Tag Archives: Movies

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 Plus Q & A: THE ROAD

v & k walking macall polay

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

I was really hesitant about going to a Variety screening of The Road (opening Nov. 25), the long-delayed movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, because the story is so depressing. It’s about a nameless man and his son trying to survive after the apocalypse by any means short of cannibalism (though other survivors engage in that). But star Viggo Mortensen was doing Q & A afterwards along with director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall so I was curious enough to attend. (I learned loads of interesting info; see notes below.)

v & k embrace

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

Well, depressing doesn’t begin to describe the movie. There’s an ongoing reference to how The Man has a gun but only two bullets, which he’s saving for his son and himself in case things get too hopeless for them to go on. Mid-movie, I was screaming in my head, “Give me one of those bullets! Or build a fire and throw me on it!” The story is soul-breaking and gives you only a tiny glimmer of hope at the end.

Stomach-turning plot points aside, however, Road is very well done. Mortensen goes deeply inside a character who’s heart-piercingly tender towards his son but fierce towards all else. He also looks like he ages and becomes more emaciated right before our eyes. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as The Boy, does brave and mature work while maintaining the innocence of a child who’s never known a world where there were living things and enough food to eat. He does look a bit well-fed for the character—his cheeks have baby fat and his lips are plump—but I don’t think I could’ve handled watching a gaunt, sickly child on top of everything else.

charlize

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

Charlize Theron is believably weary as The Woman who just can’t take it anymore, though I suspect her golden hair helped a little in getting her the role. In The Man’s dreams about the life he used to have with her, the world is full of color and The Woman’s bright, shiny hair is the most striking thing in it. It’s a sharp reminder of the lightness he’s lost.

The story asks tough questions: How do you hang on to your humanity when you’re competing with savages to survive in a lawless world? What are you willing to do to keep your child from suffering? How do you know when the last ounce of hope has left your soul? While I hope I won’t ever be tested like this, I appreciate McCarthy’s and the filmmakers’ examination of human nature in a non-sentimental way which still manages to be quite moving.

As mentioned, Mortensen, Hillcoat and Penhall did Q & A after the screening. The session was almost as fascinating as the movie. Some things I learned:

  • Director Hillcoat’s favorite disaster movie is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He was also inspired by The Bicycle Thief for its minimalism and The Grapes of Wrath.
  • landscape

    courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

    Though the landscape is stark with a gray and brown palette throughout, Hillcoat used real locations instead of green screens. Locations included Pennsylvania because of the strip mining and Louisiana because Katrina clean-up was far from complete. There were about 50 locations total.

  • Mortensen said he was cold for real during much of the shoot. Hillcoat told him it’s better to be cold than to pretend to be cold.
  • Mortensen is humble, smart, dry-witted and so frakkin’ cool in person. He’s got the easy confidence of someone who’s got nothing to prove to anyone, and brought a copy of the book and a bottle of wine to give out to random audience members who correctly answered trivia questions about the movie.
  • Penhall said he loves Sam Shepard as a screenwriter and it’s easy to see why. Both men cover complex and gritty subject matter in minimalistic ways.
  • McCarthy told Hillcoat he didn’t miss anything from the book except four lines of dialogue which he asked to be re-inserted. It involved The Boy asking The Man, “What would you do if I died?” The ensuing conversation is verbatim from one the author had with his own son.
  • Hillcoat said McCarthy’s favorite film is Fellini’s La Strada, which means The Road.

Nerd verdict: Rough Road but one worth taking

Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT

mj

Watching This Is It, I felt like a cave person being exposed to fire, thinking, “Fire. Good,” because I lacked the vocab to adequately describe what I was seeing. This documentary of rehearsal footage for Michael Jackson’s tour-that-never-was gives an idea of how incredible the spectacle would have been. The pyrotechnics, props, and dancing are eye-popping, but the most amazing special effect is MJ himself.

The man was a genius. He was not only able to visualize things most people can’t imagine, he had the talent and means to bring them to life. His passion for entertaining is obvious, the stage truly his home. It was moving to see how kind he was to his crew and how much he inspired them, how they loved him for it, and what a perfectionist he was without being a nightmare. He worked harder than anyone and the few times he disagreed with his musicians or director Kenny Ortega, he was respectful about it and always right.

criminalMy favorite numbers were “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller,” which incorporated Jackson into filmed segments leading into live performances. For “Criminal,” Jackson inserted himself into that signature scene from Gilda with Rita Hayworth singing “Put the Blame on Mame” and stripping off her gloves (Jackson catches one). For “Thriller,” he was reinventing the video in 3D. After more than 25 years of watching countless others perform that infamous monster dance, it’s quite, well, thrilling to behold the mastermind himself doing it again and see that he’s still got it.

