Disney's A Christmas Carol

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This story is well-enough known that I will indulge in some spoilers, mostly because some elements of this movie are beautiful and innovative, and some just plain did not belong. The aggregate score makes it a rental, because the highs were very high, but the lows very low. First of all, all performance-capture technicians should be so lucky as to have a face such as Jim Carrey’s to use for source movement. Like Andy Serkis before him, Carrey has fine control of his expressions, and his entire physical instrument. As a result, the character of Scrooge is a wonder to behold. You can almost feel the veins pounding with ire behind his dessicated skin. Carrey plays him with real heart, real bile, real fear.

That said, why would you then skimp on every other character — even the other ones played by Carrey? Sure, Scrooge is the reason we’re here, but you spoil us with a rich, nearly photo-realistic performance and then bust out faces like the kid in the first Toy Story movie (admittedly with better texture mapping)? The uncanny valley looks all the deeper when you’ve got the mountain in the same shot. Also: stop making the characters look like their voice actors. Sure, it helps identify their player, but that’s what credits are for. When you give us Colin Firth’s voice coming out of a creepy Colin Firth waxwork, it’s even more jarring than say, Cary Elwes’ voice coming out of a portly stranger. OK, huzzah for the casting reunions from Princess Bride and Liar Liar. Give everyone with a substantial speaking part a new face and put a ton of dots on them too, or don’t do it at all. Poor Gary Oldman could really have worked Bob Cratchit to the maximum.

London is a beautiful place to fly a camera through when rendered with such loving Dickensian detail — people and streets, chamberpots and shops, sweeps and urchins. I imagine in 3-D it would be even more swooping and gorgeous. But then the creepy robots sing their stiff-mouthed carols — even with adorable character design they just disturb next to Scrooge’s twitching nasolabial folds.

The reason to remake this story in CG is to explore storytelling techniques that you couldn’t do as well or easily with live-action, right? Not just to jump on the 3D bandwagon. Right? Not just to find ways to poke things into the faces of the kids in the audience and go “Wooo Dickens is COOOOL!” Right? Of course I expect some expansion from the relatively intimate story, but some of these elaborate showcases felt like someone wished he made a different movie and decided just to keep the idea. I am glad I didn’t see it in 3-D because the camera poking was pretty egregious at times.

This Christmas Carol also doesn’t seem to know its audience. Between goofy chase scenes and glossing over some of the better poetry of the novel, and genuinely scary, profound moments of self-discovery on the part of Scrooge, I’d say they may also not have read the book. I would never take a child to see this — the sections with Jacob Marley and the spirit of Christmas Yet To Come are quite scary and effectively done. Future was portrayed as only a silent shadow, its bony hand sliding along reality to point the way for Scrooge…unless it pokes, black and glistening and fakey, into the 3-D realm, ruining the beautiful and haunting effect. After the Ringwraiths and Dementors and depictions of Death over a century of cinema, I was so pleased to see something different for Christmas Yet To Come…and then frustrated. Did I mention the ridiculous, gratuitous chase scene? Chase. Scene. Future does not chase you and shrink you and — Zemeckis!!!!!

The Ghost of Christmas Past was handled like a human candle, a creative and different interpretation of happier times and the ephemerality of memory. He and Christmas Present are also played by Jim Carrey (Future may have been as well, but there was no face to animate), and Past had an inexplicable Irish accent and a hissing whisper, the blame for both of which I can only lay on director Robert Zemeckis’ shoulders. It was such a lovely idea of a candle and then ruined.

