, "Wait a second. I get it." I do understand the loneliness and isolation Gilbert feels, and I don't begrudge her playing Magellan. Granted, my circumstances are a little different. I'm an eternally single man who has lived completely by himself for more than seven years, without so much as a pet for a companion. I would love to find myself. I've been seriously questioning my habits and my personality, especially over the past year, considering I turn 40 in less than two months.  I would probably do the same thing Gilbert did if I had the money. I don't have the money, but I'm not going to play the envy card.  Gilbert can do what she wants with her wealth and write about it.

Unfortunately, Roberts and Murphy fail to make the journey compelling.  Gilbert, as played by Roberts, comes off as irritatingly self-possessed at first.  It's clear her husband (Billy Crudup) loves her and has done nothing "wrong" except to get caught in the cross-hairs of his wife's mid-life crisis. Later on in the film, Gilbert voices some fairly understandable reasons as to why she left, but the explanation comes too late. By that time, my attitude toward her character - and the movie - had already hardened. Not a good place to be when your story is less than halfway over.

It doesn't help that the text frequently sounds rehearsed and unnatural. When Roberts takes up with a hunky young actor (James Franco),  she says something like, "I felt like a character in a cartoon who dives into a glass of water and disappears completely." What in the name of Chuck Jones is THAT supposed to mean? That sounds Woody Allen on a bad day if he were to have a hot flash.

Every once in awhile, a glimmer of wisdom or poignancy cuts through all the emotional muck, particularly when Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is on screen, portraying a man with a haunted past. He plays one heart-rending scene that made me realize there really was a story here, and made me wish the whole movie could have been that affecting.

But Murphy keeps shooting his own film in the foot. His pacing goes slack far too often, and he tends to resort to show-offy filmmaking (swirling cameras, Dutch tilts, fast cutting) that calls attention to itself. For a man who has had such great success with a show about singers, Murphy keeps failing to hit the right notes.

Roberts tries hard to give the material some emotional weight, but she struggles against two things: an unsympathetic character, and her own vivacious persona. There are too many Julia-isms, such as that horsey laugh, which gets overused and clashes with the character.

Some may claim that you have to read the book to appreciate the movie. I counter that if a viewer has to read a book to understand a movie, then the movie has failed. Eat Pray Love is a noble effort, but in the end, it succeeds at little more than being a very attractive advertisement that would be more at home on the Travel Channel or the Food Network.


REVIEW: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

The first thought that came to my mind after I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was "Why isn't Mary Elizabeth Winstead a bigger star?"

That may strike some as a strange reaction since they might be geeking out over the wild candy-colored visuals and video game theatrics. And still others who know me may roll their eyes a bit, knowing my predilection for charming young actresses such as Amy Adam, Lea Michele and  Anna Kendrick. Added bonus: Kendrick is in this movie as well! Ah, me.

But hear me out here. I'm not just being mooney-eyed, I'm utterly serious. Winstead (who was also in Sky High, Live Free or Die Hard and Grindhouse) is a key part of what makes this very imaginative movie work. Of course, she has to be an object of desire. Not a challenge. But she also has to project an contradictory air of approachability and aloofness. Her Romana has to be charming enough to be endearing, but she  must also give the impression of someone who has been around the block  several times and is therefore hard to impress. When a guy gets her, he has to feel he's not only jumped through a hoop to get her, but through a ring of fire.

And in the case of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), that ring of fire is not just a figure of speech. Not long after he and Ramona start to date, Scott discovers he must defeat her seven evil exes, all of whom have super powers of some kind. Strangely enough, so does Scott, when provoked.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an invigorating ode to comic books and especially video games. And it struck me how much I enjoyed all the play, because out of all the arenas of pop culture, comic books and video games are the ones I am least plugged into.

However, director Edgar Wright makes those worlds collide with considerable visual ingenuity. The imaginative, offbeat filmmaker who gave us Shaun of the Dead and the even better Hot Fuzz has loads of fun with the visuals. Not only do Batman-esques POWs and BAMs appear on screen, so do little animated hearts in a love scene, or  D's thundering from a bass. And Wright sometimes deploys text-on-screen descriptors of the characters as well. (Begin film geek talk). He also mixes aspect ratios, shooting most of the movie in the flat 1.85 ratio, but switching to anamorphic lenses and the Scope ratio for many of the fight scenes. (End film geek talk).