And that’s the thing—at 50, Jackson still had It, the ability to wow me and turn me into a little kid again. I can’t think of many entertainers from my childhood who can still impress my more cynical adult self. The sense of loss is slightly mitigated by the realization that Jackson will probably be with us for a long time, like Elvis and Marilyn. People will continue to organize “Thriller” dance-a-thons and new generations will attempt the moonwalk. The documentary’s title notwithstanding, I don’t think this is it for Michael Jackson.

this is it

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OD’d on PC

This past weekend, I wore my nerd badge proudly and indulged my reading, TV- and DVD-watching, M&M-eating, CD-listening, pop culture-loving tendencies. Here’s what I covered.

DVD — Chéri

Photo by Bruno Calvo

Photo by Bruno Calvo

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Lea de Lonval, an early 20th-century Parisian courtesan who takes Chéri (Rupert Friend), the teenage son of a former rival, under her wing to teach him the ways of the world. A weekend turns into a six-year affair which ends when the boy’s mother (Kathy Bates) arranges for him to marry a girl closer to his age. Lea and Chéri pretend they’re okay with moving on until they realize they can’t.

Pfeiffer is as radiant as ever, showing the vulnerability beneath the proud and elegant facade. Friend’s titular character, however, comes across as a spoiled rich brat and borderline stalker. I didn’t get a sense of true love from these two; it’s more like Lea just doesn’t want to grow old alone and Chéri only wants what he can’t have.

Lea’s gowns are resplendent and Alexandre Desplat’s score is melodious as always, but I expected more from director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting stories by Colette), both of whom had worked with Pfeiffer on the superior Dangerous Liaisons. Nerd verdict: Respectable in parts but not that endearing.

CD — Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson’s Break Up

yorn & scarlettLast month, my friend Tomas made me aware of this album over at his blog, make.see.eat.do, and I finally had a chance to listen to the whole thing. If you were envious of Johansson before because of her bodacious looks and acting skills, you’ll positively want to push her down the stairs after hearing her sing. Because she can, quite impressively. Her retro smoky tones blend well with Yorn’s emo voice on this album of mostly catchy, toe-tapping, folk-rock tunes. This isn’t some misguided star trip a la Don Johnson or Bruce Willis; Johansson (who was asked by Yorn to collaborate) is better than some “singers” out there and should do more albums.

Don’t believe me? Watch the video below for the first single “Relator” (you’ll need surgery to get it out of your head afterward), then go to www.lala.com and register to listen to the entire album for free by entering the actress’s name in the search window. (This only works for U.S. visitors. If you’re overseas, search YouTube for other videos like this one.) Nerd verdict: A recommended Break Up.

TV — White Collar & Grey’s Anatomy

whitecollarWhite Collar, USA’s latest original series, stars Matthew Bomer as Neal Caffrey, a convict who excels in the kind of crimes for which the show is named. In order to stay out of jail, he makes a deal with the FBI agent who finally nabs him to let him help solve cases, using his expert criminal mind. Bomer is handsome with his piercing blue eyes and does a capable job, but he lacks the extra oomph that makes an actor a breakout star. Tim DeKay is solid as Agent Stokes, the straight-up guy who’s frustrated by and a little envious of Caffrey’s lifestyle. The show doesn’t offer anything new but I might tune in again if I’m home on a Friday night and there’s nothing better to watch. Nerd verdict: Lightweight criminal.

Over on ABC, this week’s Grey’s Anatomy episode had the kind of action-packed, pulse-quickening drama that called to mind the show’s best episodes from seasons past (i.e. the “Into You Like a Train” crash ep in which two people were impaled on the same pole and the doctors could only save one). A patient dies amidst the chaos in the ER after a nearby fire and Chief Webber interviews the doctors to determine who’s responsible. The camera swirls like a Tasmanian devil through the scenes, throwing the viewer into the confusion and leaving no time for the kind of angsty stuff that can drag the show down. The Rashomonian element of the doctors telling conflicting stories about the same events made it fun to try and figure out who made the fatal mistake. It also made me hope that Izzie never returns. I didn’t miss her at all and found Alex’s repeated phone calls to her super annoying. Nerd verdict: Heart-poundingly good.

