Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trailer Review: Happy Tears

Release Date: February 2010

Website: IMDB page

Starring: Demi Moore, Parker Posey, Rip Torn, Ellen Barkin

My Review: I haven’t seen Happy Tears, but after watching the trailer, it feels all too familiar. Two adult siblings—one dutiful and dependable, the other scattered and self-centered—are forced to deal with an ailing parent. But said ailing parent is feisty and stubborn, refusing to go gentle into that good night. Can this strained family pull together and give each other the help and support they all need?

What makes Happy Tears feel like an also-ran is that it cobbles together elements of movies already in existence. The whole feuding siblings/medical crisis plot reminds me of Marvin’s Room. The friction between polar opposite siblings is very Home for the Holidays and Parenthood. And the character of the sassy, sex-craving geriatric is just like every other sassy, sex-craving geriatric character to show up in hundreds of recent movies.

What may help Happy Tears to be more than a ghost of movies past is its cast. Demi Moore and Parker Posey are the dueling sisters, Rip Torn—who is always a great curmudgeon—is their father, and Ellen Barkin is his new “ladyfriend” who helps to give him a new lease on life. All are relatively well-known and respected actors, but not overwhelmingly present in today’s movies. The movie’s biggest draw will most likely be fans of these lesser seen actors, because the plot doesn’t look like anything new.

Bottom Line: This is definitely a rental movie, if anything. It’ll have to get some stellar reviews to make me look past both the recycled plot and the horrible title.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tim Burton at MoMA

This is an admittedly lazy blog post, and I've been an admittedly lazy blogger as of late. I blame it on this gross time of year that combines post-holiday depression, lack of sunlight, an endless stretch until the next big holiday, and crappy weather into one big ball of "meh." Today it rained sideways, thus rendering my umbrella completely useless, which wouldn't have been half as annoying if it hadn't happened in January, when it should be snowing fat, fluffy flakes and making me crave hot chocolate with marshmallows.

So since it's the ultimate time for indoor activities, get thee to the Museum of Modern Art to check out the Tim Burton exhibition that is there until April 26. A good number of props and costumes from his films are on display, like Edward Scissorhands' suit and The Nightmare Before Christmas figures, but the real treat is the abundance of sketches and projects from his early years. Either Burton or his parents must be hoarders, because on display are things he wrote, drew, and created from his grade schools days of coping as the "weird kid" in his Burbank neighborhood to his college years as a promising young artist. In other words, all the cool stuff our parents probably threw out ages ago, making our future museum exhibitions completely lame.

New Yorkers love their gothic artists, so pre-order timed tickets online to avoid the entrance line. And the earlier you can get there, the better; the exhibit fills up fast and there's plenty to see, so the last thing you need is to feel rushed to leave. Unfortunately, photographs aren't allowed in the exhibit, but one of Burton's charming creatures is available for photos in the lobby:

"Kidnap the Sandy Clause, beat him with a stick; Lock him up for 90 years, see what makes him tick!"


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Trailer Review: MacGruber

Release Date: April 23, 2010

Website: IMDB page

Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Val Kilmer, Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe, Maya Rudolph

My Review: Making movies based on “popular” Saturday Night Live sketches is a tradition that goes back nearly 30 years (I leave it to you to define “popular” on your own terms here). But for every The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, there are dozens more like Superstar, The Ladies Man, and A Night at the Roxbury. Which proves something that infants manage to learn in the first years of life: Something that’s funny for three minutes isn’t necessarily funny for 90 minutes.

The fact that SNL hasn’t really been funny in…so long I can’t count back that far is enough to make me extremely apprehensive about the release of their latest brainchild, MacGruber. Spoofing the 1980’s television series MacGyver, the MacGruber sketches feature Will Forte in a mullet wig trapped in various warehouses, where he’s forced to disassemble a bomb, with Kristen Wiig as his harried assistant and the weekly host as some poor bastard being subjected to MacGruber’s ineptitude.

