December 31, 2009

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia is probably the warmest film of the year, and Amy Adams is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses. Meryl Streep was terrific as the famous cooking expert Julia Childs, but I found Adams's story much more enthralling while Streep's half of the movie seemed sort of breezy. Indeed, the fun of watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci was enough to propel their portion of a film which is split into into separate stories of women in 1949 and 2002 respectively: one, a burgeoning culinary icon studying the art of French cooking in Paris, the other a devoted follower living with her husband in Queens, who decides to cook her way through Childs's French cookbook in one year--which she documents on her blog--and which soon becomes an obsession.
It went on a bit longer than it should have, but it was definitely a feel-good kind of movie, an ode to food (what's not to like about that, after all?) ½

December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

"'My dear fellow,' said Sherlock Holmes, as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, 'life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.'"

-from "A Case of Identity," The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As the saying goes: "Don't kill the messenger." The latest incarnation of Doyle's immortal British sleuth (Robert Downey Jr. here, upon whose performance and casting choice I remain undecided) is big and booming and loud...and a bit limp amidst all the frenzy of action, explosions, and the like. Perhaps Guy Ritchie was the wrong choice to direct this film. I found its scale disappointingly large, with all the more room to fall given its self-conceived grandeur. The mystery was less than mesmerizing in its attempt to cash in on the magic motif that has served other blockbusters so well of late. I have read some Sherlock Holmes, including the volume of short stories from which the above citation comes, as well as the classic novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I could never have imagined the behemoth that took place on screen coming from the pages of Doyle's work.

That said, the movie isn't terrible, just average. Good performances, particularly a well cast Jude Law as Holmes's amiable chum Dr. Watson and Rachel McAdams as a scheming American with whom Sherlock feels a slight romantic affection, made the film less irritating. However, there are just so many ridiculously unbelievable brawls and chase scenes and explosions one can manage. At just over two hours, the film should have been a lot more fun without trying so hard, and the mystery should have been more spine-tingling and less a pastiche of magical villains, superhero movies, and doses of the occult (which could have been explored with more historical perspective and curiosity given Victorian England's fascination with the subject).

The script was laced with humor, eliciting fairly frequent laughs; unfortunately the film was either too gimmicky and cartoonish or too reminiscent of something from Marvel comics. I was waiting for Dr. Watson to caution Holmes that old adage, "with great power comes great responsibility." Indeed.

December 19, 2009

State of Play

State of Play didn't seem to get much notice back in April, but it ought to have. It's an absorbing political thriller in the vein of director Alan J. Pakula's films (All the President's Men, Klute, and The Pelican Brief), based on a 2003 British TV mini-series. Russell Crowe heads an impressive cast as a reporter for the Washington Globe whose old buddy, a U.S. Congressman (Ben Affleck) becomes the center of a scandal when his aide and mistress dies suspiciously in a subway station.
The congressman's investigation of a large and insidious corporation which has its financial fingers in the cookie jar of the War on Terror seems unrelated to this apparent accident, at first. Crowe and a newbie reporter (Rachel McAdams) whose job as a blogger for the Globe he resents, must band together in their search for the truth, fighting reticent political figures, creepy mercenaries, and the ticking of the media clock.
Well-timed and appropriately suspenseful fun with more than a few pertinent plot points (such as political scandals, the War, and the current transitory nature of newspaper media and its relationship to the blogosphere). Helen Mirren gives a wonderfully bitchy performance as Crowe's editor, and also starring Robin Wright Penn as Affleck's disgraced wife, also a long-time friend with Crowe.

So far, I would certainly add this to my favorites of the year.

December 17, 2009

The House Bunny

In my quest to watch the noteworthy films of 2009, I inadvertently drifted back to 2008 and landed upon The House Bunny: the feel-good sophisticated comedy of the year! Or, perhaps the opposite. Let's be honest, no one goes to a movie starring Anna Faris (star of all the Scary Movie flicks) for her keen wit or comic bravado. She is, however, a funny actress (although she may be stuck in a rut playing the dumb girl for longer than she should). The House Bunny starts, proceeds, and ends, predictably enough: narcissistic and shallow but likable Playboy bunny Farris is ejected (rather suspiciously) from the Playboy Mansion (it may help to liken this to Nixon's self-imposed abdication of the White House) and forced to make something of herself.

