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Movie Issues: Big Eyes

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Movie Issues: Big Eyes

If I were to tell you that Tim Burton had a new movie and it wasn’t weird you’d call me a lair. Well, it’s true! Burton’s new movie, Big Eyes, is a biographical film staring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, focusing on the American artist Margaret Keane (Adams) who’s work was fraudulently claimed in the 1950s and 60s by her then-husband, Walter Keane (Waltz). The film tells the story of their marriage, life, and their heated divorce trial wherein Margaret accuses Walter of stealing her paintings and selling them as his own.

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[Review] Much Ado About Nothing

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[Review] Much Ado About Nothing

After the bigger-than-life superheroes of Avengers, the vampires of Buffy, and the spaceships of Firefly, it’s definitely a head-trip to watch a Joss Whedon movie about a 400 year old play. But it’s a good head-trip, one that you need to go experience.

Yes, I know it’s Shakespeare. You’ll like it. And you’ll understand it, I promise.

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Somewhere

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Somewhere

Sofia Coppola grew up at her famous director father’s side, seeing the glamor and the tedium of Hollywood firsthand. She explored this dichotomy with brilliant directness in Lost in Translation, with bubbly metaphor with Marie Antoinette, and now here.

However one might have enjoyed Translation or Antoinette, they were both gloriously watchable in both their quiet and their antic moments. Somewhere focuses on the tedium to the point where my companions and I were practically counting the unnecessary extra beats and minutes of a shot or scene aloud to keep ourselves entertained.

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The Extra Man

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There are some actors who excel at playing a wide range of eclectic roles, high or low status, mighty or feeble, comic or tragic. There are some few of these who can do so and yet still can shape a character into a thing that could only have been played by themselves. Kevin Kline is that later sort. This is not to say that every character he plays is himself, or is the same. Rather, Klein’s Henry Harrison (a nod to Henry Higgins by Rex Harrison?) becomes a creature even greater than could possibly have been on the page because he was played by Kline. It has been too long since we’ve enjoyed him on the big screen (2008’s Definitely Maybe was too little to count). His Harrison is why you would go see The Extra Man, for the rest of the film struggles to keep up with him. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build a microcosmos of character, rather than fussing about the world at large.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a timid academic with a mild budding fetish, and who was born about 80-90 years too late. He finds himself Harrison’s roommate and eventual protégé in the business of being an “extra man,” a sort of sexless escort for rich people for whom sycophancy and the balance of the dinner table is more important than sincerity or friendship. Harrison is maddeningly opaque and calculatingly eccentric — a charge that could have been levied against this movie had it not been peopled with actors of such sincerity. Louis is almost embarrassingly naïve and repressed, but Dano makes it charming. Harrison is beyond sexist, flighty, and unsustainably cavalier, but Kline makes it charming and even appealing. Their dynamic could feel forced — it almost does when their inexplicably falsetto neighbor John C. Reilly joins the scene — and yet by some miracle they keep it grounded and keep it real and sweet. One scene in particular recalls many such “lovable eccentric” moments in other films, but never devolved into preciousness. I consider that a great triumph.

The art of being an Extra Man does not contribute much to the narrative, but it does enable us to have a couple of lovely scenes with The Billionairess, played by Tony darling Marian Seldes. A fun piece of trivia about La Seldes: she was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for appearing in “Deathtrap” from 1978 until late in 1982 without ever missing a single performance. Even though her part is small in this movie, she makes a terrific, bewigged impact. Louis’ crush on his unavailable, uninterested, and uninteresting coworker Mary (Katie Holmes, enunciating like she’s in a madcap 1920’s film) has nowhere to go either, but it provides us with the chance to see Louis grow elsewhere. Writing this now, it seems like none of the things that happen in this film have a point, and maybe they don’t need to. Harrison’s life is a quest only for pleasure, and Kline and Dano definitely provide it, even if their arc is short and shallow. See it for Kevin.

MPAA Rating R-some sexual content (?)

