Friday, January 29, 2010

Film Review - Dragonwyck

Film #11 of 2010 - Dragonwyck

Starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, Dragonwyck is a gothic melodrama about a young woman named Miranda Wells (Tierney) who lives with her family on a farm in Connecticut who is summoned to Dragonwyck, the estate on the Hudson River in New York where her distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn (Price) lives in order for her to be a governess to his young daughter. Van Ryn, who is wealthy, embraces his power as a landowner and is generally a lunatic. Of course, he falls in love with Miranda, and therefore needs to do something about his current wife.

Honestly, there was nothing spectacular about this film, in fact, it was pretty average. I did like the mid-19th century gothic aspect of the film, and Price and Tierney always make a good team, but overall, the story was fairly weak and uninteresting, with characters that seemed to just disappear from the plot if they needed to. Dragonwyck was sufficiently creepy, especially when Price would go into his madman trances, but I think the most significant thing about the film was that it was the first film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who, 4 years later, would go on to write and direct one of my favorite films of all time, All About Eve.

In the words of my stepmom, a fellow classic film lover, who remarked when I asked her about Dragonwyck, "It's just okay, but it's a film you need to see once." I couldn't agree more.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Sherlock Holmes

Film #10 of 2010 - Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Guy Ritchie, (Snatch, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels) Sherlock Holmes is technically a reboot of the Sherlock Holmes film series, though in this era, the best known of them, the old Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940's starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, could be classified better as a slightly longer than one hour drama. Seriously, I got caught up in a marathon of them a few weekends ago on Turner Classic Movies and before I knew it, I had watched about 6 movies in 7 hours. Starring Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and co-starring Jude Law as Dr. Watson, the film focuses on a young, active and fairly depressed Holmes who, despite his general ennui, finds himself drawn to the mystery of a black magic artist named Lord Blackwood who appears to have risen from the dead after being executed for his crimes. Rachel McAdams is Irene Adler, a petty thief who happens to be Holmes' ex, who is working as a double agent for a mysterious patron.

I actually enjoyed Sherlock Holmes a little more than I expected to. I have to admit I had some trepidation after some of his missteps this decade (RocknRolla, marriage to Madonna, Swept Away...) but based on my deep appreciation for his "good" movies (the aforementioned Snatch and Lock, Stock) I was more than willing to give it a shot. Plus, one can't seem to go wrong anymore when Robert Downey Jr. stars in a picture. He definitely delivers in this film, giving us a vital, physical and incredibly flawed Holmes, and though Jude Law seems to be kind of a douche in real life, I have a lot of respect for him as an actor. I loved his dour, though not blundering take on Watson. One character that I considered to be superfluous and only there to drive the plot to the inevitable conclusion and transition to the sequel was McAdams' Irene. It wasn't egregious to the point of complete annoyance, but she did absolutely nothing for me.

As far as the film itself goes, Ritchie did a great job. The cinematography was great and the scenes that were obviously CGI didn't look fake; in fact, it was neat to see Victorian England in the state it was in. I really enjoyed seeing some of Ritchie's signature style pop in once in a while, namely when Holmes was engaged in a fight; the stylish super slow-mo is always an attention getter, when done right, and regardless of how bad the rest of one of his movies can be, Ritchie is able to deliver those kinds of scenes masterfully, in an age when that kind of style is so overdone. I have to give a special mention to the final credits of the film, which were like a work of art, almost like crude watercolor paintings. Title sequences, whether opening or closing credits, are so often overlooked, and sometimes they are as good, if not better than the rest of the film, or significantly add to the general production. (Off the top of my head, the opening and closing credits to Se7en come to mind.)

On a negative note, I think that, while the pacing was decent enough, the film was altogether too long and I think would have benefited from about 15 minutes being chopped from it. Overall, however, Sherlock Holmes turned out to be a good film that set up a franchise that I would definitely be interested to see in the future.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Up in the Air

Film #9 of 2010 - Up in the Air

Jason Reitman, director of Up in the Air has made three films in a row that deal with different subject matters (relationships, politics) but all three have at least one thing in common: they are all really, really good.

