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The Hobbit is a Journey Well Worth the Trip
It will doubtless come as no surprise to you that I'm a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (no one was more delighted than me when The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won its Best Picture Oscar, and well deserved it was!). But while you might think that's to the movie-maker's advantage, it isn't. Sure, I'm predisposed to like the film. On the other hand, you do not mess with something as beloved as Tolkien's masterpiece! Director/Producer Peter Jackson didn't disappoint with his Lord of the Rings series, and I'm truly pleased to say that so far, at least he's managed to engineer the same feat with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (part 1 in a series of 3).
The Hobbit takes place sixty years before the events that unfold in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is unexpectedly approached by a wizard he scarcely remembers having met as a child. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) wants Bilbo to go on an adventure, something the stay-at-home hobbit has absolutely zero interest in accepting. But when his home is effectively invaded by a troupe of dwarfs led by heir-to-the-throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bilbo becomes even more certain that adventure is not for him!
Suffice it to say that a combination of envy, shame, and a desire for something beyond his own environment convinces Bilbo in the end to join the quest of the dwarfs: to take back the Kingdom of Erebor stolen from them decades ago by the greedy and vicious fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.
Though he knows the journey won't be an easy one, Bilbo is taken aback by the hardships of life on the road which are only exacerbated by the fact the dwarfs are less than impressed with the hobbit or any abilities he might or might not have. Gandalf, however, maintains that Bilbo has hidden depths and that he'll admirably suit the group's need for someone with the skills of a burglar (which, of course, Bilbo steadfastly denies he has).
Along the way, the travelers run into any number of impediments ranging from marauding orcs to duplicitous goblins, to say nothing of mountain trolls, giant spiders, or wizards who appear to be just a little less than entirely sane. And, of course, there are the elves, led by Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and advised by the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). But perhaps the most dangerous and important creature to surface in their travels is met by Bilbo alone: the warped and undeniably psychotic Gollum who loses his most precious possession for which he blames Bilbo.
Although the script (penned by a team including Jackson himself and Guillermo del Toro, originally tapped to direct) diverges from the book (a certain Orc, for example, plays a pivotal role), it holds beautifully to Tolkien's vision. (In fairness, the added parts are also Tolkien's; they're part and parcel of extensive appendices Tolkien crafted to further flesh out his intricate creation of Middle Earth.) It includes moments of humor which are welcome, as well as some surprisingly deep emotion.
In some ways, it's the special effects that make or break movies like this no matter the caliber of the acting (very good), the direction (excellent), or the editing (also very good). It's also typically my favorite part of any movie like this, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey lives up to expectation. Given the extensive use of CGI, I'm amazed to have only seen a split second or two that might have been improved upon, and I'm still lost in jaw-dropping wonder at an extended battle scene that takes place in the goblin tunnels. I'd like to say that the special effects are brilliant, but that word really isn't sufficient. Though the 3D treatment wasn't strictly needed, I can't lie: It, too, was beautifully rendered and, in my opinion, added to the reality of even the most unreal of moments. Of course, the actual location of the filming doesn't hurt, either. A trip to New Zealand is so on my bucket list!
BOTTOM LINE: If you're a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you'll love seeing so much of what you've read come to vibrant life before your eyes. If you're not a fan of The Hobbit, you will be if you see this movie! I was a little concerned with the length since I'm not one to sit still for long if I'm not completely engrossed. Perhaps my best recommendation for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then, is to tell you that the nearly three hours' run time flew by for me. I literally couldn't believe the movie was over already!
POLITICAL NOTES: It's interesting, especially in light of recent debates in Washington, to see how greed can so thoroughly corrupt even previously decent leaders. It's even more heartening to see that there are those who still (as Thorin Oakenshield says concerning his rag-tag company) value "loyalty, honor, a willing heart..." more than anything else, and who are willing to fight for what's decent and right.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 "for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images." The violence, though of a fantasy nature, is sometimes quite graphic; the suspense is beyond what younger children could easily handle. The storyline is also complex enough that younger children aren't going to understand it. Most of us read The Hobbit for the first time when we're 12 or 13 at youngest; The Lord of the Rings is typically read even later than that. And that's frankly not a bad gauge to consider when you wonder if this is a movie for your kids.
