Movies

Todd’s Movie Shorts

REVIEWS

** Cyrus – Despite the hype and the funny trailer, this film about a dysfunctional 20 something only child born to a single mother is too weird and unrealistic to relate to.

When Cyrus walks into the bathroom for a couple of minutes early in the film – his showering mother unbothered – the natural instinct is to want to leave the theater. The discomfort has more staying power than does the fine acting. 6-10-10

*** Mercy – A 30 year old Hollywood asshole has great success writing glib books about something he knows nothing about – life, and love. Then he experiences both, is forced out of the darkness, and starts writing novels that carry more meaning but sell in much smaller numbers.

Happily, he becomes almost likable as the story develops. Sadly, the joy of his love is never allowed to lift the story out of its Das Boot-like claustrophobia. Well written and acted by Scott Caan, with wonderful support from his dad, James Caan – playing his dad. 6-5-10

***** The Secret in Their Eyes – A retired detective decides to write a novel about a case that haunted his career. As he revisits the case, he also revisits an unresolved love, and both stories are brought, impeccably, into the present.

This film is as good as it gets for sophisticated art films, possessing the power and soft touch of Lost in Translation. 5/23/10

**** Exit Through the Gift Shop – Thanks to one man’s obsessive need to have his video camera recording at all times, we are taken to an underground world where creativity and vandalism collide – a world we would never otherwise come to know – that of street art.

How did Shepherd Fairey get to make the transition from criminal artist to museum artist… how did a dopey video obsessed non-filmaker turn into a highly successful street artist while the reclusive Banksy went from street artist to filmmaker? It’s a rock and roll movie – hold the guitars – one that offers the side benefit of showing, from the street level, what guerrilla marketing is all about. 4-28-10

*** Greenberg – If you’re young enough not to be bothered by the gross, self-indulgent culture of kids today, you can probably find this film to be oddly satisfying. Highly forgettable, pointless perhaps, but it tells us something about how raising human beings without rigorous sculpting from the generations that precede them leaves them in a wandering state of Blob.

Probably not the intention of the filmmakers, but that’s what I took from it. 4-5-10

*** The Ghost Writer – A very good but perhaps too restrained suspense story about a guy hired to complete a biography of a former British Prime Minister who is hiding out on Cape Cod. Our ghost writer is the second guy who’s had the job, the first writer having died under “mysterious circumstances.”

The fun starts when the new guy unravels the story behind the story and his own safety becomes an issue. A fine piece of film making from a guy under house arrest. Good Massachusetts scenes. 3-17-10

** Shutter Island – We almost never walk out of a movie – it’s probably been 20 years – and we didn’t walk out of Shutter Island, as much as I would have liked to. But I didn’t want to risk ruining it for my wife in case she was enjoying it (she wasn’t), so I bit my tongue and sat through this ridiculous, overwrought, overacted, annoying imitation of a Martin Scorcese film.

Is there a Marty, Jr who might have locked his Dad in a closet and taken control of the camera? 3-5-10

****  The Last Station –  An aging Tolstoy has given up his story writing to focus on turning his political philosophy, complete with communes and commandments, into a movement. But the movement is less his concern than it is the passion of eager sycophants, who plot to kidnap his legacy and his fortune.

We can’t sympathize with the thieves, of course, but it is also hard to side with his enraged wife, driven in part by her own greed, and in part by jealousy. We are placed more comfortably in the middle, struggling to find our footing through the eyes of Tolstoy’s secretary, and praying for the passive young man to become a player rather than just a note taker.

This is what I hope for when I head off to the movies – this level of intelligence, storytelling, and performance. Impeccable. 2-28-10

***  A Single Man – Colin Firth spends the single day of this story carrying around a gun in preparation for taking his life, the only means he sees to escape the longing for his dead lover. In the end, his sense of hope is reawakened and he decides against suicide, only to die of surprise causes. If you’re looking for a light experience, this ain’t it. At the same time, it’s not nearly as heavy as you might think, for Firth’s character, a gay man who hides everything from the outside world in buttoned up impeccability while residing in a glass house, doesn’t spend much time wallowing.

