Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's Complicated

IT'S COMPLICATED (Nancy Meyers, 2009)

In IT'S COMPLICATED former husband and wife Jake and Jane (Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep) find that there are still some sparks between them ten years after their divorce. Jane has been wrapped up in her career and kids since the marriage ended, but as she watches their youngest child leave her home, the lack of a personal life becomes more apparent. Meanwhile, Jake went on to marry the much younger woman who had been his mistress.

While in New York for their son's graduation, Jane and Jake share an impromptu dinner that leads to the hotel room and a mess of a morning after. Jane has now become the other woman yet entertains the idea of getting back together with Jake. She knows it's probably a terrible mistake but can't help but reveling in what it is like to feel desirable again. The problematic nature of Jane and Jake's arrangement gets compounded when her architect Adam (Steve Martin) begins competing for her affections as well.

IT'S COMPLICATED is a triumph of casting. Streep, Baldwin, and Martin are having so much fun in this romantic comedy-drama that it's impossible not to get swept up in the good time they're having as well. As a bakery owner, Jane makes and sells sweet indulgences but has denied herself the same relationship-wise. Streep cuts loose in the role, and it's a pleasure to watch her dithered and delighted as the character rediscovers her attractiveness and worth.

The rascally Baldwin stirs up laughs with the confident satisfaction he exudes in seducing his ex-wife and juvenile jealousy he exhibits when another man comes across Jane's radar. Martin shows fragility, comfortable resoluteness, and good humor in how his character deals with post-divorce life and the love triangle he's unwittingly wandered into.

Writer-director Nancy Meyers keeps the complications in IT'S COMPLICATED more in the scenarios than in the emotions, which holds back what is otherwise an often funny film. It's a pleasant surprise that Jake's second wife Agness (Lake Bell) isn't portrayed as a shrew, yet Meyers evades thorny questions of the primary ethical dilemma Jane faces if she is to continue seeing Jake on such enraptured terms.

The oh-so-French set-up is managed as consequence-free wish fulfillment rather than the existential examination a more serious-minded filmmaker might give it. Meyers also infantilizes Jane's adult children to a weird degree, but such shortcomings can't undermine a good film with three actors having a blast.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


NINE (Rob Marshall, 2009)

Set in the free-wheeling '60s, the musical NINE follows film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles to get his next movie off the ground. The famous Italian filmmaker has a title for his next opus but that's it. As he searches for a creative breakthrough, his thoughts turn to the women in his life.

NINE boasts a who's who of international actresses, with Penélope Cruz as his mistress, Nicole Kidman as his leading lady, Sophia Loren as his mother, and Marion Cotillard as his long-suffering wife Luisa.

NINE doesn't remake Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 so much as it pillages the classic film for the purposes of Broadway vamping. (NINE'S first life was as a stage production.) Director Rob Marshall and crew do a bang-up job of recreating the look of Fellini's films and stars, but for a movie that is supposed to be bursting with brio and passion, it comes off more like the soulless, uninspired product the director character within it might have scratched out to get a nagging producer off his back.

NINE deals with what is supposed to be intensely personal material, but Marshall brings no personality or verve to the tortured dreams of a stifled artist. It's a superficial affair that even lacks the decency of featuring good songs. While this is a lovely film to look at, it's a deadly situation when a musical would be best appreciated with the sound off.

As the prostitute who expedites a young Guido's carnal awakening, the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie growls and stomps through "Be Italian", the only halfway memorable tune in the songbook. In a fantasy sequence Kate Hudson's vapid reporter performs "Cinema Italiano", a song written specifically for the film. This wretched number about the virtues of Italian filmmaking is easily NINE'S low point.

Day-Lewis is always interesting to watch, but this role is thinly written and, to be generous, his singing voice leaves something to be desired. Cotillard fares best out of anyone in the talented but mostly squandered cast. In a film that is otherwise all surface, she reveals the emotional undercurrents in Luisa's stormy relationship with a creative genius and brings the only true feeling to NINE. The stunning Italian scenery, beautiful sets, and sexy ladies can't hide the fact that Marshall's film is basically all facade, and one barely propped up at that.

Grade: C-

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Road

THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, 2009)

The post-apocalyptic American landscape in THE ROAD is cold, barren, and inhospitable to life. For survivors such as the unnamed father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, scavenging for canned goods is their means of maintaining strength during the long journey on foot to the warmer climate and fertile land rumored in the south.

Others have turned to cannibalism, which makes any encounter with strangers fraught with danger. The man and boy try to avoid anyone and everyone lest they cross the wrong company. They promise to kill themselves rather than be taken by these savages.

