Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Starter Wife (2007-TV miniseries) [UR] ****

After twelve years of helping her husband Kenny (Peter Jacobson) climb the film studio corporate ladder to become president, Molly Kagan (Debra Messing) gets dumped for a young starlet named Shoshanna (Trilby Glover). At first, Molly is devastated. Some of her friends abandon her, she loses her club membership, and she's ignored at exclusive restaurants. Fortunately, her good friend Joan (Judy Davis) invites her to house-sit her beach-front Malibu Colony home for the summer. Joan is an alcoholic, and when her husband sends her to a spa in Ojai, Molly helps her escape. Molly and Cricket (Miranda Otto) are very close, but Cricket's film director husband Jorge (Aden Young) needs Kenny to greenlight his project and he forces Cricket to cut Molly off. Then Cricket catches Jorge with their Russian nanny. Molly's gay decorator friend Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos) is flat broke and has commitment issues. Lavender (Anika Noni Rose), the colony's security guard, is being evicted from her apartment, along with her grandmother and dog. Lou Manahan (Joe Mantegna) the studio CEO is bored with his life and contemplates dropping out - or worse. And homeless drifter Sam (Stephen Moyer) saves Molly from drowning when her kayak overturns, and then asks her if her life was worth saving.

The Starter Wife would have been a good 100-minute film, but there are too many non-essential sub-plots and supporting characters. Messing has romantic opportunities with both Mantegna and Moyer, but there's no chemistry; Mantegna is much too old for her, and Moyer is too squinty-eyed and weasel-like. Debra Messing is a decent comic actress, but she isn't strong enough to open a film. She needs to be paired with a strong male lead, as she was with Dermot Mulroney in The Wedding Date. For a far better satire on the film industry, I highly recommend David Mamet's State and Main

Labels: comedy, drama, filmmaking, romance

Friday, August 10, 2012

Interview (2007) [R] ****

Pierre Peders (Steve Buscemi) is a former war correspondent and political reporter who has faked so many sources and stories that his editor no longer trusts his news reports, and has assigned him to write celebrity puff-pieces. Katya (Sienna Miller) is a twenty-something starlet who's agreed to meet Pierre for an interview. Although they meet in a New York City restaurant, most of the interview takes place in Katya's nearby loft.

This independent film feels like a two-person stage play that was authored by David Mamet or Harold Pinter. Both Pierre and Katya are trying to interview the other one; each is trying to be the cat in a cat-and-mouse game. Anything short of physical violence is permissible, including alcohol, drugs, psychological intimidation and seduction. Neither one can trust the other to tell the truth. Pierre is desperate to find something newsworthy to write about, to prove to his editor, and to himself, that he's not a failure - and Katya senses this. Katya is desperate to prove to her viewers, and to herself, that she's a talented actress, and not just a vapid starlet who only gets roles in TV soap operas and horror films - and Pierre senses this.

To make a two-character story like this one succeed requires a great screenplay and two excellent actors, and Interview has these elements. If you enjoy intimate, small-cast, character-driven films like My Dinner with Andre or Two Girls and a Guy, then you will probably enjoy Interview

Label: drama   
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 64/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=60, viewers=64)

License to Wed (2007) [PG-13] **

This romantic comedy contains neither romance nor comedy. Robin Williams plays Reverend Frank, a mean-spirited, manipulative priest, determined to put Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) through a three-week premarital boot camp before certifying them to be married. During the ordeal the unfortunate pair experience several humiliations including: (1) Frank hitting Ben in the face with a baseball; (2) Ben and Sadie fighting while they role-play changing a flat tire; (3) Frank coaching Ben into embarrassing himself in front of Sadie's family during a wine tasting event; (4) Ben guiding a blindfolded Sadie as she drives a car through traffic with Frank at her side; (5) Ben and Sadie dealing with a pair of android babies that Frank loaned to them; and (6) Ben discovering that Frank has bugged their apartment.

John Krasinski tries to hold the film together despite having little help from either Moore or Williams. Unfortunately, Krasinski and Moore have absolutely no romantic chemistry, although it is certainly not for Krasinski's lack of effort. Moore is wrapped tighter than an airport sandwich; she could no more give herself to Krasinski in a passionate screen kiss, her body yielding and pressed against him, her arms around his neck, her open mouth melting with his, than she could walk on water. Moore was 23 when this film was made, and since she clearly has not developed the ability to be a romantic lead, she probably never will. She may be a great hit in the youth, family and religious markets, but years from now Moore will likely be remembered simply as another boring, passionless, good-girl actress like Jennifer Aniston. If you want to see Robin Williams play a kind, compassionate, noble, endearing figure, watch Good Will Hunting or Bicentennial Man. Do not waste your time on this film. You will regret it and you will never get the 90 minutes of your life back. 