Release date 8/13/10

Time in minutes 105

Director Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Studio Magnolia Pictures

Winter’s Bone

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I have to say it — Winter’s Bone left me cold. The acting is very good, the dialogue is naturalistic, and the art direction paints a vivid, textured picture of rural Missouri that is both lost in time and vibrantly present. The lead, Jennifer Lawrence, turns in a steely, raw performance. So what’s the problem? I don’t know if Daniel Woodrell’s novel on which this is based is the issue, or if it is the screenplay adaptation, but this narrative was unnecessarily opaque and spins its wheels. Lawrence plays Ree, a 17 year-old girl struggling to raise her younger siblings, care for her catatonic mother, and support herself. Her absent father runs from the law, running meth labs and creating trouble.

Despite Ree keeping the family’s noses clean, the sins of the father are visited upon his children, though it’s not entirely clear why. When Ree goes out to find him in order to save the house, she encounters both kin and kith who have all manner of things to hide and basically mercilessly thwart and threaten her. I never could ken why she was in such peril from them, nor how a situation such as hers could even exist. It’s clear dad Jessup was an unsavory creature, and she harbors no sentiment for him, but why the neighbors close ranks against her is ambiguous.

The squalor of their lives seems impenetrable and incurable, yet Ree manages to keep their lives just barely together; in her daddy search, islands of downhome normalcy bloom at unexpected moments. It’s difficult to imagine these folks complaining about any first world problems you or I might experience just by dint of you reading this on a computer, like snowglobes being banned from carry-on luggage or the long lines for the new iPhone. These folks take free use of a log splitter as charity, and a brace of fresh squirrel as a feast. I admit I spent a lot of time stepping back from the interminable parade of mysterious roadblocks Ree encounters (sample paraphrase: “I done tol’ you not to come ’round here, you know why”) to marvel at the realism of the sets and the ground-in warp and woof of the characters. The people and places are so vivid, you can practically smell the naugahyde, lard, musty couches, and stale cigarette smoke.

I could not fathom the CIA-level security these trashy neighbors were employing to protect — or to punish? — a member of their community they clearly feel no regard for. As a result, I felt very left out and disconnected, even more so than by our lifestyle differences. In a climactic moment, Ree has a terrible experience I feel quite sure none of my readers ever will — and while Lawrence is giving us a great performance here, such that it never feels like she’s acting, I was so disenchanted by the dead-end-ridden story that I could not appreciate the full measure of her good work.

MPAA Rating R-drug materials, language, violent content

Release date 6/11/10

Time in minutes 100

Director Debra Granik

Studio Roadside Attractions

Cyrus

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You might think, looking at a poster featuring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, that Cyrus is going to be a broad and raunchy comedy. It is indeed a comedy, and there are a few amusingly inappropriate moments, but this is a bona-fide dark, mostly smart psychological art-house comedy. No, I’m serious. Reilly plays a spiraling sad sack who meets single mom Marisa Tomei, and they ease into a relationship. Hope for all the depressed and hopeless sad sacks in the world! The problem? Her son Cyrus (Hill), who is more than a little odd. The seemingly smooth and slippery slope of their burgeoning romance is confounded by that inscrutable young adult’s machinations.

The feel of the story is accelerated, then poky, but it never feels Written, it never feels forced so much as just wonky to us but organic to them. Perhaps it was the very short but intense shooting schedule, or the surprising amount of improvisation that went on. Even though just about every individual thing that happens seems really unlikely, the overall sense of Cyrus is a feeling of inevitability and naturalness. Credit all these fine actors, of course, including Catherine Keener as a concerned and affectionate ex-wife to Reilly.

I did enjoy it — I laughed with my appreciative and generally older audience, but like was done the character of Cyrus, I feel like a lot was left below the surface. Reilly and Tomei have a sweet and easy chemistry, but I wonder at her character’s general lack of awareness or discernment. I wonder what draws her to Reilly considering the rest of her existence, and her weird “all things to all people” stance in her day to day life. Not that Reilly isn’t lovable, but we don’t get to see what she loves, as such. How does she make a living? She is neglected in the service of Reilly and Hill, whose battle is the centerpiece of the story. She and her son live in a sort of vacuum of dysfunction, which is generally made to be funny and harmless, but which should actually creep us out more. Magically, the film makes everyone relatable, everyone accessible, except kind of Tomei. Hill returns to his less-is-more approach that he introduced us to in Get Him To The Greek — no longer the blustering teenager trying to get laid at a party, his open face and unblinking eyes dare us to try and look within. We can’t see inside him yet but he shows great promise here.

