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21 & Over (2013)
Amusing if you don't expect too much
I saw this movie last weekend because I was bored. I wasn't looking for great entertainment, so I wasn't too disappointed. (I was, however, the only one in the theater, so I can't describe the reaction of others in the audience.) This is a "Hangover" style type comedy, which also follows the same formula as many 80's youth films like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," although there's quite a gap in quality between the two. Basically, a cocky, but secretly caring friend decides to help a more introverted, repressed pal loosen up. There's even a one-dimensional evil dad here, and lots of car damage en route to learning life lessons about friendship, taking responsibility and following ones' dreams.
College-age Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) coerce their pal Jeff Chang into hitting the bars to celebrate his 21st birthday. When Jeff has a little too much alcohol, the two are forced to figure out where Jeff lives in order to get him home in time for his interview to medical school arranged by his uptight dad the next day. On the way, they'll have run-ins with a buffalo, a pep rally, a horde of angry Latina sorority sisters, and a hostile cheerleader who happens to be the boyfriend of Casey's crush. Teller takes what could have been a thoroughly repellent character and manages to inject a little heart into it (watch for the few moments when he's caught off guard and shows actual hurt that he's disappointed his friends). The movie goes where "Ferris," didn't and actually lets you see the confrontation with the bad dad. Otherwise, it's pretty predictable, and even the gross-out gags aren't all that "shocking."
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Wished it was better
I should admit that I am not a fan of on-screen projectile vomiting (was scarred as a youngster by the pie eating contest turned barfarama in "Stand By Me"). "Pitch Perfect," contains not one, but two scenes, one extended, where a character pukes, and we get treated to every gruesome detail, including another character lying in the puke making snow angels. If you have a delicate stomach like this reviewer, you may want to close your eyes a few times. Otherwise, "Pitch Perfect," is pretty standard fare.
Anna Kendrick plays a first year at Barden College, who becomes involved in an all-women's a-capella group because she wants her dad to pay for her to go to LA to become a DJ eventually. Bitter over her parents' divorce, she has no desire to make friends or even boyfriends, but slowly things begin to change, as she gets involved with the on-campus culture of a-capella. Her fellow "Bellas," include Rebel Wilson, a self-named warbler named Fat Amy, who is treated much better by the script than most plus-sized characters in movies and emerges as a strong, likable presence. A love interest in the form of Skylar Astin, who belongs to the Bellas' rivals also tries to capture Kendricks' interest. The outcome is predictable, but the musical numbers are fun, and if you don't mind a few gross-out gags and are a Glee-ster, you should enjoy "Pitch Perfect."
10 Years (2011)
Like a documentary, but that's the problem
In "Grosse Point Blank," John Cusack, a hit-man, attends his high school reunion and to the strains of Queen's "Under Pressure," gazes at a classmate's infant. The child's mom tells him that when you're a teen, you think your life is over when you grow up and have a family, but really, "it's just beginning." Would that that kind of insight was more frequent in "Ten Years," in which representatives from all the typical cliques attend their high school reunion, for the reasons quoted in the tagline. Like real life reunions, there's a lot of intoxication, true confessions and mundane conversation. The one bright spot is Chris Pratt, who plays a former bully turned family man, determined to "apologize" to everyone he used to torment. (Sample attempt to do this: "Wow, you look all normal and (bleep).") Pratt throws himself into the role with an abandon I wished some of the other actors had.
"Ten Years," is oddly devoid of pop culture and historic event references that you might expect. This might mean it won't seem too dated eventually, but it also makes it bland. No one mentions the current economic recession (that I recall) or brings up the difficulty of finding/keeping a job, any job. While this might be a downer, it still seems a strange omission. The big secrets the characters are concealing are more generalized. It's like eavesdropping on a real life reunion, but with movies, I at least want more drama than I saw here.
Won't Back Down (2012)
"Wanna take over a school with me?"
Is this movie corny, clichéd, sentimental, etc? Absolutely. Are some of the characters one-dimensional bad guys? Yep. Is it financed by someone with a lot of money who has his own opinion on the subject? Sure. This is true of most of the movies coming out of Hollywood, including "Trouble With the Curve," which isn't getting half the flack this movie is. If you want sophistication and nuance, go see an art house film. If you want to see a heartfelt film that raises questions about education and the future of America's kids, you may want to give this a shot. Some characters are pro-union, others just want what's best for their kids, others change their minds while others don't. Some bureaucrats in the movie are willing to help; others flatly refuse. That's also true in real life, and all these viewpoints are represented in "Won't Back Down."
