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An achingly funny look at a hopeless case, 1 May 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Diablo Cody rose to fame in 2007 by writing the screenplay "Juno", which was a big-hearted indie comedy about reaping the rewards of good choices. Its title character was also the most memorably likable heroine to come along in ages. In 2011's "Young Adult", however, Cody actually tops herself by going in the opposite direction, about how the most unlikely people can be complete screw-ups whom we should never, ever emulate. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is just such a character. A former small-town beauty queen (and mean girl, natch), Mavis now resides alone in Minneapolis, but Mary Richards she ain't.

Mavis is a loser, plain and simple, and it's not because she's a divorcée with a fading writing career (it's doubtful it was that bright to begin with). That would be inaccurate and unfair; after all, many marriages fail, most people don't have stellar careers, and this doesn't make them losers. No, Mavis is a loser because she is 37 going on 15, has the joie de vivre of roadkill, and her only companion in her numb existence is a superfluous Pomeranian she can barely be bothered to take care of. One day, Mavis is shaken out of her reality TV-glued, hungover stupor by an e-mail from ex-high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson, once again in "poor nice dope" mode), announcing the birth of his daughter with wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). Mavis then sets off on the ultimate fool's errand: to drive off to her old town of Mercury to steal Buddy back and, perhaps, recapture the glory of her youth... or, at the very least, the feeling of it.

Instead, Mavis is treated by Buddy with stiff politeness, condescension by her parents, and the only person who calls her out on her nonsense is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a lovable nerd and former classmate with a tragic past. Matt is the movie's Greek chorus, and voices our every disgusted thought on Mavis and her appalling antics. Still, Mavis remains determined to wrest Buddy away from her "rival", ignoring the fact that Buddy is happily married to the impossibly nice Beth.

If you think there will be last minute character development in the vein of "My Best Friend's Wedding", think again. This is not that kind of movie. If anything, Mavis grows more and more hateful as the movie progresses. She is the type of person who mentally shields herself from any lessons or harsh truths, and we realize what an utterly hopeless case she is. Theron savors this part like a rich dessert, playing Mavis as an immature parasite who has only the trappings of the success, but is in fact a wretched failure. The fact that she's still pretty seems only a small consolation. But damned if she isn't hilarious to watch! Mavis is a train wreck without social skills or tact, she can't even dress properly. She wears sweats and Uggs to Macy's, a trashy black dress to a family sports restaurant, and dresses like Grace Kelly's evil twin to a casual baby shower.

This was one of the best comedies of 2011, and it's infuriating Theron wasn't nominated for an Oscar. This is her best work, the most interesting role she's played in years. "Young Adult" is achingly funny, daring, and boasts an excellent supporting cast, particularly Oswalt, who is always a welcome addition to anything.

No, Mavis doesn't receive her comeuppance in the end, because she doesn't have to, she already has. Life itself is her comeuppance.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Proof that an Oscar here and there doesn't mean much in the long run, 1 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Whenever film articles mentioned mismatched couples on the silver screen (such as Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte in "I Love Trouble" and the travesty that was Bennifer in "Gigli"), I'm always surprised that Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby never get mentioned. After all, you have gorgeous, fashionable, classic blonde Kelly teamed up with jug-eared crooner Crosby, who was 25 years her senior (poor Bing didn't even have the physical vitality of Fred Astaire or Cary Grant to help him pull off a May/December romance on screen). You'd be hard-pressed to find a stranger looking pair, and they worked together twice: in "High Society", Kelly's final film before leaving Hollywood for royalty, and two years earlier in "The Country Girl".

"The Country Girl is barely remembered today, save for Grace Kelly's controversial Best Actress Oscar win. Judy Garland seemed like the surefire contender for her comeback vehicle "A Star is Born". Even the flippant Groucho Marx was outraged, calling Garland's loss "the biggest robbery since Brink's". I confess to be in the majority of people who love "A Star is Born", and feel Ms. Garland was indeed gypped by the Academy that year. But I decided to be fair and check out "The Country Girl" and see for myself. So, how does Ms. Kelly's performance measure up?

Well, it's by no means a bad performance, it's just not a particularly great one. In "The Country Girl", 25-year-old Kelly plays Georgie Elgin, a prematurely middle-aged woman whose husband, Frank (Crosby), is a former song and dance man whose star has faded due to tragedy and alcoholism. A stubborn, ambitious producer, Bernie Dodd (William Holden), is putting on a new musical (which, from what we're shown, looks incredibly quaint and dull) and is obsessed with making it Frank's comeback vehicle. Bernie believes in Frank, and also believes the dour Georgie is responsible for Frank's drinking and flaky behavior (Holden utters misogynistic lines that will either shock or amuse modern audiences). What unfolds are cruel revelations, sexual tension, and second chances for everyone involved.