Labels: comedy, romance    
Internet MovieDatabase    
Metacritic 25/100    
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=31, viewers=62)    

Atonement (2007) [R] ***

Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old daughter in a wealthy family in pre-WWII England. She's developed a serious crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the family housekeeper. She throws herself at him, even pretending to be drowning so he will rescue her. When he scornfully rejects her, and passionately declares his love for her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Briony decides to get even. When a youthful cousin is raped by a friend of her older brother, Briony gives false witness and identifies Robbie as the rapist.

Briony exhibits anti-social personality disorder, what we would call a sociopath (aka psychopath). She is able to lie, cheat or steal without any guilt, shame or remorse. Her goals are control and winning, and any action is permissible to attain the goal. She has no conscience, and only a hole where her heart should be.

Convicted of rape and imprisoned, Robbie accepts a wartime reprieve by agreeing to join the British armed forces fighting the Germans in France. Tragically, he dies of septicemia during the British evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, and Cecilia later dies during a German bombing raid on London. So the lives of the two lovers are destroyed without their ever having had a moment of true happiness. And Briony lives with her secret for the next seventy years. Finally, upon learning that she is dying of dementia, an 83-year-old Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to tell the truth in an autobiographical novel, she calls Atonement.

Atonement is the act of making honest and heartfelt amends or reparations for an injury or wrong; it is an act of contrition, of facing those whom one has wronged, and accepting the consequences and punishment for one’s actions. Briony doesn’t atone for anything; she waits until Cecilia and Robbie are long dead, and she herself is dying, before publishing the truth, which she admits isn't accurate, since she gives the lovers' story a happy ending in her novel. This isn't atonement - this is spineless cowardice, purely and simply. This is failure to accept responsibility and deal with the consequences. A more apt title for book and film would have been A Lie Told and Lives Destroyed.

While the film's production values are excellent, there is no moral and ethical foundation for the story. Its only value is in awakening us to the fact that roughly one in 20 (5%) of all adults are sociopaths, and when we cross them, they have the potential to destroy our lives. If you'd like to see Keira Knightley shine in a critically acclaimed, truly magnificent film, I highly recommend Pride and Prejudice

Labels: drama, mystery, romance, tragedy, war, WWII
Internet MovieDatabase     
Metacritic 85/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=74, viewers=76)     

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) [PG] ***

I must agree with film critic Roger Ebert's characterization of this as a mouth agape movie; during the film your jaw will hang open in astonishment as one preposterous event follows another. The concept is that treasure hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) wants to uncover the mystery within the missing pages of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth's diary, so Gates can restore the good name of his ancestor Thomas Gates, who has been identified as the mastermind behind the assassination plot.

In the process Ben Gates discovers that the plot involved a treasure map and the search for Cibola, one of the seven Cities of Gold originally sought by Spanish explorers to North America. After traveling to Paris and London in search of clues, after surviving a ridiculous car chase by another team of treasure hunters led by Ed Harris' character, our three intrepid treasure hunters almost magically return to the U.S. where they learn that there exists a book of secrets that is passed from one U.S. president to the next, and never seen by anyone else, a book that contains all sorts of fascinating secrets, including, for instance, the existence of Area 51 in the Nevada desert, as well as clues to the location of Cibola. Since the existence of Cibola will prove that Thomas Gates was a loyal U.S. citizen and not Lincoln's assassin, the treasure hunters must find Cibola, which means they must actually kidnap the current U.S. president, and get him to let them look at the book of secrets! Amazingly, they succeed, and uncover the clue that sends them off to South Dakota in search of Cibola.

The screenplay features huge plot holes, unbelievable locations, improbable events and inane dialogue. Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Bruce Greenwood, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris must have wondered what they were doing in this disaster of a film, besides collecting a paycheck. Caution - you will never get back the two hours you waste on this film. 

Labels: action, adventure, Ferrari, mystery, thriller

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 48/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=48, viewers=72)

A Stranger’s Heart (2007-TV) [UR] ***

After living with a heart condition for most of her life since her mother's accidental death, Callie (Samantha Mathis) moves into the university medical center heart transplant ward to wait for a suitable donor heart. She meets Jasper (Peter Dobson) who's been waiting for a heart for several months, and has developed a rather macabre heart-transplant-ward sense of humor - he's thrilled about New Year's Eve because of the auto accidents, and thus the increase in number of potential heart donors.

After several weeks of waiting, Callie and Jasper both receive new hearts within a twenty-four hour period, and then they both mysteriously begin to experience dreams about a little girl named Cricket (Mary Matilyn Mouser), to whom they are strongly but inexplicably drawn. Callie discovers that their heart donors were Cricket's parents, both of whom had died in an automobile accident.

It turns out that Callie and Jasper are experiencing the phenomenon known as cellular memory. This is a touching, character-driven melodrama about how Callie and Jasper and their new hearts find themselves in love with each other, and how they reconnect with Cricket. This made-for-TV movie will be best appreciated by those who enjoy low-key, family-oriented dramas like Jack & Sarah - also starring Samantha Mathis, Hope Floats,  Stepmom, and Return to Me, as well as fans of Samantha Mathis and Peter Dobson. 

