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Warning you about crappy movies since 2008.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Last Mountain

If the name "Massey Energy" rings a bell, it may be because of the bad press it's gotten in recent years for its 60,000 environmental violations. Massey operates the W.Va. mine where workers were trapped and killed a few years ago. Yes, mining is inherently dangerous, but the documentary points out that Massey seems to make it more so by disregarding worker safety.

Apparently, they've also disregarded the environment and the residents of the impoverished little hollow towns where they operate.

It's easy enough not to know about or think of the residents of the trailer park near Massey's mountaintop removal (MTR) operation on Coal Mountain. These people have a higher than average incidence of brain tumors. Way higher. Six people in the same cul-de-sac developed brain tumors, including one fetus who was born with a tumor. But, when you consider that W.Va. coal provides the power for (and pollutes the water of) a wide swath of the population from Pa. to Ga., it starts to matter.

The movie's heroes are the brilliant environmental attorney/activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and a band of citizen-activists (including former coal miners) who are fighting Massey, their local governments and their state government. (W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin is a Democrat, so this is not a liberal-vs.-conservative issue.)

The film doesn't offer a balanced view (what documentary does?), but the filmmakers do give the coal industry a chance to respond. The president of the W.Va. coal miners association gets a good amount of screen time and comes across as a smart, affable guy. Massey's CEO appears in film footage, but he isn't interviewed. He comes across as a jackass.

The Last Mountain is the kind of movie that makes the audience jeer the bad guys and cheer (literally) the small victories by the people fighting City Hall -- and larger authorities. See it.

The Last Mountain

Saturday, July 30, 2011


I loved this movie. I want everyone I know to see this movie. I want people I don't know to see this movie. I want this movie to be nominated for and then win a bunch of awards. It could happen ... but people will have to see it first. And, there's been very little marketing for this tiny jewel. I don't know why.

Submarine has a lot of similarities to another movie I loved, The Squid and The Whale. But by comparing it to that fine film, I don't want to take anything away from Submarine's originality.

On its surface, it's a funny, painful coming-of-age story about an awkward Welsh teenager with delusions of grandeur. (He imagines himself as the star of his own movie, and -- in a hilarious sequence -- imagines his own death, including grieving classmates, candlelight vigils and news coverage.) But as the title suggests, there's a lot more going on below the surface.

Craig Roberts is charming -- and carries the movie -- in the role of Oliver Tate. His parents' marriage appears to be falling apart, and he takes it upon himself to intervene and keep them together. It's a lot for one 15-year-old boy to handle. Especially when he has a new, somewhat ambivalent girlfriend who turns out to have troubles of her own. And, he's trying to keep the bullies at bay.

Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor play the parents, who are mostly ambivalent toward each other. Paddy Considine is a great comic foil as a mulleted New Age guru who's somehow drawn the attention of Mrs. Tate.

Oliver is an unlikely anti-hero we can't help but root for. He's one of the most memorable characters I've seen on screen all year. Do not miss this one. See it!


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits was just the fun, funny, well-made romcom I needed on a miserably hot July afternoon. And, it removed the bad taste in my mouth leftover from another alleged romcom I saw this week -- Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Much has already been made of the magical chemistry between the two gorgeous leads. If you were lucky enough to catch Lester Holt's TODAY show interview with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, then you know their chemistry extends beyond the big screen. They do more than look good together. They have fun together.

The movie's premise should be obvious from the name ... although Lester (a grown-up, more handsome, Urkel, if e'er there was one) acted like he wasn't sure what "friends with benefits" could possibly mean.

Dylan (JT) and Jamie (Kunis) have each been dumped -- in hilarious scenes -- by their respective mates. They've been accused of being emotionally unavailable and emotionally damaged. They meet when Jamie (a headhunter) recruits an L.A.-loving Dylan to be the art director at GQ in New York. Since Dylan doesn't know anyone else in town, he and Jamie start having lunch, getting together for beers and watching romantic comedies together.

Neither is romantically interested in the other, they swear (on a Bible app on Jamie's iPad) so they should be able to get together for no-strings-attached sex. We know this isn't a sustainable plan, even as they try to convince themselves it's perfect. Complications ensue.

The supporting players are almost all uniformly great. Even those who have just one scene (Andy Samberg and Emma Stone) are memorable. Patricia Clarkson is perfect as Jamie's irresponsible, sexually liberated mom. Woody Harrelson plays against type as a macho, gay sports editor at GQ. ("I'm strictly dickly," he tells Dylan.)

I could've done without a miscast Jenna Elfman as Dylan's big sister, but then again, I can always do without Jenna Elfman.

But, I shall not pick nits. The movie and its leads are a pure delight. I'm hoping Timberlake and Kunis will team up again. I'd like to see them become a latter day Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. See it!

Friends with Benefits

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Page One: Inside The New York Times

If you're a reader of newspapers (the old-fashioned, print variety) and have shaken your head -- or your fist -- over the ever-shrinking daily paper, you'll likely be devastated to see what the state of journalism looks like to the reporters who bring us the news.

The New York Times is (or was, depending on where you stand) the gold standard of news organizations. This documentary makes the point that The Times was even where other papers got their news. A story would run in The Times one day, and other newspapers would run that story, or a version of it, the day after. The Times has defined what news is for as long as most of us can remember. We never imagined that it would be otherwise.

Neither did the people who work there.

In intense interviews with Times reporters (mostly those on the media desk), other journalists, bloggers and media professors, we see up-close how swift and shocking the downfall of print journalism has been to the very people in the thick of it. People who dreamed of nothing but some day getting to write for The Times have now been canned by The Times.

Their poignant struggle to remain relevant is captured in this well-made documentary. Former crack addict-turned-reporter David Carr is first among equals. Editor Bill Keller is a thoughtful, intelligent dreamboat. See it.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Monday, July 11, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses is a great movie that made me laugh out loud and remember, with anger and bitterness, my own worst boss. The characters played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston are horrible, to be sure. But, they've got nothin' on "Frieda."

Frieda’s doughy face, ample figure and pathetic fashion sense endeared her to me. The mousy woman in the ill-fitting '80s power suit (although this was 20 years hence) with the suntan pantyhose and thick eyeglasses ("trifocals," she told me) looked so harmless. She looked like she had gotten ahead in spite of her wardrobe.

I reasoned that she’d have to be seriously smart to overcompensate for the wardrobe malfunctions. And, the more I saw of her, the more I realized her wardrobe didn’t reveal someone who was unconcerned with her image. It revealed someone so woefully out of touch that she believed the navy blazer and skirt ensemble conveyed "polished executive." It’s as if she were stuck in a time warp, not to mention stuck – literally – in a too-tight suit.

The time warp has added significance for me now. In one of our "one-on-ones," Frieda flung this zinger at me: "If you didn’t understand what I said to you earlier, I cannot travel back in time to make you understand."

Frieda didn't miss a chance to critique me. She once asked, "Why do you begin your e-mails with a name and then a colon? You should begin with a name and then a comma – or better yet a friendly 'Hi' or 'Hello there.'" Apparently, my e-mails were too professional for her.

"The type size in your e-mails is too big," she told me once. I apologized and reduced it from 11 point back to 10 point. I wanted to ask if Frieda was OK with Arial – or if she preferred Times New Roman.

Morale in this group was dreadfully low. Frieda was asked to bring it up. She stood before all of us at a group meeting to unveil her plan to boost our spirits. I watched with perverse pleasure as the woman who had made me miserable turned ashen. Her neck got splotchy, and I delighted in her obvious nervousness. (Why had she bragged to me about her Toastmasters public-speaking award?)