It is this same feeling of austerity that I’m told director Tom Ford brings to clothing design, his primary artform. I’m not familiar with his work in the rags business, but I’m still feeling too chilly from his movie to look. Great performances, though. 2-18-10

** Dear John – A young woman falls instantly in love with a young soldier. Why? She dreams of having her own school to work with autistic kids, and while her soldier isn’t exactly autistic himself, he does have nothing to say – leading to some conversations based more on grunting and hemming than actual language – and his father might be autistic. This is all too much for her to resist. Plus, he’s a hunk who dove in the ocean off a 20 foot pier when she dropped her bag, proving himself more worthy than the excuse sputtering light-weight she’d been burdened with up to that moment.

As contrived and Hollywood phony as this film is, it does occasionally conjure up some emotional impact. The most powerful moment for me was when a stranger at a party thanks John for his service to the country. Thank God for character actors – that moment had punch. Alas, it was only in there to provide a setup for another cheap plot twist. 2-10-10

**** The Young Victoria – You must enjoy period pieces about the struggling privileged classes of the Victorian era to love this, I suspect, but I found myself fully immersed in the story and emotionally involved with Victoria as she fought through all the manipulators looking to get a piece of her as she made her way from child to the Queen of England.

Not much happens in terms of action from start to finish in this story, which was fine with me. It’s a royal coming of age story on the one hand, and a delightful love story on the other. My only disappointment was that it didn’t run a half hour longer. 2-6-10

****  Crazy Heart – The trouble with movies about drunken artists/singers/cowboys etc who hit rock bottom and seek recovery and redemption is the damn bottle. Seen one vomiting drunk, seems you’ve seen them all. Crazy Heart works hard to avoid overworking the head in the toilet scenes, and in the meantime, delivers a powerful, rich and beautifully acted story about Bad Blake, a country singer who once wrote big hits, but now simply takes too many of them.

The love story and the music both hit just the right notes, and the performances from Jeff Bridges,  Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall et al are sensational. While the storyline is sad, sobriety perseveres, and new hits are born. Look for Bridges to get a nice shiny gold statue upon which to vomit. 1-09-10

*** 1/2  It’s Complicated – Actually, it’s really quite simple. It takes something special to make movies like this work, and you’ll be surprised to know that it’s not provided by the film’s leading lady. Alec Baldwin delivers unexpected energy and delight, providing the edge that makes the movie much funnier than the average dumb romantic comedy.

Meryl Streep is fine, but her performance lacks the originality that she has always seemed able to bring to every role. Big laughs make you forgive the all the usual things that require forgiving. 12-28-09

****  Up in the Air – Ryan Bingham hides from relationships in a career that takes him on the road. Putting even more distance between himself and real life than his record setting air travel is his job as a contract corporate slasher – George Clooney’s character calmly and pseudo-sympathetically does the dirty work of downsizing – one tragic worker at a time.

Eventually, reality comes calling, of course, and Bingham learns that a life without baggage is no life at all. Director Jason Reitman proves that a romantic comedy doesn’t have to be insipid – it can be powerful and subtle and still be commercially viable. 12-29-09

** 1/2  Invictus – Nelson Mandela uses the national rugby team, once a symbol of Apartheid, as a device to bridge the huge gaps between the races in South Africa. While there are moments of semi-inspiration related to that theme, the film doesn’t let an honest story do the inspiring – instead, it devolves into one big rugby movie, providing no political context that might give us the ability to understand why Mandela put so much stock in the healing powers of Matt Damon’s team.

Still, there is something about Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela that stays with you – built on the assumption that a man who survives 26 years as a political prisoner only to win control of his country carries all necessary context in his heart.

*** Precious – Feel badly that you can’t really know what it’s like to be raised in a brutal, impoverished home of the sort best built by the compassion of liberal social programs? Now, you can. The ugliness is so thick, at times, that you’d like to leave. Other times, the film seems to be running in slow motion, so you think a quick trip to the popcorn stand wouldn’t put you out of touch with the story. But there are moments when the respect for the human spirit and the power of goodness conquer these negatives and make Precious shine.