Label: romance

Internet Movie Database
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=68)

The Go-Getter (2007) [R] ****-

Mercer White (Lou Taylor Pucci) is nineteen and living in Eugene, Oregon when his mother dies of cancer. Naive and optimistic, he decides to find his older half-brother Arlen (Jsu Garcia), whom he hasn't seen in fourteen years and who doesn't know his mother has died. Stealing a Volvo station wagon from a carwash, Mercer hits the road, but before long the cell phone left in the car rings. The phone belongs to Kate (Zooey Deschanel), the car's owner. Surprisingly, she doesn't threaten to call the police, but instead is curious about Mercer and his motives. Eventually she agrees to let him take her car on his quest, and their phone conversation becomes a screen flirtation through which the two develop an unusual bond, although Kate is not seen for awhile.

From this point on, Mercer's journey takes some strange twists and turns. At a coastal art commune he's assaulted by a fellow from whom Arlen stole a set of tools. In Fallon, Nevada he's seduced by the sluttish Joely (Jena Malone), a former middle school classmate who plies him with Ecstasy. In nearby Reno, he steals a video camera from a porn director named Sergio Leone (Julio Oscar Mechoso), and in turn, he has the Volvo stolen. In Mojave, California he recovers the Volvo with the aid of a liquor salesman. And in Sacramento, Kate, envious of his experiences, unexpectedly joins him. Finally, Mercer finds Arlen in Ensenada, Mexico, where the reunion is disappointing, but where romance with Kate unexpectedly blossoms.

Written and directed by Martin Hynes, this road trip film is made unique by the vast possibilities of the open road, the opportunities for personal growth, the drama of the search for Arlen, and the romance with Kate. While Maura Tierneyand Judy Greer are good in supporting roles, this is clearly an independent production, with bleached-out cinematography and low-budget sets, costumes and soundtrack. If you enjoyed Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, you might give this one a try. 

Labels: comedy, drama     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 69/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=55, viewers=70)

Encounters at the End of the World (2007) [G] ****

Written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, this Oscar-nominated documentary feature reflects one man's curiosity about the continent of Antarctica, and the nature of the inhabitants of the American research base at McMurdo Sound. Herzog observes and interviews a diverse group of people including, among others: scientists studying the huge icebergs and their movements in the ocean currents surrounding Antarctica, marine biologists studying underwater animal life, zoologists studying penguins and Waddell seals, volcanologists studying the Mt. Erebus active volcano and the fumaroles on the volcano's flanks, a physicist performing a neutrino experiment in the stratosphere, a linguist cultivating tomatoes in a greenhouse, a survival expert conducting a training class for new arrivals, a plumber performing a pipe repair, and the driver of one of the largest buses in the world.

The one thing these residents all seem to have in common is a love of freedom and adventure. As one of them observes, it is as though anyone who is not tied down ends up at the bottom of the world. While Herzog tells us that the scientists he has met are uniformly alarmed about global climate change, and that many of them predict the demise of the human species, the effects of climate change on the continent and its animal life are not a subject of the documentary, and there is no visual evidence presented to show, for example, receding glaciers or crumbling ice shelves. As a result, this documentary is most likely to appeal to someone with a sociological or historical curiosity about Antarctica and its exploration and colonization, or to a scientist planning an expedition to Antarctica. Viewers expecting a consistently-themed, visually beautiful portrayal of Antarctica will be disappointed; this is not Planet Earth. Nor does it have the dramatic depth, character development and emotional appeal of Antarctica or its remake Eight Below

Label: documentary

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 80/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=76, viewers=70)

Silk (2007) [R] **+

Silk is a meditation on a classic theme - a naïve Westerner goes on a journey to the mysterious Orient, and is captivated by what he finds there. Hervé Joncour (Michael Pitt) lives in provincial France in the 1860s, where a local businessman named Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) has a plan to reopen the town's silk spinning mills. Since all the silkworm eggs available from his Egyptian sources are diseased, he's decided to smuggle healthy eggs out of Japan. He convinces Hervé's father, the town's mayor, to let his newly-married son make the hazardous journey. Leaving his lovely young bride Hélène (Keira Knightley), Hervé makes his way across Europe and Asia to Japan, buys the silkworm eggs and returns to France.

While in Japan, however, Hervé is captivated by the concubine (Sei Ashina) of his Japanese host Hara Jubei (Kôji Yakusho). Hervé is obsessed with the girl, and makes a second journey, during which she seduces him. Although silkworm eggs have become readily available from other sources, Hara Jubei's devious plan has worked, and the besotted Hervé makes a third journey to Japan. He nearly loses his life during an armed rebellion and returns to France empty-handed. Over the course of his three journeys, Hervé grows more and more distant from Hélène, and she suspects that she has lost him to another woman.

