November 2011 posts
THE ARTIST (2011/IN THEATERS)
Sarah! I am so glad we were able to preview The Artist at the St. Louis International Film Festival, well before the unwashed masses. It’s always a pleasure to see the Tivoli packed to the gills with nerdy film buffs like ourselves, even if we suspected that many of them bought tickets in hopes that supporting actor and Hometown Hero John Goodman might make a special guest appearance. He did not! (Though his image from The Big Lebowski adorned the Major Filmmaker Awards.) Lucky for everyone, The Artist was a total delight. That a gleeful homage to the silent era could hold an audience rapt from beginning to end is no small feat in the era of 3D and seizure-inducing vampire baby nightmare birth scenes. But this B&W charmer (which follows the waning career of a silent-era star, played by the alarmingly suave Jean Dujardin, and the rise of talkie ingenue/love interest Berenice Bejo) had a magnetic cast, chipper score, beautiful sets (a staircase scene was pretty amazing in scale and choreography), and an engaging plot that, while maybe directed a little broadly, was no less sweet and compelling for it. And though it costars a very talented dog (who some people are think should be nominated for an Oscar? Whaaat? Let’s get Serkis in there first, then work our way toward actual animals, you goofs) it requires zero warning barks on my patented scale. Win-win!
THE MUPPETS (2011/IN THEATERS) Yeah! They’re baaack ….and they’re in great form. For those of us who are old enough to remember The Muppet Show on TV, it’s a big treat to catch this new movie featuring all of our favorites: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, those granky old men, everyone! (Except Elmo, that is, who was supposed to make a cameo appearance which was forbidden by lawyers from The Children’s Television Workshop! Say what?? Craziness.) Anyway, the movie does just fine, Elmo or no Elmo, and features guest appearances from a wonderful assortment of famous people including Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, Emily Blount, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski, even Mickey Rooney! The plot features Jason Segel (who also wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller) as Gary, who has a muppet brother named Walter and a girlfriend named Mary (Amy Adams). Gary and Walter are huge Muppet fans so when all three head to Los Angeles for a vacation/ 10 year anniversary dinner for Gary and Mary, their first port of call is the old Muppet Studios. Sadly the buildings are now in ruins (their tour guide, BTW, is Alan Arkin–very funny) and about to be swindled away by the well-named bad guy Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who wants to tear everything down and dig for oil. The Muppets have to raise $10 million to save their legacy—and it turns out to also save their name. And so, the old plot line kicks in—”let’s put on a show!”–in this case, a Muppet Show which will be a Telethon! Great plot device and from here the movie really kicks into gear as the group starts a road trip to reassemble the old gang, including Miss Piggy, who is now working for Paris Vogue (in their large size division–ha!). Plenty of good tunes and music accompany the story, and we even get a semi-serious turn as Gary (and Walter) must decide if they are men or muppets. Sweet. Whether you’re an old fan (like me) or a young person who has no memory of the Muppets, this movie will entertain you. Enjoy!!
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011/IN THEATERS)
Based on a true story, this sweet little movie shows us Marilyn Monroe during a short period of her life when she was in Britain filming “The Prince and the Showgirl” opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. We see Ms. Monroe through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne)—the 24 year old son of Lord Kenneth Clark– but more importantly a fan of the cinema. Young Colin is happily working as the “third assistant director” to Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) on set while they film the 1957 movie which featured Olivier as a handsome prince (sporting a “Balkan” accent) opposite Monroe (Michelle Williams) as the sexy American showgirl who wins his heart. As the story goes, Olivier had hoped to find a spark with Monroe who was by then the most famous and sought-after star in the world, with Olivier being the most respected actor. What he found instead was an insecure young woman who had trouble remembering her lines and was late to every set, infuriating Olivier who was the model professional. Clark was tasked with trying to get Marilyn to the set on time and in the course of his efforts, bonded with the young actress and spent a week showing her England, while truly falling in love. Clark’s memoir, published in 1995 and entitled “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” is the basis for this film.
