Thursday, January 30, 2014

Killers (2010) [PG-13] **+

A film review by Claudia Puig for USAToday.com on June 8, 2010.

Killers is a lifeless romantic action comedy that might as well have been concocted in a broken beaker, given the paucity of chemistry between the lead actors. Katherine Heigl plays Jen, a woman trying gamely to get over a break-up. The strange way she decides to do this is to take a trip to the romantic French Riviera with her overbearing dad (Tom Selleck) and dipsomaniac mom (Catherine O'Hara).

In Nice, she meets Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) in an elevator and essentially follows him down to the beach like an eager puppy. He inexplicably finds that so delightful that he asks her out. They fall swiftly in love and get married. If you buy that premise, then maybe the rest of the story won't seem so preposterous.

As it turns out, Spencer is a hit man who had been dying to go straight for reasons that are never made clear. Along comes Jen with her down-to-earth ways and alleged nerdy smarts and he gives up the glamorous assassin's life to move to suburbia and get a boring day job.

But, in a few years, unsavory types from his former life come after Spencer. What comes next is both ridiculous and tedious, simultaneously banal and far-fetched. A movie in which anybody — neighbor, friend or colleague — could be a murderer should provide at least a modicum of suspense and excitement. But this dull romp doesn't seem to grasp that concept.

Heigl and Kutcher have negligible romantic chemistry. Ditto for Selleck and O'Hara. Laughs built around flatulence and vomit hardly belong in a story about a married couple running for their lives.

Director Robert Luketic seems to be going through the motions in this comedy, not coming close to his conventional yet charming 2001 hit Legally Blonde. Everything about this movie feels forced, and worst of all, glaringly unfunny. Luketic — and Heigl's — last film, the contrived The Ugly Truth, is suddenly looking better by comparison.

When Jen finds out that her husband was a professional assassin, her first response is: You couldn't just have tranny porn like (a friend's husband). You had to be a spy.

Huh?

Jen's hard-drinking mom has one comment after her daughter becomes romantically involved with Spencer: The important thing is you're finally with somebody attractive.

Are we supposed to believe that someone who looks like Heigl is so geeky that she has never dated someone good-looking? Why does Hollywood continually try to pass off such unconvincing characterizations on audiences? Shades of Sandra Bullock in All About Steve.

Even the action scenes are beyond dull. It's hard to imagine a similarly plodding siege of extended car chases and unexciting near-escapes.

Killers is dead on arrival: miscast, horribly paced and murderously uninvolving. [Puig’s rating: * ½ out of 4]

Labels: action, comedy, romance, thriller

Last Night (2010) [R] ***

A film review by Kyle Smith for the New York Post on May 11, 2011.

Cheating is in the air in Last Night, but will it get between the sheets?

Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington play a successful Manhattan couple who start to fight when she suspects there’s a reason he never mentions a business colleague he’s been spending a lot of time with. Especially when she gets a glimpse of the other woman — and she’s Eva Mendes.

While he and his magma-hot associate are on a business trip in Philadelphia, she accepts an invitation to come out and play with her yummy French ex-boyfriend (Guillaume Canet) in New York.

Most of the movie unwinds over that evening, as each spouse tiptoes toward adultery in intercut scenes. Suspenseful though it is, the movie is quiet to the point of being sleepy, and Worthington is simply not working out as a screen star. He might be better-suited to some kind of job more forgiving of his blocky blankness, like modeling slacks.

For all its incessant soul-searching, Last Night also doesn’t have a lot to say about marriage, and what it does say is often wrong. The French guy is warned off the married woman by a pal who says he can’t compete with the years the marrieds have spent together — as if years don’t also serve to make people sick of each other.

Labels: drama, romance


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Cadillac Records (2008) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net.

Cadillac Records, while not a musical in the traditional sense, is close to 50% musical content and 50% drama. Accordingly, it's about 50% good and 50% bad. The re-creations of some of the most noteworthy blues and early rock tunes from the '50s and '60s feature high-energy performances that do the originals proud. Sadly, the drama that accompanies them is hackneyed and poorly paced - the kind of thing that makes the average made-for-TV movie appear well constructed. There are plenty of small pleasures to be found throughout Darnell Martin's feature, but a compelling storyline featuring three-dimensional characters is not among them.

Cadillac Records is loosely based on actual events, but it takes significant liberties with the established record. It begins in the early 1950s in Chicago with the establishment of the Chess Record Company and ends some two decades later when the label's owner, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), sells. The film provides various highlights, in compilation-album style, of some of Chess' most memorable performers over the period when Leonard owned the label: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). Many of these individuals are given short, dramatic arcs but none has enough screen time to develop much of personality or a bond with the audience.

