Monday, January 31, 2011

'The Rite'

'The Rite' (PG-13) (2 stars)

Writer: Michael Petroni
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones,
Rutger Hauer

"The Rite" starts out like it is going to be a tasteful examination of exorcisms. By the middle though I thought the movie was dull and too respectful. I wanted someone to pump some life into this slog. Then I started to get excited because Anthony Hopkins was going to go into Hannibal Lecter mode. As Hopkins character gets possessed by the devil I laughed more than I was scared. "The Rite" is deadly boring and safe and in the end even a hammy Hopkins can't do anything to save it. "The Rite" tells the story of a young seminary student named Michael Kovak who I guess is based on a real life priest in Chicago. Michael struggles with his faith and threatens to quit the seminary but is influenced into trying his hand at exorcisms. He travels to Italy and takes classes taught by a priest played by great character actor Ciaran Hinds. The priest hooks him up with another priest named Father Lucas Trevant, played by Hopkins, who will take Michael under his wings. Michael also meets a young woman Angeline played by Alice Braga who also wants to learn.

The set up to the movie is promising but nothing compelling really happens after that. There are a few exorcisms that are performed by Father Lucas and Michael but they are weak and dull. "The Rite" even starts to drag out and becomes super slow, even as much as "Biutiful" was. It doesn't help that Anthony Hopkins seems to be going through the motions. He is very good here in the opening scenes but this isn't anything new for him. It also doesn't help that the lead character played by newcomer Colin O'Donoghue is a stiff. This is a lifeless character and O'Donoghue makes no impression here. I was at the point where I started to want to experience some spinning heads, blood and vomit.

I appreciate that this movie is trying to be respectful and serious about it's subject. That doesn't mean you have to take some fun out of it. This is a PG-13 movie and that is fine but this snooze fest needs some outrageous shocks and gore. This movie has no suspense, no scares and not even a scene that makes you jump, hell the movie doesn't even have a pulse. When the climax comes and Hopkins starts to be possessed and starts acting spooky I figured the movie would start cooking. Boy was I wrong because Hopkins yells a lot and does some Lecter shtick but he is not scary and none of his dialogue is original. At least that woke up O'Donoghue for he finally shows emotion and starts screaming back at Hopkins. I started to laugh at all the wrong places and finally felt that I wasted two hours of my life. This is one of those movies you forget the next morning. It is one of those movies that gets mentioned years from now and you can't even remember it. This is a movie that might even be left off Hopkin's resume by accident.


'Biutiful' (R) (10) (rental)

Writers: Armando Bo, Nicolas Giacobone and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Guillermo Estrella, Hanaa Bouchail

"Biutiful" is a tough movie to sit through in the theatre but it has two outstanding performances worth checking out also. This is a bleak, slow and despairing movie that besides some sly humor here and there is not a joyful movie. There is nothing wrong with a movie this despairing but this is way too slow and a little editing on the length of scenes could have helped. This reminds me of Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist". Both movies are frustrating but "Biutiful" is more haunting and beautiful in spots. Javier Bardem is amazing and is perfect for this kind of role. He plays Uxbal who is a father of two kids who deals with illegal immigrant labor and has to deal with a mentally unstable ex wife. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he has just learned that he has terminal cancer. We can see Uxbal is a good father and the work he does is immoral but he still is great to his family. His ex wife Marambra has good days and bad days but her depression makes her an unfit mother and she is sleeping with Uxbal's brother. Marambra is played by stage actress Maricel Alvarez and she is outstanding here, equal to Bardem.

Javier Bardem is a wonderful actor and I love his subtlety and how he acts with his soulful eyes. In "Biutiful" Bardem is quiet and introspective and his best scenes are with his kids at the dinner table. There is a beautiful and heartbreaking scene near the end where Uxbal has to say goodbye to his daughter. I also love the performance by Maricel Alvarez who does a great job balancing the scenes where she is happy and the scenes where she breaks down. I loved the performances and found the child actors natural and I loved the scenes dealing with family. Another strong scene involves Marambra on one of her better days as she has dinner with Uxbal and the kids. What I didn't care for were the scenes with symbolism and dreams that were too many and too self indulgent. I also thought the scenes where Uxbal handles immigrant, Chinese labor and works with street people to be uninteresting. On the flip side I did love when Uxbal takes in a Senegalese woman to take care of the kids when he gets sicker.

