Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Watch

1.5/4

Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt

Rated R for Some Strong Sexual Content including References, Pervasive Language and Violent Images

"The Watch" was re-titled from its original title, "Neighborhood Watch," after the horrible Trayvon Martin shooting.  All things considered, it won't make much of a difference.  This movie sucks.  It's overlong, unfunny and boring.

Evan (Stiller) is the nicest guy in Glenview, Ohio.  He's founded a number of neighborhood clubs and dotes on his wife, Abby (DeWitt).  He is even supportive of his friend, Antonio Guzman (Joe Nunez) gaining American citizenship.  But when Antonio is savagely murdered, Evan forms a Neighborhood Watch.  Joining him are motormouthed father Bob (Vaughn), wannabe cop Franklin (Hill), and neighborhood newbie Jamarcus (Ayoade).  No one takes them seriously, however.  And the only one who takes The Watch seriously is Evan.  That is until they stumble onto an alien.

Few things are worse than bad comedies.  A joke that fails to land is at best eye-rolling, and I did plenty of that during "The Watch."  Three of the actors have been funny before (haven't seen Ayoade in anything before and I don't plan to), but no one is at the top of their game.  The script, penned by the usually reliable Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (plus Jared Stern) is barren.  And the direction by Akiva Schaeffer (whose previous mainstream credit, "Hot Rod," was one of the worst movies I've ever seen) lacks timing and good handling.

None of the actors bear mentioning, mainly because they do what they always do.  Ben Stiller works hard to be the nice everyman, but he's not given anything to work with.  Vince Vaughn runs his mouth and is always shouting for some reason.  Jonah Hill acts weird.  And Richard Ayoade is simply irritating.  Only Rosemarie DeWitt escapes unscathed, but she's given nothing to do but play the horny housewife.

One of the things that "The Watch" does is mistake being gross for being funny.  Gross and humor often mix well; just look at "Borat."  But there has to be a turn to the joke.  Merely doing something gross is just that: doing something gross.  Sadly, that's what happens with this movie.

"The Watch" isn't a complete waste; it manages an amusing bit every now and then, including a very funny joke about Boyz II Men.  And the action scene at the end is nicely put together.  That being said, the film is mainly one long, painfully unfunny stretch of boredom.

Sideways

3/4

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Rated R for Language, Some Strong Sexual Content and Nudity

I am not an Alexander Payne fan.  I didn't care for "Citizen Ruth," "Election," or "The Descendants."  Despite being beloved by critics, I found them to be the definition of mediocrity.  Feature-length sitcoms with all their  pitfalls.  I came across "Sideways" on TV once, and although I came in during the middle, I enjoyed it.  It has taken me until now to view the whole film and my opinion is still the same: it's a fun, low-key romance with some human comedy sprinkled in for seasoning.

Depressed writer and wine connoisseur Miles (Giamatti) has been in a rut since his divorce a year and a half ago.  His best friend Jack (Church) is getting married on Saturday, and Miles is taking him on a wine tasting trip through the vineyards of California.  While there, they meet the lovely Maya (Madsen), a waitress that Miles has noticed from afar and is interested in him, and her kinky friend Stephanie (Oh).  But Jack wants to get himself (and Miles) laid before he gets hitched.  That leaves Miles open to Maya's advances, if he will only gather up the courage to reciprocate.

One of the biggest upsets at the 2005 Academy Awards was the fact that it's star, long time character actor Paul Giamatti, was left out of the Best Actor race.  Such an upset is surprising, although considering it's track record of boneheaded nominations/wins, maybe not.  Giamatti is very good here, and received his much deserved big break after bringing Miles to life.  Miles is clinically depressed.  He sometimes drinks too much, and his love of wine borders on an obsession.  He loves wine as much as I love movies.  But it's a cover for his loneliness and insecurity.  An example of this is when he hurriedly resumes talking about wine instead of responding to Maya's advances.  Jack is a less interesting character, but that's mainly because he's supporting.  He cares for Miles, but he wants to live his own life even if he does some unsavory things.  Church is good in the role, but not spectacular.  He leaves the spotlight to Giamatti.

The women actresses are great as well.  Virginia Madsen, a popular actress from the 80's, got a long overdue Oscar nomination as Maya.  Maya is a girl we'd all like to be interested in us.  She's beautiful, sensitive and loving.  She really cares for Miles, which makes her endearing.  Miles isn't a stud; he's balding and has a paunch.  Plus there's his depressive personality to deal with.  But Madsen portrays Maya beautifully, and she has a nice understated chemistry with Giamatti.  Canadian character actress Sandra Oh is also very good as the lively and sexually vivacious Stephanie.  Her role is the least developed, but she's an excuse to get Jack to leave so we can spend more time with Miles and Maya.

Alexander Payne has found a project that works.  Maybe it's the fact that the material is good, or maybe it's the fact that he's working with the right actors (which I doubt since he's always working with top-notch talent...his cast members, who are always different, include Laura Dern, Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon and  George Clooney).  Whatever the reason it's a good fit.

Unfortunately, "Sideways" is a victim of its own length.  Romances typically need 90 minutes (give or take) to tell their story (why does no one remember this?).  "Sideways" runs just over two hours.  The film is magical during the first hour, but loses its luster the longer it goes on.  The ending is also a little unsatisfying.  Not because of what happens (it's pretty obligatory), but because of how Payne handles it.

Still, I liked it.  It's funny, it's romantic, and for those like myself who love wine, it contains a lot of cool information about wine.  It's going to make you hungry and want to go on a wine tasting trip with a bunch of your friends.  If you're okay with that (who wouldn't be?), it's a good choice for movie night.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Step Up Revolution

3/4

Starring: Ryan Guzman, Kathryn McCormick, Misha Gabriel, Peter Gallagher

Rated PG-13 for Some Suggestive Dancing and Language

The 80's and 90's were filled with movies like "Step Up Revolution:" formula pictures designed to showcase what the film was really about, be it dancing, sports or spelling bees.  Granted, none of the characters are three dimensional and there are no performances crying out for Oscar attention, but its a refreshing change of pace from sequels, reboots and superheroes.

Sean (Guzman) and his best friend Eddy (Gabriel) are members of The Mob, a group of dancers who appear suddenly and put on elaborate dance routines.  Their goal is to be the creators of the first video to get ten thousand hits, which will earn them a cool hundred grand.  Sean meets Emily (McCormick), an aspiring dancer, at a party and she wants in.  Reluctantly, Sean and Eddy agree.  But when a business mogul named Anderson (Gallagher) decides to make a resort in the area that Sean and his friends live, they decide to use their dancing as a form of protest.

I haven't seen the first three "Step Up" movies, but it doesn't matter.  This is a stand alone movie.  It's also a lot of fun.  No, it's not as good as it could be or as good as I imagined, but it is entertaining.  The plot is occasionally contrived and the film is too long, but that's to be expected.  The flaws do not outweigh the good elements.

The performances are good, but not great.  Ryan Guzman, making his debut, is great as Sean.  This is the nice kid on the block, and Guzman has screen presence and doesn't stumble over his dialogue.  If he plays his cards right, he can go far.  "So You Think You Can Dance" contestant Kathryn McCormick is less impressive, but she makes Emily into someone we care about.  Misha Gabriel is good as the hot-headed Eddy and Peter Gallagher is a surprisingly sympathetic villain.  I'm not sure if that's what the filmmakers intended, but it works.

The film was directed by Scott Speer, a music video veteran who also directed a few episodes of the TV flop "League of Extraordinary Dancers."  Speer's roots are obvious.  Lots of quick cuts and extravagant choreography.  He shows little comfort in the character building scenes, and they run on too long.

Could this movie have been better?  Absolutely.  The acting and writing have room for improvement and some of the dance scenes aren't as toe-tapping and adrenaline producing as they could be.  But there is a lot of good stuff here.  Guzman proves to be a young actor to watch, and the final dance scene, which has to take up almost twenty minutes of screen time, is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

For lovers of musicals (although there is no singing in this movie) and great dancing, this movie is not to be missed.

Mike's Musings: Film Criticism

Film critics view movies in different ways than general audiences.  By nature, they analyze film whereas most people who watch movies simply decide whether or not they like a movie or actor.  They write about the movie and why they feel something does or doesn't work.


The trouble with this is that sometimes they use their critics' mind in movies where one is not needed.  Take "National Treasure" for instance.  Critics were, at best, dismissive of it.  James Berardinelli wrote that Nicolas Cage's character "acts like an autistic Sherlock Holmes, alternating between genius-like leaps of intuition and moments of astounding stupidity."  True, the film isn't exactly a life-altering experience and no one's mind will grow by watching it, but "National Treasure" isn't meant to be that kind of a movie.  You don't watch a movie like "National Treasure" with the same mindset that you watch "Michael Clayton."  If you really think about it, it's just as silly as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which is number 8 on Berardinell's Top 100 list (an honor that I strongly disagree with, by the way).


I believe that you should give the film the benefit of the doubt.  Watch it on it's own level.  If it's supposed to be light entertainment, view it as such.  Don't think too hard about a film, unless the movie demands it.  Chances are audiences aren't going to be looking for flaws, so don't tie your brain into a pretzel when a movie is simple entertainment.