And then we come to Christmas Present. As we know, Present is the boisterous, merry love-of-life spirit of jolly, earthy goodness and generosity. They got the general look of him right (oddly including the petulant forehead wrinkle that Carrey fans will recognize as his impish look, not his expansive humanity-loving look), but the booming warm laugh is instead incredibly horrible and fake and creepy. If this was meant to be a Scrooged-type cynical commentary on how artificial our seasonal bursts of kindness are before we slide back into 11 months of selfishness, well, it didn’t work. It looked bush league. His laugh was unsettling and creepy and not at all merry, and it ruined everything else: the cornucopia of generosity, the hale spirit astride the wonders of the world, and the truly lovely way he showed Scrooge his part of the spirits’ presentation. This scene would have been the most effective in 3-D, but if I had seen that petulant wrinkle shake out those kidnapper-van laughs in 3-D, I might have fled the building. Present repelled me right when he should have been washing us in the wassail of what Scrooge is missing. Again, this ancillary character wasn’t given full animation of his face, despite being based on rubberface Carrey.

I wish I could cut a montage of the sobering and well-thought-out segue from Present to Future, the swooping flights through London and Scrooge’s face. But I cannot. Wait to watch it at home with some warmth to ward off the chill.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 11/6.09

Time in minutes 96

Director Robert Zemeckis

Studio Walt Disney Pictures


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I am beholden to various entities to keep my review content PG. But in the interests of journalistic integrity, I feel I should report that in my cramped notes I dropped, for my own train of thought record keeping, the F-bomb three times. Holy, Amazing, and just plain F-bomb. The usual tenor of my notes is more like “clips along but where is this going?” not audible jaw drops with no real descriptive use. My verbal effusions weren’t much more erudite.

Precious is a pregnant black teenager abused in all ways at home, struggling upstream in a system that rushes by her as if she is invisible. She knows she’s seen as part of the black grease that needs to be scrubbed out of the ghetto — she also knows that she is more than that, but no one will ever know it. She is trapped in so many ways. Between a school system that judges her for something they should be sheltering her from, and a home life that reduces her to less than a dishrag, Precious is being squeezed out of the world. This film (based on the novel Push, by Saffire, and based on real Bronx lives) shows us how the fire that has miraculously remained lit inside this girl finally purifies her.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe carries the literal and emotional weight of Precious as if it had always been her own. To see her as her bubbly self in interviews is almost more startling than her under-the-skin performance. When Precious is asked a question we the audience know the answer to, but to which she will not give, we can see her shell collapse just that much more behind her eyes. To the unaware she looks sullen; to us she looks beaten. The fact that she isn’t suicidal is already amazing, and the film continues to defy our expectations.

Her true horror of a mother is played with extraordinary fierceness by Mo’Nique. She is an unpredictable wild beast, her motives simple but her actions like wildfire. Mo’Nique is terrifying and raw and amazing. The pain just this woman alone could cause is incalculable; her collusion with Precious’ father’s abuses is incomprehensible, yet Mo’Nique doesn’t let us leave the theatre without understanding it. Scenes with Mo’Nique and Sidibe are — it’s been said before but there is no better word — harrowing and thrumming with tension.

Lest ye think Precious is just another “ghetto life be hard, yo” exploitation movie, it is not so, though it does play on our awareness that we tend to marginalize these kinds of characters into such stereotypes. Precious may always have greater problems than we can fathom, but the hope and future she does find is planets away from where we first find her. The subject matter is vital, the events rough, and the movie is astounding.

Sophomore director Lee Daniels doesn’t shy away from moments where our protagonists falter or our antagonists show a good side. He clearly ran a set where the actors felt safe to expose themselves, abandoning any sense of vanity or sanitizing. When things are at their worst, Precious’ fantasy world takes over to protect her and us. Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz seemed like they were stunt cast until I saw their solid and tender scenes. They justify their star presence by fading next to Sidibe’s. Carey in particular got me where I live during a key scene late in the film.

I almost gave this film the rating of Matinee With Snacks because it is so hard to say “you’ll love it!” to a movie such as this, but sometimes even I have to remember that Full Price Feature means that this movie gives you all of your admission’s worth and Precious surely does. So please reward Lionsgate for this brave, terrifying, beautiful story.

MPAA Rating  R – child abuse, sexual assault, strong language

Release date 11/6/09

Time in minutes 109

Director Lee Daniels

Studio Lionsgate

The Stoning of Soraya M.