I loved the premise of Up in the Air: corporate hatchet man Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a man who travels among thousands daily, yet lives a life of complete solitude. The 1/3 of the year he isn't traveling is spent in a sparsely furnished apartment in Omaha, NE, where he feels an oppressive weight every day he's not jetting off somewhere else. His life in the air is a science; it's his life on the ground that he can't cope with. Throwing a wrench into his well-tuned life is the entry of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a fresh faced young dynamo with bright ideas to make the company she and Clooney work for more efficient and cost-effective - she wants to automate the firing process, which would involve the fired person sitting in front of a terminal getting fired remotely from Omaha. With his own job as it stands being threatened, Bingham is instructed to mentor Keener and show her the ropes of what he does, and the complexities of human interaction during the process. Along the way, Bingham meets and beds Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow constant traveler whose no-strings-attached approach to a relationship appeals to Bingham's philosophy and lifestyle.

Up in the Air is an excellent film that does the nearly impossible: it is extremely entertaining, compelling and full of emotion, but at the same time, has a complexity that is refreshing. More than one person I know who have seen this film have mulled it over for days after they saw it, and even though they were favorable to the film initially, found that the more they thought about it, the more they liked it. The performances in the film weren't so much "performances" as "players", because they were incredibly natural. George Clooney, god love him, has somehow become one of my favorite contemporary actors, something I've fought tooth and nail for years, until I came to the realization that while I don't go to see a film because George Clooney is in it, I go to see all George Clooney films because they look really good. I couldn't help but think during the film how much he has become the modern Cary Grant. Anna Kendrick, who I know from nothing (I understand she's in the Twilight series which, thus far, I haven't touched with a ten foot pole) was awesome in her role as the young over-achiever, and Vera Farmiga, another one of those "oh her" type of actresses, was perfect and completely believable in her role.

This is a film about relationships; friendships, love, even the three main characters made up a makeshift family, and Up in the Air is a very "grown up" movie. Reitman and Sheldon Turner turned out an excellent script that wasn't full of hip jargon like his previous film, Juno, but more of a believable tale that I'm sure many people can and will relate to on some level. Jason Reitman has become a director that, until a few missteps occur, I will follow and look forward to his work. Somehow, based on his track record, I don't think those missteps will happen any time soon, however. This guy is the real deal, and I loved this movie.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Leave Her to Heaven

Film #8 Leave Her to Heaven

This was not the first time I've seen the film Leave Her to Heaven, but it is a film that stands up to multiple viewings. Starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent Harland, a woman with (putting it mildly) a few screws loose and an Electra complex with her late father, who meets and quickly marries Richard (Cornel Wilde), a writer who resembles her father. In order to have Richard all to herself, she blocks out (some, permanently) members of her family and his; scheming to keep Richard's love, at all costs. Leave Her to Heaven also co-stars Jeanne Crain as Tierney's adopted sister Ruth, whom Ellen views as a threat.

I've always considered Leave Her to Heaven to be a somewhat hidden gem, because so much Gene Tierney love goes to the film Laura (another great film). Tierney is really convincing as a seriously mentally ill person (I understand she struggled with mental illness in her "real" life later on) and the lengths she goes to are astounding and really creepy. Tierney is a beautiful actress, and though I think that she coasts on her presence in a few of her other films, she really shows some chops in this film. I've never understood the appeal of Cornel Wilde; he has a face that looks like he's perpetually whining, and it's really hard to get past that. Crain is really good; she has the ability to express strength and vulnerability at the same time, and was able to showcase her talents despite the tour de force performance by Tierney.

Filmed in vivid technicolor that always reminds me of a Douglas Sirk film, Leave Her to Heaven could have just as easily been filmed in black and white and labeled film noir, but I think it would have gotten further lost in film history had it not broken out of noir label and forged its own identity as a suspense-melodrama. Truthfully, when I watched this film, I was sick in bed and only put it on because I'd seen it before and thought I could probably just fall asleep to it. Instead, I found that I not only stayed up and watched the entire movie, but was completely riveted: in my opinion, the sign of a great film.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Film Weekend

With being sick for a while and then work completely monopolizing any part of my brain that has thinking ability, I have been terribly lax with my blog, and hope to catch up on my reviews, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

However, I will NOT be blogging this weekend, or at the very least, not on Saturday because Chris and I will be making our semi-annual drive to Madison to go to the Sundance theater to see a few movies that we can't see around here without jumping through significant hoops. On the menu for Saturday: Crazy Heart, Broken Embraces and A Single Man. I have to admit that I'm the least excited about Crazy Heart, but I've heard from several people that it's a good movie, so I plan to enjoy the experience.