The Green Hornet (2011)
The Green Hornet Great? No. Great Fun? Actually, Yes...
I know it sounds a little silly, but I was really looking forward to seeing The Green Hornet this weekend. The trailers made it look like a lot of fun, and I thought a lot of fun sounded pretty good on a Friday night. I bought a ticket (3D version, of course), and you know what? I had a lot of fun! The Green Hornet is born when spoiled rich boy Britt Reid (Seth Rogan) loses his newspaper mogul father (Tom Wilkinson) to an untimely accident. Though more a party boy than anything else, Britt at least has the sense to know he has no business running his father's publishing empire. He leaves that to his father's longtime editor, Axford (Edward James Olmos). Britt had endured a longtime love/hate relationship with his father anyway, and seems inclined to go on with his life as a very rich ne'er-do-well.
Meanwhile, Britt's father is the least of the concerns of most in Los Angeles. Crime is rampant, and the boss behind most of it is a man with the unpronounceable name of Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). Fortunately, District Attorney Scanlon (David Harbour) has adopted a hard line, and his re-election campaign consists almost entirely of the fact he's cleaned up a good deal of crime in the city and intends to keep doing that job no matter the threat to his personal safety.
It's a bad morning cup of coffee (really) that begins to change the way Britt sees the world. In search of a more drinkable form of caffeine, he discovers his father's former aide, Kato (Jay Chou). As it turns out, Kato is capable of a whole lot more than making a good cup of morning joe! On a lark, the pair engage in a little crime of their own. Circumstances converge, however, to make them rethink the thrust of their little adventure and perhaps even to expand on it in some way. And thus is The Green Hornet born.
Seth Rogan, although he lost a good deal of weight to more ably play the title character, doesn't seem like ideal casting for the role of a comic book hero. Yet because he also penned the script (along with Evan Goldberg), he actually turns out to be a good choice who fit right into his character. Jay Chou is an even better call. A pop star in Asia, he learned some English for his role as Kato and does a surprisingly effective job. His chemistry with Rogan is also considerable. Christoph Waltz, who picked up an Oscar® for his supporting role in the brilliant The Reader, could easily have played up the comic relief his character offers. Yet he manages the silliness with a serious and frankly dangerous veneer that makes even the ridiculous almost sublime.
The Green Hornet is directed by Michel Gondry (who also directed the wonderfully eccentric Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Gondry, too, could have gone a more slapstick route but didn't. The cinematography is fine, the explosions and weapons effects are wonderful, and some of the chase scenes combine some very nice humor with some very real tension. The 3D (added after filming) probably wasn't necessary, but I'll be honest with you and say that I thought it did add something.
BOTTOM LINE The Green Hornet isn't as serious as it might have been in different hands (writers, actors, and director alike), but it's also not a movie that relies on silliness (though there are some very funny moments). It is, in fact, a little more real than you might expect. After all, the vast majority of us would be a "superhero" something very much like the titular Green Hornet: In possession of good intentions, but hopelessly unprepared to create and carry out plans we're in no way qualified to make in the first place. I kind of related to the Green Hornet, and I kind of liked him. The movie? No "kind of" about it. I liked it a lot. How could I not when I had such a good time for two hours?
POLITICAL NOTES The notion of power politics and backdoor deals isn't anything new. Unfortunately, it's also not uncommon, even in the real world. Although some of the shenanigans here are over the top, they're also sadly plausible.
FAMILY SUITABILITY The Green Hornet is rated PG-13 for "sequences of violent action, language, sensuality and drug content." Most of the violence, though, is comparable to a comic book or video game. While the sensuality may be a bit much for younger kids, the drug content is relatively understated (and presented in a bad light, which also mitigates the depiction). I'd have no problem bringing the average 12 year-old to see The Green Hornet. And if you still have some younger version of yourself hidden somewhere inside, well, I'd suggest a ticket for yourself might be a good thing, too.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan Bleak on More Than One level
Black Swan has garnered more than a few glowing reviews and has collected a list of awards nominations to match (among others, the Golden Globes will consider Natalie Portman as Best Actress, Mila Kunis as Best Supporting Actress, Darren Aronofsky as Best Director, and the film itself as Best Drama). I made it my mission in life to see it before the awards ceremonies started. It could be that my expectations were too high, but I was frankly not as impressed by Black Swan as many critics seem to be.
