Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Griffin & Phoenix (2006) [PG-13] ***

Griffin (Dermot Mulroney) is a forty-something life insurance salesman whose marriage has come apart, and who treasures the limited time he is able to spend with his two sons. Then he gets the bad news from his oncologist. He has inoperable cancer and has, at most, two years to live.

Soon afterward, while sitting in a university class on the psychology of death and dying, Griffin meets Phoenix (Amanda Peet), an assistant dean at the university who is apparently evaluating the professor's performance. Griffin and Phoenix begin a tentative friendship in which Griffin, with little time left, and nothing to lose, encourages Phoenix to join him in a series of adventures which will fulfill his childhood fantasies, including sneaking into a movie theater, hopping onto a moving freight train, and painting graffiti on a water tower. While their friendship gradually develops into something much more intense, Griffin still has not told Phoenix that he is dying. Then, in a pivotal scene in Griffin's apartment, Phoenix discovers several books on the subject of terminal cancer and how to deal with it, and suddenly their relationship moves to an entirely new and surprising level.

Although this is clearly a low-budget, independent production, the screenplay is well-written, and there is palpable romantic chemistry between Mulroney and Peet. Griffin and Phoenix are believable characters, and we want their relationship to work. Ultimately, however, we must come to the inescapable ending. This film will be best appreciated by fans of Mulroney and Peet, and by those viewers who enjoy romantic dramas with tragic endings, films like The Last SongMessage in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe, The Notebook, or Sweet November

Labels: comedy, drama, romance, tragedy     
Internet Movie Database    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=78)

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) [PG-13] ****

Andrea Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is a recent college graduate who dreams of a career in journalism, although she has also been accepted to Stanford Law School. So she moves to New York City, and gets a dream job as second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the brilliant but cruel editor-in-chief for Runway fashion magazine. Under the tutelage of first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), Andy learns how to satisfy the demanding Miranda, while Runway fashion stylist Nigel (Stanley Tucci) gives Andy tips on dress and makeup, to help her fit into the work environment. Andy gradually begins to realize that she is at Miranda’s beck and call 24/7 and no longer has a life of her own. As Andy takes yet another cell phone call from Miranda, her about-to-be ex-boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier, Entourage) bitterly observes: You know, in case you were wondering - the person whose calls you always take? That's the relationship you're in. I hope you two are very happy together.

Featuring an insightful, brilliantly written screenplay by the talented Aline Brosh McKenna (Laws of Attraction, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, I Don't Know How She Does It, We Bought a Zoo), a screenplay partly based on McKenna’s own life experience in the Big Apple, outstanding direction by David Frankel, and an incredible cast, The Devil Wears Prada gives us a glimpse into the world of high fashion and fashion publications, set in Paris and New York. The screenplay is far more biting and cynical than any of Aline Brosh McKenna’s other scripts, nevertheless if you enjoy her work, or if you simply like TV programs and films about the fashion industry, like America's Next Top Model (2003+ TV), Fashion House (2006 TV), Project Runway (2004+ TV) or Sabrina (1954, 1995), then you won’t want to miss The Devil Wears Prada

Labels: comedy, drama, fashion, Paris, romance

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 62/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=67, viewers=72)

Paris, je t'aime (2006) [R] ****

If you love Paris, short stories and modern French cinema, and you enjoy films like Love Actually and Sidewalks of New York, you will love this film. The title Paris, je t'aime is translated as Paris, I love you.

The film tells eighteen unrelated stories in 120 minutes, each no longer than seven minutes, and each typically featuring two or three characters. The common thread running through each story is the eternal search for human love and understanding, and the setting is Paris, the beautiful City of Lights. A few of the stories are especially charming, and I wish they had gone on longer, but for the most part, five minutes is just not long enough for me to connect with the characters, and to begin to care about what happens to them.

If you also prefer your Paris-themed romantic comedy-dramas in full-length movies, you might find one the following films more to your liking. They are all filmed at least partly in Paris:  2 Days in Paris, A Little Romance, Amélie, ... And They Lived Happily Ever After, Avenue Montaigne, Before Sunset, Forget Paris, French Kiss, Love Me If You Dare, Midnight in Paris, Moulin Rouge, My Wife is an Actress, Paris, Private Fears in Public Places, and Sabrina (1995). Or simply check this list of The Best Movies Set in Paris

Labels: drama, Paris, romance  

InternetMovie Database   
Metacritic 66/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=71, viewers=76)    

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) [PG] ****

This documentary should be required viewing. If you can watch it and not understand that climate change is real, perhaps Upton Sinclair was describing you when he said: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

In the words of British statesman Winston Churchill: The period of politics and procrastination, of lobbying and lies, of delay and inaction, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

We are, all of us, facing the threat of global climate change, and, like a man standing on the edge of a melting glacier, face-to-face with a starving polar bear, there is no getting around the situation. In An Inconvenient TruthAl Gore makes it abundantly clear how we got here, and what global changes are taking place now. What he does not emphasize however, is how we are going to have to adapt to the inevitable climate changes that are coming, the changes that are locked in regardless of what we do today. How many deaths will result from the now-inevitable rise of ocean temperatures and ocean levels? How much arable land will be lost to the now-inevitable droughts, and how many lives will be lost due to the resulting global famine? What will the stable world population be if the current average world temperature rises five or ten degrees?

Even more frightening is the possibility of runaway climate change which could make the Earth unlivable for human beings. This could occur through the massive release of methane hydrates from the floor of the world's oceans, due to ocean warming. While it is unlikely that we will begin working together to reverse the effects of global climate change until we see evidence of it with our own eyes, for the billions of us who live and work in coastal areas around the world, that day is not far off. We will see New Orleans' hurricane Katrina repeated over and over until we get the message.

