Archive for December, 2010
SHULL: “A Christmas Story”
This week I was given the task of writing about a DVD of my choice. Being Christmas weekend, I had a lot of holiday options. I have already covered my family’s favorite with the write-up of, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but I am glad to get the chance to write about another of my holiday favorites. This is one that I can never get out of my head during this time of year. It is the perfect holiday film and one I have seen probably every year since it’s release in 1983. It is the classic, “A Christmas Story.”
Bob Clark directed the film. It stars Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin as the parents of Peter Billingsey’s character, Ralphie Parker. The setting is 1940’s Indiana and the main conflict of the story involves Ralphie trying to convince his parents to buy him a BB gun for Christmas. Not any BB gun though. He needs a Daisy, Red Ryder, 200 shot Carbine Action rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. The problem is that every adult in his life is sure he will, “Shoot his eye out.”
For those who have seen this film, most find it impossible to deny its charm. It literally takes you into a Norman Rockwell painting and lets you experience a world that, in today’s day and age, in virtually nonexistent. It refreshes all the clichés and reminds you how they became clichés in the first place.
“A Christmas Story” has schoolyard bullies, tongues frozen to flagpoles, hilariously heroic classroom daydreams and honest family relationships. One of the standout scenes is a visit to the mall Santa that is shown mostly from the kid’s point of view. It is not so much a fun adventure as it is a once a year, nervous opportunity to convince the one-and-only Santa himself, that you are indeed worthy of that one perfect gift.
This is an amazingly nostalgic film that is good for kids and adults alike. The best part is that you probably won’t have to even rent the DVD. Just turn on your TV anytime around Christmas and you are sure to find it. Even though you are probably reading this after Christmas, as long as there is still some winter left, there is always a good time for this film.
WIEGENSTEIN: “The Shop Around The Corner”
Considering that we are told, repeatedly, that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, it’s curious to remember just how many movies about the holiday begin in deeply unhappy places. In everything from “A Christmas Carol” to “The Santa Clause,” our heroes and heroines are in states of cynicism, about as far away from holly-jolly as it’s possible to be. Luckily, December 24th rolls around at the climatic moment to remind them (and us) of the inherent merriness in the season. Even the undying classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it must be noted, gets set in motion by its protagonist about to leap from a bridge.
“The Shop Around The Corner,” Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romance, is no exception to this trend. The film winds down with scenes of goodwill and cheer at the titular store, and ultimately closes with a decidedly sexy (if as buttoned-up as they come) encounter between leads James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. But before the audience arrives there, Lubitsch deftly maneuvers through narratives involving infidelity, unemployment and suicide.
Two salesclerks working the pre-Christmas rush loathe each other. Meanwhile, they find themselves enamored with their respective mysterious penpals. If the outcome seems obvious, that’s because it is. The fun comes from watching the inevitable unfold bit by bit, particularly once the second act—when only 50% of the couple realizes what’s going on—kicks into gear.
The movie may be better known to many as the source material for 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” (as well as two musicals and a successful British television show), a modernized remake nearly as good as its forefather. But I myself am a sucker for actual handwritten letters, therefore it’s the original that I always return to. Waxing poetic about an AOL alert sound just doesn’t hit the same emotional chord, somehow.
Plus, come on. One has Jimmy Stewart, and the other doesn’t. (Sorry, Tom.) His work here as testy clerk Alfred Kralik is among the best in his career, allowing him to swing between utter lovesickness and biting insults, sometimes within a single scene. He’s well-matched against Klara (Sullavan), who delivers equally nasty comments with airy laughter. The small department store that serves as the pair’s sparring ground is chock-full of stellar character actors, most notably Frank Morgan (seen the previous year as nothing less than the Wizard of Oz) as the emotionally struggling business owner.
Christmas comes, and Alfred and Klara ultimately fight their way into each other’s arms. It takes joy a while in coming, but once it hits, “The Shop Around The Corner” becomes as warm and cozy as any holiday-lover could ever ask for.
