Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Late Spring/Early Summer Movie Roundup

As promised, I will be contributing much more regularly to this blog. One way I plan to do a better job keeping up is to write shorter reviews of movies as I see them, and only write a full-length review when I feel the film really merits it. As a kind of transition, I’ve compiled a series of “mini-reviews” of movies I saw in May and June – longer than capsules, but shorter than my usual meanderings. I’ll also be commenting more frequently on news and developments in the world of arts & entertainment, and on other random topics as they strike me, and linking to some of the other terrific blogs I visit.

So here’s my late spring/early summer movie roundup. Enjoy, and have a happy Fourth!

directed and written by John Carney; starring Glen Hansard, Markéta Írglova

An audience favorite at Sundance, “Once” is a scruffy little charmer of a film that reaches sublime heights through its music—music that was actually composed and written by real-life musicians, Glen Hansard (of the Irish band the Frames) and Markéta Írglova, who star as the two main characters. The one thought that dominated my mind as I left the theater was “I have to get the soundtrack.” I did so, and have been listening obsessively to it. It’s hard to say whether I’d have felt the same urgency if I’d heard the music before seeing the movie, because the emotional impact of the former is so much more powerful in the context of the latter.

As stories go, this one’s about as simple as it gets: aspiring rocker and part-time street musician meets young Czech immigrant who also happens to be a serious pianist and singer on the side, and the two make beautiful music (and eventually a studio demo tape) together. That’s it. There are no superfluous subplots, narrative twists or contrivances, no extravagant gestures or stormy confrontations, and—not to give too much away, but it really doesn’t spoil the movie to know—no nookie, and not your typical feel-good ending. And, whaddya know, not one false emotional note. This is a movie about the miracle of connecting with another human being (not for nothing have people been calling it a “Before Sunrise/Sunset” for musicians), yet it’s wise enough to show that that connection can be at once fleeting and, in some way, forever.

“Once” also shows, with more poignancy and emotional truth than any other movie I’ve seen in a long while, the bittersweet pain of love that failed or a love that’s fatally flawed yet impossible to end cleanly. Both characters are still nursing wounds from such experiences with love, and they show their suffering not so much through their words or their behavior towards one another, but rather through the music they share with one another. Hansard and Írglova are such consummate musical performers that they convey these pent-up feelings with more power than most professional actors could have done. It helps smooth over some of the rockier aspects of the film, which was shot on a shoestring budget and sometimes feels more like an exceptionally heartfelt music video than the full-on musical it essentially wants to be. But whatever genre it belongs to, it’s totally free of the sham glamour and glossy yet hollow production values that we’ve come to associate with the products of MTV and Broadway. And that, in itself, is marvelously refreshing.


directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin

Insouciance is not a word I normally use, but I can’t think of a more perfect descriptor for the Ocean’s series. Soderbergh and his band of fictional high-stakes con men have practically made an art out of it. Headed by the charm and style of the Clooney-Pitt duo and animated by the bubbling chemistry between them and the rest of the team, these guys make stardom look easy. You could argue, as many did, that “Ocean’s 12” coasted too much on aforesaid charm and style, though I think I was one of the few viewers who actually rather enjoyed that movie for its casual, we’re-on-holiday breeziness.

“Ocean’s 13” makes more of an effort than “Ocean’s 12” to suggest there’s an actual plot going on here. In a nutshell, Danny et al. seek to extract revenge from an evil casino and hotel owner (Al Pacino) who screwed over one of their own (Elliot Gould). But it's arguable how much the film benefits as a result. After all, these are people playing people we’d all love to be, and we derive a good part of our enjoyment not from guessing whether they’re going to get away with the heist (we know they will) but from watching them be so deliciously cool about it. This is the closest that movie actors these days get to old-school Hollywood glam, with an added shade of sly self-awareness. While there was perhaps too much of the latter quality in “Ocean’s 12,” “Ocean’s 13” dials down the insider self-indulgence a bit. Structurally, though, it comes across as a somewhat mechanical attempt to recreate some of the elaborate hijinks of “Ocean’s 11.”

Still, there’s no denying the result is as entertaining as ever to watch. The Ocean’s movies are one of the very few franchises that sports genuine wit, as supposed to heavy-handed humor, and the actors know just how to play it. In particular, Carl Reiner, whose Saul was always my favorite character of the group, is an absolute hoot as a faux hotel critic in ridiculous tweeds and an even more ridiculous toupee. As always, though, his mugging is just one small piece of the elaborate larger puzzle, which the film assembles with a curious mixture of scrupulous attention to detail and some pretty glaring suspensions of disbelief. But then, that’s nothing new, which only goes to highlight that “Ocean’s 13,” while an engaging enough trifle, should be the end to the series. Any more and this crew risks frittering its quota of cool into—oh horrors!—tedium and insignificance.


directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgaard, Chow Yun-Fat, Tom Hollander, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, others

As with Danny Ocean’s franchise, I’m in the minority in that I didn’t hate the second installment of “Pirates” or think that it represented a significant decline in quality. In fact, if anything, I thought POTC 2 upped the comic ante in ways that lingered in my memory far longer than the entire plot of POTC 1. Who can forget the sublime ridiculousness of three men swashbuckling while rolling on a giant wheel, or Johnny Depp running frantically from a horde of cannibals while still strapped to a stake?

Unfortunately, the third (and sadly, unlikely-to-be-final) installment is totally lacking in this pure, loopy sense of fun. In fact, it’s a bloated mess, in ways I can’t even begin to detail. Suffice to say it goes on way too long and has too many plot turns that serve no purpose whatsoever, too many scenes involving multiple Jack Sparrows that were probably meant to be quirky and existentially funny but just end up being irritating, and at least two major characters whose motivations end up being completely incomprehensible.