Black Swan is a reference to the white Swan Queen's opposite in the famous ballet, Swan Lake. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a technically brilliant dancer in a New York ballet company who desperately wants to snag the dual role. The problem? The dance company's director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tells her she's the perfect Swan Queen, but that she lacks the passion and emotional abandon of her Black Swan twin.
The pressure on Nina to prove the director wrong is considerable. Her mother (Barbara Hershey)a retired ballerina herselfexerts considerable control over her daughter in the guise of kindness and support. The company's aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is volatile and dramatic, particularly when she learns she's soon to be giving her final performance before a retirement that isn't her idea. And a new dancer from San Francisco (Lily, played by Mila Kunis), quickly becomes both Nina's friend and bitter rival.
Lily, very much a free spirit, spreads her attitude wherever she goes and Nina needs it more than most. Thomas, meanwhile, is inclined to use any means necessary to inspire the performance he wants out of her. As Nina's life spins beyond her ability to control, her emotions and her sanity both begin to wear thin. But her focus on dance becomes ever more laser-like as she determines that nothing will stop her from being the perfect ballerina.
Natalie Portman reportedly lost some 20 pounds from her already tiny frame to more authentically portray a dedicated dancer. She and Kunis alike spent months studying ballet as well. Their efforts show. While a few more complicated maneuvers were performed by doubles, much of what you see on screen is really done by the actors themselves. Their acting, too, is superlative. Vincent Cassel is also good, but Barbara Hershey is brilliant as the overbearing mother whose demands for perfection set Nina on her course from childhood. Kudos, too, to Winona Ryder. Her role is small, but it's memorable.
Director Darren Aronofsky, perhaps best known for his previous award-winning film The Wrestler, does a credible job here. There are interesting edits and camera effects everywhere, and he does seem to know well how to elicit a stellar performance from his cast. I'm not a ballet fan, so I can't vouch for the authenticity of the dancing here, but it certainly looked lovely on screen and was a nice counterpoint to some of the seamier visions interspersed.
BOTTOM LINE Despite the obvious quality of the crafting of Black Swan, I didn't really like it all that much. That may be because there were so many moments where the sheer brilliance of the acting or some technical aspect in the making of the scene actually overshadowed the story itself. I found myself all too conscious of those things rather than paying attention to what was really going on. In many ways, Black Swan was the proverbial "too much of a good thing." I can't fault those who claim Black Swan is a well-made movie. I just can't pretend that I personally enjoyed it very much. The quality of filmmaking alone gave Black Swan its six stars. Whether or not my interest held up throughout garnered considerably less.
POLITICAL NOTES None.
FAMILY SUITABILITY Black Swan is rated R for "strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use." All of those cautions are entirely too real. Black Swan is not a movie for children, or even for young teens. An R rating is entirely appropriate, and movie-goers should take note. I'd add that, while I wasn't particularly happy with my movie-going experience, I can't deny that there are reasons to see Black Swan, not least among them some very strong performances indeed.
The King's Speech (2010)
The King's Speech Speaks to All
WARNING: Mild spoilers (unless you know some history).
I've been wanting to see The King's Speech for some time now. That's based in part on the fact it's garnered more than a few awards and nominations, but also because a few people I know who have seen it have waxed poetic about just how good it is. Well, whatever superlatives they may have used in their descriptions, and whatever praise the critics might have heaped on the film, I'm here to tell you that none of it was enough. The King's Speech is even better than you've heard that it is.
Prince Albert (known as "Bertie" to his family, played by Colin Firth) is second in line to the throne behind his brother, David (Guy Pearce). His father, King George V (Michael Gambon) tries to groom both of his sons for leadership, but Albert's shyness and debilitating stutter test his patience as well as that of almost everyone else around him. Only his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seems to be able to look past his speech and directly at the man she believes him to be.
