Tag Archives: movie reviews

Movie Review: THE LOVELY BONES

© DreamWorks Studios

Just came out of a screening of Peter Jackson’s of The Lovely Bones (opening Dec. 11) and I’m about as confused as the movie is. So, my movie partner, Eric Edwards, and I had the following discussion to help process our thoughts. [Possible mild spoilers.]

PCN: Oh, man, what happened? The trailer was intense but the movie felt like one long yoga/meditation video.

EE: I think my biggest struggle was I kept thinking I should like it more than I do.

PCN: Why do you feel you have to like it?

EE: Because the message they’re trying to put out is very deep and Zen. It was all about the big picture and trusting that the universe will take care of things in its own time. But it took soooo long for payback to happen.

PCN: And when it did, I felt no real closure, which begs the question: Are we impatient, bloodthirsty people? In real life, sometimes comeuppance doesn’t happen at all and you have to find a way to move past the grief.

EE: But this is a movie and I think most moviegoers want to see some kind of reckoning for a bad deed.

PCN: There was reckoning, just not in a way we expected. I feel the same ambivalence toward the movie as I did toward Alice Sebold’s book. It’s internal and meditative and more about a process than a story. I get it—Susie’s family is grieving; it’s not going to be action-packed. So Peter Jackson fills up the in-between with eye candy to amuse us. Look, there’s a waterfall! And Susie frolicking among flowers! A random giant beach ball! And that music sounded like something from a sleep machine. I thought maybe Enya would show up to sing.

EE: That score was pretentious. I did enjoy the book, though. I think this was just bad handling of source material.

PCN: Do you think this has a chance at any awards? The cinematography is gorgeous–

EE: It’s beautiful.

PCN:–but I don’t think the movie deserves anything else. Even Stanley Tucci’s performance is off. He’s really creepy but I was distracted by the blond rug, blue contacts, prosthetic teeth and slightly slurred speech. It’s a little too much. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a perfectly normal-looking guy turn out to be the creepiest one of all?

EE: I don’t think Jackson allowed Tucci to let the full creepiness out.

PCN: What?! He’s super creepy! During the scene where Mr. Harvey lures Susie down into the hatch, you were cringing like a girl, you were so scared.

EE: I wasn’t cringing, I was merely showing disapproval. Tucci kept shaking and acting nervous. Jackson should’ve just let Tucci stare at Susie and let the suspense build before making his move. Would’ve been a lot more explosive.

PCN: Oh, it was plenty explosive enough for me. I was sick inside, knowing what would happen to her. I was grateful most of it happened off camera.

EE: But you were projecting your feelings due to prior knowledge. Would it be as creepy for viewers who haven’t read the book?

© DreamWorks Studios

PCN: A grown man preparing to murder a 14-year-old girl? Yeah, I’d say that’s creepy for anyone. What’d you think of Saoirse Ronan’s performance?

EE: The biggest problem for me was her narration, which made the movie so melodramatic, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s overwrought score.

PCN: I had no problem with her! I actually liked her as Susie much more than I liked her as that little brat in Atonement. Here, she’s vibrant and shows more range. She also handled the American accent quite well.

EE: I’m not talking about her acting, strictly the narration. Otherwise, she was fine. I liked Rose McIver, who plays Susie’s sister. She made an impression on me.

PCN: Same here. She had spunk. She’s a New Zealander who also nailed the American accent.

© DreamWorks Studios

EE: What’d you think of Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz?

PCN: They’re okay but their best work is elsewhere. Susan Sarandon looks like she had fun as the boozy, chain-smoking grandma, but the role isn’t significant enough to register come awards time.

Nerd verdicts—PCN: Weak Bones. EE: Bones is lifeless.

Movie Review: UP IN THE AIR, with Notes from Q & A with Jason Reitman and Cast

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve been reviewing a string of movies that, though well-crafted, are so depressing you need to down a fistful of Xanax after watching. Imagine my relief, then, when I got to see Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air (opening Dec. 4), which is moving and thought-provoking but also entertaining in the purest sense of the word.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies all over the country to fire people when in-house managers don’t have the stones to do it themselves. Theoretically, this third-party method also protects company personnel from retaliation by pink-slipped employees. (Be sure and read my notes below from the Q & A; Reitman told amazing stories about using non-actors who’d really lost their jobs.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

It’s a tough line of work but Bingham loves it. He’s got his firing technique honed to a science, has no problem staying disconnected from people’s emotional reactions, and is more comfortable on the road than in his apartment, which looks less homey than his hotel rooms. He also has Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer and bed partner whenever they’re in the same city. No strings, no responsibilities— just the way Bingham likes it.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

His existence is threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a precocious upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who suggests that firings can be done via teleconference to save travel costs. When Bingham protests, his boss tells him to take her on the road to see which method is better. Though high-strung and ambitious, Natalie helps Bingham realize that being grounded, literally and emotionally, might be a good thing.