Much of the picture deals with Monroe’s famous insecurities—she brings along an entourage which includes her PR man (Tobey Jones), her acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker playing Lee Strasburg’s wife Paula) and her manager (Dominic Cooper), all of whom hover at her side and make Olivier even more irritated. Along the way we also meet famous actresses Vivien Leigh (Olivier’s wife in real life, played here by Julia Ormond) and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, wonderful as always) and of course, Arthur Miller is on set as well (played convincingly by Dougray Scott). Derek Jacobi makes an appearance as young Colin’s godfather Sir Owen Morshead and Emma Watson is on hand as Colin’s love interest (before he gets entangled with Monroe, of course). The performances are uniformly good. The film works quite well IMHO—a little slow to start, but then Marilyn is a little slow to warm up to her fearsome British counterparts. Redmayne plays Colin as a lovely and bright young man. Branagh takes a bit of getting used to–especially since he looks nothing like Sir Laurence Olivier–but his sheer acting ability pulls it off. And of course, there’s plenty of well deserved Oscar buzz for Michelle Williams’ channeling of Marilyn, newly married, so vulnerable and childlike, and trying so hard to become a “real actress.” As Colin tells her in the film, “You’re a star who wants to be an actress and he (Olivier) is an actor who wants to be a star.”
BTW: Follow this link to catch the original trailer and more backstory on The Prince and The Showgirl.
ALSO: For more info on the beautiful house where the film was shot (and where Monroe and new husband Miller really stayed), be sure to check out this NYT article—it’s known as Parkside House and is located in the suburbs of London.
Elizabeth Olsen—gorgeous younger sister to those famous twins–makes a very strong screen debut as the title character in this small but interesting film which earned the 2011 Sundance Directing Award for writer/director Sean Durkin. Martha (her real name) is introduced to us as she is running away from a “cult” farm in the Catskills. After a shaky phone call to her big sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), Martha is swept away into a gorgeous Connecticut lake house where Lucy and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are meant to enjoy their annual two-week vacation away from the pressures of life in New York City. So much for that idea! Martha, as we learn, has been missing for two years—those years spent, of course, with the cult following the death of her mother. Lucy is Martha’s only remaining relative but despite loving and sweet invitations from her sister, who is overjoyed to see her, Martha won’t say much about her experiences—her line is only: “I was with a boyfriend who lied to me.” The movie, however, shows us the details in a series of seamless cuts, reflecting Martha’s memories as they come flooding in uncontrollably at all times. As part of the cult, Martha is renamed “Marcy May” by its leader Patrick (a superbly attentive and menacing John Hawkes) and little by little, we see how brutalized the women on this idyllic farm become. (BTW: Late in the film, we finally learn that “Marlene” is the name all the women on the farm use when the outside world invades via phone calls or visits.) The film moves slowly but begins to seriously pick up toward the end as Martha’s behavior–which has always been odd–is becoming even more strange, making those of us in the audience more and more nervous. Martha’s memories become sharper and more menacing—she is increasingly paranoid and seems to be either losing it altogether or seeing threats no one else can see, worried that the cult is coming to get her. Her sister at last realizes that professional help is needed and husband Ted has literally had enough. I’ll leave it to you to say whether the ending is satisfying or not. I think it succeeds in leaving us totally inside the mind of this troubled young woman.
My take: Is this movie worth the price of a theater ticket? Maybe not, but keep it in mind for your DVD rental or streaming queue—just be sure to choose a night when you’re looking for something creepy.
If you are already a big fan of film director Alexander Payne, then chances are you are heading to the cinema as fast as possible this weekend to catch his latest effort “The Descendants,” which stars George Clooney in a story of family, life and property set on the islands of Hawaii. Payne has directed only five films including this one (the others are Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) but all feature complex characters, unforgettable performances and locations that come to life before us. The Descendants is his first film since 2004’s Sideways and he hits the mark again. At the start of the film, George Clooney introduces us to his home state of Hawaii in a voice-over that reminds us that people in that state, even though they are truly in paradise, are also living real lives. Clooney’s character is Matt King, a “haole” (white man) who is also a descendant of native Hawaiian royalty and therefore has inherited wealth, though he tries to live a normal upper-middle class life on Oahu with his family. Because of his lineage, however, he is also the trustee for thousands of acres of undeveloped land and beachfront on Kauai—all of which is due to be developed shortly to the benefit of his extended family. His life, which is busy and distracted, is suddenly brought to attention when his wife Elizabeth suffers a boating accident leaving her in a coma. Matt must now pay attention to his troublesome daughters—17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley in a terrific performance) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller in her first role). A third “adopted child” is Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s Punahou buddy who hangs out at her insistence and delivers many of the laugh lines of the movie. As if all this weren’t enough, the film takes a turn that is alternately hilarious and poignant when Matt learns that his wife was cheating on him. Like all of Payne’s films, this one moves naturally through a series of scenes and locations, giving us humor and pathos, with a real emotional kick by the end. A big shout-out to Clooney—he shows so much range and depth in this film all the while being his usual charming and handsome self. Oscar should definitely be watching this one!