What makes the MacGruber sketches amusing, but not necessarily hilarious, are how short they are. Each sketch lasts about two minute (or 30 seconds, in bomb time), and three of them are played throughout the SNL episode, with the direness of the situation and MacGruber’s weekly personal conflict escalating in each one. They’re quick and to the point, and each one inevitably ends with an explosion. For the combined air time of six minutes, I can dig it. But for a whole movie? That’s asking a lot, even for those who are easily amused.

The MacGruber trailer does have a few laughs to offer, but mainly due to the fact that it’s a red band trailer, meaning foul language and partial nudity are allowed. I don’t know if I would have found it so amusing if it didn’t feature Will Forte commenting on all the “fucking wires” when the bomb he has to disassemble has more than three possible wires to cut. I do like the casting of Val Kilmer as the villain, and anything that features Powers Boothe can’t be all bad (right?). Ryan Phillippe also joins the cast as part of MacGruber’s crew, and naturally Kristen Wiig is there, because SNL doesn’t do anything without her.

Bottom Line: While I have no intention of running to the theater to see MacGruber, I may possibly rent it. Or wait for it to come onto cable. More specifically, premium cable, because you know it won’t be nearly as funny with all the swearing dubbed out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 Golden Globe Awards Post-Mortem

Well, I had several misfires in my predictions for Golden Globe winners (see full list of winners here), but whatever. I never claimed to have any idea what I’m talking about.

The ceremony itself was just sort of “meh.” Ricky Gervais did a fine job as host with what little air time they gave him. The Globes usually operate without a host, and for good reason; one isn’t needed. But Gervais put on a good game face, cracked wise, and shamelessly plugged some of his own projects when given the chance. Here are some moments from the night that stuck out for me:

Everybody Hates NBC

Everybody knows about the current debacle going on at NBC, and apparently, every celebrity has an opinion on it. Between the red carpet interviews and the moments on stage, celebrities like Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Julianna Margulies, Tina Fey, and the governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had snide comments to make about the way NBC does business. My favorite was Margulies’, who after winning the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Drama for her role in The Good Wife thanked CBS for believing in the 10:00 drama. NBC better make their next move carefully, because they are poised to lose favor with a lot of important names.

Sandra Bullock Wins for The Blind Side?

I find Sandra Bullock movies fun and charming, for the most part, but I have never considered her an award-winning actress. And when she was up for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama against Gabourey Sidibe, I figured she didn’t have a prayer. Then when Mo’nique won the first prize of the evening for her supporting role in Precious, I would have bet Sidibe was a lock for the win. And in my opinion, she should have been. But somehow Bullock walked away with the award and I wonder how the Hollywood Foreign Press forgot about Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous and All About Steve.

Glee Wins for Best Television Series – Comedy?

I watch Glee. I enjoy Glee. I even occasionally sing along with Glee. But Glee is not the type of show that should win awards; it has so many plot holes, its production values leave a lot to be desired (the sound dubbing on the musical numbers can be painful to watch sometimes), and it struggles to straddle the line between comedy and drama, often unable to decide which end of the spectrum it wants to be on. I was expecting 30 Rock to win—again—but if the Globes were determined to give the prize to a new show, it should have been Modern Family, which has been consistently funny since its pilot episode and has already firmly established its voice. Glee is still struggling too much to figure out what type of show it wants to be to make it ready for awards, despite the cult-like following of fans it has.

Helen Mirren is Still the Classiest Dame in the Room

At every awards ceremony, Helen Mirren manages to outshine actresses that are half her age. She’s always dressed gorgeously—and age-appropriate—and is classy and gracious when she appears on stage. Maybe she should be put on the NBC board of directors; she’d whip them into shape with her cool British manners in no time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Trailer Review: Multiple Sarcasms

Release Date: March 2010

Website: IMDB page

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Dana Delany, Mira Sorvino, Mario Van Peebles, Stockard Channing

My Review: Is it just me, or does it seem like Timothy Hutton is in the middle of making a big comeback? According to his IMDB profile, he’s been working relatively steadily over the years, but the past couple of years he seems to be cropping up in more recognized projects. For years I just knew him as the “that guy who was the kid in Ordinary People,” but now he’s featured in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, starring with Meg Ryan in Serious Moonlight, leading a band of merry misfits in the television series Leverage, and carrying the entire movie Multiple Sarcasms.