Sadly, there are millions of Americans who will never get it. As acclaimed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov once observed: Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Label: documentary  

The Sentinel (2006) [PG-13] ***

Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is a senior Secret Service agent assigned to protect First Lady Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). He's committed the unpardonable sin of falling in love with her, and their affair has been discovered and is being used to frame Pete as a Secret Service mole planning an assassination of the President, thus taking the heat off the real mole. Kiefer Sutherland plays David Breckinridge, the agent running the internal investigation who has decided Garrison is the mole, and Eva Longoria plays Jill Marin, a rookie agent who has her doubts about Garrison's guilt. Garrison escapes from arrest and finds himself on the run, trying to clear himself, identify the real mole and his team of assassins, and stop another assassination attempt, while evading the Secret Service and the FBI.

Costumes and sets are realistic, but screenplay and direction are just mediocre. The real problem, however, is casting. Michael Douglas is just not credible in this role. Born in 1944, Douglas was sixty-one when The Sentinel was filmed, and he is too old to play either a Secret Service field agent or the first lady's lover. Furthermore, if you enjoyed Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd in The American President, you'll find it somewhat incongruous to see him running around Washington D.C., guns blazing, as a Secret Service agent. If you are looking for a political conspiracy action thriller, something to get your adrenalin pumping, I can recommend Shooter, Spartan and State of Play, but not The Sentinel

Labels: action, crime, thriller    
Internet MovieDatabase    
Metacritic 48/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=50, viewers=62)     

The Last Time (2006) [R] ***

Jamie Bashant (Brendan Fraser) arrives at the New York headquarters of Bineview Corporation, a company that manufactures and sells office equipment. Jamie is a cheerful, optimistic sales recruit, fresh from the Midwest, with lovely fiancée Belisa (Amber Valletta) in tow. Assigned to mentor Jamie is the company's star salesman, the cynical, foul-mouthed Ted Riker (Michael Keaton).

Unfortunately, Bineview's product line is obsolescent and the company is in a death spiral. Regional offices are closing, the stock price is shrinking, salesmen are fearful they will be axed, and the office politics is reminiscent of Office Space. Ted takes Jamie under his wing, attempting to polish his sales pitch, but Jamie seems to torpedo every sales opportunity he's given, and worse, he appears to have a self-destructive streak. Then Ted falls for Belisa and the two begin a heated, clandestine affair.

But is everything what it seems to be? Is Jamie really as inept a salesman as he appears? Is Ted's relationship with Belisa getting out of control? Does Jamie suspect Belisa and Ted? Is someone following Ted? Fans of Michael Keaton, Brendan Fraser and Amber Valletta will enjoy this dark comedy-drama, as will viewers who enjoyed films like The Ides of March, The Lincoln Lawyer and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.   

Labels: comedy, drama, romance, thriller    
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 38/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=46, viewers=60)

Broken Bridges (2006) [PG-13] ***

What A Girl Wants meets the Grand Ole Opry in this story of washed-up country/western singing star Bo Philips (played by Toby Keith) reuniting with his teenage daughter Dixie (played by Lindsey Haun) and her mother Angela (played by Kelly Preston), both of whom he had abandoned when Dixie was a young child. 

The driving force in the story is the need for father and daughter to bond, forge a relationship, and find new meaning in their lives. Both Toby Keith and Lindsey Haun give honest, realistic performances, and the connection between father and daughter is strong and believable, especially since the daughter is following in her father's footsteps as a singer and songwriter. If you enjoy films like Almost Famous, Crazy Heart or Tender Mercies, then I suggest you ignore the film critics who panned Broken Bridges, and give the film a chance. 

Labels: drama, music  
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 32/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=35, viewers=80)  

The Break-Up (2006) [PG-13] ***

Mismatched couples like Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and Gary (Vince Vaughn) are very common, so The Break-Up contains some valuable lessons for all of us. As we observe Brooke and Gary, we note that they prefer very different lifestyles. Brooke lives a planned, structured, scheduled lifestyle. She approaches her life as though it is work, a series of tasks to be accomplished, and she mentally checks them off when they're done. Brooke’s secret motto is I can only play when my work is done, and, of course, since her work is never done, she can never play. Gary, on the other hand, approaches his life as though it is play; he lives a spontaneous, go-with-the-flow lifestyle, and tasks don't get accomplished until the last possible moment, if at all. Gary’s secret motto is I can play anytime, and this is true whether he is doing his day job - entertaining customers as a Chicago tour guide - or playing a videogame, hosting a strip-poker game in the condo, or hanging out at a local bar.

During courtship, Brooke and Gary saw the other person's lifestyle as charming, quirky, and completely different from their own lifestyle. However, when they bought a condo and set up housekeeping together, what was charming became irritating and frustrating. Brooke began to view Gary as frivolous, someone who needed to grow up, get serious and stop playing around; Gary began to view Brooke as a killjoy, someone who was continually harshing his mellow, someone who needed to lighten up and enjoy life. What began to creep into their relationship was contempt for the other person’s lifestyle. And relationship psychologists have identified contempt as the emotion most strongly associated with future divorce.

So Gary and Brooke's relationship was doomed from the start. Changing one of our own behavioral traits, which are driven by our personality type, is really hard, but changing someone else's is nearly impossible; just ask anyone who's ever tried to get a significant other to put the toilet seat down. It's infinitely less stressful to find someone with the same personality type lifestyle, and build a relationship on that foundation. In fact, having read a recent interview in which Jennifer Aniston said she took three-minute showers and brushed her teeth in the shower to avoid wasting water, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Jennifer Aniston really does view her life as work - she certainly seems to view her acting career as work. For proof, just look at her face on her movie posters and DVD covers. Typically she is frowning or scowling; rarely is she smiling. In fact, lifestyle differences may well have played a part in the real-life Aniston-Vaughn break-up. Sometimes Life does imitate Art. 