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It’s a tough sell, a film about the 1986 stoning of a woman.  And yes, I mean the barbaric execution sort of stoning, not anything with a bong.  It came and went in theatres like a flash; when I received my screener DVD, I eyed it with trepidation.  It is a difficult topic and an emotionally wrenching concept, and that’s even before you slide the disc in and read “based on a true story.”  It’s the sort of movie you might have chosen to avoid, but I think it is very important to squarely face this tale as best you can.  See it.  I confess that I (even inured little me) spent some time peeking through the cracks of my fingers, and I did need help divorcing my rational brain from my empathy.  Soraya’s story got out of Ayatollah-controlled Iran at great risk and at a terrible price — she deserves the comparatively mild commitment of us to watch the dramatic retelling of her story.  And the filmmakers and actors deserve it as well.

Soraya (Mozhan Marno) falls victim to her village’s calculating, dismissive men.  Her only friend and ally is her aunt, Zahra (Shoreh Aghdashloo), a fearless woman who wields some of the only feminine authority in that place.  Aghdashloo has always impressed in small roles and large, but here is a role of cunning, bravery, misery, steely resolve, and crumpled hope.  Marno’s role is in some ways easier — she has only to suffer, resign, mourn.  I don’t mean at all to belittle her performance: it was harrowing.   Her end can only elicit horror and despair, no matter how well she succeeds in making us love her.  Aghdashloo has a showy role, but one where she must dole out her showiness in careful measure.

Everyone gives a profoundly affecting performance.  I can’t imagine being asked to play any of these men; even the gentlest male soul has to bury his actorly humanity in service of the character by the end of the film.  I wonder too how close these actors (male and female) are culturally to the world they are depicting, and how it must also have affected them.  This is a very good film, but it is hard for me to chirp “check it out” because it will stick with you, twisting in your stomach and making your life’s petty annoyances feel less than trivial.

Based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam (portrayed by Jim Caviezel), The Stoning plays out much as it must have been told to him.  It unspools like a fable, the terrible course of Soraya’s life before the story begins, and the plot to end it.  The reign of the Ayatollah Khomeni continued for three years after this story takes place, and, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, set the cultural attitudes back in that country by 2000 years almost overnight.  For such ugliness of humanity to rise so easily, for such unfairness and cruelty to bloom so virulently requires such a deficit of empathy, rationality, compassion it hurts to think about it.  I wonder if this film might inadvertently re-injure the peaceful followers of Islam who are still smarting from the backlashes of 9/11-motivated hate crimes.  My heart found it inconceivable to see any good in these men, even Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), a man unique among his peers for shedding tears over the death of his wife.  Still, to allow such atrocities to continue is impossible to endure.  My hope is that Soraya will serve as a symbol for so many others who in modern times have met the same fate, and help stop the practice of stoning.  This film is eye-opening and heart-draining and it is excellently produced.

MPAA Rating  R – disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language.

Release date 6/26/09

Time in minutes 116

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

Studio Roadside Attractions

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

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After a truly fantastical opening credits sequence, I worried that Cirque du Freak might have exhausted its quality potential. Thankfully, it had not. Adapting the first three of Darren Shan’s books and having a whimsical and sardonic dark tone, this film will inevitably be compared to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. That film also squished three wonderful books into one passable film and had an outstanding cast. To compare them is a disservice to both, however. I have not read Shan’s books, but The Vampire’s Assistant made me want to. A key difference between these works is the generally more sunny and big-picture tone of Cirque du Freak, compared to the cynical, intimate feel of Unfortunate Events. The filmgoing experience is very different but the superficial similarities might make you prejudge and miss this one, if the other one didn’t do it for you.