The music offers the soundtrack of its two decades, with Jeffrey Wright covering Waters' I'm a Man and I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man; Beyoncé doing James' I'd Rather Go Blind, Once in a Lifetime, and the iconic At Last. Mos Def contributes Berry's Maybelline, Nadine, and No Particular Place to Go. Many of the songs are given full performances rather than brief 30-second clips. Stars like Wright and Beyoncé prove themselves able to handle both the singing and acting needs of their roles although, to be sure, the latter aspects are not taxing. Adrien Brody comes off worse than either, but that's probably because he isn't given an opportunity to sing.

One apparent problem with Martin's film is that there's too much material to be crammed into a 110-minute motion picture. The scope is overly ambitious, the net too is too wide. It would have been challenging to pick one of Cadillac Records' cast of big names and present a coherent, comprehensive motion picture with similar time constraints, but by choosing to place a half-dozen figures under the umbrella and include all the music, Martin has set herself up for failure. The movie is a mess but, in large part because of the music, it is something of an entertaining mess.

There are a few moving scenes. One features Muddy Waters' wife (Gabrielle Union) silently weeping while holding his child by another woman. She loves her husband and is willing to look the other way even for an infraction this deep. It causes one to wonder more about the mechanics of their marriage, but the film moves on at breakneck speed. Likewise, we are left to wonder about the depth of the affection between Leonard Chess and Etta James. We're provided with glimpses of it, most notably when he's trying to keep her alert after a heroin overdose but, like everything else, it is given short shrift.

Cedric the Entertainer, playing Willie Dixon, provides a retrospective voiceover that ties everything together. Every once in a while, his omniscient voice provides some needed transitional information, but this is a rare occasion when a little more narration might have helped. Cadillac Records exists mainly as a holiday throw-away for those with a deep and abiding love for the kind of music it showcases. Those looking for solid drama or complex song-and-dance choreography won't find it here. But for lovers of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Etta James, there's enough to justify the price of a ticket. Or perhaps a better choice might be to spend roughly the same amount on a copy of the soundtrack. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, music



The Hangover (2009) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on June 5, 2009.

The Hangover begins and ends conventionally but, in between, it's not afraid to go off the rails. Unlike most so-called comedies, this one can claim the virtue of being reasonably funny. It never tries too hard, the actors have a good sense of comedic timing, and none of the jokes are drawn out for too long. And, although The Hangover doesn't have the heart of, say, Knocked Up, it displays an affection for its characters that most comedies don't. I wouldn't go so far as to claim the men and women populating the production are three-dimensional but they escape the low orbit of simple caricature. There's a little more going on here than vulgar humor and that makes The Hangover worth the price of admission.

The film begins with a teaser: it's the day of the wedding, the groom is missing, and his friends are in the middle of nowhere. One guy puts through a call to the bride (played by Sasha Barrese) and informs her that he lost her husband-to-be and the ceremony, which is supposed to start in five hours, isn't going to happen. Cue the flashback, which rewinds events 48 hours. Now we meet the principals before their fateful bachelor party trip to Las Vegas. There's Dead Man Walking Doug (Justin Bartha), his best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms), and his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Alan (Zach Galifianakis). The goal is for them to drive to Vegas, spend the night gambling and drinking, and then go home the next day. Things don't go according to plan.

When Phil, Stu, and Alan awaken the next morning in their $4200-a-night suite, the place is a mess. A woman slips out the door before anyone else is conscious. A chicken is on the loose and there's a tiger in the bathroom. And whose baby is in the closet? Phil is wearing a hospital arm band. Stu has lost a tooth and gained a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham) for a wife. Meanwhile, the center of the action, Doug, is missing (along with his bed's mattress). When the bewildered trio (with infant in tow), who can't remember anything about the night before, take a claim check to the hotel's valet, he brings them a cop car - not the ride they arrived in. All this happens before a tire iron-wielding naked Chinese guy and Phil Collins-singing Mike Tyson make appearances.

The Hangover, directed by Todd Phillips (Old School), with a similar flare for the profane and potentially offensive, is as cleverly constructed as a comedy of this sort can be. The bulk of the film consists of Phil, Stu, and Alan attempting to reconstruct the lost night by following clues and re-connecting with people they don't remember (but who remember them). The humor grows out of these situations, and most of it is not of the intellectual variety. The biggest laugh results from a scene that's in the trailer, although it is funnier in context than it is as a snippet designed to lure people into the theater. The Mike Tyson cameo is truly bizarre, and it takes on an almost macabre air after the real-life tragedy that has recently befallen him. In the Air Tonight is now cinematically wedded not only to Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay but to Tyson as well.