SHULL: Film doesn’t disappoint
“The Other Guys” is the latest collaboration of writer/director Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. It stars Will Ferrell as straight-laced cop Allen Gamble and Mark Wahlberg as Terry Hoitz — Allen’s angry and unbalanced partner.
The film opens with New York’s two top cops, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, involved in a high-speed chase with armed drug runners. The intense and well-choreographed action mixes well with the comedic element of the film and lets the audience immediately understand the world they have just stepped into. After the chase ends with the good guy’s car crashing and exploding into Trump Tower, of course the good guys walk away from it unscathed, the duo is honored by New York, despite the 12 million in damages that they have caused.
From here we get introduced to Allen and Terry and their dysfunctional relationship. Allen is a safe and conservative cop/accountant and is purposely boring and careful. He fears that any outlandish stimulation will bring out the animal in him, as it did when he was a hardcore pimp in college.
Terry is, of course, the polar opposite. He has serious anger issues that stem from a shooting accident earlier in his career. More specifically, he accidentally shot Derek Jeter and therefore was not only hurt in his career, but also hated by New Yorkers in general.
These two actually make a really funny pairing. Will Ferrell seems to have had to slightly switch up his usual M.O. when paired with Wahlberg. The chemistry is good and the jokes rely on their ridiculous partnership as characters and their interesting collaboration as actors instead of the quirks of any one person.
The cast is rounded out with Eva Mendes, who plays Allen’s incredibly hot and out of his league wife. I was also pleased to see Michael Keaton as their Captain. He gives a good performance and if you pay attention, you will notice his bald spot changes a few times in the film, but I’m pretty sure this was unintentional.
I would recommend this film to anyone who just wants to sit down for a decent comedy. As far as the laughs go, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a film that knows what it is.
WIEGENSTEIN: Film good enough to rent, but not buy
While it’s easy to remember only the broad strokes in many of the collaborations between director Adam McKay and his co-writer/muse Will Ferrell (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”), what has always elevated the pair’s comedy above the numerous imitators is the attention to detail. In McKay and Ferrell’s latest outing, “The Other Guys,” Mark Wahlberg’s tightly-wound cop uses a ridiculously over-the-top screensaver of a great white shark leaping from the water. It says all you need to know in a single shot, and conjures laughs to boot.
Wahlberg is a welcome newcomer to the filmmaking partnership here, whose coiled-spring performance often outshines Ferrell’s supposed leading role. While the latter’s aggressively mild-mannered Allen is good for running gags that wear out their welcome early in the flick (the way he effortlessly draws gorgeous women to him, for example), Terry (Wahlberg) is prone to the type of agonized outbursts that McKay is more talented with.
In fact, the best performances in “The Other Guys” breeze past in 20 minutes or so – these being the “hero cops” played by perennial badasses Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson (you may remember him as “The Rock,” but he seems to have officially moved on from his former moniker). Moments that mock ridiculous police-action popcorn movies are spot-on – the quintessential “cool guys walk away from explosions” shot is a particularly good one – but once “The Other Guys” becomes yet another entry in the genre, the focus is lost and the humor dwindles away.
Those eager for a larger dose of Ferrell in their DVD version will be sorely disappointed, as this disc is woefully scant of nearly anything one might expect — no outtake reel, not even a standard — issue commentary. The two featurettes that are tacked on are both brief and perfunctory: a peek into the staging of several car chases, and a wholly inexplicable mini-tribute to supporting actor Michael Keaton. Bottom line: Enough for a rent, but purchasing would only aid those attempting an ultimate Ferrell collection.
SHULL: Film steals time, but gives nothing in return
So according to the Sony Pictures official “The Tourist” website (http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/thetourist/site/), the film’s synopsis reads:
“Johnny Depp stars as an American tourist whose playful dalliance with a stranger leads to a web of intrigue, romance and danger in THE TOURIST. During an impromptu trip to Europe to mend a broken heart, Frank (Depp) unexpectedly finds himself in a flirtatious encounter with Elise (Angelina Jolie), an extraordinary woman who deliberately crosses his path. Against the breathtaking backdrop of Paris and Venice, their whirlwind romance quickly evolves as they find themselves unwittingly thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse.”
