Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's Complicated

I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.

This is a brilliant and bitter-sweet look at love and marriage, divorce and children, longing for what was and the reality of time’s flow taking us to new places, by choice and by circumstance, both sad and hopeful.

Hats off to Nancy Meyers for putting this remarkable ensemble of actors and themes together – it’s a testimony to her considerable skill as writer and director.

If you like Meryl Streep, you’ll love her here; she’s at the top of her acting game and brings pathos and yearning and sorrow and anger to life.

Her ex, played by Alec Baldwin, brings to the screen all the characteristics that make men loveable and deeply irritating.

A special word about John Krasinski who’s the oldest daughter’s fiancĂ© (Harley) – his sense of comedic/dramatic timing is impeccable; he is the role, and the role is him. We will see a lot of him in the future.

The three children are done well: Hunter Parrish (Luke, who’s just graduated from college), Caitlin Fitzgerald (Lauren, the oldest engaged to Harley ) and Zoe Kazan (Gabby, just off to College), capture the rueful longings for a whole family, yet the bitter realization that time moves us along to other places, and life does go on.

The lonely guy roll is played well by Steve Martin, though I felt it took awhile for him to find his pace … hard to tell what scenes were shot when, but in the end, I think he captures the essence of his persona.

The family dynamics are powerfully presented – a family who is finally getting used to the divorce, and then having it all disrupted when mom and dad get hooked up again, at least, for a fling! “The affair” brings to the screen some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen – Alec Baldwin is brings his aging self to life for us, as does Streep; the body isn’t what it used to be, but the soul remains and so do the memories.

But there’s no going back home.

And dad, who left mom for a younger woman, and is now going to fertility clinics and looking at preschools even when his last daughter is off to college.

As you can see, the themes are rich and poignant, but the comedy, so well done, keeps the film well-paced and easy to watch, even as one’s heart is wrenched a time or two.

I suppose one could wait for Netflix on this one, but why wait. It’s a terrific evening for adults who have lived long enough to know that “it’s complicated.”

Thumbs up on this one!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


“Avatar” is a remarkable film, with incredible special effects, great acting and a tremendously relevant and painful story.

Somewhat on the size and scale of “Lord of the Rings,” with its own native language and vast struggles of good and evil, it’s not quite as sophisticated or as subtle, but don’t take this as a criticism of “Avatar,” but only as praise for Peter Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy.

And speaking of Jackson, “Avatar” is the movie his “District Nine” tried to be. Hats off to James Cameron for a stunning piece of work, and if you can, see it in 3D, though, thankfully, the 3D stuff enhances the story rather than the story being a vehicle for 3D (as was Brendan Fraser in last year’s "Adventure at the Center of the Earth").

The blend of animation and live acting is seamless, and these days, the audience demands nothing less. Expensive? For sure, but there's no going back, and Cameron's "Avatar" has upped the bar considerably.

If you like big stories, we have it here.
If you like special effects, it’s all here.
If you like solid acting, you’ll be pleased.

First up, Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully a wheelchair-bound marine who accepts a deep-space assignment on Pandora where human beings are engaged in precious ore mining, with only one problem: the natives’ home sits right on top of the mother lode.

So, what’s a stock-holding enterprise to do? Well, as one line goes, “If someone is sitting on something you want, make them your enemy.” The story "enjoys" two bad guys - first, the manager, who sees only the bottom line, played ably by Giovanni Ribisi whose character possesses a cruel innocence, a cruelty of distance, cold and determined to promote the company's purpose. I found myself recalling Paul Reiser's Carter Burke in the 1986 "Aliens" (another James Cameron spectacular effort).

The second bad guy is all hands-on - Colonel Miles Quaritch played spot-on by Stephen Lang, all muscle and a lot of brain to boot - and the man loves war. He can hardly wait to pull the trigger on these savages.

The company has been creating avatars - bodies that look like the natives, but also possess the DNA of the person who's thoughts will animate the avatar via thought-projection machinery - the human lays in a bed of high-tech bells and whistles in base-camp, safe from the hostile atmosphere of Pandora, while the avatar can explore and engage the natives.

Jake's avatar is assigned to reach the natives with a simple message: leave or be destroyed. But Sully is no mean-spirited man; he's a solder, of course, all the way, but in time, his encounters with the Na'vi and their ways opens his mind and heart to the beauty and the value of their ways. We witness his transformation from a marine hired by the company to a man who sees the world through other eyes. As he grows in understanding and love, Sully realizes the crime in which he's involved. By way of comparison, who can forget a similar transformation in Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" (1990)?

