Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Love Actually (2003) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Love Actually doesn't have a cynical frame in its celluloid. It's for all those romantics who think there aren't enough happy endings. Richard Curtis' movie dips so deep into the well of feel-good sentiment that it will threaten to send some audience members into sugar shock. There are times when all of this goodwill feels a tad forced and artificial (such as at the ending), but, on balance, Love Actually is appealing and genial with plenty of solid laughs, and worthy of a recommendation for those who appreciate this kind of thing. Just don't expect material that's edgy, dark, or challenging. Consider Love Actually the antidote to Mystic River.

Love Actually has about a half-dozen happy endings, some of which are more deserved than others. One in particular, featuring an airport chase, is so over-the-top that it feels like an exercise in absurdist fantasy. Curtis is trying for that inner glow that accompanies a really magical motion picture. He wants people exiting the theater to be walking on air, thinking of romance. I don't think he quite hits the mark, but most people (including me) were at least smiling, and that's something. And no one seemed to be muttering about wanting to kill the filmmakers. The film is about love in its many forms and guises: love between siblings, love between parents and children, love between spouses, puppy love, platonic love, unrequited love, and (of course) sexual/romantic love. The last, unsurprisingly, gets the most screen time as Curtis delights in pairing off a number of his characters. The central romance, if there can be considered to be one, is between the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and a shapely assistant, Natalie (former U.K. soap star Martine McCutcheon). Other couplings involve writer Jamie (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese maid, Aurelia (Lucina Moniz); widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) and the mother of his step-son's classmate [played by Claudia Schiffer]; the PM's sister, Karen (Emma Thomspon), and her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman); and Harry's subordinate, Susan (Laura Linney), and a younger co-worker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, people like aging pop star Billy Mac (Bill Nighy) and a details-oriented department store clerk (Rowan Atkinson) are around to provide comic relief.

The problem with Love Actually, as is often the case with large ensembles, is that we don't spend nearly enough time with the interesting characters. Half of the stories presented in the film are sufficiently engaging that they could warrant their own feature, and it becomes a little frustrating to get only the Cliff Notes version. Character development is spotty, which pretty much goes with the territory when you divide 129 minutes by about 18 significant parts. How much can a writer do when he has an average of about 7 minutes to work with for each individual? One often gets the sense that the state of love is more important to Curtis than the people he uses to examine it. (Rumor has it that more than 60 minutes of cuts were necessary to get the movie down to an acceptable release length, and these may re-appear for the DVD version.)

Solid acting covers up some of the writer's limitations. The cast is a who's who of U.K. actors, with notables such as Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Kiera Knightley, Alan Rickman, Billy Nighy, Liam Neeson, and Rowan Atkinson having significant roles. They are joined by Billy Bob Thornton as an American president who's half Bill Clinton and half George W. Bush, and Laura Linney. (Linney has the interesting distinction of having appeared in one of 2003's heaviest films, Mystic River, and one of the year's lightest, Love Actually.)

I suppose one could consider Love Actually as a holiday motion picture, since there's a heavy does of Christmastime atmosphere. However, the movie isn't so intimately wed to the time of year that it can't exist without it (and viewers who sit down to watch it in the middle of summer won't find themselves longing for December). This is one of those times when a film's goodwill allows critics and viewers alike to overlook its most egregious flaws and enjoy it for what it's trying to be. This is Curtis' first outing behind a camera, but many potential movie-goers will be familiar with his work as a screenwriter, which includes Bridget Jones' Diary, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and Funeral, and The Tall Guy (as well as the Mr. Bean and Blackadder TV series). Love Actually fits very well into that group, and anyone who has enjoyed Curtis' past projects will probably like his latest one.

Labels: Christmas, comedy, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 55/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=64, viewers=62)   

Lost in Translation (2003) [R] ****

It is truly impressive that Sofia Coppola, young in age but rich in wisdom, has captured what it feels like to be expendable as a human being. Her awards for screenwriting and directing are well deserved. Bill Murray is excellent as Bob Harris, an over-the-hill action film star, adrift in a loveless marriage, and lost in Tokyo while filming a whiskey commercial. Scarlett Johansson is also excellent as Charlotte, the equally lost young woman Bob encounters while wandering around his hotel. Their mutual discovery that they have become irrelevant to their spouses, and their acceptance of each other, and their situation, set the stage for a relationship that has the potential to connect them for the rest of their lives. 

Label: drama     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 89/100     
Tomatometer (critics=95, viewers=84)     

Lucky Seven (2003) [PG-13] ***

Amy Myer is seven and living on Washington's picturesque Puget Sound with her father and her mother, who, sadly, is dying of cancer. Before she passes away, however, she gives Amy some guidelines for her future, in the form of a time line on paper - adventures to take (summer camp, European travel), goals to accomplish (college, law school), boyfriends to experience, and most importantly, marrying boyfriend number seven.

Now, it is twenty years later, and Amy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) has followed her mother's time line. She's a workaholic attorney living in Seattle, and she's just dumped boyfriend number five. Then she meets Daniel (Brad Rowe), a handsome, driven venture capitalist who seems perfect for her. The problem is that Daniel is boyfriend number six on the time line, not number seven. Conveniently, Peter (Patrick Dempsey), the manager of a local bagel shop, has asked Amy to be his pretend girlfriend at a wedding on Orcas Island. So Amy decides that Peter will be boyfriend number six, so Daniel can be number seven.