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a blue-collar single mom who decides to try and get support for radical changes for her daughter's elementary school, after trying and failing to get her daughter a better quality education in the current system. Joining her are Viola Davis, a veteran teacher who is beaten down, but not yet fully defeated, and Oscar Isaacs, a hunky "Teach for America" type, who doesn't want to focus on politics, at least at first. Other supporting players include Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Holly Hunter, who all do a great job with an admittedly TV-movie of the week type plot and script, and I, for one, didn't check my watch once during the film.
The standout here is Davis, whose mother was a well-loved teacher, and who goes home and digs out some new material with which to challenge her young students, even before she agrees to the takeover plan. "We're all going to work a lot harder around here," she informs her class. "Including me." It's easier, in my opinion, to play the stereotypical young idealist crusader, whether teacher or parent, but how many movies flesh out the role of the crusty veteran? One message of the film, is that you don't have to wait for someone to change things for you. Even when everything around you is going downhill, an "average" person can still summon the strength to make a change in the quality of someone's life, whether big or small. And that's a message that's always welcome, if you ask me.
Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Sweet but predictable
In "Trouble With the Curve" (title explained toward the end of the movie for non-baseball fans) Clint Eastwood plays Gus, a baseball scout who begins to have vision problems shortly before he's scheduled to take a trip to scout out an obnoxious but talented high schooler, who hits a wicked sweet homer. Gus, we are told early on, doesn't put any stock in those newfangled computer programs that all the other scouts use because a computer can't tell if a kid's got heart, and so on....Gus's friend, played by John Goodman, realizing that something's up with Gus, recruits his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a workaholic lawyer to accompany Gus on the trip. Mickey has her own issues, stemming from her dad sending her away to temporarily live with relatives after her mother's death, and as Justin Timberlake's character, a former pitcher, puts it, when the two get going, they're as good as the Kardashians. Will Gus save the day? Will Mickey realize there's more to life than making partner? Will she end up with the guy whom she initially gives the brush off? Only if you've never seen a movie before, will you be unable to figure this all out, and even then, you might anyway.
In the movie, Mickey describes her ideal guy, and she points at her head, then her heart. This movie's got oodles of heart, but not many brains. The three leads do an excellent job, even with a weak script, but it's predictable from start to finish. You may enjoy it, but you probably won't remember too much about it a month or so later.
P.S. From its trailer shown before TWTC, the baseball bio about Jackie Robinson coming out next spring looks much better.
The Words (2012)
Stranger than fiction? You decide
"The Words," stars Bradley Cooper as an aspiring novelist who describes his works as "angry young man" kind of stuff to another aspiring novelist who trains him his first day as a drone at a publishing company. He has been toiling in an obscurity that will be familiar to aspiring writers in the audience, until his wife (Zoe Saldana) reads a manuscript he's been retyping for inspiration. Believing it to be his, not knowing that Cooper found it in an old secondhand satchel he purchased while traveling, she insists he show it to his boss. When the novel's published, it becomes an instant literary sensation, winning oodles of prizes, and all is peachy - until the original author (Jeremy Irons) appears. Irons, looking like a refugee from Roald Dahl's "Tales of the Unexpected" tells him the story behind the story.
Meanwhile a successful writer (Dennis Quaid) has been narrating Cooper's story to an admirer. Is he related to Cooper somehow? Whose life is he really describing? The main theme of the movie is not whether Cooper should admit his wrongdoing (he does), but what happens if someone refuses to let you make amends. That part is left ambiguous. Watching this, I was reminded of an author who was revealed to be lying in his memoir, but still went on to write fiction. Leaving things open-ended in this movie was the right choice, in my opinion. It's not a great movie, but it's still a good one (to paraphrase a character in "The Words") and worth seeing if you've literary aspirations. (It does, however, not address the fact that it's more possible than ever before to be a self-published success, via the Internet, but that's another movie.)
I don't WANT a puppy!
"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is a charming little movie that is better than most of the detritus that comes out of theaters in August. It's very sweet and contains no objectionable material. That said, it didn't stay with me after I saw it.