Some critics, like Roger Ebert, take notes during a movie they're reviewing.  I don't.  In fact, I think it's a ridiculous idea.  Every time you jot something down you are taken out of the movie and you might miss something.  Plus there are very few movies where it might possibly be worth it.  I remember watching "Into the Wild" and realizing some things while I was watching it.  Although I forgot them by the time the credits started rolling, I realized that it really wasn't that big of a deal.  If it was that important or profound, I would have remembered it.


One thing that some critics do is view a film as a member of its intended audience.  As I said before, this may have been in good intentions but it's always wrong and fundamentally dishonest.  Take my review of "Judy Moody and the Not So Bummer Summer" that was released last year.  I realize that that movie was made for grade school girls.  I am not, and have never been, a grade school girl.  When reviewing it, I said how much I enjoyed it (very little).  But never did I think about it from a perspective that wasn't my own.


In short, film criticism is really just explaining what you thought of a movie and why you think that way.  There's really nothing more to it, and to pick apart a movie while you're watching it is unfair to the film.  Always watch a film as a member of the audience, not a critic.  If a film's lack of intelligence is obvious to  you then, that's when you should mention it.  A film can't plug in every moment of a story...that would make a 90 minute film become a week-long endeavor.  Stuff has to be cut out and fudged over.  To criticize a movie for that is absurd.

The Artist

3.5/4

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell

Rated PG-13 for A Disturbing Image and a Crude Gesture

"The Artist" is retro in every sense of the word.  It breathes life into a genre that, outside of films that belong in MoMA, has been dead for nearly ninety years.  While flawed and formulaic, it's well acted and well told.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is the biggest star in Hollywood.  A silent film actor during the Roaring Twenties, he is famous for his roles opposite his dog (played by the adorable Uggie).  He's also proud and vain.  One day after coming out of a successful screening, he is bumped into by a beautiful young woman.  She kisses him and becomes the talk of the town.  Her name is Peppy Miller, and with George's advice, she becomes a rising star.  But with the rise of the talkies, George's career is in the toilet while Peppy become's Tinseltown's newest star.

Ever wonder what happened to Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and Macaulay Culkin?  They were once in everything, but now, it's rare to find them in anything more than a cameo in an independent film.  Their talent hasn't disappeared, the public's fickle attention has simply moved to someone else.  This is what happens to George Valentin, and because writer/director Michel Hazanavicius remembers that, it gives this traditional story a different edge.

Making a silent film for today's risk averse and less film-intelligent audiences must have been quite a challenge for Hazanavicius (not only to film, but to get off the ground).  Hazanavicius' talent is up to the task, although there are a few missteps.  I came to care about these characters, and for the most part, didn't mind that their lips moved wordlessly.

The challenge with acting in a silent film is that the actor's performance relies entirely on body language.  We must feel their emotions and feelings not through words like in most films, but through their faces and bodies. All the actors, especially Dujardin, have expressive faces.  They convey what their characters are feeling in a way that, while referencing the over-the-topness demanded by early silent films, is still grounded.

As George, Dujardin dominates the film.  There are other characters in the film, but this is his film.  Dujardin was virtually an unknown in the US until this film (and he's starring in Martin Scorcese's upcoming "The Wolf of Wall Street."  Dujardin conveys a lot with his face, his smile and eyebrows in particular.  We can see George's ego, pride and helplessness.  As the good-natured Peppy, Berenice Bejo (wife of Hazanavicius) is like a better version of Katherine Heigl.  It pains me to mention Heigl in the same sentence as anyone in this film, but she and Bejo look similar (especially their smiles).  Peppy looks out for George (without his knowledge).  This isn't "All About Eve," and Peppy is certainly no Eve.  She'll offer George help if only he'll accept it.  John Goodman makes for a good movie mogul and James Cromwell is terrifically sympathetic as George's dutiful butler Clifton.

There are a few problems with "The Artist."  One is the matter of dialogue.  In keeping with the spirit of the talkies, Hazanavicius uses dialogue cards when dialogue is essential to the plot.  It's done effectively and never jerks us out of the moment, but he doesn't do it enough.  The climax fumbles slightly because of this.  Sometimes the editing is a little suspect in the beginning and there is a brief clip in the beginning that dilutes part of the climax.

Although this may seem like an artsy film, it's really not.  Anyone with an appreciation for film or good storytelling will enjoy this movie.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Devil's Pond

1.5/4

Starring: Tara Reid, Kip Pardue

Rated R for Language and Some Violence

As you all know, I'm a huge fan of the "stranger within" genre.  Even though they're all the same in a general sense, it doesn't take a lot for them to work.  Compelling characters, escalating tension and heavy on the atmosphere.  If you have those three things, the movie will be good at the very least.

Unfortunately, that's not what happens with "Devil's Pond."  The acting is good enough for the film's purposes, but it lacks any atmosphere or pacing.  Those two are the most important for a film like this to work, but first time director Joel Viertel can't accomplish either.  Although not as bad as "The Resident," it's still a waste of time.

Julianne (Reid) is on cloud nine.  She's getting married to the handsome Mitch (Pardue).  For they're honeymoon, they're staying at an out of the way cabin in the middle of a lake for two weeks.  This unnerves Julianne since she can't swim, but she agrees to go.  Initially, things seem great; Julianne and Mitch are blissfully in love.  But as the two weeks are nearing the end, Julianne is ready to go back to civilization.  Mitch, on the other hand, want to stay...forever.

The acting by Reid and Pardue is effective but not standout.  At least until Viertel forces them to go over the top.  They are let down by the screenplay and Viertel's plastic direction.  The film looks bland when it should be claustrophobic and creepy.

Apart from Viertel's ineffective direction, the screenplay is also lacking.  It spins its wheels when it should be accelerating towards the conclusion.  The tension, or lack thereof, never increases, and the climax couldn't be more mundane.

Ultimately, there's not much I can write about this movie.  It's lacking in all the key areas, and that means that instead of getting viewers to the edge of their seats, it's putting them to sleep.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Conspirator

0.5/4

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Alexis Bledel, Colm Meaney, Justin Long

Rated PG-13 for Some Violent Content

Words fail me.  How can I begin to comprehend how bad "The Conspirator" is?  It has such a strong cast and director that expecting something entertaining if not provocative is completely fair.  Yet what is on screen is a misfire in just about every department.

April 1865.  The Civil War has just ended.  The North is rejoicing while Southerners are burning with resentment.  Tensions overflow when a group of men assassinates President Abraham Lincoln.  One of the accused is a woman named Mary Surratt (Wright).  A young lawyer, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is assigned by a senator (Wilkinson) to defend her.  Aiken doesn't want the job; as a former soldier, he saw first hand what the South did to the North and feels that she deserves exactly what's coming to her.  On top of that, the nation wants justice so badly that defending her would become professional suicide.  But the more he talks to her and hears the testimony against her, the more he believes that there is a possibility that she is innocent.

About the best thing that I can say about this movie is that it usually makes sense.  The acting is flat, bordering on embarrassing in some cases.  The only ones who escape unscathed are McAvoy, who gives it a game try, and Kevin Kline, who disappears under a lot of convincing makeup.  Robin Wright is boring, and Mary Surratt is a cliche.  Evan Rachel Wood is uneven.  Ditto for Alexis Bledel, as Aiken's obligatory love interest.  Danny Huston is awful; this is easily the worst performance he's ever given.  Tom Wilkinson is barely on screen.  Ditto for Kevin Kline, who is truly convincing as the Secretary of War who is willing to send an innocent woman to the gallows in the hopes that it will satiate the nation's bloodlust.  Justin Long has absolutely nothing to do.

"The Conspirator" is built on cliches, and Robert Redford isn't able to breathe any life into them.  The lawyer who doesn't want the case but becomes the accused's biggest advocate after hearing her empty profundities (the film repeatedly steals from "A Few Good Men"). The sleazy opposing team.  The girlfriend who leaves him because she disagrees with him.  The "surprise" twists."  All that is here, and while there's no rule that cliches can be presented in ways that are entertaining, it doesn't happen in this movie.

I'm still in a state of shock that a movie with this much talent could have misfired so badly.  The film even looks like crap (the cinematography by Newton Thomas Siegel, who has shown talent in the past and after this debacle, is stale), and the script is riddled with problems.

Sad.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Twilight: New Moon

1.5/4

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence and Action

I haven't read Stephanie Meyer's popular book franchise.  Based on the evidence, it's entirely possible that within the pages of her books there is a lot of potential.  What is on screen, however, is anything but.  The first entry, "Twilight," was dumb, but it was at least watchable.  "New Moon," however, is anything but.

After nearly being killed by a vampire in the first film, Bella Swan (Stewart) is recuperating under the watchful eyes of her father Charlie (Burke), and from a not-so-great distance, Edward Cullen (Pattinson).  But after she gets a cut on her arm during her birthday party at the Cullens, and Edward's "brother" Jasper Hale (Jackson Rathbone) tries to drink her blood, Edward and the Cullens flee.  That leaves Bella pining for him.  In walks her old friend, Jacob Black (Lautner), who has a secret of his own.

Every problem that the first entry had is magnified with "New Moon," and it also has its own problems.  Most obvious is the screenplay.  Written by Melissa Rosenberg (who has written all the "Twilight" films), the screenplay for "New Moon" is probably the worst I've ever heard.  There are more howlers in any given ten minute interval than there are in the entirety of most comedies...and they aren't intentional.