Still, it was funny and we all wanted to know what would happen next. I didn’t laugh at what I expected to laugh at because very little of what might be expected comes out of this film. Cyrus is definitely a welcome antidote to the plethora of unsympathetic arrested development dude movies littering the landscape — and like any effective antidote, is formed from a benign form of the very virus it seeks to defeat. See what you think.

MPAA Rating R- language and some sexual material

Release date 7/2/10

Time in minutes 92

Director Jay and Mark Duplass

Studio Fox Searchlight

The Secret of Kells

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The one unknown entry in the Oscar category of Best Animated Feature, The Secret of Kells is a twinkling gem of a movie that should be overlooked no longer. The marketing artwork makes it look no more substantial than that egregious Snow White sequel Happily Ever After, but this movie is much, much better than its limited marketing.

Kells is set in medieval Ireland, around 800 AD, in Kells, when the European world was beset by the plundering conquests of the Norsemen, when Christianity was still a wobbly faith finding new converts in the chilly corners of the continent, and when books were copied by hand. Filmmakers Moore and Twomey designed the look of the film to be reminiscent of the gloriously detailed and geometric illuminations that adorn that famed transcription of the Bible. The character’s figures are cut and segmented like the also-newish art of stained glass. The swirling, organic Celtic styled depictions of the natural world co-exist with formal Christian iconography in the beautiful art in this book, and the film follows suit. In the film’s Kells, the forests are cathedrals and the villages are anthills, with repeated patterns and depicted in that medieval flat perspective. Neolithic triskelions, Celtic knots and ouroboros twine around saints, crucifixes, and even the sacred text itself. Absolutely, I was captured by the beauty of this film. I admit that I have been seduced before into loving something that has only a lovely surface, but this story has firm substance as well.

These early people of 9th century Ireland were caught in the struggle between early Christian rigidity (embodied by the Abbot, played by Brendan Gleeson) and the centuries-old traditions of the Aisling (Christen Mooney), a spirit of the pagan woods. The Secret Of Kells tells a story steeped in history of how such a miraculous treasure of art and devotion to both Christianity and the natural world managed to survive the Scandanavian invaders. As Brendan (Evan McGuire) rebels against his strict uncle the Abbot, so does the Abbot rebel against even the other clergy in his care, single- and closed-mindedly pursuing what he thinks to be the best course of action for all his people. He builds walls real and mental around himself while magic flows around and in spite of him. Knowing the forest as his people once did, creating unnecessary beauty even in the service of glorifying God, even the art of making inks, all are trampled below the blocky red robes of his terror of the invaders from the North. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), twinkling like a Scottish Willie Nelson, tries to balance the world for Brendan and show how the old and the new ways can co-exist.

It’s evident upon watching this meticulously designed and hand-drawn wonder that Up was in more danger of not winning the Oscar than you’d think. Yes, I said it. This movie is gorgeous, both visually and narratively. I urge you to see The Secret of Kells if you can at all manage it.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 3/5/10

Time in minutes 75

Director Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

Studio GKids/Les Armateurs

The Last Station

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Despite the Oscar-nominated actors and performances, despite the moving themes of loyalty and love, the drawing of strength from a cause or from your heart, despite all this tasteful Quality, The Last Station was a bit meh for me. The things I really loved best were Helen Mirren and the props. Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya (Mirren) lives in 1910, at the precipice of Victorian-like modesty and the stirrings of Free Love. Helen Mirren excels at these sorts of roles; her natural brazen confidence and her innate regality make this one look like child’s play for her. Sofya struggles in her marriage to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is torn between leaving his politically radical and influential works to his family or to the people of Russia. The Last Station plumbs all sorts of interesting inner circles, such as the near-cult of Tolstoy followers swarming in direct contrast to the actual man and his life.