Scott Pilgrim has much of the same visual playfulness that pervaded the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer, but Scott Pilgrim has something that Speed Racer was missing: human connection. There's the aforementioned Winstead, but Cera fills the bill nicely in the title role. Yes, he's once again playing the charming geek, but he puts a nice spin on it with all the physical acting the part requires. Ellen Wong is spirited and touching as Knives Chau, the teenager who crushes on Scott, but is crushed in turn when he falls for Ramona.

Sometimes Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gets a little too spirited for its own good, as the action threatens to overwhelm the characters, especially in the overstuffed climax, but the charm of the actors keeps the movie in check. Whether it makes Mary Elizabeth Winstead a bigger star or not, I hope it finds an audience that isn't just geeky.


More Winstead goodness: A scene from Tarantino's Death Proof, in which she shows some impressive vocal chops. So we have an actress who sings, sings a song sung by the Beatles  - and sings it WELL.

Quentin should have kept this scene and deleted some of that blather he left in the movie.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The day I met Patricia Neal

Forgive me, my blog title is a bit of a misnomer. I never truly "met" Patricia Neal, who died on Sunday  - at least not in the sense that I walked up to her, shook her hand  and chit-chatted.

However, I did get to see her in the spring of 2008, when she paid a visit to the Sci-Fi Marathon in Columbus I go to most every year. She was there because the marathon was playing the film for which geeks know her best: The Day the Earth Should Still. On the strength of probably the most famous non-English line in the history of film -  "Klaatu barada nikto"  - she earned a place in cinema immortality. 

But she was so much more than that. She was a fascinating mixture - a striking beauty whose face could express a cornucopia of emotions in only a few seconds. She had real sass; she was the kind of lady who could probably be called a broad, and she'd take it as a compliment.

And then there was that VOICE of hers. The one that didn't sound quite feminine or quite masculine. I've heart it described as "husky" or "molasses," but to me it was like fine sandpaper - rough around the edges but smooth to the touch.

As any of her obituaries will tell you, she had to endure more trauma than even a lowlife should have to. And yet, through her steely will, she managed to bounce back and hang tough.

And she was that way when I saw her. She was already in frail health and had to be brought in on a wheelchair. Her memory seemed a bit foggy, but what she lacked in recall she made up for in personality. She hadn't lost an ounce of that. She was vivid and playful as she recalled her career - especially the time she fell in love with Gary Cooper when they made The Fountainhead. Even all those decades later, she still had a dreamy quality in her voice when she talked about him. Who could blame her?

When it came to The Day the Earth Stood Still, she recalled how at the time, nobody had any idea they were making anything that would last - yet last it has. When her interviewer brought up the fact that the movie was being remade (wretchedly, it turned out) with Keanu Reeves in the lead, she queried "Who??" 

The crowd ROARED. I don't think Neal was really trying to be funny, but the WAY she said it, with that voice, was priceless. 

She said her favorite movie of hers was Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, and that is a very fine choice. Its demonstration of how the power of the media can make millions buy into a charlatan seems more prescient than ever these days. 

However, the movie in which she gave her best performance was, for me, the one for which she won her Oscar - 1963's Hud. Not many actresses could play haunted sensuality, but Neal could - vividly. 

Toward the end of that film, Paul Newman says to her, "I'll always remember you, honey - you're the one that got away." 

We'll always remember Patricia Neal, but she'll never get away, as long as there's a movie screen to flicker somewhere, on the faces in the crowd.

For more fine reading, check out EW's list of her essential performances, and critic Joe Leydon's recollections of Neal.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Classics" that have not aged well

The summer movie series at the Victoria Theater in Dayton goes by the name, the Hot Times Cool Films series, but I and others tend to give it the informal name of the "classic movie series."

Lately, though, I've found out that the word "classic" does not fit every movie in the series. Twice this year, Victoria has shown films many people have called "classics." Yet after watching two titles in particular this season, I can only ask, "Really?"

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: I first saw this film at home several years ago and liked it quite a lot. Seeing it on the big screen, however, seemed to rob it of its luster.

Don't get me wrong. I like the film. It's a  good movie. It has a lot to recommend it. It's beautifully shot by the great Conrad L. Hall, who won an Oscar. (He would win two more, for Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Road to Perdition.) The chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is undeniable. The scene that constantly gets shown in clip-fests - the jump into the gorge - is a great scene.