The acting is at best adequate, but that wasn't a strong point in the first film either.  Kristen Stewart does okay, which is impressive considering that she does almost nothing except mope, beg for either Edward or Jacob's undying love, or foolishly put herself into situations where she needs to be rescued.  Robert Pattinson's acting has improved, probably because he's not onscreen for very long and thus has little to do.  He does have chemistry with Stewart and Weitz is able to make him look more romantic than Catherine Hardwicke was in the first film.  Sadly, most of the film is spent with Taylor Lautner as the lead.  As he proved in last year's appallingly bad "Abduction," Lautner cannot act.  He's better as Jacob Black, but that's akin to saying a pile of shit doesn't smell as bad as your roommate's.

And, just like the last one, the leads spend two hours telling each other how much they love each other even though they can't be together for reasons they aren't able to say.  At least "Twilight" had the threat of killer vampires to liven the proceedings.  "New Moon" doesn't.  The only subplot in the film is Edward's dealings with the Volturi, but that doesn't begin until the final 20 minutes.  It does leave open the door for promising plot developments in future installments, however.

It's hard to blame Chris Weitz for the lack of quality in this production.  He's working with a script that could charitably be called pathetic and a lead who can't act to save his life.  Weitz's career will, and has, survived (he directed last year's "A Better Life," which earned an Oscar nomination for its star, Demian Bichir).  Weitz is really a hired gun.  He has a knack for atmosphere, but that's it.

Here's to hoping that the next three installments will be better.

The Sound of Music

4/4

Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Peggy Wood, Charmain Carr, Richard Hadyn

Rated G

It is arguably the most famous, and without a doubt the most successful musical of all time.  Nearly every song has earned a place in our hearts and our culture.  And, surprisingly, it's nearly 3 hours long.  Time really flies when you're watching it however.

Maria (Andrews) is a young nun living in Austria.  She's enthusiastic, energetic and devoted, but a little scatterbrained.  After inadvertently causing enough trouble, the Mother Abbess (Wood) sends her to be the new governess for the Von Trapp family.  This is not a normal family.  Captain Georg Von Trapp (Plummer) is an ex-naval officer who runs his family as such.  They are called by whistles, stand in formation and their only release for their energy is to walk around the garden.  Maria is horrified, but quickly makes an impression on the children with her singing and gentle nature.  The Captain is not impressed at all, until he hears them sing.  That's when he realizes that he is falling in love with this woman, and she for him.  Meanwhile, war is on the horizon, which puts him in a precarious position.

The acting is exceptional across the board.  Leading the way is Julie Andrews.  Maria is a role that challenges her as an actress and a singer.  She excels at both of them, although her singing voice was ruined as a result of a botched throat surgery in 1997.  As Maria, Andrews is irrepressibly endearing.  She's outspoken and sings a lot (too much in her opinion) but her energy and love for life is infectious.  Andrews also excels at conveying Maria's uncertainty about her feelings for the Captain.  Christopher Plummer, in his most famous role before staying out of the spotlight until the last decade (he won an Oscar last year for "Beginners"), is also very good.  Captain Von Trapp is a stern and humorless man whose grief over the loss of his wife has taken away his ability to lead a normal life for him or his children.  At times, Plummer brings to mind Jason Isaacs in his portrayal of the male lead.  Von Trapp has a nice singing voice, but it was dubbed (although Plummer did record songs with his own voice).  The other truly famous character is Mother Superior (Wood), although I'm not a fan.  Wood's voice is a minor irritant (and her singing was dubbed by Margery McKay), but the character is wise.  She can read people like a book, especially Maria, and she knows what is best for her better than Maria does.

Robert Wise, who's also known for another brilliant musical, "West Side Story," transforms a simple story into an epic spectacle.  Few musicals have been opened up like this.  The songs, of which there are many, are vividly, if not elaborately staged.  Whether they're singing "Do Re Mi" on a hilltop or going upstairs to the tune of "So Long, Farewell," "The Sound of Music" is always eye-catching.

For much of the film, "The Sound of Music" retains a feather-light tone.  It's sweet and cheery and goes down easy.  When the third act comes around, the film takes a darker turn, and the film contains genuine pathos and suspense.  It works because of how Wise handles it.  There is a considerable amount of suspense because we care about the characters and it was hinted at periodically throughout the film.  The ending is bittersweet but hopeful.  Exactly the right tone for the film.

"The Sound of Music" is one movie where watching the film in its entirety is as much fun as listening to the soundtrack.

Mike's Musings: The Cover-Up

Shortly before the Aurora massacre, the news was dominated by the fallout of Jerry Sandusky's criminal trial.  Sandusky molested over twelve boys and as a result is spending the rest of his life behind bars.  Few will disagree that justice has been served, although the pain for his victims will never go away.

Penn State is also in hot water, not only in public opinion but from the NCAA.  A number of high ranking officials at the school, including legendary coach Joe Paterno, were fired or forced to resign.  The NCAA imposed devastating sanctions and fines against the Nittany Lions football program.  Penn State football, once highly esteemed across the country, will be forever tarnished.

Some have argued that the NCAA's sanctions are too harsh since the students are paying the price.  Such a response is disgusting and reprehensible.  Sandusky's victims are going to carry their wounds for the rest of their lives.  No, it's not the student's fault, but the punishment isn't for them.  It's for the school.  You can't punish the administration without affecting the student body or Penn State fans.  The guilt from all but destroying college football for millions of fans is their punishment.

If you don't believe me, think of it like this: Pennsylvania has a law requiring a person who suspects a co-worker of committing sexual abuse to report it to their superior.  That happened to an extent, but it was covered up for the most part.  What that says is that people who had the power to stop the abuse did not because they felt that the school and the football program's reputations were more important than the safety of children.

Cover-ups never work.  In some way, shape or form, the truth will come out.  It may be bad news to begin with (as was the case here), but it's going to be much worse once the public finds out that they were played for fools.  Would it have been damaging to Penn State's reputation if they had put a stop to it immediately?  To an extent yes, but really only because the public would be shocked.  But had Penn State done the right thing and turned Sandusky over as soon as they found out, the damage would have been minimal and they would have been applauded for their actions.  But by covering it up, they were almost destroyed.

Washington University in St. Louis has a good policy for dealing with potential scandals like this.  As soon as they learn of something like this, they put a stop to it and alert the press of what is going on and keep them in the loop as they learn more information.  The press in return publicizes that fact, and they also contact the school about rumors and stories before publishing the story.  It's a mutually beneficial relationship while also dealing with the problem immediately.

The lesson here is that truth is the best policy.  Penn State was not punished for Jerry Sandusky's actions.  They didn't cause him to commit such unspeakable crimes.  But they were just as guilty because they enabled him to keep doing it in order to preserve their reputation.  That's why they were punished.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sneakers

4/4

Starring: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Mary McDonnell, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual References

"Sneakers" is one of the most fun capers I've ever seen.  Filled with wit and suspense in equal quantities, it's truly an underrated classic.

Martin Bishop (Redford) leads a ragtag group of outcasts who make their living breaking into buildings to test their security systems.  Apart from Marty, they include: Crease (Poitier), who is ex-CIA.  Mother (Aykroyd) is a conspiracy theorist techno-geek.  Whistler (Strathairn) is a blind man with exceptional hearing.  And Carl (Phoenix) is the muscle (oddly enough).  One day, they are contacted by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfeld and Eddie Jones).  They want him to steal a mysterious black box that helps with code-breaking.  Marty turns them down, but as they put it, he doesn't have a choice since they know that he's really Martin Brice, a criminal who was never caught.

The acting is strong across the board, and with a cast like this, that's to be expected.  Marty Bishop meshes well with Redford's low-key acting style.  Marty isn't a very demonstrative person, but this isn't something directed by Wolfgang Peterson.  Sidney Poitier gets the lion's share of the intensity.  He's the first one to admit that they're in over their heads.  Dan Aykroyd makes a perfect geek: he's overweight, socially awkward and a computer nerd.  Some of the film's funniest scenes are when he's trying to convince Crease of his wild conspiracy theories.  David Straithairn is good as the mischievous blind man.  River Phoenix is also very good as the kid of the group although he doesn't have a lot to do if you think about it.  And Mary McDonnell is a lovely love interest.  Liz and Marty had a romantic past, and she helps them even though she insists that they aren't going to get back together.  Ben Kingsley makes for a unique villain; he's torn between bringing Marty into the fold or ruining him.

The key to the film is tone, something that Phil Alden Robinson is a master at.  The film switches from light to menacing without missing a beat.  Watching "Sneakers" is like watching an idealized version of corporate America.  It's realism with a fantasy feel, if that makes any sense.

Also worth mentioning is the score by James Horner.  It's light and jazzy, although there are some dark and suspenseful moments too.  It's helped along by Branford Marsalis' crooning saxophone melodies.  "Sneakers" has one of the most magical film scores I've ever heard.

"Sneakers" is like that.  Not too light, but not too heavy.  Magical but realistic.  However you want to describe it, it's a lot of fun.

Meet Me In St. Louis

3.5/4

Starring: Judy Garland, Lucille Bremer, Tom Drake, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Joan Caroll, Leon Ames, Henry H. Daniels Jr

Not Rated

Next to "The Wizard of Oz," Vincente Minelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis" is Judy Garland's most famous film.  It's not hard to see why.  It's fun, the songs are catchy (especially the Oscar-nominated Trolley Song) and the characters are people we can relate to.  Despite being nearly 70 years old, "Meet Me in St. Louis" has lost none of its power to entertain.

