Saturday, September 22, 2012

Trouble with the Curve (Theatrical Review)

Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Drama, 111 minutes
Directed by Robert Lorenz
Starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman

I knew that I wanted to see Trouble with the Curve without knowing anything about the plot. The reason? Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams are so likable. Eastwood claimed that he would never act again after making Gran Torino, but I'm happy that he changed his mind. Eastwood plays baseball scout, Gus Lobel, and his character is similar to Walt from Gran Torino in many ways. He's hard to get along with, even if you happen to be one of his close friends.

One thing I should point out is that Trouble of the Curve is funny. Although it's tagged as a drama, there is a lot of humor in the movie. Eastwood has good comic timing and his character delivers one-liners at every opportunity. The audience in my theater laughed loudly and often. But the story also has the ability to move you emotionally. It feels somewhat like a James L. Brooks movie, such as Broadcast News or As Good as It Gets.

Like Moneyball, Trouble with the Curve is about people more than it is about Baseball. Gus has three months left on his contract and with the exception of his friend, Paul (Goodman), people are starting to wonder whether he's still capable of doing his job. He's a dinosaur, preferring to dig through a pile of newspapers for statistics, rather than rely on computers for the information. His boss (Matthew Lillard) wants to replace him.

The thing is, there is some truth to the belief that Gus is struggling to do his job as a scout. His eyesight is failing and it doesn't go unnoticed. Paul pays him a visit and advises him of the situation, asking him if he has considered the future, but Gus won't listen. In desperation, Paul asks Gus's daughter, Mickey (Adams), to go on the road and help out her father with his latest scouting assignment. She's an ambitious lawyer, and on the verge of becoming a partner, but she agrees to squeeze it into her schedule and intervene.

Adams is a talented actress and I've been waiting for her to get a meaty role after earning an Oscar nomination for her performance in Doubt. Her role in The Fighter was too brief to count. I've yet to see The Master, but I came away thinking this was the best Amy Adams performance in the past four years. I mentioned that she is likable, but she's also good at what she does. There's a certain intelligence and vulnerability to her characters that I find appealing, and it's present in Mickey. She appears successful on the outside, but she has never been close to her father.

There are three main themes present in the movie:

If you have seen Absolute Power, you'll know that Eastwood is convincing as a father who has a problematic relationship with his daughter. One of the keys to Trouble with the Curve is seeing how Mickey attempts to resolve her issues with Gus.

The most obvious issue is with Gus, as old age threatens his livelihood. Director Robert Lorenz takes plenty of time at the outset to establish his characters, allowing us to get an idea of what is at stake. Is Gus washed up, or does he still have something to offer? I won't ruin that for you.

The other main theme is the ability to decide what constitutes happiness. It's different for everyone. Are you happy because you earn a good salary and thrive in your career? What about personal relationships and family? How about having time to enjoy your life?

It's clear that Gus is happy working as a baseball scout, but what isn't clear is how Mickey views her own life. Is she truly happy as a lawyer? Can she come to terms with the distance between her and her father? She's also romantically involved with a man who thinks of her as a commodity rather than as a woman he loves. He figures that they get along quite well and are both successful, so it would make sense for them to be together. He's not the most romantic of men.

I should also mention Justin Timberlake, who plays a former baseball player and young talent scout. He's also interested in Mickey if she'll let down her defenses long enough.

That's the setup. As you can see, there are a lot of issues at stake.

One thing the movie does badly is make it obvious which characters you are supposed to root for, and who you should dislike. That flaw makes it easy to predict the outcome for Gus, Mickey, and at least three other minor characters. Those flaws aside, I enjoyed the pacing and the thorough characterization.

If this turns out to be Eastwood's final acting role, it's not a bad way to finish. As for Adams, it is good to see her in a role which allows her to show that she can actually act.

