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Warning you about crappy movies since 2008.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Young Victoria

The Chronic Critic would be satisfied with just about any costume drama featuring palace intrigue and machinations by wicked courtiers. But, to throw in a love story on top of the powdered wigs and corsets, well, she's practically in heaven.

Victoria and Albert were a rare -- for royals -- love match. Watching the soon-to-be-queen (Emily Blunt) be wooed by, and fall for, Albert (Rupert Friend) is a pure delight. There are other suitors, to be sure, and a domineering mother (Miranda Richardson) who'd rather see one of her own advisers become the ruler of England. But, the headstrong Victoria will not be denied her destiny.

She means to rule England wisely and doesn't need a husband to tell her what to do. Albert means to be treated as an equal. Victoria and Albert have some pretty radical ideas (for the 1830s) about the arts, housing for the poor and social justice. The pair is not just good for one another; they're good for the empire. To paraphrase Bill Clinton's famous campaign line about his and Hillary's political partnership, the country was getting two for the price of one.

Blunt exhibits her impressive range with this role. It's easy to forget she first came to prominence as the put-upon assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. Friend is a gentle, vulnerable and worthy suitor.

As you'd expect, the sets are grand, the vistas sweeping and the music soaring. But, what really makes this movie worth seeing is the royal romance. See it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Complicated

In writer/director Nancy Meyers' world, people are attractive and well-dressed. All the interiors -- homes, offices and bakeries -- are straight out of House Beautiful. Friends hoot and holler over good food and fine wine. Everyone has the means to live a life filled with high-end things, and the world is bathed in a soft, honey-colored light. It's a lovely place to visit. But, it doesn't come close to being a facsimile of real life.

But, that's what people seem to love about Meyers' movies. They're escapist fantasy for the upper crust. The Holiday and As Good as it Gets were unbearably bad, despite the gorgeous sets and wardrobes. It's Complicated is an improvement over the other two, but there was really nowhere to go but up.

Alec Baldwin is great fun to watch as Meryl Streep's lovable scoundrel of an ex-husband. He's remarried to a young hottie (played by Lake Bell) and has a rascally stepson, Pedro. He and the missus are also trying to get pregnant -- at her insistence.

Jane Adler (Streep) lives in a picture-perfect home, but she wants to add a new wing with a "real" kitchen. (The rest of us would be happy with her stainless steel double oven; high-end, oversized fridge and marble island that's always topped with a vase of fresh herbs and flowers.) Enter Steve Martin, an affable architect who's designing the new wing -- and vying with Mr. Adler for his ex-wife's affections.

Hijinks ensue.

The three Adler children are equally bland, and Jane's best friends (played by Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Hanks and Alexandra Wentworth, a.k.a. Mrs. George Stephanopolous) are so same-y as to be interchangeable. Their scenes of wine drinking, secret-swapping and cackling are positively cloying.

If you're predisposed to like this sort of thing -- and plenty of people (mostly women ages 35 and up) are -- you will not be disappointed. It's a well-acted, inoffensive, lovely-to-look-at trifle that you'll likely forget as soon as you leave the theater. Just because I've got the holiday spirit, I'll give this one a very lukewarm recommendation. If you're planning to see it, anyway, then ... see it.

Up in the Air

Why the fuss over this one? It's not even an easy movie to like, much less love.

People have called it a movie for our sad economic times. It does speak to our country's booming unemployment rate, but exactly what director Jason Reitman wants to say about it is left, well ... up in the air.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a suave hired gun who fires people for a living. And, if he doesn't necessarily enjoy the firings, he sure loves the perks that go along with his frequent-flying life. He has no attachments to anyone or anything, and he likes it that way. He goes from one sterile hotel to the next. Even the Omaha apartment he calls home looks as impersonal as a room at the Hilton. It's to Clooney's credit that this character he plays is actually likable.

Into Ryan's perfect world walks Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old hotshot out to create a new, more efficient technological process to fire people. Kendrick is a terrific actress, but her part's not written in a way that's worthy of her. I didn't find it believable that her buttoned-up, career-obsessed character would talk down to or berate her would be-mentor, Ryan. In the real corporate world, she might stab him in the back -- but she wouldn't likely be so confrontational with someone with that much seniority.

Ryan is enjoying his commitment-free, nomadic life when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), who is, seemingly, his female equivalent. She is as eager for a no-strings-attached "relationship" as Ryan is, but he grows a little too fond of her. Her dated, modified Farrah hairdo got on my last nerve, and I didn't find her a worthy match -- on any level -- for Ryan. Bad casting.

Speaking of bad casting, I didn't believe that Clooney's character was genetically related to his alleged sisters. How this handsome, sophisticated charmer shares a gene pool with his two frumpy, dopey sisters is beyond me. No wonder he doesn't want to maintain family ties with these gals.

The laughs are few and far between. Zach Galifianakis (of The Hangover fame) provides a welcome chuckle in his one brief sequence as a vengeful, terminated employee. But, this film really isn't the comedy it's made out to be.

It's been called a latter-day It's a Wonderful Life, yet our hero is more of an anti-hero than George Bailey. The characters in this movie may learn some tough lessons, but they're not necessarily going to heed them.

Throughout the movie, George and Anna speak in platitudes to the employees they're firing. They try to convince them that being fired will ultimately be a good thing -- maybe the best thing that's ever happened to them. None of the employees is buying that line. That's why the faux heart-warming ending is so jarring. Newly fired ex-employees talk about how getting fired made them realize it's family that really matters and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Our hero, Ryan, doesn't even believe that line. So, what does Reitman want the audience to believe? I have no idea. The contradictory messages, mediocre script and poor casting choices force me to say: Skip it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The Chronic Critic is no sports fan, but she does love a good sports movie. From One on One (starring 1970s heartthrob Robby Benson) to Rocky and from Prefontaine (and Without Limits -- another movie about Steve Prefontaine, the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen) to the recent The Blind Side, this critic has been known to get teary in sports movies about sports she doesn't even pretend to understand.

Invictus is not among those movies.

This critic is not immune to Matt Damon's charms (or impressive arms and abs), and she believes Morgan Freeman to be perhaps the most benevolent and welcome screen presence of our times. So, to pan a movie with two great stars whose subject is Nelson Mandela -- a political prisoner/president/modern-day hero -- doesn't please her in the least.

But, the presence of (and solid performances by) Damon and Freeman cannot compensate for a dull script, lackluster characters, uniformly wooden performances by the supporting cast and repetitive scenes. (How many times do we have to watch Mandela shake hands with each member of the rugby team?)

We never get to know Damon's character, nor any of his teammates. (It's a little hard to root for a team you care nothing about.) The movie would have us believe that crime, the economy and other ills were of little concern to Mandela. Dammit, he just wanted the national rugby team to win the World Cup. And, then the country's blacks and whites would be united and everyone would live happily ever after.

Clint Eastwood has directed movies both remarkable (Million Dollar Baby) and forgettable (Gran Torino). Invictus falls into the latter category. Skip it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Even as a furry predator, George Clooney can't conceal his devastating charm.

He provides the voice of the title character in Wes Anderson's animated version of a Roald Dahl children's story. Mr. Fox has been a happily married (to Felicity, voiced by Meryl Streep) father of a young misfit fox for 12 years. But, he yearns for the adventure of his youth. (Before settling down, he was a poultry thief.)

His desire for one last big score, plus his move to a new tree (Mr. Fox is upwardly mobile) and the arrival of his athletic, popular nephew sets the action in motion. His son is now forced to compete with his cousin for his father's affections. And, when Mr. Fox and his cohorts begin staying out late and excusing themselves early from the dinner table, Mrs. Fox smells a rat. So to speak.