The real appeal of Cirque du Freak is the engaging cast of characters. Our sweet goody two-shoes titular hero (named Darren Shan!) gets himself into a pretty serious pickle, but has a fantastic network of freaks and outcasts by his side. Key among these is John C. Reilly, the vampire who makes it all happen. Reilly has always solidly marched the line between weird and sympathetic, and this role benefits from this and his wonderful, dry sense of humor. Fellow freak-show denizens have small yet titillating parts, sucking you in for future tales to tell and flitting away to let the central relationships in the story play out. We meet, briefly, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Ken Watanabe, Patrick Fugit, Jane Krakowski, and Jessica Carlton. We want more of all of them. But for now, we must have exposition. A war is brewing between the Vampires and the Vampaneze, and you can probably guess that Universal really wants to have a sequel explore this plot element, which drops in at the end, Lord of the Rings style. Meanwhile, we have families to abandon, best friends to negotiate, and teachers to complain about (Galaxy Quest’s Patrick Breen, always a hoot).

The funny bits are amusing, the action entertaining, the themes simple, the promise of future tales tantalizing, and the overall feel of the movie is more charming than epic or scary. It has the simple feel of a Young Adult series but some of the same adult-friendly wit that Mr. Snicket engages in. I love these people and I want to see more of them. I also want to see more story involving Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris, in artificial layers of blubber), who was a delectably prissy and menacing creature. I want more! Some book adaptations feel like they left something out; this movie is dense but still just a sample size. The creepy small CG creatures aren’t particularly compelling but I suspect they will become important. Meanwhile, I’ll grab the book and see if it sates my need to wallow around in this fun and adventurous world. The only real deficit is that the stakes, whatever they are, never feel all that high, despite death and battle and soul sucking and so forth. So, maybe it’s a little frothy? It’s still fun.

MPAA Rating PG 13

Release date 10/23/09

Time in minutes 109

Director Paul Weitz

Studio Universal Pictures

Where The Wild Things Are

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Occasionally I will mitigate opinions in this forum that I know will be unpopular when I am specifically writing a review of a film that I know carries a lot of emotional charge for people. In trying to be politic I try and soften the subjective emotions I felt to impart a sense of fairness. This is not one of those times. Where The Wild Things Are made me want to punch someone in the face. It’s not Max Records (Max) — he was given the material and he sold it to us with real heart and facility. It’s not the art department, whose awe-inspiring sets and puppet designs are what drew me to the film in the first place. It’s not the musicians, though they skirt the edge of over-preciousness, they never quite tip over the edge. It’s the words.

The Where The Wild Things Are film purports to celebrate the wild feeling of being nine, of being old enough for complex emotions but too young to deal with or communicate them properly. Instead, it feels like a paean to bratty self-absorption, to the same alienating je ne sais quois that occasionally makes me skim McSweeney’s articles or itches me under my skin like the musical Hair. It’s that kind of “every man is an island” lack of self-reflection that I seem to find most often in the films targeted to the Baby Boomer demographic. Not the people, per se, but the stuff “made for them.” It also gave me the same stomachache that I get reading about financial scandals, but I can’t figure that one out. It’s just a gut sense of being repelled, despite the aforementioned artistic triumphs.

Max’s acting out is almost immediately followed by touching remorse — he’s hardly a real problem child, and his home life seems pretty dang nice, even for being a single parent one. He runs away and ends up in the Where of the title, a land of immature, self-involved, bickering monsters who seem to need nothing other than air and each other to sustain themselves. Since he’s street-smarter than they are, Max becomes king. Prolix days pass and characters are annoying and tautological, sounding like these dopey 70’s TA for Tots books. Director Spike Jonze wrote the script with Dave Eggers, who flirts with excessive hipster preciousness quite a bit in his work,; here they try to create a rich and varied world from the unique drawings and brief sentences of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book. In doing so, it seemed that they filled the cracks with some personal baggage that hadn’t been fully sorted yet.

I applaud the film’s strong sense of tone and reality and beauty, I marvel at the puppet-acting and the CG enhancement of the monsters’ faces. These creature costumes were put through the ringer with lots of very physical demands put on them, in huge crashing movement and small, delicate acting moments as well. All the Wild Things’ movement seems very natural and fluid, there are no stiff Skeksis here. If the dialogue could bear the force of the script’s arbitrary mood swings and motivationless tantrums with the same durable pliability of the costumes, I wouldn’t have been so irked.