Bertie is deeply embarrassed by his stutter, but he's not overly concerned about other matters since his healthy, vital brother will become king after the death of their father. But David, who becomes King Edward VIII after George V passes away, has a problem of his own: He's desperately in love with an American divorcée named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). No one sympathizes with his plight, not even his own mother (Claire Bloom).
Despite being relegated to relative second class status among the royals, Bertie still has to make some public appearances. It's to ease those events as well as her husband's heart that Elizabeth seeks out doctors and therapists who might be able to help. As a last resort, she lands in the offices of one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) where his brash impudence appeals to her own sensibilities. Bertie, however, is far less than convinced. Everything else pales into insignificance, though, when Edward VIII determines to abdicate the throne so that he can marry the infamous Mrs. Simpson and Bertie is forced to become what he most dreads being: King George VI.
As any number of awards and nominations could tell you, the caliber of acting in The King's Speech is substantial. Helena Bonham Carter is beautifully sympathetic yet regal; Claire Bloom is appallingly cold; and Guy Pearce is the very picture of a ne'er-do-well. Geoffrey Rush is completely convincing as a speech therapist and a man haunted by a few regrets of his own. But even amongst such a superlative cast, Colin Firth stands out. His portrayal of the King is heartbreaking and courageous, often at the same time. When Firth is on screen, it feels like you're witnessing some heretofore secret event rather than just another scene in a movie. His acting seems effortless (which means it was far from that), and he's eminently believable. (Added note: If the Oscar® doesn't go to Colin Firth, it will only be because none of the voters bothered to see The King's Speech. Anyone who's seen this performance will know that nobody else even comes close.)
The sets and the costumes are absolutely gorgeous, and the cinematography couldn't have been better. The direction by the Oscar®-nominated Tom Hooper is subtle and sure. David Seidler (who actually asked the permission of the Queen Mother Elizabeth to write the story, and was told he should not do so while she was still alive) has written an understated yet beautiful piece of history, and he's been recognized by the Academy with an Oscar® nomination of his own for his script.
BOTTOM LINE The King's Speech offers up a view of history that many Americans don't know (or probably even care) much about despite its importance to our own country's involvement in World War II. But while you might certainly call the film educational, it doesn't offer up its lessons on history or on life in either a boring or a bombastic way. Despite the gulf between royalty and the rest of us, the characters here are sympathetic, and their problems and their courage surely bear lessons and encouragement for everyone of any station in life. What's more, all of this is wrapped up in a beautiful and utterly fascinating package. While I can't say I had fun in the theatre this time around, I can tell you I had something just as goodor even better: An entirely satisfying evening at the movies, watching events unfold in a story I still can't stop thinking about.
POLITICAL NOTES None.
FAMILY SUITABILITY The King's Speech is rated R for "some language." I actually disagree with the R rating on this one. I think that much of the story here would have great benefit for older teens, and even mature younger teens. They won't hear anything here that they don't get in school or from video games, but the movie itself has much to offer. While younger children will be bored, you might be surprised at how well a movie with no explosions or car chases can prove itself to be grippingand in some places even thrillingfare.
The best part of Hereafter? The "after" part.
I'll be honest with you: the trailers for Hereafer never really grabbed me. But with the only other major release this weekend being Paranormal Activity 2 (the original of which scared the living daylights out of me), I opted for something a little tamer. Besides, Clint Eastwood has proved time and again to be a brilliant director, and I like Matt Damon quite a bit. How could a movie involving the two of them possibly be bad, right? So much for logic...
Hereafter opens with the deceptively bucolic scenes of a tropical paradise. Popular French reporter Marie DeLay (Cecile De France) is vacationing with her boss and lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic). Just before the couple is set to return to Europe, they become among the thousands of victims of a deadly tsunami. Marie in particular has a very close call and, despite being relatively uninjured and back at work, she simply can't get past what she claims to have experienced during the course of her near death experience.
George Lonegan (Matt Damon) lives on the other side of the world where he's a factory worker in San Francisco with a bizarre bent for Charles Dickens novels. Though George is purportedly one of the few psychics around who's actually not a fraud, he wants nothing to do with talking to the dead any more. His brother Billy (Jay Mohr) is all too aware of the money that can be made should George take up doing readings again, and he does everything possible to convince his brother that he ought to use his "gift" despite the fact George himself considers it more of a curse.