However, one scene does not a great movie make. And one of the chief reasons is that practically every frame SCREAMS "late 60s." The chief offender here is the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." scene. It's cute, but it's the prime example of what Roger Ebert called "The Semi-Obligatory Musical Interlude."
Scene in which soft focus and slow motion are used while a would-be hit song is performed on the sound track and the lovers run through a pastoral setting. Common from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; replaced in 1980s with the Semi-Obligatory Music Video.
The song won the Best Picture Oscar, and it's the kind of win that rankles me. I prefer it when a song actually serves the movie and isn't just window dressing, or a song to slow-dance to with your sweetie. Sure, "Raindrops" is a fun little tune, but the scene in the film has absolutely NOTHING to do with advancing the story. Zippo. Not only does the scene stop the movie cold, it even focuses on the wrong pair. It's Redford and Katharine Ross who are the couple - yet the scene shows Ross and Newman goofing around on a bicycle. Quite honestly, I think Sam Raimi made better use of the song in Spider-Man 2.

And it's not just the pastoral scene that feels off. The violence at the end, which is quite bloody, seems stolen from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which came out at the same time. That's dates the George Roy Hill film too.

I wouldn't necessarily say that Newman and Redford's follow-up film, The Sting, deserved to win Best Picture, but it's a much more entertaining film that doesn't seem quite so musty as Butch and Sundance do.

National Lampoon's Animal House: Victoria dubbed this film a "new classic," but neither word is accurate.   For a comedy with its reputation, I was surprised at how little I laughed.

Part of the problem may be my general distaste for the "drink all night, party every day, screw everything that moves" frat culture. The film revels in it. But another part of the problem is that even though it's set in the early 60s, it looks and feels VERY late 70s, from its flat lighting to its Studio 54-era hedonism. That just doesn't play as well now.

Most of my laughs came courtesy of John Belushi, who was a force of nature in this film (and pretty much everything else he did). But I didn't care about anybody else, aside from Karen Allen. If Victoria had to show a wild John Belushi movie from the same period, they would have been better off booking The Blues Brothers. Heck, they would have been better off booking Steven Spielberg's infamous 1941, which is not very good, but is better than its reputation suggests - and it's funnier than Animal House.

Robin Williams liked to joke that "If you could remember the 60s, you weren't really there." It seems the same is true of the late 70s. Animal House is called a classic mainly by people who say the word "man" after "classic." And how funny it is, I think, is directly proportional to how much beer you drank or pot you smoked in college (or high school).

Now it's discussion time. What "classics" didn't seem so classic when you finally saw them?  Perhaps we could make an anti-classics thread to go along with the classics one I intend to revive later.

Fire away at the overrated!


Salt preposterously entertained me. 

Much like the Bond movies it's so eager to emulate, Salt is often ridiculous and unbelievable - but most of the time, that's part of the fun. I found myself saying, "Yeah, right" a lot during the film - and that did indeed feel right. Suspension of disbelief, when it's executed well, can be thrilling, and it was in this movie, even when my eyes were rolling about as much as one of the stuntmen (or women).  

The other thing that struck me about this Angelina Jolie caper was how much it felt like a throwback. Oh, sure, it has many modern trappings, but the straight-ahead cleanly shot and edited action was rather refreshing when shots in some action movies don't last longer than two seconds. 

It really pays to take notice of the credits. Three names stood out to me. Chief among these was director Phillip Noyce, who is best known on these shores for the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. He's a very solid action helmer, and this, I think,  is his best American film. 

Another name that stood out was cinematographer Robert Elswit. He's best known as Paul Thomas Anderson's regular DP, but he's also a very capable action shooter, having lensed the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. And one of the editors is Stuart Baird, Richard Donner's regular editor who cut Casino Royale, the best Bond film of at least the past 30 years.

Their contributions make the action in Salt fun to watch. It felt almost old school in a way, watching action scenes in which I could tell who was slugging whom. That stands out in the era of whiplash editing that so marred the last Bond entry, Quantum of Solace, and pretty much any movie directed by Michael Bay. 

Where Salt does come up a little short is in the humanity department. The gambit of Kurt Wimmer's twisty screenplay is that it doesn't want us to know for sure where Salt's allegiance lies, and that makes the story intriguing for awhile - but it also makes the character somewhat impenetrable. The saving grace is Jolie's considerable charisma - she made me want to root for her by sheer force of will. 