Labels: comedy, drama, romance  
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 45/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=50, viewers=64)  

NOTE: The most popular personality type technology is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI uses four scales: (1) Energizing (Extraversion / Introversion), (2) Gathering information (Sensing / INtuition), (3) Decision-making (Thinking / Feeling), and (4) Lifestyle (Planned = Judging / Go-with-the-flow = Perceiving). My personality type blog.

Shopgirl (2005) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net in Nov. 2005.

Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) from a screenplay by Steve Martin (adapting his novella), ventures into Lost in Translation territory. Although the relationships in this film are overtly romantic and sexual (as opposed to what was simmering beneath the surface in Translation), there's the same sense of longing and poignancy, and a recognition of spirits touching, then passing by. This is a smart, adult romance that rarely panders to clichés, and gives up the heady bliss of most such movies in favor of something bittersweet.

Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes), who moved from Vermont to Los Angeles to find a better life, works behind a counter in the glove department at Saks Fifth Avenue. She leads a lonely life, drifting from day-to-day, while carrying $39,000 in unpaid student loans and having only a cat to greet her every day when she returns home from work. Desperate for human warmth and contact, she falls into a relationship with Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a font designer who picks her up at a laundromat. Their fling ends when Jeremy decides to go on a rock-and-roll road trip and Mirabelle heads in another direction. That other direction is represented by computer executive Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a commitment-phobe who appears like Sir Galahad to Mirabelle. He's interested in sex with no strings, but she wants more. They have a discussion laying down the parameters of their relationship, but each interprets the words differently. Yet, despite his stated intentions, Ray's actions are more like those of a man besotted than a man looking for a casual liaison.

One tends to associate Martin with comedy, but Shopgirl is a dramatic piece. There are humorous bits, including an instance of mistaken identity that allows Jeremy to score unexpectedly with a predatory salesgirl played by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, but, taken as a whole, the movie goes for the heart, not the funny bone. Ten years ago, it might have been unthinkable to accept that Martin has outgrown his wild and crazy guy image but, considering the many serious roles he has accepted since Father of the Bride, Shopgirl seems more like the next step in his evolution rather than a surprise.

There are some missteps. The most obvious of these is the way Ray and Mirabelle's story is occasionally interrupted to keep us apprised of Jeremy's misadventures. Although much of the humor comes from these scenes, they are unwelcome deviations. Our emotional energy is invested in Ray and Mirabelle; every time Jeremy makes an appearance, we want to get back to the main story. Plus, Jeremy's continuing presence is a dead give-away that his role in Mirabelle's life is not over. While Shopgirl's success does not demand a surprise ending, based on the way the film is structured, it's not difficult to guess how things are going to turn out.

Claire Danes, after disappearing for several years, has returned as an adult actress. Following Stage Beauty, this is the second straight movie in which she has agreed to a nude scene (it's tastefully done - an artistic rear shot). She doesn't have great range, but, when cast in a role that doesn't demand too much stretching, she can be effective. Mirabelle is that kind of part. Danes also has the ability to transform from frumpy to attractive with only a few changes, and that's an asset here. Martin, as low-key as he has ever been, almost seems to be channeling Bill Murray at times. Schwartzman is more annoying than endearing, but that's his specialty.

Most of the time, romance is a convenient Hollywood convention - something that can be sold to readers of Harlequin paperbacks. Rarely do we see a film that treats the subject seriously - exploring the highs and lows, the deflating disappointments, the desperate second-chances, the awkward moments, and the delicious yearning. Shopgirl does all of these things. It is not as strong a movie as Lost in Translation, nor does it leave as indelible a psychological imprint, but it will find favor with many who liked Sofia Coppola's venture into similar territory. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars].

Blogger’s comment: If you enjoyed The Girl in the Café (2005) with Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald, or the dramatic moments in Steve Martin comedies like Roxanne and L.A. Story, then you might enjoy Shopgirl.

Labels: drama, romance

The Girl in the Café (2005) [UR] ****

Lawrence (Bill Nighy) is a shy, lonely, fifty-seven year old researcher in England's Office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has been working long hours to prepare for the G8 Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the conferees will discuss proposals to improve conditions in those nations suffering from extreme poverty. One afternoon in a crowded café near his office, Lawrence asks a girl sitting alone if he might share her table, and she agrees. Her name is Gina (Kelly Macdonald); she's Scottish, in her twenties, and apparently a student. Their relationship begins awkwardly and grows over the following days to include meals and long walks together.

One day on an impulse Lawrence asks Gina if she would like to accompany him to the conference in Reykjavik, and she accepts. Arriving at the conference and discovering that all the hotels are full, the two find themselves sharing Lawrence's hotel room. As Gina discusses the conference issues with Lawrence, reads position papers and socializes with conference attendees, she grows increasingly passionate and vocal about what she sees as the conferees' refusal to take definitive action to save the lives of the thirty thousand children who die each day - one every three seconds - due to preventable conditions of disease and starvation. What Lawrence does not understand, is that events in Gina's past are driving her behavior; unfortunately its effect on Lawrence and his career are devastating.