She inadvertently winds up in a college town and discovers that being a "Housemother" to a sorority might be a pretty good gig for a girl whose only real talents are dressing in skimpy outfits and acting stupid to attract attention from guys (and envy from girls). Happening upon the fledgling Zetas, Faris offers to help them gin up their image and increase their non-existent recruitment (a problem which threatens the loss of their house). What is the answer to their sorority woes, you ask? Shredding their geeky appearances, social awkwardness, and smarts for sexy attire and superficial giggly-ness. Nothing that an out-of-work Playgal can't handle! Indeed, they transform from the caterpillars no one would talk to, to the butterflies everyone's talking about. The seemingly contradictory lesson? Beauty is on the inside (wow, HOW original). Of course, a rockin' hot bod helps too, giving you the audience to demonstrate your erudition and individuality.

It's always fun when shallow and sexist movies attempt to redeem their entire plots by offering a predictable but palatable message. Problems: Why would girls like this even WANT to be in a sorority if the other sorority sisters are so vapid and vain? Also, why would they want to change into something they aren't? The film (I often throw this high-brown term around like Paula Dean throws sour cream on butter) tries to present to us the idea that women can be both hotties and brains, like, at the same time, for real!

December 16, 2009

Away We Go

I had heard much praise of Sam Mendes's little change of pace, Away We Go, and I wasn't disappointed. It is the story of a couple in their early 30's experiencing the fears and joys of becoming parents for the first time, a change that triggers a deep yearning for roots and some sense of belonging. In a culture of seemingly constant mobility, Away We Go captures the scattered sense of community that so many people have. Amidst their voyage from Arizona to Wisconsin to Montreal to Miami and eventually to her childhood home along the Mississippi River, our weary but persistent heroes (John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph) encounter the struggles of their friends and family, seemingly taking mental notes along the way: of what not to do, what to do better, differently, the same, etc. The little vignettes, divided by location, offer some wonderful performances by such fine character actors as Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels (Krasinki's parents), Allison Janney (Rudolph's outspoken, crazy former boss who enjoys the shock value of her demeanor and calls her own daughter a "dyke"), and a particularly amusing performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as an old family friend of Krasinki, who is the epitome of the trendy modern-day hippy. I found this movie refreshing in its examination of modern values: it doesn't seem to have an axe to grind, and is instead content to simply let its characters find out things for themselves. ½

December 12, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

I would like to congratulate the movie Sunshine Cleaning for being the best movie I've seen this year so far. (Let me clarify, I have seen very few movies in 2009, ranging from good to awful: The Proposal, pretty good, Zombieland, highly entertaining Star Trek, good, The Blind Side, good, Night at the Museum 2, unbearable, Observe and Report, bad).

Up to now there was nothing I wanted to elevate to a "best of" type list, but I think Sunshine Cleaning qualifies. It has the performances (two great ones by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters who decide to go into the crime scene/post-decomp cleaning business), the sharp sense of humor, and the truthfulness, of a very good picture. It's very well-rounded, I would say (offering humorous and sad moments--and some icky ones too-- in equal measure).

I was asking myself what the "job" of a good movie is...and I answered (is there medication I can take to avoid these types of conversations?) that the "job" of a good movie is to tell a story well, reflecting with honesty some glimpse of the human experience. In that sense, Sunshine Cleaning works because it's true (or is it true because it works?)

November 25, 2009

The Blind Side

Football movies. They have emerged as a genre within themselves. As a non-sports fan, I tend not to express much interest in them, even though I have enjoyed the few I've seen (Remember the Titans and We Are Marshal come to mind). The Blind Side works because it's not the same old story about a team coming together and winning, but a close-up into the story of one individual, a shy, overlooked youth nicknamed Big Mike who is slipping through the cracks in every way imaginable until he finds an unexpected friend in Sandra Bullock, a wealthy, tough and funny Southern woman with a husband (who owns 85 Taco Bells) and two kids. Bullock has never been better, and director John Lee Hancock generally avoids indulging in too much sentiment, preferring to keep things a little more stable and realistic. The film is emotionally charged enough without sacrificing restraint. I was also impressed by Quentin Aaron's performance as "Big Mike" (Michael Oher, a real-life football player, as it turns out), whose performance relies much more on the subtleties of facial expressions and movement than on dialogue as he struggles to come out of his shell. Tim McGraw plays Bullock's husband, and Jae Head steals the show as their rambunctious and intelligent son. Very funny and poignant.

