REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on May 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO — MGM 

CAST — Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Morgan, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart 

DIRECTOR — Ernst Lubitsch 

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG) 

When I first set up this little blog of mine, I did back-to-back reviews of the two movies called The Italian Job. In it, I said that I would be doing this from time to time. On that note, a question: What do James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Tom Hanks all have in common? Well, they all starred in movies with the same premise. First up is 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Mr Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who can’t stand each other, but don’t realize they’ve been developing a budding romance through the mail. 

Based on the play “Parfumerie”, by Miklós László, The Shop Around the Corner is set at a small department store in Budapest, Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) has been working there for nine years, under his boss (and store’s namesake) Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Other members of the staff include the cowardly and family-concsious Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the smug and oily Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), two long-time female clerks named Flora and Ilona (Sara Haden, Inez Courtney), and an energetic errand boy named Pepi Katona (William Tracy). One morning, an out-of-work store clerk named Klara Novak (Sullavan) approaches Aflred for a job. He says that Mr. Matuschek is not hiring at present. She then asks Mr. Matuschek, who confirms Mr. Kralik’s answer, so she improvises. A customer spots her holding a cigarette box, so Klara takes the initiative. She approaches the lady, who asks if it’s a candy box (Klara says it is), and opens it. It starts playing “Ochi Tchornya“, and the lady balks, saying how silly it would be to reach for a candy and to hear that song every time it opens. Klara says that the box will make ladies who tend to indulge themselves to be “candy conscious”, and she makes the sale — at a higher price! She gets hired. 

Klara and Alfred (Maragret Sullavan, James Stewart) bicker about each other's wardrobe before work

Practically from that moment on, Klara and Alfred seem to have nothing better to do than argue with each other at work. But they do have something in common: They each have a secret romantic pen pal. Meanwhile, the usually charming Mr. Matuschek becomes more and more distant toward Alfred, and Mr. Vadas has suddenly made a splash about town, wearing expensive suits, fur coats, and even a pinky ring (Not bad for a store clerk’s wages, eh?). Anyway, I won’t give the whole story away, except for one thing: Klara and Alfred can’t stand each other face-to-face, but they are really each other’s romantic pen pals! 

This is a charming little movie, which still holds much of its luster. Jimmy Stewart was such an underrated talent, his “aw-shucks” style of delivery makes him both a leading man and an everyman. Margaret Sullavan seems a little too forward for my taste, but softens up nicely whenever she smiled. The supporting cast was fairly good, with one exception. Pepi intervenes on a very dramatic moment in the movie. Afterward, he drops many not-so-subtle hints about what happened (though the affected party wanted discretion) and takes advantage of his position. The way William Tracy played it, I kept thinking “This guy is a real jerk!” If that was the intention, then he did well, but I didn’t like him for doing this. 

There are some nice gags in this movie, too. Remember those musical cigarette boxes? In one scene, when a character is unceremoniously sacked, he is pushed into a display of those boxes. They all fall to the floor open, and everyone swoops in, not to pick up the now ex-employee, but to close the boxes up again! 

It is worthy to note that The Shop Around the Corner was such a success at MGM, that it spawned a musical remake nine years later. This is a good movie to pop into the DVD player if you’re a guy who’s invited your new girlfriend to your place. If you really want to impress her, tell her you were looking at a copy of You’ve Got Mail and learned this was the source material of that movie, so you decided to get it instead. Trust me on this one, guys. Part Two is next… 

3-1/2 (out of 5)

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THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977)

In Comedy, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 9, 2010 at 1:04 am

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, Paul Benedict

DIRECTOR — Herbert Ross

MPAA Rating: PG

In the history of motion pictures, there are a few select years in which the Academy got them all right, and it’s almost a sure thing that you have seen at least one Best Picture nominee from that year. The usually-mentioned first “great year” was 1939, when Gone with the Wind took Best Picture. There were nine other nominees that year, including Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, and a little-known fantasy called The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you’ve heard of it). 1977 is said to be another such year, with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall taking the honors, while another small film called Star Wars waited in the wings. Here is an interesting fact: Director Herbert Ross helmed two of the five Best Picture nominees in 1977, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl. And, like Star Wars, they also watched while Woody Allen won. I have seen both of these movies, and both are excellent. One is a drama, the other a comedy, and both are about dancers. Today, I focus on the lighter of these two movies.