Written by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually), the screenplay features well-developed characters, a believable central relationship and a clear story arc. This is a poignant inter-generational love story as well as a film with a strong message, and we're left wondering how the world can be changed so eleven million children don't have to die each year in extreme poverty. In tone, the film feels a bit like Autumn in New York, Elegy, Starting Out in the Evening, or Suburban Girl, so if any of those films appealed to you, then you might enjoy The Girl in the Café

Labels: drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA,viewers=76)

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Interpreter (2005) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

The Interpreter
 is a cut above the average politically-based thriller. Although the events depicted in the film are fictional (as is the country in which some of the action transpires), they bear a more-than-passing resemblance to incidents that have rocked African nations in recent decades. This makes the backstory more credible than what one might otherwise expect. The screenplay successfully develops suspense without relying on the bait-and-switch tactics that often leave a viewe
r dissatisfied with an unexpected twist. The Interpreter builds to a satisfying conclusion that will not inflict the average audience member with a case of cinematic whiplash.

The film is a little overplotted, and, as is often the case with movies of this sort, there is a coincidence that has to be absorbed in order for the story to work. Once the viewer gets over that hump, however, it's clear sailing. Veteran director Sydney Pollack, whose experience in the genre dates back to Three Days of the Condor, understands that thrillers work best when the characters are real, and, by casting Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, two of the best working performers, he allows acting to transform the clichéd protagonists into three-dimensional individuals we come to care about.

Silvia Broome (Kidman) spent most of her life as a member of the affluent white minority in the African country of Matobo. As an adolescent, she lost her mother, father, and sister to a landmine. Now, she works as a translator at the United Nations in New York. Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), Matobo's president and the man Silvia blames for her parents' demise, is coming to the U.N. to make a speech designed to circumvent his being placed on trial for human rights violations. Late one night, when Silvia returns to her sound booth to retrieve some belongings, she inadvertently overhears a conversation between two men who are plotting to kill Zuwanie. And when they see her, she becomes a target.

Enter Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), who are called to investigate Silvia's story. Tobin is on shaky emotional ground. His wife was recently killed in a car accident and he is fighting to keep it together. At first, he is skeptical of Silvia's tale - considering her background as a political opponent of Zuwanie, it seems unlikely that she would come forward with information that might save his life. But, as he spends time with her, he begins to trust her, and, when there is an attempt on her life, he takes on the role of her protector. But there are things she isn't telling him, and her silence places both of them in danger.

The Interpreter pays a great deal of attention to the recent history and politics of its fictional African country. 28 years ago, when he came to power, Zuwanie was hailed as a hero. But, to quote the saying, power corrupts. The dictator's paranoia led to a ruthless purge of his supposed enemies, with many innocents being caught in the crossfire. The word genocide is spoken aloud, not just whispered. Now, two rivals work to overthrow Zuwanie, but he, and his henchmen, are aware of the threat they pose.

How fine is the line between a good thriller and a poor one? With a less accomplished cast, a director less sure of the material, and screenwriters who don't fill in as many blanks, The Interpreter could have been direct-to-late-night-cable B-movie fare. But it isn't. This is solid, welcome entertainment that doesn't rely on car chases and shoot-outs (although both are represented, after a fact) to generate tension. The first 60 or 70 minutes of the movie are primarily set-up. As the story moves forward, the characters' backgrounds are gradually revealed. Once we're into the second hour, Pollack ratchets up the pace a few notches and we notice a quickening of the pulse.

Although primarily designed to get the adrenaline pumping, The Interpreter also functions as a morality play, asking questions about the value of revenge (vengeance is a lazy form of grief, remarks a character at one point) and whether the taking of a life does anything to assuage emotional pain. And there's a low-key love story of sorts. Penn and Kidman both play damaged individuals who find a degree of solace in each other's company. The way they connect, and the limits they place upon how much comfort they seek, is believable. (It's interesting to note that Kidman, with her hair lightened almost to blond, bears a striking resemblance to Naomi Watts. This causes a déjà vu flashback to the Penn/Watts interaction in 21 Grams. That was another film in which pain, more than love, formed the foundation of a key relationship.)

There's a sense of unpredictability about some of the things that happen in The Interpreter, but at no time do any of these turns seem forced. Elements of the ending are facile, but nearly all of the loose ends are wrapped up, and we don't suffer through the kind of happily ever after epilogue that would betray The Interpreter's underlying dark tone. This is a finely balanced and crafted motion picture. Despite the PG-13 rating, which will allow admittance to audiences of all ages, Pollack and his screenwriters appear to have crafted this picture with adults in mind.

Labels: mystery, thriller
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 62/100
Tomatometer (critics=56, viewers=55)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Family Stone (2005) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net.

It's a tough thing for a dysfunctional-family-at-Christmas movie to avoid doses of melodrama, and it's fair to say that The Family Stone contains its share. But the nice thing about the movie is that it avoids overt manipulation. There's some - it's virtually impossible for a movie of this sort to generate an emotional response without any - but it's kept to a minimum and doesn't come at the viewer like a sledgehammer. Instead of having to sit through a Terms of Endearment scene, we are offered something more tasteful.

Meeting one's prospective in-laws is always a daunting prospect, but combine the following factors - you're going to meet them all at once, you're not comfortable with large family gatherings, and it's Christmas - and you have a recipe for a really bad holiday. For Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), this is a nightmare come to life. Meredith is a repressed, buttoned down type with impeccable manners. People warm to her like they do to a glacier. She has accompanied her boyfriend, Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), home for the holidays. In addition to introducing her to his family, he's thinking of proposing marriage.

The Stone family reacts to Meredith's arrival like a pack of wolves, and they pounce with fangs bared. The worst of the lot is Everett's youngest sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), who has a barbed comment for every occasion. Sybil (Diane Keaton), Everett's mother, isn't much better - she instantly recognizes that Meredith isn't right for her son. Everett's dad, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson); deaf brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano); and pregnant sister, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), take a wait-and-see approach. Only Ben (Luke Wilson), the black sheep of the Stone clan, seems willing to cut Meredith a break. After less than a day with the Stones, the frazzled outsider, feeling the pressure, checks out of the house and into a nearby inn. She also calls in reinforcements in the person of her sister, Julie (Claire Danes). What proceeds to complicate matters is that Everett finds himself attracted to Julie, while Ben and Meredith discover a connection when they attempt to fly her freak flag.