She rambled on, and I even took notes on the gibberish because I wanted an accurate account of it later. She actually said that she had formed "teams, subteams and teams within teams" to "drive out" the morale-boosting plan. Subteams and teams within teams … now there's a sure-fire way to make your workforce happy.

Until I met Frieda, I thought having a positive attitude, a solid work ethic and getting results  would lead to some level of success. Frieda demonstrated that some people can be successful without having any of those things. Frieda's talents were limited to an uncanny ability to suck up and a willingness to build a fortress around her own incompetent boss and reign hell down on anyone who might get wind of the incompetence.

And, if I myself could travel back in time, I wouldn't make any assumptions about Frieda based on her utter lack of style. I'd judge her instead on her utter lack of common sense and dearth of any discernible talent.
Oh, and you should see the movie.

 Horrible Bosses

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher is just plain bad.

Which is unfortunate, because there's really nothing funnier on film than a teacher who's just in it for the meager paycheck. Jack Black created the definitive bad teacher with his Dewey Finn in School of Rock. Dewey (a.k.a. Ned Scheebly, Dewey's schoolteacher/ roommate whom he impersonates) is a lovable loser who lives to get stoned and rock out. He ultimately comes to life -- and his humanity is revealed -- when he ignites a love of music in his students.

Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) doesn't have any such kindness hidden within. She's a superficial bee-atch who's out to land a rich husband and get a new set of ta-tas. Falling asleep or sneaking a swig at her desk are mildly funny at first. But, screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have no other tricks up their sleeves. Seeing Elizabeth slumped at her desk for the fifth or sixth time is just tiresome.

Justin Timberlake has a few cute scenes as the substitute with a big family inheritance whom Elizabeth sets her sights on. Other generally funny performers are generally wasted in this bland flick. John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith (Phyllis from The Office) and Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family's Cam) try their best, but they're given too little to work with.

Even the affable Jason Segel, the school's gym teacher and Elizabeth's hapless suitor, flounders his way through the material. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen not just the funniest bits of the film. You've seen the only funny bits to be had. Skip it.

Bad Teacher

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super 8

J.J. Abrams's Super 8 can't decide what it wants to be.

On the one hand ...

... it's a sweet, coming of age tale and an homage to both filmmaking and to producer Steven Spielberg's E.T. and other kid-focused films of the same era. Young Elle Fanning and young newcomer Joel Courtney deserve award nominations for their unself-conscious portrayals of lonely, motherless adolescents fumbling with their feelings for each other. Both are along for the ride with the kids who are in love with filmmaking and secretly shooting a movie at a train depot one night. They happen to be filming when a train crashes -- and not by accident -- and then they have a mystery on their hands.

Dogs in their little town go missing, the military gets involved and seems to be covering something up and the amateur filmmakers are forced to become amateur detectives.

On the other hand ...

... the cargo aboard that derailed train turns out to be hundreds of very uncuddly, white blocks resembling Rubik's cubes. Hardly the heir to E.T. These little blocks, that can hurl themselves through walls, aren't even the heirs to gremlins. At least the gremlins started out cute. The sweetness evaporates, and we're suddenly hit head-on with a violent, fiery, smash 'em up, sci-fi stew. It's dark (both the mood and the lighting), and there's hardware flying everywhere. Abrams doesn't seem to know where to take it.

In that respect, it reminded me a little of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie I never could get hyped up about. That much-lauded film felt to me like a lot of build-up that led to a big let-down.

Since Super 8 really felt like two competing movies, my advice is, of course: See it/Skip it.

Super 8


Please see this movie.

See it if you love horses. See it if you love people. See it if you hate people, because BUCK might make you start to like them again. Or, at least like this one gentle cowboy.

Buck Brannaman is happy man, despite all odds. He survived a childhood so rough that a childhood friend who witnessed the pain Buck suffered can't talk about in middle age without crying. Buck is a mostly solitary figure who spends nine months of every year on the road as he travels from one horse clinic to another. He's got a loving (and lovely) wife at home and two grown daughters. He also has a teenage daughter who spends summers on the road with him.

His life consists of driving from one town to another helping, as he says, "people with horse problems." Buck believes a horse is just a mirror of who we are, so as he says, he usually ends up "helping horses with people problems."

He's a real-life horse whisperer. A shy, sensitive soul engaged in the manliest of professions. How sensitive? He may be the only cowboy who will admit to watching Oprah.

Everywhere Buck goes, he teaches horse people how to gently, but effectively, coax their animals into doing what they want them to do. He also ends up teaching people about themselves, and they don't always like what they see. "This horse tells me a lot about you," he says to one woman who has an out-of-control stallion. He's right, and she has to face some harsh facts about her own out-of-control life.

Regular folk and famous stars alike praise Buck as a model horse trainer and humanitarian. Buck got to know Robert Redford when he  consulted on The Horse Whisperer. Wait'll you hear how Buck saved the day when the trained "actor horse" couldn't get a crucial scene right.

Buck, the man, is such an inspiration that I almost think anyone could've turned on the camcorder feature on a phone and made a great movie about him. But, thankfully, this movie was in the hands of a pro. The cinematography, the music, the probing questions asked and honest responses shared -- they all serve to pay tribute to an ordinary, but extraordinary, human being. I can't recommend it highly enough. See it!


Monday, June 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

While I haven't seen the script for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, I can't imagine it could look much different from this:

Bible verse

Postman brings bad news.

Anguished cry. (Music plays.)

More crying.

Brad Pitt clenches jaw.

Jessica Chastain stares out window. A lot. Walks through woods.

(Shots of trees. Show from lots of angles.)

Sean Penn looks bored, sullen. (Show him walking around and moping. He mopes inside a beautiful modern home and again inside a beautiful modern skyscraper. He looks up at buildings and trees.)

(Music plays while cells divide, water flows, jellyfish swim, hammerhead sharks swarm, blades of grass move, lava flows, waves crash, the heart of a fetus beats.)

Dinosaurs frolic.

Curtains blow.

A baby is born.

A dried-up leaf blows away.

Brad Pitt turns out to be a jerky dad. His wife stays silent through most of the movie, including while he rips into sons -- especially eldest.

Eldest son starts to resent Brad Pitt.

Brad Pitt clenches jaw more.

Family eats dinner, goes to church, dad goes to work, but isn't all that successful.

Everyone from generations past winds up walking around on a beach.

(Music plays while cells divide, water flows, blades of grass move, lava flows, waves crash.)

The End.

I kid you not. This goes on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. The theater manager joked with me after the show that they're going to start passing out stickers that read, "I survived The Tree of Life." There's a handmade sign they've put up at the theater entry -- just for this film -- that reads something like, "We cannot give refunds because you don't like the film. Please educate yourself about this film before coming to see it. Thank you for your understanding."

It is an awful, pointless bore. A series of visually beautiful vignettes with no story to tie them all together. It's not enough for me to advise you not to see it. Warn your friends that they shouldn't see it, either. Skip it!

The Tree of Life

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Double Hour

So, there's a suicide (a hotel guest who jumps off her balcony), a lovely hotel maid with a mysterious past who meets a world-weary, widowed former cop at a speed dating event, a tentative romance, some surveillance equipment and ...

To say more would spoil the multiple surprises in this twisting and turning psychological thriller that Hitchcock might have made, had he lived in Turin, Italy during the age of speed dating and high-tech surveillance.

We're never sure who's good and who's bad, what's real and what's a dream (or supernatural), and that's part of the dark fun. Just when you think you may be on the verge of figuring it all out, screenwriter Alessandro Fabbri throws you another curve.

The title refers to the hour when the numbers on the clock are doubled, like 11:11. The cop tells the maid that's allegedly the hour when anything can happen -- when you can make a wish and have it come true. "Does it work?," she asks. "No," he tells her. But, some pretty crazy things happen at the double hour during the movie.