I'm not sure if Salt has done well enough to warrant a follow-up, but I woudn't mind at all, especially since the future of the Bond franchise is uncertain. Her first adventure was like one of his martinis - I wasn't all that stirred, but I was definitely shaken. 


Saturday, August 07, 2010

Director vs. Director, Round 1

My Facebook friend and fellow movie buff Justin Wasson has come up with a fun game on Facebook wherein he pits various directors against each other, and then his Facebook friends choose one over the other and the directors narrow down through the rounds. Kinda like NCAA brackets for movie geeks.

I had fun casting my votes in the game, so I thought I would list the various "fights" and rationalize my choices.  I don't think there's any real rhyme or reason to pit a particular director over another, although I'm convinced that one particular fight HAS to be for comic effect.

Wes Craven vs. Richard Donner: Both quality directors in the horror and action genres, respectively.  I tapped Donner, because Donner has never made a movie as allegedly bad as Shocker or Vampire in Brooklyn.

Quentin Tarantino vs. John Carpenter: QT certainly has more buzz lately, while Carpenter  has been inactive for awhile. Carpenter hasn't made a truly decent movie in decades, but he gets the nod on the strength of classics like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. Tarantino, while indisputably one of the most important directors to gain prominence in the 90s, has gown increasingly adolescent and self-indulgent. And yes, that includes the overrated Inglourious Basterds, which is a "handful of scenes in search of a real movie," as Leonard Maltin aptly put it.

John Landis vs. Robert Rodriguez: This one was a bit tough for me. Landis' career is much longer in the tooth, but Rodriguez has been in a bit of a slump lately. Still, I went for Rodriguez for his visual and low-budget ingenuity.

Tony Scott vs. Terry Gilliam: This one, on the other hand, was easy. Even on an off day, Gilliam is more interesting than Tony Scott on an on day.

Tim Burton vs. Bryan Singer: I went with Burton, who has more of a personality (in several senses of the word) - even though the disappointment of Alice in Wonderland is still fresh.

Martin Scorsese vs. James Cameron: Marty trumps EVERYBODY. Simple as that.

Brian De Palma, vs. Michael Mann: Mann, for the very simple reason that he has never made a movie as wretched as The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Oliver Stone vs. George Lucas: I have a feeling people may stone me for this (rim shot), but I pick Lucas. Stone may be more visually bold (and reckless),  but Lucas made Star Wars, and that fact remains, despite the existence of Jar Jar Binks.

The Coen Brothers vs. David Fincher: Both great, but I went with the Coens for their versatility. Fincher's style is easily imitated. The Coens' is not, because they keep switching up their game.

Gus Van Sant vs. Steven Spielberg: Van Sant may be hipper, but few people are as visually intuitive as Steven.

Ridley Scott vs. Christopher Nolan: Nolan is the best director of the last 10 years, hands down. Scott has been maddeningly inconsistent, especially in the last 10 years.

Robert Zemeckis vs. Spike Lee: A bit of a tough call. Both, at their best, are stellar. So that's why if either one misses, it tends to stand out. I go with Zemeckis, who has missed less often, and who I really wish would go back to making live action movies and drop this motion capture obsession.

Francis Ford Coppola vs. Sam Raimi: I have to say I was dismayed when Justin told me Raimi won this round. Nothing against Raimi, and I suppose you could use my De Palma logic and claim that Raimi has never made a movie as bad as Jack. The other side of that coin, however, is that Raimi has never made a movie as good as The Godfather. Come ON, people! Have a sense of history!

Robert Altman vs. Michael Bay: If you pick Bay over Altman, you should never be allowed to watch a movie again. Ever.

The Wachowksis vs. Kevin Smith: Smith is better storyteller, because he's a better writer. However, since this contest judges directing, I have to go with the Wachowskis. Even when their movies are messes, they're ambitious messes.

Ron Howard vs. Guy Ritchie: When you make a movie as allegedly bad as Swept Away, you're automatically disqualified.

Justin has already posted Round Two (did so as I was typing this), so I will post on that later. For now, I feel inspired to go watch Zemeckis' Used Cars, which I have not seen in awhile, and the one film of Chris Nolan's I've not seen: Following.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Every movie I've seen so far in 2010

My apologies for being so remiss in posting to this blog lately. My job has kept me quite busy so that I write/edit all day, and then I'm out of energy to write/edit some more when I am at home.

