Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Movie Review: P.S. I Love You

Dear Hilary Swank,
You're a marvelous actress, and I completely understand why you might want to take the lead role in a romantic comedy. After all, your resume's loaded with heavy drama, and it seems you're always getting knocked around in one way or another. It was incredible luck, too, landing the sexy and talented Gerard Butler as your leading man and on screen husband. Even though he's actually dead for most of the movie, his charismatic presence sparkles in flashback scenes (although his character is a bit of a jerk at times). Plus, you've got two wonderful actresses (Gina Gershon and the always delightful Lisa Kudrow) to play your girlfriends, with Kathy Bates doing a fine job as your mother. Irish actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of the twinkling eyes and smile, shows up as a new love interest. In fact, he seems to coincidentally show up with an amazing degree of regularity. Harry Connick Jr. gets into the act as a rude guy who badly wants to be more than just friends with you.

The letters left for you by your late husband direct you to all the right places for putting your life back together. He has you performing karaoke, going to a gay mens club, taking a picture perfect trip to Ireland with your girlfriends. So what went wrong? Don't worry, Hilary, it's not you. You hit all the right notes as the bereaved widow who watches old Bette Davis movies and sings out loud alone in the apartment. It isn't Gerard, whose delicious dance in shorts and suspenders was a highlight for me. It isn't any of the previously mentioned performers, who all acquit themselves nicely in their roles. I think it's simply the curse of the romantic comedy, a genre I've always had trouble understanding or enjoying. Why are the scripts so stupid, so silly without being the least bit funny? Why are they so full of cliches? Why are the characters constantly doing and saying the most implausible things? I don't get it. Well, thanks for doing what you could to make this movie work. You might ask your agent to start finding you scripts worthy of your talent.

P.S. Better luck next time.

Things to love about this movie: The beautiful Irish scenery, Gerard Butler's fabulous singing (yes, it's really his voice -- check him out in "Phantom of the Opera"), Hilary's fun shoes
Things to hate about this movie: Some spectacularly unfunny scenes, especially the one in a fishing boat in Ireland
Pleasant surprises: The relationship between Hilary and Harry Connick Jr., the ending of the movie (not quite as predictable as I feared)
Unpleasant surprises: There's a nasty edge to the fights between Hilary and Gerard

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Here's Looking at You Kid: A Tribute to Heath Ledger

From the very first time I saw him in "10 Things I Hate About You", I was simply mad about the boy. Heath had it all, even in that early film: charm, edge, talent, screen charisma, a great singing voice. Then there was that impossibly sexy "Vanity Fair" cover with Heath in golden curls, a white t-shirt, faded jeans hanging just low enough on his hips and the hint of a smile. Despite those stunning good looks, he took the path less traveled and I loved him all the more for it. The closest he came to playing a leading man was probably "A Knight's Tale", yet it was with a wink and a grin that he made this campy movie way more fun than it should have been, taking my breath away in one scene with an exhilarating spin around the ballroom floor (partnered with Shannyn Sossamon). Yes, it turned out he could dance too. It seemed that Heath could do everything, except make it to his 29th birthday. It's simply unimaginable that he's already gone. It makes me want to curse fate, shout at the gods, demand a different ending. All I can do is cling to that fabulous legacy of his, those many magical moments of cinema that he's been kind enough to leave for us. I will treasure them all the more, knowing there won't be new Heath performances to look forward to again (except his role as The Joker in the upcoming "Dark Knight").

Thank you, Heath, for all you gave us: the sensitive son of the Revolution in "The Patriot", a devastating portrayal of the tragic son of a racist in "Monster's Ball", an inspired and delightful take on the world of skateboarding in "The Lords of Dogtown", a romantic scoundrel in "Casanova", a young troubled priest in "The Order", a hapless kid involved with small time criminals in the early Australian film "Two Hands". He gave us everything from the outlaw Ned Kelly ("Ned Kelly") to Bob Dylan ("I'm Not There"). He could be dashing in a military uniform ("Four Feathers") and sweetly intellectual behind wire frame glasses ("The Brothers Grimm"). Then, of course, there was "Brokeback Mountain", where he morphed into a craggy cowboy of few words and strong emotions. Who could ask for more? Yet I want more, because who could ever get enough of Heath Ledger? He was so unique, with a slightly bohemian fashion sense, intense yet slightly goofy demeanor, endearing giggle. I attended a tribute to him 2 years ago at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and marveled at the amazing array of film clips illustrating his impressive body of work at the young age of 26. Yet he seemed like a shy kid, sitting on his hands at one point during the presentation and appearing a bit uncomfortable and nervous at all the attention.