The movie -- which has the sort of amateurish look some of us will remember from 1970s Saturday morning cartoons -- teaches us a few lessons without ever being preachy. The lessons involve being true to oneself, adapting to one's surroundings and that everyone -- even the rats and possums among us -- has some talent worth sharing.

It's a sweet, funny fable appropriate for young kids but appealing to grown-ups, too. See it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

The spot-on impersonation of the larger-than-life Welles is here. So are the 1937 period sets, costumes and hair and make-up. The music is authentic, too.

Pity no one thought to write a good story.

Me and Orson Welles takes place during one week of 17-year-old Richard's (Zac Efron) life, and, by the end of it, I felt I had been sitting in the theater for that full week. Efron does what he's called upon to do -- appear starstruck by Welles, who has hired him to play a small role in his production of Julius Caesar.

Welles is a tyrant, but after, oh, about his sixth rant at his theater company, it gets a bit tiresome. Since the story of this play rehearsal may have seemed -- correctly -- a mite thin for a feature film, the writer tossed in a little romance. Claire Danes plays the love interest (though she's not all that interesting) of Welles, Richard and several other men.

At one point, Welles reads a newspaper review of a preview of his play. He scoffs at the critic who writes that the play is a "considerable trial of the audience's patience and good will." The same can be said of the movie. Skip it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Messenger

Woody Harrelson has been proving this unlikely truth for years -- that he was, in fact, the most talented member of the Cheers ensemble. He gets another chance to show his range in The Messenger, the latest feature film to put a spotlight on the horrors of war.

Harrelson plays Capt. Tony Stone, a tough soldier with a thankless job. He notifies the N.O.K. (next of kin) when their spouse/child/sibling has been killed in the line of duty. Will Montgomery, a young, sensitive solider (played by the phenomenal Ben Foster -- where'd he come from? -- who looks like a cross between Ryan Gosling and Dustin Diamond) is assigned to work with Stone in delivering the grim news.

Stone warns him to keep a safe emotional and physical distance from the bereaved. This kid is clearly not going to be able to roll that way.

Harrelson plays angry and twitchy as well as anyone. (Willem Defoe, Robert Downey, Jr. and Colin Farrell are other greats in this category.) He keeps his rage mostly in check, but we know he's seething just below the surface.

Jena Malone shows up just long enough to get on my last nerve, as she always does. The usually great Samantha Morton plays a one-note character -- a widow informed of her husband's death by Stone and Montgomery. Young Will takes a shine to her immediately and embarks on a little stalking of her from a safe distance. This part of the film feels forced and unnecessary -- almost as if someone said, "We gotta throw in a little romance to get women between the ages of 22 - 44 to see this thing!"

The sweetest and most interesting story is the one that develops between the two soldiers as they grow to respect and understand each other. The Messenger is never as interesting as when Harrelson and Foster are on screen together, but there's enough of them to make this flick worth your time. See it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Serious Man

There are so many Big Themes at play in A Serious Man that the film may warrant a second viewing. Really, nearly all the big themes are intelligently interwoven into this dark (bleak, actually) comedy that takes place in a sterile, Midwestern suburb in the late 1960s:
  • Life is hard. Really hard.
  • Timing is everything.
  • People you love will disappoint you.
  • Bad things happen to good people.
  • Only time will reveal whether a particular incident happened for good or for bad. Things that seem bad in the present could turn out later to be blessings.
  • Perception is reality. Different people may view the same person or event in totally different ways.
  • Why would a just God pile so much crap on one person?

Larry Gopnick (Broadway veteran Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of the most memorable characters this reviewer has seen in recent cinema. He's up for -- and worried about -- tenure; has an unhappy and unfaithful wife and two of the whiniest, most self-centered teenagers -- one a pothead -- at home; a student who may be trying to bribe him; a down-on-his-luck brother who's moved in; money troubles; and is getting unrelenting phone calls from Columbia Records.

Larry's woes worsen during the course of the film. He seeks answers from rabbis and a divorce attorney, only to discover there really are no answers. The Coen brothers are the perfect filmmakers to send their hero out on a spiritual quest that comes up empty -- and find humor in it.

Watching Larry's undoing made me uncomfortable. Not since Matthew Broderick lost his mind, due to the over-achieving Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in Election, has a movie hero fallen this far, this fast.

The entire ensemble cast is great, but it's Stuhlburg's movie. He plays Larry with a quizzical, pained expression that grows more pained and more perplexed over time.

I either love the Coens (Fargo) or hate them (Burn after Reading) and, so, was reluctant to see their latest offering. Now, I can't stop thinking about it, and the Manor Theater manager told me no movie they've shown this year has generated as much conversation. I urge you ... see it!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Job (from the book by the same name) has nothing on Clarice "Precious" Jones. Life is hard for her. Unbearably, unfathomably hard.

Now, the Chronic Critic is not going to pretend she's any more familiar with life in the ghetto than she is with life on Martha's Vineyard, but she'd like to believe that there is some bright spot in every life, no matter how bleak.

Not so with this obese, nearly illiterate 16-year-old who has gotten pregnant twice. By her father.

OK, one bright spot comes in the form of Blu Rain -- the improbably named, impeccably dressed teacher at the alternative school Precious attends after being kicked out of her regular school. Ms. Rain is endlessly patient with her students, but you'd think a woman this smart would notice when, one day, Precious cannot read the phrase, "A Day at The Shore," and a few days later has written a lovely composition in the form of a fairytale that she is somehow able to read to the class. Excuse me? Was there an editor employed here?

Mariah Carey gamely uglies herself up as a compassionate social worker. But, she appears in one scene ... and then is forgotten until almost the end of the movie. When she appears again, we're left wondering, "What the ...? Has Precious been to see her again? If so, when? And, for how long?" The pretty teacher gets all the scenes, and the plain Jane Mariah -- who turns out to be an impressive actress -- gets three.

Lenny Kravitz shows up (and looks hot!) as a compassionate nurse who doesn't seem to do much nursing, but does eat a fruit cup in Precious's hospital room. Oh, and he pops in at her school for a holiday party. I've been going to Dr. Frasier for 18 years and have a fabulous relationship with his nurse, Tracy, but she has never come to any of my social functions.

As for Lenny, if only he could act as fine as he looks.

I will give Mo'Nique props for her phenomenal, Oscar-caliber performance as Precious's foul-mouthed, abusive mother. Your critic prefers her characters three-dimensional, and this woman is a one-note monster. How monstrous? Wait'll you get a load of what she calls her granddaughter. I don't want to spoil the horrific surprise.

This movie has a good heart and has a couple of stellar performances. But, but given the very heavy hand used here (Did I mention the Spay/Neuter clinic Precious walks by after giving birth?), the inconsistencies and the one-dimensional characters ... it pains me to say it ... I must advise you: Skip it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The title means "revenge," and you'll be about halfway into the movie before you'll see the act that one of the characters believes must be avenged.

The movie follows the lives of two couples: a husband -- a cop -- and his wife, who live in a bucolic village in Austria and a scuzzy ex-con and the Ukrainian hooker he's in love with. Tamara (the hooker) and Alex live in a seedy part of Vienna -- in a hotel that's operating as a brothel. The city/country settings couldn't be more different. And, the law-abiding couple couldn't be more different from the lowlife thug and his prostitute/girlfriend. But, the two worlds collide.

The lives of this foursome intersect in a most unexpected, unlikely way. To say any more would be to spoil the suspense. But, don't expect edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting suspense. It's subtler than that.

Once the couples have entered each other's lives, the movie goes from character study to psychological thriller. But, then it turns into something much deeper. And unexpected.