BTW: Besides Clooney and Woodley, there are numerous fine small performances among them from Beau Bridges as Matt’s uncle and Robert Forster as his father-in-law. But it’s Julie Greer who really delivers in her small amount of screen time… watch for this near the end of the film.
ALSO: The movie is based on the book of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings who has a one-scene cameo in the film—as Clooney’s secretary.
BOWFINGER (1999/DVD) It wasn’t the greatest time ever for Eddie Murphy last week, what with Tower Heist coming up short at the box office and his Oscar gig disappearing right out from under him (courtesy of producer Brett Ratner’s down right stupid behavior). So I’m starting a SeriousMovieLover “Favorite Eddie Murphy Movie” campaign to remind everyone of just how great he was and is. For myself, I’m naming “Bowfinger” as my all-time favorite. Written by and starring Steve Martin, along with Eddie Murphy in a hilarious dual-role, the movie is a brilliant and light-hearted send-up of Hollywood, movie making, and even the Church of Scientology. Frank Oz of Muppet fame directed Steve Martin who is spot-on as Bobbie Bowfinger, a down on his luck filmmaker operating out of his classic LA bungalow and desperate to produce his accountant’s sci-fi screenplay entitled “Chubby Rain.” Working all the angles, Bobbie decides to use his life savings (roughly $2,000!) to “go for it,” shooting his picture around one of Hollywood’s hottest stars—Kit Ramsay—played to perfection by Murphy. And of course, this is part of the hilarity of the movie because Bobbie and crew are truly “shooting around” the star who just happens to be paranoid and obsessed by thoughts of aliens—a great concept that allows Martin as the writer to introduce us to “Mind Head,” a slick cult of high rollers run by Terence Stamp and other suits who are helping Ramsay to “keep it together.” Murphy’s second brilliant slot in the film is as Kit’s brother Jiff (his polar opposite) who joins the film as a stand-in for various shots and gives us one of the film’s signature hilarious scenes when he’s forced to cross the 101 in traffic. Add to this Christine Baranski as Bowfinger’s lead actress, Heather Graham as Daisy—just in from Ohio –and sleeping her way to the “top,” and the rest of Bowfinger’s crew, and you have one funny movie. If you don’t remember it (or even if you do), pull it out of your DVD collection or rent it on Netflix, put on some popcorn and have a great time.
J. Edgar (2011/IN THEATERS)
J. Edgar (2011/IN THEATERS) Clint Eastwood’s steady hand as a director can certainly be seen in this film which features a stand-out performance from Leonardo diCaprio in the title role–one sure to win him an Oscar nomination as he ages over 50 years in the film thanks to an obviously talented make-up team. Playing J. Edgar Hoover from his early 20s through to his death in 1972 at the age of 77, diCaprio captures the driven nature of the man as well as his autocratic style and his secret insecurities. DiCaprio is joined by three other strong performers here: Judy Dench as his ambitious mother; Naomi Watts as his loyal secretary Helen Gandy; and Armie Hammer doing a fine job as the smooth and sophisticated Clyde Tolson who became J. Edgar’s partner both at the FBI and in life. With a script by Dustin Lance Black (2009 Oscar winner for Original Screenplay for Milk), naturally the film does more than hint at homosexual relations between Tolson and Hoover, giving us one mano-a-mano wrestling scene which ends in a kiss (ala Brokeback Mountain) and one slightly over-the-top scene featuring J. Edgar trying on his dead mother’s dress and jewelry. But these should not be over-interpreted as coloring the film IMHO. For the most part, we see a very buttoned down J. Edgar working to build his department, laboring to establish a national finger printing system, creating a “scientific” approach to the capture and prosecution of criminals, and maneuvering the fierce politics of living through 8 (count ‘em) different presidents. It’s not an easy life, for sure, and it’s certainly interesting but it doesn’t make for much of a compelling biopic. Eastwood is known as a no-nonsense director who can get what he wants from actors in a single take and who shoots pictures in record time (this one in 35 days). Here he delivers a film that is solid—its art design is gorgeous and period details are everywhere; the dialog and script are good; and of course, the acting is terrific. But the sum is not larger than its parts and as you walk out of the theater, you may be asking yourself—was it memorable? And did we learn a lot about this man and his life? The answer—not as much as we might have wished. Do catch it in the theater if you’re interested, but you can also wait for the DVD.