"Biutiful" has moments of greatness and haunting beauty but it is also overlong and way too slow. The writer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has this problem with a lot of his films. He has made "Amores Perros", probably his best, "21 Grams" and "Babel". I like most of his movies but a lot of critics find him self indulgent. "Biutiful" to me can sometimes be self indulgent but there is greatness scattered in this movie. I just think a little more editing would have made the performances even better. Though I must say if you enjoy great acting you have to see this but you might be more comfortable watching at home so you can take breaks. I will also say that Javier Bardem deserves his Oscar nomination but Alvarez is just as great.

P.S. I love that my spell check says Biutiful is spelled wrong. That is true but that is because Uxbal's daughter had spelled it wrong in a letter to her father, hence the title.

'The Mechanic'

'The Mechanic' (R) (1 1/2 stars)

Writers: Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino
Director: Simon West
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn, Christa Campbell

I really like Jason Statham because he has a cool demeanor perfect enough to play a hit man. I like the "Transporter" movies and even the first "Crank" movie and he makes smart choices like "The Bank Job". Jason is so cool that I think he didn't realize that he was making something wrong here. It is not bad to remake a Charles Bronson movie because I am not a big fan of Bronson or really any of his movies. I didn't see the original 1972 film "The Mechanic" with Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent but I bet it wasn't as sleazy and nasty as this remake. I felt like taking a shower after this movie. I am usually not bothered by violence in movies but if the story has holes I can notice violence that is overdone like it is here. The story is pretty simple, Statham plays a hit man who is forced to kill his friend and mentor played by Donald Sutherland. Tony Goldwyn, in his "Ghost" bad guy mode, plays the man who gives Statham's Arthur Bishop the contract to kill his friend. Then after feeling used and guilty he mentors his friend's son Steve Mckenna played by the fine actor Ben Foster and they go after him.

The movie starts out pretty well with a nifty hit on a gangster in his swimming pool at his mansion. The set up with Sutherland is good and the actor brings something to the character that is not there. When Arthur finds out that Steve actually has a lot of violence inside and actually likes causing damage the movie starts to sink. Then there is a scene where Arthur and Steve have to kill a bad guy who likes men. Steve seduces the man and they go back to his house. What follows is a gruesome fight that goes on for an eternity. I have seen a lot of good fight scenes that were very bloody and violent but this one turned me off. Do we really have to make this bad guy a homosexual and does the scene have to be this cruel and ugly? Then later we get another religious leader/bad guy who molests teenage women. Add to that a scene where a stereotypically written black drug dealer gets beaten up and after he is unconscious he gets beaten up even more. I have seen bad guys like this in other movies but the writing here is so shallow. Another problem is half way through this movie I figured out what would happen by the end and I even figured out the twist ending or endings.

Statham is good here but I know he can pick better projects. I would take any "Crank" or "Transporter" movie over this ugly crap any day. Ben Foster is also good here and he is a great and intense actor and he has a great future, he just has to watch out for bad movies. Check him out in "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Messenger" and you will see one of our best young actors. I also find it kind of creepy that the only female character and I mean only one in this tripe is a prostitute. I know hit man characters can't have girlfriends because of the job but really? One of the characters has to have a mother or sister. So what you have here is a movie with bad, shallow writing, wasted actors and needlessly nasty, overdone violence. I have seen a lot of violent, entertaining movies about hit men but "The Mechanic" is not even entertaining on a minuscule level.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'The Company Men'

'The Company Men' (R) (3 stars)

Written and Directed by John Wells
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner,
Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelsen

"Company Men" has one of the best casts you will ever find and a good writer and it gets the job done. It is not as hard hitting or powerful as it should be but it has a story that moves us just enough. The writer and director John Wells (TV's ER) needed to shed some of his television trappings but he does a good job here. When it is not wrapping up it's ending like it was a one hour television drama I liked this movie a lot. We follow three men but the main focus is on Bobby Walker who is a young sales executive with a wife and two kids. Bobby is played by Ben Affleck and he is very good here and we root for him. Bobby, with a host of others have been laid off by their company. This really upsets another chief executive played by Tommy Lee Jones. The third man who is about to be fired is played by Chris Cooper and his character has a lot of anger and when he gets fired a lot of shame. The movie does a good job of commenting on the state of jobs and our economy. I just wished that the material was a tad stronger like say "Up in the Air" which made a stronger statement on the economy.