This little Austrian gem is now in limited release in the U.S. It won't be in theaters long. I urge you to seek it out. It's a wonder. See it!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Paper Heart

There are documentaries, there are mockumentaries (Christopher Guest is the master of that genre) and then there is this hybrid that leaves the audience wondering what part, if any of it, is true. Charlyne Yi -- an adorably rumpled stand-up comedian who claims not to believe in love -- is at the heart of this faux documentary. She sets out on a quest to find out if true love exists and, if so, what exactly it is.

Charlyne and a film crew head from L.A. to Nashville, Albuquerque, Toronto and Paris and find out ... (SPOILER ALERT!) nothing. She interviews people about their own love stories. (Are they "real" or actors? We're never sure.) Along the way, she seems to fake-fall in love with the actor Michael Cera.

I knew going into this movie that some critics complained that the line between fact and fiction here was just too fuzzy. But, I didn't know how cheated I'd feel after wasting my time and money. What a disappointment. Skip it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

Thrillers rarely win awards (Fatal Attraction and Misery being notable exceptions), and this movie is no Fatal Attraction. But of course, Milla Jovovich is no Glenn Close.

But, there's definitely a place -- especially on a sweltering August day -- for a B-grade thriller. And, this one does the trick. It's beautifully shot, to boot, which is an unexpected bonus in a B-movie.

Salaried critics have faulted the film for being too obvious, yet this critic -- call her obtuse -- never saw the twist coming. Which made it all the more jaw-dropping.

Jovovich and Steve Zahn play Cydney and Cliff, honeymooners looking for adventure on remote trails on Kauai. You might expect to see drugged-out bohemians in Hawaii, but Cydney and Cliff meet more than their fair share. Running into these kinds of kooks in the wilderness would give the rest of us pause, but -- in true B-movie fashion -- the newlyweds just move on down the trail, paying no attention to their misgivings.

Add to that the information now trickling out about another honeymoon couple in Hawaii being brutally murdered (and the suspects being a man and woman), and it seems especially ill-conceived for any of these fools to be out on the trails.

Could the killers be the tattoo'd, dreadlocked freaks who tried to bum a ride from Cydney and Cliff earlier? Or, might the killers be the peculiar couple who both have a particular agility with knives and other weaponry?

What great fun to find out. Take middling expectations and ... see it.

Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep proves yet again why she is the greatest actor (male or female) of our times. And, it's not just the distinctive voice she gets right. It's Julia Child's mannerisms and her sheer, contagious joy of good food that the actress brings to the role. Playing an icon can't be easy, but Streep is, not surprisingly, up to the challenge.

Amy Adams brings humanity to a character that could've easily been little more than a whining sad sack. We root for her Julie to finish this improbable, year-long project she has taken on.

Julie tells her husband she feels as if Julia is watching over her each time she's in her tiny kitchen, attempting her next, nearly impossible culinary feat. We should all be so lucky to have Mrs. Child as a patron saint.

The husbands in this movie are not merely incidental, supporting characters. They are full partners who eagerly encourage and abet their wives in their big endeavors.

This is one of the best movies of the summer and maybe of the year. A delicious treat. See it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

There was a time -- early in this romcom -- when I thought it might be a latter-day When Harry Met Sally ... It is not as funny or as endearing. But, it is a worthy effort, nonetheless.

A narrator tells us upfront this will not be a love story. It certainly isn't a typical one. And, the fact that Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) bond over their mutual love of The Smiths may hint that things aren't going to end happily for one or the other. After all, the band that gave the world "Girlfriend in a Coma" and "Cemetery Gates" isn't a conventional choice for a romcom soundtrack. (This movie's soundtrack is one of things it has going for it.)

Tom wanted to be an architect but now pens trite lines for a greeting card company. Summer, a new assistant at the company, seems utterly immune to the effect she has on men, which, of course, only adds to her appeal. Tom has it bad from the first time he sees her.

In a refreshing switch, Tom -- though every bit as adorable as Summer -- is the insecure, neurotic, obsessive suitor. He's convinced that she's the one, although she is equally convinced that true love is a myth. She tells him she doesn't want anything serious, even as she seems to be falling for him.

Although Summer is, according to the narrator, every man's dream, the movie belongs to Tom. So do our hearts. Gordon-Levitt imbues with him pain, angst, heart, vulnerability and charm to spare. To my mind, he's the irresistible one.

This movie cleverly moves back and forth in time to show us the wonder and wretchedness of falling in love, along with the attempts to sustain the magic of those first heady days. It may not be one for my own personal video library, but it's a well-done twist on a nearly worn-out genre. See it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Merry Gentleman

How can a movie be dull when the main character flees her abusive husband, moves to a big city and then witnesses a hit man (unbeknownst to her) about to commit suicide by jumping off a building? See The Merry Gentleman -- Michael Keaton's directorial debut -- and find out.

When Kate (Kelly Macdonald) screams at the sight of the man about to end it all, he's so startled that he trips backwards and lands safely on the roof of the building. He shows up at her place a few days later, and is so utterly charmless, we wonder why even an abused spouse would let him into her apartment, much less her life.

The camera lingers ... and lingers ... on scenes in which not much happens. Keaton says a handful of words during the entire movie, and sleepwalks through the scenes he does have. There are some detectives involved and one of them figures something out, although we're never sure how we did it. Nor do we care.

I slogged it out, simply because good reviews made me believe the slow pace would ultimately have a payoff. Not so much.

Kelly Macdonald is plenty good as the world-weary Kate. Would that she had better material. Avoid this big snooze of a movie. Skip it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I didn't know what a "hurt locker" was but figured the movie by the same name would offer an explanation. Welp, I sat through all 130 minutes of the film today, and I still don't know what a hurt locker is.

My expectations for this Iraq war flick couldn't have been higher, given all the buzz it is getting. Oscar buzz even. And, the first amazingly shot, nail-biting sequence where Guy Pearce and crew try to defuse a bomb made me believe this movie would live up the hype. Alas, it was downhill after that scene. And, s-l-o-w-l-y.

If the movie is supposed to say that war is hell and confusing as all get out, it does. I was confused from start to finish. Who just got shot? What was his motivation? Is that guy really an insurgent -- or just an innocent Iraqi who stumbled in to this scene at the wrong time? Hey, what's that kid doing alive? I thought he just got killed. And, what the hell is a hurt locker? It's all a cloudy mess, and it never gets explained. That may well be the reality of war, but as moviegoers, we deserve a bit more.

These characters are so ill-defined, it's hard to tell who's who. It's pretty impossible to care about any of them, when we know so little about them.

My mind kept wandering to that magnificent, three-hour masterpiece about the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter. In that film, the first hour is dedicated to introducing us to the characters in their hometown. We know where they came from and who they were before war, so we can see what impact war has on them.

The battle scenes and the bomb-defusing scenes in this film feel repetitive. Not only did I feel like I was watching the same scene over and over, but I started to feel nauseous. The hand-held camera used throughout the film does more than make you feel uneasy about the goings-on. It made me queasy.

I realize I am in the minority on this one, but I don't think this war flick adds anything new to the genre. Skip it.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Let's get this straight from the beginning. This movie is not for everybody. It is not for my parents, for instance. It is not for any of my parents' friends. It may not even be for anyone of my parents' generation.

But, it is soooo for me.

Offensive? Thoroughly. But, shockingly hilarious. Hilariously shocking. The popularity of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat may have meant that he could never fool anyone with that disguise again, but he sure does fool plenty of people with his gay supermodel schtick.

I cringe to think that real people were had by this act. I do feel badly for Ron Paul, although he didn't do anything to embarrass himself. And, Austrian Bruno can't help it that he confused Ron Paul with cross-dressing RuPaul. Honest mistake.

This movie shows that there is actually a limit to Paula Abdul's stupidity, and that's good to know. With Bruno as her host and interviewer, she is willing to use a Mexican man as a chair (don't ask; it has to be seen to be believed), but she does draw the line at ... oh, I can't even type it. You should just see it. Or not.