November 21, 2009

Primary Colors

Based on the book by Anonymous, Primary Colors (1998) is a roman a clef of the Clintons during their 1992 Whitehouse bid. John Travolta plays Southern governor Jack Stanton, Emma Thompson, his wife, Susan. Travolta dons the Bill Clinton-esque accent and that bullshit twinkle in his eye fairly well, but the supporting cast really makes this film come to life. Emma Thompson is superb--not just in concealing her English accent, but in embodying the aura of Susan Stanton (Hillary Clinton): cold enough to survive the nastiness of politics and the onslaught of scandals, smart enough to channel her ideas through her husband (who's better at connecting with the voters on an emotional level than on an intellectual one). In Short, Primary Colors offers a richly conceived glimpse at (and under) our political landscape. Sure, things have changed since 1992 particularly because of technology, but I think Primary Colors taps into a somewhat universal truth about the necessary cynicism one must have when approaching the subject of politics and politicians. Kathy Bates gives the most poignant--and frequently hilarious--performance as one of the Stantons' campaign advisers, who realizes--for the second time in her career--that ideals are lost in the political spectrum where appearances and behind-the- scenes deals carry more weight. While I was left feeling that this film was a bit of a love note to the Clintons (in spite of its frequently unflattering portrayals of them), I think it also captured the seeming hopelessness of politicians. People are constantly looking for someone to put their hope in, and if you can get that, you can do anything. ½

October 16, 2009

Couples Retreat

I enjoyed it. Not a laugh a minute or anything, but very entertaining. Four couples are guests at a resort called Eden, where their specialization is in couples therapy. In an effort to get the group rate, Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) coerce their friends into joining them for the weeklong pleasure vacation/therapy session. The other couples are content to enjoy themselves while their friends work out their marriage problems, but it becomes clear that no one's "house" is in order. Couples Retreat is funny and enjoyable but never really peaks comically. Perhaps this is not something it even attempts, and that didn't bother me much. I was intrigued enough to want to know what would develop between the various characters. Where the movie did not succeed was in developing real, adult problems that it was apparently unwilling to really solve (this is supposed to be a comedy, after all), so the resolutions were happy but not necessarily believable in that they happened too fast and somewhat unrealistically. The exceptions were Vince Vaughan and Malin Akerman's characters, who realized (I am paraphrasing): "we don't have a problem. We have LOTS of problems. And maybe that's okay." Couples Retreat may pretend to offer profundity without doing so, and this makes it somewhat more subtle (in spite of the often crude humor that may or may not affect one's enjoyment of the movie). ½

October 03, 2009


Fantastic! Not my favorite "looking" zombies, but this is certainly one of the most fun zombie flicks in recent years, sort of America's answer to Shaun of the Dead. Woody Harrelson is a bad-ass. Jesse Eisenberg balances out Woody's redneck Dirty Harry persona with his neurotic, witty and insightful take on his new "world," which is--you guessed it--overrun by flesh-eating zombies. And who would have thought a zombie movie would quote All About Eve's famous line ("Fasten your seatbelts...")?

August 22, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are two of the best actors around today. Their pairing in Last Chance Harvey (2008)--if unexpected--is perfect. Their unlikely romance is kindled in London where he's visiting for his daughter's wedding.

Kate Walker (Thompson) works at Heathrow Airport (don't blink and miss a brief exchange between the pair in the beginning of the film, before they know each other), and is lonely and introverted. She lets her mother badger her with constant phone calls because she has no other close relationships, except a couple co-workers who are always trying to fix her up with guys.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is equally lonely. His dream of being a jazz pianist deferred, he's a self-described composer of jingles (for television commercials) being forced into retirement by the changing industry. The London trip is low on the priority scale. He and his daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) maintain a stilted relationship, and he feels slighted by his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her new husband (James Brolin), who has stepped up in many ways as Susan's more involved father figure (to the point that he's been asked to give her away, much to Harvey's chagrin).