The film details six months in the lives of the Smith family in 1903.  Father Alonzo (Ames) is a successful lawyer.  Mother Anna (Astor) dotes on the family.  Eldest son Lon (Daniels Jr) is in college.  Eldest daughter Rose (Bremer) is awaiting a marriage proposal from her suitor.  Her younger sister Esther (Garland) has her eye on John Truett (Drake), the handsome new neighbor next door.  And the little girls Tootie (O'Brien) and Agnes (Carroll) delight in causing mischief.  All are very close, and a number of little dramas interrupted by song, play out as they eagerly await the opening of the World's Fair.

Realistically speaking, there's nothing truly groundbreaking that happens in this movie.  It's a light little movie filled with levity and a little bit of pathos.  But it works because the performances are strong across the board.

Leading the pack is Garland, who ironically didn't particularly want the role.  She originally wanted to play the role tongue in cheek, but was convinced otherwise by director Manelli (whom she ended up marrying shortly after the movie was released).  Esther is earnest and independent and she loves her family.  Her courtship with John Truett, which is saddled with insecurity and mixed messages, rings true.  Also very good is Bremer, who is anxiously awaiting a proposal from Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully).  She and Esther gossip and plan on how to attract Truett's attention; we all wish we could be as close to our siblings as these two are.  For his part, Drake is good as Truett, although he's always overshadowed by Garland.  The two have chemistry, which helps since they don't share as many scenes together as one would like.  The supporting cast is also strong, although Ames is miscast.  He's too gruff and doesn't fit in with this family.

This was Vincente Minelli's first color film, and he takes full advantage of it.  This is a colorful and lively movie, and it complements the story well.  Minelli is a skilled director, and this was the film that made him a star.  He went on to direct movies in a number of genres.  "Father of the Bride" and its sequel, "An American in Paris," and "The Bold and the Beautiful" are all his movies.

Charming, high spirited and fun, "Meet Me in St. Louis" deserves its place in the high echelon of movie musicals.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Heavy Weights

3/4

Starring: Aaron Schwartz, Tom McGowan, Ben Stiller, Shaun Weiss, Kenan Thompson, Leah Lail, Paul Feig

Rated PG for Some Rude Language and Pranks

To me, "Heavy Weights" represents more than just a movie.  It's all about nostalgia.  This is a movie that I would watch at friends' houses during sleepovers or at summer camp.  It feels so personal to me than I can hardly believe that this was made to make money for Disney.  True, it's not particularly a good movie, but it is special to me.

Gerry Garner (Schwartz) is an overweight kid living in suburbia.  On the last day of school, he arrives home to find that his parents (Jeffrey Tambor and Nancy Ringham) have brought in Roger Johnson (Tim Blake Nelson) to tell him something no portly kid ever wants to hear: he's going to fat camp.  Naturally, Gerry is against the idea, preferring to lounge around, but he's won over by the promotional video (especially the go-karts).  So Gerry flies to a place in the middle of the woods to attend Camp Hope.  Things are looking great until he finds out that the camp owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bushkin (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara in cameos), have been bought out by Tony Perkis (Stiller).  Perkis is a living nightmare.  He's vain to the point of narcissism and his methods for making the kids lose weight border on sadistic.  In no short order, he has turned what looks to be a fun summer into a hell.   That's when Gerry and the campers start to fight back.  And they have help; longtime counselor Pat Finley (McGowan), nurse Julie (Lain) and ex-camper turned counselor Tim (Feig) share the campers' hatred of Tony and his equally narcissistic counselors.

In today's climate of an obesity epidemic, one might think that a movie about fat kids who fight back against guys who are trying to get them healthy sends the wrong message.  Such party-poopers have wandered into the wrong movie.  This is a fun comedy, and the message is about personal responsibility (something that no one in this country seems to be able to grasp).

The acting is suspect, but no one is truly good or bad.  Aaron Schwartz is good, although the sometimes clunky dialogue (penned in part by Judd Apatow--surprise, surprise) defeats him.  Ditto for character actor Tom McGowan.  Shaun Weiss and Kenan Thompson are the standouts among the campers.  They've been funny before (such as in "The Mighty Ducks" franchise, whose initial film also starred Schwartz), and they bring in some big laughs.  Leah Lail is a pretty face, but that's all she has going for her.  Paul Feig is funny, but he doesn't have much to do.

The exception is Ben Stiller.  If there's one reason to see this movie, it's to see how far over-the-top Stiller goes.  With a bizarre harido and in constant skin-tight workout wear, Tony looks nuts.  His obsession with exercise and a lack of brainpower make him hilarious.  This helps take down his pretty brutal behavior.

Steven Brill, a director without a particularly sterling resume, does decent work here, although he doesn't direct his child actors particularly well and his timing is sometimes off.  Still, he understands what a movie like this is supposed to be, and he does a reasonably effective job of pulling it off.  While there are some clunkers in the beginning, there are some scenes in the movie (particularly in the second half) that are hilarious.

Look, this is one of those movies where affection may have overshadowed my critique ("An American Tail" falls into this category as well).  But to be honest, this movie is too good-natured to truly dislike.  I liked this movie as a kid, and I like it now.

Mike's Musings: The Terrible Events in Aurora

By now, most of the world has learned of the terrible events in Aurora, Colorado.  At a midnight showing of the summer's most anticipated film, "The Dark Knight Rises," 12 people were gunned down and 58 people were wounded.  It was a horrible and completely senseless crime.

Media pundits on both sides of the fence are going to cry out about gun control.  I agree that gun control is an issue that needs to be talked about (allowing guns on college campuses to allow potential victims to fight back against a shooter?  Is everyone high?).  But far more pressing is the need for discussion about mental health.

Anyone who thinks that the alleged shooter was in a clear mental state is either naiive or deluding themselves.  No sane person would do something like this.  While one might wonder why, the bottom line is that he needed medical treatment in order to prevent this from happening.

One thing that would help is to create discussion.  Mental illness is something that isn't talked about, or at least not enough.  The military won't let anyone who is taking medicine for even depression or ADD to enlist.  They also have a culture where seeking mental help is a sign of weakness and can lead to being passed over for promotion.  This is leading to a rash of suicides by veterans (last study was that there were numerous veterans attempting daily with at least one of those successful), and one person in the military was said that they should "get over it."

I am constantly telling people to watch "The War Zone."  It's a nearly unbearably disturbing and sad film, but it highlights an issue, like mental illness, that needs to be talked about.  I think what Jerry Sandusky did was evil and he deserves to rot in prison for the rest of his life (and the people who covered up his crimes deserve the same), but studies have repeatedly shown that most child molesters were molested as children themselves.  True, shame and fear keeps most victims silent (to the extent that statistics about incest are completely useless), but it will at least get everyone talking.

People think people who seek mental help are "crazy" or "weird."  How often do you see a movie where a person who sees a shrink is not a nutcase?  Other than "Prime," I can't think of any.  There are many people who take medication for mild or even serious medical disorders, and chances are you wouldn't know it.

Education is so important about a lot of things.  Mental illness is not something that a person can "get over."  Like addicts, they need help and medication to be a fully functioning member of society.  With lack of funding and a broken health care system, people who should be getting serious mental help are being tossed aside.  Add to the "head in the sand" mentality about mental illness, and events like this will keep happening.

Forget gun control.  We need to talk about mental illness.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (contains vague spoilers)

3/4

Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Sensuality and Language

This review contains vague spoilers.  I don't think this review spoils anything, but I need to give warning to rest my conscience.

The trilogy is complete.  Christopher Nolan has concluded his legendary film series that began seven years ago (he will not return to the franchise, and Bale has said he won't return without Nolan on board).  In a way, the success of the film's predecessor, "The Dark Knight," works against this film.  "The Dark Knight" raised the bar to astounding heights, not only for superhero movies but for movies entirely.  It will be a long time before any movie achieves that kind of unpredictability and narrative thrust.  "The Dark Knight Rises" is a good film, and I don't hesitate to recommend the film (not that it would stop anyone if I didn't).  But it has some serious problems.

Eight years has passed since the Joker reigned hell on Gotham City.  Now viewed as a criminal, Batman has disappeared and Bruce Wayne (Bale) has become a crippled recluse.  He's also in financial trouble, having invested half his fortune into a project that will power the city without harming the environment.  He hands over control Wayne Enterprises to Miranda Tate (Cotillard), who spearheaded the project.  But a new threat has arisen.  Bane (Hardy), is a masked psychopath bent on destroying Gotham City, and he has a surprise in store for Batman.  In no short order, he has trapped the entire police force underground and declared martial law on the city.

The film's biggest problem is Bane.  Not only is he a fairly generic villain, the mask he wears makes about half of his dialogue unintelligible.  This is such a huge problem that I reserve the right to change the film's rating once I watch the film on Blu-Ray with subtitles.  Other characters are afflicted with this problem too.

"The Dark Knight Rises" also does not fully exploit the opportunities offered with the end of its predecessor. The end of "The Dark Knight" was bleak and dealt with some heavy issues of morality.  Once the savior of Gotham City, Batman has now become the villain.  Unfortunately, Nolan pays little more than lip service to the ending he gave "The Dark Knight."