Jonze and Eggers are my contemporaries, growing up in the same Generation X atmosphere of upheaval and insecurity that marked our childhoods, but these guys seem like they are flirting with the same navel-gazing self-centeredness of their parents. Sure, we’ve all gotten old enough to be disillusioned by our once-seemingly-infallible caretakers. It’s how we deal/dealt with it that forms the core of our character as we grow past that, perhaps into the seemingly infallible caregivers of someone else. If these guys are questioning their own childhoods based on their own daddyhoods, it doesn’t belong here. Max appears to have learned no lesson, nor imparted one, except maybe “yep, life is the same all over so we should probably learn how to be responsible.” I found it to be crushingly slow to come to any sort of narrative interest, after being so circumspect with the creatures in the beginning (I was also reminded of Samuel Beckett, and I don’t mean that as a compliment).

Overall, besides the gorgeousness and the genuine actual performances of Max and the Wild Things, this movie drove me around the bend. Watch it on HBO for the glory of the captured image and save your money for greater things.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 10/16/09

Time in minutes 101

Director Spike Jonze

Studio Warner Brothers

An Education

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Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education plays out rather like a diary read. When you write of exciting moments in your life, you don’t need to elaborate on certain things, like best friends’ names or schoolwork, and this film doesn’t bother to either. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a schoolgirl, almost but not quite of age, who falls into a relationship with David, an older man (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s more than that, of course. Her education at school suffers at the hands of the education in life she receives from David — but also she learns about the importance of both for women in 1961, when it was “a waste” for a marriageable woman to go to university — what would she use her education for? Jenny is a model student being pushed by her reclusive, narrow father (terrifically portrayed by Alfred Molina) to get into Oxford. Her book education is vast — she can speak of paintings she has never seen, speak the languages of countries she has never visited, and read novels about lives neither she nor her parents ever live. Molina is a puckered, tight-fisted near-agoraphobe and has trapped Jenny’s mother (Cara Seymour) in his web of fear and rigidity. It’s a wonder Jenny didn’t rebel sooner.

Enter, oh so casually, Peter Sarsgaard, a man genetically engineered for the role of David. Sarsgaard is both non-threatening and feral — he’s got a boyish face with impish laugh-lines well set into his charming face. He’s too sweet, too smooth, such that the wise old woman sitting in my seat didn’t trust him for a millisecond. He seduces her parents into a foggy state of permissiveness that could only take root in a home so sheltered from life. David continually comes up with new sides to his character, shady and sunny. He’s never predatory, always generous, but one still has to wonder, why a girl so young? Mulligan would tempt any man to be sure — she’s beautiful and sparkly, and can hold forth on all her book-learning better than the more uncultured adults in David’s life (particularly Rosamund Pike). It was hard to watch Jenny fall so easily to chaotic neutral David, but it was deliriously romantic as well. He wears down our resistance and we fall for him too.

Balancing Jenny’s tumultuous emotional education are the pillars of her academic one, teacher Olivia Williams and headmistress Emma Thompson. What Jenny sees when she looks at these women, contrasted with her world with Sarsgaard and Pike and Dominic Cooper, is pointless drudgery. Screenwriter Nick Hornby is an old hand at writing stories about men finding their sea legs in life and taking off the blinders that keep them single-minded precluding all else (Fever Pitch, About A Boy, High Fidelity). It’s lovely to see that he can translate his narrative skills and insight to a female’s perspective. The diary feel is all the more a triumph for having been translated through a man.