It's in the midst of all these circumstances--be they self-imposed or the product of outside forces--that Harvey and Kate meet, at a bar. She's trying to read while he attempts small talk.

In the hands of less capable performances, Last Chance Harvey might have lapsed into the cliched. It's not an overly original tale. It's a character study--thus relying most importantly on strong acting, which it gets in stoves. You feel for both these lost souls, even if their plight is of their own doing. And there's a beautifully redemptive side to it all, something brought about by the relationship the two form over just a weekend. Set against the surprisingly romantic and appropriate London backdrop, Last Chance Harvey distinguishes itself as a poignant comedy for adults when most of today's movies fail to grasp things like the nuances of a character or the emotional importance of every line and facial expression, every passing glance, and every note.

Which leads me to my final note on the film, the lovely, piano-driven score by Dickon Hinchliffe. It perfectly accents the film both in its dramatic lows and its comedic highs. Written and directed by Joel Hopkins.

August 12, 2009

Bottle Shock

I've decided that one day, when I have a career and money, I am going to travel California's wine country for a couple of weeks. Drinking in the beautiful scenery--spitting out the wine samples--and who knows what else. It sounds like an ideal vacation to me. A friend of mine recommended the movie Bottle Shock, which I guess will have to suffice as a means of vicariously experiencing wine country. Along with Sideways, Bottle Shock is part of a distinct sub-genre of wine-lovers' movies. I was intrigued by Sideways for its eccentric fascination with wine, but turned off by the two douche bag characters in the movie. So I liked Bottle Shock much more because it offered the same eccentric love of viniculture and characters who were far more likable and just as human.

Chris Pine, who we all know from Star Trek, plays an aimless young man who works on his father's Napa vineyard. His dad (Bill Pullman) is tired, disappointed with himself for leaving a law firm to make his own wine, and facing insurmountable piles of debt. Meanwhile, a condescending British wine connoisseur (Alan Rickman) is facing problems of his own in France, where he runs a school for wine studies. Rickman reluctantly ventures to California's wine country, a term he acknowledges with not a little disdain, and tries to discern whether or not those unsophisticated Americans are actually making anything worth spitting into a tin cup after you sample it and describe the taste with phrases like "firm, robust, full of body, and a hint of tangerine." Essentially, it's Amadeus all over again, and Chris Pine is the delightfully mad genius to Rickman's taciturn, irretrievably jealous Salieri.

At first Bottle Shock appears a meandering tale of some folks who love wine. However, the more I got into the movie, I began to really enjoy its idiosyncratic subject matter. Combining Alan Rickman's tasteful Britishness and Chris Pine's whole "I thought showering was optional" persona is just eccentric enough to suit a movie which finds its roots in both French haute culture and 1970s Western Americana. Even Bill Pullman is good--and usually I find him to be somewhat subdued. Freddy Rodriguez co-stars as Pine's buddy, a natural-born vintner who's got his own dreams about making wine. Rodriguez is sort of the James Dean of the cast. He gets taunted with but never gets the glory or the girl.

I think my favorite scene was of Pullman popping a wine cork with a sword at his old law firm. I'm pretty sure Jesus turned water into wine with as much alacrity.

Directed by Randall Miller. With Dennis Farina, Rachael Taylor, Eliza Dushku.

August 06, 2009


Harper (1966) is a self-consciously chic, sophisticated and cool detective thriller starring Paul Newman as a private eye named Lew Harper. Adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, Harper is probably the best pure-detective-thriller of the 1960s (although Bullitt starring Steve McQueen is up there, too).

I have written before about film noir, which is possibly my favorite genre. Harper was part of the shift in detective movies and noir that took place in the 60's and 70's where a sort of deconstruction of the genre emerged. While film noir has always been cynical, I think the films became increasingly a comment on themselves. These men eat, drink and sleep their work. Somehow the glamour has been lost amidst the unkempt studio apartment and the worn-out convertible, a relic of the glory days but still a relic. Newman's character is a typical Hollywood private eye: a loner, compelled to figure out the case before him. He's hired to track down cold-hearted Lauren Bacall's missing millionaire-husband.