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, THE ROAD is a haunting portrait of what it means to be a parent. Clearly the stakes are exaggerated and raised in this nightmarish scenario, but the underlying sentiment holds true. Keeping one's child safe in a world full of harm can be the most terrifying endeavor for any adult.

Mortensen plays the father with a fierce protectiveness that borders on the feral, yet the performance is riven with doubt and despair, not only at what he fears may come but as he remembers what transpired with the boy's mother (Charlize Theron). Mortensen acts not like a hero but as an ordinary man determined to guard his son even if he does not feel fully capable of the task. Surely any parent can relate.

THE ROAD is also a study of how it's easy to conduct a good, upright life during times of prosperity and happiness and less so when everything goes to hell. Yet the kicker is that it's at times of devastation when behaving with moral conviction may be most important.

THE ROAD is a bleak film visually and emotionally. The ashy gloom pervading the air on screen chokes the viewer's lungs, and the cold the characters dwell in chills one's bones. Director John Hillcoat evokes a hostile atmosphere whose stern, gray beauty makes common kindness stand out in sharp relief. What else can one wish to find when the worst is upon us?

Grade: B+

Friday, December 18, 2009

Did You Hear About the Morgans?


Witness relocation could be the cure for a wounded marriage in the romantic comedy DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker star as the separated New York City power couple Paul and Meryl Morgan. Paul's infidelity fractured the relationship, but after months apart he is eager to patch things up. Meryl still isn't convinced the marriage is worth saving.

During a post-dinner walk the two see one of her clients murdered. The dead man was an international arms dealer bumped off by a professional killer now seeking to eliminate those who can identify him. With their lives in jeopardy, Paul and Meryl have no choice but to accept an offer to go into witness protection and be shuttled to the sleepy burg of Ray, Wyoming.

The folksy sheriff Clay Wheeler (Sam Elliott) and his deputy wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen) welcome the displaced duo into their home and function as a model couple for the Morgans. Removed from the bustling careers and personal lives they know, Paul and Meryl can now figure out if love remains between them.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? deploys the familiar and unfortunate strategy of making its New Yorkers outlandishly insular and heartland characters simple and virtuous. Such stereotyping is offered in a prostrate appeal to a perceived lumpen middle America that wants to see city slickers taken down several pegs.

In fairness, the overdone exaggerations eventually become less of a factor in the film's humor and are not condescending, unlike the 2009 Renée Zellweger film NEW IN TOWN, which bordered on the offensive in portraying common folks. Still, Hollywood's broad conceptualizing of urban and rural areas seems stuck in the 1930s.

On the plus side for DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?, writer-director Marc Lawrence works toward reconciling the main characters rather than having them at each others' throats before the inevitable eleventh hour change of heart. Romantic comedy filmmakers have become so focused on using jokes to tear lovers apart that they lose sight of the mushy sentiment that comprises half of the genre's name.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? strives to reignite the extinguished flame between the separated husband and wife and achieves flickers of success. The mediocre material gets a boost from a hardworking Grant, who uses his trademark bumbling formality to deliver dry commentary and wring out the most laughs possible. DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? shows the strain of its screenplay shortcomings and buckles under them, but at least that's preferable to the romantic comedies full of spite.

Grade: C

Friday, December 11, 2009


INVICTUS (Clint Eastwood, 2009)

In INVICTUS a newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns to an unlikely group to help heal the racial divide in post-apartheid South Africa. After spending 27 years behind bars, Mandela is freed from Robben Island Prison in 1990 and continues working toward his goal of making the country a multi-racial democracy.

Four years later Mandela is the president of a nation still deeply split along racial lines. While black South Africans look forward to benefiting from having one of their own as the country's leader, the Afrikaners fear what they might face as a minority population under the rule of a black man.

At a rugby match Mandela observes that old tensions still thrive. Blacks in attendance cheer against South Africa's national team, the Springboks. To them, the Springboks represent the prejudice and oppression they were subjected to under apartheid.

With South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela sees a unique opportunity for blacks and whites to rally around the team and perhaps build national harmony. Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is tasked with the duty of making the team an inspiration for all South Africans.

Sports can breed deep and ugly rivalries, but they also have a way of unifying people from uncommon backgrounds and interests, whether it's the players or those cheering them on. This is especially true in international competitions, even if the sports themselves may not be ones that viewers are concerned with except every four years.

In INVICTUS director Clint Eastwood does a sharp job of showing Mandela's political genius in utilizing a team that symbolized the old white establishment--and which had only one black player--to demonstrate how South Africa's present and future could unify former opponents.

It was a risky maneuver and not one encouraged by his advisers, but just as Mandela understood that he needed to integrate his personal security team behind a common purpose, he also knew that the nation needed something to strive for collectively.