Nolan's writing is also sloppy.  The plot is at times quite contrived, and the film's foundation in the beginning is shaky.  The ending is also problematic, mainly because the big twist is more than a little cheap, and the need to leave a semi-open ending is obvious to the point of where Nolan appears to be trying too hard.

The film is also lacking in any moral issues.  "Batman Begins" dealt with the issue of when is something a lost cause.  "The Dark Knight" illustrated that there is a price to pay for being a hero.  "The Dark Knight Rises" doesn't do any of that.

Finally, the film lacks the intensity of the earlier films because Bruce Wayne is out of action for the middle third of the film.  This segment is meant to teach Bruce something, but what that is is vague.

But like in all of Nolan's films, the acting is consistently strong, and the action scenes are terrifically exciting.  The film is going to make boatloads of money, and regardless of what I say, everyone is going to go see it.  They won't get any argument from me, but just don't expect this to top "The Dark Knight."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Braveheart

4/4

Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Angus MacFayden, Sophie Marceau, Brendan Gleeson, David O'Hara, Catherine McCormack, Brian Cox

Rated R for Brutal Medieval Warfare

"Braveheart" is an epic of a grand nature.  It's got all the required elements: a larger than life hero, a hissable villain, awesome battle scenes, emotional highs and lows, and of course, a passionate romance.  When these movies work, especially to the extent that "Braveheart" does, they can be truly amazing experiences.  It's a shame that there aren't more of them.

William Wallace (Gibson) is a young man who has just returned from abroad.  After his father and brother were killed in battle against the tyrannical English king Longshanks (McGoohan), he was raised by his worldly uncle Argyle (Cox).  Now he's back in Scotland intending to live a simple farmer's life.  But resentment towards English rule, particularly after Longshanks institutes prima noctis, a barbaric practice where the ruling English lord has sexual rights to every bride on the first night of her marriage.  Tragedy compels Wallace into action, and he scores a number of crushing victories against the English.  But his success is making the Scottish nobles nervous; they fear that going against Longshanks will cost them their estates and titles.

There are four truly important roles in this film.  Wallace, of course.  His nemisis, Edward Longshanks.  His ally, Robert the Bruce (MacFayden), and Princess Isabelle (Marceau), the princess who falls for Wallace.  These four characters, in their own way, form the backbone of the story.

Before his humiliating and infuriating breakdown, Mel Gibson was once one of the most popular move stars working in Hollywood.  And for good reason too.  The man is a natural talent, exuding both charisma and presence.  As William Wallace, Gibson radiates energy and passion, two crucial attributes for a mythical hero.  But he's arguably more impressive in the quieter scenes.  His relationship with his wife, Murron (McCormack), is the catalyst for his revolution, but he and McCormack are so good and have so much natural chemistry that it doesn't matter that they share few scenes together.

Patrick McGoohan is deliciously wicked as Longshanks.  He's a complete psychopath; he cares for no one and nothing except gathering power, and will use anyone, no matter how close, as a pawn for his own gain (regardless of the danger).  Longshanks is also intelligent, which makes him much more interesting.  He may be ruthless, but his logic is sound and his strategy is keen.  McGoohan never foams at the mouth (he leaves that to Gibson), but he uses his eyes and his voice to generate menace.

Angus MacFayden, a Scottish character actor who was chilling in his role in the Christian Bale thriller "Equilibrium" and went on to become a recurring character in the "Saw" franchise, is also very good as the conflicted noble.  He wants to support Wallace, but doing so would compromise his holdings and his quest for the Scottish throne (however powerless that may be).

Finally, there's the French great Sophie Marceau.  Marceau hasn't done much on this side of the Atlantic (apart from this, she's best known for playing Elektra King in the James Bond thriller "The World is Not Enough," although she made game tries for Hollywood stardom in the David Spade comedy "Lost & Found," and the unspeakably bad "Alex & Emma").  Isabella was married by Longshanks for political reasons, and her husband, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), prefers to spend time with his best friend Philip (Stephen Billington) rather than her.  She is taken by Wallace's love for Murron, and ends up falling for him herself.  Marceau is a talented actress (not to mention a beautiful one), and she has great chemistry with Gibson.

This was Mel Gibson's second turn around the camera after his reportedly ambitious-but-uneven first effort, "The Man Without A Face" (he also directed a documentary called "Mel Gibson Goes Back to School").  Interestingly enough, Gibson almost wasn't the star or the director of this film.  Gibson's production company, Icon Entertainment, had trouble financing the project.  The studio wanted Gibson in the leading role, but Gibson thought he was too old and wanted to direct it instead.  The reached a compromise: Gibson could direct if he agreed to play William Wallace.

The results speak for themselves.  Gibson's debut may have been uneven, but that is not true of his sophomore effort (which has caused many a filmmaker to stumble).  The Aussie actor has a good sense of rhythm, and he knows how far to push the scale of the scenes to get the appropriate response.  The big scenes are big, but they're not bloated.  And the quieter scenes are just that: quiet.  Gibson switches tone without missing a beat.  He's also skilled at manipulation; it gets spirits soaring and there are at least two scenes that will bring a tear to the eye.  It helps that the cinematography by John Toll is superb, and the musical score by James Horner is beautiful.

There's little more that I can say about "Braveheart" other than it's a must see.  But I hope I've made that point clear already.  If not, here it is: see it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

IT

3.5/4

Starring: Richard Thomas, Harry Anderson, Annette O'Toole, Tim Reid, John Ritter, Dennis Christopher, Jonathan Brandis, Brandon Crane, Seth Green, Emily Perkins, Adam Faraizl, Ben Heller, Marlon Taylor, Richard Masur, Olivia HusseyTim Curry

Not Rated (contains Violence and Gore.  Should be PG-13)

At over three hours long, Stephen King's "IT" is an unusual horror movie (well, TV miniseries).  After all, who else but a masochist would want to be scared for 192 minutes straight (even if a director can manage to keep the tension up that high for that long)?  But "IT" works because it is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a horror movie.  There is an atmosphere of evil in every scene, but at its heart, "IT" is about growing up and doing what's right.

Famed writer Bill Denbrough (Thomas) gets a call that shakes him to the very core.  An old friend, Mike Hanlon (Reid) tells him, "It's back."  He remembers how his brother was brutally murdered thirty years ago, and how he and his friends stopped a monstrous clown named Pennywise (Curry) from killing the town's children.  Now he and his friends must return to Derry, Maine to defeat the monster once and for all.

Through flashbacks, we see how these seven kids, dubbed "The Loser's Club," came together and took down an ancient evil.  They include Bill (Brandis), a kid with a stutter who had lost his brother, Ben (Crane), a new kid with no father and a weight problem, Beverly (Perkins), a poor girl with an alcoholic father, Richie (Green) a jokester with glasses, Eddie (Faraizl), a scrawny kid who is the victim of his mother's Munchausen's by proxy, Stan (Heller) who is Jewish and believes only in the practical, and Mike (Taylor), who is black.  One by one, each of them runs into the nasty clown and narrowly escapes.  Also in the mix is a vicious bully named Henry Bowers (Jarred Blancard), who is almost as dangerous as Pennywise.

The is divided into two parts: the first one is where we meet all the characters and they have flashbacks to the past.  This accomplishes two things: a, we know what happened thirty years ago, and b, we care about the adult characters because we grew to care about them when they were kids.  It helps that all the cast members give good performances and it's believable that the kid actors will grow up to be their adult counterparts.  There's next to no inconsistency in this department.

It would quickly become redundant to talk about the performances of each of the fifteen cast members, but briefly I want to talk about four of them.  Richard Thomas, an actor with an airy voice best known for playing John-Boy Walton on the classic TV show "The Waltons," is quite good as the Bill at 42.  He's matured a lot, but is struggling to remember his old life.  Jonathan Brandis, one of the best and most famous child actors of the 90s (who, like Thomas, also had an interesting voice), also gives a strong performance as the 12-year-old Bill.  He gets the stammer down right, but he makes it more than just a speech impediment.  It's a reflection of Bill's shy and reserved personality, and we can see him tentatively reach out to his friends.  Also very good is Seth Green.  Known primarily as a comedian (he voices Chris on "Family Guy"), Green plays a jokester here, but what's impressive is that he doesn't go for big laughs.  "IT" is not a comedy, and Green knows that.  He keeps the humor level in check.  Richie is funny, but only in the same way that your best friend is.

Then, of course, there's the real star of the show: Tim Curry.  If you're not afraid of clowns, you will be after watching "IT."  Or at least you'll never think of them in the same way again.  Curry is seriously creepy as the evil clown.  He doesn't have a lot of screen time, but Curry makes the most of it.  It's not just the makeup or how he seems to always stare right at you (kudos to director Tommy Lee Wallace for realizing the inherent suspense in that kind of a shot), or the fanged teeth he sometimes gets.  It's that he uses the innocent comic gestures of clowns (over-the-top mannerisms and body movements, honking of the nose, etc) to creepy effect.  By subtly exaggerating his movements and the way that Wallace films him, a normally amusing character becomes a twisted nightmare.