If you would be offended by an exercise bicycle that's been rigged up to serve as a sex toy, then you definitely shouldn't see this. But, if you see humor in a minister who specializes in converting gay people to straights telling Bruno that he knows women are nags and talk too much and sometimes don't ever get to the point, but that we have some good qualities, too, then you may be the target audience for Bruno. As for me, I guffawed from beginning to delightful end. See it ... as long as you acknowledge you've been warned.

Food, Inc.

The documentary, Food, Inc., could be classified as a horror film. Seeing how farm animals have been engineered and the atrocious conditions in which they live their brief lives is horrifying. I am only a little embarrassed to admit that I covered my eyes and sobbed through parts of this movie.

Yet, it begs to be seen. Someone in the film makes the point that it’s crazy that Americans need to be educated on where our food comes from, but it’s the truth. We have become eerily far removed from something as basic as the food we eat.

Our farms have become factories. A few giant food manufacturers have been able to demand – and get – products exactly as they want them from American farmers. When one brave farmer stood up to Tyson Foods and said she wanted to keep some windows (for ventilation) in her over-crowded chicken houses, Tyson dropped her as a supplier.

Even if animal welfare isn’t a concern of yours, the movie is horrifying on other levels, too. Those herds of cattle that have to stand in their own feces? That’s where e. coli gets started. Our health is dependent on the health of the animals we eat. And the food those animals eat.

You’d be hard-pressed to eliminate corn from your diet, even if you tried. Guess what farm-raised fish eat? That’s right – and corn is a food not typically found in either fresh or salt water. We’ve freakin’ taught fish to eat corn. And, you can bet it’s corn that was genetically engineered in a lab.

And, the FDA – the government agency tasked with watching over our food supply? Thanks to political cronyism in both parties, it’s generally headed by former executives from one of the big food conglomerates the agency is supposed to be regulating.

Terrifying, yet hopeful. See it. Tell friends to see it. And, then go support a local farmer. See it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Every Little Step

A Chorus Line, as everyone knows, is a much-beloved Broadway musical. It's based on the experiences of actual Broadway performers. Every Little Step is a documentary about the audition and casting of the recent revival of A Chorus Line. So, you meet real people who are auditioning to play characters based on real people.

And, many of the original cast and crew of A Chorus Line were involved in the casting and production of the revival. So, you have real people auditioning to play characters based on real people, and -- in some cases -- those real people are the very ones judging the auditions and deciding who will play them.

It's all very circular.

These Broadway stars and wannabes are multi-talented. They have to sing, dance and act -- and they have to do it all well. Every singer/dancer/actor in New York (and elsewhere, for that matter) seems to want a part in A Chorus Line. And, why wouldn't they? This is the story of their lives -- the endless rehearsals, crowded auditions, heartbreaking rejections and the faded glory of being a Broadway star a little past your prime.

A fascinating look behind the curtain. And, you get to hear What I Did For Love. See it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Away We Go

Away We Go is an example of what can happen to likable actors (adorable John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in the lead roles) and an acclaimed director (Sam Mendes) when they meet up with a crappy script. The script in this case, co-written by hipster authors (and husband and wife) Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida tries way too hard to be quirky. Quirky it is, and I'm OK with that. It's just that this script strains to achieve what, say, Diablo Cody made look effortless in Juno.

Rudolph plays Verona, a crunchy woman who lives with -- but refuses to marry --Burt, her hirsute, clueless boyfriend, played by Krasinski. Verona, whose parents are both deceased, gets pregnant early in the film. Burt's folks, who live nearby, will be the baby's only grandparents. When that self-absorbed couple announces they'll soon be moving out of the country, right before the birth of their grandchild, Verona and Burt set about looking for a new city to call home so their baby girl will grow up near family.

They hop from city to city, crashing with crazy old colleagues, family members and college buddies, as they try to find a new home base. The script is so carelessly written that one family the clueless couple stays with -- college chums of the 33-year-old Verona -- has what seems to be four or five adopted children, some teenagers. The husband confides in Burt that the wife has just suffered her fifth miscarriage and, well, shame on them for waiting so late to try to have kids. Huh?! Sure looks like they started their family about 12 or 13 years ago. When they would've likely still been in college.

In another scene meant to be touching, Verona and her sister climb into a bathtub in a showroom and discuss their late parents. Verona weeps. For me, it was just contrived and cloying.

A supporting cast that includes the usually magnificent Allison Janney tries mightily for laughs that never come. Maggie Gyllenhaal as a hippie professor/earth mother is the lone entertaining character we meet on this road trip. She's far from likable, but she is memorable. Which is more than you can say for the rest of the movie.

Away We Go is little more than a series of vignettes with oddball and annoying -- you can't even call them characters -- caricatures. Skip it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Hangover

By now, you surely know the premise. Three friends (well, two friends and a slightly slow future brother-in-law) take Doug to Vegas for a bachelor party. The three wake up in their luxury suite the morning after to discover blow-up dolls in the tub, a still-smoldering cigar burning a leather chair, a live chicken, an equally live tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet. Oh, and the groom is missing.

No one has any recollection of the previous night. They've got to find their friend but will need to do a bit of (bumbling) detective work to retrace their steps.

If the summary sounds hysterical, wait until you see these hapless guys in action. The fellas may be stereotypes, but they're still HI-larious. Ed Helms (Dwight Shrute's rival for Angela on The Office) plays the hen-pecked professional who is fearful of his battle ax of a live-in girlfriend. Bradley Cooper plays the hot stud who's unhappily married and complains about the old ball and chain at every turn. He's also a teacher, and he complains about that, too.

The dimwitted brother, though, is a complete original. He gets the best lines, and his helpless longing to just be one of the guys provides the raunchy proceedings with a bit of heart.

While many of the plot devices used (mistaken identity, for one) are a bit worn, they're made to seem fresh here. The old you-got-my-suitcase-and-I-got-yours-since-they-are-identical gag (from What's Up, Doc?) is updated here to involve a man purse.

The ending will not come as a surprise to anyone, but there are plenty of surprises to be had in Vegas to keep the movie laugh out-loud funny from start through the final credits. See it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Shall We Kiss?

This French (with subtitles) movie provides a cinematic retort to "A Kiss is Just a Kiss."

A kiss is never just a kiss, this movie seems to be saying. One kiss can alter the entire course of a life. For better or for worse.

Shall We Kiss? starts with a typical "meet cute," which sets up the premise. A lovely woman is in town on business and can't find a taxi. She asked a handsome passerby where to hail a cab, and he offers to take her to her hotel. He invites her to dinner and, since she has nothing else to do, she accepts. When he drops her back at the hotel, he asks politely for a kiss. She tells him she cannot allow it, given what she knows about how there's really no such thing as an innocent kiss. With that, he's so intrigued that he insists on hearing the story.

From there, we see the story in flashbacks involving another couple -- seemingly happily married -- and the wife's (male) best friend. Their story takes a number of unpredictable and, at times, hysterical turns. At one point, we're treated to the most clinical, least passionate movie love scene in recent memory. It's intentionally funny.

If all this sounds like standard rom-com fare, it's not. There are funny parts, but this movie is much more melancholy than your average romantic comedy. On one level, it's a rumination on how hard it is for couples to stay together and remain faithful -- even in the happiest of marriages.

The story told in flashbacks is so engaging, it's easy to forget that our storyteller is back in a hotel bar with a man she's just met who is hanging on her every word. Hers is a cautionary tale, alright, but will both protagonists be able to resist a little liplock after all the time they've spent together and all the vin rouge they've drunk? Find out for yourself. See it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


What a dear movie this is.

Luckily, as with all Pixar's movies, it's aimed as much at adults as it is the typical Disney demographic. The animation is magical, of course. But, it's the story that won me over.