Sully is found in the wilderness by Neytiri wonderfully voiced by Zoe Saldana of "Star Trek" fame. Her animated character is remarkable, and you can guess where it all goes. She takes him under her wing to teach him the lore and wisdom of her people. Her contempt for Sully and his guns is magnificent. In her eyes, he's only a child who knows nothing. And she's right.

If there’s one criticism, and it’s slight, the story is so painfully obvious, cleverly mixing, however, multiple stories with a singular theme: the white man’s burden (to liberate the savage from his world) and colonial pillaging of the native environment for gain, backed up by a vastly superior firepower.

Aside from this simple caveat, the story grabbed me powerfully. I felt the pathos of Sully and Dr. Grace Augustine played skillfully by Sigourney Weaver (who can forget her in the "Alien" series?) who's education and personality are filled with sympathy for the natives. 

James Cameron and crew create an alternative universe to play out the stories of our world – the large-scale stories of war and colonialization and the intimate stories of love, jealousy, hope and courage.

A rare combination of high action and a deeply moral story. For those who are not into action and violence, well, there’s plenty of it, but it’s choreographed carefully for the sake of the story.

Clearly intended to lay the foundation of a sequel, “Avatar” really works.

Don’t wait for Netflix on this one – it’s a must see.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Blindside"

Everything that could have gone wrong with this film DIDN'T!

Everything needed for a solid story happened.

Great script, great casting, great acting ... and Sandra Bullock, as the quintessential Wealthy Southern-Republican-NRA Mom packing heat, is at the top of her game - Wow! This, and her earlier gig in "The Proposal," puts her on top of the A-List.

Having lived in some of the southern regions of this nation (not quite so far south as the film), I've known a few White Protestant Women of Wealth who run their world quite handily, thank you, and a few who have an extraordinary heart to balance out what would otherwise be a temptation to pride and cruelty.

This is a story about grace.

I found myself struggling to keep back tears any number of times ... sort of like hearing beautiful music, something in this story reached pretty deep into my soul.

And what's not to love about Ms. Bullock? Shall I use the word Hot?

All around her, a great cast - her husband (Tim McGraw), who "owns hundreds of Taco Bells," is bemused and engaged by his wife's compassion, and they decide to put up the money. There can be no love without cost; no love without advocacy, and this couple pays the price and goes to bat for a young man named Michael Oher (powerfully portrayed by Quinton Aaron) who's quiet depth speaks volumes with few words - there's an ocean of hope and pain within his character, and Sandra Bullock's Leigh Anne Touhy touches it and brings it healing.

At its worst, someone might suggest that a Black Man's hope is to find a generous White Woman.

I was very impressed by how the story looked at them as people first, and then dealt with the sociology of poverty ... the economic divide that pits us against one another. Of course, race is an issue, and that was heard in Leigh Anne's wealthy friends eating in an expensive restaurant - this brief scene was well-scripted and edited.

Throughout the film: the dogged determination of one family to help a young man! And the young man's slow entry into that family's love. Not many families are in a position to give so much. But one life saved will save many others. There are incredibly generous people and may their tribe increase. We hear horror stories about the rich and the famous all the time, and it's great to hear a story of wealth being used so powerfully to save a young man.

The Tuohys are religious as is found only in the South, but the story wisely omits the usual shlock or bitterness associated with faith; this is a religious family who takes seriously the compassion of the gospel, even when friends raise their eyebrows. This family took some chances, had the money to back it up, and they did it. Not every story turns out quite so well, but it does a heart good to see one that does. We all need this kind of encouragement to keep on keepin' on!

A rising star for sure, the younger brother played with "leave it to Beaver" freshness and a dash of Wall Street savvy, by Jae Head. We'll be seeing a lot of him.

For college football fans, a lot of real coaches show up here - enjoy! It's a lot of fun, and they're all pretty decent actors - one learns that while coaching, I suppose!

Worth seeing?

Absolutely, and don't wait for Netflix on this one ... grab someone you love, get some popcorn and enjoy a major-release film with a real message about hope.

Friday, December 4, 2009

New Moom

I loved the first one - a solid-message story ... a tightly-told tale.

But this go-around, hmmm.