The main reason I liked this movie was because of the Bobby character played by Affleck. The other two characters are wonderfully acted by Jones and Cooper but their material is a little weaker. I love Affleck, loved Rosemarie Dewitt as Bobby's wife, I loved the scenes involving the family. Those moments seem authentic, are touching and are the strongest moments. Part of that story detours into a wonderful new direction with a character played by Kevin Costner. Costner plays Jack Dolan who is Bobby's brother in law and he is in construction. Bobby and Jack don't get along but at some point Bobby has to beg Jack for a job. I love the scenes with Affleck and Costner and I love the construction scenes as they build a house. I had worked construction for so many years and this movie gets that part right. Costner is excellent here and I hope he continues this small supporting role path. He made me smile every time he was on screen.

This movie has some very provocative material and most of the time it is very compelling. I just wished that the material dealing with Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones was stronger. There are too many television type cliches and I knew where their story was going. I could kind of figure out what would happen to Bobby but his story is more emotional and stronger. "Company Men" tells a good story and we care about Bobby and his family. It has a cast to die for what with Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper. They are all fun to watch and the movie is entertaining and engrossing. I think that it could had delved deeper and that this was a movie that should have been made a few years back. I still think that "Company Men" gets the job done and I think it is important enough to see. Also the Ben Affleck and Kevin Costner scenes are top notch and that Rosemarie Dewitt and Affleck are very believable as husband and wife.

'No Strings Attached'

'No Strings Attached' (R) (2 stars)

Writer: Elizabeth Meriwether
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Lake Bell, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling,
Kevin Kline, Olivia Thrilby, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Talia Balsam, Cary Elwes

"No Strings Attached" has an appealing premise, attractive, hot stars and a killer cast of future greats. What it doesn't have is anything fresh to say that we haven't heard before in the latest, lame rom coms. I don't know why but the romantic comedy seems to be the roughest genre to make a good movie in. There are so many right now you could pick five romantic comedy names out of a hat and you couldn't tell the difference in the plots. This is not a bad movie but with Portman involved I expected smarter. "No Strings Attached" was also directed by comedy great Ivan Reitman and it could have been directed by anyone. There is nothing here that is unique and coming from Reitman that is shocking. The movie tells the story of Emma and Adam played by Portman and Kutcher. They meet cute at camp, then see each other in college and then become friends. Emma is not in the mood for and not good at the long term relationship. She wants a friends with benefits type relationship with Adam and he is okay with that (what man wouldn't). Here is where we get to the disapointing part because we all know Emma will start to want more out of their relationship and things will get serious.

I don't mind a movie that is predictable and has cliches but it has to have some focus and energy. After a while I got tired of this story and the relationship between Emma and Adam. I also didn't like the subplot of the Kevin Kline character, Adam's dad. It is a distraction and horribly written. I was sad also that the film makers were given such a wonderful cast and they blow it. Not only is Kline wasted but there are some funny and beautiful actresses and future stars that are squandered. Greta Gerwig, who will be awarded a Snavely nomination in a few weeks for "Greenberg", continues her great work and she is an actress to watch out for. Also funny is Mindy Kaling from television's "The Office". This is a brilliant and funny actress and I beg for Hollywood to cast her some more. I also think that Lake Bell, who plays Adam's co worker, needs a starring vehicle and fast. I follow this great comic actress with potential on twitter and she is smart and funny. Here she steals the movie from everyone. She reminds me of Sandra Bullock and she is funny, beautiful and charming.

I like Natalie Portman a lot here and she looks as beautiful as ever and I am glad she found something lighter after "Black Swan". I also think Ashton Kutcher is good here and again the poor guy gets such a bad rap. He is what he is, he is not Deniro or even Matt Damon but he is always likable and has great screen presence. He might play the same role over and over but he is good at it. He does need to make smarter choices in movies but this movie is way better than most of his others. The problem with this movie is after a while I got bored and didn't want Emma and Adam to get together seriously in the end. When you don't care about the two main characters you know you are in trouble. On a side note I did appreciate the vulgar (R) rated comedy which is actually the movie's strong attribute. Usually all these cookie cutter romantic comedies are (PG-13) and that is why they are all the same, safe and dull.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

'The Dilemma'