Bacall, of course, starred as Humphrey Bogart's cunning, brassy love interest in 1946's The Big Sleep. She comes full circle with the genre in Harper, fulfilling the part of the catalyst, the one who hires the detective, giving us the backstory on the case. Bacall's character is hardly at her wit's end with grief about her missing husband. "I only intend to outlive him," she assures Harper. "I only want to see him in his grave." And then, trying to narrate Harper's thoughts for him, she concludes: "What a terrible thing to say." Harper responds, "People in love will say anything."
That's how Harper addresses the world. He has a quip for every circumstance, taking his punches with a grin and a stubborn--sometimes futile--inability to quit. This of course mirrors several of Newman's other movie roles, most notably the title character in 1967's Cool Hand Luke and Fast Eddie Felson in 1961's The Hustler.

The look and feel of Harper is vital to the film's success. Conrad Hall--one of the most respected American cinematographers--does an impressive job of capturing the grandeur of the film's beautiful external California locations.

He also manages to capture the feel of 1960's swing culture. A good portion of the film takes place in bars and night clubs, where the movie's noirish roots meld with the zeitgeist of free love and aimlessness that pervaded the movies during the 60s.

Amidst all the offhand comments and the shootings and the innuendos you will find a somewhat distant but incredibly sad love story between Lew and his estranged wife, Susan (Janet Leigh).

Early in the film, Lew and Susan share an exchange by telephone where Lew tries to once again stall their divorce procedures, though it's unclear why exactly. Susan ends the conversation assuring Lew "I don't love you anymore. And you can get shot in some stinking alley and I'll be a little sorry, sure, but that's it. Just a little sorry." Later on, Lew comes knocking on Susan's door after a particularly rough fight with one of the bad guys, looking for someone to take care of him. There is a moment of hope that their relationship will not end. But Lew's compulsion soon returns--to finish the case. A compulsion that seems to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the world. A moral mission that excludes real human interaction.

Directed by Jack Smight. Also starring Julie Harris, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Shelley Winters, Robert Webber, Strother Martin and Harold Gould. Followed by The Drowning Pool (1975), which paired Newman with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in a lesser but still entertaining sequel.

July 20, 2009

Transylvania 6-5000

Come to think of it, it was a bad movie. I rented Transylvania 6-5000. I had read the crummy reviews, but held out a tiny seed of hope that in spite of its critical scorn, the movie would hold some amusement. I tend to enjoy lame horror-comedies if they're at least entertaining (i.e. fall into the so-bad-it's-good category). One would expect at least a few laughs with a cast including Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael Richards, Geena Davis, and Carol Kane. However, one would expect in vain. The script by first-time director Rudy De Luca (of the Mel Brooks School of Comedy) was just awful. I am a fan of even Mel Brooks' mediocre efforts (with the exception of the abysmal Life Stinks), but it seems his proteges fail to rise to the level of even his least successful offerings. Something just doesn't work. You know a script is bad when you can imagine yourself writing it (unless you're Joseph L. Mankiewicz). The plot, about two reporters going to Transylvania to track down a wanna-be Frankenstein, is hair-brained enough, reduced to one of the most inept, unfunny attempts at schlock-comedy ever beheld on screen.

July 02, 2009

The Proposal

I like Ryan Reynolds. Most of the comedy actors of today don't strike me as very funny. Or when they do, it's not very well-crafted humor. Ryan Reynolds has a knack for making a line of dialogue all his own with the tone of his voice or his facial expressions. The only flaw about his acting is that most of the time his character has some degree of prickishness about him. That is minimized in The Proposal, where Reynolds plays the personal assistant to very, very important senior editor Sandra Bullock. Sandra has made a career out of being likable, so it's fun to see her play a self-obsessed diva for a while. We already know she will become softened. We also know that Ryan and Sandra will inevitably fall in love in spite of their parasitic, I-hate-you-but-I-need-you relationship.