If you've seen the previews, then you know an old curmudgeon ties oodles of helium balloons to his house, and up he goes. You also know that a stowaway is on board -- a cute, plump, eager-to-please kid hoping to earn his last scouting badge ("Assisting the Elderly") in order to be promoted to the next rank.

What the previews didn't show was why old Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner) became such a grump. He wasn't always so. The kid, Russell, has his own bittersweet back story, too. To reveal any more would spoil the sweet story Pixar has in store.

It's mostly light-hearted fun (except for when it's yanking at your heartstrings), but there are several scenes with some well-trained and mean attack dogs. My six-year-old nephew seemed unfazed by them, but a certain movie critic found them a little scary.

Since this is Disney, everyone learns a valuable lesson before it's all over -- including those of us in the audience. The summer blockbusters don't generally interest me, but Up made my spirits soar. See it!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Valentino: The Last Emperor

I don't think you have to be a fashionista or style watcher to enjoy this documentary about the life and career of designer Valentino. After all, I enjoyed it.

It's about equal parts love story, Project Runway and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Valentino may be a genius, but he has the temperament and prickliness that often accompanies it. Giancarlo -- his partner in business and love -- has fussed over him, suffered under him, tolerated him and adored him for 45 years. They quibble like the old, married couple they are, but it is evident throughout the film that each man couldn't make do without the other.

The movie follows Valentino and Giancarlo as they prepare for what seems to be the fashion show to end all fashion shows. Talk abounds of Valentino's potential retirement from a business (and an art form) he loves and helped create. Such talk is clearly upsetting to both men, yet they endure those questions from media and fans at every turn.

It's fascinating to watch Valentino sketch, drape and create one masterpiece after another. While Valentino attends to the clothes, Giancarlo attends to everything else. He conceived of and designed the set for the big extravaganza in Rome that may or may not be the swan song for the designer. The camera catches him whispering to Valentino as they enter an event to honor the more famous of the duo: "Don't forget to thank everyone for coming. Oh, and your secretary's son just graduated from college."

The rich, famous and impossibly thin people Valentino surrounds himself with are on parade here. Peeking in on such an extravagant life -- where the five pampered pugs live better than most humans do -- is a guilty pleasure. But, the filmmaker never lets us forget that this is, under all the glamor, snark and sequins, a deeply felt love story. See it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Every year or so, an indie movie comes along that captures the hearts of nearly all the critics ... and leaves me baffled as to why. Lost in Translation and Junebug were just such movies.

Goodbye Solo is likely that movie for 2009.

According to www.rottentomatoes.com, 100 percent of critics agree that Goodbye Solo is one of the best movies of the year and that the writer/director is the new Scorsese or Tarantino. WTF?

The premise is promising enough. William, a world-weary, old man hires a cab to take him to the movies one night. He offers a hefty advance to the Senegalese cabbie (Solo) to drive him from Winston-Salem, N.C. to Blowing Rock two weeks hence -- on Oct. 20. Delightful Solo is a little suspicious of this surly fellow who wants a one-way ride to the mountains and isn't planning to meet anyone once he gets there. Solo wonders if he's planning to jump off the mountain. Bingo!

Solo's love of life is contagious, and he assumes he'll be able to talk this stranger out of killing himself over the next two weeks. And, he tries mightily.

But, William is one bitter old man. He softens occasionally under Solo's care, but then goes right back to being a cussing, angry son-of-a-gun. The movie could've been deeply affecting, if we ever found out why William is so bitter. But, that would apparently be too much to ask of co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani. William is given no back story at all. It's pretty hard to care about his character when we know so little about what makes him tick.

The lone good actor in the cast is Souleymane Sy Savane, who plays Solo. Every other character, from movie ticket takers to a pharmacist at a drive-thru, gives either a wooden delivery of his lines or an overly excited one.

I suppose Winston-Salem is supposed to look down-and-out, and it does. We see the same exterior shot of the fleabag motel William checks into while he awaits D-Day countless times. Even the director of My Name is Earl shows more varied shots of the hotel where Earl lives.

Just how sloppy is the film making? One actor calls Solo "Souleymane" (his real name!) Now, perhaps "Solo" is short for "Souleymane," but shouldn't that be made clear?

By the time Oct. 20 rolls around, I didn't much care if William followed through on his plan or not. I was ready to big him "goodbye" about 15 minutes into the film.

Slow, sloppy, unimaginatively shot and utterly lacking in human interest ... I see nothing redeeming about this movie. Skip it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


What a mess.

I had seen this movie compared favorably with the delightful (mostly), Paris, Je T'aime. Both movies are supposedly love letters to the cities in which they're set. The Paris movie made me want to hop on a plane and revisit that magnificent city. Tokyo! (the movie) cured me of ever wanting to visit.

The movie is a trilogy of 40-minute movies helmed by three different directors. The first one is by Michel Gondry, the guy responsible for movies both wondrous (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and wretched (Be Kind, Rewind). This one falls into the latter category. A 20-something couple arrives in Tokyo to promote a film the boyfriend has made. They camp out at the world's tiniest flat with a friend. This place is too small for its one occupant. It's downright inappropriate for three. Well, the girlfriend begins to feel out of sorts and lost in the big city. And, it doesn't help that her boyfriend treats her poorly -- telling her she has no ambition. She feels like just part of the scenery. Before the whole thing is over (SPOILER ALERT!) she turns into a piece of furniture. Seriously. She becomes a chair. And, then it's over.

Surely, the next segment would be better than the previous, I thought. Not so much. In this installment, a creep with long fingernails, a milky eye and a flowing, red goatee emerges from a sewer to terrorize the city. He swipes cigarettes from passersby, steals money and eats it and wreaks havoc in general. He gets caught and is interrogated by the only person who understands his guttural language -- a French attorney who has the same long fingernails, milky eye and flowing, red goatee. Need I go on?

I hope, by now, you're getting the picture that this was one big waste of time and $7.25. If you're hoping to know who/what the beast turns out to be or what the third mini-movie was about, you will have to see it for yourselves. I walked out. My advice: Skip it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sin Nombre

It takes a certain kind of hard-core sociopath to tattoo gang insignia over his entire face, and Li'l Mago is just that kind. You do not want to get on this guy’s bad side.

But, Casper (a.k.a. Willy), a reluctant teen member of the MS13 gang in Mexico, does just that. His girlfriend, whom he has tried to keep hidden for her own safety, finds him at his gang hideout – and they both pay a steep price for it. Willy will have to endure unfathomable hardships after breaking away – in a big way – from his brothers in the gang. He has no choice but to go on the run, and at that point the two separate stories that have comprised the first two-thirds of the movie intertwine.

The first story concerns a lovely, tough teenage girl, Sayra, who is trying to get to the U.S. with her father and uncle. They, like scads of other Mexicans, are riding atop a freight train and trying to stay one step ahead of the border patrol. Mr. Scary Tattoo Face and his sidekicks attempt to rob Sayra and her family, and the fates of our two main characters become linked.

Sayra fears getting caught by the border patrol, but wily Willy lives moment to moment, barely one step ahead of his former gang members, who are determined to kill him. Sayra is determined to cast her lot with Willy, although he warns her he is nothing but trouble.

Tough, gritty, violent but with moments of genuine and affecting tenderness ... this Spanish-language (with subtitles) flick is one not to be missed. See it!

Beauty in Trouble

The beauty in question is in trouble, indeed. Floods have devastated Prague, her house has an out-of-control mildew problem which is exacerbating her young son’s asthma and she is married to an abusive man who makes a living stealing cars.

When she’s finally had enough, she takes her two children to her mother’s house. She finds slightly nicer surroundings, but mom is married to a creepy fellow with an anger management problem who is constantly saying inappropriate things – particularly to the children. She’s gone from bad to … just as bad.