Trouble with the Curve isn't a great movie, but it's very good, and one that I want to own. It's a pleasure to spend time with the actors and the story has a lot of warmth. If you're a fan of Eastwood or Adams, I doubt that you'll be disappointed.

Overall score 4/5

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Friday, September 21, 2012


Rushmore (1998)
Comedy, Drama, 93 minutes
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Olivia Williams

Comedy is so subjective. Some people want American Pie, The Hangover, or the latest Eddie Murphy movie, while others prefer gentle indie comedies such as Little Miss Sunshine.

What makes you laugh?

I often think about my own sense of humor and it's difficult to pin down at times. I tend to avoid cheap laughs or things done for shock value, and I admire intelligent dialogue and quirky or original takes on everyday situations. One director who never fails to make me smile is Wes Anderson. He definitely falls into the quirky category, but there is so much more to his movies than that.

Rushmore is Anderson's second movie, coming two years after his debut, Bottle Rocket. Both movies were written with Owen Wilson, and they have a similar feel. Anderson is one of those directors who appears to make movies about nothing and it's easy to sit there wondering what you just watched. But, unlike many comedies, there are deeper themes present. I usually find myself thinking about Anderson's work several days after I see the movie. That's the case this time, and it's the main reason I am writing this review.

Rushmore stars Jason Schwartzman in his first role. He plays Max Fischer, who is a 15-year-old student at Rushmore, a private school. He's there because he wrote a play in second grade and won a scholarship. Most of the students have rich parents, but Max's father is a barber and Max has to lie and claim that he's the son of a brain surgeon in order to gain acceptance.

Max is struggling at school and is informed that he'll be expelled if he flunks another class. His main problem is not one of intelligence, it's his lack of focus. He takes on so many extracurricular activities that he doesn't have time to work on his grades. We see snippets of Max indulging in each of these activities, such as beekeeping and fencing, and these snapshots give the movie a lot of charm. It reminds me of Amelie and some of Jeunet's other work in that regard.

As usual, something feels odd in Anderson's world. This effect is heightened by the dialogue. For example, Max sounds as if he is much older. He talks so seriously and it's funny that someone of that age thinks the way he does. Watch him direct Serpico for the school play and you'll see just what I mean.

The heart of the story involves an unusual love triangle. Max befriends Herman Blume (Murray), who is a wealthy tycoon and former student of Rushmore. They both develop feelings for Miss Cross (Williams), who teaches at the school.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, because it doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that Rushmore is a typical Wes Anderson film. He'll surprise you at times, make you laugh, and leave you wondering how he came up with such original ideas.

I should also mention Mark Mothersbaugh, who began his association with Anderson on this film by contributing to the soundtrack. Other music used in the film includes songs by The Kinks, The Who, The Faces, and John Lennon. They all add to the nostalgic tone and fit perfectly.

Owen Wilson doesn't appear in this one, but Luke and Andrew Wilson are both involved. If you appreciate quirky comedy, Rushmore won't disappoint.

The Criterion Blu-ray offers a superb presentation. Colors are natural throughout and you'll feel as if you are standing next to the characters. The special features are also noteworthy and the highlight is a 55-minute feature showing interviews with Murray and Anderson on the Charlie Rose Show. Fans of commentaries will be happy that Anderson, Owen Wilson and Schwartzman appear on the commentary track.

If you are curious about the appeal of Wes Anderson, Rushmore isn't a bad starting point. It won't work for everyone though.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, 142 minutes
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland and Amandla Stenburg

The Top 5 films at the box office (worldwide) this year are: The Avengers ($1.5 billion), The Dark Knight Rises ($1 billion), Ice Age: Continental Drift ($836 million), The Amazing Spider-Man ($744 million) and The Hunger Games ($645 million). In the US, The Hunger Games ranks third behind The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. It's clear that comic book heroes sell, and other key elements are action and conflict. The Hunger Games aims to give us a new fantasy hero to follow after the conclusion of the Harry Potter franchise.

Does it succeed?