And so Sandra gets to play While You Were Sleeping all over again, but from a different angle. She's the single girl who masquerades as Ryan's fiance to avoid being deported to Canada, falling in love with not only Reynolds but his parents (Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenbergen) and his sharp grandma (the ever-delightful Betty White). So, while The Proposal doesn't really veer from the formula much, it sure shows us a good time. ½

June 21, 2009

Friends With Money

Jennifer Aniston is a good actress but she seldom seems to get THE part. Usually we see her in a romantic comedy, in which she's clearly comfortable--and likable. But occasionally she gets to demonstrate her dramatic chops, like in this movie, Friends With Money. I found it in the comedy section of the video store, but I thought the categorization misleading. It's one of those movies where you feel like you're being a told a story completely objectively, just watching the lives of four women and their husbands unfold in a small splash of time. Aniston's character, Olivia, is single and has become a maid after quitting a teaching position she hated. Her three friends (played by Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, and Frances McDormand), are all married and financially well-off. Olivia is, in many ways, their pet project. She's the one they're "a little worried about."
This is the kind of movie where conflict resolutions aren't necessarily inevitable, in that it's a movie that tries to be realistic. If you hate that sort of thing, you might not enjoy this, but if you do enjoy it, like I did, you'll find a very clever, honest, sympathetic picture that's about the intricate, unstable, chaotic, and familiar nature of relationships.

June 11, 2009

Star Trek

I have never seen any of the other Star Trek films in their entirety, although I remember watching part of the first one in school a long time ago. So, I did not have a lot of expectations or foreknowledge about the most recent incarnation of this incredibly long-lasting storyline.

It's been a while since I've really enjoyed a movie like this. It pulls you in immediately, but not simply because of astonishing visual effects, but because from almost the first moment the audience is able to care about the characters, even ones who have very little screen time.

Without a doubt, Simon Pegg's portrayal of Scotty was the funniest part of the movie.

He came in kinda late, and you could instantly see the difference with his comic appeal. Meanwhile, however, the story is momentous and absorbing enough to maintain itself all the way. Most space epics seem to run out of steam, but I was glad to see that the new Star Trek carried its weight.

What was really amusing about Star Trek 2009 was observing how much it clings to the past in spite of its attempt to be hip. I'm really not trying to criticize the story at all--again, it was thoroughly engrossing--but you can see how much its roots are in the 1960s with those Vulcan haircuts and goofy sayings (a la "live long and prosper.") I think my favorite was the emotionally charged exchange between Uhura and Spock: "I'll be monitoring your frequency!"

Note that this is J.J. Abrams' feature directing debut. Up until now, his directing work has been confined to television shows. I think he made a fairly smooth transition, although one of the things that bugs me about many of today's movies is a lack in directorial style. Sure, special effects can be effective, but only the style of a director can make a movie special.

But, ultimately, the movie delivered some enjoyable escapism, and not the cold, cynical kind that has become vogue in Hollywood, but something a lot more sympathetic and disarming.

April 18, 2009


Clue (1985) is, I think, the kind of movie you appreciate more as a kid than as an adult. From my grown-up mind, it seems pretty hair-brained to try and adapt a board game into a movie. But I remember how thrilled I was to discover, retroactively you might say, that someone had turned my favorite murder-mystery-board-game into a feature film, a comedy no less, with some of my favorite actors!

Madeline Kahn, the underrated, red-headed beauty with that unmistakable voice (Megan Mullally may be her distant cousin), donning a black wig as Mrs. White; and Lesley Ann Warren, who I remembered from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella. Warren and Kahn both have beautiful singing voices, but neither of them ever really got to do as much with their voices in the movies (at least, not as much as I would have liked). There was Kahn's astonishingly funny and naughty performance as Lily Von Schtpp, the German saloon singer a la Marlene Dietrich, in Blazing Saddles, and Warren's effortless-looking performance as a floozy with a shrill, unsophisticated voice (not unlike Jean Hagen's in Singin' in the Rain) in Victor/Victoria, but as much as their talents were on display in these films, these women were never really given their due.

I think both of them shine in Clue, which isn't a particularly sophisticated comedy. It's not even a very well-thought-out comic mystery, about as subtle as Neil Simon's amusing but misfired Murder By Death. In Clue, Lesley Ann Warren plays Miss Scarlet, and she looks stunning and comfortable playing a cool bad girl, someone who once ran a brothel in Washington D.C. Warren is at her best here because she's not acting the dumb blonde: I think she's funnier when she's smart. And Kahn, as Mrs. White, delivers a subtly insane performance that may not stand out next to Lily from Blazing Saddles or Elizabeth from Young Frankenstein, and yet it's appropriately weird and Kahn-esque.

