Friday, April 23, 2010

Curmudgeon's heart melted by indie rom-com

It seems I'm always disappointed in movies these days, but over the past few weeks, I've been pleasantly surprised by three movies: Ira & Abby, The Boondock Saints, and Were the World Mine. The only thing they have in common is that they are non-studio independent films. First up is Ira & Abby, a delightful post-Woody Allen romantic comedy set in New York. Ira (Chris Messina) is a cute-nebbishy guy stuck in dissertation hell (i.e., he says he's working on his dissertation but he's not and will almost certainly never finish). His love life is in neutral as well; it's expected that he'll marry his long time girlfriend, even though they break up and get back together regularly. After his analyst suggests that he needs to make some changes in his life, he visits a gym, only half-inclined to join, but winds up falling for Abby (Jennifer Westfeldt), a charming, slightly scatterbrained membership salesperson at the gym--think Phoebe on Friends but smarter. The very afternoon they meet, they have sex in her office and she proposes marriage--think Dharma and Greg, but better.

The rest of the movie follows the course of their relationship from the wedding to the first fights to an annulment, to a reconciliation and remarriage, to the realization that they still don't really know each other all that well, and so on. The proceedings do have a Woody Allen feel and for me, that's a compliment (though Manhattan is not shot as magnificently as in Allen's movies, and the wit is not as pointed here). There are a few marginal sidekick characters, including a small bit from a pre-Mad Men Jon Hamm who you won't recognize, but the real supporting gems are the parents: Judith Light and Robert Klein as Ira's folks, both analysts, and Fred Willard and Frances Conroy as Abby's folks, more carefree people who do voice-over ad work. In fact, eventually the movie becomes almost as much about them as about the title pair, especially when Willard and Light embark on an unlikely affair.

All the actors are just wonderful, and though the writing (by co-star Westfeldt) and directing (by Robert Cary) are strong, the acting is the reason to watch this film. Messina (Julie's husband in Julie & Julia) is a perfect young 21st century Woody Allen-type, though much sexier and a just a bit less neurotic; Westfeldt brings a welcome seriousness and intelligence to her free spirit character. All four parents are quite good, though Light (seen above with Willard) is a real scene-stealer. Good supporting performances are given by a number of actors (including Jason Alexander) who play various analysts and counselors along the way, leading to a climactic scene in which all the therapists and patients gather in one big room. And I'm torn about whether or not to spoil the ending; I think I won't, except to say that the "message" about love and marriage isn't quite what you will expect. It's just a lovely, light, fun comedy that I recommend highly.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Odds and ends (3), with bonus George Clooney content

Finally, a quick buzz through another handful of recent viewings:

A Serious Man: Not a Coen Brothers high (Blood Simple, Fargo) or a low (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There), but an interesting middling effort. Set in 1967, the film follows the tribulations that beset a college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, pictured with Alan Arkin): his wife is leaving him for an old friend, his son is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah while getting in trouble for listening to the Jefferson Airplane in school and facing the wrath of a bully, his at-odds brother (Richard Kind) is staying on the couch while he sorts his life out (part of which seems to include a sexual attraction to men), and his sexy neighbor invades his dreams. Stuhlbarg is a Job figure, not understanding why he is suffering, and like Job he gets advice from three men, in this case, rabbis. Just as suddenly as things went awry, things get better, but as the last moments of the movie suggest, not for long. The performances are good and as with most Coen Brothers movies, it looks great, but honestly it just didn't stay with me long. One minor point: though clearly set in 1967, references are made to two albums (Santana's Abraxas and Creedence Clearwater's Cosmo's Factory) which didn't come out until 1970. This seems like an odd mistake for Coens to make, unless it means something--Abraxas was a mystic Gnostic figure and the comsos is the cosmos.

A Single Man: Another movie about a college professor beset by troubles; here, Colin Firth gives a superb Oscar-nominated performance as a gay man in the early 60's dealing with grief over the death of his younger lover a year earlier. The film is set on one day in his life as he attempts to put his life in order and commit suicide. However, the attentions of a sympathetic student, who may be in the process of coming out, make his change his mind. The ending, like that of A Serious Man, suggests that life may simply be a cosmic joke. The movie is good, but Firth's performance is outstanding.

The Informant!: True story of a whistle-blower (Matt Damon, who put on a real beer belly for the role) who isn't quite as noble as he appears. The tone is one of dark humor, and Damon is quite good as the strange layers of his character begin peeling off, but again, not a movie that stuck with me.