Meanwhile, in London a pair of twin boys named Marcus and Jason (Frankie/George McClaren) are dealing with difficult circumstances at home. Things only get worse for Marcus when he loses someone close to him and sets himself on a mission to find out anything he can about life after death and communications with the dead.
The three stories obviously come together late in the film, but getting there is tedious at best and the resolution can only be described as anticlimactic. The actors are good, the script isn't bad, and the direction and cinematography are excellent (special kudos go to the special effects wizard who created an extraordinarily believable disaster with the tsunami and its aftermath). So what's the problem? I was bored.
Hereafter moves at a crawl. The subject was kept nebulous enough that I never really got all that interested in it, and I frankly didn't care much about any of the characters, either. That's no reflection on the capabilities of the actors who were uniformly quite good, but rather the one-dimensionality of the characters they played. In the midst of death, I found myself wondering if I'd remembered to put cat food on the grocery list and whether or not I'd have time on Saturday to get a pedicure. Yes, I was that bored.
BOTTOM LINE: When Hereafter ended, the audience was largely silentand not in a good way. On my way out the door, I heard the couple behind me talking about the movie, and one said, "Well, that was a waste of time!" I couldn't have summed it up better myself. In fact, the only reason Hereafter gets four stars is because the cinematography is, indeed, brilliant. ADDED NOTE: Critical reviews of Hereafter have been largely quite positive. While I'm at a loss to give you one single good reason to see the movie, others disagree.
POLITICAL NOTES: None (US-related; there is some talk of former French leader Mitterand).
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Hereafter is rated PG-13 for "mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language." Kids of all ages will be bored out of their minds during Hereafterand if you're a parent, you know what happens when kids get bored! While the rating is largely appropriate and older kids would be just fine from a parental guidance perspective, I'm still not willing to recommend Hereafter to anyone of any age for any reason. Sorry.
The Social Network (2010)
Facebook Story Earns a Definite "Like"
I'd heard of Facebook, of course. Who hasn't? But it wasn't until just about two years ago that some (college-age) friends of mine convinced me to set up my own page. To tell you the truth, I didn't think a whole lot about it. Innovations on the Internet are proceeding at such a rapid pace that I can't keep up with most of it let alone all of it, so the fact that Facebook existed really didn't make me think anything of it one way or another much less do any research into it. And then I saw The Social Network.
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a brilliant Harvard undergraduate in 2003 with far more intelligence than he has social skills. After a brutal break-up with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), Zuckerberg opts for some very public revenge. He begins by posting some less than flattering blog entries about Erica and then, in an all-night flurry of programming, he sets up a Website that features photos of female Harvard students where each can be rated for "hotness." These actions not only wound Erica but garner the attention of the Winkelvoss twins (Armie Hammer, with Josh Pence as a body double upon whose face Hammer's likeness is digitally imposed) who have a Website idea of their own.
Zuckerberg meets with the Winklevosses (or "Winkle-vi" as he amusing terms them) and their friend Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) to discuss doing programming work for them on an application they want to put together to enable girls to date Harvard guys. But Zuckerberg thinks he can do something both broader and better, and "The Facebook" is born. With assistance from his friends Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzell), his idea takes off in a major way even as the Winklevoss twins are still trying to get him to do somethinganything!for them.
"The Facebook" has such an impressive take-off that it gets the attention of Napster's mastermind, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). And once Parker and his marketing skills and ideas get involved, Zuckerberg never looks back even though his few friends are being left further and further behind him.
The Social Network is based (obviously) on true events, though those involved with the movie have never pretended that parts and pieces aren't dramatized for the big screen (Zuckerberg insists that most of it is). Written by Aaron Sorkin (who was the driving force and writer behind one of what is, in my opinion, the best written television shows of all time, The West Wing), the dialogue is both witty and strangely natural when being voiced by the true computer nerds who are featured in the movie. Eisenberg says his rapid-fire lines so convincingly that I almost believe I was there when he loved, lost, and then won in a big way with his online creation.