The plot of Clue is about what you'd expect from a movie adaptation of a game. The six suspects (Colonel Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, et al) are gathered at an ominous Victorian mansion on a dark and stormy night (the film is needlessly set in 1954 so that it can exhaust the already exhausted limits of the comic value of the Red Scare and J. Edgar Hoover). They are confronted with various crimes (a la Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None) and then it's revealed that the seventh guest, Mr. Boddy, is blackmailing all of them. Pretty soon, Boddy winds up dead, and the task of figuring out whodunit is put on them.

The jokes are hit and miss, and the story itself fizzles out long before the movie ends. But the performances make it worth seeing, particularly that of Tim Curry, as the butler and the man who's ultimately running the show. Curry's energy is unmatched. He's like a wind-up toy that keeps going and going despite all the punishing efforts of the children who are winding him up and laughing every time he runs into a wall or falls on his face. Eileen Brennan, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, and Lee Ving co-star. Written by the director, Jonathan Lynn, from a story idea by John Landis, and produced by Debra Hill. ½

April 11, 2009


I was roped into watching Twilight, the film based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer.
I’ll admit I was gunning for this movie from the beginning, but I think that if it had been a good movie it would have won me over. Instead, I kept wondering when it would end. It felt like watching the WB. It felt like watching rain fall. It felt like bad writing and unimaginative filmmaking. Actress Kristen Stewart (Bella) only has three acting techniques: scrunching up her face, looking around (at anything but at her boyfriend), and not smiling. Robert Pattinson’s character Edward is, of course, far more interesting. In fact I must sympathize with Stewart for having such a boring role.

Having watched numerous other vampire films, it’s hard not to compare Twilight to those I thought offered similar themes with much more humor and imagination. I think one of the biggest problems of the movie Twilight is that it fails to offer characters who grab the attention of the viewer. The villains seem like an afterthought. They appear near the end with very little prior introduction, except a rather tame “feeding” scene where their quick movements are demonstrated by some obvious computer graphics.

Meanwhile, the budding romance is a little too tried and true, and a little too Jack and Rose. The only thing that’s missing is an unsinkable ship. It seems to easy, Pattinson’s whole “I’m pale, I’m dark, don’t love me” argument. And of course Stewart can’t help but fall for that old line, leaving the nice guys out in the cold. There was not enough at stake (if you’ll pardon the pun), for the romance to be of much import. And the film wasn’t scary or suspenseful enough to work on a horror-film level.

January 11, 2009

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973) At first glance this belated film noir, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the novel by Raymond Chandler, seems like an inferior installment in a long tradition of hard-boiled detective thrillers. It doesn’t go for the swaggering style of its 1940s ancestors. It’s pre-Chinatown and The Late Show, and those two mysteries echo this one’s detached, hardened tone. Elliott Gould is not Humphrey Bogart, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
I wasn’t thrilled by Gould’s incessant mumblings to himself, whether or not this is a nuance of character Gould was going for or just a learned acting trait, but what I think Gould did well for the character of private eye Philip Marlowe was to give him a sense of isolation from the world. The camera seems distant from him too, making the viewer not so much a Dr. Watson type tag-along as a curious bystander, a voyeur tripping along at Marlowe’s heals as he pursues a handful of loose ends with a dull pair of scissors.
In a 1940’s film noir there is a sense of moral obligation supported by society. A 1970’s Philip Marlowe seems to be stubbornly clinging to that moral obligation (without knowing why) in spite of a society that has grown rampantly apathetic around him. Marlowe lives in an odd-looking apartment complex hoisted high over Los Angeles, his neighbors a handful of dippy young flower girls baking brownies with weed. His one friend is a glorified acquaintance whose behavior at the beginning of the film gets Marlowe into more trouble than he bargains for, with an insane author, his young, seemingly tortured wife, and an easily unhinged gambler who’s trying to collect a load of cash with which Marlowe’s friend has absconded to Mexico.
The best image from the film occurs near the end, of Marlowe walking alone in Mexico, on a dirt road lined with trees, Spanish guitars playing as if looming overhead. It reminded me that private eyes have always walked alone. Years ago there was a chance, a tease at some kind of romantic link to normalcy. Now, a sobering realization that Philip Marlowe must take all these roads alone to do his moral duty (which turns out to be ironic in this film).