Bright Star: The real-life romance of John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne; very much an old-fashioned Masterpiece Theater kind of film, and if that's what you're in the mood for, you'll like it. Ben Whishaw is very good as Keats, but no one else stands out.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Quirky little stop-motion animation film about a fox who, despite trying to take care of his family and move up in the world, has a hard time fighting his natural urge to steal chickens, and gets in trouble for it. I had never seen a Wes Anderson film until now--most of his movies (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) sound interesting but offputting. This was not offputting, but there's not much to it. Still, it's worth seeing for the animation, the look, and the ubiquitous George Clooney who does the voice of the title character.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Odds and ends (2), or George Clooney can do no wrong

More catching up on winter viewing:

Up in the Air: An Oscar nominee and a success at the box office, this seems like a real oddity in today's movie marketplace: a movie that is so old-fashioned mainstream (and not ironically like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven) that it's almost avant-garde. Now that I think about it, another thing that makes it avant-garde is that, despite a strong narrative and well-developed characters, it works mostly as a sustained mood piece. George Clooney plays a man whose job--getting hired by big companies to come in and fire long-time employees--keeps him on the road most of the year, and that's the way he likes it. When a nervous young employee (Anna Kendrick) proposes that the firings be done from the Tulsa home base via laptop, Clooney worries that his free-floating life of casual relationships and few responsibilities will change, so he takes her on the road to test her new method and to show her what firing in person is all about. As expected, both characters undergo change, but not necessarily how you think they will.

Clooney makes his character a likable, non-mysterious enigma; we never quite get under his skin, but we can feel how comfortable he is spending so much of his life in airplanes and having casual sex with similarly inclined women. Kendrick is unable to make her character stand out, but Vera Farmiga is very good as Clooney's current sex buddy. Clooney has become one our best actors, in the same unassuming way that Cary Grant and James Stewart did. He can take on a wide range of roles, make his characters fleshed-out and feel lived-in, and do it effortlessly--as opposed to Pacino or Nicholson who, good as they are, show the effort (and intend to, I think). This seems to be a mood piece because, even thought the narrative is not static--things happen, people change, emotions are expressed--the whole thing feels very calm, like a smooth cross-country flight; even though there may be a bit of turbulence, nothing mars the smoothness for long. I mean that here as a compliment.

The Men Who Stare at Goats: My other Clooney movie of the season, this one is not as good but Clooney shines anyway. Based loosely on a true story, this focuses on a reporter (Ewan McGregor) who discovers the existence of a small Army unit devoted to developing new-agey techniques, one of which is the ability to affect a living being with your mind--the men stare intently at goats and hope that they will drop dead. The previews made me think of the Coen Brothers doing Kurt Vonnegut, but the film lacks their off-kilter sensibility, despite the fact that the plot is rather off-kilter. Individual performances are solid, including the deadpan McGregor, Clooney as an intense acolyte of the founder of the unit, Jeff Bridges playing that founder in laid-back hippie mode, and Kevin Spacey as the military bad guy. It just doesn't come together; tone and mood are all over the place, even though a consistent tone would seem to be called for (see the Coen Brothers and Vonnegut). But Clooney, who carries much of the movie on his shoulders, is a joy to watch, as always.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Odds and ends (1)

I've been lazy and haven't written much lately, and I have a big backlog of movies to catch up on, so I plan to buzz through most of them very quickly in the next few posts so I can spend more time and space later to write about three movies I have fallen in love with recently. Here are some I didn't love:

Inglourious Basterds: This Oscar nominee, set during WWII, was disappointing. I run hot and cold with Tarentino, and I was definitely cold on this one. The problem was that it felt like 2 different scripts, neither of which got the attention it needed. In the first and most publicized plot, Brad Pitt and a scrappy band of Allied (and mostly Jewish) soldiers go nutty killing Nazis and scalping them; the ones they let live get off with just a swastika carved in their foreheads. In the second, more interesting plot, a young Jewish woman whose entire family had been massacred by the Nazis plots revenge when high Nazi brass, including Hitler, decide to attend the premiere of a new propaganda film (starring a dashing Nazi hero played by Daniel Bruhl, pictured) at the theater she operates. For all the press that the first plot got, Pitt basically has a supporting role here--really, no one actor gets enough time to be a star. The theater story has the makings of a good Hitchcockian thriller, but with the exception of a strong sequence set in a basement cafe, the two storylines come together in a lackluster fashion.

An Education: This Oscar nominee, set in England during the early 60's, was equally disappointing. An Oxford-bound high school student (well played by Carey Mulligan) gets a different kind of education when she falls for an older man (well played by Peter Sarsgaard) who, though charming and successful on the surface, is a bit of a basterd (oops, I mean "bastard"). It's a rather boring coming-of-age story; I like that Sarsgaard isn't a total creep--more like a kid who never quite grew up--and that Mulligan doesn't seem horribly scarred by her experience, but there just isn't much heft to the story. The acting by the two principals (and by Alfred Molina as Mulligan's working-class father) is the main reason to see this bland melodrama.