Reviews to come are:

Leave Her to Heaven
Up in the Air
Sherlock Holmes

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More 2010 Films

One of the rules of my personal 100 Movies challenge is that it can include films watched in 2010 that you've seen before. So far this week I watched 2 films with Chris that I've seen before, and while I normally would write a review (even if it's just a capsule review) they were both on my Top 10 list of 2009 so I'm not going to write another blurb about them:

Film #6 of 2010 - Up

Film #7 of 2010
- Night at the Museum 2

Film Review - And Then There Were None

Film #5 of 2010

Based on Agatha Christie's play "Ten Little Indians", And Then There Were None (1945) stars Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston as two of ten guests invited to an island by U.N. Owen (get it?) because they were involved in various crimes in the past, mostly murder. Owen doesn't show up, but the guests get murdered one by one according to the traditional "Ten Little Indians" rhyme. It's up to the quickly diminishing guest list to find out which among them is the murderer.

I've actually seen this film a couple of times in the past two decades because my Mom used to read Agatha Christie novels then pass them on to me. When I was 9 or 10, "Ten Little Indians" was one of my favorites, and when I had the opportunity to see the film I did. I've always thought that this was a really underrated movie: that perhaps under the Hitchcock moniker it would have been more popular. And Then There Were None is extremely suspenseful, well acted and clever. There have been at least eight years since I've last seen the film, and though I remembered who the culprit ultimately was, I forgot the circumstances leading up to it, so it was fun to follow the clues again.

I would highly recommend this film for it's cross-genre appeal; it's definitely a hidden gem.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

At the risk of sounding like I'm either 87 or a technical moron, I'd like to officially marvel at the fact that I'm blogging in bed. From my phone. Crazy.

Film Review - The Notorious Bettie Page

Film #4 of 2010

Bettie Page, one of America's most famous pin-up girls who became notorious for the content of a lot of her pictures probably has a really interesting story to tell: about her childhood, what led her to choose modeling as a profession and then what made her go off the deep end to go full throttle with pictures depicting sado-masochism and role playing, among other things. Unfortunately, The Notorious Bettie Page completely glosses over almost all of her development and spends the better part of an hour showing her various photography sessions, and that's really about it.

Gretchen Mol looks the part as Bettie Page, and if she was truly a wide eyed innocent throughout her entire career who always looked at everything with surprise and wonder, then she nailed the part. The film was stylish and entertaining on a shallow level, I suppose, but when it ended I was like, "Okay, and then what?" which is pretty much what I was saying to myself the entire film. I had heard really good things about this movie, but I just didn't see it, frankly, which is too bad. I suppose there are definitely times when it's best to pick up a book to learn about someone's life rather than hope for a decent biopic, and The Notorious Bettie Page fits that to a "T". Truly disappointing.

2 stars out of 5

Film Review - Away We Go

Film #3 of 2010

I actually decided to hold off on reviewing this movie, because I wasn't sure how I actually felt about it. When all was said and done, I felt a definite sense of detachment, but the question is, "Is that what I was supposed to feel?"

Away We Go is the latest film by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as an unmarried couple in their 30's who embark on a cross-country trip in order to "find their place in the world" before the birth of their baby. Faced with the choice of being with family or friends, or moving somewhere for a job, or just settling down where they think they will be happy, the two encounter a few different types of families in their quest to "be adult" and strive for their own version of perfection.

I loved the flow of Away We Go, and it certainly had a breezy spirit. Unlike some of Mendes' other films, such as the aforementioned American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Away We Go examines relationships, including conflict and the "dark underbelly" of outwardly normal people without becoming overly dark and dramatic. Certainly on the lighter end of the melodramatic spectrum, Away We Go is able to examine extremely flawed relationships without being heavy-handed. However, the lighter tone lends itself to appearing detached, with a lack of focus, which I admit I struggled with. I found that I didn't really care about the characters that much, and, since I actually enjoyed many parts of the film, wondered if this was intentional. Unfortunately, for a film that is so character driven, I don't think that was Mendes' intent.

Krasinski and Rudolph were decent as Verona and Burt, but I fear that my knowledge of one actor and not the other got in the way of viewing their performances. Krasinski was simply his character "Jim" from The Office, only with nerd glasses and a beard that covered most of his face. This isn't necessarily bad, because I think that Burt and Jim are similar characters, but it didn't really showcase any range on Krasinski's part. Since I'm not a Saturday Night Live viewer, I don't know anything about Maya Rudolph, and if her performance was a stretch, but I was torn between wondering if her detached demeanor was intentional or her acting style. Maggie Gyllenhaal does a great job in a cameo that borders between supremely annoying and hilarious, especially during a superb dinner scene.