Clooney’s performance here is his most vulnerable yet. There are times when Bingham is looking at Alex and Clooney just strips his face naked—eyes softened, completely defenseless—making you think, if you didn’t know better, that you’re watching him fall in love with Farmiga right there on screen. Sometimes his gaze is so intimate, I felt like a perv stealing his private moments.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

Farmiga matches Clooney note for note and the heat between them is potent. She’s been consistently strong in little-seen films like Down to the Bone and Breaking and Entering; here’s hoping Air will take her career higher.

Kendrick is having a moment right now with this movie and New Moon, in which she plays Bella’s friend Jessica. She deserves the attention; her work here is infused with maturity and smarts. (Can’t comment on her Moon performance since I probably won’t see it.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

As for director, producer and co-writer Reitman (the movie is based on a novel by Walter Kirn), he’s proven beyond a doubt he’s no Tori Spelling. I’ll go further to say this movie is better than anything his father, Ivan, ever directed. Jason includes social commentary and emotional resonance with the humor; I can’t say the same for Meatballs, Twins or Kindergarten Cop. (OK, Ghostbusters was good but not Oscar material.) When Air is up for Best Picture—I think it has an excellent chance of winning —you’ll root for it, not roll your eyes like you do at elitist films that leave you wondering, “What the hell?”

After the Variety screening I attended, Reitman, Farmiga and Kendrick participated in a Q & A. Interesting tidbits revealed:

  • The film’s St. Louis casting director, Joni Tackette, placed an ad looking for people who had recently lost their jobs and were willing to share their experiences on camera. Though actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis among them) play some of the laid-off workers, twenty-two respondents ended up in the firing sequences, using their own words. Reitman said they talked about things he’d never think to write, in a way he’d never think to direct them. [This made for incredibly affecting scenes. When I was watching them, I kept thinking, “Who are all these actors? They’re so real.”]
  • After a speaking engagement in St. Louis, Reitman was approached by a 50-year-old man named Kevin with a cassette tape. On it, Kevin explained he’d just lost his job and had written a song about what it means to try and find purpose in the world. Reitman said “what follows isn’t the most beautiful song but [it’s] incredibly authentic.” He put it over the end credits, complete with Kevin’s intro about his situation.
  • The movie was mostly shot in St. Louis and Detroit, which were among the cities hardest hit by the recession. Cast and crew filmed in office buildings that were cleared out and abandoned like they were supposed to be in the movie.
  • Alex and Natalie aren’t in the book. Reitman wrote those roles specifically for Farmiga and Kendrick.
  • Farmiga said she confided in Clooney that if she could cuddle up to any cinematic character, she’d choose Karl from Sling Blade. This made Clooney repeatedly do Karl imitations between takes.
  • Clooney never goes to his trailer and never wears any makeup. Ever.

Nerd verdict: Up in the Air is first-class

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Movie Review: Colin Firth as A SINGLE MAN

I wanted to see this movie because of Colin Firth, though I wasn’t crazy about the notion of a sad, mopey Firth when I like him awkward and silly as in Love Actually and the Bridget Jones movies. But his performance in A Single Man (limited release, Dec. 11) proves he’s a first-rate actor who can make grief not only watchable but compelling.

Set in 1961 and based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Man deals with college professor George Falconer’s (Firth) struggle to cope with the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. The whole movie takes place on the day George decides to commit suicide. We see him putting his affairs in order and internally saying goodbye to his students and best friend Charly (Julianne Moore). Ironically, as he prepares to die, he becomes more alive, taking in details about his surroundings he hadn’t bothered to absorb during his grief-stricken stupor.

And that’s about it as far as plot goes. Being a fan of plot-driven stories, I was greatly surprised I wasn’t bored by some tedious navel-gazing. Most of the credit goes to Firth, who’s in every scene and holds my attention in all of them. He pulls off the difficult act of covering up feelings you suspect are roiling inside George, but he doesn’t bury them so deeply that the character becomes inaccessible. You can see his thoughts as they flit behind his eyes, the mental screams he’d like to release. For all his graceful suffering, George should bring Firth his first Oscar nomination.

Moore is also impressive; is that news to anyone? She plays a woman in mid-life crisis, feeling worthless because her husband and son have left her and her looks are fading (she’s still gorgeous to me). As strong as her performance is, though, I’ve seen better from Moore—in The Hours, for example. If she does get an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, she has no chance (no one does) of beating Mo’Nique for Precious.

Hoult in SINGLE MAN

The biggest surprise here is Nicholas Hoult as a conflicted student of George’s who slowly awakens the older man to feelings he thought he no longer had. Hoult is so impossibly pretty with his golden hair, flirty baby blues, and pink pout, I was shocked to realize he’s the same actor who played Marcus,

Hoult in ABOUT A BOY

the plump, awkward kid who pestered Hugh Grant in Almost a Boy. Well, he’s all grown up and ungainly no more.

First-time director and co-screenwriter, Tom Ford, known primarily for his work as a fashion designer for Gucci, knows a thing or two about beauty. All his actors are ridiculously good-looking and he made sure you know it. It got to be a bit much after a while; I actually chuckled when the camera zoomed in for the umpteenth time on Hoult’s and Firth’s naked bodies floating in slo-mo in the ocean, or lingered on a starlet’s bee-stung lips exhaling cigarette smoke seductively.