In fact, the concept of time is a major theme at work here. Our protagonists meet during a three-minute speed date. After their meeting, everything seems sped up and slightly off-kilter. We're never even sure where we are in the movie. Some critical events recur, and we're not sure if we're in a dream world, in the past or in some eerie version of the present.

If you can suspend belief and be comfortable with some questions that don't get answered, The Double Hour is bewitching. See it.

The Double Hour

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Art of Getting By

I saw this one -- mercifully -- for free, and I took my friend, Pamela, along. She drove us out to the megaplex way out in the 'burbs, and now I feel like I owe her gas money. Here's what I recall of our conversation as we left the theater.

Pamela: Wow, I wonder what made Alicia Silverstone take that small part as an English teacher. It's as if she said to the director, 'I want to be sure my vision for the character matches yours. I don't want to look even remotely attractive in this film. I want to be frumpy and wear an oversized cardigan in every scene. Is that how you see her?'

Chronic Critic: No kidding. I wonder what made anyone take a part in that movie. It was really pretty awful.

Pamela (pointing toward me): I really want to get the opinion of a professional movie critic.

Chronic Critic: I'm sure all the pros -- including moi -- will agree that this one sucks. There was no story there. But, they didn't leave out a single cliche. You have the gruff, elderly art teacher with a vaguely European accent, a shock of white hair and the requisite tiny ponytail.

Pamela: Yes! And, even though George (Freddie Highmore) is a total slacker with no respect for his teachers or his courses, everyone sees some glimmer of greatness and is willing to give him chance after chance ...

Chronic Critic: I know! It's like the principal (Blair Underwood) and all the teachers in the private school have nothing else to do except ensure that this one existential slacker succeeds. Speaking of existential, did you see what George was reading in the scenes where he has a book? The Stranger! Sorry, but that one's been done to death. There wasn't a single original notion or prop in this movie.

Pamela: And, what a ridiculous ending. [SPOILER ALERT] If even one of those overly dramatic things in that perfect storm -- the coupling of George's dream girl, Sally, (Emma Roberts) with the man he had chosen as his art mentor, the uncovering of the failure of George's stepdad's business, the stepdad/stepson brawl that sends one of them to the hospital and ... and ... Emma Roberts's floozy mother up and moving to Texas from New York -- hadn't happened, do you think George would have been able to cram a year's worth of work into three weeks and then graduate on time?

Chronic Critic: Never in real life. Only in a poorly written script could that happen.

Pamela: And what about that dialogue? How could those kids speak those lines with a straight face? Kids don't talk like that.

Chronic Critic: Probably not even wealthy ones living semi-independently in Manhattan. Such a crock. I'm sorry I gave you a free ticket to this.

Pamela: Well, dinner at the Kebab House was good.
Skip it.
The Art of Getting By

Friday, June 10, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I can't think of another filmmaker who delights and disappoints, in equal measure, as consistently as Woody Allen. I love approximately every other movie he makes ... and want to walk out on the rest. You never know if you're going to get the brilliant (Annie Hall, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Match Point) Woody or the dull (Cassandra's Dream, Celebrity) one. You can only hope.

And, I had high hopes for his latest effort, which has gotten stellar reviews. Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams are adorable and always winning, and the film is a cinematic love letter to the Paris of the 1920s. So far, so good. But, it's a great concept (and cast) that falls far short of what it could've been.

And, it's the screenwriter Woody's fault. This is a great notion that's just not well-executed.

Here's the plot: Gil (Wilson) and Inez (McAdams) are engaged and tagging along on her dad's big business trip to Paris. No one is happy to be there, except for Gil, a successful screenwriter and would-be novelist. Gil is in love with the romantic ideal of what Paris must've been like during the days Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and other artistic and literary greats held court there.

Inez is a real harpy, and we have no idea why a romantic dreamer like Gil would've proposed to her. Gil wanders the Parisian streets alone one night and is crazily transported to his favorite era, where he gets to meet the artistic giants of the day. And, guess what? They're boring!

Dali, Scott and Zelda, Man Ray ... such charismatic characters and, yet, so flat in this depiction. They're nothing but caricatures. It's such a waste of Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard and other outstanding actors.

It doesn't feel like Woody knew what to do once he got Gil to the Paris of the 1920s. Gil is happier there than he is in present-day Paris with his complaining wife and her awful parents. Sadly, the audience isn't so happy in either the past or the present. Skip it.

Midnight in Paris

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

You wouldn't think a documentary about a New York Times fashion photographer could leave you feeling upbeat about the state of humanity, but that's just what the lively and remarkable Bill Cunningham New York does.

The bicycle-riding octogenarian has spent his long career chronicling the fashion victories of everyday men and women. He's never shot a "Glamour Don't"-style photo. He's much too nice for that.

He shoots what he thinks looks fabulous. And, he's much less interested in what celebrities wear, since they get their clothes for free and have stylists dressing and accessorizing them. What catches his eye isn't typically straight off the runway. He believes some of New York's "bag ladies" have incredible style, and some of his photos justify that belief.

In a city and an industry known to be temperamentally cold and fickle, Bill is unusually warm and steadfast. A genuinely nice guy who has, improbably, risen to the top of the fashion photography food chain, he even earns plaudits from the notoriously cold Anna Wintour. "We all get dressed for Bill," she says.

This delightful old gent has to hustle to get the photos he wants and get them ready for his two weekly style columns. He still uses film, so the time it takes to get that developed adds to the time it takes for him to ready his column -- and adds to his colleagues' good-natured frustration with the old-fashioned perfectionist.

A documentary that focuses on a single person typically allows us to get to know its subject well, but Bill remains a mystery. Even the high society people who admire him and believe they know him well (Tom Wolfe, Annette de la Renta, in addition to Wintour) admit they don't know if Bill has friends or family or if he ever gets lonely.

We see Bill's spartan Carnegie Hall apartment (a closet-sized room with a mattress on the floor and filing cabinets everywhere else) and his spartan wardrobe (a blue lab coat, often held together with duct tape, and khakis) and wonder how a man so drawn to beauty and whimsy can need so little of both in his own, personal space.

Bill's an enigma -- to those whom he considers friends and to those of us in the audience. But, that's part of his self-effacing charm. He doesn't want to talk about himself. He wants to talk about the personality regular folks reveal when they get dressed each day. See it.

Bill Cunningham New York

Monday, May 30, 2011

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, has set out to make what he calls a "docbuster." He falls far short of An Inconvenient Truth territory, but that's not to say he and his audience don't have fun along the way.

His idea, he tells us, is to demonstrate the massive volume of paid product placements we Americans are being subjected to in the movies and TV shows we watch every day. We're being bombarded without realizing it. It's an interesting, if not critical, topic, and there's plenty more that could have been done with it.

Spurlock wants to point out how insidious product placement is by getting the very corporations guilty of it to fund the movie exposing it. Here's how we know we're not going to be seeing a take-no-prisoners, blow-the-lid-off-some-secret-shenanigans documentary: No legitimate company (and Spurlock signs legit sponsors) is going to put up big bucks to come off looking foolish. Of course, these companies are going to see to it they get publicity -- good publicity -- out of their sponsorship. So, the movie is more entertainment than expose. More an in-joke than an indictment.

Spurlock talks to the big ad honchos who help fund movies and TV shows in exchange for shots and positive mentions of their beverage, car, computer, candy and any number of other consumer goods. He talks to big-time directors (Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams), who all more or less say, "Yeah, it happens. What're ya gonna do?" In fact, blockbuster movies do not get made without product placements. Period.

And, corporate sponsors sometimes have the right to make changes to the script to ensure their product is seen in the best possible light.