Carrying over the wise, fatherly influence he brings to other roles, Freeman applies a firm but calming presence to his portrayal of Mandela. It's a persuasive performance that leads one to see how this man could overcome the enormous odds of bridging the gap in South Africa's racial relations.

While INVICTUS fits into the biographical and inspirational sports movie traditions, Eastwood resists sanctifying Mandela or giving in to unabashed emotionalism on the pitch. The director references Mandela's shortcomings as a man bearing a heavy weight and allows the actions to say more than speeches.

Although INVICTUS is not strictly a Mandela biopic, this particular accomplishment of his cuts to the essence of who the South African is and what he fought for. INVICTUS could do a better job of explaining the basic rules to rugby neophytes, especially with so much of the final act devoted to the big match, but that's a minor quibble when the gist of gameplay can be picked up by observing.

INVICTUS draws its title from the name of a William Ernest Henley poem that inspired Mandela during his incarceration. Likewise, the film serves as a reminder that no matter how dire the circumstances, truly remarkable change is possible.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Saturday, December 05, 2009


ANTICHRIST (Lars von Trier, 2009)

In ANTICHRIST the couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, simply dubbed He and She in the credits, mourn the accidental death of their son. He processes and deals with his grief, but her method of coping with the tragedy produces emotional paralysis and a path toward madness.

As a therapist, he has his own ideas about what's best for his wife and chooses to oversee her recovery rather than let her lay medicated in the hospital. He uncovers that the seeds of her depression and fear come from nature, so off they go to a remote cabin in the woods in a place they refer to as Eden in an attempt to cure her.

There's a lot to unpack from ANTICHRIST, a head-spinning achievement and nightmarish hallucination of a film. Purely as a visual and visceral experience, puckish writer-diretor Lars von Trier produces an enormously powerful phantasmagoria that deals with and reproduces the effects of fear and depression.

On a technical level ANTICHRIST is superb at casting an unsettling dream-like atmosphere. The camera lens slowly but gradually distorts the lush yet hostile landscape of the woods and garden from which she once ran and to which they return. Falling acorns clatter on the roof of the cabin as though hell itself is raining down. Even as a viewer, nowhere and nothing feels safe in this movie. ANTICHRIST is, in a way, the ultimate horror film, one in which the natural world offers evil instead of salvation.

A major point for discussion is the rampant misogyny that von Trier offers up seriously, although who's to say whether the presentation is to be read as authorial agreement. After all, von Trier is a provocateur of the highest order. He goes so far as to replace the title's last letter with the T-like symbol of Venus. Coupled with Gainsbourg's fierce, uncompromising performance, the link of the female with evil is established, but in my mind von Trier is using gender archetypes rather than saying something about womankind.

Biblical allusions to Adam and Eve are mostly implicit in ANTICHRIST, but therein lies what may be the key to the film. Nature or mother nature (in female terms) or human nature (in general) is sinful. Eden is no longer a hospitable place. The title conjures images of a devilish figure in opposition to God, but for von Trier the Antichrist of the film's name is human frailty.

At least on the first time around ANTICHRIST seems beyond an evaluation. Whatever the grade, it's a film that demands to be seen, at least by those select viewers who can handle the extreme nature of the material.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 04, 2009


ARMORED (Nimród Antal, 2009)

Six armored truck guards scheme to steal $42 million dollars from the very vehicles they're protecting in ARMORED. Ty (Columbus Short) is the newest hire at the security company. The former Marine badly needs the job as he has returned home to caring for his truant younger brother and trying to keep the bank from taking the house he inherited.

Ty's co-worker and family friend Mike (Matt Damon) promises to look out for him. The night before the planned heist Mike clues Ty in to what he and the other armored guards have cooking for their next work day. Initially Ty refuses to take part, but his financial needs win out over his moral objections. When the heist goes awry, Ty is forced to outwit the other guards to survive.

ARMORED has the components of a tight little genre movie, something director Nimrod Antal turned out two years ago with the motel thriller VACANCY. A significant amount of ARMORED takes place in a single, relatively confined location. The cast features seasoned pros, with Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno as guards and Fred Ward as the tough boss who wouldn't be happy to know what some of his employees are up to. A ticking clock looms over the proceedings, as the trucks are due back at headquarters in less than an hour. The hero must outsmart his antagonists while locked in an armored truck.

The screenplay and Antal's direction are executed with workmanlike efficiency. With all of these things in place, ARMORED should crackle with nervous energy; however, the bland characters don't get much of interest to do and are virtually interchangeable as they take whacks at the pin they're trying to remove from an armored truck's door hinge. Dillon gets a couple chances to menace and preen as the villain, but the role remains something of a missed opportunity. Since ARMORED focuses on monotonous work under pressure, the dialogue needs some sizzle but mostly fizzles.

Grade: C