I don't care what actually killed Heath or why he died. I only care that he is gone from us and that I'll miss him more than I can express. Like all actors, he is truly immortal thanks to his movies. Like those few special actors, he is unforgettably alive and present on film in a way that leaves an indelible imprint on your heart. Here's to the darling Australian boy, Heath Ledger, who left early for dreamtime.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Movie Review: Cassandra's Dream

Writer/director Woody Allen's recent trend of murderous tales set in London continues with this story of two brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) who set themselves up as killers-for-hire in order to escape their financial woes. The movie begins with Terry (Farrell) and Ian (McGregor) buying a rundown old sailboat in hopes of recapturing more carefree days they spent out on the water as kids. They christen the boat "Cassandra's Dream" after the winning racing dog who paid off for gambling addict Terry. Both brothers are unhappy with their lives: Ian works for his father in a restaurant where he's miserable and anxious to leave; Terry is an auto mechanic making low wages. When Terry's winning gambling streak comes to an abrupt and nasty end, he's left with a $90,000 debt which he can't even begin to repay. Ian meets a beautiful actress (Hayley Atwell) he's hoping to impress. Enter the rich and successful Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) who's been the subject of constant admiration at the family dinner table and has helped out in the past with small donations to his less fortunate relatives. When the brothers ask their uncle for help escaping their money worries, he turns the tables with a sinister proposition: He'll give them the money they need, but first they must kill a business associate of his who's set to testify against him and bring down his business empire (as well as send him to prison). Things get complicated as the brothers wrestle with their consciences and prepare to cross a lethal line. I enjoyed the performances in this movie, especially Farrell and McGregor who bounce off each other nicely, and the wonderful Sally Hawkins who plays Terry's girlfriend Kate. John Benfield and Claire Higgins were also excellent as the bickering parents of the brothers, and Tom Wilkinson was fine as Uncle Howard. Hayley Atwell, as Angela (the woman with whom Ian becomes smitten) was problematic for me -- not a particularly interesting actress in a not particularly interesting role. There was a bit of deja vu from Allen's previous, better film "Match Point", as well as an unsatisfying ending that didn't seem quite plausible. The movie was good enough, but never caught fire as it might have.

Things to love about this movie: Cool London scenes, good performances (especially Farrell and McGregor) and casting
Things to hate about this movie: The spark is missing, boring lead actress Atwell
Pleasant surprises: None of the usual Allen mannerisms in writing and directing
Unpleasant surprises: A "convenient" ending that's less than satisifying

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Movie Review: No Country for Old Men

When you're talking one of the Cohen Brothers best films, you're talking one terrific movie. The plot may be somewhat standard (drug money found and taken, hot pursuit to retrieve stolen money) but there's nothing ordinary about the way these writer/directors turn this frequently told tale on its head. The Cormac McCarthy novel has been turned into a pitch perfect movie that defies genre, offering up some of the best performances and cinematic moments of the year with marvelous writing, photography and direction at every turn.

In a heart breaking performance, Tommy Lee Jones stars as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who finds himself reluctantly drawn into the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. It's local welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who really reaps the whirlwind, though, when he stumbles onto a scene of carnage with massacred drug couriers, a pick-up truck full of heroin and a satchel crammed with money. Making off with the money, Moss sets into motion a riveting game of cat and mouse with stone cold crazy killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who's out to recover the bucks. The fabulous Bardem is winning every award and nomination in sight, and it's easy to see why. He turns in a chilling, mesmerizing gem of a performance, playing insane from the inside out. Equally outstanding is Brolin, who makes Moss a compelling character despite his flaws and transforms himself into a refreshingly authentic, rough-at-the-edges leading man. Kelly McDonald co-stars as Moss' hapless wife who's caught in the crossfire as her husband goes on the lam trying to outrun and outsmart a diabolical maniac. Woody Harrelson makes a fun appearance playing a bounty hunter hired to rein in the rampaging Chigurh. There are some truly terrifying moments in this movie, as well as some exquisitely sweet, tender ones. Perhaps only the Coen Brothers could throw together a pneumatic air cattle-gun, a vicious bull terrier, a guy in cowboy boots and a hospital gown, a world weary sheriff, and a couple of creepy, motel/hotel rooms to come up with the perfect movie. Call it.