Whether that makes it worth seeing or not is in the eyes of the beholder.

**  This is It – Imagine a documentary in which Michael Jordan is asked to come back for one last season to play with the Bulls at age 50. We would see a player who knows what to do but who no longer has the legs to deliver. The story would morph into one of someone whose ability to find victory would have to be delivered in the form of wisdom shared with younger players – a coach. Likewise, Michael Jackson‘s final rehearsals, and the movie made from them, should have been of an extravaganza designed to capitalize on Michael’s age rather than ignore it. Instead of using the young legs to create a tribute to Michael, they instead forced Michael to carry the ball. The efforts were as painful to watch as would be the imaginary Jordan comback, leaving filmmakers no choice but to splice together multiple takes to create the energy to make single songs entertaining enough to sit through. Towards the end, when they finally gather the confidence to let one performance of Billie Jean play straight through, we learn just how little he had left.

On a personal note, we see a Michael who hides behind, and revels in, the adulation of the team of young dancers who are fulfilling a dream by working with him. But for all his cliche claims of ‘love’ and ‘family’ as his guiding principles, Michael appears disinclined even to learn the names of the young, vibrant performers who so willingly ignored his fading skills and pandered to the needs of his ego. Rather than returning the love, Michael wove it into a shear cloak – good enough for him to hide behind, but transparent enough to allow us to witness his pathetic condition on every level.

This film would not have lost much if they had shot it after his death instead of before.

*** 1/2  Coco Before Chanel – How does one make her way from being an orphaned pauper to international power broker? Coco Chanel did it by wearing a demeanor as austere as were her fashions to a world which liked its women flowered and frilled.

Also austere is the storytelling, matching the plodding progress of Coco’s unfolding realization that she was meant to be a clothing designer with a gentle pace that manages restraint without losing all momentum.

** 1/2 Bright Star – How much misery can the joy of great love deliver? We learn in the beautiful, yet ultimately tedious, exploration of the first and last love of poet John Keats. The film delivers all of the fine acting and two hundred years ago period piece ambience that one expects from Jane Campion, but the same education can be had in much less time and with a great deal more fun from the J. Geils song Love Stinks.

If you’re considering dying today by your own hand and need something to push you over the top, Bright Star gets the Oscar.

**** The September Issue – a fun to watch documentary covering the production of the Sept ’07 issue of Vogue Magazine – the month that delivers the biggest issue each year. Editor in Chief Anna Wintour is apparently well-known and feared for her icy demeanor, but we get to know a woman who wields her power not with the reckless thrill of an ego driven tycoon, but instead, with the reserve of one who must protect herself from feeling the pain of every photographer, editor or designer who is devastated by the routine editing decisions she must make.

***   Julie & Julia – This movie is big fun with lots of laughs, so there’s no reason to hesitate diving in. On the other hand, the delightful character of Julia, as played by Meryl Streep, and her life in France with her husband (Stanley Tucci), lose too much screen time to the sitcom life of blogger Julie, played by Amy Adams. As a result, the filmmakers are content with touching our funny bones, leaving too much of the true Julia on the cutting room floor. In the end, the effort is great fast food rather than fine dining.

* 1/2  The Proposal – What is it that makes a romantic comedy deliver at the box office when it offers little romance and just a little more comedy? Could the key be a too old for the part actress who is starting to look like Michael Jackson circa 2003 plus a lead actor who squeals like an overheated Richard Simmons when under stress?

Apparently.

**** Anvil: The Story of Anvil – Hope is still alive, but it’s operating on shock absorbers that smooth no bumps for Steve (Lips) Kudlow and bandmate Robb Reiner, who, for some reason, still pursue their rock and roll dreams.

Their heavy metal band, Anvil, came close to breaking through in the early 1980’s, but since then it’s been a story of miserable day jobs and poorly conceived tours and, worst of all, a 50th birthday party.

This documentary has us swimming in their despair, and some of our own, at times communicating their pain with too much success. Our reward is that we are allowed to share their hope, no matter how tattered it may be.