Tommy Lee Wallace got his start in Hollywood as the director of the much despised "Halloween III: Season of the Witch."  I havne't seen that film, but the man's work here is something to be proud of.  Although it's clear that this is a TV miniseries, it's a very good one.  Wallace ably balances the "Stand By Me" (an overrated movie if I ever saw one) with the horror ones, making the film a unique confection.  The special effects, while low-budget, are effective and his sense of atmosphere is very good.

This isn't the scariest film version of a Stephen King novel that I have seen (I found "Storm of the Century" to be even more frightening).  But it is a good one in ways you do and do not expect.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Schindler's List

4/4

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz

Rated R for Language, Some Sexuality and Actuality Violence

6,000,000.  Six million Jewish people were murdered during what has infamously become known as the Holocaust.  Numbers on the page of a history book or spoken by a narrator do little to express the magnitude of those whose lives were taken from them simply because of their faith.  With "Schindler's List," director Steven Spielberg does what that cannot: put faces behind the number.

Oskar Schindler (Neeson) is the man who has everything.  In a time of war, pleasurable goods like good wine and fruit are hard to come by, but Schindler can get it for you.  Like all businessmen, he makes money for a living.  He wants to open up a factory to profit from the war, and he wants to use Jews to run it because they're cheap.  He hires a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Kingsley) to run the factory while Schindler himself will make sure that the Nazis use his factory to buy their pots and pans.  But when he sees what is happening to the people that work for him, his motives change from selfish to selfless.

Schindler is a complex man.  He's the PT Barnum of businissmen.  He doesn't do any actual work other than schmoozing powerful (and loaded) men.  He doesn't just believe his own press, he creates it.  He's also a skilled manipulator, especially those who are too filled with hate and propaganda to realize that they're being conned.  One of these men is Amon Goeth (Fiennes), the psychopathic guard at the camp near where Schindler has built his factory.  Goeth has control of the workers and is smart enough to know that Schindler is up to something, but not smart enough to know what it is or that he's being conned.  An example of this is when Schindler convinces him to stop shooting the prisoners for sport.

From top to bottom, the cast is exceptional.  Liam Neeson, an Irish actor who took on the challenge of bringing this fascinating man to life.  He ably and evenly shifts the character from a greedy jerk to a desperate protector.  He's intelligent and charismatic.  It's easy to believe that Schindler could take convince anyone to do anything.  Especially a fool like Goeth.  As Goeth, Fiennes is truly chilling.  He uses his cold eyes to great effect, and commits murder so callously that it stops us dead in our tracks.  Goeth is a study of the nature of evil and hate, and it's effective because he and Spielberg don't allow him to turn into a caricature.  They use his Jewish servant, Helen Hirsch (Davidtz) as a way to explore what little humanity he has.  He's attracted and infatuated with her, which disgusts him (and Schindler is able to use his obsession with her to his own advantage).  Ben Kingsley, the great actor that he is, cedes the spotlight to Neeson and Fiennes, but his contribution to the film is huge.  It is mainly through him that Schindler sees the Jewish people as human beings rather than cheap labor.  The rest of the cast is top notch as well.

Apart from the score by John Williams, this film in no way shape or form resembles anything Steven Spielberg had done up to that point.  Known primarily as the king of popcorn entertainment with the likes of the Indiana Jones movies and "ET," "Schindler's List" was his most ambitious and serious minded effort.  It's an epic film about a forever timely subject, and it is as complex as it should be.

Interestingly enough, Spielberg almost didn't make the movie.  Producer Sid Sheinberg brought the book upon which the film is based to Spielberg in 1982, hoping that the promising new director would make a movie out of it someday.  Spielberg didn't think he could do the story justice so he shopped the project around to the likes of his friend Martin Scorcese (who thought a Jewish director should do it), Roman Polanski (who lost family in the Holocaust and wasn't ready to tackle the subject) and Billy Wilder (who was retired, and was the one who ultimately convinced Spielberg to direct the film).  Neeson also wasn't the first choice for Schindler, either.  Harrison Ford was offered the part, but turned it down because he thought that his star power would overshadow the importance of the project.  Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner offered to take the role but were turned down for the same reason.

The message of the film is also the tagline, a passage from the Talmud: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.  This is true, but what truly impressed me, at least on this third viewing, is that it's a study in how personal interaction cuts through propaganda and ambivalence.  If you see someone's name on a piece of paper, it's just a name.  But if you meet them and spend time talking to them, that name becomes a person.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Katy Perry: Part of Me

2.5/4

Rated PG for Some Suggestive Content, Language, Thematic Elements and Brief Smoking

The documentary about pop sensation Katy Perry is not as good as it could be, but nowhere near as bad as you think.  Katy is an interesting enough person to spend about an hour with, but unfortunately the movie is 93 minutes long.  Things start to drag in the third quarter, but pick up again once it changes direction.

At first glance, this film seems little more than a fluff piece that you'd find on MTV or ET.  Katy was a good girl who had lots of talent and grew up in a devoutly Christian home.  She had a dream and worked hard to achieve it.  Yadda yadda yadda.  Like we haven't seen that before.

The film does do a few interesting things.  For example, it shows how Katy was tossed around at Columbia Records because she was told to be like Avril Lavigne or Britney Spears.  She was then taken by an executive over to Virgin Records.  This stuff is pretty interesting because it goes into some (although not much) detail about how good artists can be snuffed out of careers because of egos and executives who don't know what they're doing.

It's not hard to see why Katy Perry is so popular.  Her songs are infectious and it's hard not to start singing along to them.  She is portrayed as a hard working musician who loves her fans and family.  She also has the personality and presence to draw attention to her by simply walking into a room.  She's likable and pretty.  In other words, she's the perfect star.  While undoubtedly some of this is whitewashed, it's clear that it doesn't descend to the level of hero worship.

After a while the film stars spinning its wheels.  Concerts, fan meet and greets, backstage clips and trying to fit in time to see her husband Russell Brand...they're interesting at first, but the film runs out of material.  The third act, however, changes the films direction in surprising ways.

With concerts nearly every night and constant travelling, Katy gets exhausted pretty fast.  That, and she uses her rare moments of rest to see Russell means that has no time to recharge.  It doesn't take long for this to affect her.  At her biggest concert (in Brazil), we see her lying on a chair trying to get fifteen minutes of rest before going onstage.  She breaks into tears and is desperately trying to put on a smile as the lift carries her up to the stage.  This stuff is eye opening because we never really think about how much constant performances can take out of a person.

Also interesting is her relationship with Russell.  While we hear about celebrity break ups frequently, we always think its just because of egos or publicity.  In some cases, that may be the case, but we see first hand how hard it is to keep a marriage together when both parties have careers that take them to different parts of the world at the same time.  This stuff works too.

Ultimately, the film is too long and shallow for anyone who is not a Katy Perry fan, but it is watchable.  And the music is great too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mike's Musings: The End of Christopher Nolan?



I don't envy Christopher Nolan right now.  It's a week and a half away from the release of the most anticipated movie since "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," and that was nearly fifteen years ago. For months before its release, there was a sense of frenzied mania with anticipation.  Charity screenings, people waiting on sidewalks...it was pandemonium.

The film was a success, to be sure.  There's no doubt about that.  It was a major box-office success when it was released (despite mixed reviews), and it earned over a billion dollars worldwide all in all.

But now, everyone hates it.  You can't go to any major internet or media source or person alive to find a (new) positive viewing of the three Star Wars prequels.  I for one loved them, and in some ways they are superior to the originals.  But as the great James Berardinelli put it, "it was probably the most overhyped motion picture of the last decade (if not longer), and its reputation suffered as a result of its inability to satisfy unreasonable expectations."


"The Dark Knight Rises" is going to make a killing at the box office.  No matter how much critics, or more importantly, fans, trash the movie, everyone is going to see it and I have no doubt that it's going to cross the billion dollar mark, and fairly quickly.  But can we expect another love-turn-hate (no Yoda reference intended) reception with Nolan's new film?  That depends.


Nolan has something working for him: he is a superior filmmaker.  There is little doubt about that.  Other than the morons who hate whatever is popular simply because it is popular, I don't know anyone who disputes this.  He takes chances and he has the skill to pull them off.  Even his "worst" films are still pretty damn good.  I haven't seen a film of his that I've given less than a 3.5/4 to.  George Lucas is a masterful storyteller and crafter of visuals, but his skills do not extend to writing dialogue and directing actors.  Nolan has that advantage.  Finally, as popular as "The Dark Knight" is, it doesn't hold a candle to "Star Wars" mania.  I highly doubt we'll be seeing people camping out in front of theaters in anticipation.


But as Berardinelli put it, hype can be two-faced.  It brings anticipation and audiences, but too much leads to expectations that are impossible to attain .  For those who are too caught up in the hype, like many "Star Wars" fans were eventually (after they had seen it a bazillion times), there's no way it can live up to what they think it will be.  It will not be the "movie to end all movies."  It will not be the definitive answer to "the best film ever made."  Will it be better than "The Dark Knight?"  Possibly.  Nolan is talented enough that I wouldn't put it past him.


The bottom line is that you have to have realistic expectations when viewing any movie, especially one you're excited about.  I loved "The Dark Knight," even when I didn't give it a 4/4 rating.  I can't wait for "The Dark Knight Rises," and while I'm expecting something great, my whole world won't crumble because it didn't achieve them.  I know very well that this movie could misfire (although I highly doubt it will).  And that, I think, is the right way to go into "The Dark Knight Rises."  Now, if only the next nine days will hurry up and get over with...