The lead actors play familiar types. Bradley Cooper, probably the most recognizable name in the cast (not counting Tyson) is the leader of the pack, although he avoids the asshole vibe that many such characters give off in other, similar films, thus making Phil more appealing than one might expect from such a slick individual. Stu is a nerd out of his depth who's tethered by a cell phone to his controlling girlfriend (Rachael Harris) back home. Ed Helms plays him like a refugee from a Judd Apatow film. Finally, there's overweight and socially awkward Alan, whose personality Zach Galifianakis milks for humor without voiding the character of all vestiges of humanity. Alan is weird in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, and that's where about 50% of the movie's comedy originates.

The Hangover is unapologetically R-rated, although it's not as shocking as other recent raunchy comedies that have pushed the envelope. The majority of the nudity is provided by guys because, as is generally acknowledged, the naked male form is funnier than the naked female form. There is drinking and drugs, profanity, and bodily fluids, but nothing we haven't been exposed to before. The purpose of The Hangover isn't to boldly go where no comedy has gone before (although there is a subtle but unmistakable nod to Star Trek in the line I'm a doctor, not a tour guide), but simply to make audiences laugh. With so many comedies becoming increasingly less funny as a result of the rise of lazy, uninspired writing, that's a worthy goal. For a viewer in the mood for something rude, crude, and lewd, it would be difficult to find a more satisfying food. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: comedy


The September Issue (2009) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Robert Ebert, September 9, 2009.

The magazine rack at 7-Eleven doesn't have many real magazines. No Economist, Vanity Fair, Discover or The New Yorker. It's mostly pseudo-magazines, about celebrities, diets, video games and crossword puzzles. Except for one: Vogue. The other day I bought the September 2009 issue, which ran to a little under 600 pages. That may sound like a lot to you, but actually it's a marker of hard times for the economy.

The September Issue is a documentary about the magazine's September 2007 issue, which set a record at well over 800 pages. Vogue is ruled by the famous Anna Wintour, who is said to be the single most important person in the world of fashion. When she says yes, it happens. When she says no, it doesn't. She says no frequently. She rarely deigns to explain why, but it would appear that most people believe she is right. She is always right about her own opinion, and in fashion, hers is the opinion that matters most.

The documentarian R.J. Cutler followed Wintour for months during the preparation for September 2007, which was expected to set a record. There cannot have been a page she wasn't involved with. This seems to be a woman who is concerned with one thing above all: The implementation of her opinion. She is not the monster depicted by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), but then how could she be? I expect that one to have a sequel titled, Return of the Bitch.

Perhaps it was The Devil Wears Prada, based on a novel by one of her former assistants, that motivated Wintour to authorize this documentary. She doesn't otherwise seem like the kind of woman who craves attention, since, after all, she is the focus of the eyes of everyone who matters to her. She doesn't throw handbags at her assistants as Streep does in the 2006 movie, but then she knows too much about cameras to make that mistake.

What comes across is that she is, after all, a very good editor. Like Hugh Hefner, William Shawn, Harold Hayes or Graydon Carter, she knows exactly what she wants, and her readers agree with her. When she cringes at the sight of a dress, we're inclined to cringe along with her. The question arises: What possible meaning is there in haute couture for the vast majority of humans who have ever lived? None, of course. And few of these costumes must actually ever be worn, and then often for photo opportunities like Cannes or the Oscars or charity balls in Palm Beach. A woman cannot live in them. She can only wear them.

Yet there is a very great deal of money involved, because these inconceivably expensive dresses serve as the show cars of designers whose ideas are then taken down market at great speed by multinational corporations, as was shown happening to Valentino in the 2009 documentary about him. Today Paris, tomorrow Bloomingdale's.

Wintour rules Vogue with a regal confidence. No one dares to disagree with her, except for a Julia Childian former British model named Grace Coddington, who has been on the staff as long as Wintour and is as earthy as Wintour is aloof. The two women have a grudging respect for each other, perhaps because each realizes they need someone to push back. Coddington's gift is conceiving many of Vogue's wildly fantastical photo spreads. Wintour's gift is knowing how to moderate her enthusiasm.

We meet other members of her staff, including the court jester, Andre Leon Talley, the editor at large, who specializes in spotting young talent. He's very funny, but I didn't see Wintour smiling at him or very much of anyone else. I think she'd look pretty when she did. Old photographs show she has worn the same hairstyle since time immemorial, perhaps because to change it would be a fatal admission that she cares what people think. In public, she always wears the same dark glasses, which provide maximum concealment; armor, she calls it.

Although we see her taste constantly at work, the only definite things we learn about it are that she approves of fur and disapproves of black. She shows great affection in a scene with her bright daughter, Bee Shaffer. Otherwise, like the Sphinx, she regards emotion with disdain. [Ebert's rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: documentary, fashion


Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) [PG-13] ***


Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol meets Casanova in this story of Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey), a handsome womanizer who gets his comeuppance in a very unusual way. Connor is a successful fashion photographer who has slept with nearly every attractive female he's ever met. The women flock to him even though he insults them to their faces and treats them like disposable tissues, even breaking up with three of them at once in a conference call, while his newest conquest sits on his bed and watches.