'The Dilemma' (PG-13) (2 stars)

Writer: Allan Loeb
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum,
Queen Latifah, Chelcie Ross, Amy Morton, Clint and Rance Howard

Those expecting a broad comedy out of Ron Howard's "The Dilemma" might find something a little more darker and serious. I didn't know what to expect but I didn't mind the movie getting serious. Without the underlying drama dealing with adultery this would be a lame "Three's Company" type farce. This is the idiot plot where if the characters would just be honest and talk to each other none of the dumb stuff that happens here would take place. Vince Vaughn (Ronny) and Kevin James (Nick) play best friends and business partners in the auto industry. Ronny and Nick live in Chicago and Ron Howard's best attribute here is how he uses our great city. Nick is married to Geneva (Winona Ryder) and Ronny is engaged to Beth (Jennifer Connelly). One day Ronny sees Geneva kissing another man. He is torn up because he doesn't know if he should tell Nick about what he has seen. The dilemma of the title is if he should tell Nick about the affair knowing that it will break Nick's heart. He does confront Geneva about the affair and begs her to confess but she will definitely not do that.

This leads to scenes where Ronny spies on Geneva and this other man and tries to take pictures so he can give Nick proof of the affair. The first problem I had with this movie is that the plot is full of contrivances that are hard to believe. The other problem is that when Ronny spies he either gets beat up or falls in a bunch of poison flowers. These scenes are not funny and pretty painful to watch, like bad slapstick. The best scenes deal with pure dialogue between Vince Vaughn and Winona Ryder. Ronny tells Geneva he is going to spill everything to Nick and Geneva threatens to tell Nick that Ronny hit on her. I have talked before about how great Vaughn is at delivering great chunks of dialogue. There is a potentially great scene where Ronny makes a speech at Beth's parent's anniversary party. In the beginning Vaughn is hilarious doing what he does best but the scene goes on too long and loses it's impact after a while.

When the movie starts getting serious and the theme of morality and adultery are explored I felt the movie worked best. I was tired of all the bad scenes of Vaughn getting pummelled while spying on Geneva. The comedy is weak and doesn't work here but in the end when the movie gets dark and challenging I liked it more. I think we forget how great of a serious actor Vince Vaughn can be. He is a compelling, dramatic actor and Winona Ryder is also fantastic here. Their scenes together are classic and drive the heart of the movie. I found the Kevin James character too "King of Queens", James has played this character before. I also think that the Jennifer Connelly character is weakly written and she only has one good scene to act out. This is a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be and it is being marketed as a comedy and people will be surprised that is really a drama with little comic pieces here and there. I was surprised that Ron Howard directed this because for the first time in his career I have found a movie of his that has no real focus or drive. I kept seeing a great movie buried in here somewhere and again Hollywood can't find a great vehicle for Vaughn to star in. In one scene Ronny tells Geneva that she is like Sybil which fits this movie well. The movie has two personalities, comedy and drama, and they don't mix well.

'The Green Hornet'

'The Green Hornet' (PG-13) (1 star)

Writers: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson,
David Harbour, Edward James Olmos

I don't know if I would consider the new "Green Hornet" movie to be a true superhero movie. I don't think it really cares who the Green Hornet is and doesn't bother to give us a story that makes sense. I regard the Green Hornet as a poor man's Batman so I don't know why I was expecting anything good. "The Green Hornet" isn't even mediocre, this is one of the most obnoxious and incoherent movies I have seen. Congratulations to everyone involved here, you just set the bar extremely low already for 2011. I like Seth Rogen a lot but after "Knocked Up" he is pushing the movie goer's patience pretty fast. I think it might be a good ideal to make that "Knocked Up" sequel that is being talked about. Seth Rogen plays Britt Reid who becomes the Green Hornet. He is the rich son of a newspaper magnate played by Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson yells in a few scenes and then he winds up dead and Britt has to take over the newspaper. He finds out that his cappuccino tastes terrible now and that is because his father's butler Kato has quit. Britt gets Kato back, finds his dad's gadget car and decides to fight crime. There is no good buildup to Britt becoming a crime fighter and he is annoying and a really big jerk. There is no character development and Britt and Kato become really boring very fast. They are battling a bad guy named Chudnovsky played by Christolph Waltz who tries but his bad guy is weak and poorly written.