Things to love about this movie: The Bardem/Brolin tag team, Tommy Lee Jones' wonderful performance, a script to savor, the fact that a coin toss will never be the same.
Things to hate about this movie: How do the Coens make it look so easy??
Pleasant surprise: The marvelous, unexpected final scene
Unpleasant surprise: Not a one in sight (though this movie is chock full of rip roaring surprises)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

After all the rave reviews and award nominations this movie has been receiving, I may have gotten my hopes up too high because I was slightly disappointed when I finally saw it. I'm not a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia", "Punch Drunk Love", Boogie Nights") and many of my problems with this movie involve his direction and writing. Based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the movie follows oilman Daniel Plainview (an outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) as he travels the west with his "son" (Dillon Freasier), buying land for drilling oil wells and weaseling his way into a sizable fortune. The look of the film is bleak and dark, the characters are not easy to warm up to and there are some pointed jabs at greed and religion. So far so good. The difficulty, for me, is that the director just doesn't know when to quit (as in his previous films). Excess can be effective, but the way Anderson does it detracts from his material rather than enhancing it. The ending, in particular, was ruined for me by Anderson's insistence on going a little too far, passing the point at which he might have achieved the perfect checkmate. Anderson shows too many scenes of oil drilling (not the most fascinating of processes) and pounds us over the head with a few of the ideas he's putting forward. There's also a soundtrack that fluctuates between highly effective and highly annoying.

Two characters in particular stand out in the movie: Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) and Eli Sunday (an electrifying performance by Paul Dano -- for me, every bit the equal of Daniel Day-Lewis, but where is his recognition from the awards folks). They become involved in a dual of wills, with devious oilman Plainview constantly running amok of devious evangelical minister Sunday. It's a fun rivalry and was the most involving part of the movie for me. I felt this was a good movie, but not a great one.

Things to love about this movie: Performances (especially Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis), some riveting scenes (mostly in Eli Sunday's church)
Things to hate about this movie: The flawed ending, self indulgence on the director's part, doesn't quite live up to critical acclaim, a little too long
Pleasant surprises: A sly little mystery (Is Dano actually playing two characters or only one?)
Unpleasant surprises: Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, while excellent, wasn't the best I've seen him give (I liked him much better as Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York")

Movie Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I put off seeing this movie since I knew the subject matter would be hard to handle. As expected, it rattled me to the core. Based on the true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had a massive stroke at the age of 42 that left him completely paralyzed with the exception of his left eye, the movie follows Bauby's painfully slow progress in finding a way to communicate and deal with the physical devestation he has experienced. In a brilliant but daring approach, director Julian Schnabel has chosen to show most of the movie from Bauby's point of view. We are seemingly inside this man's mind and body as we see him waking up from a coma to discover that what's left of his life is the ability to blink his left eye and nothing more.

French actor Mathieu Amalric (previously seen in "Munich") is wonderful as Bauby (known as"Jean-Do" by his friends and family). We see him in flashbacks as the person he was before the stroke, involved in the world of high fashion and helping his housebound father (an excellence performance by Max von Sydow). Two physical therapists (played by Marie-Josee Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia, both outstanding) assist Jean-Do in gaining the ability to find a way out of his physical prison.

This is a director's movie, though, and Schnabel does a superb job of making the plight of Jean-Do both horrifying and exhilarating. He skillfully maneuvers us between Jean-Do's locked-in physical condition (the diving bell) and his vivid imagination (the butterfly). I haven't been able to shake this movie for days. Not for the faint of heart, but a must-see for fans of cinema. Movie magic at its best.

Things to love about this movie: The amazing directing, good soundtrack, unique perspective
Things to hate about this movie: It gave me trouble sleeping (but maybe that's a good thing)
Pleasant surprise: There were some good laughs
Unpleasant surprise: Plot spoiler so won't divulge it here

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

Another macabre masterpiece from weirdmeister Tim Burton and his favorite muse, Johnny Depp. I saw this movie during the holidays, and it was a welcome antidote to all those heart warming films that usually come out at that time of year. Who wants to see Santa and his elves or the family reunion around a turkey dinner when you can watch Johnny Depp hack up the denizens of old London with a straight razor. The Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical has been translated to the screen in fine form, with a marvelous cast (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower and Ed Sanders), a fabulous recreation of old-time London and just enough black humor and stylish gore to make the whole mix tasty. This has never been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, but the songs really come alive in the film. Pretty cool that all the major players do their own singing, acquitting themselves rather well with songs that don't really require a trained voice from any of the actors. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as the vengeful barber who has returned to London after being sent away on a false charge by villainous judge Alan Rickman, who coveted Depp's lovely wife. Upon his return, Depp joins forces with Helena Bonham Carter, baker of "the worst pies in London" and together they cook up a scheme to hack up lawyers, businessmen and judges and bake them into meat pies. Yum. Warning: Many throats are slit in the course of the movie, but hey, it's all in fun. A terrific movie for anyone, like me, who likes their Christmas pudding dark.

Things to love about this movie: The fabulous look of old London, Johnny Depp's performance, Ed Sanders' sweet singing voice, Tim Burton's marvelous direction
Things to hate about this movie: Can't really think of any.
Pleasant surprises: Everyone sounds OK singing (even Timothy Spall -- who knew).
Unpleasant surprises:Johnny Depp wasn't even nominated for a SAG award.