As Amy and Peter spend time together, Amy begins to realize how much she likes Peter, dislikes her job, and longs for a change. What she learns and how it impacts her life makes up the third act of this charming romantic comedy. Screenwriting is excellent, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Patrick Dempsey have great romantic chemistry. If you've enjoy light romantic comedy, you won't want to miss Lucky Seven.

Labels: comedy, romance
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=78)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

One could easily make the argument that How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is a perfectly acceptable diversion. Kate Hudson's Andie Anderson and Matthew McConaughey's Ben Barry are both affable individuals and, when the script allows it, there are fitful sparks between them. Yet I can't bring myself to recommend the movie. Why? What's missing? Simple: the romance. This movie is so intent upon getting cheap laughs and putting the protagonists in uncomfortable situations that it forgets they're supposed to be falling in love. Even though they don't know it, we should be able to sense it. But it's not there. So when, in the dwindling minutes, the filmmakers recognize that a happy ending is needed, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days lets loose with a belated avalanche of hearts and flowers that radiates artificiality.

The storyline centers on a gargantuan contrivance that's as hard to swallow as a horse pill without water. And the clumsy screenplay doesn't do anything to coat it. Andie is the How-To Girl at Composure magazine, the fastest growing woman's magazine in the country. Although she has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a burning desire to write about politics or religion, her editor (Bebe Neuwirth) has decreed that she must pen columns about dating, cosmetics, sex, and wardrobe. So, for her latest effort, she has decided to hook a guy into asking her out, then, by displaying every negative characteristic a woman can use in a relationship (being clingy, self-centered, jealous, etc.), prove that he won't last ten days with her. It's a how not to guide to building relationships.

The guinea pig for Andie's experiment is Ben. However, he's not just in this for the girl. He has bet his ad agency co-workers that he can make Andie fall in love with him within ten days. If he wins the bet, his boss (Robert Klein) agrees to allow him to manage a huge account. Of course, Ben doesn't know about Andie's agenda, and vice versa. So, for the next week-and-a-half, Andie does everything she can to get Ben to dump her, while Ben doggedly hangs in there, counting the days until he can get the account and run screaming away from Andie.

From time to time, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has a little flavor of War of the Roses, but the movie doesn't have the courage to go more than a little distance down the path traveled by the Danny DeVito film. Director Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality) wants us to like both Andie and Ben, so he never allows either of them to do anything too reprehensible. It's a shame, though, because the movie could have considerably more humorous, not to mention a lot edgier, had Petrie pushed the envelope. As it is, the best laughs come when the movie ventures towards the fringes of the safety net.

Bubbly actress Kate Hudson has proven herself to be very good at one kind of role, but with a shockingly limited range. For a vivid example of this, contrast her wonderful work in Almost Famous with her one-note collapse in The Four Feathers. Fortunately, lightweight parts such as this one are well within her capabilities, and she acquits herself admirably as Andie. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decent match. His good looks deflect most criticisms about his acting ability. But the problems with this movie have nothing to do with the leads, or with the sporadic nature of the sexual tension between them. Instead, they're more basic. I would be among the first to argue that, in a romantic comedy, the storyline is not everything. The problem is that, in movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, it's closer to nothing. [Berardinelli's rating: ** 1/2 out of 4]

Labels: comedy, romance

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Something’s Gotta Give (2003) [PG-13] ****

Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) is a 63-year-old music industry producer who only dates women under thirty. One of his current girlfriends is Marin Barry (Amanda Peet) who’s a fine art auctioneer in New York. Marin takes Harry to the family beach house in the Hamptons for the weekend, but her mother Erica (Diane Keaton) and her aunt Zoe (Frances McDormand) show up unexpectedly. Erica is a famous playwright who’s been divorced from her husband for twenty years and is a workaholic with no romance in her life at all.

Later that afternoon, as Harry and Marin are engaged in foreplay, Harry has a heart attack. At the local hospital, Dr. Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves), the ER physician, turns out to be a huge fan of Erica’s. Since Harry can’t travel, Erica agrees that he can convalesce at her home, and after he fires his nurse, Erica finds herself taking care of him. Julian has a love-at-first-sight experience with Erica, although he’s twenty years younger than she is, while Erica and Harry are, surprisingly, falling in love with each other.

Something’s Gotta Give was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who’s written thirteen films including Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, The Parent Trap, The Holiday and It’s Complicated, and directed six films, all romantic comedies, including The Parent Trap, What Women Want, The Holiday and It’s Complicated. Meyers is known for her gorgeous costumes and sets (one critic unkindly referred to her films as interior design porn) and for her lack of attention to character development and drama depth. While Meyers is great at introducing the characters and setting up the tension in the first act, she often gets bogged down in detail, and doesn't move rapidly enough with her story. The result is that, by the third act, the energy and focus falter, she has difficulty cleanly wrapping up her story, and her endings are typically awkward and talky.

While Nicholson, Keaton, Peet and Reeves are all accomplished actors, casting Jack Nicholson as Diane Keaton’s love interest was a mistake. Born in 1937, Nicholson was 66, nine years older than Keaton, who was born in 1946 and looks remarkably well preserved for 57. Pairing Keaton with someone a bit younger and more attractive would have been so much more appealing. Regardless, if you enjoy Nancy Meyers’ style of light, breezy romantic comedy, you will likely enjoy Something’s Gotta Give.

Labels: comedy, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 66/100
Tomatometer (critics=71, viewers=69)