The Green Hornet character is really dull and blandly conceived to begin with so the coolness of the character comes really from the car. Kato is also cooler but that is when he is played by Bruce Lee. Jay Chou can barely speak English and his acting is rough, he can kick ass pretty well though. The only interesting character is this car that has gun turrets on the hood and some neat gadgets that can rip through metal and tires. Not even Cameron Diaz, here playing a newspaper reporter, makes any impression. This is one of the most thankless roles I have seen an actress take on and all she does is scream and yell. That is all anyone does in this movie so that you have obnoxious people yelling and then some really messy and terribly directed action scenes. They involve fights that look like they were choreographed by Stevie Wonder and oh there are a plethora of explosions. It is not only that Seth Rogen is miscast but he is very unlikable here and when you can't cheer for the hero then you have nothing. There is also a fight between Britt and Kato that is needlessly overdone and mean spirited. I hated the Britt Reid/Hornet character and found the bad guy not even worth hissing at.

Seth Rogen has co written this movie and he should get all the blame. This becomes a super hero character that doesn't even rank up with that "Super friends" Indian guy or "The Green Arrow". The director Michel Gondry is a great talent who directed the wonderful "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but he is the wrong choice for an action movie because his direction here is sloppy. He is also a very eccentric artist but sometimes eccentric artists can be pretentious bores and he can't direct action. This is also a PG-13 movie that is so close to (R) rated that I am surprised that it didn't get slapped with an (R) rating. There are impalings, stabbings and usually I am not bothered by this but when a movie is this terrible I notice that the violence is nasty and over the top. This movie is not fun, not entertaining and terribly acted or should I say shouted. Cameron Diaz is given the worst role of her career and Rogen to me embarrasses himself here. The car gets 1 star and everything else gets a big fat zero.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

'Another Year'

'Another Year' (PG-13) (3 1/2 stars)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Oliver Maltman,
David Bradley, Imelda Staunton, Karina Fernandez

I love Mike Leigh films for they are about real people, are honest and he takes his time letting the characters grow on us. He always rehearses with his actors ahead of time and encourages improvisation. That is why his movies are so effective because the characters all come together and respond to each other so fluidly. He is like England's answer to Woody Allen but to me in the last two decades he does a better job at what Woody used to do. I love Allen's British thrillers and dramas lately but the relationship drama now belongs to Leigh. "Another Year" is another Leigh drama that at first seems normal and gives us a story of every day people living life. Then at the end we are blind sided by how deep and powerful the movie has become. The character development and acting is outstanding at first and that makes what comes at the end so hard hitting.

"Another Year" starts with a middle age couple starting their senior years. They are Tom and Geri and they are extremely well played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They have a son that visits them and we see them tending to their garden. They seem comfortable together and are still in love. They have a friend who visits for dinner from time to time and her name is Mary. Mary is played by Lesley Manville and Manville here is brilliant. Mary likes to drink a lot of wine and we can see she is somewhat of an alcoholic. Tom and Geri show concern but Mary is a good friend and they don't come down on her for her drinking. I identified with Mary a lot and she is one of those people who are energetic and happy one moment and then become depressed in an instant. She is single and she desperately wants to find someone to love and she even pins false hope on a flirtation with Tom and Geri's son Joe. There is also Tom's best friend Ken who comes over for dinner when Mary is there. He is a heavy drinker, smoker, overweight slob but maybe he can pair up with Mary but she doesn't know what she wants and pushes him away. As Leigh introduces his characters I was enthralled by the acting and how real this every day story unfolded. Leigh has this magic touch where you know not much is happening but in the end you have experienced something so touching and powerful.

This movie reminded me of another movie about growing old and that is the 1981 Alan Alda movie "The Four Seasons". Like that 80's classic "Another Year" splits into four seasons and each season is like a chapter in this story. There is a powerful Winter segment that ends the movie as all characters come together because of the funeral of Tom's sister-in-law. We meet Tom's brother and his black sheep son and before we know it one of these new characters will make a huge impact on this story. The end of this movie is devastating and Manville's performance comes to a powerful climax and should get her an Oscar nomination. This movie has a lot of humor and charm but it also can be bleak and somber and that is why I loved it. If the movie just continued on it's leisurely beginning I would have grown tired of it. It would not have had that effect of being like real life. This movie has so many layers and emotions and I grew to love all the characters. Not only is Manville great but all the acting is superb from Ruth Sheen, the always great Jim Broadbent to smaller roles played by all other cast members. This is a movie that sneaks up on you and I think Leigh fans will like this more than his last movie "Happy-Go Lucky" because I think this is one of his best movies. It really got to me emotionally and I loved every minute of one of the best movies of 2010.