The film began chaotically for me - like, what the heck is this? But pulled itself together at the mid-way point. If I had read the books, would it have made any difference? Even the teen girls in the audience seemed less excitable than the first. Maybe they're just a year older.

The acting caught my attention in the first one, but, here, it seemed too patterned and predictable, with one notable exception: Taylor Lautner, who brings a smoldering, intelligent, passion to this role. Here's an actor we'll be seeing again and again. And for those of you who are into buff, you'll enjoy seeing his wolf-buddies who are never cold in the NW climate of chill and rain, so we see a lot of six-packs and pecs.

The special effects of the wolves is about 80% - I've seen better, but it tells the tale well - a conflict, now governed by a truce, between vampires (Edward) and wolves (Jacob), both of whom love Bella and are, in turn, loved by her. The love-triangle is pulled off rather well, with some decent twists and turns.

If there's a message here, it's likely this: Who am I? For all three central characters, Edward, Jacob and Bella, it's the pressing question, and wisely the story reminds us all that the question is answered primarily in relationship. No one can go off into a corner and figure it out, though a little corner-time is always needed. But in our love and fear of others, we find the depths of our character and define our identity through an ever-changing landscape.

Clearly a teen movie, but with questions that bedevil us throughout life.

The plot wasn't as tightly presented as it was in the first film - this is always the plight of the second film in a trilogy ... rarely can the middle (muddle) be told with the clarity of introduction or finale.

And speaking of finale, I wonder just how many films are in the works. The next one, "Eclipse," is pretty much in the can for next year.

Worth seeing? I think so, and certainly in a theater for the special effects.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

End of the World Films

"2012" - a visual-effects masterpiece, and "The Road," a sort of a "Heart of Darkness" journey, take us to a time when the world is either collapsing ("2012) or has already collapsed (The Road".

The first of these is a visual delight, though the storyline is grim: an unusually heavy burst of solar flares is bombarding the earth with neutrons, heating up the earth's core like a grapefruit in a microwave, destabilizing the earth's crust, sending continents crashing around the glove, with Randy's Donut sign careening down the street (just blocks from where I live) and finally tipping the whole of Los Angeles into the Pacific Ocean.

It's a typical disaster film, with the best, yet, CG images. Typical though it is, it's one to see in the theaters - on a big screen. Though the story has a few improbabilities, and a fledgling pilot who's way-too skilled to be flying a twin-engine plane through the collapsing buildings of downtown LA, the story rightly asks the core question: when things are going to hell in a hand-basket, how will we respond? Some respond cruelly, others with grace. I guess we already know that, don't we? But it's always worth pondering.

Sub themes: money can buy you time, sometimes. Sacrifice is noble. Love might even
win out. But millions will die, as only a few can be saved.

Plot-wise, a slightly unexpected ending as to how some are saved.

Acting is mostly good with a talented cast. At one point, during a rather lengthy philosophical ramble, my son said, "Okay, enough talk; I wanna see more buildings toppling over."


"The Road" is unrelenting grimness - clouds and rain, cold and damp, as a father and son struggle to survive in a world gone mad. We're never told what happened or why, but most of humanity is dead, and most of the survivors have turned to cannibalism.

The little boy says to the Dad, We’re the good guys, aren’t we?

Dad says, Yes we are, because we carry the fire, here, in our hearts.

Will we ever eat people? the little boy asks.

Never, says the father.

One can always hope.

With virtually no special effects, this film is all about acting, and Viggo Mortensen (Dad) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (son) portray the quintessential father/son relationship - of the father's unyielding loyalty to the boy, and the boy's unquestioning (?) trust of the father's love and care.

As a metaphor of life, cannibalism is clearly the way of the capitalism - we exist for one another's appetites, and only the brave refuse to succumb, taking a chance of starving to death rather than engage in cannibalism. It takes enormous commitment to remain good.

Sadly, as powerful as is the acting, it lacked, for me, that needed emotional edge that captures the heart and makes the viewer care. I watched it, but I didn't participate in it deeply enough. Maybe it was just me. Maybe the script. Maybe the directing.

But I wanted the love of the father and the son to pull me in, and it didn't.

The bad guys are really bad, but aside from a few moments of terror, the movie mostly plods along with a strange and ill-fitting cameo by Robert Duvall, and an even stranger encounter with a thief who ends up buck naked.

All-in-all, a good story in a film that didn't quite hit the bulls-eye. Worth seeing? Sure, but wait for Netflix.