Their dream survives one more broken down tour and one more record only due to the generosity of a comfortable older sister, but if they’d asked us for donations, we’d have taken out our checkbooks. For they are lucky, in the end, that they have dreams to pursue and the gumption to pursue them, even if the lights of stardom don’t shine all that brightly.

Ironically, the band’s seemingly inevitable path to a pauper’s grave may be altered by the movie. We can only hope.

** American Violet – There’s no reason to see movies like this unless they come on TV late on a sleepless night. Serious subject matter – the attempt to break the ruthless grip that a racist prosecutor has over a Texas community – is reduced to Hollywood gloss and emotional manipulations.

Is it upsetting to see a criminal justice system that doesn’t believe in justice? Sure, but you have to believe it. The acting is strong, but the script is weak, and the political views heavy handed – perhaps the ACLU financed the project?

**** Goodbye Solo. Joy battles hopelessness, but in a happily un-Hollywood turn, neither wins the tug of war offered by Director Ramin Bahrani in his third outing. Instead, we are reminded that hope and failure are partners in perpetual dance, and, sometimes, the dance inspires.

We see a changing America played out in the lives of a crusty old Southern man nearing the end of his life (William), as he crosses paths with a young immigrant cabdriver from Africa (Solo), who is looking forward to the birth of his first child. Solo’s relentless optimism needs some Dramamine on the rough seas of relationship and financial struggle, but his love of life helps him keep his eyes on the horizon. We leave the theater with our equilibrium restored, and with our hearts tweaked by the warm pleasure of having made a new friend.

** The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Cut and paste characters appear inexplicably and unbelievably together in a barely watchable love triangle/coming of age film that thinks it’s clever because it has the two guys fall in to bed together when the plastic Hollywood-tacky chick isn’t around to sleep with. The acting is occasionally good, which really messes with the film’s consistency. The only part of this mystery worth investigating is what sort of dope could have read the script and still offered funding for such drivel.

*** Hunger – It’s Bobby Sands starving himself to death, again, but this time we sit in his stomach and can feel the burning acidity of the secretions. The camera is right there with us, showing every ooze. A fascinating bit of film making – non-linear and defiant of movie script structure – not so much telling a story as making you part of someone else’s ugly life for two hours. Be prepared to help the guards search every orifice before agreeing to tackle this one.

** 1/2  Sunshine Cleaning – The happily named business is cover for the fact that Sunshine comes in to clean up violent leftovers such as brain matter after a suicide. An odd career choice for two women who are struggling, still, to recover from their mother’s suicide when they were girls. It’s also odd that they fail to notice the Freudianess of it all. The story captures nicely the feeling of hopelessness that economic struggle, single motherhood and unresolved pain can bring to middle class life, but fails to offer a payoff for adding that sadness to your day.

*  Knowing – Could this be any worse? Sure – it has some tension and fun as a mystery, but after a while it switches over into being a pile of alien crap.  Could have worked as a comedy with minor tweaks. A monster hit, sadly, for as long as Nicholas Cage makes big money for doing drivel, he’ll likely keep doing drivel.

*** 1/2 The Reader – If you like heavy films that find their power in the hidden cracks of the human psyche, The Reader provides the type of internal struggle that you crave. An underage boy has a summer affair with an older woman, and the experience, which looks to be positive at the time, turns into his personal nightmare. The degree to which he has been damaged by her cruel conclusion to the relationship becomes clear only when we meet him again, ten years later, when he he meets her again.

*** Two Lovers – It’s too bad that Two Lovers is too long. Otherwise, this exploration of how common it is now for young people to remain unsettled and confused well into what used to pass for adulthood would pass for a very entertaining bit of angst ridden, 30 something film making.

Parents who are scared of their son’s attraction to suicide leave him free to do as he pleases, and in an effort to hold off growing up a few minutes longer he chooses the woman he wants over the one he needs. Someone, please, get this well acted, sharply written film an editor before it is released next month.