'Casino Jack'

'Casino Jack' (R) (3 stars)

Writer: Norman Snider
Director: George Hickenlooper
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Graham Greene,
Eric Schweig, Rachelle Lefevre, Maury Chaykin

I used to find politics boring but lately I have realized that politics is like a great, dramatic movie full of back stabbing and melodrama. Television shows like "Bill Maher" and movies like "All the President's Men" make me appreciate the inherent evil that is behind most political maneuvers and politicians. I didn't realize until I heard about Jack Abramoff and saw the movie "Casino Jack" how slimy lobbyists could be. Kevin Spacey is the perfect choice to play Abramoff and I can't see anyone else in the role. Spacey is the best at playing smarmy, wise cracking men full of anger. Jack Abramoff was a D.C. lobbyist who bilked a lot of money from Native Americans and other interest groups. Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon exploited Native Americans and skimmed money off the top of deals he made with them. This is the classic tale of the crooked politician getting away with corruption and then crashing hard when he is caught. I have seen this before but it is told so well by writer Norman Snider and director George Hickenlooper that I admired it and found it interesting.

The movie also is a success mostly because of the acting by Kevin Spacey. I love watching Spacey act and he holds your attention always with ease. His scenes were he is charming, then a dick and also when he has his outbursts of anger are all handled so well in equal measure. There is also a very funny performance by Jon Lovitz as a crooked businessman Abramoff gets involved with. I love the scenes between him and Spacey, they are very funny and entertaining. Also very good is Barry Pepper as Scanlon and with this and "True Grit" he shows how versatile and compelling he is as an actor. I was not that interested in the Mob dealings Abramoff handles because the political back stabbing is more evil and more delicious. It is true that without Spacey I might have been bored but the material is too juicy not to get involved with. I like what the movie was telling, at least for me, that Abramoff hadn't done anything more evil than that of what most politicians do every day. I think Abramoff just surrounded himself with some dumb losers that helped bring him down.

Friday, January 7, 2011

'Blue Valentine'

'Blue Valentine' (R) (4 stars) (Highest Rating)

Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Ben Shenkman, Faith Wladyka

Once in a while there comes a small, independent movie that is so real, raw and sobering that it takes my breath away. "Blue Valentine" is a simple movie that tells the story about a couple from their growing love, evolution and then destruction of their marriage. You will never find two more powerful and effective performances in your life then that of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. I was into this movie every step of the way and it doesn't have any flaws. Williams and Gosling play Cindy and Dean who meet under strange circumstances. She is dating someone but she is drawn to Dean who feels he has experienced love at first sight. The movie is presented out of sequence as we experience their break up and then flashback to how they met. These are blue collar type people with Cindy going to school to be a nurse and Dean who has dropped out of high school and has a job as a mover. We first see Derek and Cindy with a young daughter and we see a marriage that has grown a few years and we can tell it is not looking good. We flashback to a happier time as Dean and Cindy court each other, become close and have a child followed by marriage. I was hesitant to the movie being told out of order but halfway into the movie I found this to make the movie even more effective and powerful.

The movie brings up a lot of questions about marriage and relationships. Does marriage change our personalities and the way we feel about our significant others over time, corrupt our love towards them. Dean and Cindy start their relationship on a tender and touching note as Dean plays his ukulele and sings a song as Cindy tap dances as they stop in front of a store front window. The scene sounds like it would come off as corny and awkward but it is one of the most beautiful scenes I have seen in a movie. The movie can be very tough, sad and dark as Dean starts to grow older and lose his hair and it seems the love and tenderness from that start has turned into bitterness. Life has not worked out for the two according to their goals but did their life plans really have a chance? Dean seems like he is angry in the later stage of his life and he looks hopeless. The little girl he has seems to be the only light in his life. In a revealing scene we flashback to Dean meeting Cindy's parents and Dean tells Cindy's father about his father leaving him when he was young. Is this why Dean is angry and is he headed towards that type of behavior? I compare that great scene with later scenes as we see Dean and Cindy take a vacation to try to rekindle their love and passion. The movie has so many individual scenes that seem lived in and real. The sex scenes are raw and the emotional torment is palpable. I haven't seen a marriage depicted this honestly and in such a raw way ever in my movie going life. There are no phony plot developments, no sugar coating or movie moments. You feel like you are watching a documentary on this couple because Derek Cianfrance's direction is focused. The hand held photography and real location work help a lot also.