The other cast members prove they are also well up to the task of bringing these real life people to movie life. Though Eisenberg carries almost every scene on his shoulders, he couldn't be as good as he is without the very able efforts of the supporting cast. I'd also point out that the one genuine special effect in the moviethat of making Armie Hammer's face and voice an integral party to the body of Josh Penceis flawless (and I was watching).
BOTTOM LINE: The Social Network has already been touted as a potential Best Picture nominee come Oscar® time. I'm not entirely convinced that the movie as a whole is quite up to that standard, but I'd be truly stunned if the screenplay wasn't nominated, and I certainly wouldn't consider it undeserving if Eisenberg got a nod. I'm not always interested in recent American history (after all, I was there for some of it), but I also found the behind-the-scenes look at the invention of a phenomenon to be fascinating. And frankly, even if computer applications or online interactions aren't your thing, The Social Network remains a compelling exposé of what has become a huge influence on relationships in today's society. That it's entertaining, amusing, appalling, and heart-rending by turns is almost just icing on a very substantial cake.
POLITICAL NOTES: There have been numerous privacy concerns related directly to Facebook. In fact, one of Zuckerberg's problems with his first "hot" ratings site (which he called Facemash) involved what school administrators termed a violation of the privacy of Harvard students. Facebook has addressed some of the issues, and continues to say it will correct or modify others. It remains to be seen, though, just how much privacy some people will willingly forgo in exchange for the complete experience of what has become very much a real life social network.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Social Network is rated PG13 for "sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language." There are moments within the film where parents of younger teens may find themselves having to explain things they'd rather not, or where they could feel obligated to comment on things so their children don't think those actions are quite as "cool" or acceptable as they appear on screen. The plot is also fast-moving, and scenes switch back and forth from several venues and viewpoints, which makes the storyline relatively complex, perhaps too much so for younger viewers. I'd recommend The Social Network for older teens (15 or 16 and up) and adults.
You Again (2010)
You Again a Movie I Won't See Again
Marni (Kristen Bell), like many of the rest of us, had a tough time in high school. Among her chief tormentors was JJ (Odette Yustman), the captain of the cheerleading squad and all around snob. But Marni bucks up and uses the bullying she experienced as a goad toward achievement after graduation. Whatever her motivations, Marni's achievements can't be questioned: She's named a vice president of her public relations firm just before she heads home for her older brother's wedding.
Marni and her brother Will (Jimmy Wolk) have always been close, and she's both devastated and furious when she discovers the bride-to-be is none other than her high school nemesis who now answers to the name Joanna. Marni's mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sympathetic, but tells Marni that high school is in the past and she needs to move on. That advice comes easily to Gail until she discovers Joanna's Aunt Ramona (Sigourney Weaver) is her own high school nemesis.
Despite the happy occasion that has gathered the family together, Marni is less than thrilled. After all, JJ wasn't the best of persons in high school, and Marni can't imagine she's changed much! After an awkward reunion and family dinner, Marni and her younger brother Ben decide to do what they can to derail the nuptials.
Kristen Bell is a very pretty girl, and it couldn't have been easy to transform her into the unattractive high school geek that Marni was supposed to have been. Yet make-up artists and Bell's adoption of some less than pretty tics make you believe in the earlier version of Marni. Odette Yustman also does a good job as the pretty, popular girl whose mission in life is to make Marni miserable. Some of the movie's best moments come, though, as the result of the past and present rivalry between Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver. I'd be very surprised if the two of them had less than a ball doing their scenes together because it certainly shows on screen that way.
The story itself is relatively predictable, and the direction, while competent, is nothing special. The script is marred by moments of melodrama that undermine the otherwise marginal believability of the story, and though the actors handle their lines well, even genuine talent isn't enough to overcome some of the things they must say and do. In particular, poor Kristen Chenoweth in a role as the wedding planneran actress I consider a truly brilliant talentis stuck in a role where the caricature overwhelms even her formidable abilities. While Betty White (who portrays Marni's Grandma Bunny) is also silly, she, at least, gets away with it.