Set in 1979, Multiple Sarcasms features Hutton as a middle-aged man who seems to have everything going for him: He has a good job as an architect, a loving wife, a bright and affectionate daughter, and a lifelong best friend. But as he starts to dwell on the fact that his life is now half over, he begins to question some of the choices he made. So he does what any sane person would do: He gives up his successful career to write a play based on his life so far, even going so far as to enlist the help of a friend who’s a literary agent before he’s even started writing.

Multiple Sarcasms has a pretty impressive supporting case, with Dana Delany as Hutton’s wife who struggles to be supportive while actually loathing his new turn in life. Mira Sorvino is his best friend since childhood, and Stockard Channing is the ball-busting agent he enlists to sell his forthcoming play. Mario Van Peebles also makes an appearance, sporting a pretty kickin’ afro.

Bottom Line: The trailer itself is kind of awful, deciding to abandon that whole “show, don’t tell” thing and instead using an irritating narrator to explain every clip you’re seeing. But I’m willing to chalk it up to “small movie = small marketing budget” since the cast and premise gives me hope that this could be a pretty good—though undoubtedly unrecognized—little movie.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Theater Review: Present Laughter

Location: American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42 Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Roundabout Theatre site

Starring: Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray

My Review: In my second helping of Noël Coward within the past year (the first being Blithe Spirit), I’m left with the impression that his plays must have seem hilarious to an audience of stuffy Brits when they first premiered over 50 years ago, but they’re starting to show their age. And while I don’t have any problem appreciating a dated show, I do fine it frustrating when it’s presented as unevenly as this one.

Present Laughter is a chaste sex comedy set in the late-1930s that focuses on the romantic exploits of beloved stage actor Garry Essendine—a ego-centric man in his 50s (or younger, depending who he’s impressing) planning a trip to Africa. But the few weeks leading up to his getaway grow increasingly complicated as he finds himself being pursued by various admirers. First there’s the young actress who swears he’s the guy for her, then a young male playwright who insists that Garry be in his new (and awful) play, and finally wife of one of his producers who may or may not already be having an affair with another producer. And then there’s Garry’s sort-of ex-wife, Liz, who left him years ago, but never got an official divorce and continues to drop in for regular visits. Garry’s main concern in life is that everyone have a good opinion of him, so he attempts to hide various infractions from certain members of his inner circle, which leads to a rather convoluted send-off to Africa.

The main problem this production has is that it can’t decide if it wants to be a droll, witty sort of comedy, or a slapstick farce. So, unable to choose, it attempts to do both. The majority of the cast adopts a stiff and stodgy British exterior, attempting to be prim and proper despite the madness going on around them. But then Brooks Ashmanskas, playing the overzealous young playwright Roland Maule, leaps and cavorts around the stage in some kind of clownish mania. Even once the play was done I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be portraying. Is he flamboyantly gay? A star-struck stalker? Mentally unbalanced? An eccentric artist? Possibly any combination of these? I have no idea, and while his carefully directed pratfalls and wild gestures were obviously played for laughs, they really just created a jarring imbalance from the rest of the serenely performing cast.

What saves Present Laughter from completely falling apart in this uneven production is the presence of stage veteran Victor Garber as Garry Essendine. Garry is pompous, preening, and proud, and Mr. Garber captures all of this flawlessly, while managing to keep Garry somewhat likable. Watching him try to keep his cool while everyone around him loses theirs creates some of the best moments in the show. He also brings a childlike quality to the role, because at his core, Garry is really just a large child who indulges in whatever pleasure is immediately available, then worries about the consequences later—if at all.