None of these criticisms killed the film for me, but I am still struggling with how I really felt about Away We Go, and I can't decide whether this is a good or bad thing. The conceit of the film was examining relationships, and finally "becoming an adult", which can occur at many different stages of one's life - and Away We Go succeeded in its task. I definitely had more positive than indifferent feelings for the film, but while this is a positive film overall, there was nothing enlightening or even very exciting that the film offered.

3 out of 5 stars

Catch Up Time

One of the disadvantages of watching movies is that because I intend to review most, if not all, of the films I see, I am perpetually behind on reviews. It's only the 12th day of the year, but I actually have managed to stick to keeping track of the films I've watched with the help of the task pad on my Blackberry.

With Oscar season kicking into high gear, I'm going to be concentrating less on classic films and more on current (hopefully) gems, but I'm looking forward to seeing some good movies, regardless of the era.

I do still have two films on the DVR I'd like to watch when I get caught up with reviews - Death of a Cyclist and the original The Wicker Man, so hopefully I will get a chance to watch them soon!

Friday, January 8, 2010

1 Year/100 Movies Challenge!

The challenge is on! Can YOU see 100 movies in 1 year and write a short capsule review about them? If you'd like to join the challenge, let me know!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Film Club Lists

A few friends and I have been working our way through the IMDB Top 250 list for the past couple of years, and there are also a couple of splinter groups working on other lists as well, such as the AFI Top 100. Though I started out ahead of everyone, there has been a lot of progress made, and I also got to see a lot of really good movies a second time with other people. Now I'm down to the mid-30's range that I need to see, and figured I would share the progress and lists with anyone who may want to either compare what they've seen, or have a guideline for what they may want to see.

You can view our updated lists HERE on my website,

Film Review - Nine

In the film Chicago, Richard Gere sings a song about "giving them the old 'Razzle Dazzle'" in order to put one over the audience, or in his case, the jury in a murder trial. Rob Marshall, the director of Chicago, employs this technique with his latest film, Nine, and, like the situation in the aforementioned film, it works - sort of.

Nine is the musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical film about a famed Italian director who is expected to begin his next film and has lost all of his inspiration and retreats into his fantasies and memories, all the while juggling the many women with whom he has surrounded himself. Some things were changed for Nine, most notably, the addition of several musical numbers. In Nine, the director is Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is not only creatively stuck, but the pressure of his life and image have made him become an emotional cripple. Wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard)is his former leading lady and has had to suffer through Guido's obsession with his work and his many affairs, including his most recent mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz), a vixen whose vulnerability threatens to mess up everything that Guido is attempting to juggle. While struggling to keep afloat and answer to these women and others, he also has to come up with an idea for the film that everyone is anticipating.

Nine is a technically precise film, and is stylish and beautiful. The lighting is dramatic, the cinematography was appropriately flashy and the costumes were great - I loved the look of Day-Lewis and Cotillard in particular. The performances were excellent, and once again it was fun to see actors sing and dance that we're not used to seeing. Kate Hudson, playing Stephanie, a Vogue journalist, seemed to have the most fun during her musical number, "Cinema Italiano" and, though I'm not a fan, I have to admit she did a great job. As Saraghina, a prostitute from Guido's childhood memory, Fergie provided the film's showstopping scene with "Be Italian". Completely wasted was Nicole Kidman as Claudia, Guido's long-time leading lady, who was in the film for about five minutes and whose importance was kind of lost on me. I initially thought that Day-Lewis was woefully miscast in the film, but I think he really made it work; he embodied the role, both emotionally and physically, and had a rumpled sexiness that didn't make it surprising that he was desired by so many women.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous package wasn't quite able to cover up the most serious defect of the film: There just wasn't any substance, and out of all of the characters that are introduced in Nine, (and there are a lot of them) I really only felt for Luisa, though the more I absorbed the character of Carla, the more sympathetic I became, and I think that is due in large part to Cruz's great performance. Though there were a couple of exceptions, namely both of Cotillard's musical numbers, Penelope Cruz's bump-and-grind and the aforementioned Fergie piece, the centerpieces of Nine are the musical numbers, and so many of them didn't make sense. Judi Dench, who stole every scene she was in, had a completely nonsensical and unnecessary song to sing (though, like everyone else in the film, she did it well) and though Sophia Loren was essential as Guido's mother, they just kind of trotted her out for a couple of minutes here and there, and her big scene wasn't really needed to move the story forward. Musicals are always tricky, particularly in this day and age; back in their heyday of the 1940's and 1950's, people would break into song and it was done partly with a wink and a nudge, or the audience would just accept the cheese factor. The scarce modern musical has a much tougher task, with both the fact that musicals generally don't sell anymore (that's why they died out as a genre in the first place) and we as an audience are a lot more cynical. When it's done well, like Moulin Rouge! or even Chicago, it's a revelation.

