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Movie Reviews: All Recent, Some Decent

Easy A (2010)

I had high hopes for this one—I can be a big fan of high school movies when they feel realistic and are well done. But because I’ve seen those movies and enjoyed them, this one felt like multiple retreads. The brash-outsider-takes-on-the-high-school-establishment trope was done better in Mean Girls. The satire of self-righteous high school Christianity was done better in Saved!. The portrayal of authority figures (teachers, parents) who have got it less together than the youths was done better in the highly underrated Orange County.

At least none of those movies are mentioned deliberately. There’s sort of a metacommentary when Emma Stone’s character describes all of her favorite moments from classic teen pics (The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, Can’t Buy Me Love) and then some of them are later (deliberately) recreated by another character. Now throw in the deliberate loose retelling of The Scarlet Letter. There is an obscure line between charming homage and further grinding down well-worn tropes, and Easy A lumbers right over that line. It’s a Frankenmovie.

Also troubling me: Emma Stone’s character dresses like a Hollywood starlet (perfect hair, makeup, skinny jeans, tank tops, dangly earrings) before she dresses like a whore – yet we’re supposed to believe that this girl is a nobody (boo hoo!) at her high school? They couldn’t have at least put a pair of glasses on her? A ponytail? A baggy sweatshirt? Maybe everyone at this school is just living in some bizarro world, because the most popular girl in school is apparently the mildly greasy and bloated-looking Amanda Bynes?

Any good points? Well, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Stone’s laid-back parents are hi-larious. It’s nice to see Lisa Kudrow taking on work, too. The scenery is gorgeous (the movie is set and filmed in artsy, winey Ojai, California). But ultimately a disappointment, only because I’d heard good things about it. Watch any of the other teen movies I’ve mentioned already, because they are all legitimately good and entertaining in ways that Easy A is not, with the possible exception of Can’t Buy Me Love, which I hate, but that may be more about my aversion to all things Dempsey.

Ahead: the indie, the thriller, the Oscar bait, and the one with the girl who really likes cows

Please Give (2010)

Catherine Keener as a woman whose career as an antique furniture dealer is making her feel like a scavenger. She is invited into the homes of deceased people to appraise their leftovers, underplaying the value of the furniture and knickknacks for the adult sons and daughters who really just want to get around to emptying out the place so they can get back to their lives. She sees this basically happening within her own life as she and her husband plan for when their elderly neighbor will die so that they can take over her place and extend their own square footage, trying to discuss plans for this future event without being ghoulish.

They have the woman and her two adult granddaughters over for dinner and find that one of the granddaughters (Amanda Peet) feels basically the same way. She expects that they’ll buy the place and wants to hear all about their plans for it. She’s dismissive about whether grandma can hear them plotting or not; Granddaughter is kind of a bitch on wheels in a way I found enjoyable. Keener catches herself saying to her, “Yeah, we can’t wait.” Eeesh. The other granddaughter (Rebecca Hall) actually cares about grandma—who kind of is a vicious old crone—and runs herself ragged doing the old lady’s errands.

So Keener tries to be a better person, failing spectacularly at all the old volunteerism standbys—reading to old people, afternoons with disabled kids. All the while she overlooks that everyone else in her life is basically struggling—her own daughter (Sarah Steele) with her awkward, zitty adolescence, her husband (Oliver Platt) with a mid-life crisis, and the nice granddaughter (Hall) who is just kind of reeling with uncertainty about what to do with her life. She will eventually reach out to these people instead of giving all her five-spots to the tranny who lives on their street.

It’s kind of a weird movie with a message that gets quite muddled in the telling. It seems to want to conclude by saying, “You know what, maybe we are rich and maybe we do make our money by overcharging yuppies for junk, but it’s our right and we can still be good people and take care of each other.” But it also doesn’t want to the be the movie to outright say that, heh. Catherine Keener enthusiasts might want to check it out, however; she is terrific in it.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

A sort of political, grown-up thriller, the likes of which were super common in the 1970s and which you don’t see too much of any more, directed by professional collector of public hate Roman Polanski. He builds the menace adequately, but still it’s not exactly Chinatown. The story has to do with a professional “ghost” (ghost writer, or one who writes the memoirs of a famous person who couldn’t adequately perform the job themselves, but who is left off the title page to maintain the illusion) who is hired to rewrite the life story of a former British prime minister. The previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances, plus the entire political camp of the ex-PM is mobilized to fight accusations of human rights violations the PM supposedly supported while in office.