The production is gorgeous, from the lush elegance of the grown-up world to the chalky stultification of the classroom. The soundtrack is pretty, the costumes are dashing (even before Mad Men this has always been my favorite sartorial period). An Education is deliciously shot by John De Norman (check out his filmography to be impressed). Jenny grows wiser — and wisdom comes from life, not books. She receives an education, and through Barber’s memoir, seeks to educate us — not on the follies of her youth, but the importance of life teaching and knowing why we learn what we learn. It’s great, check it out.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 10/9/09

Time in minutes 100

Director Lone Scherfig

Studio Sony Pictures Classics

The Informant!

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The Informant! (yes with the exclamation point, though no more for the rest of this review) positions itself as a wacky comedy and a sort of industrial espionage thriller, adapted from Kirt Eichenwald’s novel.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon as a kind of Talentless Mr. Ripley) imagines himself a master sleuth — or a master criminal — and most of the comedy in this movie is Mark’s internal monologue. I haven’t read the book, but the movie makes me want to. Mark goes from being a man with an adorable sense of importance to the inverse of a corporate shark; his machinations implode. The movie itself starts to slowly implode into a still-amusing but increasingly convoluted muddle of absurdity.

I was reminded of the short-lived but brilliant TV show Profit, except upside-down and inside-out. Whitacre is a whistleblower who draws the Feds’ attentions to his agricultural company, revealing malfeasance amongst his colleagues. He clearly enjoys being a mole, but he really didn’t think through the whole process. The screenwriter also wrote the Bourne Ultimatum, but this amount of doublespeak and back-pedaling appears to have done him in. Since the book in paperback is a surprising 656 pages, naturally the film is a lesser-than ad for the book. I was enjoying Mark’s internal monologues much more than the actual “plot,” and wished I could just relax and enjoy that part of the story’s universe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still diverting, but it’s the kind of movie that stymies my proper critical eye (and ability to write) due to being so jumbled and ambitious, much like its hero. I can’t really blame the screenwriter; director Steven Soderbergh often falls prey to the very intangible thing that bogs down this film: that foggy mushy feeling that I think he uses to make something feel real but instead obscures everyone and makes us sleepy.

The supporting cast is littered with random comedy luminaries (from Seth McFarlane to the Smothers Brothers) who plau their roles with deadly seriousness. Perhaps this lends to the chimaeric feel of the movie, because you have Mr. Action/Drama as a pudgy situational disaster on wheels, and Misters Comedians as hard-nosed heavies and foils. The movie feels uneven and unfinished; it would be easy to blame the adaptation process, with all its necessary slicing and dicing, but even the design of it feels off. Set during the years 1992-1995, the tone is irrepressibly 1970’s. If it weren’t for more modern technologies popping up here and there, I’d never have known it was taking place during the Clinton administration.

My recommendation is to rent the movie, and it may make you, like me, want to check out the book. Save your money for the late fall Oscar releases.

MPAA Rating R-language

Release date 9/18/09

Time in minutes 108

Director Steven Soderbergh

Studio Warner Brothers

Julie & Julia

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Reading the book Julie & Julia, I found myself alternately repelled by and identifying with the main narrator Julie Powell.  Powell is the blogger who took a year to cook her way through Julia Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Child, of course, is, in Powell’s mind, a larger than life, benevolent food angel, guiding her hand and transforming her miserable cubicle existence into, um, something else.  A blogging career? Interrupting Powell’s navel-gazing are dribs and drabs of Child meeting her husband and deciding to cook.  In the film, Child is already blissfully married and struggling to publish the very book that Powell is laboring over.  I like this choice on the part of writer/director Nora Ephron — it makes a nice parallel for the two women to be struggling with cooking and then giving birth to a book. It’s all a true story so narrative license isn’t an issue.  Ephron brings in more of Alex Prud’homme’s book My Life In France and the movie is all the better for it.  As for the scads of onscreen cooking, go to the movie hungry at your peril.