I have seen The Family Stone categorized in some places as a screwball comedy, but this is an inappropriate label. There are a few mildly comedic moments sprinkled throughout the production, but this belongs in the drama category. Laughter, although it may occur (and hopefully in all the right places), is not the primary goal of writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He wants The Family Stone to touch a deeper chord. For the most part, he succeeds. There's nothing extraordinary or groundbreaking about the film, but it understands what it's doing, and does it effectively. The key for a movie like this is getting the characters to seem more like people than caricatures, and Bezucha accomplishes that.

The film comes with an epilogue, and it is needed because not all the subplots can be wrapped up in the three-day span that restricts the primary action. This five-minute sequence, which offers closure to almost everything, has an underlying sense of poignancy that the director could have mishandled. The atmosphere is ripe for manipulation of the kind that will ensure there's not a dry eye in the house. But Bezucha is restrained. He's smart, recognizing that we don't need violins to feel the undercurrent.

The talented cast helps. Sarah Jessica Parker, finding that there is life after Sex in the City, has no difficulty with Meredith's arc. Of all the characters in the movie, she undergoes the biggest transformation, and Parker aces it. Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson settle comfortably into the matriarch / patriarch roles, and there is one especially touching scene between the two of them. Luke Wilson brings his special brand of relaxed, don't worry, be happy performance to the proceedings. Rachel McAdams, 2005's it girl (see also Wedding Crashers and Red Eye), imparts a dose of charisma. Claire Danes, on the comeback trail, is appealing. And Dermot Mulroney needs little more to get by than his good looks.

It's worth mentioning that this is the best adult holiday film in a while. (Of course, competition has been thin - Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, etc.) The box office life of The Family Stone will be short. The movie is so drenched in Christmas spirit that it will seem a little stale once the holidays are past. Even taking this into consideration, it's worth two hours for those who appreciate this kind of workmanlike, low-risk drama.

Labels: Christmas, comedy, drama, romance

An Unfinished Life (2005) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, for ReelViews.net.

Robert Redford on a horse roaming the wide-open countryside of Wyoming - doesn't sound like much of a stretch, does it? What is unusual about Redford's participation in Lasse Hallström's An Unfinished Life is that the actor is as unkempt as he has ever appeared on screen (he looks like he showed up on set after bypassing the makeup trailer). And, although this touchy-feely motion picture transforms Redford's character into a human being, he starts out as an unapologetic misanthrope.

The tale presented in An Unfinished Life cannot be considered original. It's as familiar a piece of storytelling as you're likely to find - a physically and emotionally isolated man is revived by the introduction of two strangers into his life. With a movie like this, there are no surprises. You get what you expect. Success is based on three factors. Are the characters believable and interesting? In this case, yes. The small group of men and women populating An Unfinished Life transcend the stereotypes from which they spring. Is the acting solid? Again, yes. There isn't a weak performance to be found. Finally, does the plot contain enough interesting details to prevent it from seeming stale? There are some interesting minor elements here that allow it to avoid being a clone of every other movie of its ilk.

Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) lives alone in rural Wyoming. His sole companion is Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a former fellow cowboy who became an invalid a year ago after being mauled by a bear. Einar cares for Mitch, giving him a pain-killing shot every morning with his cup of coffee, then bringing him lunch and dinner. Einar's reclusive lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of his daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), and granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner). Einar isn't overjoyed to see them - he blames Jean for the death of his son 12 years ago, and, until now, wasn't aware of his granddaughter's existence. But Jean and Griff have nowhere to go - she is fleeing from a violent boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), and needs someplace to get her footing.

On the surface, the film is about Einar getting to know his beloved son's daughter. It takes some prodding from Mitch, a lowering of Einar's guard, and a few visits to his deceased son's grave before he makes the first move, but he does so. An Unfinished Life is also about Einar forgiving Jean and himself, and Jean coming to grips with what happened. She admits that one of the reasons she ended up with Gary is because, deep down, she didn't feel she deserved better. Meanwhile, Mitch must confront his demons in a concrete way.

Redford, finally acting his age, doesn't try to be a romantic lead. Released from the constraints of having to be handsome to win a woman, he turns in an affecting performance as a man whose life ended with his son's. Morgan Freeman reminds us that there are few better character actors working today. Newcomer Becca Gardner shows no hints of awkwardness - she's a natural. And, for the first time in years, Jennifer Lopez throws off the superstar cloak and gets back to basics. This is the best performance she has given since The Cell, and it recalls her early career, before she became a paparazzi darling. (One wonders if she did this film, with its opportunity to collaborate with a respected director like Hallström, in an attempt to rehabilitate her tarnished reputation as a thespian. Like Ben Affleck, she is still suffering from the fallout of her year of overexposure.)

