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?)