Now, Connor's younger brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) is getting married. Paul idolizes Connor and invites him to be part of the wedding, although Connor is not really welcome since he's slept with every bridesmaid but one, and is very vocal in his condemnation of romantic love and marriage. The wedding weekend is taking place at the home of Connor and Paul's late Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), who raised the boys after their parents died in a car accident. Wayne was the consummate player, who taught Connor everything he knew about picking up women, tricking them into having sex and using their own emotions against them, with the result that Connor grew up oversexed and lonely, out of touch with his feelings, and without a clue about what women really want.

Then, the night before the wedding, Connor is haunted by Uncle Wayne, and by the ghost of Allison (Emma Stone), his first teenage conquest, who takes him on a tour of his romantic history so he can appreciate the heartache he's caused. Connor meets the ghosts of his many past, present and future girlfriends, and observes the end of his own life. He also sees the future ghost of Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner) who was Connor's first love, who's the bride's best friend and is in the wedding party, and for whom, Connor discovers, he still has strong feelings.

Co-written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Four Christmases), the screenplay feels somewhat derivative, although there is some witty and wonderful commentary on manhood, marriage and monogamy, and the cast does excellent work with what they're given. The basic premise of the story is that if you live a bachelor lifestyle, promise women something and don't deliver, your dreams will be haunted by your misdeeds and you will end up old, lonely and miserable, desperate for love and companionship. Directed by Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven, The Spiderwick Chronicles) there's a clear story arc, good character development, fast pacing, tight editing, and some reasonably funny scenes that successfully avoid the descent into slapstick comedy. There's surprisingly good romantic chemistry between McConaughey and Garner, and the supporting cast includes Lacey Chabert as the bride, and Anne Archer and Robert Forster, as her mother and father. If you enjoyed films like What Women Want with Mel Gibson, Alfie with Jude Law, or Failure to Launch with Matthew McConaughey, then you'll probably enjoy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Labels: comedy, fantasy, romance, wedding    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 34/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=42, viewers=62)    
Blu-ray

The Joneses (2009) [R] ***+



The Joneses are the perfect family – attractive, wealthy, sophisticated, articulate, and well-mannered. Steve (David Duchovny) plays a great game of golf; his beautiful wife Kate (Demi Moore) is slim and tanned, and wears the newest clothes and accessories. Their lovely daughter Jenn (Amber Heard) shares the latest cosmetics with her high school classmates, and their handsome son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) shows off the hottest tech toys and gadgets to his classmates.

Soon the Joneses, recent arrivals in their affluent neighborhood, have become the envy of their neighbors – everyone wants to have the same clothes, furniture, cars and toys that the Joneses have. And keeping up with the Joneses can be very expensive. The Joneses have a secret, however. They're a stealth marketing cell - unrelated people who pretend to be a family, move into an upscale neighborhood and display expensive furnishings and toys that their neighbors just have to own.

This is a gentle satire featuring a smart screenplay, an excellent cast and outstanding production values. The film criticizes the affluent, acquisitive lifestyle – how we define ourselves by the things we own. It begins as a comedy with the four at work subtly introducing friends, neighbors and classmates to the products and services they are promoting. We watch them interact when they're not working, living together, separating real from pretend, and dealing with their desires. And we see them respond to the pressure to increase sales, as they get performance reviews from K.C. (Lauren Hutton) their cell manager. While the first act is fast-paced and promising, the pace eventually slows, and the actors don't seem to have enough to do. By the third act, the story has turned much darker, as neighbors Larry and Summer Symonds (Gary Cole and Glenne Headly) try to deal with their mounting debts. There is a happy ending, but it doesn't feel quite genuine. Regardless, if you're a fan of Demi Moore or David Duchovny, you'll probably enjoy The Joneses

Labels: comedy, drama, high school, satire, teenager
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 55/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=62, viewers=64)    
Blu-ray

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) [PG] ***



Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a charming but scatterbrained twenty-something who lives with her best friend Suze (Krysten Ritter) in a trendy New York City neighborhood. When Rebecca was a little girl, she watched older girls shop with magic plastic cards, and she came to believe in the magic as well. Now, whenever Rebecca discovers a wonderful new store, her heart melts, like butter sliding over hot toast. Rebecca is a shopaholic, hopelessly addicted to the thrill of shopping; with twelve maxed-out credit cards, she's accumulated sixteen thousand dollars of debt.

Rebecca works as a journalist, but when her magazine folds she decides to pursue her dream of working for Alette fashion magazine, but through a mail mix-up she's offered a job writing a column for Successful Saving, a personal finance magazine owned by the same company. Her manager, handsome Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) has confidence in Rebecca, and practically overnight, her column becomes wildly popular and she becomes something of a celebrity. Despite her secret attendance at Shopaholics Anonymous, Rebecca's shopping addiction hasn't gone away, nor has her growing debt. Worse, a weasel-like collection agent threatens to expose her, destroying her career and her budding romance with Luke.