This is a story without a happy ending; worse, it moves at a glacial pace. With the exception of Molina, the performances are wooden; there is little chemistry between Pitt and Knightley, and the love affair between Pitt and Ashina is constrained by its clandestine nature, and by the language barrier. However, the cinematography is beautiful and the musical score is lush and haunting. If you enjoyed similarly-themed films like Kiss the Sky, The Sleeping Dictionary and Lost in Translation, and you enjoyed director Francois Girard's last film, The Red Violin, you might enjoy Silk

Labels: cross-cultural, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 39/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=38, viewers=54)

The Man from Earth (2007) [UR] ***+

Ten years after joining the faculty of a California college, John Oldman (David Lee Smith) has decided that it's time to move on. He's invited seven of his closest colleagues to his rural cabin for a farewell party. The question arises as to why he's giving up his hard-earned tenure, and John decides to risk everything and tell them the truth. He tells them a fantastical story about being a fourteen thousand year old Cro-Magnon who's forced to move on every ten years or so, as people begin to notice that he doesn't age. His guests want to see and hear the evidence, the objective proof, and he tries to give it to them, telling them pieces of his history in rich detail. Of course it's impossible for him to give them absolute proof, and they have to decide for themselves. Inevitably, there's disbelief, fear, anger, outrage, threats; ultimately they force him to disavow his entire story as a fabrication.

As night falls, and the guests begin to leave, Sandy (Annika Peterson) who believes John and wants to accompany him on his journey, asks him what other names he's used recently. In revealing several previous identities, John discovers that he IS able to provide proof of his story's truth, although with tragic consequences.

The entire film takes place in or around Oldman's cabin, so it feels like a stage play, and some of the acting is mediocre at best. Shot using hand-held cameras, with ambient lighting and amateur audio, the picture is grainy and shaky. Nevertheless, if the idea of living thousands of years in a body that never ages intrigues you, or you enjoyed thought-provoking films like K-PAX, Orlando, The Quiet Earth and Solaris, you might give this film a try. 

Labels: drama, fantasy, sci-fi, space-time

Internet Movie Database 
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=80)

Music Within (2007) [R] ****-

Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston) grew up unloved by the mother (Rebecca De Mornay) who bore him in 1949 after suffering seven miscarriages. From age two onward, whenever she needed a respite, his mother handed Richard off to an orphanage or a foster home, until she decided to claim him as her own again. At age fourteen, Richard discovered a gift for public speaking. He developed his skill over the next six years, but without the life experience to give his oratory credibility, he was denied a scholarship to Portland State University. Directionless, Richard enlisted in the Army, and subsequently lost his hearing in Vietnam. Returning to Portland in 1970 he discovered firsthand how the disabled were shunned and made to feel invisible because their disfigurement made normal people feel uncomfortable.

Over the next twenty years Richard worked tirelessly on behalf of the disabled, training employers to recognize and value the disabled as an underutilized resource, speaking publicly on their behalf, writing his seminal book Tilting at Windmills, and finally seeing his life work bear fruit in 1990 with the passage and signing into federal law of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Based on a true story, with a sensitively-written screenplay and a memorable soundtrack, this is a heartwarming story about overcoming adversity and discovering a true purpose in life. Ron Livingston does some of his best work to date, and his supporting cast is excellent, especially Melissa George as Richard's long-suffering girlfriend Christine, Michael Sheen as Richard's best friend Art whose debilitating cerebral palsy gives Richard an understanding of the indignities suffered by the disabled, and Yul Vazquez as Richard's Vietnam veteran friend Mike whose inability to fit into the civilian world eventually overwhelms him. If you enjoyed Forrest Gump you will probably really appreciate Music Within

Labels: biography, comedy, drama, music, romance, war

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 53/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=52, viewers=76)

Starting Out in the Evening (2007) [PG-13] ****

Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an aging writer and former college literature professor. Now in his seventies, he lives alone in a New York City brownstone apartment. Years ago Leonard wrote two well-received novels, and was feted along with literary lions like Saul Bellow. But those days are long gone. His third and fourth novels were disappointing, and Leonard has spent the past ten years struggling to finish a fifth novel. He suffered a heart attack a year ago, and lives in lonely seclusion, visited only by his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) who is single, turning forty and is trying to define her relationship with boyfriend Casey Davis (Adrian Lester).

Into Leonard's life comes Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a young woman whose life was transformed by his early work, and who is writing her master's thesis on him and his novels. Starry-eyed Heather is convinced that she can resurrect Leonard's career and get his novels published again. What Leonard doesn't realize is that Heather has fallen in love with the handsome, passionate young Leonard Schiller who wrote those novels fifty years earlier, and what starts out as an interview process becomes something much more.