The story felt procedural, plot-driven and not character-driven, and the only actor I think made a really goodi mpression was Pierce Brosnan as the ex-prime minister who exudes power, whether he’s ordering a sandwich from an underling or barking into his phone to get the Secretary of State on the phone. Also, I massively covet his island-bound getaway house with the amazing windowed wall in the study.

That’s just house porn, is what that is.

Ewan McGregor, who I usually enjoy quite a bit, was only OK here as the ghost writer; not much personality to be had, other than “the guy writing” and then later “the guy in the high speed chase” and so on. I think he would have benefited by being about 20% cheekier. Come on, he’s Ewan McGregor. You know he can do it.

Olivia Williams as Brosnan’s wife is good, although they have her playing 10-15 years older than she is, which cannot be flattering. Brit Tom Wilkinson shows up, weirdly, in a crucial role as an American professor. His American accent has been better, notably in Eternal Sunshine. Jim Belushi in a bald cap shows up as a bulldog of an editor. But the worst case of miscasting is BY FAR Kim Cattrall as Brosnan’s no-nonsense chief assistant.  Not that I don’t believe her as the high-powered type—she did that convincingly for years on Sex and the City—but that was in the glossy world of PR, not politics, and here she never really seemed to be doing anything important, other than clacking into the room in her million dollar heels, asking how things were going, and then clacking out again. She was also sometimes a lightning rod for the jealousy of Williams, as the wife. Plus apparently Cattrall couldn’t decide if her character was American or British herself, and thus split the different accent-wise. She sounds ridiculous.

The code that the ghost writer eventually breaks seems too obvious—like, the movie would have been half as long if he had just consulted Nancy Drew first—and the ending that thinks it’s a twist sort of felt anticlimactic. So…this movie exists, it’s pleasantly suspenseful for awhile and it’s pretty to look at. And that’s about it!

The Last Station (2009)

A story about the family life of famed author Tolstoy in his later years, when he has a cult of admiring followers, preaching intellectualism and asceticism. Tolstoy sees it as sort of a joyful experiment, as well as a means of polite rebellion against a corrupt monarchy. His youthful followers are either starry-eyed and worshipful, or, in the case of one weirdo played by Paul Giamatti, looking for a way to exploit the movement for money. Tolstoy’s wife, on the other hand, doesn’t think much of any of it. Giamatti hires a young man played by ever-adorable James McAvoy  to be Tolstoy’s secretary (and Giamatti’s personal spy) and he gets deeply involved in the push-pull between Tolstoy and Madame Tolstoya.

Helen Mirren, as Madame Tolstoya, is pleasantly batshit crazy. Not literally, really, but just what we moderners would call a “high maintenance” woman. She doesn’t show her displeasure with her husband or his intellectual pursuits through barbed words, or fits of weeping, but rather through pointing pistols at wall-hung pictures that displease her and firing four rounds into them. Or running from the house in her nightgown, wailing, hair streaming, and pitching herself into the lake.

Of course, she’s Helen Mirren, and we as a culture decided at some point that everything she does is awesome, and it kind of works. She has some more lucid moments, too, such as when she describes to the young secretary how her life with Tolstoy used to be, how she was his secretary while he wrote War and Peace, how she typed out that massive tome through six versions, how they sat at the dinner table and discussed whether Natasha would say that to Pierre or perhaps something else. It’s hard not to feel for a female character who has been entirely marginalized by her husband, especially in an era when she couldn’t just go and get herself a law degree or a big bag of Mary Kay to sell.

The story itself is a bit sluggish—lots of words about Tolstoy’s will being rewritten, and then it is, but then it doesn’t matter anyway, etc. etc. The acting is first-rate from Mirren and Christopher Lee as Tolstoy, both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their troubles.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

I read this book back in November or thereabouts, and I found it OK—not quite worth the hype it received (National Book Critics Circle Award, Booker Prize nominations, Time magazine’s Best Novel of 2005). I had some problems with the narrative style, which I can go into more specifically if I ever get around to reviewing it. But the movie version managed to solve every problem I had with the novel; it was lovely.

It’s more or less a sci fi movie, but one set in a most realistic-looking world. It’s about people who are cloned solely to have their organs harvested when they reach adulthood. They spend their childhood locked away in boarding schools, having little to no contact with the outside world and then grow up to live mostly in medical centers. The movie is pleasantly vague about all of these details, how the system works. The characters talk about “completing” and “possibles” without anyone having to flat-out define those terms, letting the audience glean it from context. There is one scene, unfortunately, where a teacher sits all the kids down and explains in the most basic terms what they have been brought into this world for, a scene that did not occur in the book and which I don’t think was needed.