The movie is an adaptation of the first part of a trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, which was initially aimed at young adults. But, like the Harry Potter series, the trilogy appeals to readers of all ages. I can't comment on the quality of the books because I haven't read them, so I don't know how faithful the movie adaptation is. All I can judge is how well the story works on the big screen. The second movie in the series is set for a 2013 release, while the final part of the trilogy will be split into two movies. So, to answer my question, The Hunger Games is a resounding success as a financial venture and it's enormously popular.

Financial success is one thing, but is the movie worth your time? I guess that depends on what you find entertaining. Let me describe what you can expect.

The story opens with a glimpse into the life of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence). We learn that she lives in one of the poorest of twelve districts in Panem, and that food is scarce. She feeds her mother and sister by hunting for game in the woods and she's a gifted archer. The twelve districts hold a lottery each year to select a boy and girl to represent them. The 24 children will fight to the death and only a single victor will survive. When Katniss sees her young sister chosen, she volunteers to take her place. The chosen boy from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson).

That's all we are told about life in District 12. This is not a drama in which we learn about the struggle to live under such a regime, it's more of an action movie. The story moves on quickly and we are shown the sharp contrast between District 12 and the Capitol, where the population is wealthy and the games are seen as nothing more than a form of entertainment. Katniss and Peeta are interviewed on television by host Caesar Flickerman (Tucci). The Capitol is presented as weird and decadent, and most people look like extras from Amadeus. One character looks to be based on Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter. I had the impression that these people were weird for the sake of being weird and it didn't feel convincing.

The movie plays out like an American version of Battle Royale with elements from The Running Man added for good measure. Those in control of the game can intervene at will using computers. Sometimes they will send medicine, while at other times they will harm or kill some of the contestants. It's all a grotesque manipulation aimed at entertaining the population in the Capitol.

Director Gary Ross is a gifted storyteller, and he also has writing credits for Big, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit. Unlike all three of those movies, I found that The Hunger Games lacked depth. It's obvious why I am supposed to root for Katniss as she risks her own life to save her sister, but there aren't enough background details to make me connect with her strongly. It felt more like a cynical plot device than anything that was remotely real.

So, for me, The Hunger Games became something of a comic book. There is an attempt at showing group dynamics. Who will work together? At what point will they try to kill each other? Who will take their chances alone? What skills will each of the characters have? How inventive will the deaths be? But the attempt is flawed because some of the most dangerous contestants are displayed as sneering idiots, and it detracts from the seriousness of the situation. This is supposed to be a battle for survival, not a comedy?

I'm trying to give a balanced review, but some of the battles are rather silly. That's not to say that the movie doesn't have a few good moments. One alliance in particular did resonate with me and I reacted emotionally to the death of one character.

My overall impression is one of sadness. Not because of the death of some of the characters, but at what we are becoming as a society. Do we really need to see children fight to the death in order to be entertained? As with modern comedies, we are relying more on shock value than good writing. Katniss Everdeen was portrayed well by a promising actress, but original ideas were few and far between. You know almost exactly what to expect from The Hunger Games before it begins, and most events are thoroughly predictable.

The next three movies will be a huge success, I am sure, but I'm not anxiously awaiting their release. I'm glad that I avoided The Hunger Games in theaters and waited to borrow the Blu-ray from a friend. Don't label me as a prude or someone who is against violence in movies. One of my favorites is Kill Bill, but, unlike the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, I was shown enough background to care about what happened to The Bride.

This movie does have a huge audience as I outlined at the beginning. If you are the kind of moviegoer who enjoys action, good presentation, and special effects, The Hunger Games will entertain you. You'll need to switch your brain off for a couple of hours, but movies like this do have their place. I guess that's why they get made. I am left wondering about the book and how much was left out. Don't let this review stop you from buying the Blu-ray (which looks and sounds fantastic) or checking out the movie for yourself. I'm clearly in the minority on this one.