"Blue Valentine" is full of power, tenderness, bitterness and emotional pain but the movie would not have worked if the performances weren't so powerful. Ryan Gosling has proven in my mind to be one of our finest actors if not the best of his generation. Gosling has to find a balance between the charming, in love and younger Dean character and the older, bitter and angrier Dean. Gosling is amazing at portraying these two versions of Dean and he nails every emotion flawlessly. Michelle Williams has become to me one of the most powerful surprises I have ever encountered with an actress. I can't believe this is the same actress that was in the fluff television soap opera "Dawson's Creek"! Michelle has been amazing from playing a wife in "Brokeback Mountain" to a homeless woman in "Wendy and Lucy" with the same grace and intensity. This is a very smart actress that studies her craft and is natural in every performance, more than any actress of her generation. She is the best and most ideal actress to play Cindy because she is a brave actress who feels real in every role she plays. I know I have praised a lot of actresses before but Michelle Williams has captured my attention and heart. I have never been this fascinated by an actress since I have been by actresses like Audrey Hepburn or a Meryl Streep. To me though Williams is in a class all by herself and this is the best performance by an actress in 2010. I am fascinated by her beauty, braveness, rawness, grace and her acting choices in all her roles. I love what Michelle has done with this role, always seeming real and tender and never forcing anything. Gosling and Williams have created something special here and in 50 years Williams will be looked at as an actress as legendary and great as Streep, Hepburn (Audrey and Katherine) and Jodie Foster. Michelle Williams should be studied by every young actress who wants to become as real and as powerful.

I don't know if "Blue Valentine" is a joyful movie going experience. This is not a date movie, it is not a feel good crowd pleaser and it is tough to watch. It is so powerful because it forces you to examine real life and the real emotions a marriage can bring. I will say there are also scenes full of humor and there is also some great joy and tender, beautiful scenes like when Dean sings to Cindy. For a person who loves and studies movies I found this to be one of the most rewarding movie experiences of my life. I am having a hard time telling others that they will love this movie. I do know it will get to you and cause great discussion. Do movies like this give you just a one sided, pessimistic view of marriage or is it good to see a depiction like this? Dean and Cindy show great love for each other at times and other times they are cruel to each other. That is what real marriages and relationships are like and that is why this movie is real and so great. I still think this is a must see movie and the performances by Gosling and Williams must be seen for their greatness. There has not been a movie quite like this in some time, the flawless examination of a real marriage and real life. I have not been able to shake this movie from my memory since I saw it a day ago. This is the best portrait of a marriage and a break up since "Shoot the Moon" in 1982 which is the best movie ever about it's subject matter. "Blue Valentine" is the only other movie that is it's equal, I can't wait to watch both again. This is easily one of the best movies of 2010 and if if you like powerful experiences when watching a movie I urge you to go see this.

'Country Strong'

'Country Strong' (PG-13) (2 stars)

Writer and Director: Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester

Movies like "Country Strong" were loved back in the 20's and 30's before cliches were a bad name. This kind of soapy melodrama might have scored with audiences back then. Actually audiences would have not cared much for this back then because it would be pretty weak in any era. Despite some good performances and a great one by Gwyneth Paltrow this is one of the worst movies of the year. I was bored, rolled my eyes a lot and got somewhat frustrated when Paltrow wasn't on screen which surprisingly is more than I expected. This movie was done ten times better with "Coal Miner's Daughter" and about 100 other stories about country stars, rock stars, you name it. Gwyneth plays Kelly Canter who to me resembles a Carrie Underwood type singer but the story was probably influenced by Faith Hill. Kelly has a drinking problem and her rehab story reminded me of Lindsay Lohan. Tim McGraw plays her manager/husband and he takes her out of rehab too soon so he can get her back to her fans. Having McGraw play the husband is what reminded me of Faith Hill and strangely I kept thinking maybe he had some input on the story, you never know. Kelly goes back on tour with a friend played by Garrett Hedlund and also on tour is a new upstart country singer, played by Leighton Meester (TV's Gossip Girl), who was a beauty queen and is wholesome but irritating.