The main three characters are two girls (Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan) and a boy (Andrew Garfield) who grow up into a complicated love triangle. Keira Knightley looks really good with that long shaggy hair. Don’t know why she keeps it so short and severe in her regular life; maybe Chanel would fire her if she went too earthy. Anyway, her character is sort of a mean girl, imperious and manipulative, which fits Knightley like a glove (whether that’s a flattering endorsement is up to her, I guess). She dates Garfield and lords over Mulligan, who are both good in more understated roles. All three characters have kind of a cold English reserve, but their combined acting abilities allow viewers to still sympathize with their shitty lots in life.

The Secret in Their Eyes / El secreto de sus ojos (2009)

This movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year, a fairly reliable mark of quality, and yet I sat through these two subtitled hours marveling at just how good it was. Set in Argentina, it’s a murder investigation movie (and I’ll jump into those like an ice cream sundae) that takes place along two narrative timelines—the original investigation of the crime (a rape/murder) in the late 1970s and the present day, when the investigator is spending his retirement trying to turn the case into a novel.

The case is not unsolved, exactly, and the movie wisely lets us figure that out slowly. With some intelligent parsing of the clues, the detective and his drunken baffoon partner hone in on a suspect, narrow down a probable location for catching him, and then do. The drunken baffoon gets a great moment where he correctly interprets some of the suspect’s letters, proving that the character who is written to be comic relief can be SO MUCH MORE.

Anyway, the story’s not over with the arrest, because they can’t hold him; plus there is still the sad-eyed widower struggling to find meaning in the horror. Thus the investigator still obsessing over the crime 30 years later. Also, he has cultivated this decades-long romantic affection for his lady chief, a really great character who somehow manages to be capable and ambitious without being invulnerable. She even manages to shake down a suspect while seeming terrified of him every minute. And she looks cute both young and old.

And then a twist ending that is both shocking and completely believeable! SO GOOD.

Temple Grandin (2010)

This was a made-for-HBO movie, and it swept the Emmys and the Globes last year; deservedly so, because it’s both well-acted and particularly well-made. The movie takes pains to be more than the standard biopic. The character of Temple Grandin sees things in a patently unusual way, and so the movie does its best to show us how Temple is seeing them—often super-literal, such as when she hears the term “animal husbandry” and imagines cows having a wedding ceremony. We get to see that delightful image and laugh along with her. (While her oblivious teacher is like, “what’s so funny? That’s what it’s called.”)

Grandin is a real living person—who made quite a splash at both of those awards shows with her boisterous cheering—a woman with autism who combined her unique gift for understanding architecture and machines with her love of animals to become a design pioneer in the cattle industry. It sounds ridiculously boring, but it’s hilariously not. When she creates a humane dunk tank for cows that need washing, the whole thing is slowly demonstrated for a reporter (and for us in the audience, of course). It seems brilliant, and the movie makes it clear how all the weird little quirks that make up Temple contributed to her success. (In addition to her engineer’s mind, she also ‘understands’ the cow mentality beyond what anyone else had previously done, up to and including studying their unique moos.)

Grandin’s autism is a major factor in all of this, of course; despite being fiercely intelligent, she has trouble relating to people. She is easily frustrated when circumstances don’t swing her way, which they often don’t. But her ability to function in school, in the workplace, living on her own, etc. makes her a high-functioning autistic individual, and her openness about her condition and about how she adapted to the world when it couldn’t adapt to her made her an activist for that community. The movie touches on that, as well, though it misses one major puzzle piece: the movie flashes back to Temple as a small child, who is so lost in her own thoughts that she doesn’t speak or acknowledge when she’s being spoken to. Her mother takes her to a doctor, who APPALLINGLY lets her know that autism is the result of the mother having withheld affection at a crucial point in development. (Suck it, 1950s medicine!) And, of course, he recommends sticking her in a home somewhere and forgetting about her. Temple’s mom doesn’t believe any of this (good for her!) and continues to attempt to make a connection with Temple. The last scene we see of little Temple and her mother is Temple staring vacantly at a chandelier while her mother desperately tries to get her to imitate words and sounds.

The next we see of Grandin, she’s a lucid, talking preteen who is interviewing for boarding school. She’s still got social problems and she spins on a playground swing to calm her nerves, but it’s a huge leap from where she was before. I wanted to see a breakthrough moment. How did it happen? When did she speak? Her mother must have figured out how to give her basic educational skills—speaking, counting, reading. How did she do it? (Also, where’s that woman’s medal? Because damn.) I wonder if either she or Grandin have written a book. It would probably be worth looking at.

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