Based on the book by Sophie Kinsella, and directed by P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding), this is a light, frothy, fantasy romantic comedy with far more comedy than romance; it feels like Legally Blonde meets The Devil Wears Prada but without the creative screenwriting found in either one. While Isla Fisher brings the same adorable, energetic effervescence to her role that she displayed in Wedding Crashers and Definitely, Maybe, the story line is just too fantastical to believe, there's little growth and development in Fisher's character, and almost no romantic chemistry between Fisher and Dancy; in addition, the outstanding supporting cast of Joan Cusack, John Goodman (as Rebecca's parents), Kristin Scott Thomas (Alette) and John Lithgow (the publisher) are simply wasted. The target audience for this film is probably teenage girls; more critical viewers should pass. 

Labels: comedy, romance   
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 38/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=44, viewers=64)    
Blu-ray1    
Blu-ray2

The Young Victoria (2009) [PG] ****



The radiant Emily Blunt is captivating as young Queen Victoria in this lush period film, set in the first half of the 19th Century, chronicling Victoria's ascent to the throne of England and her romance with her future husband Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

Penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Vanity Fair), the film features an outstanding supporting cast including Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, Miranda Richardson as Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Mark Strong as Sir John Conroy, three historical figures who attempted to influence young Victoria in order to achieve their own ends.

If you enjoy British historical dramas, and especially if you enjoyed Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice, and The Duchess, then you will very likely enjoy The Young Victoria

Labels: biography, drama, history, romance  
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 64/100 
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=64, viewers=70) 
Blu-ray    
Wikipedia - Queen Victoria


Bright Star (2009) [PG] ****



Bright Star is a romantic drama set in England between 1818 and 1821. It tells the story of the three-year romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Frances Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a romance that ended with Keats' untimely death from tuberculosis at age 25.

Written and directed by Jane Campion, and based partially on the love letters written between Keats and Brawne, this is an intensely moving story of unfulfilled longing and passion. Acting performances are uniformly excellent, especially Abbie Cornish who was nominated for several best actress awards. Production values are outstanding, with Janet Patterson receiving an Oscar nomination for achievement in costume design.

In addition to being an excellent period romantic drama, Bright Star offers the viewer an introduction to the poetry of John Keats. While Keats was not appreciated by the critics of his day, he's now regarded as one of the three great Romantic poets, along with Byron and Shelley. Some viewers may find the film's pacing rather slow, and the running time could have been reduced by ten minutes with no loss. Regardless, this film belongs to Abbie Cornish, and she is completely convincing as the love-struck Fanny. If you enjoyed Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, or Rachel McAdams as Allie in The Notebook, then you won't want to miss Abbie Cornish as Fanny in Bright Star. 

Labels: biography, drama, romance    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 81/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=72, viewers=72)    
Wikipedia - John Keats    
Wikipedia - Fanny Brawne

Duplicity (2009) [PG-13] ****



Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen) are former covert government agents, Claire for the CIA and Ray for MI6. Now they are working as industrial spies for competing pharmaceutical companies. The CEOs of the two companies (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) are bitter rivals who continually wage a war of corporate one-upmanship. In the current battle, one of the companies is trying to steal the other company's secret (and not yet patented) formula for a hair-restorative shampoo, a product which could potentially be worth billions of dollars.

But Claire and Ray have their own little secret; they are lovers, and they're running a triple game to steal the formula, sell it to a third company, and reap the rewards for themselves. In essence this is an espionage/heist romance. Clive Owen is excellent; he's credible as an industrial espionage agent who doesn't know whether or not to trust his partner, and he displays far more humor and vulnerability than in his earlier film roles. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, isn't nearly as convincing in her role; her performance is rather wooden, and she's not really believable as a secret agent or as Clive Owen's lover. By comparison, Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair have far better romantic chemistry, and are more convincing in their use of misdirection (confession as denial, and argument as flirtation), lies, subtle innuendo and emotional outbursts, all calculated to pierce the other's professional facade and throw him or her off balance. 

Duplicity was written and directed by the creative and prolific Tony Gilroy, and it's not as good as his writing for the Bourne trilogy films. The film's pacing is marred by the confusing use of flashbacks, with the result that Duplicity really requires a second viewing to fully understand. While the film features an intriguing premise, a great cast, a talented writer/director with lots of espionage experience, lush cinematography, great production values and locations in NYC, Rome and the Bahamas, somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. 