BOTTOM LINE: You Again is often diverting, and has enough elements of realism in it to make you recall your own high school days (for good or for ill), but it doesn't overcome the limitations imposed on it by its script, or a story that we've all frankly heard before. I was moderately entertained and mildly amused in the theatre, but when the movie was played out, I was less than fulfilled. ADDENDUM: Stay for the credits. Trust me.
POLITICAL NOTES: None.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: You Again is rated PG for "brief mild language and rude behavior." Produced by Touchstone (a Disney-owned company), the largely family-friendly fare is no real surprise. While I wouldn't recommend You Again for really young children (it's not going to hold their interest nor will they understand some of the complications that ensue from various and sundry misunderstandings or manipulations), most parents should have no problem with their tweens or teens buying a ticket.
The Town (2010)
The Town is the Bomb!
In the opening moments of the film, it is established that Charlestown, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston) is the bank robbery capital of the world. It is, according to the information offered the audience, a way of life there. In some cases, it spans generations. Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is a man who lives upor downto the town's reputation.
Doug and his best friend, James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) head up a small gang of very professional bank robbers. Their usual thorough planning and professional execution gets them in, out, and away from their target in short order. But a series of small hitches combined with Jem's short temper changes everything when he decides to take Bank Manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. Although Claire is released unharmed, Jem obsesses about what she may have seen or what she might know. To satisfy both Jem and his own doubts, Doug decides he'll find out.
Meanwhile, the FBI is obviously interested in a bank robbery, but the hostage gives Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) what he hopes will be enough information to catch the gang. With a number of agents and resources at his disposal, he begins his investigation by questioning Claire and then starts collecting information to help him identify and catch the robbers.
The secrets held close by the people of Charlestown, though, won't be given up easily and perhaps not without violence. Not to the FBI for sure, and perhaps not even to one of Charlestown's own as Doug soon begins to find out as he asks some questions of his own.
The Town is based on a 2005 book entitled "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan. The book was brilliantly adapted by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard. Affleck also directed The Town. In some cases, actors who try to do too much do a disservice to each of their jobs. In this case, though, Affleck proved his Oscar® for co-writing Good Will Hunting was no fluke, nor was his acclaimed directorial debut for Gone Baby Gone any accident. He writes and directs The Town with unbelievable skill, and then to top it off, his acting is just terrific.
Jeremy Renner doesn't play the most sympathetic of characters, but he makes Jem so real that it's difficult to judge him for his many flaws. Jon Hamm is entirely believable as a frustrated FBI agent, and Rebecca Hall meshes well with Affleck in their scenes together. The standout here (aside from Affleck, of course) is the surprising Blake Lively. In a role as Jem's troubled sister, she's nothing short of amazing. After the casting directors see her here, you can bet we'll be seeing more of her on the big screen in the future.
BOTTOM LINE: Even before its release, The Town was generating some very exciting buzz about Ben Affleck. Although the rest of the cast is superb and the story itself is a gripping one, Affleck is clearly coming into his own as a multi-talented movie maker. As far as I'm concerned, The Town is must see viewing.
POLITICAL NOTES: Surprisingly (especially given the FBI's extensive involvement in the storyline) none.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Town is rated R for "strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use," and it should be. It is in no way suitable for children or younger teens (who probably won't like it anyway). But for mature teens and adults, The Town offers a rare movie-going experience: An extraordinarily well made and intelligent film that also offers an exciting two hours in the theatre.
Easy A (2010)
Easy A Makes the Grade
Olive (Emma Stone) acknowledges she's a fairly typical high school student with fairly typical high school student problems. She has angst. She feels alone. But one day, when she tells her friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) what she wants to hear, she ends up adding a reputation to her list of issues.
The reputation bizarrely combines with Olive's compassion for her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), and the next thing you know, her reputation has grown beyond control. What's a girl to do? Well, in Olive's case, she decides to grab onto the reputation along with everything it means, and ride it for all it's worth.