Paradise Road

3/4

Starring: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett, Frances McDormand, Jennifer Ehle, Julianna Margulies, Elizabeth Spriggs

Rated R for Prisoner of War Brutality and Violence

In a way, "Paradise Road" is a victim of its own length.  Even at a hair over two hours long, it's too short.  In an attempt to keep things to a "reasonable" length, director Bruce Beresford cuts out too much and shortchanges more than a few of the relationships that make up the story.

In 1942, a group of women are with their husbands/boyfriends in Singapore dancing at a gala.  But the base is attacked and the women and children are rushed out of the Philippenes.  Their ship is attacked, however, and the survivors are sent to a Japanese POW camp in Sumatra.  There, they undergo grueling work and face the threat of death by execution or disease.  Two of the women, Adrienne Partiger (Close) and Margaret Drummond (Collins) decide to form a vocal orchestra to keep their spirits up.  Naturally this doesn't go over well with their captors, at least at first.

The film gets off to an okay start, but it runs into a bit of trouble during the first few minutes when the action centers on the camp.  Beresford has a bit of trouble establishing who is who and who they're talking to.  Once he regains focus after about twenty minutes, the film is on solid ground again.

"Paradise Road" is blessed with an excellent cast: Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Jennifer Ehle, Julianna Margulies (underused) and a pre-famous Cate Blanchett.  It doesn't get much better than this, especially with a budget of $16 million.  The performances are top-notch.  Glenn Close makes for a feisty and determined woman.  Pauline Collins is motherly and optimistic.  Frances McDormand is "tough love," but one wonders at times with whom her alliance truly lies.  Jennifer Ehle is a lovelorn romantic pining for her husband.  Julianna Margulies is a sarcastic and spirited American.  All are in top form.

That's actually the problem.  They're all so good that all of the characters deserve more screen time.  Margulies, an underrated TV actress, is particularly let down.  Apart from a few scenes in the beginning, she's a non-entity.  I wanted more.  It would have given the film more balance and flavor.

Perhaps its not surprising that this film will remind anyone who watches it of "Schindler's List."  Steven Spielberg's masterpiece took over three hours to tell, and that time is spent fleshing out the minor (and major) characters.  Even with the another hour added to give stronger weight and support to the solid material that is already on screen, I doubt that it would have attained the pinnacle that Spielberg acheived.  Then again, "Schindler's List" is a one of a kind experience that will never be duplicated or replicated.  Kind of unfair to criticize a good movie for not being a work of art, isn't it?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Michael Clayton

2.5/4

Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Sean Cullen

Rated R for Language including Some Sexual Dialogue

When I saw "Michael Clayton," I couldn't make heads or tails of it.  It was so densely written that one had to be a MENSA member to figure it out.  I watched it a second time tonight, and I was surprised at how clear it actually was (although I still didn't get everything).  And while I find it to be well acted and compelling, I can't recommend it.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a fixer for the law firm of Kenner, Bach and Ledeen.  He deals with the firm's dirty business and makes sure that their clients don't have anything that could screw up their cases.  For example, in an early scene, one of their regular clients has hit a pedestrian with his car, and Michael goes to the man's house to tell him what to do.  Michael hates his job, but as his boss Marty Bach (Pollack) points out, he's good at it.  He's going to need all of his skills to deal with his new problem: his friend and co-worker, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), has had a mental breakdown in the middle of a deposition hearing for a $3 billion dollar lawsuit involving an agricultural company called UNorth.  Michael has to get Arthur back on his medication, but Arthur has become extremely paranoid, although maybe not as much as Michael thinks.  Meanwhile, he's facing pressure from a member of UNorth's legal team, Karen Crowder (Swinton).  Karen, and the rest of UNorth, is growing restless and she wants this taken care of by any means possible.  As if that weren't enough, Michael is bankrupt and owes $70,000 to some shady people as a result of an investment with his brother that went south.

The acting is solid.  George Clooney is a good actor who can do well whether or not his star power is necessary.  This isn't a flashy role, but Clooney's reputation and presence make it easier to make it through the muck of the plot.  It's not his best performance, but it's up there.  Tom Wilkinson is reliable as always, playing the paranoid manic-depressive Arthur Edens.  Arthur is a supporting character, and being the consummate professional that he is, Wilkinson doesn't try to steal the spotlight from Clooney.  Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for her performance as Karen Crowder, and she's very good, but she's been better (although in less widely seen movies).  The late Sydney Pollack is also very good as Marty.

Tony Gilroy has been a strong screenwriter ever since he hit it big with the uneven but charming romantic comedy "The Cutting Edge."  He has become known for turning Robert Ludlum's "Bourne" series into movies.  Here, he shows that he is an intelligent man and a terrific writer, but his vision exceeds his skill.  Things get too complex for the film's own good (his attempts to make a fantasy book into an important metaphor/plot device are feeble).  It's also about ten minutes too long.  But it is well made and acted.  But the question is, did I feel satisfied after watching it?  Sorry, Tony, but no.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

P2

3.5/4

Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley

Rated R for Strong Violence/Gore, Terror and Language

"P2" is your basic horror movie done very well.  It's got your terrified heroine (complete with great cleavage and a great set of pipes).  And it's got your creepy villain, who reminds us why seemingly nice guys are sometimes the scariest.

Angela (Nichols) is a workaholic New Yorker staying late on Christmas Eve.  Her family is nagging her to come home ASAP, and she's got a lecherous co-worker (Simon Reynolds) apologizing for getting to frisky with her after the office Christmas party.  When she finally gets her work done, she finds that her car won't start.  The garage attendant, Thomas (Bentley), is helpful, but doesn't fix the car.  A cab comes, but the door is locked.  That's when she's attacked with chloroform and is chained up in Thomas's office wearing a new dress for his Christmas dinner.

The film is essentially a frightening game of cat and mouse.  That's okay, because the script by Franck Khalfoun (who also directed), splatter pack member Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur keep throwing new wrenches in the story.  Sure, like all horror movie heroines, Angela does some dumb things, but she also does some smart ones too.  Thomas may have planned this night of horror out, but Angela isn't going to play along.

Although there is some of the red stuff (including a very gory scene involving a car), the scares in "P2" are more psychological.  Thomas is a relentless pursuer, and he always knows where Angela is and what she's doing.  Like in this instance, video cameras are used effectively in this movie, and like in all good horror movies, it's got a firm sense of atmosphere.

The acting is solid.  Neither actor is crying out for Oscar attention and Angela and Thomas aren't going to go down in history like Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, but Nichols and Bentley get the job done.  Rachel Nichols does exactly what she has to: get us on her side and not be incredibly annoying.  Wes Bentley, most famous for his portrayal of Ricky Fitts in "American Beauty," is quite good as the overly-friendly Thomas.  He's an erotomaniac, and the way he plays Thomas as a nice guy makes him creepy in the same way that Anthony Perkins was in "Psycho."  No one else has much screen time except for these two.

The three writers were behind the French horror movie "High Tension," and the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes."  This is a less sickening horror movie than either of those, mainly because Khalfoun doesn't revel in the violence to the degree that Aja did.  Khalfoun relies more on atmosphere, which he has a good sense of, than violence and gore.  The scares come from how far Thomas is pushing Anglea's poor psyche, and what will happen if he catches her.

"P2" is centered around Christmas, and woe betide anyone who picks this up for some Christmas cheer.  That being said, this film is worth watching any time of the year. Especially in this scorching weather since its chilly flavor will cool you down considerably.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Mike's Musings: The R Rating Has Returned!

Before "Titanic" hit the big time, action movies were crammed with lots of action.  The more intense the action, the better.  Movies like "Die Hard," "True Lies" and the "Terminator" movies relished the R rating, cramming in lots of brutal violence and copious amounts of profanity.  That changed when Hollywood realized that teenagers were the new lifeblood of the film industry (at least in movie theaters), and they started toning down the violence and especially the profanity to get the lucrative PG-13 rating.  For a while, that was all we had: action movies with neutered action.  Even horror movies were toned down.  That's fine for teenagers, but what about people such as myself, who have been waiting patiently for years to be able to see an R rated movie with no fear of being turned away by the ushers (admittedly this rarely happened, but I got turned away from seeing "Troy" on opening night, which was my birthday, a movie that I had been waiting with baited breath to see ever since I saw the trailers six months prior).

Now, the R-Rated action movie is making a comeback.  "Sin City" pushed the R rating to the max and earned a killing.  "Ninja Assassin" was also awash in blood and gore.  "Kick-Ass" was also a heavy R film. The upcoming movies "Gangster Squad," "Lawless" and "Dredd" all have R ratings, and handsome budgets too.

Why this sudden change?  I'm not so sure.  Maybe it's the fact that R rated raunchy comedies have been mega successful ("The Hangover" earned nearly a half a billion dollars against a $35 million budget), and Hollywood realized that adults haven't left the movie theaters entirely.  Maybe filmmakers got sick of being neutered by the studios.  I haven't a clue, and to be honest, I really don't care.  I'm just glad that I can see an action movie that has what I'm looking for: intense action and more than two uses of the work "fuck."

Mike's Musing: Another Comic Book Movie?