The movie opens with a couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) cautioning an adoption agency that they do have previous experience, but the story they are about to tell is going to hard to believe. Indeed it is. Told after trying everything that they can't have a child, the Greens get drunk that night, make a list of all the traits they'd want in a child and bury the box in their backyard garden. Amazingly, a mud-caked boy with leaves growing from his calves appears after a rainstorm. This is Timothy of the title. However, he has a secret, which the Greens sense but do not figure out until late in the movie.
It is beautifully shot in a Disneyworld movie town which, despite the drought, is filled with green countryside and changing, fall leaves. The boy is, of course, there to teach important lessons about accepting difference, and others of the type you typically get in a Disney movie. The characters could use more development, but it's a pleasant enough diversion for the end of summer.
Note: The movie is not anti-adoption. Quite the contrary. (To go into why would spoil the ending.)
The Campaign (2012)
Among the disappointed
As a Will Ferrell fan, It pains me to give this movie such a low rating, but here I go. Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis play rivals in an election for Congressman. The plot is connect-the-dots predictable: a nice guy starts out nice, realizes that playing dirty is the only way to go in politics, then both have a change of heart and wind up wiser all around. Because of the "R" rating, I expected things to be crude, but was hoping that there would be at least some sharp satire about the political process, too. After all, how hard can it be to poke fun at politicians? "The Dictator," had its share of tasteless gags, but also managed to make a few shrewd points about the US and its political climate. The movie's script feels like a first or second draft. It could have used a lot of tightening to make a truly hilarious movie. Right now with the upcoming Presidential election and all the nonsense that's about to commence, it would have been welcome.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Me in minority here
This movie is excellent and quirky, etc., but it left me completely unmoved. This puzzled me because I loved earlier Anderson films like "Rushmore," "The Royal Tennenbaums," and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." "Moonrise Kingdom," tells the story of two uber-quirky tweens who both consider themselves outcasts and who arrange to run away together to an isolated part of the New England island they live on. The adults soon figure out that they've taken off, and assemble practically the rest of the island's inhabitants to track them down. The adult cast includes Anderson reliable Bill Murray, who mostly wanders around in hideous plaid pants, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, as the island's sheriff. The tweens insist that they've found true love, the adults believe that separating them is best, - you'll probably be able to figure out the rest of the story on your own. On the way there, a dog runs afoul of a bow and arrow, another child gets stabbed by scissors, another kid gets struck by lightning, but none of these potential tragedies get more than a few moments of script time, and everyone winds up basically a little more wise and a little more content than they were before.
The movie is beautifully shot, it will make you want to run away to a NE island of your own. I found it weak on character development - the kids don't really go through the expected cycle that usually happens when two young people develop a relationship. That part felt rushed and discarded in favor of putting as many quirky characters in various situations as possible. Most of the movie did feel whimsical, but if you ask me, magic was in short supply.
Better than I expected
Madonna's "W.E." is the perfect movie for people who watched "The King's Speech," and liked it, but thought it could totally be improved by adding a little rock-and-roll to the montages, rather than stuffy old Beethoven. If you thought "TKS" took a rather harsh view of the Romance of the Century by focusing on the less glamorous characters of King George VI and his family, while portraying the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as irresponsible, party-hardy, Nazi-sympathizers, than you'll appreciate a more soft-focus version of their relationship. Never fear, it's all here.
The film moves back and forth between the present day in which Abbie Cornish plays a depressed woman whose marriage is crumbling and who spends her time visiting Sotheby's, where an upcoming auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's property is about to commence, and the past which traces the Duchess's (Andrea Riseborough) life from her marriage to the abusive Win Spencer through the abdication crisis with the Duke (James D'Arcy). Cornish's character, also named Wally, is fascinated by the woman whose story of sacrifice in marrying the Duke is much less known than vice versa. As the present-day Wally comes to face the truth about her marriage, she finds solace in a Russian security guard at Sotheby's and gains the courage to move forward with her life.
It's probably a cheap pop-psychology analysis to guess that Madonna may identify with a celebrity who was widely reviled in her time, although possessing a great deal of style and panache. "W.E." is not Oscar-bait, except perhaps costume-wise, but it's surprisingly enjoyable, as long as you take it for what it is: entertainment, not a profound meditation on Serious Issues.