As we observe Leonard and Heather we're given a peek into the minds of both the writer and the literary critic, as well as a glimpse into the thought process of writing a novel. The screenplay, direction and acting are all outstanding, and Langella and Ambrose have excellent chemistry. This feels like a four-person stage play, since most of the action takes place in Leonard's apartment. If you enjoy deliberately-paced, character-driven dramas with an intellectual theme, a multi-generational gap between the leads, and romantic overtones, films like CrashingThe Girl in the Cafe or Suburban Girl, then you might enjoy Starting Out in the Evening

Labels: drama, romance  

Internet Movie Database  
Metacritic 78/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=73, viewers=72)

Crashing (2007) [R] ***

Richard (Campbell Scott) is a handsome, graying novelist, whose bestselling first novel The Trouble with Dick (also the name of an earlier film by writer/director Gary Walkow) brought him fame and a beautiful actress wife with a Malibu beach home. But his first success is seven years old and he has a severe case of writer's block; his new novel gets worse with each successive draft. Looking for inspiration, Richard agrees to speak to a college writing class being taught by former girlfriend Diane (Alex Kingston), the same day his wife kicks him out of their house. Richard casually mentions to the class that he has nowhere to sleep that night, and two star-struck students offer him a couch in their small apartment.

Richard soon has plenty of raw material to start his creative juices flowing, simply from peeking into the private lives of the two foxy coeds, Kristin (Izabella MikoCoyote Ugly) and Jacqueline (Lizzy CaplanMean Girls). But the two girls have their own creative agendas; they are both aspiring writers, and instead of paying rent, they demand that Richard give them literary consultations that begin with writing and end up in bed. Soon all three are writing stories influenced by their romantic couplings, fantasies, suspicions and anxieties. Jacqueline's muse is Jacqueline Susann, while Kristin is more lyrical, metaphorical and poetic. Happily Richard finds his inner rhythm again in more than one way, as their menage-a-trois becomes the inspiration for his next novel. While production values are mediocre, this engaging, independent film uses a light, breezy tone and excellent performances from Scott, Miko and Caplan to deliver an amusing, if somewhat predictable story. Scott perfectly conveys both the strength of insight and the weakness of imagination that caused Richard's writer's block, while Caplan and Miko hold their own in the literary and suggestive conversations with their older, wiser, and very willing teacher. 

Label: college, drama, romance 

Internet Movie Database 
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=50)

No Reservations (2007) [PG] ***

Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the chef at a tony little New York City restaurant. She's temperamental, hypersensitive to criticism about her cuisine, and she rules her kitchen with an iron hand. Her philosophy is that the only way to get something done right is to do it yourself. And so she drives everyone crazy, including Paula (Patricia Clarkson) the restaurant owner, who has told Kate that either she gets therapy or she's fired.

Then tragedy strikes. Kate's sister is killed in an auto accident, and suddenly Kate finds herself the guardian of her pre-teen niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin). Kate does not have a clue about how to comfort grieving Zoe, about how much love she needs or about what she eats. In addition, when Kate returns to the restaurant a week later, she discovers that Paula has hired a new sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart). Nick loves Italian cuisine, and he sings opera while he cooks. He's completely changed the atmosphere in the kitchen, for the better. Nick is attracted to Kate from the first moment, but the thing keeping them apart is Kate's fear that Nick is after her job; she doesn't realize that he took the sous chef job because he wants to learn from her.

The real question in the viewer's mind is whether Kate will wake up and realize how good Nick is for her, both personally and professionally, before she drives him away. Zoe acts as the catalyst bringing Kate and Nick together, and in some ways Abigail Breslin is the best part of the film, especially when she's on screen with both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart. Kate and Nick do not have much romantic chemistry, the screenplay is not particularly original or inventive, and Philip Glass' musical score is a little too techno-futuristic. Regardless, if you like romantic comedies around the subject of food and restaurants, films like Eat Pray LoveJulie & Julia and Tortilla Soup or if you enjoyed Abigail Breslin in Definitely, Maybe, then you will likely enjoy No Reservations. 

Labels: comedy, drama, food, romance   

P.S. I Love You (2007) [PG-13] ***

Holly (Hilary Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) meet in Ireland while she is on a European travel tour. After their first kiss, they realize that life as they know it has ended, and they are meant for each other. Despite parental disapproval they marry and settle in New York City. They have the typical arguments about jobs, money, sex, future children, and the size of their tiny, walk-up apartment. But they love each other.

Then Gerry is diagnosed with a brain tumor. After his death Holly gives up living and becomes a recluse. Then her mother and her girlfriends show up to help her celebrate her 30th birthday, and one of the gifts is a message from Gerry, tape-recorded before his death. He tells Holly that over the next few months she'll be receiving a series of letters from him, designed to help her embrace her future, put him to rest and move on with her life. Holly is not sure she can do this, and her mother (played by Kathy Bates) is sure that this will have the opposite effect, and bind Holly more strongly to Gerry and the past. Nevertheless the letters begin to arrive, Holly follows their instructions, and the results are positive, as Gerry predicted. The most transformative experiences, however, occur when Holly and her two best friends, Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) journey to Ireland to visit Gerry's parents and the places of his youth, and where she unexpectedly meets Gerry's best friend William (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who turns out to be the bridge between Holly's past and her future.

