Thursday, January 28, 2010

Julie and Julia (2009)

It seems redundant to praise this movie. Everyone with a keyboard has talked about how nice it is that Hollywood made a good movie for women, and how great Meryl Streep is as Julia Child, and so on. They’re right, too. “Julie and Julia” really is that good.

The film is based on the blog-turned-book by Julie Powell about her yearlong project to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Her story pretty much follows the standard stunt-memoir formula. First she is tentative-but-excited at having come up with the idea and embarking on the adventure. She makes good headway for a while. Then there’s the part where she is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and has a good cry. Then there’s the part where the project puts her marriage at risk. After months of struggle, she completes the project and comes to some sort of peace with it and with the changes it has made in her life. Finally, the book offers come rolling in. It’s the dream of every over-sharing, self-absorbed blogger in the world. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s fun stuff.

Meanwhile, the film also tells Julia Child’s story: how she moved to Paris with her husband, and, inspired by the wonderful food, decided to enroll in a famous French cooking school. She wound up becoming a cooking instructor, which led to her writing her famous cookbook. The book was something of a magnum opus, but once it was finally published, it revolutionized the American palate and led to Child’s cooking show and lasting fame.

The more compelling parts of the movie are the Julia Child parts. I really have to hand it to Meryl Streep here, she is amazing as Child. (The way she disappears into the role reminds me of Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray.”) Nothing particularly intense happens to Julia (or to Julie) in the course of the movie, but nonetheless, Child’s love affair with her husband and with food makes for a good story. If Streep wins some awards for this role, they will be well deserved.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, January 22, 2010

500 Days of Summer (2009)

Love in the movies is always the same, right? Boy and girl meet in some adorable way and fall into a love that is perfect, mutual, and all-important. They usually have to overcome some obstacles to be together, and the movie may even give us a tragic ending where they are permanently separated by death or circumstances, but their love is eternal. The most important thing in the world is that the Boy and the Girl, who were Meant For Each Other can Be Together. If that can be achieved, then Everything Will Work Out.

Real love, of course, is complicated. It is probably made even more complicated by Hollywood’s efforts, which have trained so many of us to expect the Hollywood version of love. “500 Days of Summer” explores, in a small way, a more realistic version of love. It’s a love story where the Boy and the Girl love each other, just not equally.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, a greeting card writer who falls head-over-heels for Summer (Zooey Deschanel). It’s easy to see why. There are lots of beautiful actresses with big, blue eyes, but Ms. Deschanel has a certain fresh, quirky quality that makes her irresistible. She isn’t, strictly speaking, the sexiest actress, but I can’t imagine a guy who wouldn’t want her to be his girlfriend. (She reminds me of Molly Ringwald in that.) Anyway, Summer and Tom hit it off and date for a blissful while. Since the movie jumps back and forth in time, I’m not really ruining anything for you by revealing that Summer tires of the relationship before Tom does. Instead of the standard movie where Tom Gets Her Back, this is a movie about Tom Getting Past It.

No new ground is really covered here. Breakup movies aren’t as common as standard romances, but if there can be said to be a Breakup Movie formula, “500 Days of Summer” follows the formula. Tom gets advice from his wacky roommates and his ridiculously wise little sister. He mopes, breaks stuff, etc., and ultimately he uses the breakup as a transformative experience that gets his life back on track. Standard stuff, but nicely done, with charming performances by Levitt and Deschanel. The film has some good humor, it handles the serious bits with class, and it’s a nice little piece of entertainment.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Children of Men (2006) ****

Proving that a movie doesn’t have to be fun to watch to be brilliant, “Children of Men” is a dark work of genius. The story centers around the terrifying conceit that humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. This is ironic considering that so many of our problems today seem to be caused by excessive reproduction. “Children of Men” hypothesizes that all these problems would be that much worse if we weren’t kept sane by the hope embodied in the next generation. This dystopian, near-future sci-fi movie paints the earth as pretty similar to the world of today, but dominated by the existentialist hopelessness of an entire race of humans who face the likelihood that they are the end of the line.

Clive Owen is Theo, one of the unhopeful masses. He gets kidnapped by terrorists working for his ex, played with revolutionary style by Julianne Moore, and recruited for a shocking mission: to help smuggle the only known pregnant woman in the world out of England and into the hands of some trustworthy doctors. Calloused as he is, Theo takes the job for money, but during the nightmarish journey he rediscovers his humanity.