An Unfinished Life is a study of emotions and characters; it's deliberate and unhurried. The director has an obvious affinity for individuals trapped in stasis - many of his best films focus on them. This movie will appeal to a specific audience - those who care more about spending time with three-dimensional characters than following a convoluted plot or getting an adrenaline kick. An Unfinished Life isn't original, but, for those who enjoy this sort of drama, it's an opportunity to remember how, in the right circumstances, on-screen characters can touch our hearts. [Berardinelli's rating: *** out of 4]

Must Love Dogs (2005) [PG-13] ***

Sarah (Diane Lane) is a forty-something preschool teacher whose husband recently left her for a much younger woman. She’s been going through a mourning period, but now her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) has decided that it’s time for Sarah to get back out there and start dating. Carol creates a fake profile for Sarah on PerfectMatch dot com, including a must love dogs requirement, and the responses soon start rolling in. One of them is Jake (John Cusack) a craftsman who builds wooden boats and who is recovering from his own break-up. But then Bob (Dermot Mulroney) one of the dads at Sarah’s preschool begins to take an interest in her, and suddenly Sarah finds herself with a decision to make. There’s an amusing scene when Sarah arrives for an afternoon date at an outside café only to discover that her libidinous 71-year-old father Bill (Christopher Plummer) had responded to her profile and is her prospective date. Throw in Bill’s sixtyish girlfriend Dolly (Stockard Channing), various other members of Sarah’s family, and her pair of gay friends, and you have an overpopulated ensemble romantic comedy.

The screenplay is fairly well written, but there’s nothing particularly original or memorable, nothing we haven’t seen numerous times before. Diane Lane reprises her grieving widow role from Indian Summer, John Cusack reprises his oddball boyfriend role from Say Anything…, Elizabeth Perkins reprises her irritating girlfriend role from Indian Summer, and Dermot Mulroney reprises his charming womanizer role from The Wedding Date. And, frankly, the third act, which should be upbeat and entertaining, is unfocused and disappointing. Regardless, if you are a dog lover, and you really enjoy starting-over romantic comedies, films like Definitely, Maybe, I’m With Lucy, Indian Summer, Notting Hill, Sleepless in Seattle, and The Wedding Date, you probably will be satisfied with Must Love Dogs.

Labels:  comedy, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 46/100
Tomatometer (critics=35, viewers=51)

NOVA: Mystery of the Megaflood (2005) [UR] ***

This is a fairly well done documentary that explains the theory of the formation of the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State. The theory, first proposed by geologist J. Harlen Bretz in 1923, is that the Scablands were formed by a megaflood, although he could not identify the source of the water. Another geologist, Joseph T. Pardee, had published an earlier paper describing an enormous body of water that had covered western Montana during the last period of glaciation, although he did not hypothesize about what had happened to the water. When geologists put the two theories together with the observed physical evidence, it became evident that the Channeled Scablands were created by the abrupt collapse twelve thousand years ago of the ice dam holding back Glacial Lake Missoula. The catastrophic failure of the ice dam released a torrent of water with an estimated flow rate of ten cubic miles per hour, nearly sixty times that of the Amazon River. This water traveled westward across Idaho, Washington and Oregon for over a week, carving the Channeled Scablands and the Columbia River Gorge, and depositing massive blocks of ice and glacial erratic rocks in Oregon's Willamette Valley, before finally emptying into the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River.

The problem with the documentary is that there are no large-scale maps showing the location and size of Glacial Lake Missoula, the Channeled Scablands, and the path of the flood waters between the two. As a result, it's difficult to get a sense of the huge scale of the flood and its impact on the geography of the Pacific Northwest. Before viewing this documentary, I suggest that you visit the Glacial Lake Missoula website, and especially the Virtual Tour. It will make viewing the documentary a much more rewarding experience. 

Labels: biography, documentary  
Internet Movie Database   

The Wedding Date (2005) [PG-13] ****

Kat Ellis (Debra Messing) lives and works in New York City. She's returning to her parents' London home because her younger half-sister Amy (Amy Adams) is going to marry boyfriend Edward (Jack Davenport). The bad news is that Kat's ex-fiance Jeffrey (Jeremy Sheffield), who dumped her two years earlier after a seven-year relationship, is going to be Edward's best man at the wedding.

Lacking a boyfriend, Kat hires Nick Mercer (Dermot Mulroney), an expensive male escort, to accompany her to London and pretend to be her boyfriend, in order to save face and to make Jeffrey jealous. Nick is the Yoda of adult relationships; he knows just the right things to say and do, and Kat soon realizes he's worth every cent of his fee. And, after seeing Jeffrey again, Kat realizes that she is over him, and that she is beginning to fall for Nick. The story is not that simple, however. The relationship between Kat and Amy has been a competitive one ever since pretty, blonde Amy stole Kat's first boyfriend. And the day before the wedding ceremony, Kat learns the real reason why Jeffrey broke off their engagement, and she is devastated.

The Wedding Date feels a bit like Pretty Woman with the gender roles reversed. The film also has the warm feeling found in Four Weddings and a FuneralMy Best Friend's Wedding and Notting Hill. Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney are very appealing as the leads, and have terrific romantic chemistry. The supporting cast is quite competent, especially Amy Adams and Jack Davenport, Holland Taylor as Kat and Amy's mother, Peter Egan as Kat's sensitive, sympathetic stepfather, and Sarah Parish as Kat's libidinous girlfriend TJ. And the soundtrack is incredible. Film critics uniformly panned the film, however, if you enjoy light, happy-ending romantic comedies, you will really enjoy The Wedding Date

Labels: comedy, drama, romance, wedding    
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 32/100     
Tomatometer (critics=10, viewers=68)

Elizabethtown (2005) [PG-13] ***

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) designs running shoes for Mercury, Inc., in Oregon. He has spent the last several years working on the project of a lifetime, and it's turned out to be a monumental fiasco which will cost his company nearly a billion dollars. As CEO Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin) tells Drew during his exit interview, it may cause an entire generation to return to bare feet. Drew has decided to end it all when his sister Heather (Judy Greer) telephones with the news that his dad has died of a heart attack while on a visit to his home town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

So, painfully but dutifully, Drew takes a night flight east to represent his mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) at the funeral. During the flight Drew meets Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), a light-hearted and compassionate flight attendant, who intuitively understands what he is going through, and tries to cheer him up.