Olive's favorite teacher, Mr. Griffth (Thomas Haden Church) knows something's going on, but he doesn't know what. Mrs. Griffith (Lisa Kudrow), the guidance counselor at the school where her husband teaches, knows something's going on, but what she knows isn't actually what it is. Crusading Christian Marianne (Amanda Bynes) thinks she knows something, but doesn't really want to know anything. Olive's parents, Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson) and Dill (Stanley Tucci) are entirely understanding of something they don't know they don't understand at all. And Woodchuck Todd (Penn Badgley)? Olive would just as soon he didn't know or understand anything at all!
Easy A sounds like a fairly simplistic premise and to some extent it is. But the script is clever in ways that raise it above the basic idea, and what could be a confusing mess is actually presented with a winning combination of clarity, humor, and feeling. Much of the cohesiveness of the movie as a whole can be credited to some very skillful edits. And I loved the literary references which, far from stuffy, were actually funny and all too appropriate additions.
It doesn't hurt that the acting is, in most cases, stellar. Emma Stone is perfectly cast as Olive. For all her occasional drama, I would have liked her when I was in high school and, considering that I hated everybody when I was in high school, that's saying something! I wanted to slap Amanda Bynes, and that means she did a superb job bringing Marianne to life. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci were a pure delight to watch every time they were on screen. I also really enjoyed seeing Malcolm McDowell in a small role as the school principal.
BOTTOM LINE: Easy A wasn't as funny as I thought and hoped it would be, but it was somehow more moving than I'd imagined. There are laughs, but there are also tears and a few scenes where your own high school years will likely creep up on you and give a little extra kick to the happy or sad of the moment. The teens in the theatre, though, seemed to be entirely wrapped up in the immediacy of the film, and laughed more than I did. Of course, their high school memories are yet to be made...
POLITICAL NOTES: None.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Easy A is rated PG for "mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material." Because of those elements, I can't recommend Easy A for young children. Older teens, though (16 or so and up), will likely really enjoy the movie, and if you've got a sense of humor about high school, you will, too.
Your Kids Are Going to Love Their New Nanny...
If you've seen the first Nanny McPhee movie, then you know the premise of the second: A harried single parent (this time a woman played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is overwhelmed by her three children plus two cousins from London who come to stay at her small farm. World War II is raging, her husband is somewhere in the battle theater, and her brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) wants nothing more than to sell the family farm out from under her.
Just as poor Isabel Green wonders how she'll manage to make a payment on the tractor, get the crops in, keep her senile boss (Maggie Smith) from destroying the store, fend off Phil Green's efforts to get her to sign away her rights to the farm, and still take care of five children, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives on the scene.
Nanny McPhee, of course, takes the children promptly in hand and wastes no time teaching them the lessons they need to learn. If Isabel and Phil learn something along the way, so much the better.
The script is fairly silly (penned by Emma Thompson, it's aimed at a very young audience), though it does have its occasional moments of cleverness and poignancy (and one especially silly moment that I must confess was hysterical no matter your age). There's also a heart-rending tie-in to the first film.
The acting is quite good though melodramatic (which, in fairness, is entirely appropriate here). As an aside, Maggie Gyllenhaal's English accent is pretty convincing! The children are just fine, but I must single out Eros Vlahos (who plays cousin Cyril) and Lil Woods (in the role of Megsie Green). Maggie Smith is, of course, her usual stellar self, and Emma Thompson manages to play a caricature of a character without overdoing it at all. A small part for Ralph Fiennes and a cameo from Ewan MacGregor cap off a very capable cast.
BOTTOM LINE: Nanny McPhee Returns was cute, but it wasn't all that good from my own perspective. I'll tell you, though, that every last four, five, and six year-old in the theatre giggled, gasped, laughed, and cooed right when they were supposed to. While I can't recommend this movie for your own grown-up (or even teen-agers') night out, your younger kids will just love it.
POLITICAL NOTES: Although Nanny McPhee Returns takes place during World War II and mentions of the war feature prominently, no details of the reasons for the fight or any political judgments whatsoever are made. Given the nature of that particular conflict, I'd say that there was some real skill exercised in writing about it!
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Nanny McPhee Returns is rated PG for "rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements." Frankly, children young enough to enjoy this movie take especial delight in rude humor like that exhibited here, and the mild thematic elements will likely be largely above their heads. Any real concerns should be easily addressed by Mom or Dad after the movie's over.