On principle, I don't mind superhero movies or sequels.  In fact, some of them are quite enjoyable.  "Green Lantern" made my Top 10 list last year and I love "The Dark Knight."  We get a chance to vicariously kick ass and use superpowers that we wish we had, and we get to revisit characters that we know and love.

The problem, however, is that they're all we get.  Can someone name a big budget action movie that hasn't had a superhero in it or been based on a comic book?  Apart from the "Transformers" movies and "Battleship," which are based on toys, I can't.

It would be fine if they didn't come at the expense of other types of movies.  In an effort to target foreign audiences, Hollywood does only one type of movie: the big budget comic book movies.  From a financial standpoint, it makes sense.  These movies rake in billions, and a studio head would have to be mental to turn that kind of money down.  But they're also ignoring other potential markets, few of which demand huge budgets.  Tearjerkers, romantic comedies, light dramas, slasher movies...all these types of movies and others came out with regular frequency up until Hollywood started going after foreign audiences primarily.

As I said, few of these genres demand large budgets.  Not adjusted for inflation, "Scream" cost $15 million.  The recent "Magic Mike" cost a shy less than half that.  While that may seem like a lot of money to you and me, consider this: "The Avengers" cost $220 million, and the upcoming "The Dark Knight Rises" cost $250 million.  Both are coming from Paramount Pictures.  Both are going to bring in big bucks for the studio ("The Avengers" has already brought in over $600 million in the US alone).  Studios are putting all their money in few pots to chase down the previously mythical "billion dollar" mark.

That's all fine and dandy.  If I were them, I'd do the same thing.  But consider this: "Magic Mike" has brought in nearly $40 million in its first week.  "Scream" was a smash hit that brought in $173 million, and that's not adjusted for fifteen years of inflation.  Compared to the billions that the superheros and toys are making, a $158 million profit doesn't seem like much.  On the flip side, "John Carter" is one of the biggest box-office bombs in film history, costing Disney almost $250 million, marketing included.  That's a huge difference than if a low-budget slasher movie or romance flops.

The point is that Hollywood's narrow-minded obsession with chasing the billion dollar mark has blinded them to other, more potentially lucrative markets.  Look at the "Twilight" movies.  Four movies cost $265 million.  But the franchise has made over $2.5 billion, and there's still another movie to go.  That's a lot of dough.

If Hollywood branched out into more genres like it used to, not every movie is going to be a huge blockbuster, but a hundred million is still a hundred million, and there's less of a financial risk if it bombs.

Magic Mike

4/4

Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Matt Bomer, Gabriel Iglesias, Adam Rodriguez

Rated R for Pervasive Sexual Content, Brief Graphic Nudity, Language and Some Drug Use

What really impressed me about "Magic Mike" is its authenticity.  Almost everything that happens in this movie rings true, from how the characters act to the situations that they find themselves in.  There's not much in this film that is surprising, but it's written and directed in a way that makes it come alive.

Much of the reason for the film's success is due to Channing Tatum.  A former model who got into acting because he wanted a bigger challenge, Tatum has never particularly impressed me with his acting abilities.  That all changed with "21 Jump Street."  His performance as Jenko was very good, and he demonstrated his ability to get a laugh.  As the title character, Magic Mike, Tatum gives a performance of near brilliance.  He probably won't get an Oscar nomination, but he should.

Magic Mike (Tatum) is the biggest star at a strip club in Tampa Bay, Florida.  He's good looking, charismatic and knows how to have a good time.  More importantly, he knows how to get his customers to have a good time.  Mike is the kind of guy who can draw people's attention just be walking into the room.  He's also a busy man; he does construction work on the side and makes custom furniture that he wants to sell once he gets enough money to do that full time.  At his construction job, he meets Adam (Pettyfer), a good looking kid.  They run into each other outside the strip club where Mike works at and he gets Adam a job working props.  In no short order, Adam has become Mike's protoge, and they're living the great life.  Parties, money and women...all in copious quantities.  And that's when things go south.

Watching "Magic Mike" is like going out to a nightclub with your best friends.  The excitement of going out and getting wild is infectious.  We feel it with the characters, and Mike knows how to capitalize on that with potential customers.  Initially it seems like the best job in the world.  But then darker side of things come to light.  Drugs and the inability to lead a normal life erode the fantasy.  In this way, it bears some similarity to "Memoirs of a Geisha."  Both deal with the price of being another's fantasy, although this film is grittier and more explicit.

Apart from Tatum's tightly controlled and charismatic performance, the acting is solid across the board.  Matthew McConaughey is also very good (an Oscar nomination might be warranted for him as well).  Dallas is the P.T. Barnum of the film; the audience wants a show, and he obliges.  He's a good showman and gets his audience pumped up for the eye candy they're about to see.  Alex Pettyfer, who was reasonably good in the box office flop "I am Number Four," is good, but he has moments when he is stiff.  When he's active and energetic, he's good, but when he's lower key and awkward, he's lacking.  Also impressive is rising starlet Cody Horn, who plays Adam's motherly sister Brooke and Mike's potential love interest.  She's worried about Adam, and wants Mike to look after him.  He obliges, but there are times when "The Kid," as Adam is called, escapes from Mike's watchful eye.

I also liked how Steven Sodebergh doesn't present watching male strippers as something dirty or obscene.  The audience is having fun and so are we.  Behind the scenes it's a dirty business (at least in this movie), but on stage it's great entertainment.  There's not as much nudity as one might suppose (only a few shots of Tatum's butt and a two heavily obscured penises).  It's also quite funny at times (the scene where Dallas teaches Adam how to dance suggestively is a case in point.  It's hilarious because of how McConaughey takes it).

I expect this movie to play huge with women and gay men.  With this material, that's a given.  But it's far from a porno and contains stuff that will entertain everyone.  I imagine that some people will be turned off by the subject matter.  Don't be.  It's not at all what you'd think.

The film is far from flawless, Pettyfer's stiff moments aside.  The film has some suspect editing and the relationship between Mike and Brooke is less explored than I would have liked, but I'll leave that for the inevitable unrated DVD.  As it is though, it's still one of the best films of the year so far and guaranteed to end up on my top 10 list when December comes around.

Prime

3.5/4

Starring: Uma Thurman, Bryan Greenburg, Meryl Streep, Jon Abrahams

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content including Dialogue, and for Language

"Prime" is one of the best romantic comedies to come along in years.  I haven't seen one better since it was released, and I certainly can't remember a movie that balanced romance and comedy this well off the top of my head.  It's at times very funny, but there's also an element of emotional honesty running through it as well.  We believe in the characters and their situations.

Rafi (Thurman) is as 37 year old living in New York City.  She's smart, cultured and beautiful.  She's also coming off a messy divorce and is seeing a therapist, Dr. Lisa Metzger (Streep).  Almost immediately after the divorce, she meets David Bloomberg (Greenberg), a handsome, smart and funny young man.  He asks her out and the two hit it off magically.  There's a problem, however.  David is 23.  And what neither of them knows is that the good Doctor is David's mother.  Oops.

Critics criticzed the trailers for giving a way the fact that David and Lisa are related.  Such criticisms baffle me because it's really not much of a spoiler.  Lisa finds out the truth fairly early, and it leads to some hilarious complications.  And the film doesn't pretend that keeping Rafi in the dark is an ethical thing to do, so it's not as Roger Ebert called it, an Idiot Plot.  This aspect of the story takes up only about a third of the movie.  The rest of it is used by writer/director Ben Younger to explore the many facets of love.

The acting is strong across the board.  Uma Thurman, always an exciting actress, gives her best performance as Rafi.  One thing I liked about Rafi is that Thurman and Younger don't take the easy way out and turn her into a nutcase.  Most people who see therapists are not borderline psychotics, so this is a refreshing change of pace from the caricatures that usually take this role.  She's independent, but also vulnerable.  In other words, she's a normal person.  Bryan Greenberg, who appeared in "The Perfect Score," one of the worst films ever made, acquits himself admirably in the role of Rafi's new squeeze.  He's outshined by Thurman and Streep, but he's adorable, and much more than a mere hunk.  He's sweet, funny and charming, but he's also immature and naiive.  It's not hard to see why Rafi falls for him.  And Meryl Streep is terrific as always.  Lisa Metzger is really a motherly sort of person.  Frumpy, a little neurotic, but wise.  It takes less than a second to stop seeing Meryl Streep and see only Lisa Metzger (but that's how it always is with Streep, isn't it?).  Also of note is Jon Abrahams who plays Morris, David's meathead best friend.  Abrahams has been funny before, but he's hysterical as a guy who throws pies in the faces of girls who turn him down for a second date.

Ben Younger is a great young director.  He made the thrilling "Boiler Room," about young men who are duped into working at a fraudulent investment firm.  Here, he does a movie in a polar opposite genre.  He shows a rare skill in fleshing out his human protagonists and nurturing their relationships; the change of direction from comedy to drama (something that often defeats many filmmakers) works because we like the characters and care about their relationships.  He also knows how to use human nature for comic purposes, and he treads the line between farce and a dead zone.  As of yet, Younger only has two credits as a writer/director (he has two more projects in the making), and he's a fresh talent that must be given more opportunities.  I anxiously await his next projects.

Not everything in this film works; some of the humor doesn't fly (David's teeth clacking is more awkward than romantic) and there's some ripe dialogue at the end, but all in all this is a highly enjoyable movie.