Redeeming points? Well, some of the visual effects are nifty, especially those involving the ship(s) “at world’s end”: ice, cataracts, deserts, you name it, we got it. Jack Davenport is swoonworthily dashing as Norrington, Elizabeth’s former suitor and man of shifting loyalties. And the movie does achieve a measure of surprisingly poetic pathos near the very end (though that’s thanks more to the inherent charm of the legend of the Flying Dutchman than to the hatchet-job the screenwriters seem to have made of it), and then a nice comic symmetry with the first POTC at the very end. Oh yes, and while I’ve never been an Orlando Bloom fan, he looks downright hot dressed up as a pirate.

But other than Save your money and your time.


directed by Curtis Hanson; starring Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, Drew Barrymore

It’s always sad when a studio decides to let a movie quietly die. That’s what happened to “Lucky You,” a movie that barely blipped on the public radar before it expired without so much as a whimper. Originally slated for release last fall, it was pushed back twice before it finally came out…the same weekend as “Spider-Man 3,” when it was shunned by critics and general moviegoers alike. It deserved better treatment, though it’s no misunderstood masterpiece. Set in Vegas, this likable if lightweight movie centers on the efforts of a talented but undisciplined professional poker player, Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), to secure a seat at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, Huck has to deal with the shadow of his father, L.C. (an excellent Robert Duvall), a legendary poker player who may have won the World Series twice but was—in Huck’s view, anyway—a shitty dad who abandoned his mother and family and is constantly trying to throw Huck off-balance in their periodic run-ins. Huck also becomes involved with an aspiring lounge singer, Billie (Drew Barrymore), who plays the dewy-eyed innocent to Huck’s smooth operator.

Neither romantic lead is particularly well cast, and they don’t give off especially bright sparks as a couple. Barrymore is characteristically one-note as the good girl who lets the bad boy work his way into her heart. (Her singing, which she apparently did herself, is ok, but this Billie’s no Holliday.) As for Bana, while he looks plenty yummy enough to be a player, he doesn’t really come across as one; this is an actor who naturally radiates earnestness, not glibness. (I still have a hard time believing he was a successful stand-up comedian before turning to acting.) However, in his interactions with Duvall, Bana’s very good. When Billie tells Huck “your face went all quiet,” she hits the nail on the head. Every time the two men come into contact, Huck’s entire demeanor and body language shift in a way that speaks volumes; you can practically see him seething inside. Unlike the by-the-numbers romance, the troubled father-son relationship actually works, even though it covers equally well-trodden ground, because Bana and Duvall have all the drama that Bana and Barrymore lack. In other, smaller roles, Debra Messing is unexpectedly affecting as Billie’s older sister, enough to make you want to know more about her character than about Billie’s; Jean Smart registers real presence as the lone female poker superstar; and Robert Downey, Jr., has a hilarious cameo as a pal who has even fewer moral scruples than Huck.

Beyond the filial angst, there’s not a lot of tension in this movie—other than the suspense that builds around the poker hands. You don’t have to know anything about poker to appreciate the stakes, literally and figuratively. Away from the tables, “Lucky You” has a rather leisurely feel that manages not to slip into dullness. Curtis Hanson is one director who knows not to over-direct, and the film benefits as a result.


directed by Adrienne Shelley; starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, Cheryl Hines, Shelley, Eddie Jemison

Another breakout hit at Sundance that I missed (for want of tickets, not interest), this movie has been building a steady buzz and very respectable box office since its release earlier this spring. Is it overrated? Slightly. Not very. I suspect the accolades have been at least partly colored by the horrible tragedy that struck the film’s director, Adrienne Shelley, who was murdered in her apartment in New York last fall and never lived to see her film’s phenomenal success. But “Waitress” is certainly a treat to watch, and despite its inherent sunniness, edgier and more complicated than the advertising makes it out to be. Yes, it’s about an unhappy waitress (Keri Russell), Jenna, who finds solace in love, friendship, and making scrumptious pies of her own invention (be advised that you will certainly be craving pie by the end of this movie). But it’s also about an unhappily married, abused wife in the deep South who becomes pregnant much against her will, and has an affair with her (also married) gynecologist (Fillion).

Remarkably, the film does nothing to dilute this stew of moral queasiness—other than to allow us to see how appealing the two characters are to each other, and how even a well-meaning person can allow himself or herself to stay trapped in a bad situation. The movie also goes easy on the sentimental hooey that’s traditionally enveloped Hollywood’s vision of pregnancy and childbirth: Jenna makes no bones about the fact that she can’t stand being pregnant with her husband’s baby, and given a diary to write letters to the baby, she writes one beginning, “Dear damn baby.” By mixing sweetness and acerbic humor, “Waitress” manages to turn potentially incendiary material into a bona fide crowd-pleaser, although it sometimes does feel like it’s searching for the right tone to strike.

Shelley herself has a supporting role as one of Jenna’s fellow waitresses, and she’s so winsome you forget about her real-life grisly demise. Fillion, too, is adorably awkward as Jenna’s loving (if highly ethically challenged) admirer, while Jeremy Sisto strikes the right balance of childishness and scariness as Jenna’s boorish husband. Andy Griffith also charms as an old curmudgeon who we know from the get-go is kindly disposed towards Jenna despite his outward crustiness. The real revelation here, however, is Russell, who leaves her “Felicity” days far behind her in what should be a career-making performance. Her Jenna may look as pretty as a doll and can be softly vulnerable, but she’s also tartly unsentimental and clear-eyed about both her own faults and those of the people around her. Like the movie, and like Jenna’s pies, she achieves that tricky but crucial balance between sugar, salt, and spice.



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