Labels: crime, romance, thriller   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 69/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=64, viewers=58)  
Blu-ray

State of Play (2009) [PG-13] ****



When Sonia Baker, an aide to ambitious young Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), dies under a Washington D.C. subway train, it's first reported as a suicide, and then an accident. But Collins is leading a House committee investigation into PointCorp, a private security firm, and Baker was Collins' lead researcher. Then it's revealed that Baker and Collins had been having an affair, and Collins' investigation of PointCorp gets buried by the scandal.

In a seemingly unrelated incident, two people are shot the same day Baker dies, and when Washington Globe journalist Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) begins to fit the puzzle pieces together, he and fellow reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) stumble upon a much larger conspiracy, one involving $40 billion worth of Homeland Security Department domestic security contracts that PointCorp is apparently prepared to kill to get. While Collins attempts to protect himself, his marriage and his political career, McCaffrey and Frye try to stay one step ahead of the police, solve the mystery and exonerate Collins, while putting together a story guaranteed to increase the Globe's circulation. But McCaffrey and Collins were college roommates, and Collins knows that McCaffrey was involved with his now-estranged wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), so he questions McCaffrey's motives.

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Duplicity) and Billy Ray (Breach), and directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), this is a taut political thriller based on the rather plausible premise that domestic security in the U.S. is gradually being turned over to a private army, an army of mercenaries loyal only to a paycheck. The excellent supporting cast also includes Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels. PointCorp is obviously a surrogate for Blackwater (now called Xe) and there actually are ongoing investigations into possible Blackwater atrocities in Iran and Afghanistan.

And, as mentioned in the film, the company really was contracted to provide security in New Orleans in 2005, after the devastation by Hurricane Katrina. However, although the acting is excellent, the story is not completely satisfying. The first two acts imply a political conspiracy reaching far higher and wider than a junior congressman and a single assassin, but the film's third act fails to deliver, leaving a host of questions unanswered. So, if you're a conspiracy theorist looking for a political thriller, great acting, lovely background cinematography of Washington D.C., and shots of black helicopters circling overhead, State of Play will provide it. But if you'd like to see some powerful political figures brought to justice, this is not the film. 

Labels: drama, mystery, thriller   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 64/100 
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=69, viewers=72)    
Blu-ray1    
Blu-ray2

2012 (2009) [PG-13] ***-



Six thousand feet underground in a copper mine in India, particle physicists make a terrifying discovery… neutrinos from a solar flare bombarding the earth are mutating into a microwave-like energy source that is heating the core of the Earth. The predicted results include tectonic plate movements which cause earthquakes, tsunamis and shifting of the Earth's poles. And the predicted date for these events is December 21st, 2012, the ending date of the Mayan Long Count Calendar.

This is the ultimate disaster film, and it includes elements from co-writer/director Roland Emmerich's earlier disaster films, including Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. In fact, if you have seen those two films, plus Deep Impact and Knowing, then you'll be well prepared for this film, in which virtually all of Earth's nearly seven billion inhabitants perish.

Some of the major characters include: the U.S. President (Danny Glover), his daughter (Thandie Newton), his Chief of Staff (Oliver Platt), his Science Advisor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a failed author (John Cusack), his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and an eccentric prophet of doom (Woody Harrelson) who has been trying for years to warn humanity about the danger, but who has been ignored. As we have come to expect in Roland Emmerich's films, there's a straightforward plot without any surprises, frenetic pacing, predictable dialog, poorly developed characters, and heavy-handed moral lessons. But the special effects are incredible, especially the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera, the earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault, and the tsunamis. Be prepared to be entertained but not impressed. 

Labels: action, adventure, drama, sci-fi, thriller   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 49/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=50, viewers=64)  
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Knowing (2009) [PG-13] ***



Armageddon meets Signs in this apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy/action thriller starring Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, an MIT astrophysicist whose son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) brings home a strange document, after the opening of a 50-year-old time capsule at his elementary school. Originally placed in the ground in 1959 at the school's dedication ceremony, the time capsule contained pictures of the future drawn by the young students.

However, one deeply disturbed girl, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), instead filled her sheet of paper with rows of apparently random numbers. Studying the document, Koestler discovers that the numbers include the date, death toll and earth coordinates (longitude and latitude) of every major disaster since 1959. Furthermore, the document predicts three future disasters, the last of which may be a global event, putting at risk the life of every living thing on the Earth.

Koestler tries to interest Phil Beckman (Ben Mendelsohn), an MIT cosmologist, in the theoretical possibility that the prediction could be true, but Beckman derides his fascination with the non-scientific pursuit of numerology. Tracking down Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the now-deceased Lucinda, Koestler appeals to her for help, and he also tries to alert the authorities. However, he can't get anyone to believe him, and he becomes increasingly desperate as the date of the third event draws closer.