Paula McFadden (Best Actress nominee Marsha Mason) is an ex-dancer in New York City. For the last couple of years, she and her daughter Lucy (Best Supporting Actress nominee Quinn Cummings, in her official motion picture debut), have been living in an apartment with a stage actor named Tony. We first meet Paula and Lucy on their way home from a shopping spree, eagerly anticipating their upcoming move to L.A. (Tony got a TV gig). But when they get home, Paula finds a “Dear Jane” letter from him, saying he took a six-month movie shoot in Italy instead. But it gets better! Later that day, she finds out Tony had sublet the apartment to somebody else!

Paula (Marsha Mason) and Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) discuss the living arrangements

Enter Elliot Garfield (Best Actor Richard Dreyfuss), an actor from Chicago who is about to start rehearsals for his first New York production. He enters the apartment building from the pouring rain, sticks his key into the lock, turns it… and discovers the door is chained from the inside! Puzzled as to why he can’t enter, he hits the buzzer to figure out what’s going on. To say this relationship starts on a rocky note is an understatement, but seeing that he has the legal right (and the money) and she has a child to take care of, they agree to share the apartment.

This is why I like Neil Simon. I have regarded him as one of the greatest American playwrights. He is to contemporary comedy what Tennessee Williams was to Southern melodrama. There is really no other way to put it. Now, most movies with Simon’s name on them start out as plays, like The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. But The Goodbye Girl was written directly for the screen, and with Simon’s (then) wife, Marsha Mason, in mind. But it still looks and feels like a Neil Simon play. One of his trademarks is how he writes conflict into his scripts: Two characters (usually the leads) start yammering about two completely different things, then the conversation comes closer and closer to the subject at hand until they are both talking about the same thing, only to drift off into opposite directions again (I picked that little gem of information up from my high school drama teacher, Susan Stauter. See? It is possible to recall things you learned in high school! Wherever you are, Ms. Stauter, I hope you are well).

Anyway, The Goodbye Girl stands out as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1970s, and arguably of all time. Both Dreyfuss and Mason are a delight to watch, especially when they first meet! On that first night, you will be thinking “Wait a minute! These people hate each other!” And they do. Just watch it for yourself, and see what happens. Both Dreyfuss and Mason give energetic performances. And, since a performance is sometimes based on the quality of the script, it stands to reason that the screenplay is also top-notch.

As for Quinn Cummings, who makes her official debut in this movie (she also had an uncredited role in Annie Hall that year), her portrayal of Lucy was spot-on. Lucy is our eyes and ears in this movie. Let me explain. Good drama requires two basic types of people, participants and observers. Paula and Elliot are obviously participating in a developing relationship. Lucy is on the outside. She is watching these events unfold as an independent third party, making her the observer. And before you say “But she is her mother’s child”, remember that Lucy is not the one directly dealing with Elliot, Paula is. Therefore, as an observer, she get to be our eyes and ears, as we watch Paula and Elliot’s relationship develop. As for the character herself, Lucy is supposed to be at just that right age when she is learning and discovering how things really work in this world. As a result, Lucy is supposed to possess a special curiosity and innocent wisdom, as evidenced during the opening credits, when Paula tells Lucy she was “born [at age] 26”. As played by young Miss Cummings, Lucy comes off as a child with that kind of precociousness.

I will be the first to admit that The Goodbye Girl isn’t my personal favorite of Neil Simon’s work (That honor goes to The Odd Couple), but it is among the best that Neil Simon has to offer. A note to all you guys out there: This is a great movie to pop into the DVD player with your other half on a rainy night, just you, her, the movie, and a giant bowl of popcorn. Trust me. If she hasn’t seen this one, she’ll be glad you introduced her to it. It was great to watch 30 years ago, and I can still watch it today. And even now, it will still make me smile.

4 out of 5

THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, U on April 25, 2010 at 1:23 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliot 

DIRECTOR — Jason Reitman 

MPAA Rating: R 

If you are reading this review, you have been fired from a job. Whether you were a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 company or flipping burgers at Dairy Queen, somewhere in your lifetime at least one employer handed you a pink slip. It’s never fun. Personally, I have been fired twice in the last ten years. The second time was probably for the best, as it really wasn’t a good fit. But the first time was at a job that I had loved. The hours were bad, the pay was worse, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in my life. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? You get called into the office, and in that office, your supervisor/manager/galactic overlord of a boss hands you an envelope and tells you that your services are no longer required. It’s one thing when you are the only one being terminated. But what about those major corporations who lay off thousands of people at a time? In the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to go a week without hearing that Company X is cutting thousands of jobs. Did you ever wonder how they do that?