As an allegory — nay, a corollary — to misguided practitioners of organized religion defying the very ideals they push to uphold, the film is vivid and deft. Personifying the misguided practitioners is the nasty and manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The People, and their inevitable fall from the fever of their Tolstoyan idealism, is represented by the charming and earnest James McAvoy. He enters the inner circle of Tolstoy’s house from the fundamentalist commune life of the author’s followers. He is the purest of Tolstoyans, having taking every precept literally and deeply to heart. In the presence of his idol, the realities of life and love confuse him. As a result, McAvoy is imprisoned by the freedoms his new life presents him. He has a wonderful romance with a member of the society, and watching it cautiously unfold is lovely and romantic.

Love is the foundation that the followers are missing, losing that basic message in the words. Love and knowing one’s own mind is a simple principle to explain but harder to enact. To see so many people fall over themselves to the point of actual cruelty to own and control the legacy they have so misinterpreted is sad but fascinatingly vivid. Plummer, as Tolstoy, does a warm and believable job but he gives nothing we haven’t seen before. Mirren and McAvoy had more interesting things to do with their characters than Plummer or Giamatti.

Once I left the theatre, however, I found myself unable to hold on to those deeper truths, instead just crushing on Mirren and fervently admiring the production design. The props in this film are astounding — when I notice impressive props and am drawn away by the story by them, it is sometimes not the story’s fault. Andreas Olshausen has found beautiful and pristine Russian typewriters from the Fin de Siécle, amazing cameras and lamps. 1910 brought such an explosion of modern technology, and in those days Russia could still keep up. I ruefully considered that some government office probably still uses that typewriter every day.

The Last Station is indeed well done, very moving, and informative, but it left me a little cold at the end. Perhaps I just felt frustrated at how little the world changes even when people with good ideas come along.

MPAA Rating R-a scene of sexuality/nudity

Release date 1/15/10

Time in minutes 112

Director Michael Hoffman

Studio Sony Pictures Classics

Youth In Revolt

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I actually kind of blame this movie for crumbling my will to review movies for a record-breaking dry spell. When I saw Youth in Revolt, I was unaware of its original source material; it seems that C.D. Payne’s novel is actually much more adventurous and deviant than just a sweet boy acting like a sociopathic jerk to make a girl like him. I’m glad I was ignorant, actually, so I could enjoy the twin pleasures of Michael Cera as his trademark unrequited shyboy Nick Twisp and Michael Cera as disco-clad lothario Francois Dillinger. Every time his hilariously over-the-top alter ego is on screen, the movie comes alive. The little things he does to prove to us that he’s a bastard are smaller and therefore funnier and a little more unexpected than something say, James Spader might have done during his douchey 1980’s period. If Sweet Cera and Wicked Cera are sharing the screen, Youth in Revolt flirts with brilliance. I do have a predilection for novel ways of sharing someone’s inner monologue, and we never quite know which body is actually the body in use.

The rest of the time, Revolt presents us with that post-Napoleon Dynamite sort of plodding study of eccentricity and wackiness for wackiness’ sake, poky and mildly random and totally detached. I wonder how many 19 year old hipsters are frantically combing the thrift stores for white pants and loafers. Here and there, filmmaker and TV veteran Miguel Arteta drops in some cute and varied animated bits, reminding us maybe too much of Paper Hearts (also featuring Cera) and not enough of something relevant to the story arc Cera’s real character is meant to be traveling. Watching a sweet lad wreck his life in pursuit of an unappreciative girl is nearly as off-putting (when he’s not Duckie) as watching him succeed in this way. The escalations of Francois Dillinger server only to try and shock and then succeed in chasing the audience away, even if this one girl is worth it.

I am not one who complains of Michael Cera fatigue, but I would have preferred him to be in an all-Francois-Dillinger role rather than continue to go to the milquetoast mine so resolutely. If they really follow through on this Arrested Development movie, what made George Michael so winning is going to be something we all have seen too much of, which does a disservice to Cera’s real depth of skill and talent.

From what I read about the source novel, it sounded brutal and horrible. The 14 year-old reviewers on Amazon.com insist it nails the persona. Be that as it may, as a lady who could be the mother of these kids, I don’t disapprove, I guess I am just not all that interested. Youth in Revolt does have a fabulous soundtrack, so I can recommend that pretty highly.

MPAA Rating R-sexual content, language, drug use

Release date 1/8/10

Time in minutes 130

Director Miguel Arteta

Studio Weinstein Company