Arriving in Elizabethtown, Drew begins to appreciate how much his father was loved by his family and friends. Drew also reconnects with Claire, who lives in nearby Louisville, and their relationship grows deeper. As the days pass, the dual tragedies of his personal failure and his father's death begin to melt away as Drew is strengthened by the warm acceptance of his relatives and by Claire's growing affection for him; he also comes to realize that neither Claire nor his relatives care about his past failure.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, this is the tender story of a young man's journey of growth and self-discovery, a journey from failure, to life and love. It's also a delightful romance, and there is great chemistry between Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. Screenplay and direction are excellent, and there's a terrific soundtrack. If you enjoyed Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany I can highly recommend Elizabethtown

Labels: comedy, drama, romance     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 45/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=47, viewers=62)

Pride & Prejudice (2005) [PG] *****

Elizabeth Lizzie Bennett (Keira Knightley) lives with her father, mother and four sisters in a dilapidated English country estate, around the year 1800. The estate provides a limited income, however, according to inheritance law after Mr. Bennett (Donald Sutherland) dies, the estate will pass to Mr. Collins, a distant cousin. Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn) and her five daughters will be homeless and destitute. Thus, the daughters need to secure their future by making good marriages.

One day, word arrives that a nearby estate has been leased; Mr. Bennett invites the new residents, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), his sister Caroline (Kelly Reilly), and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), to a local ball, where he hopes the two young gentlemen will find his daughters irresistible. Mr. Bingley is captivated by Lizzie's beautiful older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), but the very wealthy, and very proud, Mr. Darcy finds Lizzie barely tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me. Lizzie overhears Mr. Darcy and, quite prejudiced, declares I wouldn't dance with him for all of Derbyshire.

How Mr. Darby improves his manners and Lizzie changes her mind about him form the core of this incomparably beautiful romance that has, since its publication in 1813, been considered Jane Austen's most popular novel. Keira Knightley perfectly captures the essence of charming, irrepressible Lizzie, to whom Mr. Darcy later admits you have bewitched me, body and soul. Knightley and Macfadyen have incredible romantic chemistry; your attention will be riveted on them as their eyes sparkle and they toss witty, ironic dialogue at one another. The screenplay, direction, editing, costumes and sets are outstanding; the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful; the landscapes look like paintings by John Constable (1776-1837), and you will feel as though you've been transported to the 19th Century English countryside. If you enjoy period romantic drama, don't miss Pride & Prejudice. 

Labels: drama, romance      
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 82/100    
Tomatometer (critics=86, viewers=88)     

One Last Thing… (2005) [R] ***

Dylan Jameison (played by Michael Angarano) is a high-school sophomore, living with his mother Karen (played by Cynthia Nixon) in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Dylan has terminal cancer; he's been through chemotherapy and radiation treatments and has only a few weeks left to live. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted him a final wish, and while he initially wanted to go fishing with his Philadelphia Eagles football hero, at the last minute Dylan decides to change his wish - to a weekend with hot, young supermodel Nikki Sinclaire (played by Sunny Mabrey). What Dylan doesn't know is that Nikki is as damaged as he is ill. Her fiance was killed in an auto accident, and Nikki has turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain, with the result that she's destroying her modeling career and herself. Nikki's agent Arlene (played by Gina Gershon) convinces her to make a brief appearance at Dylan's home, for a publicity photo. However, their few minutes together only increases Dylan's obsession with Nikki, and he decides to go to New York City with his two closest buddies to find her. While in NYC, Dylan meets a spiritual seeker (played by Michael Rispoli) who imparts some wisdom about life and death including this: When we're born, we cry and the world is happy. When we die, the world cries and we're happy.

While there really are no surprises in this film - Nikki grants Dylan's wish, and he rescues her before he dies - the ending is sweet and uplifting, and there are three valuable messages: (1) Don't settle for what you know you can get, go for what you really want; (2) Impossible dreams do come true; and, (3) Treat every day as though it might be your last, because one day it will be. Production values are excellent, the soundtrack is terrific and Michael Angarano does a credible job of carrying the film, with support from Sunny Mabrey and Cynthia Nixon. If you enjoyed John Cusack in The Sure Thing and Say Anything..., you probably will enjoy One Last Thing…. 

Beach Girls (2005) [UR] ***

Jack Kilvert (Rob Lowe) is a Boston attorney. He and his sixteen-year-old daughter Nell (Chelsea Hobbs) are grieving after the loss of Emma (his wife and Nell's mother) nearly a year earlier in a tragic automobile accident. Jack thinks his sister Maddie (Katherine Ashby) was at fault because she was driving the car and she's an alcoholic; but there's a lot he doesn't know about Emma and their marriage.

As part of the healing process Jack has leased a summer home in Hubbard's Point, Connecticut, a picturesque Long Island Sound beach community where he had grown up, and where Emma, Maddie and their close friend artist/writer Stevie Moore (Julia Ormond) had bonded as beach girls twenty years earlier. Jack and Nell's return also gives Nell an opportunity to learn more about her mother's past, by getting to know Stevie, who is a year-round resident of Hubbard's Point. During the summer, Nell also befriends two Hubbard's Point girls, Clare (Kristin Adams) and Skye (Kristen Hager), and the three girls form a new generation of beach girls.