I think what I will do is start to write shorter posts just to keep the blog going more often - and you know, I really should revive that long-dormant Favorite movies project that was so much fun earlier this year.

At least that's the plan for now. I seem to change my methodology every few months, so consistency is not my strong suit! ;) And honestly, I haven't seen a whole lot lately - most of my theatrical viewing has been repeat visits to Inception, which I have now seen five times.

I still need to review Salt, which was actually quite good, but that's a project for another day. For the moment, here's a quick and easy idea: Since I JUST compiled a half-year best-of list, it only follows that I should post a half-year movie viewing list. This is everything I've seen so far this year, on the big screen and the small.

Now I'm off to watch Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, since I just recently saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,  the other Robert Aldrich film featuring two cat-fighting movie idols, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Charlotte features Davis and Olivia de Haviland. Sounds almost as tasty.

  1. It's Complicated    B
  2. Up in the Air         A+
  3. Sherlock Holmes    C+
  4. Avatar     A+
  5. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus B
  6. The Lovely Bones B+
  7. Leap Year B-
  8. Crazy Heart A-
  9. Edge of Darkness B+
  10. A Single Man D
  11. Shutter Island  x3 A
  12. Precious A-
  13. The Blind Side B+
  14. Inglourious Basterds B
  15. Up A+
  16. A Serious Man A+
  17. The Hurt Locker A-
  18. An Education A
  19. District 9 A
  20. Alice in Wonderland C
  21. Green Zone B+
  22. How to Train Your Dragon A
  23. Chloe  B+
  24. The Ghost Writer B+
  25. The White Ribbon B+
  26. Diary of a Wimpy Kid B-
  27. Blade Runner B
  28. Ink D+
  29. Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission B+
  30. Sleep Dealer B+
  31. Godzilla vs. King Ghidora C+
  32. Star Trek A
  33. Galaxina F
  34. 2010 B
  35. The Runaways B+
  36. Hot Tub Time Machine B
  37. Kick-Ass B+
  38. Iron Man 2 B
  39. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo A
  40. Greenberg C
  41. Robin Hood C+
  42. Shrek Forever After B+
  43. Splice B+
  44. Singin in the Rain A+
  45. Get Him to the Greek B-
  46. Some Like It Hot A+
  47. Toy Story 3 X2 A+
  48. Sherlock Jr. A+
  49. Seven Chances A-
  50. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? B+
  51. Waking Sleeping Beauty A
  52. Knight and Day C-
  53. The Music Man A
  54. All About Eve A+
  55. Psycho A+
  56. Despicable Me A-
  57. Inception X5 A+
  58. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid B
  59. The Girl Who Played with Fire B+
  60. Salt B+

On the small screen

  1. The Girlfriend Experience B
  2. Dodsworth A
  3. The Heiress A+
  4. The Fox and the Hound B+
  5. The Great Mouse Detective B+
  6. The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes A-
  7. The Major and the Minor B+
  8. A Guy Named Joe B
  9. Moonlight Serenade C
  10. Baby Doll B+
  11. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof A-
  12. The Paradine Case C+
  13. Deception A-
  14. Cleopatra (1934) B+
  15. In the Loop C-
  16. Seven Days in May A-
  17. Lady for a Day A-
  18. Zero Hour! B
  19. Confederate States of America C-
  20. The Diary of Anne Frank A-
  21. Life After Tomorrow A-
  22. American Pimp B
  23. 3 Godfathers A-
  24. Where the Truth Lies B
  25. The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer B
  26. Bugs Bunnny Superstar   B+
  27. The Uninvited B
  28. The Nun's Story A
  29. Broken Embraces B+
  30. Summertime B+
  31. Red Cliff B
  32. A Foreign Affair A-
  33. Targets A
  34. Seconds A-
  35. Make Way for Tomorrow A
  36. Annie Oakley B+
  37. The Eastwood Factor B+
  38. Rumble Fish B-
  39. Peggy Sue Got Married B
  40. Tetro  A-
  41. New Moon C
  42. Picture This A
  43. Reds B+
  44. American Madness A
  45. Only Angels Have Wings B+
  46. Wild Boys of the Road B+
  47. The Old Man and the Sea B