One of my biggest issues with "The Country Girl" is that it suffers from the same problem as 1940's "Kitty Foyle", in that our heroine is eventually torn between two men, but both men are so unappealing, you desperately hope she ends up with neither (but this is old Hollywood, so consider yourself warned). Georgie must choose between Frank, who is nothing but a millstone around her neck, and Bernie, who is a short-sighted jerk of the highest order (he is given character development, but it's too little, too late).

Perhaps I'm just petty, but I believe that "The Country Girl" set an obnoxious precedent for Hollywood actresses that has endured to this day: Want that Oscar? Drab up, and it's as good as yours. Why not? It's worked for Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Charlize Theron ("Monster"), and Kate Winslet ("The Reader"). I believe a performance should come first, a look second. One great example is Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress". Ms. de Havilland was one of the loveliest leading ladies ever, but she was thoroughly convincing as a dowdy spinster. Her appearance followed her performance, not the other way around. I know Ms. Kelly's choice to shed her normally polished, glamorous image to play a weary frump was seen as gutsy at the time, I wasn't all that impressed. Why? It's Grace Kelly, for Heaven's sake. Even in dumpy sweaters, mousy hair and glasses, she still looks like the future princess of Monaco. Male audience members could even argue that Georgie has the "sexy librarian" look. And, it true, gutless Hollywood fashion, we are given a flashback of Kelly looking predictably radiant and a complete makeover towards the end of the film

Overall? Ms. Kelly is reasonably convincing, but aside from her affected look and her tired voice, it feels more like a show-off piece than an actual performance that leaps off the screen. Likewise, Crosby does his best, but he comes off more as his Father O'Malley from "Going My Way" having a lousy week. Holden is in fine form as cranky, sexist Bernie, who is forced to eat his words in one of the film's most rewarding scenes.

"The Country Girl" isn't terrible, but it is extremely dreary and outdated. I maintain that Judy Garland should have won for "A Star is Born", a magnificent musical that still holds up today. "The Country Girl", on the other hand, is proof that an Oscar here and there doesn't mean much in the long run.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories I've ever seen, 4 October 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I never would have imagined that one of the loveliest coming-of-age stories I've ever seen would be an animated film from Japan. Not since "The Man in the Moon" has a movie reminded me of the delicious, optimistic highs and devastating lows of adolescence. "Whisper of the Heart" is from Hayao Miyazaki, the "Walt Disney of Japan". It is probably his most down-to-Earth project, but it no less magical than "My Neighbor Totoro" or "Naussica of the Valley of the Wind". "Whisper of the Heart", just like my favorite Miyazaki film "Kiki's Delivery Service", shows enchanted places that exist not in alternate worlds, but in our own town and imaginations. This is the film that introduced the debonair cat, the Baron, who was featured in "The Cat Returns" and voiced by Cary Elwes. He is only a statue in this film, and comes to life only in our heroine's imagination.

"Whisper of the Heart" has one of the most delightful, realistic heroines ever to grace an animated film: Shizuku (voiced in the American dubbed version by Brittany Snow, "Hairspray") is bookish, spirited, emotional, a bit flighty, and dreamy without being annoying. She adores reading and writing, and is often scolded by her family members for "being in her own world". In other words, I could completely relate to her.

It is the beginning of Suzuku's final year in middle school... and the beginning of the first stirrings of romantic feelings. The film's biggest delight is the intriguing set-up for the Meet Cute: Shizuku is astonished to find that a bunch of books she's checked out from the library have been checked out previously by the same person: Seiiji (voiced by David Gallagher, "7th Heaven"), an intelligent boy who lives in antique store with his grandfather and dreams of being a violin maker.

Shizuku becomes fascinated with Seiiji, and, after a series of misunderstandings, they finally meet. It feels like first love, but Shizuku finds out Seiiji is going to Italy for further training in violin making. Suzuku feels inadequate in comparison, feeling she just "goofs off reading and writing stupid lyrics". While Seiiji is away, Shizuku becomes inspired to tap into her talents as a writer and writes a story called "Whisper of the Heart". What starts as an effort to prove herself to the talented Seiiji becomes an eye-opening journey to Shizuku as she discovers how special she truly is, and how she finally becomes ready to leave adolescence behind.