Perhaps the biggest star of the show is the set. All of the action takes place in Garry’s London apartment, which is lushly decorated in art deco and features leather furniture, various animal prints, a sweeping staircase, and a grand piano in the foyer. When the curtain first rises on the cast-less stage you get a few moments to let the setting sink in before the action starts, and it’s clear from these first moments that this is a man’s place, and he’s a man who is loathe to accept any permanent feminine influence in his life.

The supporting cast is respectable, if not remarkable. The one standout—in a good way, unlike Mr. Ashmanskas—is Harriet Harris as Garry’s secretary. She’s quite possibly the one woman in his life that Garry hasn’t ever been romantically involved, but yet his relationship with her is closer than any of his other female relationships. Ms. Harris is probably just as much a stage legend as Mr. Garber, and the two easily play off each other and give the impression that they’ve had years to perfect the ease of this working relationship.

Bottom Line: While not a poor production, Present Laughter is ultimately a forgettable one. With its outdated jokes and inconsistent presentation of the characters, it’s the sort of show that makes you say, “I liked X, but I didn’t like Y,” and then immediately forget everything you’ve just seen. It would be great to see Victor Garber and Harriet Harris appear together in another—and more memorable—show, since the moments they share onstage are the best Present Laughter has to offer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Movie Review: Up in the Air

Rated: R

Website: Official Up in the Air site

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

My Review: There’s not a whole lot I can say about Up in the Air that hasn’t already been said a thousand times; it’s timely, poignant, funny, sad, uncomfortably true to life, and an all-around great movie. And yes, if it starred anyone other than George Clooney, it probably would have been a disaster.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a corporate stooge that you would love to hate, if only he weren’t so mild-mannered and charming. The majority of his life if spent traveling around the country to various downsizing businesses in order to do the dirty work the bosses aren’t willing to do themselves—drop the axe on the laid-off employees. It’s a job that sounds like a nightmare to any sane person, but it suits Ryan’s perpetual bachelor-with-no-ties lifestyle perfectly (plus the guy’s home base is in Omaha, so I can’t blame him for not wanting to stick around there too often). But when recent college grad Natalie has the brilliant idea of doing the lay-offs via teleconference—thus saving their company all those traveling costs—Ryan sees the threat of being grounded as a complete devastation to the way of life he relishes. So his boss challenges him to take Natalie on the road with him to show her the ropes and prove that his job can’t be down via computer. Trips are made, lessons are learned, bonds are formed and broken, and Ryan comes out on the other side questioning things that never even occurred to him to consider.

Up in the Air belongs to whoever plays Ryan, so it’s a testament to the budding genius of director Jason Reitman that he insisted on getting Clooney to play the part. With the wrong actor, Ryan could so easily become the guy you hate, with his smug love of a hedonistic lifestyle that revolves around fancy hotels, frequent flier miles, and casual on-the-road sex. Not to mention that his life is funded by the devastation of the many innocent employees he lets go. But somehow—miraculously—with Clooney at the helm, you can’t hate Ryan. He still embodies plenty of odious qualities, but you still root for him and hope that his personal quest will lead him to a more fulfilled life. I chalk it up to Clooney’s “It” factor; it’s something that can’t be explained, but his natural ability to be charming in any situation is undeniable.

Given the current economic state, a movie that revolves around laying off hardworking employees could be the ultimate downer, but Up in the Air manages to create a feeling of hope. With every downsizing trip he makes, Ryan reminds the newly unemployed that change isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just change. It can be turned into new opportunities and a time for personal reflection, or even the chance to go back and pursue what your heart actually desires. Sentiments that would sound hollow and/or cheesy if delivered the wrong way manage to be heartfelt and true when handled in this movie.

I was let go from my former position due to corporate downsizing about a year ago, which made Up in the Air hit a major personal note with me. During the process I had to deal with a figure much like Ryan; not for the actual layoff—which my overly-coiffed boss let a middle manager handle so he wouldn’t have to dirty his hands—but after I got the bad news he was the one with the infamous “packet” and the words of encouragement. And just like Ryan, he was serene and sympathetic, and friendly enough so that I would feel comfortable talking to him, but not so friendly as to make me think we were actually friends. But as cool and detached as people in that sort of position have to be, the points they make are true, which you recognize once the anger, depression, and binge-eating stages have ended: It’s a tough time right now for everyone, but we all muddle through as best we can, and hopefully manage to make something positive out of it in the end. Any movie that can manage to make me feel slightly optimistic about one of the worst things that has ever happened to me definitely gets a thumb’s up in my book.