Spurlock talks to consumer advocates -- Ralph Nader, among them -- who say it's deceptive for movies and TV shows not to let viewers know when they're being advertised to. We know when we're seeing a commercial break. We're not quite as sure when a TV character declares her love for Dr Pepper if it's in the script because the writer put it there -- or because of a product placement contract. (The safe bet is that money has changed hands.)

Spurlock asks the question to media types, brand specialists and men and women on the street: "Is there truth in advertising?" Interesting question, and there's no clear consensus by the end of this movie.

If you like your documentaries hard-hitting and enjoy seeing a corporate honcho squirm while cameras are rolling, this ain't your movie. It is fun, however, to watch Spurlock collect sponsors. (I commend the companies willing to go along with this stunt, particularly the POM Wonderful folks, who know, love and want to protect their band.)

By contrast, I was startled to see Spurlock ask the ban deodorant marketing teams how they'd describe their brand. Utter silence. One of them said, "That's a really good question," while the others looked down nervously. If the brand managers can't articulate what the brand stands for -- and it's been caught on camera -- that's a problem senior managers should be looking into. I doubt Spurlock wanted that moment to be the biggest gasp! of his movie, but it was mine.

Spurlock wants to bring transparency to the secretive world of product placements. A noble goal, but  it was never going to be achieved after asking the "villains" to out themselves. The movie could've been a serious look at how invasive advertising is now that we can fast forward through commercials. Instead, it's a not-so-serious look at the lengths companies will go to to reach us where we least expect it. In spite of its flaws, I still say: See it.

                                                                 POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Monday, May 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men

The award-winning, critically praised Of Gods and Men is the kind of movie you appreciate more after you've left the theater than while sitting in it. Long on visuals and short on action, the based-on-a-true-story film depicts the quiet, reverent lives of eight Christian monks living in war-torn Algeria in the 1990s.

The monks minister to the people in their mountain village -- dispensing love advice as well as medicine, which is usually in short supply. They study together, pray together, sing hymns together; they are a true brotherhood. If I lived next door to a monastery, I'd want the monks to be just like the gentle, wise ones depicted here.

Their peaceful existence is threatened by violent Islamic groups terrorizing their village. The brothers toy with the idea of leaving en masse or one by one, but ultimately decide -- in an unforgettable scene showing their joy in their unified decision -- they're called to remain in the village. They quietly refuse to be bullied or to abandon the desperately poor villagers who rely on them for physical and emotional care.

They don't reach the decision easily -- or quickly, I might add. The film takes its time to show us the slow pace of life that helps bring about the calm quiet inside their cloistered world. Even as war rages outside their doors.

As violence gets closer and closer, the monks' resolve grows stronger. They're aware they're in danger, yet we see them, one by one, grow to be at peace with their decision to stay.

I shall not divulge more of what happens to the eight dear men who peacefully resist the war going on around them. The film can be a tedious journey for the filmgoer, yet it resonates powerfully long after the closing scene. The subtitled movie is not for the impatient, but for those willing to sit it out, I say: See it.

Of Gods and Men

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's new documentary details the incredible 1994 discovery of the oldest drawings made by humans. They were made inside a cave in France, and -- thanks to a landslide thousands of years ago -- the cave has been hermetically sealed until the recent discovery. So, the drawings are so pristine, they look like they were made weeks ago. In fact, they were made 30,000 years ago.

You'd think the drawings of animals would be primitive. Yet, they are surprisingly sophisticated. One horse, for instance, is depicted with eight legs -- as if to show it in motion.

It is something of a miracle to think of ancient homo sapiens wanting to communicate something to each other and to posterity and of striving to create something beautiful and, perhaps, lasting.

Herzog narrates with almost breathless excitement. He and a tiny film crew are among only a handful of people (the others are archaeologists, art historians, geologists and paleontologists) allowed access to the cave. Herzog marvels at the drawings and what they reveal about our forebears and never lets the audience forget what a find we're watching. It should all make for riveting viewing.

It couldn't be duller.

Herzog movies are always a crap shoot. He either soars (Grizzly Man) or sucks (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) It's my fault for ignoring my instincts and instead listening to the 96 percent of critics who gave this glorified school film strip rave reviews.

The truth is: cave drawings are boring. I wanted to sustain my initial intrigue, but it was impossible. It proved to be impossible for a handful of my fellow moviegoers who left and nearly so for the fidgety ones who remained. Woolly mammoths, bison and horses drawn on cave walls are fascinating for four, five minutes, tops. Herzog thinks they merit 90 minutes. The same horses and bison are shown over and over and over again. And, they're set to prehistoric-sounding music. If you like the sound of a handmade recorder, this is the film for you. If not, well, you know what to do. Skip it.

                                                          Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Water for Elephants

I hate reviews that give away or even hint at a movie's ending. Yet, I find it impossible to review Water for Elephants without telling you, my readers, how I feel about the final act. If you'd rather not have a preview of the finale, then cease reading now.

I didn't read the best-selling novel on which the movie is based, as I cannot tolerate reading about cruelty to animals -- even a fictional telling of such. But, my mother, with whom I saw the movie, did read the book. And, she made sure we both had extra Kleenex with us for the waterworks the film adaptation was sure to draw forth.

They went unused.

The movie ending is, apparently, different from the book ending. And it feels out of place even to someone who didn't read the book. In fact, it's so incongruous that I suspect the film studio filmed two or three different endings and "focus grouped" them to see which audiences loved best. The movie hints at and builds up to a tragedy that never happens. I'm no fan of unnecessary tragedy, but I felt cheated that I was kind of promised one and didn't get it.

Hollywood has definitely had its way with what was supposed to be an animal lovers' version of a forbidden love triangle.

I don't mean to take anything away from the luminous Reese Witherspoon or her equally dazzling leading man (Robert Pattinson). Both are wonderfully wounded as people who have nowhere to go but a traveling circus. Christoph Waltz is a great, animal- and spouse-abusing villain. The cinematography is lovely. The pacing feels right -- except for that tacked-on ending. The costumes, make-up and hair are all spot-on.

If you think it's all about the journey and not so much about the destination, you may find plenty to admire in this visually glorious film. If you prefer an ending that feels like it was meant for the 115 minutes that preceded it, then ... Skip it.

Water for Elephants

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Two Reviews in One: Two Girls in Trouble

The Chronic Critic saw two movies this weekend. In an effort to maximize her efficiency, she will now attempt to review both films in a single blog entry.

Jane Eyre and Annie Cameron are both young girls in trouble.

Jane is a strong-willed, independent, somewhat plain girl who has been orphaned and is being raised by a wicked aunt. She lives in England in the mid-1800s.

Annie is a strong-willed, independent, somewhat plain girl who has a loving, nurturing family. She lives in Chicago in the present-day, digital age.  

In both girls' stories, secrets nearly undo them.

In the latest screen adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is anachronistically self-reliant. Due only to her will and wits, she escapes the cruel lot to which her hateful aunt has consigned her and makes her way to a country estate whose lord is one dashing, wealthy, mysterious Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Jane works as a governess for a young French girl who winds up living in the mansion, and ole Edward can't help but take notice of her smarts and no-nonsense attitude. Very much unlike the flighty, flirty gals he's used to courting. But, Edward is a secretive sort. And, that castle seems kinda haunted. Mysterious fires get started. Mysterious strangers from foreign lands show up. And, the seemingly kindly Edward is none too forthcoming about any of it. What's he hiding?