Natalie Keener, Alex Goran, and Ryan Bingham (Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, George Clooney) at the Miami Hilton

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing specialist based out of Omaha, Nebraska. Ryan spends over 300 days a year flying all over the country to do one thing: fire people. And he is very good at what he does. He walks into an office somewhere in Corporate America, and the employees already know they are on borrowed time. Occasionally, he also does the odd speaking engagement, in which he asks his audience to place everything they own into an imaginary backpack and realize how heavy it is (a metaphor on the burdens of life). One day, he is called back to the home office; big things are on the on the horizon. On the way there, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another business traveler, and they form a fast… friendship. Back in Omaha, he is introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot young college graduate with a revolutionary new way to fire people, via the Internet. 

Seeing this as a threat to his very existence, Ryan convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that Natalie needs a taste of what it’s like on the road before this new method of “introducing future possibilities” goes into effect. Soon, Natalie learns how hard it really is to fire a complete stranger, but she eventually finds her groove. Meanwhile, Alex reenters the picture and Ryan grows closer to her. 

To proceed further would spoil the movie, but I can say that Up in the Air is fine entertainment, and it has one of the best endings I have seen in recent memory. Clooney is perfect as Bingham, with his cocksure ways and his arrogance. It almost harkens back to his “heart throb” days when he was on “ER” (Wow, was that really 16 years ago?). I especially like the little moment (seen in the trailer) when Natalie is talking on the phone with her boyfriend, and Ryan overhears her saying “I don’t even think of him that way; he’s old”, prompting him to look in the nearest mirror! We all reach that age sooner or later, when we realize that we are no longer young (though we desperately try to keep thinking that way). Also, Farmiga and Kendrick (both Best Supporting Actress nominees) were great foils to Ryan’s personal and professional lives, respectively. 

There are plenty of messages in this movie: Never settle; The slower we move, the faster we die; Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. I especially like that last one. It has given me pause to reevaluate my life (which admittedly is not that great) and made me think that I should try to get back on my career wagon again. It’s been a long time, but it’s what I was trained to do, and it’s what I love (and we all remember our true loves, right?). I am not at liberty to discuss this topic any further at this time, but I promise if anything comes of it, I will post it on my News page! Besides, I’m digressing (Gee, haven’t done that in a while). 

Up in the Air is a movie that I would dare say is a modern classic. The timing of its release, with the economic struggles of the last three years, could not have been more fortuitous. In fact, throughout the film, there are several cutaways depicting fired employees; these were real people who had recently lost their jobs (The actors, most notably J.K. Simmons, were the ones who interacted with Clooney and/or Kendrick). That dose of authenticity makes Up in the Air a wonderful time capsule of the turbulent first decade of the 21st Century. 

4 out of 5

A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, S on March 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

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STUDIO — Focus Features  

CAST — Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus  

DIRECTORS —  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen   

MPAA Rating: R   

So, I’m putting this DVD into my player, knowing that it’s the Coen Brothers, and I come away from this movie asking more questions…  

Why is that?  

In A Serious Man, a Jewish physics professor in the Midwest  named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes home from work one day, when his wife (Sari Lennick) tells him out of the blue that she wants a divorce, as well as a “get” (a Jewish ritual divorce). Why? She has fallen for another professor (and Larry’s friend), Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And with that, we are taken on a journey that leads to a test of faith. Along the way, he has to contend with his pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff) and his upcoming bar mitzvah, his overbearing daughter (Jessica McManus) obsessed with her outward appearance, his mooching homeless brother (Richard Kind) and his gambling problem, an unscrupulous student (David Kang) trying to bribe his way to a better grade, a gentile macho neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) who apparently doesn’t know where the property line is, and the beautiful woman next door (Amy Landecker) whose husband is frequently away “on business”.  

The Gopnik family (from left: Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Aaron Wolff, Michael Stuhlbarg) at the dinner table

 Obviously, Larry has a lot on his mind. But as a physics professor, he knows that all actions have consequences, a point he made clear when confronting Clive, the student who had attempted to bribe him. And in A Serious Man, consequences account for a major contributor to the plot (such as it is — The Coen Brothers admit in the Special Features there really isn’t one). 