Bottom Line: We all knew George Clooney could do sexy and playful, but now he can add poignant personal journey to his resume. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick also shine as his love interest and plucky coworker, respectively, make Up in the Air a wonderful movie about a man with a horrible job.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Movie Review: Nine

Rated: PG-13

Website: Official Nine site

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Stacy Ferguson, Sophia Loren

My Review: Oh, Nine. I was so prepared to love you. You have so many things that make for my own personal movie nirvana: you’re a musical, you star Daniel Day-Lewis, you’re directed by Rob Marshall. But where did it all go so wrong? Because you are one of the biggest disappointments I’ve seen in a long time.

The story revolves around beloved Italian movie director Guido Contini, played by Day-Lewis. Contini is preparing to make his ninth feature film, and needs to recapture the glory of his earlier films, as his last few were, in his own words, “flops.” But his creative well has run dry and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get a script put together. And hindering his process in every way possible are the multitude of women in his life; his faithful, but rightfully distrustful wife (Cotillard), his unstable mistress (Cruz), his deceased mother (Loren), his leading lady and muse (Kidman), his adoring fan (Hudson), his costume maker and confidant (Dench), and a whore who exists in a childhood memory (Ferguson).

The main misstep in Nine is that it’s a story primarily about writer’s block, which is nearly impossible to make a compelling regular movie about, let alone a musical. Writer’s block is infuriating and torturous to experience, and seeing it portrayed on film doesn’t feel that different. Its second misstep is focusing on a character that’s neither sympathetic nor likable. Contini has known great success and lives a life others can merely dream of, yet all he can focus on what he has yet to achieve. He has a beautiful wife who loves him, despite knowing he is unfaithful to her, and he continues to lie that his affairs are over, while still carrying on with a long-standing girlfriend. Presumably, we’re meant to feel bad that this artist is struggling so much with his next masterpiece, but all I could think was how he doesn’t even deserve the successes he already has under his belt.

Before seeing the movie, I was only vaguely familiar with the music of Nine. After seeing the movie, I understood why; the music is nothing remarkable (with the possible exception being the “Be Italian” number the marketing team was wise enough to use in all the promos). Contini and each of his women is given a number to perform (his wife gets two), but they’re as thinly created and forgettable as the characters performing them. Kate Hudson’s role was created specifically for the movie, so her newly-written song sounds like exactly what it is: A weak and sloppily constructed pop tune meant to breathe some life into the plodding story.

Most of the actors do the best they can with their roles, but the characters are so thinly constructed, it would be impossible to appreciate them even if they were putting forth their best performances. Contini is the most fleshed-out character, but he’s so unlikable that even Day-Lewis can’t save him. The best parts of the entire movie occur on the few occasions when Judi Dench’s character appears to slap some sense into Contini with her biting remarks. Every weak movie should have a sassy British actress over 50 in it as a saving grace.

Bottom Line: Since the Rob Marshall-directed Chicago was such a fantastic movie musical, I probably shot myself in the foot by assuming Nine would be more of the same. But I can’t really blame everything on Marshall since I think the source material is mostly at fault. I would still love to see another musical put to film by Marshall, but I just hope he picks a better one next time. In case he doesn’t know it, Universal has owned the rights to Wicked for years now…I’m just saying…

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Top 5 Hyped Movies of 2009

Question: If a movie opens without a built-in rabid fanbase of tween girls, sci-fi fanboys, and/or indie film snobs, does anybody see it?