In Trust, David Schwimmer's directorial debut, the protagonist is a 14-year-old trying to assert her independence. She has all the latest technical gadgetry, but her folks (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener) don't seem to be familiar with parental controls. She starts chatting up a slightly older boy (he's 16) and develops a mad crush. Before she knows it, "Charlie" has confessed that he's actually a college sophomore. Fast forward a few days, and he admits online he's actually in his 20s. It's too late. Annie's already walked into his trap and has allowed herself to be convinced that this age thing doesn't matter. When we finally see "Charlie" for the first time, we're not surprised to discover that his 20s are a distant memory. Annie is surprised, though.

Both heroines fall for potentially dangerous men.

Annie's "boyfriend" (and that really is how she thinks of him), will seduce and rape her. Her family -- particularly her dad -- will come apart. Jane's suitor has a secret of his own that will devastate her and drive them apart.

Jane Eyre is a beautifully made, superbly acted Gothic soap opera. The legendary Dame Judi Dench is a delight to watch as the caretaker of the manor. And, even the smallest roles -- Sally Hawkins as the wicked aunt, for instance -- are perfectly cast and played.

Trust, on the other hand, has the feel of an after-school special or made-for-TV movie. In spite of the fine acting, this cautionary tale feels like something that was much better suited to the small screen. Not surprisingly, Schwimmer is a straightforward, and at times dull, director. This is very conventional filmmaking, right down to the stereotypical frumpy psychologist (Viola Davis) in an oversized cardigan.

The audience is beaten over the head with the sexy images of scantily clad tween girls in ads that Annie's dad, Will (the owner of an ad agency), has created. So, not only does Will feel guilt over allowing Annie unfettered access to sex chat rooms, he now has to live with the guilt over having contributed to the societal exploitation of young girls. Maybe he has, but the link is made way too overt in Schwimmer's hands.

Both Jane and Annie are likable heroines worth rooting for. But, only one movie is worth your money. Jane Eyre: See it. Trust: Skip it.

Jane Eyre   Trust

Monday, April 4, 2011


I'll tell you what's limitless: Bradley Cooper's hotness. The dude is smokin'. Everyone's always talked about Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. I don't know why people aren't talking more about these baby blues. They -- and he -- are astonishing.

I've been a Bradley Cooper fan since well before he was a leading man. I always thought he was better (and hotter!) than the supporting parts he landed -- in the made-for-TV movie, I Want to Marry Ryan Banks, for instance -- and I am delighted to see him get his due.

(I was also an early champion of Judith Light. She was so much better than the rest of the cast in One Life to Live. And, I was right! She did move on to prime time and starred with Tony Danza in Who's The Boss? Not much better than playing Llanview's most neurotic, scheming citizen, Karen Wolek. But, still.)

Back to Bradley. Did you know he's an honors graduate of Georgetown? That's right; there are brains that go along with this brawn.

And, on top of all that, he can act. Not that he needs to, as he would be matinee idol material based on looks alone. He's equally adept at comedy (Who's ready for the sequel to The Hangover? I am!) and drama.

Is his new thriller any good? I'll answer a question with a question: Does it matter? See it.

P.S. Limitless is actually an enjoyable, twisty, sophisticated tale of a down-on-his-luck writer who becomes wildly successful after tapping into his full mental potential courtesy of an illegal drug. But then again, what if it were footage of Bradley Cooper sleeping for an hour and 45 minutes? I'd still think it worth seeing.

                                                      Bradley Cooper

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Source Code

I want to like the director Duncan Jones, if only because I love his dad, David Bowie, so much. But, I thought his first movie, Moon, was so slow-moving and alien that I walked out on it. And, I don't waste my movie dollars lightly. I went into Source Code with an open mind and high expectations, given all the good press the sci fi film is getting. And, I left a little disappointed -- and very puzzled.

Jake Gyllenhaal is winning, as always. And, leading ladies don't come much cuter than Michelle Monaghan. (Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga, a dead ringer for Sarah Jessica Parker -- and I do not mean that as a compliment to either actress -- is miscast as a ... oh, I don't even know what she's supposed to be. She gives orders to Gyllenhaal's character, who's trapped in some sort of capsule, via a TV monitor.)

So, let me try to explain the crazy premise. Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens. Or, is it someone named Sean? I'm not exactly sure. There's a case of mistaken identity or amnesia going on here. The movie's a little like the far superior Groundhog Day, in that Colter/Sean has to keep reliving the same episode over and over. At Vera's orders. (But, is he really reliving it? Or, is it all in his head? Good luck trying to figure it out.)

He's on a commuter train in Chicago that's destined to explode. If he can find out who done it before the crash (that keeps happening over and over again?), then he can somehow stop it from happening. Even though it's already happened.

The way he can stop it from happening is to time travel (or mind travel?) repeatedly to the scene of the crime to look for clues. He's able to do this courtesy of something called the source code that was developed by a vaguely malevolent scientist who walks with one crutch. Of course.

Oh, and Colter/Sean may already be dead. We're never sure.

I couldn't make heads or tails of this mess. Skip it.

                                                           Source Code

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

Let me cut right to the chase. I adored this movie. I adored Matthew McConaughey in this movie. He is known as a hot, but probably smelly, beach bum who is given to chewing scenery, but he is utterly perfect in this noir thriller. So perfect that the role seems written for him. I can't imagine another actor who could've been as lovable in the role of Mickey Haller, an eccentric, money-grubbing criminal defense attorney who operates mostly out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln adorned with a vanity plate that reads, "NTGUILTY."

Haller is a slick wheeler-dealer who's making a good living defending lowlife drug dealers, crooks and the occasional murderer. A biker gang has him on retainer and, rather than calling or emailing, they will tailgate him on an L.A. freeway when they need to contact him. They, and presumably all his clients, pay in cash. Mickey has people all over town doing favors for him, and his actions, while legal, don't always seem to be on the up-and-up.

Enter a legitimate client (the outmatched Ryan Phillippe) who's been accused of raping and assaulting a woman he met at a bar. Haller thinks he may have found that rarest of breeds: an innocent client. Phillippe's Louis Roulet is a rich, pampered mama's boy, but there is sufficient evidence to make Haller -- and us -- believe he was set up.

We see hints that the smooth-talking, deal-cutting "Lincoln Lawyer" may have a conscience, as he discusses with his friend/investigator/sidekick (the always wonderful William H. Macy) his fear that he'll one day be responsible for sending an innocent person to jail in order to save the same seemingly guilty person from the death penalty. He's also a surprisingly devoted dad and maintains a flirty relationship with his ex-wife, played by Marisa Tomei.

The movie has star power. Josh Lucas turns up as an assistant DA. John Leguizamo is a bail bondsman happy to send low-life clients Haller's way, and Bryan Cranston plays against type as a hard-boiled detective nearing retirement.

But, the gritty, twisty movie belongs to Matthew. I'm hoping for a sequel. See it!  

                                          The Lincoln Lawyer

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The 5th Quarter

Can The Chronic Critic be objective about a movie that takes place primarily at the great university where she spent some of the best years of her life? Of course not. So, if you want an unbiased review, look elsewhere.

The 5th Quarter is a sports movie in the way that The Blind Side is a sports movie. Which is to say, it's really not. (Are they ever?) The film uses the Cinderella story of the 2006 Demon Deacons's improbable season to tell the true story of a grieving young man who inspires his teammates to gridiron greatness.

Jon Abbate (Ryan Merriman) is a Wake Forest player on a team that's expected to finish last in the ACC. As usual. (This critic can't help but think back to the football games during her college career, where she and her BFFs would hide out in portajons when the cops came around during third quarter to kick tailgaters into the game. "We hate to break up the party, but somebody's gotta go support the team," they'd say. Those were halcyon days.) 

Jon's younger brother, Luke, is critically injured in a car accident -- and the car he and his buds were riding in was driven by a showboating 16-year-old friend -- and is declared brain dead. His family makes the gut-wrenching decision to take him off life support and donate his organs.