**** The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke is 20 years past his prime, having pissed away movie stardom to be a Hollywood badboy, then a boxer. Rourke makes an Oscar worthy comeback in this film about a washed-up professional wrestler, Randy the Ram, who was big 20 years ago, but now fights for a few hundred bucks a night while barely keeping his head above water. This is a “there but for the grace of God go I” story, causing us to question whether the fine path we’ve carved for ourselves might not be setting us up for a surprise body slam that’ll leave us hurting like Randy. Great performances from Rourke and Marisa Tomei make this one work, as does the fly-on-the-wall look into the sad, silly world of pro-wrestling.

** Revolutionary Road – This picture has an odd veneer that makes it seem like an exhibit at the Smithsonian – offering a perfect replica of a room from the past, but lacking the emotional power that comes from filling it with real, breathing people. Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give it their best shot, but the film is so depressing you have to wonder why.

****1/2  Frost/Nixon – It’s rare for a Hollywood movie to be filled with suspense without its requisite sex and violence, but not a muscle moved in the theater as Frost cornered Nixon (or was it the other way around?) in the riveting climax of this actionless film. At first I resisted, wondering what got into Frank Langella, pretending to be Nixon. But after a while, Frank was gone and we were left with Dick, sly still, managing to win our sympathies while admitting his guilt. Nice work, Opie.

DOUBT ***1/2 – When it comes to the sex scandal and the movie “Doubt,” there is no doubt who is to blame. It is the Church. That message is the purpose of the film, so much so that the central question of the story – is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character guilty of sexual wrongdoing – is left unresolved to avoid confusion.

The flat weight of repression sets the tone at St. Nicholas Catholic School, as all members of the devout are shown, whether priest or nun, to be pathetic and damaged by the very fact of their presence. Some nuns are dumb and most are weak, while Hoffman’s priest character is a bit corrupt, but not as corrupt, perhaps, as is Streep as the heart-hardened principal.

The acting is as fine as you would expect, and the mystery carries the requisite tension, but the heavy handedness of the message interfered with my ability to get lost in the story, which the preview reveals far too much of.

** Australia – pretentious, contrived and long while managing to be engaging, this epic screams EPIC. It is propelled not by its big stars but by a delightful little boy with long hair who has never acted before, according to my wife, but who should now be a bigger star than the ordinary Nicole Kidman (who could respect a woman who was married to Tom Cruise?) and some guy who apparently spends his entire life in the gym so that he can make the cover of People.

** 1/2Milk – great acting, but lousy other stuff, as all heterosexual eyes, and perhaps even some gay ones, are left dry when Harvey is murdered. I drifted off at times as the story seemed to lose excitement the longer it went on. Sean Penn, a wonderful actor despite his politics, is amazing, as are most others, but the heavy handed celebration of the gay movement doesn’t impact. 12-01-08

**** Slumdog Millionaire – A clever and compelling film that tells the story of a young man’s journey out of the ghettos of India in flashbacks triggered by questions he fields as a contestant on his country’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” If you’re not afraid of movies that offer a good love story, great storytelling and drama, and keep you glued to the screen without sex or explosions, this is one not to miss. 11-20-08

** Changeling – A distraught Angelina Jolie spends most of this story sobbing after the LAPD inexplicably demands that she accept a replacement child when hers goes missing. Funny, in real life Angie takes any kid who comes along without complaint. Of course, in real life, they haven’t given her the shock treatments that she so richly deserves. In the movie, alas, they do – but I’m afraid the entire experience hurts us more than it does Jolie, leaving us wishing that this was a Movie, Interrupted. 11-12-08

***1/2  Four Christmases – Do you love dumb comedies? This is a smart one. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon usually fly somewhere to do faux volunteer work in order to avoid their families on Christmas. In fact, they’ve been together for some years without ever having been around to meet each other’s loved ones. When they get snowed in and are forced to squeeze in a visit to each of their divorced parents’ new families, predictable slapstick fun ensues. It’s not Wedding Crashers, but what is?


One Response to “Movies”

  1. 1 Esther

    Hi Todd,
    In sync with you about these movies! Heads up about one not to see – “Greenberg”,or rather do see it,and give a review!! I do enjoy your take on these
    movies,so do keep going!!


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