Book — Daniel Judson’s The Violet Hour

judson's coverThis noirish thriller, set in the Hamptons, unfolds over three days as auto mechanic Cal tries to hide his pregnant former boss from her abusive husband while searching for his friend, Lebell, who has gone missing after leaving a trail of blood in his apartment. Cal wants nothing but an orderly life to prove he didn’t inherit criminal tendencies from his father and brother, but as he gets more involved in his friends’ crises, he wonders how far he’s willing to go to keep them out of trouble and even save their lives.

Hour grabbed me from the first minute with its mysterious opening paragraphs about a deadly female assassin. The pace is non-stop, the language rat-tat-tatting through one plot development after another. This book reminded me a little of Charlie Huston’s debut, Caught Stealing, another crime noir with a lean style in which an innocent bystander is driven to violence after inadvertently crossing paths with bad guys.

The novel isn’t perfect; it’s a little too coincidental that all the bad stuff happens to different friends of Cal’s on the same weekend. Judson also has a tendency to overuse commas by inserting adverbs and prepositional/adverbial phrases in awkward places, disrupting the flow of his sentences. Witness:

Closing her eyes, she held still for a moment, or tried to, ended up, despite her efforts, wavering a little.

And:

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, and when they did, she saw, beside the house, in its shadow, both the motorcycle and the Lexus.

But Judson’s characters are dynamic and his plot riveting enough that I was willing to overlook this quirk. Not only that, I now want to read Judson’s other novels, too. Nerd verdict: Hour goes by fast and is time well spent.

What did you read/see/hear this weekend?

Movie Review: AMELIA with Hilary Swank

2009_amelia_003

Having seen the gorgeous trailer, I attended a screening of this movie expecting to be uplifted and inspired and all those other positive adjectives. Alas, it didn’t quite happen. Though this is not a bad movie by any means, it lacks some of the passion I imagine Amelia Earthart had for flying.

If you’re looking for insight into how she got that passion, you won’t find it here. We’re simply told that Earhart wants to fly so she can be free. From her alcoholic father? A miserable childhood? I don’t know because the film doesn’t address that part of her life, and I haven’t read the books—Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell’s The Sounds of Wings—on which Amelia is based. But fly Earhart does, in many spectacularly shot sequences that almost made me run out and sign up for flying lessons, forgetting for a moment I have acute acrophobia.

2009_amelia_014The movie does cover her rise to celebrity status and romances with both G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere) and Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), though they’re depicted quite chastely (the Vidal affair was extramarital), as if to say Earhart’s true love was in the skies, not with any man.

Hilary Swank turns in a respectable performance but she’s hampered by Earhart’s mannerisms and cadences. I’m a huge fan of the actress’s spunky, forthright acting style when she’s playing scrappy characters. Here, portraying an iconic real person from the 2009_amelia_005-11930s, she’s forced to stay within certain boundaries and therefore doesn’t get to unleash her usual fire. McGregor, on the other hand, is sexier and more handsome than I’ve ever seen him (though his screen time is limited), while Gere does his usual squinty-eyed thing. Christopher Eccleston offers prickly but stouthearted support as Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan.

The thing I recommend most about this movie is its cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. The scenes with Swank soaring through clouds, over luscious green hills and blue oceans, put viewers right in the cockpit and clearly illustrate why Earhart loved to fly. There’s a sense of wonder and elation about those moments I wish the rest of Amelia has. The sequence showing her final flight contains some suspense, but the movie about a woman who took risks and broke barriers mostly plays it safe and ends up breaking no new ground at all.

Nerd verdict: Amelia doesn’t soar as high as it could have

All photos by Ken Woroner/Fox Searchlight

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WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE from Kids’ Point of View

I’m happy to have my junior reporters, Aline and Mena Dolinh (11 and 8, respectively) back with their takes on Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. I’d published an earlier review by contributing writer, Eric Edwards, who felt the film might be too disturbing for children. Here, Aline and Mena offer counterpoints.—PCN

Mena’s Thoughts

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

I like Where the Wild Things Are very much. I think the monsters are very funny in the film. I like how they jump up and down and make noise and throw a lot of stuff around. But in the book, Max went to his room and the forest grew all around him. In the movie, he ran out in the street. I think it’s harder for you to go home when you run out in the street. If you just go off in your own room, you can always come back out when you want to, and it’s also easier for someone to find you if they’re worried about you.