Based on a story by Ryne Douglas Pearson (Mercury Rising) and directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot), the film offers fast-paced adrenalin-pumping action, impressive special effects, a plausible scientific explanation for the world-ending event, and a credible performance by Nicolas Cage. This is not a film with a happy ending, however, and while it has a PG-13 rating it may be profoundly disturbing for innocent viewers of any age. (Why is it that a film depicting two people making love earns an MPAA R Rating, while a film showing horribly maimed people screaming in pain while fleeing an airplane crash or a subway train crash earns a PG-13 rating?) Fans of Nicolas Cage thrillers like Next may be satisfied, but this film will be best appreciated by fans of the films of M. Night Shyamalan and Alex Proyas. 

Labels: action, drama, father-son, mystery, sci-fi, thriller, tragedy   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 41/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=47, viewers=62)  
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The Proposal (2009) [PG-13] ***



Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is a high-powered book editor for a Boston publishing firm. She's a cold-hearted, demanding boss who pushes her staff to the limit; she's tormented her assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) for three years without ever expressing an interest in, or concern for, his personal life. Andrew is so terrified of Margaret that, for example, he orders the same designer coffee she orders, so he can give her his coffee if hers should spill.

But Margaret has a problem. She's Canadian, and while her visa renewal application was being processed she went on a business trip to Europe, a no-no that has resulted in her application being rejected. Due to be deported, and unable to work for an American company from Canada, the quick-thinking Margaret decides that Andrew is the solution to her problem, and all they have to do is get married. When Andrew demurs, Margaret tells him if he doesn't play along, her replacement will surely fire him out of spite. Andrew reluctantly agrees to participate in the charade, but when they explain their marriage plans to Margaret's immigration officer (Denis O'Hare) he's instantly suspicious and explains the consequences of immigration fraud, which include prison and a fine for Andrew.

Unwilling to give up an expected promotion, Andrew and Margaret proceed with their plan, which involves jetting off to Sitka, Alaska to tell Andrew's parents (Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen) the news, and to celebrate flinty Grandma Annie's (Betty White) 90th birthday. However, since Andrew has been complaining about Margaret ever since he started working for her, and since there appears to be little romance in their relationship, Andrew's family is understandably suspicious. Like a fish out of water, city-bred Margaret finds herself in one Alaskan comedic situation after another, and as Andrew's family starts planning an impromptu wedding, the couple is astonished to discover that they might actually be developing feelings for one another.

Directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) from a script by first-time writer Peter Chiarelli, this is a romantic comedy with precious little romance and barely more comedy, limited chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds and little originality in the screenplay. While Ryan Reynolds at least makes an effort, Sandra Bullock has simply phoned in her lackluster performance; she must have wondered what she was doing in this project. And, although the Alaskan scenery is beautiful, there's no memorable dialogue, the soundtrack is terrible, and the supporting talents of Nelson, Steenburgen, White and O'Hare are totally wasted, The story feels a bit like Green Card meets Two Weeks Notice; if you enjoyed those films, or 27 Dresses, and you are an uncritical fan of Bullock and Reynolds, you might be amused by The Proposal, but others should probably pass. 

Labels: comedy, drama, father-son, romance, wedding   
Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 48/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=53,viewers=68) 
Blu-ray

New in Town (2009) [PG] ***-



Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger) is an ambitious young executive for Munck Foods. She loves her upscale Miami, Florida lifestyle including her Jaguar convertible. But, when she has an opportunity to supervise the transformation of the New Ulm, Minnesota processing plant to manufacture the company's new Rocket Bar, she volunteers for the assignment.

When Lucy arrives in New Ulm in early November, she soon begins to understand what freezing Minnesota winters are like, with icy roads and hypothermia. And she quickly gets a taste of New Ulm culture when her secretary Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) invites her home for a meatloaf dinner, and introduces her to the ruggedly handsome but coarse Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.).

Of course Lucy and Ted begin fighting over their cultural differences, and it's only the following morning at work that Lucy discovers Ted is also the plant's union representative. Lucy and Ted eventually do warm up to each other, but when the new Rocket Bar fails its test market, and Lucy is at first told to lay off half the New Ulm plant employees, and later to close the plant entirely, a move that will put the entire town out of work, she begins to sympathize with the workers' plight, and soon finds herself reevaluating her personal and professional goals, and trying to find a way to save the plant and the town.

Co-written by C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama) and Ken Rance, a native of Minnesota, there is nothing original about this fish-out-of-water romantic comedy. The script features juvenile comedy about small-town Minnesota culture, minimal romantic chemistry between Zellweger and Connick, lackluster direction and a non-existent musical score. Filmed in Winnipeg and Selkirk, Canada, and in Los Angeles and Miami, the film feels a bit like Hope Floats set in Fargo-land. Only forgiving fans of Zellweger and Connick, as well as those who enjoyed Sweet Home Alabama, need bother with this one; others will regret the loss of ninety minutes of your lives. 