It seems that now more than ever a movie’s success is determined before the movie even opens. Movies that are based on beloved books, a part of a popular franchise, or helmed by directors with cult followers are talked up and hyped to death long before even the first production photo is released, let alone the trailer. A movie doesn’t even necessarily need to be good anymore to succeed at the box office; all you need is to tune into a popular trend and create a slow-building buzz.

Whether you loved them, hated them, or just didn’t care about them, here is my list of the top 5 hyped movies of 2009:

5. “Star Trek” – Could “Star Trek” be believable without William Shatner or Patrick Stewart starring in it? Would audiences embrace a new cast of young actors portraying characters they’ve known and loved for ages? Did anyone want a prequel to one of the most popular film and TV franchises ever known? Well, whether the answers to these questions were “yes” or “no,” everyone sure loved to discuss them. Then this new-fangled “Star Trek” opened, and audiences and critics embraced it with open arms. And a whole new generation of sci-fi geeks was born.

Was it worth the hype? I’m not much of a sci-fi fan, but when a movie this difficult to get right gets it right, I have to say it was worth it.

4. “Inglourious Basterds” – Ever since “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” director Quentin Tarantino has had a fan following like few filmmakers have ever seen. But in an industry where most directors crank out at least one movie per year, Tarantino takes his time between projects, choosing to only work on movies he’s passionate about. Which of course leads his followers to practically foam at the mouth when he has a new movie coming out. Both volumes of “Kill Bill” and “Grindhouse” garnered lukewarm responses, so “Inglourious Basterds” was eagerly awaited as his redemption.

Was it worth the hype? Not only was it loved by audiences and critics, an ultraviolent movie about Nazi hunting starring modern-day matinee idol Brad Pitt is creating Oscar talk. Definitely worth the hype.

3. “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” – Oh, “Twilight.” I don’t understand the attraction, but there’s no denying that America has gone insane for sexless, swoony, sparkling vampires. Never underestimate the power of tween girls and their lonely mothers; they helped rocket a chaste love story that received middling to poor reviews to box office gold. And with two more volumes to go (it is only two more, yes?), we’re all going to have to steel ourselves for the continued insanity over Bella, Edward, and Jacob (I haven’t read any of the books or seen the movies, so it kills me that I know the characters names so easily).

Was it worth the hype? I haven’t seen it, but based on the consensus that it just wasn’t a very good movie, I’m going to have to say no. Just because something is insanely, inexplicably popular, doesn’t make it hype-worthy.

2. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” – The sixth installment in the “Harry Potter” franchise is the one that sets everything up for the final showdown. But even if it wasn’t, people would have still gone crazy for the boy wizard. All of the “Harry Potter” films have been incredibly successful, and it was a fore drawn conclusion that “Half-Blood Prince” would be no exception—and of course, it wasn’t. Harry and company are growing up, and preparing to cast spells and take names in the final two films (the last book has thankfully been divided into two movies). If you think “Half-Blood Prince” was hyped, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Was it worth the hype? I have lukewarm feelings toward the “Harry Potter” movies since I feel like they pale in comparison to the excellent novels. But “Half-Blood Prince” was fun, touching, exciting, emotional, and did an excellent job of setting us all up for the end. Totally worth the hype, and I’m totally ready for the next part.

1. “Avatar” – The movie that James Cameron had in the works for 12 years had so much riding on it, I’m surprised it didn’t implode from all the pressure. It was originally going to be his follow-up to the juggernaut that was “Titanic” in 1997, but the special effects technology he needed didn’t exist yet. So he waited, and toiled, and tweaked, and built, and created for the next dozen years. Finally, “Avatar” was ready for the theaters, but early looks at it had people wondering if it was a movie about Smurfs in outer space. But despite any apprehension, people wanted to see the project that one man had worked on so relentlessly for so long. And fortunately, they liked it. Even the critics liked it…for the most part. And now there are people showing up to midnight screenings in blueface; the very definition of success.

Was it worth the hype? I admit I haven’t seen “Avatar” (it’s just not my kind of movie), but judging from all the positive feedback and its reign at the box office, I’d say it was worthy of all the chatter.