"Whisper of the Heart" is not only a beautifully animated film (it features a sunrise that even Disney couldn't top) with a lush score (with the recurring John Denver tune "Take Me Home, Country Road"), but a slice of life tale with magical realism thrown in. Shizuku finds adventure simply by following a vagabond cat named Moon who was riding the subway train by himself. At first, this seems like a set-up for an "Alice in Wonderland"-like story, but we then laugh when we find out Moon is just being an indifferent wanderer, just like real cats. And the romance between Seiiji and Suzuku is handled perfectly: it's as sweet and tender as it is tentative and awkward. Never has an animated film felt so real. It will really take you back to your preteen years, but in a good way. It is a warm, enchanting film that make your heart not whisper, but sing out loud.

Note to parents: "Whisper of the Heart" is rated G, but it is very leisurely (its one flaw) at 111 minutes, so the under-10 set might get antsy.

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Brutally honest look at moving on after tragedy, 7 September 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I could not take my eyes off "Ordinary People", a brutally honest look at moving on after tragedy. Robert Redford pulls no punches, minces no words, and doesn't sugarcoat a single, painful scene as the story of a suburban family and the secrets they share unfolds.

Athletic, popular Buck Jarrett was the town's Favorite Son... and clearly a favorite son of his mother, WASP-ish Beth (Mary Tyler Moore, boldly playing against type). But when Buck dies during a boat accident, he is survived by his insecure, mild mannered brother Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who incurs Beth's passive aggressive wrath. While meek father Cal (Donald Sutherland) struggles to keep the peace, Conrad seeks the help of a hard nosed psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) and begins his journey of recovery from survivor's guilt and learns that pain in life is always better than the alternative.

What makes "Ordinary People" stand out from other movies is the fact that it shows, rather tells. That, combined with Moore's peerless performance, reveals how little Beth thinks of poor Conrad. Take a breakfast scene, for instance, where Conrad refuses the French toast Beth makes for him. While Beth chatters on about her plans, she roughly shoves the French toast down the garbage disposal, saying, "You can't save French toast!" Or a devastating scene that takes place late on a school night. Conrad's light is on when he should be asleep... and Beth breezes by his room without so much as a glance. It is powerful stuff.

This is one of the best cast ensemble dramas I've ever seen. Hutton rightly won an Academy Award as the damaged Conrad. He bravely goes through torturous emotional scenes that threaten to tear your heart to shreds. Sutherland is also sympathetic as Cal, a man who has to choose between saving his son or his marriage. Moore, however, owns this movie. I wanted to write off Beth as simply a villain... but I just couldn't. This is a woman who believes in hiding ugly emotions, in placing reputation over familial love, and who flies off on vacation when things get rough. Yet Moore makes Beth someone who, at one time, might have been a truly lovable person, but allowed that part of her to die along with her son. Hirsch is darkly humorous as the rough edged Dr. Berger, and a young Elizabeth McGovern is appealing as a sweet classmate Conrad shows an interest in.

"Ordinary People" is a complex film that refuses to point fingers or go for easy answers, but reveals how there are no happy endings in life; rather, precious moments of joy we should savor in spite of, and because of, the pain.

5 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Disappointing screwball comedy, 7 September 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I'm well aware that the classic screwball comedies often relied on somewhat unlikable characters and morally questionable plots, but "My Favorite Wife" lacks the two saving graces of screwball comedies: real chemistry between the leads and a truly winning heroine. The plot is simple: a man's long-presumed dead wife shows up (she's been marooned on an island for seven years) the same day he's taken a new wife. Hijinks ensue. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it was remade over two decades later as "Move Over, Darling".

Talk about 88 minutes badly spent! Cary Grant plays a spineless, weak willed dunce who doesn't have the guts to tell his new wife his old wife is back. Irene Dunne swings back and forth from charming and lovely to manipulative and shrewish and back again. Gail Patrick should have played the role as Grant's new wife in a bitchier manner. After all, this is the same actress who nearly stole the show from right under Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey" as the deliciously evil older sister. Instead, Gail's Bianca is rather pathetic, and you end up feeling sorry for her. Heck, in the scene where she punches Grant in the face, I found myself cheering instead muttering insults at her expense. Randolph Scott got a chuckle from me as Grant's health nut rival for Dunne's affection. Top that off with dull courtroom scenes and Dunne and Grant's two obnoxiously adorable, only-in-Hollywood children, and you've got one disappointing screwball comedy.

Still, Grant and Dunne were both wonderful actors, so don't let this trifle turn you off from their other films.