While visiting her husband in jail, she happens to meet the man whose car the husband has stolen recently. He is a benevolent, rich, saintly, older man, and he takes a liking to our protagonist. Yet, he seems to want nothing more from her than companionship. Heck, he’s even good with her kids. Obvious choice, right? An abusive, low-life thug or a kind-hearted man of means. But the characters in this subtitled Czechoslovakian movie, as in real life, don’t always make the right decision.

So, beauty's trouble is partly of her own making. The pull of her lousy husband is too strong for her to ignore, and she vacillates between the attractive, wealthy older man (oh, who happens to own a fabulous Italian villa!) and her crappy husband in the mold-infested slum.

While her dilemma and the circumstances of her life are tough to look at, it’s refreshing to see characters who behave in the same confounding ways real people do. There’s nothing pretty to look at it here (save for the lovely actress who plays the title character), but a film that deals honestly with the bad decisions we all make in life is worth celebrating. See it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

State of Play

As Hollywood thrillers go, you could do much worse than this new flick with an all-star cast -- all of whom turn in strong performances. Even Ben.

Russell Crowe! Ben Affleck! Helen Mirren! Rachel McAdams! Robin Wright Penn! Even the bit parts went to A-list actors. Oscar nominee Viola Davis (Doubt) shows up in one brief scene. Jason Bateman is always a welcome sight, but I like my Jason Bateman movies on the funny/quirky side. I feared he was going to be all serious when he finally showed up three-quarters of the way through. As it happens, his smarmy PR guy is some much-needed comic relief.

The movie opens with the death (murder? suicide?) of a young, pretty Congressional aide. The congressman played by Ben Affleck is just a little too upset when he learns of her death. It's no surprise (in the movie, as in real life) that the married politician has been banging his young aide. The trouble is, Congressman Collins is in charge of an investigation into the shady dealings of a Blackwater-esque defense contractor that's supplying soldiers-for-hire for Iraq. The Congressman is in no position to question anyone's ethics.

As Collins gets into deeper doodoo, he leans on his old college roommate, Cal (Crowe) -- a star reporter for The Washington Globe. Cal is as devoted to his old friend as he is to getting the big scoop. Trouble is, there's a new hotshot blogger (Della, played by McAdams) at The Globe who hot on the trail of the same sordid story.

Washington, D.C. -- so often depicted as the majestic city I find it to be -- has never looked murkier. There are some nasty goings-on in the halls of power, and the lighting and locales match the shenanigans. But, there's more to this layered story than political corruption. The tension between old-school print journalism and the upstart blogosphere provides the movie with its heart.

This is one whodunit that's actually fairly easy to follow -- at least until the end, which unravels a bit. But, State of Play is that rare well-paced thriller with an exceptional cast. It's good, nasty fun. See it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Director Greg Mottola's latest movie has more in common with his Daytrippers (one of my all-time faves) than his more recent -- and more well-known -- Superbad.

Low on gross-out comedy, but heavy on teen angst, Adventureland follows recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg of The Squid and The Whale) during the course of his dreadful summer job at a local amusement park. A child of privilege, James was to have spent the summer in Europe before his father's demotion led to a sudden need for James to earn his own money for the first time in his young life. Since the characters who run the rickety amusement park (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) need nothing more than a warm body to man a games booth, James is hired on the spot. At what passes for an interview, they're unimpressed by his good grades and SAT scores.

There's humiliation, self-doubt and self-loathing, as you'd expect in a coming-of-age story. But, there's a lot more heart than we're used to seeing in this genre, too. Kristen Stewart is the lovely, woeful Emily -- a worthy love interest for our sweet, intellectual protagonist. She shares with him the pain over her mother's death and her father's remarriage to a bimbo. But, she hides a secret that keeps her from getting closer to James.

Thanks to a bitchin' soundtrack and lots of big hair, Mottola perfectly captures the look and sounds of the '80s. The laughs may not come at a fast pace, but this movie's heart makes up for a lack of chuckles. This is a chaste love story with believable, mostly likable characters that sweetly and painfully calls forth all the electronica and overly made-up drama of being a teen in the '80s. See it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

This independent film has more in common with Little Miss Sunshine than just Alan Arkin. There are the quirky characters; a wacky, dysfunctional family whose members love and can't do without each other even as they drive each other crazy; a precocious kid -- and a van that figures prominently in the story. But, this story is much more drama than comedy, whereas Little Miss Sunshine was the reverse.

Rose (Amy Adams) is rock-solid as a former cheerleader whose glory days are long past. She's a single mom to a young boy who's constantly in trouble. She's involved with a married man (Steve Zahn) who is clearly not planning to leave his wife. And, she tries to eke out a living by cleaning houses.

And, she's the successful sister.

Emily Blunt plays the younger, troubled, irresponsible sister who keeps getting fired from waitressing jobs. But when Rose gets wind of a serious money-making opportunity, she enlists the help of her reluctant sister, and the two start a business specializing in cleaning up crime scenes. Along the way, the sisters will be forced to confront -- each in their own way -- the memory of their mother who has been missing from their lives since they were young.

Parts of the movie are a bit heavy-handed and manipulative. And, this reviewer was disappointed that the fate of one important character is never addressed -- even after the film has led you to believe he and one of the main characters are falling for each other. Still, there's enough about this movie -- primarily its endearing cast -- to recommend it. See it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Love You, Man

No one plays an affable, adorable, yet slightly clueless, guy better than Paul Rudd. In this winning bromance, he's Peter Klaven, fiance to Zooey (Rashida Jones -- Jim's ex-girlfriend from the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin in The Office and daughter of Quincy Jones and The Mod Squad's Peggy Lipton). Zooey has dozens of close girlfriends and quickly puts together her line-up of bridesmaids for the big day. Yet, Peter has no fellas to serve as his groomsmen. His gay brother (for a pleasant change, not the stereotypical queeny kind -- funny though that can be), played by Andy Samberg, is better at male friendships than Peter.

Even their father (the dad from Juno) considers the gay son to be his best friend. Peter can't even get his own dad to respect him. Yet, he's so darn good-natured about it. He takes his family's ribbing in stride.

Peter sets off on a quest to find what a girl might call a BFF. After a few funny misfires, he happens upon Sydney (Jason Segel), a beer-swillin', motorcycle-ridin', skirt-chasin', trash-talkin' man's man. Would this guy -- who spends most of his time in his man cave -- really want to hang out with someone so inept he leaves the cave one day, saying, "That was some sweet, sweet hangin'."? That's after he answers a question with, "Totally. Totes, magoats."

As it turns out, yes. Peter is so endearingly clumsy in trying to make a best friend out of him, that you can't help but cheer him on.

There's never any doubt about where this platonic love story is headed, but that doesn't make the trip any less enjoyable. Should you spend money on I Love You, Man? Totes, magoats. See it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Two Lovers

The drama opens with what can't even be described as a half-hearted suicide attempt. We'll call it a quarter-hearted one. After Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is "rescued," he schleps home in his soaking wet clothes. His parents aren't surprised; Leonard has tried this before. They just tell him to get ready for the dinner guests they're expecting any minute. Ho hum, just another day in this crazy household.

But Leonard isn't even the craziest character in this flick. That honor goes to Michelle, (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is a stunning, yet drug-addled, woman engaged in an affair with her married boss. Leonard falls instantly for her. Beauty can mask a multitude of red flags, I suppose.

But, there's an equally beautiful young woman -- Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) -- who's got a thing for Leonard. Inexplicably. He can't shake her, no matter how many times he forgets to call or stands her up. And, his parents are determined that she's the one for him ... I'd want him out of my house, too.