My favorite phrase in the movie is at the beginning, in the scene when Max looks at the globe in his room and there is a sign at the bottom from his dad: To Max, the Owner of this World. The monster named Carol says the same phrase later when he shows Max his kingdom. I like Carol and I don’t think he’s scary. He’s a little like me. I think he’s sensitive because whenever he’s sad or mad, he destroys everything.

from Maurice Sendak's book

from Maurice Sendak's book

I like the sunny days that Max spent with the monsters. I know that Max will have to leave after awhile. The filmmakers did a good job copying the pictures of the monsters from the book, because after the movie I went back home and looked at the pictures in the book by Maurice Sendak again. I could pick out the monsters by name when I looked at the book, except in the book they’re just monsters with no names, and in the movie they have names. Although, there’s a bull with people’s feet on the book’s cover that has no name in the book and also doesn’t have a name in the movie. It’s so random that the monsters have generic names, except for Judith and Ira because I don’t know anyone with those names.

The fort in Max’s room at the beginning of the book, and the part with Max running downstairs with a fork after his dog, are right at the beginning of the movie. It doesn’t scare me to see the scene in the movie. I feel like I’m Max running down the stairs chasing his black dog (but in the book he’s a white dog) because the camera was jumping around really fast.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

I can’t explain everything in the movie, like the scene with a giant sheep dog suddenly appearing and running away on the sand when Max is taking a walk with Carol to see his kingdom. Why Alexander played with a cute kitten also doesn’t make sense to me. It’s so random because on that island, you would think there are only monsters and not normal animals. But overall, I thought the movie was funny and I enjoyed it.

Aline’s Take

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Where the Wild Things Are was an enjoyable romp for me. It’s a good family movie laced with the positive, untarnished themes of family, imagination, and good adventure. Despite some early scenes featuring the sensitive Max (Max Records) acting up, destroying parts of his sister’s room in a fit of rage, and running away from home when his mother doesn’t pay attention to him, most kids probably won’t be impacted by it at all.

All kids cry when they’re neglected or their fort is wrecked. They blow up at their family when they’re fed up with being ignored. Running away from home is exaggerated, but even if the original book didn’t include this plot device, it’s a common theme in children’s books. It isn’t something that will be planted into children’s mind and trouble them.

courtesy Warner Bros.

courtesy Warner Bros.

Max’s little boat sails day and night to the land of the Wild Things—a group of whimsical creatures that seem like a dysfunctional family. One of them, K.W., has apparently run away with her friends Bob and Terry, much to the disappointment of their leader, Carol, who appears lonely, misunderstood, and sad at first as he smashes their huts. Naturally, Carol is intrigued by the small newcomer. The rest of the film is basically lighthearted scenes of Max—King of the Wild Things—and his subjects jumping around to the music of Karen O, interlaced with emotional moments of Max finding out more about his new friends.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Finally, when a planned dirt-clod fight backfires, Max and his subjects drift apart. Carol has a few mood swings, Max decides he wants to go home and makes an implied reconciliation with the others (they didn’t want to accept him as king earlier, but apparently respect him enough to join in the goodbye cries when he sets off for home). This part of the ending left me with many questions, such as, “Are the Wild Things back on good terms with each other?” “How has Carol’s character changed from meeting Max?” “Do all of them understand why Max had to leave?”

When Max gets home and hugs his mother, their reunion seems pretty resolved, but our last sight of the monsters is slightly confusing because Max’s relationship with them is somewhat unevenly treated by the director. While the characters have been expanded from the book, they aren’t played to their full potential. Carol’s sensitivity and source of frustration is never explained, Ira and Judith’s unusual romance isn’t shown much, and we never do find out what caused K.W. to leave or why she seems to be the most understanding of Max.

I guess you could say I was disappointed by how it turned out, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected a full hug-and-make-up sequence between Max, Carol, and the rest of the monsters. Maybe such a tidy ending would have made it seem like Spike Jonze had underestimated the minds of his intended audience by giving them a family-friendly, watered-down, happy-mushy ending. Maybe from the director’s viewpoint, the ending was subtle and well handled.

Every good work of art, as they say, can be viewed a number of ways, and the bottom line is that Where the Wild Things Are is a good movie for young kids and art-house snobs alike. It doesn’t underestimate its audience like a squeaky-clean Disney film would, and manages to be fun and childish yet intelligent and dark at the same time.

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