51 out of 62 people found the following review useful:
An excellent parable about disaffected youth, 1 September 2007

Terry Zwigoff has created an excellent parable about disaffected youth in "Ghost World". The character of Enid (memorably played by Thora Birch) is a sardonic iconoclast, and a bit of a hero to me. She has her own style, speaks her razor sharp mind, and truly doesn't care what people think about her. Picture a female, proactive version of Holden Caulfield. I desperately wish I were more like Enid when I was in high school.

Enid's partner in crime is Rebecca (Scarlett Johannson), who has one foot in the offbeat world Enid inhabits, and the other foot in the mainstream world Enid loathes. Rebecca's one of those types who never seem to mean what they're saying, not because of dishonesty, but because of lack of self-knowledge and security. When these two pals start to drift apart after they graduate from high school, Enid latches on to champion loser Seymour (Steve Buschemi, who seems to live for these kinds of roles), a devoted record collector. Through one long, seemingly uneventful summer, Enid takes a good look at the world around her, and a painful series of events force her to find her own place in it.

I adored this anti-"teen movie", and it was so refreshing to see a heroine who wasn't a blandly blonde, pool cue shaped cheerleader who spouted out adorable one-liners. Enid is a proud loner and rebel, who wears her crazy wardrobe and Truman Capote glasses with pride. Zwigoff never allows the movie to be Hollywood saccharine or indie film depressing. It's full of realistic, human characters we've all known at one time or another. I was further amazed by how true to life "Ghost World" is. Nothing in the film turns out the way you expect it to, but, really, isn't that just the same as life?

Junebug (2005)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A fine film carried by Amy Adams's star power, 29 August 2007

"Junebug" is a deliberately paced, lovely little film that was everything "The Family Stone" (which came out the same year) wanted to be. A slice of life parable about cosmopolitan art dealer Madeleine (a superb Embeth Davidtz) meeting her new husband George(Allesandro Nivolo)'s family in suburban North Carolina. There is a bit of suspicion and resentment towards this newcomer, but Madeleine is instantly embraced by Ashley (Amy Adams), George's pregnant sister-in-law. Ashley at first seems like an empty-headed, gauche chatterbox, but we soon find she represents the best side of human nature: warm, kind, open-minded, and brave. By the end of the film, we see that the intellectual Madeleine and George's gruff family could stand to follow Ashley's example. Amy Adams carries this film, even though she is not the main character. She never strikes a false note, and creates one of the most unexpectedly memorable characters in recent years. With her red hair, owl eyes and wispy voice, Adams is one of the most unique actresses working right now, and will continue to get the critical attention she deserves. See "Junebug" for no other reason than the sheer brilliance of Amy Adams's star power.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Spellbinding and bittersweet, 24 July 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The films of the great director Douglas Sirk are primarily remembered today by either classic movie buffs or serious students of film. In wider, mainstream circles, Sirk isn't always thought of in the same terms of, say, Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. Todd Haynes, however, brought Sirk's classic melodramas back to the public conscious with "Far from Heaven". The film is a loving tribute to the master of '50s melodramas, borrowing primarily from "All that Heaven Allows". Haynes uses the same blinding, brilliant autumnal hues, the decidedly artificial looking sets, and a sometimes sweeping, sometimes ironic score by the late, great Elmer Bernstein. The vicious town gossip in "FfH" is even named Mona after the same character in "AtHA" It also has a similar plot of a lonely suburban wife finding solace in the company of her gardener.

But Haynes's story is more complex than Sirk's. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) isn't a widow like Jane Wyman's Cary Scott, but a once happily married woman in 1957 who has discovered her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is gay. Shocked and humiliated, Cathy's once perfect existence is shattered, and she has no one to confide in... no one except Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her kindhearted black gardener. Raymond is wise and nonjudgmental; the complete opposite of Cathy's shallow circle of friends and neighbors, and he and Cathy become close friends.

Haynes isn't out to make a pretty picture. Like Sirk, Haynes boldly exposes the lies, prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy and cruelty that belied the sunny facade of the 1950s. There is a loss of innocence for Cathy by the movie's end, as she discovers that it is apparently acceptable for Frank to live a life of deception and infidelity, yet Cathy can't even "be seen" with a black man. She sees that children can be just as monstrous as adults when white classmates attack Raymond's young daughter. And when Cathy's fair weather friend (Patricia Clarkson) turns against her when Cathy needs her most, she realizes that sometimes your friends are even less trustworthy than your enemies.

The ending is rather sad and not wholly unexpected, but Moore's deft performance makes us believe that, somehow, Cathy will be all right.