So, once the threesome involved in this love triangle is introduced, nothing much happens over the course of the next nearly two hours. Leonard pursues Michelle, although she's involved with a married man. Sandra pursues Leonard, although he's an absentee boyfriend, at best.

None of it makes sense. There's not enough of a back story given to make us understand the characters' motivations. Sandra tells Leonard at one point that she wants to take care of him. So, she's the nurturing type. Surely, she could find a worthier man to nurture. Skip it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hating Julia

There's a new Julia Roberts clunker being hyped now, and the barrage of TV commercials and movie previews about it has reminded me how much I hate her. And, I really hate her.

I hate that she is the highest-paid actress in the world, especially since her acting skills are nearly non-existent. I ain't sayin' she ain't purty. But, purty qualifies her to be a model -- not an actress. And, certainly not one who commands $20 million per film.

I hate her ego -- so outsized in proportion to her talent. Remember when she won a best actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich (a movie I am proud to say I have never seen)? She demanded more air time than was allotted. And, when the esteemed Oscar conductor (and Oscar-winning composer) Bill Conti lifted his baton to cue the orchestra, she shushed him by saying, "Hey mister, don't be so quick with that stick. I may never be up here again."

Well, we can hope.

I hate that she demands the spotlight, even when it's not her turn. For example, she presented Denzel Washington's best actor Oscar to him. When she opened the envelope -- before announcing who the Oscar would go to -- she squealed, "Ooooo, I love my life!" I'm like, "Julia, just announce the winner, hug him, hand him his statue and step aside."

I hate that her bratty niece (I don't know that she's a brat; I'm just assuming) is following in Aunt Julia's famous-despite-no-talent footsteps. And, I will hate it when Phinnaeus, Hazel and her third kid -- who has a normal name -- follow their mom into the biz.

I hate Pretty Woman. I hate that she starred in it, thus ensuring that she'll forever be referred to as "Pretty Woman Julia Roberts" by the fawning entertainment press.

I suspect she broke Lyle Lovett's heart, and I hate her for that, too. While others were wondering why she would marry him, I was wondering how he could stoop to marry her.

So, the new movie looks to be a spy caper/romantic dramedy along the lines of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. I like co-star Clive Owen, but not enough to sit through a movie in which Julia Roberts gets so much screen time. I began boycotting her movies about a decade ago (I know, I know -- my staying away isn't going to hurt her, but still.) Rarely have I ventured to any Julia Roberts movie since then. I only go after being assured that her screen time is minimal. Yet, even then, I'm disappointed. Everything she's in is bad. Charlie Wilson's War, for instance. Just a stinker, despite Philip Seymour Hoffman's delightful performance.

So, when the new movie -- I haven't paid enough attention to even know the name of it -- opens, I'll be saving myself the $10. I wish the masses would join me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Praying with Lior

If you missed it tonight at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, then seek it out on DVD. This touching documentary tells the story of Lior Liebling, a boy on the verge of his Bar Mitzvah who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Lior prays with a fervor that his faith community admires and may even envy. His father worries that his much-anticipated Bar Mitzvah may be the most meaningful event to happen to him -- for years. No parent wants to think his beloved child might peak at 13.

You're likely to fall in love the entire Liebling family, although the clear star here is Lior. There's the compassionate older brother, Yoni, who takes loving care of Lior. There's the cute, but cranky, baby sister who complains that she should get the most attention, since she's the youngest. Lior's father is as strong, gentle and loving as any I've seen. His stepmother sweetly demands the best from him. She worries that he may rely too heavily on being the cute kid. As his Bar Mitzvah approaches, she longs for him to retain the cuteness as he grows into a man. And, there's a host of people in their faith community who cheer Lior on, spiritually and in every other way.

And, there is the memory of his mother, who died of cancer when Lior was six. As his Bar Mitzvah approaches, Lior confides in the filmmaker how profoundly sad he is that his mother won't be there on the most important day of his life.

Yoni says at one point that he isn't sure if there is a God, but if there is, Lior has a closer relationship with Him than anyone he knows. After seeing this movie, I think I agree. See it.

P.S. Props to my friend, Shaun, who endured my sobbing beside him tonight while pretending not to notice.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

The incongruity of an animated war movie never wears off during the 90 minutes of this Israeli film. It's no less surprising to see cartoon corpses toward the end of the movie as it is to see the hard-bitten veterans, smoking and trading war stories, at the beginning.

The movie deals in an unexpected way with memory and the tricks it plays on us -- especially after a traumatic experience, such as war. And, especially to those who have been the aggressors in war.

It's easy enough for the viewer to distance himself from the atrocities of war when they're rendered in cartoon form. But, that may be precisely the film maker's point. People will do whatever is necessary to distance themselves from a painful memory. In the case of some of the Israeli soldiers depicted in the film, that includes erasing their own memory of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Yet, the nightmares of one character doom him to relive the hell of war night after night. When he confides in another veteran, it prompts him to seek out the truth from others involved in the massacre of innocent civilians.

Filled with indelible comic book imagery of man's inhumanity to man, Waltz with Bashir suggests that war lives on in those who have fought ... long after the battle is over. See it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's Oscar Day!

It's the most bestest day of the whole year. Each year on the Friday before the Oscars, I begin to get a little jittery and a lot excited. As if I myself am up for best actress -- or best screenplay, as is my real dream. I think about hosting an Oscar party, but then I think how rude it would be for me to shush my guests as I try to listen to all the speeches. Uninterrupted. I'm Serious about the Oscars.

Oh, I've had my Oscar moments. At one particularly fun party (the hostess wove film into her fancy floral arrangements and had each of the guests place bets on their picks), I bet my entire pile of Monopoly money that Hilary Swank would forget to thank her two-bit, made-for-TV movie husband, Chad Lowe. Even back in the day of Boys Don't Cry, I knew Hilary was destined to outgrow Rob's less-famous, less-talented younger brother.

Sure enough. She thanked her agent, the director, her mom (for living out of a car while toting Hilary to Hollywood auditions), the craft service staff, her makeup artist, literally everyone associated with the film. Everyone at the party began handing me their wads of play money, when Hilary said, "WAIT! I almost forgot to thank ..." People retracted their money, as we all awaited Hilary's teary tribute to Chad. But, she said, " ... Brandon Teena, the real-life character I played in the movie."

My BFF, Todd, hooted, "Oh my God, she thanked a DEAD PERSON! She left her husband out and thanked a dead person!" The money and the glory were mine.

I live for Oscar moments like this.

And I fear Oscar moments like this: Helen Hunt's win for As Good as it Gets. What a dreadful movie and what a lame, ought-to-be-limited-to-Lifetime-movies actress she is. Her performance, where she used a bad Brooklyn accent in exactly three scenes, was atrocious. I'm still mad, just thinking about her inexplicable win.

Let's hope there's no mistake of Helen Hunt proportions tonight. And, let's hope there's a brief, shining moment where someone forgets to thank his/her spouse and I get to collect a bunch of money because of it.

If you decided to read my blog today, I imagine it's because you're wondering what my picks are. So, here they are, for the biggies:

Best Picture
If I had my way: The Visitor (Alas, it will not win, since it is not nominated. My second choice is Milk.)
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor
If I had my way: Sean Penn (Milk)
Prediction: Sean Penn

Best Actress
If I had my way: Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
Prediction: Kate Winslet (The Reader)

Best Supporting Actor
If I had my way: Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder)
Prediction: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

Best Supporting Actress
If I had my way: Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)
Prediction: Viola Davis (Doubt)

Best Director
If I had my way: Gus Van Sant (Milk)
Prediction: Danny Boyle (Slumdog)

Enjoy the show!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

I am predisposed to enjoy any movie set in London, so Last Chance Harvey already had that going for it. But, it is especially refreshing to see a love story concerning people of a certain age.