It is widely reported that this movie is based on the Story of Job in the Old Testament. Now, I do not claim to be religious by any means, but here is how I understand the Story of Job: God and Satan made a bet that a well-to-do farmer with a happy family would still believe in Him after everything he loves (his family, his home, his friends, his farm, etc.)gets taken away from him; God wins. 

So, what is at stake for our Professor Gopnik? Well, the movie (the main portion of it, anyway) begins with him taking a physical. We also learn he is awaiting tenure at the college where he works, and the “other man”, Sy Ableman, is so supportive of Larry it borders on creepy. 

There is a prologue in this movie about an eastern European Jewish couple, spoken completely in Yiddish. In it, the husband comes home late from work and tells his wife that his cart lost a wheel, but he got help from a man believed to have died from typhus three years earlier. He shows up at the house, and the wife, skeptical of his existence, stabs the “dybbuk” in the chest with an ice pick. The guest then laughs, gets up, and walks out the door into the snow. What does this have to do with the movie? Well, without revealing too many spoilers, Larry has a series of nightmares during his “rough patch”, and at least one of them involves talking to a ghost. 

On the surface, A Serious Man appears to be doing little more than going through the motions. But, after digesting it 24 hours later, I find myself answering many of the questions that I found myself asking when I had finished watching it. The Special Features were somewhat helpful. They included a featurette about making the movie, another about re-creating a Midwestern 1960s atmosphere, and even a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms for us  “goys” (gentiles). 

Normally, the Coen Brothers make movies that I just don’t get; this one, on the other hand, turned out to be an interesting profile of a man facing a crisis, and the consequences of the actions (and inactions) he takes in response to it. In the end, A Serious Man is an introspective movie that takes a while to sink in, but once it does, it will make you think. 

SAVING SILVERMAN (2001)

In Comedy, Crime, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on March 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm

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STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Jason Biggs, Jack Black, Steve Zahn, Amanda Peet, R. Lee Ermey, Neil Diamond

DIRECTOR —  Dennis Dugan

MPAA Rating: PG-13
(Uncut version Rated R)

Have you noticed lately how some sports venues have taken to playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” late in the game as a means of rallying the fans? I know, it sounds really strange, but I think this movie has a lot to do with it.

In  Saving Silverman, three friends, Wayne (Steve Zahn), J.D. (Jack Black), and Darren (Jason Biggs), make up a street-performing Neil Diamond tribute band called Diamonds in the Rough. All three are big fans; Wayne even claims his mother went into labor with him during a Neil Diamond concert! After one of their performances, they go to a local watering hole, where Wayne spots a beautiful woman (Amanda Peet) and talks Darren into chatting her up. Right away, she asserts herself onto Darren, and right away, Wayne and J.D. realize she’s a threat to their friendship.

Wayne (Steve Zahn, right) and J.D. (Jack Black) attempt to persuade Judith (Amanda Peet) to break up with their friend, Darren Silverman

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Darren is the Silverman in the title of this movie, a sometimes too-broad comedy that reaches too far into the depths of low-brow to deliver its gags. Much of the comedy in this movie was formulaic, telegraphed as much as a minute ahead of the payoff. Don’t get me wrong, here. I liked Jason Biggs in the American Pie movies, and in this movie, he continues his bumbling charm with appeal. And I also like Steve Zahn; his break-out role in That Thing You Do! is among the most memorable in that movie. As for Jack Black, I confess I am not as familiar with his work, but I do know he does have the ability to charm underneath that oafish appearance of his.

So what happened here? In my opinion, too much happened here. Judith is a psychiatrist who has absolutely no problem showing off her cleavage (and, based on what I can tell about the character, her readiness to assault the first man who notices it). Amanda Detmer plays Sandy, Darren’s “one and only”, who had recently left the circus after a tragic trapeze accident in order to… become a nun(?). Then there’s R. Lee Ermey. That’s right, ol’ Gunny himself makes an appearance as a high school football coach who was imprisoned for manslaughter after he accidentally skewered a referee with the down marker during a game. Finally, we have Neil Diamond himself, who inexplicably agrees to help our heroes in the third act, despite the fact that he had a restraining order against them. Tell me, does any of this make sense to you?