P.S. I Love You succeeds because of a great screenplay, great direction, and outstanding performances, especially Hilary Swank. While film critics trashed this film, audiences loved it. So, if you enjoy romantic dramas that have a bitter-sweet flavor, films like The Last Song, The Notebook, Sweet November or A Walk To Remember, then you will probably enjoy P.S. I Love You. 

Labels: drama, romance, tragedy

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 39/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=44, viewers=78)

Sex and Death 101 (2007) [R] ***-

Roderick Rod Blank (Simon Baker), a handsome executive with the Swallows fast food company, receives an anonymous email containing a list of all of his past sex partners in chronological order, a list that could not have been known to another human being. The thirty-first name on the list is that of Fiona (Julie Bowen), his lovely fiancee, the girl whom Rod had assumed would be his mate for life and his last sex partner. But, incredibly enough, the list contains seventy names after Fiona's. Despite Rod's attempts to be faithful to Fiona, one by one the beautiful women on his list throw themselves at him. Fiona correctly interprets Rod's far-away look and inattentive behavior as that of a man who has lost interest, and she breaks off their engagement.

Then Rod meets Alpha, Beta and Fred, three attendants of the Oracle, a supercomputing seer into the future. The three men explain that the Oracle emailed the list to him, and they counsel Rod to burn or bury it. But Rod is becoming addicted to the thrill of the chase, and his curiosity about the women in his future compels him to dig up the list after he has buried it. And then Rod notices that the last name on his list is that of Gillian de Raisx (Winona Ryder) also known as Death Nell, a man-hating woman who has embarked on a city-wide reign of terror, seducing men and then leaving them in deep comas, with dark poetry spray-painted on their ceilings and walls. 

What will happen when Rod and Gillian finally do meet? This is a raunchy black comedy about life, death, fate and free will that manages to partially redeem itself in the last ten minutes with an upbeat, life-affirming final plot twist. However, the low road we must take to get there panders to the most puerile of male sex fantasies, and is not worthy of the acting talents of Simon Baker, Winona Ryder, Julie Bowen and the supporting cast. Be prepared for the liberal use of the F-word and plenty of gratuitous female nudity. If you enjoy films like About AdamBedazzled or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, you might be able to tolerate Sex and Death 101.  

Labels: comedy, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 24/100  
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=43, viewers=60)          

Hollywoodland (2006) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for RealViews.net.

The question of whether actor George Reeves committed suicide or was murdered will go down in history as one of Hollywood's great unsolved mysteries. Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland, a fictionalized account (it uses both apocryphal stories and confirmed events) of an investigation of the death, presents the three most common scenarios but, taking a page from Rashomon, it never settles on one. The film is balanced in its presentation of the evidence for and against suicide. Ultimately, however, Hollywoodland is only peripherally about the life and death of George Reeves. The film's real main character is a seedy P.I. who attacks the mystery and, by chasing Reeves' ghost, finds his own path to redemption.

Comparisons between Hollywoodland and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential are perhaps inevitable. After all, both take place during the same time period (the 1950s) and in the same locale (Los Angeles). They both also contain mystery/thriller elements. However, the differences are as stark as the similarities. L.A. Confidential was a color homage to noir films while Hollywoodland is a more subdued drama and, while the new movie does a good job of capturing the period, it lacks the immersive quality of L.A. Confidential's atmosphere. Still, the savvy film-goer can be forgiving for flashing back to L.A. Confidential (or even Chinatown) once or twice during the course of Hollywoodland's proceedings.

The movie unfolds across two time lines. The primary one starts on June 16, 1959, the day of George Reeves' death, and continues through a period spanning roughly one week. It follows the trail of private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a fictionalized representation of the real-life Jerry Geisler, as he convinces Reeves' mother to hire him to investigate her son's passing. The official explanation of the death is suicide but Simo puts forth an alternative. All the clues don't add up - maybe it was murder. At first, he really doesn't believe this. It's just a way to get his name in the papers. However, as he digs deeper and meets some of the principals of the case, he begins to wonder. Eventually, he attracts the ire of mob-connected film mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), and things go from bad to worse.

The secondary time line begins in the late 1940s and concludes in 1959. It introduces us to the handsome, charismatic Reeves (Ben Affleck) in his pre-Superman days. As his life story for the next ten years is told, we meet various people who circulate into and out of his life, including his long-time mistress, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) - Eddie's wife - and his eventual fiancée, Lenore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Despite starring in the immensely popular Superman TV series during the 1950s, Reeves is not a happy man. He has not been well-paid for the job, and it results in hopeless typecasting.

There have always been three primary theories about Reeves' death during the early morning hours of June 16, 1959. The first is that, in an alcohol-induced daze and despondent over the lack of movement in his career, he shot himself. This is what the official record indicates. Another possibility is that, during an argument, Lenore accidentally shot him, and then used the 45 minutes between Reeves' death and her call to the police to stage a suicide. A third possibility is that Eddie Mannix hired someone to eliminate Reeves because of problems the actor was causing in his marriage. Hollywoodland examines all three scenarios but in the movie, as in real life, no definitive answers are to be found. Unlike Auto Focus, another movie about the life and death of a famous TV personality (Bob Crane of Hogan's Heroes), Hollywoodland does not pretend to know the truth.