Back at Wake, Jon begins skipping class, drinking too much and missing practice. In a misstep in the storytelling, there's one night where he has one too many beers followed by a quick chat with a coach who's been there (his first wife dies) and rapidly followed by a winning season. It's all wrapped up too quickly. (Hey, maybe objectivity is possible, after all.)

Here's some more objectivity: Andie MacDowell's acting is so bad, it's a distraction. MacDowell plays Maryanne Abbate, the grieving mom. She's always been an unforgivably awful actress, but she's generally not called upon to do much other than look gorgeous. Which she does very well. This time, she's called upon to produce real tears, and that proves to be a bridge too far.

Which is too bad, because Aidan Quinn (Steven Abbate) is stellar. But, he can't carry the entire movie. And, he's really the only professional in the bunch. The Girlfriend is so generic and wooden that she could be anybody. I can't even recall her name.

So, there are limitations. But, did they stop this critic from crying during the hospital scenes, the funeral, the aftermath and the uplifting, winning season? Of course not. If you thought Gale Sayers' locker room "I love Brian Piccolo" speech from Brian's Song could turn on the faucet, wait'll you see this.

The movie makes the point that Luke Abbate lives on through the people who received his vital organs. But, he also lives on as the inspiration for Wake Forest's winningest season in their history. Jon Abbate switches his jersey number from 40 to 5 -- Luke's lacrosse number -- and begins to hold up five fingers to his parents in the stands at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Soon enough, his teammates join in. And, then the Deacon fans follow suit. And, then the opposing team and their fans do, too. It's great drama and makes for great cinema.

When a movie has this much heart, you can forgive bad acting and erratic pacing. Bring plenty of Kleenex, and ... see it.
                                                          The 5th Quarter

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Last Lions

It's an unforgiving place. The merciless and powerful rule without pity, and the weak are pounced on and eaten alive -- sometimes for sport and sometimes for the survival of those who outrank them. There is no code here, no justice.

But, enough about the corporate workplace.

This documentary takes place in Africa, an equally unforgiving landscape. And, if you can forgive the filmmakers for anthropomorphizing the family of lions (made up of a fearless, devoted single mother and her three cubs), you'll be enthralled, engaged and have your heart ripped out. Not to give anything away, but  you will despise the water buffalo, alligators and hyenas. "This is supposed to be LION turf," I wanted to yell each time one of those interlopers showed up.

The cinematography and haunting music are as awesome as the family of lions this documentary follows. The only nit, and it's a small one, is Jeremy Irons's at times over-the-top narration. Both his voice -- which sounds like Alistair Cooke introducing Masterpiece Theater -- and the script could be a bit much.

Did Jeremy just say that "Silver Eye" (the wild animals have names in this movie, which only makes them seem more like pets that just haven't been housebroken yet) recalled the scent of her former nemesis and was now back for "revenge"? Do animals recall past grievances and later plot revenge against their foes? I don't know; I'm just an unpaid movie critic. It may not be accepted zoological theory, but it sure does make for a powerful story.

While I feel Randall would have provided superior narration, honey badger style, for The Last Lions, I suppose the Oscar-winning Irons lends some gravitas to what could've been dismissed as just another nature movie. And, it's more than that.

It's an urgent tale about a drastically shrinking lion population. Not surprisingly, we learn that those interloping, marauding buffalo and hyenas are nothing compared to the humans mucking everything up for nature. See it.
                                                  The Last Lions

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hall Pass

The Farrelly brothers' new comedy, if one can call it that, has the flat look of a cheaply made sitcom. The homes of the two main couples (Owen Wilson/Jenna Fischer and Jason Sudeikis/Christina Applegate) are straight out of a Rooms To Go showroom. In fact, the couples' homes are so similar as to be interchangeable. I defy you to distinguish between the two.

Looks like the bros skimped on costumes and make-up, too. Seriously, in some scenes, Fischer and Applegate, who are both lovely, look like they applied their make-up in the dark. And, I don't think that was the look they were going for.

With the exception of the four stars, and the always wonderful Richard Jenkins in a cameo, no one seems to have ever had an acting lesson. Saved by the Bell had a better supporting cast.

The only thing missing here is a laugh track. And, believe you me, it could've used one. I laughed precisely twice during the film. Others in the audience didn't seem to be any more amused than I was. I expect so much more from the people who gave us There's Something About Mary and The Heartbreak Kid.

By now, you've heard the plot. Two married guys are a little bored with their staid lives, and their wives -- at the behest of their friend played by Joy Behar -- suggest a one-week vacation from marriage. The fellas can do whatever they wish and not suffer any consequences. Suffice it to say they're a little rusty at the dating game. They think Applebee's is a pick-up joint.

This sounds a lot funnier in theory than it turns out to be.

The Farrellys are known for their raunchy, potty humor, but this flick comes up short in that arena. There's full frontal male nudity, but even that scene goes on well past the initial shock to become just plain dull. A woman who shoots diarrhea while sneezing might be funny to a 12-year-old boy, but it's really not that funny to anyone past puberty.

The one redeeming quality the movie has is a number of snippets from folk singer Ellis Paul's The Day After Everything Changed CD. If the movie helps increase Ellis's fan base, it will almost have been worth sitting through it. Almost. Skip it.

                                                       Hall Pass

Saturday, March 5, 2011


The best performance in this "thriller" (and I use the term loosely) is by ... Diane Kruger's stunt driver. There are some pretty bitchin' car chases and crashes in this movie. And, that's about the best that can be said for it.

Liam Neeson sleepwalks through it and looks slightly embarrassed to be starring in it. January Jones looks beautiful, which is really about all she's asked to do. Kruger looks great, too, but thumbs down to the person who cast her as a cab driver -- and a Bosnian immigrant, to boot. As if. Someone should've suggested a dialect coach for Kruger and the "German" M.D. who sounds French.

Get ready for the most implausible story line to come down the pike in quite some time. Neeson plays an American botanist who's in Berlin with his wife (Jones) for a -- get this -- glamorous biotech conference. Before the conference begins, his taxi (driven by Kruger's incredible stunt driver) crashes, rendering him comatose for four days. He wakes from the coma and is perfectly fine, save for a Band-Aid on his forehead. He returns to the luxe hotel (where I'm sure all botanists stay when in Berlin), but his wife acts as if she's never seen him before.

To top if off, another man (Aidan Quinn) is pretending to be the good doctor! And, doing a darn good job of it, too. This leads to loads of frustration for Neeson's character and allows him to happen upon a detective who is willing to help him figger out just what up. And, his stumbling on Berlin's best detective (a former member of the Stasi -- natch!) is just one of many coinkydinks that help the nonsensical plot move along at a fevered clip to a crazy ending. Towards the end (when the entire audience -- those who hadn't yet walked out -- was getting fidgety), you'll see how the screenwriter gets hordes of glamazon models to the biotech conference. Because everyone knows that supermodels are always showing up at biotech conventions.

Like I said -- implausible. Skip it.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is something of a miracle.

It's a miracle that a studio bought such a lame script about a hick from small town Iowa who travels to the "big city" of Cedar Rapids for an insurance sales convention. It's a miracle that top talent (Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver and the actor my friend, Beth, calls "The Poor Man's Will Ferrell" -- John C. Reilly) were willing to have anything to do with it. (Anne Heche is in it, too, but I don't consider her "top talent.") It's a miracle it didn't go straight to video. And, it's a miracle that some critics are praising it as a raunchy movie with heart.

It's not raunchy enough for my tastes, and it's certainly not funny enough to pass for a comedy. It's offensive to insurance salespeople, to Iowans, to Christians and to people with sense. And, not offensive in a funny, "I know better but I can't help but laugh" sort of way, but in a just plain, "I'm offended that the movie studio is wasting my time with this trash" sort of way.