Nine, however gorgeous and entertaining it was, was not a revelation, however. Though it kept my attention throughout, and it did succeed in ending well (when I was really beginning to wonder how Marshall was going to reel everything in) I was left with feelings of apathy and detachment. Though I can appreciate the "razzle dazzle" I also want some substance. The glimpses of substance came between musical numbers, when there was a "real" story going on, and I found myself getting irritated when it would be interrupted by another musical number, particularly one that didn't really have a place there. I think I'm going move on and experience the story the way I want to see it: by watching Fellini's 8 1/2.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Film Review - Julie & Julia

There are some films that are, admittedly, fluffy pieces that gloss over harsh realities. Julie & Julia is one of those films; however, its easy formula works really well, considering the subject matter.

Starring Meryl Streep as the iconic Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a Child disciple who decides to put her writing skills to use and attempt to make a mark on the literary world by cooking her way through Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and blogging about her experiences, Julie & Julia weaves the lives of these two women and shows how, though they are in different generations and countries, their lives are more similar than first imagined.

Or are they? The focus on Child's life is the period between the late 1940's and the 1950's when Child, living in Paris with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) discovers her love of French cuisine and her desire to learn to cook it. After attending Le Cordon Bleu cooking school as the only female in the class, she teams up with two other female french foodies who have written an enormous cookbook for American women, but need Child to help them with the editing and testing process. Though she encounters some resistance, first when she enrolls in the cooking school and later, when she is attempting to get their book published, her hard work and the undying support of her husband allow her to persevere. On the other hand, Powell is already an accomplished amateur cook and self-professed "foodie" who indeed comes up with an excellent idea for a blog and certainly a daunting task in tackling the cookbook, but it seems that her success either comes really easily or the realities of it are simply not addressed. As a blogger myself, I am surely one of millions of bloggers who will probably never see their own blog go viral enough where it is a featured blog on Salon or a New York Times article will be written about us. Normally this would not be a point of contention with me, particularly in such a non-challenging film, but there was such a focus on the blog itself that it seems the rise in popularity should have been addressed at some point.

Adams, who is quickly becoming the new, much less annoying Meg Ryan for this generation does a good job as Powell, considering the shallowness of the character. Streep, who is awesome in everything she does, completely embodies what I would assume Julia Child was really like and is completely delightful. There were so many times during the film that she delivers a line that is so perfectly executed and natural that I would wonder if it was actually ad-libbed. ("I'm growing as we speak!") Stanley Tucci is another actor who is always good in everything he does, and he and Streep had great chemistry and showed how truly in love the Childs were. One never thinks of Julia Child as a sexual person, but she and Paul were madly in love with one another and were not afraid to show it. I really loved that relationship in the film.

As stated earlier, Julie & Julia doesn't take a lot of chances, and indeed, does fall into standard "chick flick" territory at times, which I suppose can be attributed to Nora Ephron's direction. (Can she possibly make a film where the main female characters doesn't have a wise-cracking, slightly weird looking best friend?) But then again, it doesn't really pretend to be anything more than what it is, and with a couple of exceptions, mainly the glaring omissions in Powell's development, I was really okay with that, and I found that the film was actually pretty good and really charming, overall. I realized that throughout most of the film I had a smile on my face, and I laughed out loud more than a dozen times, mostly during Meryl Streep's time onscreen. I know a couple of people who are fond of the phrase, "It is what it is." and that accurately sums up Julie & Julia. If you don't come into this film expecting to be anything but charmed and entertained, you won't be disappointed.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Snow Day/Classic Film Day?

Apparently we could get up to 8 inches of snow tomorrow, and after reading about Robert Osborne's wonderful life and real estate here I have visions of curling up in my chair in the living room with the cats and watching movies while the snow falls. Currently on my DVR is Anatomy of a Murder and The Wicker Man (the original, of course) but I have a whole bevy of films I could choose from and be very happy to enjoy!

However, I'm not going to hold my breath, and the reality is that I will be going to see Nine tonight with Jay and Matt, probably will be underwhelmed if most of the reviews I've read and feedback from friends are true, and we'll have just enough snow to make it really annoying to drive and park in...but not to call off work for.

Julie & Julia review forthcoming - unfortunately that's the only film I've watched so far this year.