I mentioned being repelled by Powell.  I can’t put my finger on it but I laid down the book and came out of the movie disliking her a lot.  No, it’s not professional jealousy.  Ephron wisely cast the winsome and lovable Amy Adams in the role, and even with such a pair of fairy godmothers, Powell still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The grand pleasure of Meryl Streep as Julia Chilld and Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul so overwhelms Powell and her hubby Eric that you thank Ephron for giving them so much more face time.  Streep is transformed into this big-boned, restless giantess ball of energy and verve.  Tucci radiates adoration of her, and their scenes together are romantic and funny and crackling.  Whatever you may have thought of Child before, you will definitely fall in love with Streep’s version.

Overall the human cornucopia that is Streep is carrying the energy and feel-goodness of this movie.  Adams is providing her natural comic timing and sweetness to make Powell as human as possible, and she succeeds more than I would have thought possible.  Through her struggle we are meant to appreciate Powell’s struggle to complete this harrowing task, but instead we learn to value Child’s own struggles to bring out her inner “Chef Julia Child” that Powell dreams of emulating for her own life.

Both women make it through their transformations largely thanks to the boon of having truly loving husbands.  The characters of their respective relationships are reflected in the womens’ characters.  Child abounds with can-do spirit, and her relationship lifts and grows with her new passion.  Powell crumbles and snaps and dithers and her marriage takes it on the chin accordingly.  As a result, what might have been a cross-generational connection between two women finding their bliss through parallel, buttery paths turns instead into an object lesson in the difference between magnetism and narcissism.

Nora Ephron has her directorial ups and downs but she has always been really good at the subtle art of forging connections between people who aren’t in the same room/scene.  So she is the best choice to direct this movie (also she is reputedly a big foodie) and she does the best she can here with the personae involved, but ultimately we are left to choose between Powell and Child, rather than groove on a connection.  From a technical standpoint, the movie is lovely to behold.  Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt makes all kinds of lovely mirror and window shots that support the life parallel idea.  However, the boom operator must have been in a consistent food coma because the microphone dropped into at least eight scenes.  Not shots — full scenes!  Maybe more.  It was quite alarmingly visible very often.  This created the unintended effect of showcasing that we’re watching Streep on screen acting like Child, but still Streep overcomes.  The film wraps up with a sweet, whitewashed epilogue, and we left only wanting more Streep and Tucci.  Streep Streep Streep.

MPAA Rating  PG-13
Release date 8/7/09
Time in minutes  123
Director  Nora Ephron
Studio Columbia Pictures

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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After Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was very concerned that this very talky, complex book would be ruined like the last film.  Shining beacon of hope:  Screenwriter Steve Kloves is back! And it makes all the difference in the world.  Kloves really gets JK Rowling’s books and distills the important bits while taking liberties with specific moments to summarize sweeping chapters with no loss of meaning.  Bless him, I may love this installment even more than The Prisoner of Azkaban.  At no point did this movie waste any of its 153 minutes, and the time flew by, marked only by the less-seasoned bladders of my companions.

Director David Yates and Production Designer Stuart Craig take us to new locations, or make previously briefly glimpsed locations new and real and tangible.  At more than one point in my two-dimensional, non-IMAX showing, I could only describe Potter’s world in this film as very three-dimensional.  The sets and props as always are gorgeous and detailed and solid.  Building on Chris Columbus’ brilliant casting and core designs from the first two films, this sixth film of Rowling’s series is rich in texture and realism.  I theorize that so many new locations were developed for this in part because they were already being realized for the theme park, due to open within the year.  Either way, wow.  I’ve always wanted a peek at Arthur Weasley’s Muggle collection and gleeee!  I’ll see it again in 3-D IMAX and I can save myself a plane ticket to Orlando (not!).

Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) gets more screen time than he has since the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Rickman uses every bit of it to project his unfathomable eyes at us and turn the ladies squiffy against their wills.  Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has grown up and his performance shows it — he’s finally got more to do than sneer his Aryan pride onto our leads.  And oh, Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn.  So sublimely funny and weak and avaricious — and funny!  This is the funniest of the series, and also the most affecting.  Fans of the books, curious about That Scene, will, I think, not be disappointed in Klove’s interpretation.