“Children of Men” gets so many things right. First of all, the actors are universally excellent. I’m not necessarily a big Clive Owen fan, but he really nails this one. Likewise, Julianne Moore is very convincing as an insurgent leader, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is chilling as one of her lieutenants. Michael Caine is wonderful in a small role as Theo’s dad. Another thing the film gets right is the Big Concept. This is science fiction, after all. “Children of Men” does a great job taking this concept, that the entire human race could suddenly become sterile, and envisioning our world under those conditions. The action sequences are also pretty good.

This is not, by any stretch, a date movie, but on a night when you are up for a serious, seriously good movie, “Children of Men” is worth seeing.

4 stars

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Pretty in Pink (1986)

I know it’s hard to believe that anyone in the free world hasn’t seen “Pretty in Pink,” but I actually just saw the movie. I know, bizarre, huh? The thing is, I think there are just some movies, even iconic ones like this, that you miss out on if you don’t see them when they come out. This film came out in 1986. It isn’t like five years later, when I was in college, I had friends saying, “Hey, why don’t we hang out and watch ‘Pretty in Pink’?” So the years went by, and now I finally got around to seeing it.

Molly Ringwald plays Andie, a smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks who gets picked on by the rich bitches at her high school and who finds herself having to chose between 2 guys. On the one hand, there is Duckie (Jon Cryer), her lifelong best friend and fellow outcast, whom she thinks of as a brother. On the other hand is Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), a funny, mysterious, charmingly sincere, good-looking, rich kid. If anyone watching this movie actually had any doubt in their mind whom Andie would choose, then they deserve some kind of award for actually knowing less about women than I do. In any event, Duckie has this secret crush on Andie but lacks the walnuts to even ask her to Prom. Blaine, meanwhile, comes on really strong at first, but winds up ditching Andie under pressure from his preppy friends, including an asshole named Steff (James Spader.) With prospects like these, I think Andie should just remain a virgin until college.

I didn’t like “Pretty in Pink” nearly as much as “The Breakfast Club” or “16 Candles.” This movie is way more of a chick flick, by which I mean that the entire movie is about which of these two guys Andie is going to date. As I said already, I was rooting for neither. Duckie is nerdily cool, and a good friend, but Andie has no chemistry with him. She has tons of chemistry with Blaine, but I found it impossible to root for the guy. He seems nice, but then why does he hang out with a stereotypical rich jerk like Steff? Plus, a guy named Blaine really ought to have a stronger chin. Harry Dean Stanton is sympathetic as Andie’s single father, but, like all the male characters in the film, he is just not quite respectable.

Probably the most likable character is Andie’s boss Iona, played with sexy panache by Annie Potts. She is a hipster who lives in Chinatown, owns a record store, and changes her hair daily. She’s a mother figure for Andie, and she provides Andie with evidence that being a single woman is not the end of the world. This is a message that young women need to hear, and Iona sent it long before “Sex and the City.”

Come to think of it, “Sex and the City” and “Pretty in Pink” share a feminine, feminist attitude. They are both about strong, independent women who are doing the heavy lifting in their lives while also being pretty in pink.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bay of Angels (La baie des anges) 1963

It has been a while since we watched a Jeanne Moreau movie, so we took Netflix’s suggestion for “Bay of Angels.” Big mistake! This Jacques Demy creation is a bleak depiction of gambling addiction, more public service announcement than entertainment.

Claude Mann plays Jean, a young man newly introduced to gambling by a friend. Tired of his conservative life, he takes a vacation, intent on expanding his horizons and living a little dangerously. He meets Jacqueline (Jeanne Moreau) in a casino and gets sucked into her roller-coaster life of compulsive gambling.

Jacques Demy has some charming little movies, like “Lola” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” This film, though, is just painful to watch. When Jean and Jacqueline win, you know they are just going to lose it all again, and you know from the beginning that Jacqueline is never going to change. The only real question is whether or not Jean will become a gambling addict or win his way free of the situation. Unfortunately, the film never really makes us care enough about Jean to generate much suspense. Basically, the story is one predictable, bad outcome after another, without any real drama or action. The ending feels very tacked-on, as well. To top it all off, Jeanne Moreau looks cheap and ragged-out as a platinum blond.

An interesting noir could have been made out of this basic premise. Instead, “Bay of Angels” is a boring character study about one character who is unlikable (Jacqueline) and one who is not really developed (Jean).

1 star