Okay, it is, after all, a movie. But the plot is supposed to have some logic to it, right? Only Darren turns appears to have any depth of character to him. Wayne and J.D. are little more than baffoons, Judith acts like an overcaffeinated queen bee, and Sandy was way too bubbly to be a convincing nun in training. Of all the supporting characters, only Coach was engaging enough to be funny. From all appearances, R. Lee seemed to relish the opportunity to commit a bit of self-parody by using his famous “gung-ho” attitude to great comedic effect. It’s too bad the rest of the cast did not follow suit.

Saving Silverman tries to be funny, and it tries to be sincere. Unfortunately, it came up short in both departments.

WEDDING CRASHERS (2005)

In Comedy, Motion Pictures, Romance, W on March 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm

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STUDIO — New Line Cinema

CAST — Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Christopher Walken, Rachel McAdams, Isla Fisher, Jane Seymour, Henry Gibson

DIRECTOR —  David Dobkin

MPAA RATING —  
(Uncut version Unrated)

Before I get into this review, let me preface it by saying that when this move came out, I rolled my eyes and thought “Great! Yet another movie about guys trying to bed every woman they can!” And yes, Wedding Crashers is just that; fortunately, it also has a moral lesson in the end (delivered in the goofy way that only Owen Wilson knows how, but it’s there). So, why did I watch this movie? Simple. It was a request from a co-worker.

So, with that caveat in mind, Wedding Crashers is the story of a pair of Washington, D.C., divorce mediators named John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) who have been friends for years. Every spring, they engage in the practice of (wait for it…) crashing weddings for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the single ladies present at each ceremony. But these guys are pros at what they do. Their skill at crashing weddings was handed down to them by legendary wedding crasher Chazz Reinhold; they have absorbed, memorized, and digested these rules. They enter each ceremony with aliases and backstories. They are masters at their game.

Then comes the so-called “Kentucky Derby” of weddings: The oldest daughter of Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken) will be tying the knot, and it is expected to be the social event of the year. Our heroes, of course, only care about one thing: the 200 or so single women who will be in attendance. Interestingly enough, of all the women at the wedding, John and Jeremy have their eyes on the Secretary’s two other daughters, Claire (Rachel McAdams) and Gloria (Isla Fisher). So, naturally, the story progresses from the reception to a weekend getaway at the Cleary family compound. Naturally, of course.

John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) at the Cleary wedding

Okay, so I had to suspend my disbelief a bit here, but overall, this movie was surprisingly enjoyable to watch. I particularly liked Ron Canada’s portrayal of Randolph, the Cleary’s butler. He was low-key, discreet, and probably the coolest butler since Alfred Pennyworthy. Rachel McAdams’ Claire was pretty, as always, and she seemed to be the only sane member of the family, which included a foul-mouthed grandmother (Ellen Albertini Dow), a tormented gay brother (Keir O’Donnell), a prowling cougar for a mother (Jane Seymour, against type), and Gloria, her just-this-side-of-completely-nuts sister. All was moving along just fine, until… HE came along.

I am talking about Will Ferrell. Surprise! He has a cameo as the legend himself, Chazz Reinhold. In the opinion of this writer, anything Will Ferrell did after “Saturday Night Live” is little more than lowbrow schlock. I have seen exactly one movie of his, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and what I liked about that movie was Steve Carell. Anyway, in Wedding Crashers, we see Chazz as either a pathetic loser who still lives with his mother, or as an insane genius because he now crashes funerals(!) and takes his conquests home to his (mother’s) place. Either way, seeing Will Ferrell brought it down a notch for me.

On the up side, there are other cameos of note. In the beginning of the movie, our heroes are negotiating a divorce settlement between Rebecca De Mornay and country singer Dwight Yoakam, and the Cleary wedding guests included Senator John McCain and CNN political analyst James Carville (Kind of levels the political playing field, if you ask me).

Overall, I enjoyed Wedding Crashers, which I found surprisingly funny. Maybe I should expand my movie viewing habits beyond Sci-Fi and award winners a bit more…

IN THE LOOP (2009)

In Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, War on March 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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STUDIO — BBC Films    

CAST — Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McGee, James Ganolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison      

DIRECTOR —  Armando Iannucci      

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: R)      

A mid-level British politician named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) unwittingly states invasion of the Middle East is “unforeseeable” on an interview program, and it’s up to the staff at 10 Downing Street to clean it up in order to preserve Britain’s alliance with the Unites States, no matter the cost. And with that note, we are suddenly thrown In the Loop.      