Sound good? Well, it’s not. In my opinion the synopsis should have read:
“The Tourist” stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie as two, one-dimensional characters, on the run against the most ridiculously inept Federal Agents and gangsters ever conceived outside of a purely comedic script. The cat and mouse element of the film is purely and unintentionally “Tom and Jerry,” while not even the exotic locations nor the Oscar winning talent can help this phoned-in waste of celluloid.
Yep, unfortunately, that’s more like it. Even Depp, who usually wows me with his quirky and dedicated performances, falls flat in this film. It seems like he did the best he could with the material, but with material this bad, there is only so much that one person can do.
Angelina Jolie took the other route. She doesn’t even try. Instead of even attempting to actually act, she just poses her way through the film. I actually think that some of her scenes were shot using her wax figure, borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s museum.
When she does open her mouth, it is only to let all of the other characters in the scene know that she is far superior and so much cooler than they are. Oh, and as she poses her way from one scene to another, the filmmakers are sure to let us know how much we should appreciate her beauty by constantly presenting mobs of men who can’t take their eyes off of her. I actually expected to see in the credits, “Man in love with Elise #22” and “Man hypnotized by Elise’s beauty #88.” It was more than a little ridiculous.
“The Tourist” is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first American film and his first project since winning an Oscar for the 2006 film “The Lives of Others.” I don’t know what happened but maybe he should choose his next project a little more carefully. Not just for him, but for the paying audience. “The Tourist” took from me not only about eight dollars, but is stole from me an hour and 43 minutes of my life that I will never get back.
WIEGENSTEIN: Watching this film is a chore
“The Tourist” is a Movie-with-a-capital-M. It is perhaps farther removed from reality than “Tangled,” which features a horse that can fence. There is nothing relatable about it, no characters to become truly attached to. There’s nothing here that doesn’t immediately slink out of memory upon exiting the theater.
And as it sits comfortably in the middle of the caper film genre, that’s really okay. The creative team behind “The Tourist” was clearly comfortable going all out, setting the action in a Venice that seems constantly bathed in flattering light. Composer James Newton Howard contributes a soaring, overstated score, while Colleen Atwood decks out Angelina Jolie in ravishing, incredibly impractical espionage-wear.
It’s almost refreshing to see a film like this retreat completely into its 1950s roots, rather than join the ranks of lesser, modernized takes on the same plot (this summer’s gender-flipped “Knight And Day,” for example. The dialogue wouldn’t feel out of place in any of Alfred Hitchcock’s heist films, and there’s no hesitation about sticking a choreographed ballroom dance number in the middle of things.
I spend so much space talking about the “oooh, pretty” aspects of “The Tourist” because really, everything else comprising the movie is the definition of lackluster. Much is being made of the double-A-list pairing of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, perhaps attempting to recreate some of the buzz that surrounded “Mr. And Mrs. Smith.” But the stars are asleep on screen—rather than coast atop the ridiculous fluff of the plot, both Depp and Jolie seem dour and uninterested. The supporting performance of Paul Bettany injects some life into things, but a police operative who spends much of his time hiding in a surveillance van can only do so much.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (the best name working in movies these days?) shoots for the breezy, adventurous feel of classic Hollywood, but the performances of the two stars make watching the film a chore. A film about light fingers should never feel this leaden.
SHULL: Film is full of ridiculous montages and clichés
“Love and Other Drugs” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall, Anne Hathaway as love interest Maggie Murdock and Hank Azaria as Dr. Stan Knight. It was directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, Defiance).
The film centers around Jamie Randall and his start in the ruthlessly competitive world of pharmaceutical sales in the late 90’s. From the first scene of the film we see him as a high energy, charming womanizer and a natural salesman. His employer, Pfizer, has him stalking hospitals and doctors to unload as much of the drug, Zoloft, as humanly possible.