I saw it at a free screening, and I was offended I had wasted the gas to get to the theater. A total dud. Skip it!

Friday, February 25, 2011

And, the Oscar goes to ...

How does the Chronic Critic celebrate Oscar Night? Why, alone, of course. (Unless you count my cat, Emily Dickinson. Wait, that's Liz Lemon's cat. Mine is Chairman Meow.)

At any rate, how else could I fully concentrate on the gowns, the practiced banter, the reactions of winners and also-rans and the acceptance speeches? A party may be fine for something like the Super Bowl or presidential debates. But, I need to focus on the Oscars.

Here's how I wish the night would go versus how I predict the night will go. Please note: My guesses are wrong every year, but that doesn't stop me from making my annual predictions.

Best Picture
If I had my way: The Ghost Writer (Alas, it will not win, since it is not nominated.)
Prediction: The King's Speech (Which is wonderful and deserving, but I thought The Ghost Writer was the slightly better film.) I will be distraught if that hot mess of a movie, Black Swan, takes home the big prize. And, it might.

Best Actor
If I had my way: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
Prediction: Colin Firth

Best Actress
If I had my way: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
Prediction: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Supporting Actor
If I had my way: Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Prediction: Christian Bale 

Best Supporting Actress
If I had my way: Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)
Prediction: Melissa Leo (The Fighter) Leo was wonderful in her role as the domineering, low-life matriarch of two would-be prize fighters, but Weaver was astonishing as a domineering, low-life matriarch of an Australian crime family.

Best Director
If I had my way: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
Prediction: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)

Enjoy the show!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Another Year

Writer/director Mike Leigh's latest picture is both as messy and mundane as a year in anyone's life.

The auteur of the justifiably celebrated Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky and Secrets & Lies has a knack for making feature films that look and feel like real life. His latest picture takes us, season by season, through the year in the life of a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) in their 60s.

It's a marriage of equals between Tom and Gerri, and they remain content in their life together in spite of the drama that sometimes swirls around them. That drama comes mostly in the form of Mary (Lesley Manville, who was robbed of an Oscar nod this year for her brilliant performance of a lonely co-worker of Gerri's), a frequent visitor to Tom and Gerri's modest home.

We get the feeling Gerri tolerates Mary more than anything, and indeed Mary can make everyone around her -- including the audience -- feel awkward. She drinks too much, tries too hard, comes on too strong and begs for people's pity as much as for their friendship. This is an ensemble cast, but Manville is first among equals.

Just as in real life, people come in and out of the main characters' lives. We meet characters we think will be significant, but they turn out to be peripheral. That's not sloppy filmmaking. That's life.

Leigh uses the metaphor of a garden to introduce each season. Tom and Gerri lovingly nurture their plot just as they do their crazy, needy friends and family. Each season bring its unique joys and challenges. Some problems fade away or get resolved; others keep recurring.

Another Year is an ode to love -- mature, romantic love and the love between friends -- and a celebration of life. It's a wonder. See it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


If you were served your favorite meal -- fresh Maine lobster, say, or a perfectly cooked filet -- but it came with sides that were overcooked, straight-from-a-can, school cafeteria-grade mush, could you still call it a great meal? Can you overlook substandard fare when it's paired with an exceptional entree?

The way you answer that may help you decide if you'd like the new Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu movie, Biutiful. The main course (Javier Bardem) is a beautiful hunk of meat, but it's surrounded by a pile of crap.

Bardem has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Uxbal, a world-weary lowlife with a heart of gold. He's dying of cancer. His estranged, mentally ill, drug-addled wife and mother of their two children is sleeping around. (And, Uxbal's brother is among her lovers.) His brother is a lowlife, too -- but minus the heart of gold. Uxbal is dealing with a ruthless (and gay) Chinese couple that runs a sweatshop. He seems to be in charge of some Africans who sell the goods made in the sweatshirt on the gritty streets of Barcelona. There's a woman (who is she?) who's given Uxbal some magic tchotchkes to give his kids before he dies. There's a dead father who's alluded to throughout the film, and there's some eerie action that takes place in funeral homes. (Uxbal can apparently commune with the dead.) Even eerier action takes place in a topless bar.

If I'm not doing a good job summarizing the plot, perhaps it's because the plot was incomprehensible.

The bleak scenery is a total downer. The Barcelona tourism board should consider suing Inarritu for making the city look like a waste dump. Antoni Gaudi's Barcelona, this is not.

Bardem does his best. He's feisty, tender, angry, raging and ultimately resigned. But, he can't, in this critic's opinion, compensate for the crazy, mixed-up stew in which he's the main ingredient. Skip it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Way Back

The Way Back is a survival story of epic proportions. A handful of men make a daring escape from a Siberian gulag during WWII. Some were wrongly imprisoned; others (Colin Farrell's character, for instance) have a criminal past. The escapees slog through the toughest terrain during the most adverse conditions imaginable. The landscape and the elements prove to be even harsher than prison.

You can't help but root for these men (and the runaway girl, played by Saoirse Ronan, they inexplicably pick up along the way) to make it to safety. But, that doesn't mean you'll enjoy or even appreciate the journey.

The first blizzard we see them caught in is terrifying. By the fourth one, we're almost bored. But eventually, they find themselves in the Mongolian desert, where the landscape is completely different -- and a relief to see -- yet just as unforgiving as the snowy mountains. Again, there are only so many times we can see their sunburned faces and swollen feet before the shock wears off ... and we start to nod off.

The religious imagery is, by turns, subtle and heavy-handed. The runaway girl sporting a makeshift crown of thorns is an example of the latter. She's hardly a Jesus figure, so the crown makes little sense.

What makes less sense is the total lack of character development. This critic saw the movie a couple of hours ago, and she's already forgotten all the characters' names, except for one "Mr. Smith" (Ed Harris).

If you're a fan of closure, you will undoubtedly be frustrated by this flick. We don't find out the fates of any of the escapees, including the one who wanders off mid-journey with little explanation. I suppose when you haven't bothered to develop your characters, you figure the audience won't grow attached enough to any of them to care.

My hat's off to the real men on whom this story is based. But, my hat is firmly on with regard to the screenwriter and director. While the one-dimensional characters searched for the way back, I was just looking for a way out. Skip it.

                                                          The Way Back

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Top 10 of 2010

It was mostly a ho-hum year, cinematically speaking. Some of the most heavily hyped, critically praised movies turned out to be, to my mind, duds. Some were superduds.

Kenneth Turan, Rex Reed and I were practically the only critics to scoff at the absurd Black Swan. I don't mind being a voice of reason in all the hyperbole and hubbub. I'm in esteemed company.

Here are the movies that, for me, made going to the cinema worthwhile this year.

1. The Ghost Writer. Easily my favorite film of the year. I don't get why it's being left out of all the big award nominations. A modern-day mystery/political thriller that Hitchcock might've made today. It was fun to see Pierce Brosnan in a dramatic role again (as a retired British PM), and Ewan McGregor is at the top of his game as the ghost writer hired to pen the PM's memoirs -- after the first ghost writer turns up dead. Fugitive Roman Polanski directed.

2. The Town. Career bank robbers are thrown off their game when they take a hostage and Ben Affleck's character ends up falling for her. Jon Hamm chases the gang and looks darn good doing it.

3. Blue Valentine. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling fall for each other, wed, have a child and then end up being the source of each other's suffering. Bleak and tough to watch, but a must-see due to the two powerful performances from its leads.