Our trio of leads of course has also grown up  – Hermione (Emma Watson) pulls an Annette Funicello and turns in her best acting to date, while Ron (Rupert Grint) channels Alan Tudyk’s unique and delicate style of broad humor.  You’ll see what I mean.  Because of course, you’re going, right?  Why are you still at the computer?

Harry and Dumbledore’s oft-glossed relationship in previous films finally gets to stretch its legs a bit more here.  So much has to be summarized by their scenes, so it’s lucky we have Daniel Radcliffe and Michael Gambon to pour their hearts into it.  After so many years together, the whole cast (not just the leads) has grown together into a tight machine, and while their on-set world is miles away from their on-screen one, you feel the ensemble making Rowling’s world real for us.

Merlin’s pants, what a fine motion picture!  It delivers so much, has so much humor and pathos and kindness and evil and delicious costumes and sets, you might forget about the props, special effects, or the painting-like shots; not just for Huge Moments, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes Hogwarts and beyond into a marvel.  I seriously cannot think of one thing I would want different.  This was a fantastic adaptation of an excellent book, and well worth your time and money.

MPAA Rating  PG
Release date 7/15/09
Time in minutes  153
Director  David Yates
Studio Warner Brothers

The Taking of Pelham 123

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My companion saw the 1974 original film adaptation of John Goday’s novel, remade here by Serious Director Tony Scott, and he reported that the original was just not this serious in tone.  At the time, I couldn’t imagine a movie taking itself more seriously; the more I thought about it, though, the less serious it was possible for this movie to be.  Scott takes what is really, as caper adventure movies go, a small-scale crime, and turns it into a super-intense warlike movie, with implied conspiracies and unnecessarily unsavory side stories.  Also, his second unit director was shooting a very different movie, one that is modern and grainy and jittery and sexy, a rock video urban war documentary cut scene.  The editing of visuals and sound and effects are so tight and sexy as to feel weird and out of place — they are trying to be intense, but the overall effect seems to be getting in the way of the real, two-person movie.  By this I mean the conversation between complicated-backstory dispatcher Denzel Washington and overtly-scary unlikely-backstory John Travolta.  Why can’t these guys just be a regular working joe and a scary criminal dude?  I can enjoy Travolta when he’s being a tough guy, and Washington is good at being supereveryman, but together they really do snap crackle and pop when the movie isn’t trying to make sure it’s still exciting.

Travolta’s character looks like a cartoon of a Scary Guy, and all his actions are so irrational and unrealistic, it’s hard not to tell the snipers in your head to fire at will.  He’s committed and proves it, but he’s still pretty unstable and an easy target not taken.  Washington is burdened with a Past and an unintentionally hilarious tool of a boss (While You Were Sleeping’s Michael Rispoli), and an almost-comedic confederate, hostage negotiator John Turturro.  No one knows what they are doing, but somehow it’s all coming together.  Like so many dramas these days (television and film), the machinery of Getting Things Done is oiled and ready, crossing midtown traffic in a trice and generating bags of cash in less time than that.  In real life, even with everyone in the same room, it can take 20 minutes to have 5 people sign the same piece of paper.  Criminals seem to know this and make insane demands, and no one even stops to blink.  It’s annoying.

In the moment, it all feels very dangerous and urgent and important, but in retrospect it seems almost silly.  It still was taking itself very seriously.  Yes, there are fatalities and mostly grim expressions, but the movie never feels like it could actuallyt take place, never exudes a sense of reality to keep our adrenaline pumped.  Washington’s wife’s last words to him (spoiled by the preview) before he goes, untrained and unable, into mortal danger, couldn’t be meant for anything but a comedy.  They completely deflate the tension and our concern for hero Washington.  What is The Taking of Pelham 123 meant to be? Drama? Spoof?  It succeeds and fails at both at the same time.

MPAA Rating  R – violence and pervasive language.
Release date 6/12/09
Time in minutes 121
Director  Tony Scott
Studio Columbia Pictures