(Hmm… That intro sounded very Roger Ebert of me. I hope he doesn’t mind.)      

In the Loop is a political farce of the most creative kind. This movie follows the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as he manipulates, bargains and swears his way from London to Washington and back, and then to the United Nations, in order to make sure that his boss, the Prime Minister, is on the same page as the President of the United States.      

This movie moves at breakneck speeds. The plot is so heavily interwoven and complex, it actually makes sense. One moment, Foster’s assistant (Chris Addison) unintentionally spills the beans of a secret meeting in Washington to a friend at CNN. Before you know it, half of London is on a witch hunt, looking for the source of leaked documents written by a Washington staffer (Anna Chlumsky).      

Let me take a moment to talk about Anna Chlumsky. I am very happy to see she is still acting. For those who wonder where they may have seen her before, or perhaps where they’d heard the name, she is a former child star, most notably of the two My Girl movies in the early 1990s. Well, Anna is all grown up now, and in this movie, she has the mouth to prove it!      

Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) and Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) discuss a leaked document at the UN

In fact, the insults fly fast and furious throughout the movie. Every principal cast member (even David Rasche’s clean-mouthed Linton Barwick) throws barbs, insults, and profanities faster than a Jonathan Broxton fastball, one right after the other. And this movie is laced with so many “F-bombs”, it might give Goodfellas a run for its money!      

But the humor in this movie comes from not just the insults. Many situational bits play into the genius of this comedy, as well. There is one particularly funny scene, in which Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) and Diplomacy Undersecretary Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) discuss possible troop deployment figures in a girl’s bedroom. It is juxtapositions like this that give commentary to the ridiculousness of the political arena on both sides of the Pond, and director Armando Iannucci captures them with a skilled eye that was evidently influenced by the late Robert Altman.      

While watching In the Loop, I began to draw similarities with the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove. Afterward, when I delved into the Special Features on the DVD, I heard the announcer in the TV spot mention the “instant comparisons” between the two (as quoted by the New York Times). And to tell the truth, I did find myself thinking this movie somewhat reminded me of the Kubrick classic while I was watching it (and before viewing the Special Features). Whether this movie will go down as one of the greatest political farces of all time remains to be seen, but In the Loop has a superb cast, deft direction, a well-played (and Oscar-nominated) script, and some very skillful editing. One word of caution: As a British film, the comedy can be quite dry. This film is not for the uninitiated, but it is obscenely fun to watch.

3-1/2 out of 5

JULIE & JULIA (2009)

In Biography, Comedy, Drama, J, Motion Pictures on March 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

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STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

DIRECTOR —  Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

When this movie came out in 2009, I was skeptical about it. I had heard about the “Julie/Julia” project, but to make a motion picture about two separate lives about two different women who lived in two different time periods seemed far-fetched to me. And I must be up-front about this: Julie & Julia is not the kind of movie which (on the surface, at least) I would just pop in the DVD player and watch. But, since Meryl Streep received her 40th Academy Award nomination, I gave it a shot.

(Okay, I kid about Meryl Streep. But, as of this writing, she has received 15 Oscar nods – with two wins – since 1979. Nothing against Ms. Streep; she is an exceptionally talented actress. But it’s almost as if to say she’s the Academy’s “go-to” girl if they need a fifth name to fill out the Best Actress category, especially if she alters her voice in any way. But I digress…)

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) recalls her mother making Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon

About 25 minutes into this movie, I actually exclaimed out loud “I get it!” I actually began to see this as one portrait of two women who led parallel lives. And the parallels are almost uncanny! In case you are not aware, the late Julia Child was one of the most popular TV personalities of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. And her cooking shows, beginning with “The French Chef”, ran off-and-on from 1963 to 2000, and she is one of the reasons The Food Network exists today.

So, what are the parallels? For starters, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) was a former OSS file clerk in post-war Paris who became the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an occupant of a cubicle in a government office in post-9/11 New York City, decided to take on the ambitious project of re-creating all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book. In one year. And write a blog about it. Both women overcame obstacles on their way to achieve their goals. For Julia, it was writing and re-writing her book for years, only to be rejected by numerous publishers untill one finally said “yes”; for Julie, it was the ridiculous idea of actually starting this blog of hers (at her husband’s suggestion), wondering if anyone would ever read it anyway.