4. The King's Speech. We don't often see a member of the British royal family as an underdog, but Colin Firth's King George VI is a reluctant king with a severe stutter. His nation needs him to be a brilliant orator, as Britain heads for war with Germany. You'll be rooting for George ("Bertie" to his family) to overcome his impediment with the help of the speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. Rush's Lionel turns out to be the best friend a monarch could hope for. A royal bromance!

5. The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg shows off his buffness but allows co-star Christian Bale to shine as his twitchy, has-been older brother. Both brothers are boxers; one (Wahlberg's Micky) is on his way up. The other (Bale's Dicky) has already peaked, although he's convinced he'll make a comeback. Melissa Leo is perfect as the matriarch of her gritty, working-class brood, and Amy Adams plays the Boston barkeep who may help turn Micky's fortunes around.

6. The Social Network. The movie for the Facebook generation. Building web code should not make for fascinating viewing, yet much of the film's drama centers on the technical aspects (and ticking clock) involved in launching this enterprise. Jesse Eisenberg makes Mark Zuckerberg human and even a little likable. Plus, it's always fun to see the multitalented Justin Timberlake on screen.

7. Catfish. What can you believe and what can't you? That's the central question at the heart of this documentary. (Or, is it a mockumentary?) Catfish is about people not being who they say they are online. It's a mystery, a drama and a cautionary tale. If The Social Network is the narrative feature for the Facebook generation, this is the equivalent documentary.

8. Fanny, Annie & Danny. Haven't heard of San Francisco-based writer/director Chris Brown? You will. In this quirky drama, he's created a family whose members hate themselves and, for the most part, hate each other. When this fragile, wounded clan gets together for Christmas, there are awkward moments, tears and yelling, guilt trips, hurt feelings and unpleasant surprises.

9. Animal Kingdom. Grandma Smurf (Golden Globe-nominated Jacki Weaver) is a big player in an Australian crime syndicate, and she controls every move -- hardly any of them legal -- her adult sons make. She's all her grandson, J, has left, and he must decide if he'll stay loyal to his trigger-happy family or trust this policeman who offers him safety.

10. Waiting for Superman. Director Davis Guggenheim tries to find reasons for hope in his expose of the shoddy state of our national public education system. But, we're left with the discouraging feeling that the education each child in this country gets is up to nothing more than luck.

Honorable mention:

Rabbit Hole

The Other Guys

Inside Job

127 Hours

True Grit

Year's biggest disappointments:

Winter's Bone. The Clampetts meet Waiting for Godot.

The Kids are All Right. No, they're not. And, neither is this movie.

Black Swan. One hot, trashy mess.

I Am Love. Beautiful to behold, but a one-dimensional bore.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue Valentine

Blue is right.

It's the appropriate color to represent a husband and wife who have fallen out of love and have nothing but contempt for one another.

When we first meet Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) in their sad, small kitchen, she's doing her best to get herself and their daughter fed and ready for the day. He's trying to be a  jokester and is doing nothing but hampering her efforts. There's little love or affection on display here. There may not be any left in the marriage.

We see a bit more of the couple's painful present-day life together before we're taken back five years or so to watch them meet for the first time. He's instantly smitten. She's a serious student, from modest means, with a sometime-boyfriend. Dean's persistence wins her over. Even as we watch their tentative, awkward courtship and see them falling for each other, we see signs of trouble.

The action takes us back and forth in time between the early days of their relationship and, a few years hence, when the two are completely disappointed in themselves, their choices and each other. (It's never tough to know where in time we are because the characters change so much, emotionally and physically, in the course of a couple of years.) Loser Dean can't live up to the selflessness he first showed Cindy when they met. And, Cindy was too smart -- or should've been -- to have married for convenience someone she barely knew.

Yet, here they are in abject misery. Dean tries what little he can (a "sex motel" for a night, for instance) to reignite their spark. But, you get the sense that it's coming a bit too late.

Cindy is done. The way Williams plays her is a marvel. Her perpetually slumped shoulders convey a woman much older and utterly without hope.

As dark and dismal a tale as you're likely to see on screen this year, Blue Valentine is a masterpiece. It's one of the year's best, and Williams and Gosling are wondrous to behold in all their pain. See it!
                                                          Blue Valentine

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rabbit Hole

In Rabbit Hole, a couple grieving the death of their young son go crazy with grief -- each in his or her own way. Neither can understand the other.

Nicole Kidman's Becca would rather forget and move on -- or so it seems to her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart). She balks at going to their group therapy sessions, belittles the other grieving parents and snaps at her well-meaning mother (Diane Wiest in an Oscar-caliber supporting performance) and ne'er-do-well sister (Tammy Blanchard). She removes evidence of their son's life -- taking down his drawings from the fridge and giving away his little clothes.

Howie prefers sharing his feelings with the other bereaved parents in group and looking, again and again, at  cell phone videos of their son, Charlie. He can only heal through remembering; Becca would rather forget.

Each maintains a secret life the other knows nothing about. Howie is growing close to a bereaved mother (Sandra Oh) from group. Becca is stalking the teenaged boy who accidentally killed their son.

David Lindsay-Abaire successfully adapted his own script (from the Broadway play) into the screenplay. Stage-to-film adaptations can suffer from being too "talky," but not here. There are sufficient silences and close-ups of actors (mostly Kidman) sobbing or staring blankly.

Lindsay-Abaire's most brilliant words aren't spoken by either of the leads. Wiest gets the most poignant lines in her scene (with Kidman) that brought on the sobs in the theater where this critic saw the film with other viewers/mourners.

Director John Cameron Mitchell surprised this critic with his restraint and muted palette. That's because Mitchell also directed the raucous, transgender musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the unforgettable, as-close-to-porn-as-mainstream-cinema gets Shortbus. (I recommend both.)

Kidman's wardrobe and the colors of her house match her mood and the mood of the film. Everything's in shades of gray and khaki -- drab, fading. Watching people come undone isn't easy. But, this film is worthwhile -- especially for the strong performances by all involved. See it.

                                                     Rabbit Hole

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Fighter

Let the menfolk think The Fighter is a sports movie if that's what gets them to the cinema. It's really a love story, based on real people and events, that uses the boxing ring as its setting.

And, it's not so much a romantic love story, although a cast-against-type Amy Adams does a terrific job as a tough, determined Boston barmaid who helps turn around the fortunes of Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward, a boxer who wants to follow his locally famous older brother, Dicky, into the ring. 

The love story at the heart of this movie is a familial one. It's about the love half-brothers Micky and the ne'er do-well Dicky (a perfect, twitchy Christian Bale) have for each other. It's about the tough love their mom (the formidable Melissa Leo) rains down on her brood. The family doesn't always do right by each other, but they mean well. Including the hilarious Greek chorus of interchangeable sisters. How many of them are there -- four? five? seven? Who can tell? They move -- and talk -- as a group and don't seem to do much of anything besides bitch, judge and smoke. They provide much-needed comic relief amid all the fighting -- inside and outside the ring.

Dicky, Micky's brother and trainer, is forever yammering about his comeback. He relives his glory days often, egged on by the neighbors and shopkeepers in his gritty Boston suburb who treat him like the royalty he once was. HBO camera crews are always close by, since they're filming a movie about the comeback he swears is imminent. 

Dicky seems to fail at everything -- including his job as his kid brother's trainer. So, Micky has to ponder the unthinkable -- firing his trainer brother and manager mother -- if he is to ever succeed as a boxer. With the love of a good woman, he just may be able to do it.

The biggest knockout punch of the movie comes, not from the fighting, but from the discovery of the real topic of the HBO documentary.

All the lead actors -- Wahlberg, Adams and especially Leo and Bale -- bring their best to this venture and will likely be remembered with Oscar nominations. The Fighter is gritty, brutal, honest and sweet. See it.
The Fighter