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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!