Jamie quickly learns the ropes of his new profession. He adapts to the extensive politics of this new world and soon finds himself on a first name basis with the hospital staff and the doctors whose business he pursues.
During one of his hospital visits, with Dr. Knight, he meets the equally charming Maggie Murdock. She is there to refill a prescription for her early onset (she is 26) of Parkinson’s disease. Jamie sees her as another conquest and she recognizes him as a player. Deciding to just go with it, they find themselves back at her place a few minutes into the first date, screwing wildly in her kitchen. They decide to keep it casual and continue the purely sexual relationship.
This is where the film just starts to fall apart. After every sexual encounter, Maggie is sure to remind Jamie that this relationship is just casual and will remain that way. It is brought up enough to make anyone blue in the face. Although the audience immediately recognizes her impersonal point of view as a defense mechanism (she is convinced that as her Parkinson’s progresses, anyone close to her will leave) she continues to beat us across the head with it.
This film just doesn’t seem to know what it is. One moment it’s a romantic comedy and the next moment it is a career-based drama. The scenes are roughly stitched together without any real harmony or organic flow. The pithy dialogue seems pieced together from randomly picked, rejected spec scripts, salvaged from the recycle bin in the “Gilmore Girls” production office.
Although, at times, Anne Hathaway’s real acting talent shines through the ridiculous montages and clichés that saturate the film, it is just not enough. Even the fact that she’s naked throughout most of the film doesn’t help make it much more watchable. And let me tell you, that’s saying a lot because she looks good.
I do realize I am not the film’s intended demographic. I do think though, that their target audience (women 18 to 49) will not think much more about this film than I did. It is too predictable and clichéd. As far as Chick Flicks go, it’s definitely not up to par with “The Notebook.” And yes I did like that one. Feel free to make fun of me for that, but only if you have seen it and didn’t enjoy it. I dare you.
WIEGENSTEIN: Watching this film is a chore
“Love And Other Drugs” is about sex. Okay, not entirely — but as large chunks of the film’s promotion seem to center on its two attractive leads being disrobed, it felt wrong to not mention.
In fact, the latest from director Edward Zwick is about sex on several different levels: not only is it a key factor in the early relationship between artsy free-spirit Maggie (Anne Hathaway) and yuppie Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), but it provides Jamie with an unexpected rise to the top of the pharma-salesman ladder. After months of unsuccessfully trying to unseat Prozac as the depression drug of choice, he’s now in possession of something totally new – a magical blue pill named Viagra.
Jamie’s a sharklike charmer, a trait Gyllenhaal can pull off expertly. He can sniff out the slightest amount of give in a certain clinic receptionist and immediately begin courting whoever he must in order to advance himself and his Pfizer coworker (an excellently bedraggled-looking Oliver Platt). In Maggie, he seems to have met his match when it comes to no-strings, no-feelings sex. But of course, a movie relationship between two people as pretty as Gyllenhaal and Hathaway is destined to deepen. This usually leads up to a scene where one party says to the other, “I know you’re scared! I know you’ve been hurt before!” and so forth.
A plot wrinkle — Maggie has Stage 1 Parkinson’s Disease, an illness that both of them attempt to ignore as much as possible until absolutely necessary. Hathaway plays the anger, and utter frustration that comes with a neurological disorder, and a scene featuring other Parkinson’s sufferers is exceptionally well done. Her chemistry with Gyllenhaal (previously paired together as husband and wife in “Brokeback Mountain”) is good while naked, but even more fetching when the two of them bum around eating takeout.
But with every additional plot thread “Love And Other Drugs” attempts to stuff in, the film as a whole is consequently weakened. It’s a little bit “Up In The Air,” it tries out being “Garden State” before throwing in a smidge of “Sweet November.” (And even a smidge is far too much.) Scenes featuring Jamie’s brother, who looks like he stumbled out of a Judd Apatow buddy comedy, are funny while they last, but ultimately contribute to a disjointed final product. As developed as sections of the movie are, “Love And Other Drugs” ends up being significantly less than the sum of its parts.