Hollywoodland's emotional impact comes not from the Reeves-centered flashbacks, which are dry although interesting, but from Simo's story. He and his wife, Laurie (Molly Parker), are divorced, but he has an ongoing love/hate relationship with her that characterizes the interaction between many ex-spouses. He loves his son, but there's an invisible wall interfering with their communication. He's living with a much younger women (Caroline Dhavernas) in a seedy motel, and his clients include riff-raff and sleazebags. His goal as a private investigator is to string along customers for as long as possible so they will keep paying him. Hollywoodland is about how Simo's biggest case causes him to re-examine his life and perhaps change its direction.

The casting is interesting. Adrien Brody has no difficulty portraying the unsavory P.I. Diane Lane appears comfortable in the part of an older woman. And Bob Hoskins is in familiar territory as the dangerous, loud-talking Mannix. Then there's Ben Affleck, who has chosen this project as his attempt to return from the brink of tabloid overexposure. There's no faulting Affleck's acting in Hollywoodland, but one can question whether he's right for the part. Even in full Superman costume or wearing Clark Kent's spectacles, he bears no resemblance to Reeves. For those familiar with Reeves' visage, it elevates the suspension of disbelief curve, although the strength of Affleck's portrayal should eventually win over doubters.

Director Allen Coulter is a TV veteran but a motion picture newcomer. His work here indicates he is someone to watch. The pacing is slow and deliberate, but the story never ceases to intrigue. There are a few narrative hiccups and there are times when changes between the time lines are not immediately apparent, especially as the older one dovetails with the present, but these are minor issues and do not erase the movie's compelling qualities. This is a fine opportunity to peer through a window into the unglamorous side of Tinseltown's golden years.

Labels: biography, crime, drama, history, mystery, romance, thriller

Casino Royale (2006) [PG-13] ****+

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

When Pierce Brosnan took over the role of James Bond for Goldeneye, much was made about how the franchise was being modernized. In reality, the only apparent changes were cosmetic. Brosnan's 007 was easily connected to the character previously played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton. With the ascension of Daniel Craig to the gun, tux, martini, and license to kill, seismic changes have occurred. This is no longer the James Bond we know from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. Welcome to the new world of MI6's most storied agent.

The purpose of Casino Royale is to re-boot the franchise. Craig isn't succeeding Brosnan; he's re-inventing the role. As far as this movie is concerned, nothing in the previous 20 entries has happened. This is Bond's origin story and the only thin bit of continuity is Judi Dench's return as Madam M. Forget everything you think you know about 007. For years now, the Bond formula has been drowning in a sea of rip-offs and pretenders, each more over-the-top than its predecessor. In order to retain a market niche, the Bond franchise had to strike out in a different direction - something less cartoonish and closer to the Ian Fleming source novels. It's impossible to say where the filmmakers will take Bond from here, but Casino Royale hints that it may be in a more down-to-earth direction than we're accustomed to.

What's missing? Quite a bit, actually. Until its rousing introduction during the end credits, the James Bond Theme is heard sparingly, during brief, subdued passages. The signature line of Bond, James Bond keeps us waiting. There are no gadgets - in fact, there's no Q. Nor is there any Moneypenny. There's action, but it's surprisingly low-key (at least for Bond). Absent are the over-the-top, gravity-defying stunts that have characterized 007 movies over the years. This time, things get brutal. Not only is there a nasty fight in which Bond beats the crap out of a bad guy (he has to kill two people to get his double-zero status, but the deaths don't have to be neat) but our hero ends up on the receiving end of some vicious treatment. One can't imagine Connery, Dalton, or especially Moore going through that ordeal.

The plot follows Fleming's story a lot more closely than the original Casino Royale (a pathetic and uneven spoof) did. It's the early days for Bond. Having completed the requirements for graduation to the elite level, he has been assigned 007, although M is convinced he's not ready. His first assignment is to track down one of the most elusive worldwide suppliers of terrorist money. After following the clues, which first take him to the Bahamas then to Miami, Bond learns the identity of his quarry: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who's about to enter an exclusive poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bankrolled by MI6, Bond enters against Le Chiffre, with accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) watching the money. As the action at the tables heats up, Bond finds himself in trouble away from them as Le Chiffre and some of his associates try to eliminate the British agent.

It has been a long time since Bond has been this human. Not since On Her Majesty's Secret Service - the last time he fell in love - have we seen this side of the super agent. It's s curious thing to see Bond develop deep feelings for Vesper. We're used to him treating women like disposable commodities. Oh, he has affection for them, but love is not in his vocabulary. Yet there's no better way to humanize a superhero than to make him fall in love. We have seen that with Superman and Spider-Man. Now we see it with 007. This aspect of the movie is one reason why Casino Royale is a cut above anything we have gotten from the Bondmakers in decades.