Dustin Hoffman (Harvey) is at his sad sack-y best as a lonely, divorced American -- past his prime in business and every other way -- whose only daughter is getting married in London. Emma Thompson (Kate) is just as lonely, but she hasn't managed to alienate nearly everyone around her, as has Harvey. We know from their very first brief scene together (when Harvey rudely brushes off a question from Kate) where this story is headed, but that doesn't make the trip any less enjoyable. Sweet and expertly acted, if a little predictable. See it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The year (in movies) that was 2008

1. The Visitor. You’ve seen character actor Richard Jenkins in everything over the years but probably never paid much attention. You will now. His loneliness as a widowed college professor who is bored with life is palpable. He finds friendship and renewed meaning in his life when he discovers illegal aliens living in the New York apartment he owns but rarely visits.

2. Milk. Sean Penn is virtually unrecognizable in the title role of the late Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay person elected to public office. Director Gus Van Sant mixes archival footage – including now-Sen. Diane Feinstein announcing the assassinations of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone – with his new footage, and it’s often hard to tell the difference. While Milk never hid his homosexuality, he also made it clear that he represented more than just the gay population. The elderly, the disabled and minorities of all stripes helped elect him, and he stood for all of them. His message – “You can’t live on hope alone, but without hope, life isn’t worth living” – is as relevant now as when he first delivered it in the Castro in the 1970s.

3. Let the Right One In. A love story masquerading as a vampire movie. A lonely, bullied middle school boy finds understanding and friendship with a new neighbor in his apartment complex. Yet, this equally lonely 12-year-old girl only comes out at night. And, there’s an awful secret she can only hint at. She tells him she’s “been 12 for a long time,” but several townspeople will be murdered – although by reluctant predators – before the boy becomes aware of the truth his only friend hides. Subtitled.

4. Slumdog Millionaire. Told in flashbacks, this feel-good movie depicts our hero winning his way toward the top of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” After a harrowing life (and no schooling) in the slums of Mumbai, how could this uneducated contestant get every single answer correct? Some powerful people grow suspicious, even as he becomes a national hero.

5. Jellyfish. Visually stunning Israeli film about the separate lives of three lonely women. These lives intersect long enough for some of these women to form tenuous connections. Melancholy and lovely. Subtitled.

6. Step Brothers. I saw it the day after seeing “The Dark Knight” and found this movie to be far superior. Raunchy and sophomoric … yet I laughed to the point I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing more (and bothering the pre-teen boys with whom I shared the theater). I even laughed in reading the premise: Two 40-year-old, unemployed men (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) become stepbrothers when one’s widowed father marries the other’s divorced mother. Neither is happy with the arrangement, and the bad behavior that ensues is hysterical. Richard Jenkins plays the dad, who cracks under the pressure of having two grown ne’er-do-wells under his roof.

7. Role Models. It begs to be seen twice, because you’ll miss much of it as you’re doubled over laughing. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play 30-somethings working in dead-end jobs for an energy drink company. Rudd’s character wonders what he’s doing with his life; Scott’s KISS-obsessed character would be content to continue dressing as the company’s Minotaur mascot until retirement. When Rudd’s character reaches his breaking point after a particularly bad day, the pair ends up being charged with a number of crimes based on one hysterical incident. They’re sentenced to community service and forced to mentor two nearly un-mentorable lads – one teen who’s hooked on a dungeons and dragons-like game and a foul-mouthed six-year-old from the ‘hood. You can see the end coming from a mile away, but it warms your heart, nevertheless. Jane Lynch gets the best lines as the founder of the program for “littles” in need of guidance from some “bigs.”

8. Elegy. Gorgeous movie with moving performances by stars Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz and supporting actors Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard. Kingsley plays an aging professor who likes his ladies young and his romances fleeting. He is surprised when Penelope Cruz’s Consuela seems to want a real relationship with him. How sad to watch as he sabotages their relationship at every turn with his own self-doubt. A lovely score – and be sure to watch for all the subtle ways the passage of time is depicted.

9. Man on Wire. A documentary in French (with subtitles) and English that shows both old still footage and current reenactments of an amazing act of daring. Philippe Petit and his accomplices rig a tightrope between the Twin Towers so that he can realize his dream of walking on a wire between the world’s tallest buildings. You know he achieves his dream – since much of the movie is comprised of interviews with a present-day Petit, but that doesn’t stop your heart from racing and your palms from sweating as he embarks on his brave, crazy stunt.

10. Doubt. Philip Seymour Hoffman furthers my case that he is the greatest actor America has ever produced and maybe the greatest the world has ever known. The movie is a little talky – always a risk when adapting a play for the screen, yet the performances by Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis make it worth seeing. You’ll never know the answer to the question, “Did he or didn’t he?” (hence, the film’s title), but the movie provides plenty of fodder for debate.

Required Viewing:
This documentary is mostly made up of talking heads. Cameras follow two economists on their traveling road show as they attempt to get Americans to pay attention to the most dire problem facing us today – our debt. It’s not an innovative or dynamic movie, yet it is must-see viewing. The film convincingly makes the point that our country, like Rome before us, is much more likely to be destroyed by our own hand than by a terrorist attack. See it – and then wonder why neither political party (save for the GOP’s Ron Paul) talked about this monstrous problem in this presidential campaign. This is a non-partisan movie that points fingers at every president and every member of Congress since the Civil War. This $1 trillion+ debt of ours may be the undoing of the United States.

Why the buzz?
The Dark Knight.
I wish I had saved $7 by going to youtube and keying in, “Heath Ledger as Joker” and watching just his scenes. He deserves all the posthumous praise he’s gotten. At 2.5 hours, this was one, long sit – and the car chase scenes (is it the same one, just played repeatedly?) are mind-numbing.

Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway deserves the good press and award nods she’s gotten as Kym, a recovering addict (and sister of the title character), but she also deserves a better movie in which to showcase her skills. The premise: Kym comes home from rehab for her sister’s wedding weekend. The plodding movie feels as if it unfolds in real time. At the rehearsal dinner, we hear every word of every toast. Where was the editor?! Along about the time the father of the bride and the groom have – I kid you not – a dishwasher-loading contest, you may be wishing you had been left off this guest list.

Gran Torino. And the Razzy for worst acting goes to … everyone in this mess! Did all the professional Asian actors have scheduling conflicts? It seems like Clint Eastwood told the first 12 Asians in line for the casting call, “You’re hired!” Without auditioning them. Clint himself becomes a caricature as he literally growls and snarls his way through the movie. Is there a heart of gold underneath his gruff, racist exterior? C’mon – what do you think?

Any serious film fan has to see …
Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road
and The Reader.
They’re easier to admire than to love. I doubt, that years from now, as I’m flipping channels, I will stop and watch these flicks. Yet, you need to see them. In the way the over 40-crowd needs to take a daily multivitamin. You know it’s good for you, but you don’t necessarily enjoy it. I’m betting that when I stumble on “Role Models” in some future channel-surfing, I’ll be compelled to settle in and watch every minute of it.

There’s a serious flaw, in my opinion, in Revolutionary Road. One character is a certifiable nut job who gets out for occasional breaks from the mental facility where he’s being housed. He’s the only person who sees that the seemingly perfect Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) are really miserable. The insane-man-who-sees-the-truth has been around since the fool in King Lear, but it’s a cliché at this point. I think (?) we are supposed to be awed by this savant’s profundities, but the entire crowded theater roared with laughter each time he opened his mouth. I don’t think Sam Mendes intended him to be comic relief from all the histrionics in the Wheeler household, yet that’s exactly what he provided.

I can’t review what I didn’t see:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
I think Brad Pitt’s acting is adequate, at best. In a recession, I’m not going to pay even matinee prices to see three hours’ worth of Brad.