You have seen this story countless times where the singer is an alcoholic and tries to get on the road to sobriety. Hell, it was just recently done in last year's "Crazy Heart". If you haven't seen that movie please stay away from this one and rent the Jeff Bridges classic. This story was also done much better in the 1983 film "Tender Mercies" with Robert Duvall. Now I don't expect "Country Strong" to be in that league but even the horrible turkey "The Jazz Singer" from 1980 had a fresher story. I don't expect greatness but at least I wanted to see some energy and enthusiasm. This movie is dull, slow, full of bad cliches and the story is extremely predictable. Gwyneth Paltrow is very good here but not outstanding because there is only so much you can do with dull material. She doesn't do anything better than other actresses have done with movies like this before. Tim McGraw is also very good and becoming a very decent actor. I also liked the performances by Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester but this plot and the delivery of it is so stale and hokey.

I was very impressed by Paltrow's singing but not surprised, she has sung before in a few movies. The movie lets her down because it is such an ordinary and dull movie with no personality. I laughed a lot during the movie because basically the plot has so many turns that have been done to death before. I don't mind a movie with cliches when it has a voice and energy but this movie just lies there. The best part is the concert scene at the end where Paltrow sings three songs and that was fun. I also couldn't believe that there were periods when Paltrow was off screen to concentrate on the Hedlund and Meester character's love affair. The two actors have no chemistry and the dialogue between them is laughable, fake and cliche. So watch a Faith Hill concert, rent a few movies with the same plot that are much better and wait till Paltrow hopefully sings on the Oscars telecast. Do all these things instead of groaning to death watching "Country Strong". If you like this kind of story and love country music rent the surprisingly strong "Pure Country" with George Strait.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

All Good Things'

'All Good Things' (R) (2 stars)

Writers: Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Staring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Phillip Baker Hall, Lily Rabe, Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig

I really like movies about unsolved mysteries based on real events, movies like "Reversal of Fortune". That Barbet Schroeder classic is one of the best movies of that genre. "All Good Things" has an interesting story and a compelling first half but the second half of the movie is a mess. The movie tells the true life story of David and Katie Marks. David has a rich family and his father Sanford Marks is perplexed when David marries Katie. He think she is beneath his family but grows to like her, even more than David after a while. David tries to move Katie to the countryside to run a health food store but money problems bring David back into his father's shady family business. David and Katie grow apart a little and David starts to act weird, maybe because he hates being stuck with his father. Katie then disappears and everyone wonders if Mark killed her. I like the performances by Ryan Gosling as Mark and Kirsten Dunst as Katie, actually this is Dunst's best performance. Ryan Gosling is always amazing, he and Joseph Gordon Levitt are now taking over for Heath Ledger. Gosling is always daring and outstanding and he is very good here but the offbeat nature of the character makes this performance hard to embrace.

The first half of the movie is very good as it builds up the characters and goes deep in showing family members on both sides. I really loved watching Dunst here, she makes us care for her character and it is a measured, subtle performance. Gosling has the harder part because his character is aloof and self contained. There is great support by Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig, Lily Rabe and Frank Langella in small roles. The movie takes place between 1971 and 2002 and I like the movie's atmosphere during time changes and the score is great. The movie is interesting but actually when Dunst leaves and Katie disappears the movie crumbles. We see the Mark character live with a much older man and see him dress in drag. I guess dressing like a woman hides him from others and maybe even himself. As the movie gets weirder and darker I lost interest and the movie is then a mixture of bad scenes, unintentionally funny ones and awkward story developments.

The movie is directed by Andrew Jarecki who is a very great choice to direct a movie like this. Jarecki's first film was the powerful documentary "Capturing the Friedman's" which dealt with strange and dark family secrets like this movie does. It is the same kind of subject matter but with a fiction film Jarecki has lost focus. Some documentary film makers strike out with their first fiction films, just look at Michael Moore and his "Canadian Bacon" movie. Maybe Jarecki has a great fiction film in him but this isn't it. I do love what he does with the first half and getting Dunst's best work but the second half is not that solid. There are many things to admire in this movie and be intrigued by but by the end I didn't care about Mark and the movie doesn't make us miss Katie.