Based on the novel Beach Girls (Hubbard's Point) by Luanne RiceBeach Girls is a Lifetime TV miniseries. The main story thread is the growth process through which Jack learns the truth about Emma, and strengthens his relationships with Maddie and Stevie. There are several sub-plots involving youthful sexual awakening, a developer's planned highway through the village, and mother-daughter miscommunication. The message of Beach Girls is that the friendships we form as adolescents can be stronger and more enduring than the relationships we form as adults; that they can sustain and nurture us for our entire lives; and that these friendships are developed through trust, open communication and forgiveness. If you enjoy summertime teen girl films like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequel, you'll definitely want to see Beach Girls

Label: drama   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic NA/100   
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=65)

HD Window: Hawai'i (2005) [UR] *

As a visual demonstration of your HD home theater, as a study of landscape pattern and texture, or as the television equivalent of a slow-motion computer screen saver, this 50-minute production is successful.

Unfortunately, there is very little in HD Window: Hawai'i that is recognizably Hawaiian, other than a picture of the Na Pali Coast of Kaua’i, a couple of distant shots of Honolulu and Waikiki, and a picture of Chinaman's Hat on the North Shore of O’ahu. Other than those few images, this production could have been filmed anywhere that taro, sugar cane and palm trees grow, and one can find tropical waterfalls and beaches. There are no people, other than a picture of some tourists at a lighthouse. And the orchestral and jazz background music does absolutely nothing to enhance the feeling of being in Hawai'i. The At a Glance notes say that you can turn off the music and enjoy the video with natural sounds, and I strongly suggest doing that.

Having lived on the island of Maui for several years, I can assure you that you will NOT see any of these memorable images of Hawai’i: lava flows on the Big Island, sunrise on Haleakala, windsurfing and kite surfing at Ho'okipa Beach Park on the windward side of Maui, board surfing at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of O’ahu, Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, reefs and underwater wildlife at Hanauma Bay, Honolua Bay or Molokini, humpback whales breaching the ocean surface, Waimea Canyon, hikers on the Kalalau Trail, Hawaiians hunting wild boar, Hawaiians fishing with nets, Hawaiians farming taro, or Hawaiian hula dancers. For these evocative images of Hawai’i, you must look elsewhere. 

Label: adventure  
Internet Movie Database   

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) [PG-13] ****-

A film review by James Berardinelli.

The problem with Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that it's really two movies in one. The first is a sly comedy/thriller worthy of Hitchcock, and the other is a big, noisy summer action flick. The marriage of these two, like that of the title characters, is tempestuous, with each side in a constant struggle for dominance. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith is smart and sassy, it's a lot of fun. But when it's loud and dumb (which is too often for my taste), it's mindless and a little tedious. This is mediocre, forgettable entertainment. It doesn't really satisfy, but you probably won't exit the theater feeling gypped.

The premise is simple enough: John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are a happily married couple who work as assassins for rival firms. Neither is aware of the other's occupation, and, to the outside world, they look like a traditional, upper-class suburban couple, albeit without the dog and the 2.5 kids. In fact, to keep the spark in their marriage of five or six years, they visit a marriage counselor. Then, one unfortunate day, a client double-books a hit, with John and Jane unknowingly assigned to eliminate the same target. When their take-down schemes prove to be incompatible, they lose the mark and discover a few things about each other. The resulting domestic strife makes the events of War of the Roses seem tame by comparison.

When director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) focuses on the characters and their non-traditional relationship, he's on safe ground. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie smolder, and their chemistry (regardless of whether it did or did not expand beyond the screen) couldn't be better. Whether they're shooting at each other, tossing around double entendres, or ripping each other's clothing off, Mr. and Mrs. Smith's two stars are sexy and magnetic. Foreplay for the Smiths involves not only disrobing, but disarming. And Simon Kinberg's screenplay gives the actors plenty of delicious lines to chew on.

Unfortunately, the script also calls for too much action, and that's where everything falls apart. Although Liman tries to juice things up by using atypical camera angles, all this does is to lend an artistic flavor to a series of otherwise banal explosions, shoot-outs, and car chases. The film has so much action padding that it becomes tiresome after a while. Ten or fifteen years ago, this sort of thing might have been cutting edge, but the bar has been raised so many times that not even a car racing the wrong way on a freeway can generate more than a half-hearted shrug.

The film also doesn't have the decency to give us a legitimate payoff. The film just… ends. There's a big, violent action scene, complete with John Woo-inspired choreography and more ammunition than Rambo ever laid eyes on, but the opponents are faceless. There's no uber villain to rub out in a climactic showdown. And, the more you think about it (I know, I know… not something we're supposed to do with this kind of movie), the less sense it all makes. I mean, how can this really be over when it's over? What about all the loose ends that the interior decorator and marriage counselor can't resolve?

For the most part, the movie belongs to Pitt and Jolie. Vince Vaughn and Kerry Washington play their respective best friends/cohorts, but they don't have a lot of screen time. Vaughn makes the best of his. This may be the actor's most entertaining performance in a long time. He has his share of funny moments, but Liman wisely keeps him in check. Washington doesn't fare as well. Unlike Vaughn, she doesn't have a single memorable scene.

This is one of those films where the pluses and minuses almost exactly counterbalance each other. For every scene that works because of the snappy dialogue or the Pitt/Jolie rapport, there's a drawn-out action scene that causes everything to grind to a halt. Mr. and Mrs. Smith's need for blockbuster pyrotechnics undermines the black comedy (there's plenty of that) and the offbeat romance, both of which are strong enough to form the foundation of a quieter motion picture. The only legitimate tension in the story is between Mr. and Mrs. Smith. When they are turned into superheroes fighting against teams of nameless, clad-in-black foes, the time has come to tune out. It's too bad that Liman didn't streamline his production better and leave the fireworks for the fourth of July.

Labels: action, comedy, romance, spy, thriller

Internet Movie Database 6.5/10 
Metacritic 55/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=60, viewers=68)