Ford said during the post-Variety-screening Q & A (more on that below) he wanted a Bernard Herrmann-esque score as homage to the composer known for his work in Hitchcock movies, but the plaintive strings are too overpowering for such an introspective film. Ford needn’t try so hard; he has potential as a filmmaker and was smart enough to cast superb actors who added class to a project that could’ve been dismissible.

When Ford showed up for the Q & A, he was soft-spoken, articulate and unexpectedly vulnerable. He told a lot of personal stories which he said informed the movie. Some details:

  • He first read the book 25 years ago when he was living in West Hollywood and working as an actor.
  • George didn’t want to kill himself in the novel but Ford added that plot point because of a suicide in his family.
  • Firth originally turned down the film so Ford cast another actor. When that actor dropped out 3 weeks before production, Ford flew to London, pitched Firth personally instead of going through his rep and this time Firth said yes.
  • The film was shot in 21 days, with only 3 of rehearsal. Ford simply had Firth watch a clip of Bill Clinton denying he’d done certain things to Monica Lewinsky, then told Firth to have George cover up his emotions like that.
  • In a scene where George is supposed to chastely kiss Charly, Firth wouldn’t stop kissing Moore, resulting in several unusable takes. Ford had to keep reminding Firth he was playing a gay man.

Nerd verdict: Man is imperfect but Firth is impeccable

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Movie Review: AN EDUCATION

jenny & david getting in car

In this coming-of-age movie, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) receives quite an education—in academics, sex, music and fine living. She owes most of this to her much older lover, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whom she meets one day in the rain when he offers to shelter her cello, if not her, in his car.

jenny & d in parisSoon, she and David are devising ways to convince her parents to let her go out with him to dinners, dancing and even Paris (there’s a romantic Parisian montage which made me ache to go). Her stellar school grades plummet and her goals of attending Oxford begin to recede. Like David, it seems Jenny would rather attend the “University of Life,” much to the chagrin of her teachers. Her glamorous experience abruptly ends, however, after an upsetting discovery, forcing her to re-examine what kind of education she really wants.

jenny in rainYou may or may not have heard of Mulligan (she played Kitty Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley) but I believe she will be well known here in the States very soon. The 24-year-old actress believably conveys the giddiness and innocence of a 16-year-old, then blossoms before our very eyes into a sophisticated young woman—with her plummy voice and gazelle legs—who learns a lesson she won’t forget. The movie is based on the life of British journalist Lynn Barber, who wrote an article about her rude awakening.

sarsgaardI found the casting of Sarsgaard a bit problematic. While I think he’s an extremely talented actor who does good work here, he brings with him cinematic baggage from often playing edgy/smarmy guys who can’t be trusted. David is supposed to be a suave and classy gentleman who not only seduces Jenny, he charms her parents into practically pushing their daughter into his arms. Knowing Sarsgaard doesn’t do the straight-up, nice-guy thing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does, the impact is muted.

alfredAmong the stellar supporting cast, Alfred Molina stands out as Jenny’s blustery father, who at first pressures his daughter to strive for Oxford but then thinks maybe a rich man would be better for her future. Despite the character’s temper, Molina makes him sympathetic, a father who simply wants to assure his daughter’s well-being in an age where professional options for women were limited. Olivia Williams turns in a subtle yet effective performance as Jenny’s teacher, a “spinster” whom Jenny eventually sees in a different light. Rosamund Pike, known for playing classy or icy smart women, displays her comedic chops as a dim-witted blonde who often parties with Jenny and David and her own boyfriend, Danny (Dominic Cooper).

loneDanish director Lone Scherfig, in her American feature debut, does a nice job guiding the actors to strong performances, which is crucial in a film that’s more character study than plot-driven. Novelist Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, peppering it with his usual humor and smart dialogue, and consulted on the music, which is 1960s groovy.

Scherfig, Sarsgaard, Mulligan, Cooper and Williams showed up to do Q & A at the Variety screening I attended. Random tidbits gleaned from the session:

  • Sarsgaard is handsome and personable in real life, not creepy at all.
  • Mulligan is sporting a chic pixie cut and will use an American accent for her role as Gordon Gekko’s daughter, Winnie, in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, currently shooting in NY. She’s more sophisticated in person than in Education, speaking in a lower register and showing no signs of Jenny’s gigglyness.
  • Cooper, whose on-screen presence has never made any impression on me, was hilarious in person. He had a funny answer to everything and was very flirtatious without being obnoxious.
  • Scherfig is a smart, fascinating woman. She said the people she’s inspired by are completely different from the people who influence her work. Example: She gets a lot of advice from Lars von Trier (Antichrist) and admires him but would never try to do anything resembling his work.
  • Williams identified with her role as Jenny’s teacher in the film because she’s a grammar nerd. (Love that!) She said the crew on her current Fox series, Dollhouse, is constantly teasing her for picking out split infinitives and dangling prepositions in the scripts.

Nerd verdict: A worthwhile Education

All photos by Kerry Brown, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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