(Edit to add: After seeing this movie for the second time, I eventually ended up buying it. It seems that I was in the wrong mood the first time I saw it. Jennifer Lawrence is very good in the role and I am planning to see the sequels and maybe even read the books).

Overall score 3/5 (Subsequently upgraded to 3.75/5)

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Friday, September 7, 2012

To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love (2012)
Comedy, Romance, 112 minutes
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin and Penelope Cruz

I would struggle to make a list of Woody Allen films that I don't like at all. I laugh at slapstick efforts like Sleeper, and it's easy to watch Annie Hall or Play it Again Sam from the same period. Recent efforts have changed in tone considerably and critics seem to love one effort and dislike the next. I'm one of the few people who enjoyed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and I believe that Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris are two of the best films Allen has made in his entire career.

So how does To Rome with Love measure up?

I would say pretty well. As with most Allen efforts, the cast stands out. The film consists of four stories and each segment is worth your attention. I found myself laughing often, and that's quite rare.

One story stars Jerry (Allen) as an opera director who is ahead of his time. One of his productions was performed by actors dressed as white mice. He visits Rome with his wife (Judy Davis), to meet their daughter's fiance. Jerry's creative juices start flowing when he overhears the fiance's father singing in the shower and he attempts to persuade him to star in a future production. Although this segment has a rather predictable outcome, Allen has plenty of amusing dialogue.

Perhaps the most interesting of the stories is the one focusing on Jack (Eisenberg). He's an aspiring architect and lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). His life is turned upside down when Sally asks her friend, Monica (Page), to stay with them for a while. I have to admit that Ellen Page can do no wrong in my eyes. I was captivated by Juno and look forward to everything she is involved with. I was particularly eager to see what Allen would do with her in their first collaboration together. My only complaint is that this segment wasn't longer. Eisenberg plays a young neurotic type that Allen would have played in the 1970s. I find Eisenberg a little annoying at times, but I enjoyed his scenes here. The story was improved considerably by the presence of Alec Baldwin, who plays an older, wiser version of Jack. He gives him advice throughout, and his one-liners steal the show. This technique, which breaks the fourth wall, is one of the most enjoyable things about the film.

The third segment tells the story of two young newlyweds, Antonio and Milly. The couple invite Antonio's parents to meet Milly, but she has become lost in the city. Instead, they meet Anna (Cruz), who is a prostitute who was meant to meet someone else, but ended up at Antonio's door. Antonio panics and asks Anna to pose as his wife. This is a pretty funny sequence and it gets better when they encounter Milly, who unwittingly has an adventure of her own. This part of the story is in Italian, so be prepared to read subtitles.

The final story is the weirdest of the four, but it probably made me laugh more than the others. We meet Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni). He's boring. He does the same thing every day, wakes up at the same time, passes the same neighbors, and does the same boring tasks in his boring job. Even his wife looks bored when they are in bed together. One morning, Leopoldo is engulfed by photographers and journalists as he leaves for work. He assumes they have the wrong man, but they are fascinated by him and want to know the smallest details about his mundane existence. He is even asked to appear on TV. Bemused at first, Leopoldo warms to the task, eventually coming to appreciate his fame. Then, just as suddenly, it's gone. I'm sure Allen is commenting on the way the media reacts in modern society, making unremarkable people briefly famous. Did he have reality TV in mind, I wonder?

The whole mix is enjoyable and a pleasure to watch. Writing this, I wish I could see it again right now. One minor complaint is that each story was given a complete resolution and it felt a little cumbersome. I wouldn't have minded if the characters had continued on with their lives and left me wondering a little.

If you are a fan of Woody Allen, it's hard to believe that you won't like To Rome with Love. No, it's not as good as Midnight in Paris, but it's still better than most of the movies released this year. Don't be put off by the critics. See it and make up your own mind. Which European city will Allen take us to next year?

Overall score 4/5

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