Labels: comedy, romance  
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 29/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=43, viewers=60)  
Blu-ray

Mother and Child (2009) [R] ****



Karen (Annette Bening) is an unmarried physical therapist who lives in suburban Los Angeles with her invalid mother. Karen is in her early fifties, and the major regret in her life is that she got pregnant when she was fourteen, and gave up her child for adoption. Karen is closed, mistrustful and bitter about life. Her daughter, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), now thirty-seven, is an attorney - single, self-reliant, cold and calculating. Karen and Elizabeth have never met, although they have spent a lifetime wondering about each other. Their stories intersect with that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is married and childless, and who hopes to fulfill her dreams of motherhood through adoption, although her husband is having second thoughts.

Written and directed with insight and sensitivity by Rodrigo Garcia, this bittersweet, character-driven story will most appeal to viewers who are drawn to heartfelt, emotional, female-centered dramas on the themes of adoption, parenting, self-sacrifice, the importance of family, and the fulfillment of potential. Bening, Watts and Washington are all outstanding in their lead roles, and there are excellent supporting performances by Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson and Shareeka Epps

Label: drama   
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 64/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=66, viewers=74)     
Blu-ray



My One and Only (2009) [PG-13] ****



It's 1953, and Anne Deveraux (Renée Zellweger) has just caught her husband, New York City band leader Dan Deveraux (Kevin Bacon), cheating on her again. Anne raids their bank safe deposit box, buys a new Cadillac convertible, and then, with her two teenage sons George (Logan Lerman) and Robbie (Mark Rendall) in tow, departs for Boston where she hopes to find a new husband.

Gradually Anne discovers that her former boyfriends have their own agendas, and after exhausting all the possibilities in Boston, and Pittsburgh, Anne heads for her sister's home in St. Louis. Eventually the three find themselves in Hollywood, California where they hope to make it in the movies. And, when George tells us in the final scene that he's changed his name back to the original family name of Hamilton, we understand that this is the story of how the famous actor got his start in films, and how he remembers his mother.

This affable little road trip film isn't really that memorable, but it is a fine showcase for Renée Zellweger's talents, and she gives one of her most relaxed performances in years. Costumes and sets are so accurate that, for those of us who remember that time, the film evokes strong memories of the mid-1950s America often recalled in Norman Rockwell paintings. If you enjoy period dramas set in the 1950s, films like A Summer Place or The Majestic, and you enjoy Renée Zellweger, give this one a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. 

Labels: comedy, drama    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 62/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=63, viewers=64)

Coco Before Chanel (2009) [PG-13] ****



This is a mildly entertaining, although ultimately forgettable, biopic about the early life of Gabrielle Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou), from her humble beginnings as an orphan, to her time as a night club singer and seamstress, to her years as mistress and companion, first of Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and later of Arthur Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), and, finally, ending with her rise to fame as a dress designer in Paris.

The lack of an historical context in the film leaves many questions unanswered, for instance: for what styles, designs and fabrics was Coco Chanel best known? Who were some of her most famous clients? Who were her most notable colleagues and competitors? How was her career impacted by World Wars I and II? While Audrey Tautou does the best with what she is given, the uninspired screenplay, lackluster direction and glacial pacing result in an incomplete biographical drama with little drama or passion. A French language production with English subtitles, the film was originally released in 2009 as Coco avant Chanel. The film will be best appreciated by forgiving fans of Audrey Tautou, with the caution that this is not AmélieThe Da Vinci Code, or Priceless

Labels: biography, drama    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 65/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=60, viewers=68)    
Blu-ray    
Wikipedia - Coco Chanel

Cairo Time (2009) [PG] ****



Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) travels to Cairo, Egypt to meet her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a U.N. peace worker running a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. When Mark's exit from Gaza is delayed, good friend and former co-worker Tareq (Alexander Siddig) meets Juliette at the airport and escorts her to her hotel. Mark's continued absence provides Tareq with an opportunity to act as Juliette's guide to Cairo, and inevitably a subtle attraction develops between the two.

Writer and director Ruba Nadda may be critically acclaimed, but this is not one of her best efforts. Her screenplay lacks originality, and the film's pacing can generously be described as measured. But the worst flaw is casting. When this film was shot, Patricia Clarkson was fifty, six years older than Alexander Siddig. There is virtually no romantic chemistry between the two leads, so their attraction is not believable (in other words, this is not Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). We are left with an interesting travelogue of modern-day Cairo, including some lovely photography of the city, the Nile River, the Pyramids at Giza and various marketplaces, mosques and coffee shops, as well as a haunting musical score. If slow-moving, PG-rated, romantic dramas, set in the Middle East appeal to you, then Cairo Time is your kind of film; otherwise I would pass. 

Labels: cross-cultural, drama, romance    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 67/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=68, viewers=66)    
Blu-ray