TOWER HEIST (2011/IN THEATERS)
My friend and I had expected to have a really fun time at this movie. Based on the excellent previews and on the casting of Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, we figured we’d be laughing it up—or at least chuckling—for most of the film. But, more than half way into the picture, we had yet to even smile and could only remark on the “flat” nature of both the writing and the acting. The plot, which attempts to harness some of the current 99% angst against Wall Street, banks and Madoff style crooks, focuses on Stiller in the leading man/straight guy role as Josh Kovacs, dutiful manager of The Tower, a NYC Trump-style high rise, full of wealthy individuals who expect a lot of attention. Up in the penthouse is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the Madoff of this flick. Shaw, as it turns out, has managed to swindle the employees of The Tower (and many others) out of their hard earned retirement funds and is under threat of legal action and imprisonment, which he appears to be able to dodge thanks to his “big player” connections. Leading the investigation against Shaw is Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), a tough talking broad who tells Kovacs (over many drinks) that there is at least $20 million missing from the investigation and likely stashed somewhere in Shaw’s suite. Kovacs is determined to get that money back to his employees and so enlists Murphy, reprising some of his Beverly Hills Cop / 24 Hours schtick as Slide, the “thief” brought in to help our straight guys rob their Madoff style villain. Along for the heist are also Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sidibe, Matthew Broderick and Michael Pena in various supporting roles. The combination should be fun, but the timing is off and the various characters never seem to jell. Murphy gives it a real college try and the film lights up a bit whenever he’s on screen—yet he seems to almost over-power his scenes. The film is full of action but without much excitement or fun. No wonder the opening box office was more than $10 million below expectations. Sorry Eddie—I still love you—but my advice on this one is to skip it. Here’s hoping both you and Brett Ratner (who directed the film) have more success at the Oscars.
TAKE SHELTER (2011/IN THEATERS)
So we have lots to say about what happens in Take Shelter—the menacing and effective new movie starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain—but we’re not going to say any of it here. Go see it today, and then leave us a comment when you’re back from the theater so we can have some lengthy discussions. We’ll be waiting.
Alright, fine. Here are a few thoughts and details. Writer and director Jeff Nichols has a brief resume; this is only his second film. His first (Shotgun Stories, a past Ebertfest pick and longtime resident of our DVR) and his current project also star Shannon, whose amazing eyes you may recognize from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” or Revolutionary Road, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His performance in Take Shelter is mesmerizing, as is that of the suddenly ubiquitous Chastain as Shannon’s wife. Chastain came out of nowhere to star in no less than SEVEN films slated for release in 2011 (a year we will refer to in the future as 20Chastain), including biggies like The Tree of Life and The Help (sorry one of your films costars Gerard Butler, Jessica! We’re sure it won’t happen again). I had sort of decided to be annoyed by her based solely on the fact that she is everywhere, but I can’t now because she’s excellent in this movie, bringing subtlety and nuance to a character that could easily have slipped into cliché in less capable hands.
I found this film completely compelling. I was transfixed in the theater and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The photography is gorgeous, the acting is masterful, the concepts and questions posed are…well, the less said about that, the better. I don’t really understand the ins and outs of the new Oscar nomination process, but if the system works at all, this film should show up in ALL THE CATEGORIES.
There’s already Oscar buzz for director Alexander Payne’s newest film The Descendants–which will be out in release on November 18th –and for George Clooney’s performance in the film as the absentee Hawaiian dad who has to step it up for the kids when his wife suffers a stroke. Can’t wait to see it–Payne has a serious talent for drawing out wonderful and quirky performances from his actors—think about Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Reese Witherspoon in Election, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. Like me, you may have forgotten just how great About Schmidt is. I caught it on cable late last week and was seriously stunned again by Nicholson’s dead-pan / spot-on performance as Warren R. Schmidt, 66 and just retired, suddenly widowed, driving his RV to Denver and looking for meaning in his life. Nicholson nails this totally against type role and he couldn’t be better. Also fabulous are Hope Davis as his daughter Jeannie, Dermot Mulroney as her weird-ball fiancé Randall, and best of all, Kathy Bates as Randell’s mom Roberta, who gives us that unforgettable hot-tub scene!! Worth catching this movie again for sure.
BTW: Nicholson won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama for his role and famously said, “This is surprising. We thought we were making a comedy.”
P.S. Did you notice that IFC was running “The Shining” for Halloween. Another great Nicholson performance.