Now, starting a blog is something I can personally relate to. I have just started this blog myself, and I can relate to Julie’s frustrations in the early days of her blog, whose only reader at the time seemed to be her mother. As of this writing, only my brother and a couple of friends have read these reviews. With that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me, I sometimes wonder if my efforts will ever bear fruit. Watching this movie reminded me that all I have to do is keep pressing forward; some day, this little blog of mine will have a life of its own. But, I digress again…

This movie was fun to watch. Seeing Meryl Streep as Julia Child, I began to ask myself in some scenes, “Where’s Meryl?” That is usually a good indicator of a good performance. And the food! Oh, my God! I could almost smell some of those dishes! Here I am, writing a review about a movie featuring gourmet cooking, and I’m eating a toasted bagel. It’s almost as if I’m saying that I’m practically insulting the film!

Writer/director Nora Ephron is a food lover, or “foodie”. That’s a little snippet of information I picked up while watching the “making of” featurette on the DVD. But her love of food comes through in spades here. There’s an old adage in the culinary arts that “presentation is everything”. If it doesn’t look appealing, you may not want to try it. Here, the presentation was delicious, tender, and rich, with butter! Lots of butter (a Julia Child trademark)! Julie & Julia is a great date movie, sure to bring out the passion in all of us.

Bon apétit!

4 out of 5

UP (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Computer Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, U on February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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STUDIO — Disney/Pixar

CAST — Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

DIRECTORS —  Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

MPAA Rating: PG

How do they do it?

How do the geniuses at Pixar make such beautiful magic with their terrabytes of computer technology? So far, nearly every Disney/Pixar offering I have seen has been a magical ride through some of the most imaginative stories ever conjured up, and Up is no exception!

In this movie, a retired balloon vendor named Carl Fredicksen (voice of Ed Asner), faced with eviction from his home, decides to launch thousands of balloons to fly his home to South America, pursiung a life-long dream shared by him and his late wife, Ellie. Shortly after he takes off, however, he discovers a stowaway: a Wilderness Explorer scout named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) who is one badge short of advancing to Senior Wilderness Explorer. That badge, by the way, is the Assisting the Elderly Badge.

Carl Fredricksen's house, en route to South America

Up is a very wonderful film to watch. My only regret is not seeing it in 3-D when it was released in theatres. At the risk of sounding cliché, I laughed, I cried, my heart pounded, I cheered, and I booed. The visuals are stunning, as always, the character performances are riveting, and there is great comic relief from a talking dog (!) named Dug (voice of co-director Bob Peterson). And of course, this movie has what will arguably become the most memorable flying house since The Wizard of Oz.

Okay, the dogs don’t really talk, but they are fitted with special collars that allow them to communicate with humans, courtesy of disgraced explorer (and Carl’s childhood hero) Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). A great running gag in this film has the dogs alerting and saying “Squirrel!” while in mid-sentence. There is a also a wonderful riff on Star Wars in this movie, too (a reference, of course, to Pixar’s origins as part of LucasFilm).

One endearing quality I found with Up is how it told the story of Carl’s life, from the time he first met Ellie when they were kids, to their marriage, to their ups and downs, and finally to her death, in only 12 minutes. It was touching and funny, and we (as the audience) learn to really care for Carl right away. It also sheds light on how some old people (especially the grumpy ones) become the way they are; in this case, Carl is so sentimentally attached to the life and home he created with Ellie, he refused to let go, even when developers tried to intervene. Carl Fredricksen will go down as one of the most memorable Pixar characters of all time. Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? An old man among toys (Woody and Buzz Lightyear), monsters (Sully and Mike), a car (Lightning McQueen), an insect (Flik), a fish (Nemo), and a robot (Wall-E). But I believe this to be true, and Disney will one day create an attraction centered around Carl (likely with Russell at his side). Of this, I have little doubt.

Pixar has come a long way since 1995’s Toy Story, which is an acheivement in itself. This is a must-have for any DVD collection (I would recommend the 2-disk Special Edition; the single disk has only the movie and some trailers), a must-add to your Queue, and must-see movie for all ages.