7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Powerful, unconventional thriller, 19 July 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Sorry, Wrong Number", on the surface, seems derivative of every other suspense drama from the 1940s with its climactic score and shadowy cinematography. Yet, at the end of this gripping thriller (which is economically paced at 88 minutes), I was stunned at how it really stands on its own as a great piece of film-making. It is full of heart-stopping suspense, twists and turns, and an ending I guarantee you won't see coming. Another surprise is our heroine, bed-ridden heiress Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), isn't your typical, spunky female lead (like, say, Theresa Wright in "Shadow of a Doubt") or a coolly elegant Hitchcock blonde knockoff. On the contrary, our protagonist is, in many ways, the antagonist. Leona is a shrill, spoiled, manipulative rich girl who bulldozes her way into humble young Henry (Burt Lancaster, looking remarkably clean-cut)'s heart until he agrees to marry her. A so-called heart condition forces Henry to agree to Leona's every whim, all for the sake of her fragile health. But Henry's patience with his domineering wife starts to wear thin, and it's one fateful night when Leona accidentally overhears a murder plot on the phone that she faces not only some ugly truths about herself, but also her own mortality.

I really loved the slow camera work in this movie, the way it cautiously creeps over every bit of scenery, enhancing Leona's (and our) sense of dread. Kudos as well to whoever put the sound of a rotary dial in the score during the opening credits. After you've seen this movie, that sound becomes downright menacing. "Sorry, Wrong Number" relies heavily on the convention of flashbacks, so if you have no patience for this plot device, this is not the movie for you.

Stanwyck makes Leona someone you root for, even though she plays the most hateful rich girl this side of Paris Hilton. Then again, Stanwyck also made a con artist lovable in "The Lady Eve" and a middle-aged schemer in "Double Indemnity" sexy, so it really comes as no surprise. She also shows how Leona's icy calm slowly unravels, and by the movie's end she looks as if she's aged a decade.

Lancaster is also good as the fed-up husband, creating a character so complex you don't know what to think of him.

This is an underrated, unconventional classic that is especially powerful seen in the dark. See it, and count your blessings that we no longer live in the era of rotary dials and inefficient operators.

Snow White (1987)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
So delightfully bad, you must see it, 18 July 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Cannon Movie Tales were a low budget string of films that had remarkably big stars in them, but were really much too corny for most people's taste. I highly urge everyone to avoid the clunky adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast". The only other one I've seen is "Snow White", which is marginally better... but that's damning with faint praise, considering this version of "Snow White" isn't particularly good and has a considerable list of faults.

Take, for instance, Snow White and the Prince's meeting. He meets her right after she is awakened from the poisoned apple (instead of a revitalizing kiss, the piece is jostled out of her mouth). Instead of a courtship, they immediately marry in what is easily the most joyless and mechanical wedding to ever appear in a children's film. Neither couple looks remotely happy. It could be because they haven't had a properly dated; but then, when has that ever been important in fairy tales? Couldn't one of them at least crack a hint of a smile? As the Evil Queen, Diana Rigg seems to channel Gloria Swanson from "Sunset Boulevard". In every scene Rigg was in, I waited with baited breath to hear her say, "All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up!" Rigg also has a dreadful musical number (and the poor dear can't sing a note) and an appallingly hideous wardrobe. We're talking foot-high headdresses and shapeless, sequined tunics. Don't you think someone as vain as the Queen would be a little more fashion savvy than this? The editing is also inexcusably poor. When little Snow White (Nicola Stapleton) is running from the hunter trying to kill her, there are random, stock footage close-ups of animals that play no part in the scene whatsoever, like the lingering shot of a python that has no payoff at all. And for such a climactic, pivotal scene, it was rather boring and ineffective.

The dwarfs are at least partially amusing, acting like a bunch of aging vaudevillians, and painfully attractive brunette Sarah Patterson ("The Company of Wolves") plays Snow White. She brings nothing new to the part, but since Snow White isn't supposed to be interesting, that's to be expected.

Normally, I write reviews warning people against bad movies. However, this version of "Snow White" is worth a watch for its corny screenplay, bad acting, and some of the most ridiculous sequences ever. Remember when I mentioned the poisoned piece of apple coming out of Snow White's mouth? It actually flies out of her mouth, in a hilarious, bad blue screen effect, and soars through the sky and hits the Evil Queen in the head. Words fail me.

Grab a movie buddy and have a some MST3K-style quips ready for this delightfully campy fairy tale.

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