The plot is oddly constructed, and plays out in three clearly defined acts. The first is the most like a traditional Bond film, with James hopping from country to country, engaging in a meaningless romance (with Caterina Murino), and chasing after two henchmen (a foot chase that involves scaffolding and a rush to stop a bomb at Miami Airport). Act II takes place mainly at the poker table. Surprisingly, there's a lot of tension even though there's not much action (except a staircase fracas), and the movie uses this segment to build the romantic tension between Vesper and Bond. I won't say much about the third act, except that it goes some unexpected places and initially seems disconnected with what precedes it.

For Daniel Craig, this is a triumphant debut. Not since early Connery have we seen a Bond this magnetic. Craig manages to show us both the human and the inhuman sides of Bond, and the portrayal is free of fatuousness. This Bond isn't beyond uttering the occasional quip, but when he does so, there's not a lot of humor in the delivery. Not since the closing moments of On Her Majesty's Secret Service have we seen such a vulnerable 007. While there's always a certain sadness associated with waving goodbye to a departing actor, Craig's performance makes us ask Pierce Who?

With everything else changing, one wonders whether it might have been time to bring someone else in to play M. That's not a knock on Judi Dench - no one can deliver M's acerbic one-liners like her - but if the intent is to make a clean break, why is she here? Eva Green, still best known for taking off her clothing in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, is the right mix of hard and soft as Vesper - it's not hard to see how she could beguile Bond. Mads Mikkelsen is intense enough to pull off the villain role even though he lacks the megalomaniacal bent evidenced by most Bond bad guys. Additional support comes from Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, the British agent based in Montenegro, and Jeffrey Wright as old friend Felix Leiter.

It's interesting to note that the radical revising of Bond is being done by the usual team. It's not as if an entirely new group was brought in for the re-boot. The producers continue to be Michael G. Wilson and Barbara (daughter of Cubby) Broccoli. The writers are Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with an assist from Paul he's everywhere these days Haggis), who were involved in scripting the last two Brosnan movies. Director Martin Campbell oversaw Goldeneye with Phil Meheux as his cinematographer. And David Arnold has been composing Bond scores since he took over from John Barry in the '90s. (The title song, You Know My Name, which Arnold co-wrote with Chris Cornell, sounds eerily like something by Barry.)

My hope is that Casino Royale has not only re-invented James Bond, but made him relevant for the 21st century. The target audience has shifted. Although there's nothing in Casino Royale that will exclude teenagers, this 007 is aimed squarely at adults. The November release date is also perfect - the film is almost too dark and serious for the kind of lighthearted, mindless fun we associate with summer blockbusters. In recent years, I have come to each new James Bond movie with a series of ingrained expectations. For the most part, the Brosnan films met them across the board. Casino Royale defies many of them, and I couldn't be happier. [Berardinelli's rating: *** 1/2 out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, adventure, spy, thriller

Invincible (2006) [PG] ****

Set in Philadelphia in 1976, Invincible is the uplifting, heart-warming story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old substitute teacher and part-time bartender whose life spirals downward after he loses his summer school teaching position, and his wife of five years leaves him, taking all the furniture with her. All Vince has left is his group of neighborhood pals, with whom he plays rough-and-tumble touch football, and his bartending job for his pal Max (Michael Rispoli).

Then the desperate Philadelphia Eagles football team, on a downward spiral of its own, hires UCLA football coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) as the new head coach, and in a publicity stunt Vermeil stages an open tryout one summer Saturday morning. Along with hundreds of other hopefuls, Vince shows up and, against all odds, he gets invited to training camp, and with it, a shot at making the team. At the same time Max hires his niece Janet (Elizabeth Banks), and while both Vince and Janet have recently been scarred by love, and seem unwilling to take a chance, a tentative romance does blossom between them. During training camp, Vince endures the resentment of teammates with collegiate and professional football experience. However, he's a player with whom the football fans of South Philadelphia can relate, and he ends up raising the spirits of a city depressed by a losing football team as well as by factory closures and rising unemployment. 

While the story is formulaic, the dialogue is clichéd, and the soundtrack of ‘70s tunes is completely forgettable, we find ourselves cheering for Vince, mainly because of Mark Wahlberg’s ability to create a likable, intensely hardworking character.

Although the film implies that Vince had no football experience after high school, the truth is that he played on the Aston Green Knights of the semi-pro Seaboard Football League, and following that he played two seasons for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League as a wide receiver, as well as a standout on the special teams. It was his performance with the Philadelphia Bell that earned Vince an invitation to a private workout held by Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Dick Vermeil in 1976 and, following that, an invitation to join the team.

Regardless of the artistic license taken by screenwriter Brad Gann with Vince Papele’s life and career, if you enjoy uplifting sports stories, films like The Blind Side, Miracle, Remember the Titans and The Rookie, you won’t want to miss Invincible

Labels: biography, drama, football

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