Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Julie & Julia / *** (PG-13)

Julia Child: Meryl Streep
Julie Powell: Amy Adams
Paul Child: Stanley Tucci
Eric Powell: Chris Messina
Simone Beck: Linda Emond
Louisette Bertholle: Helen Carey
Sarah: Mary Lynn Rajskub
Dorothy McWilliams: Jane Lynch

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Nora Ephron. Based on the book “Julie & Julia” by Julie Powell and the book “My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sensuality).

Meryl Streep is the reigning Acting Oscar nomination champion with more than any other actor in the awards’ history. With 15 nominations (two wins), ahead of Katherine Hepburn with 12, and many more roles ahead of her, she promises to widen the gap. She will do just that when the next set of Academy Award nominations are announced next January with her role as famous American chef Julia Child in “Julie & Julia”.

Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” is taken from the book of the same name by author Julie Powell, who became famous by blogging about her experiences of cooking every recipe in Child’s first cook book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” over the course of one year. But as Ephron points out in the credits, her film is “based on two true stories” and is also inspired by Child’s autobiographical novel “My Life in France”, which highlights her love affair with her devoted husband Paul Child. Ephron intercuts Child’s struggle to be taken seriously as an American housewife attempting to spread well-conceived instruction on French cooking with Powell’s own struggles to give her writing career and life a necessary jump start.

Ephron (“You’ve Got Mail”, “Sleepless in Seatle”) sticks with her strengths and tells both Powell’s and Child’s stories as sentimental romances with the kind and devoted husbands with which each of them share their lives. Stanley Tucci brings as much charm and character to Paul as Streep does to Julia. The two were paired together in much different roles in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada”, and it’s a joy to see them together again, bringing such love to these characters.

Powell also has the benefit of a supporting husband in Eric, played by Chris Messina (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”). The movie really rides on these two parallel romances, although they are not its subject. It’s great to see such positive portrayals of men in a story about women struggling for their place in the world. Usually the men in such a woman’s life are used as one of the story devices that hold the women back from their desires. Here the men push the women along in their ambition and provide a positive force upon which these women can fuel their own fire.

Amy Adams (“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”) is her usual charming self in the role of Powell, but she’s never given the great character work required from Streep as Child. While Powell falls into some of the more typical molds of the female romantic lead, Child breaks the mold of romance clich├ęs. She’s too tall, too brash, too old, and yet she’s still filled with a positive outlook and insatiable yearning for acceptance.

Despite the wonderful portrayals, there is a certain lack of dramatic conflict in the two women’s stories. Ephron ties to inject some tension into Julie’s and Eric’s relationship late in the story. I don’t know if their brief breakup is in Powell’s book or not, but it seems thrown in and unsupported by Eric’s rather understanding character. Julia’s difficulty in getting publisher’s interested in her book and the issues of credit that come up between her co-authors ring more true, but they don’t grab the audience’s interest as well as the romance elements between Julia and Paul.

Overall, however, “Julie & Julia” makes for an entertaining engagement. Although Streep has certainly performed in more profound films, her performance here ranks among one of her best. When an actress is arguably the best actor of hers and many a generation, that is reason enough to see a movie.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Informant! / ***½ (R)

Mark Whitacre: Matt Damon
Ginger Whitacre: Melanie Lynskey
FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard: Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon: Joel McHale
Mick Andreas: Tom Papa
Terry Wilson: Rick Overton
Robin Mann: Ann Cusack

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald. Running time: 108 min. Rated R (for language).

There is a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s new comedy, “The Informant!” in which directing FBI agents sit aghast with their mouths hanging open during an inundation of criminal accusations against one of their civilian spies. That matches the reaction anyone might have to the complete oblivion with which Mark Whitacre seems to go about both his “espionage” work and his crimes. It is by no mistake that Soderbergh and his star, Matt Damon, chose to produce this real-life story of corporate corruption mere months after the biggest economic collapse this country has seen since The Great Depression.

The subject of this dark comedy is not the price-fixing crimes committed by agri-giant ADM and various other international agri-businesses in the early 90s, but rather it’s the strange and ultimately shocking conduct of physicist Mark Whitacre, who decides to go to the FBI to collect evidence against his employer, ADM, because of an alleged “conflict of conscience.” Whitacre makes you think of that adage that in order to be a good liar, you must believe your own lies.

Damon is a tour de force, in a sense, as Whitacre. The seemingly meek businessman is a far cry from Damon’s role as Jason Bourne in the popular spy franchise, but in his own way, Whitacre is nearly as successful as Bourne at what he does. He is so earnest that you can’t help but like the guy, even once you realize there is nothing that comes out of his mouth that can be trusted. He truly believes that reporting the price-fixing practices of his cohorts at ADM is in the best interest of everybody, and he will only be rewarded for it. It never occurs to him that such a betrayal will make him a pariah in the agriculture industry. Nor does it occur to him that all the lies he tells will have an effect on the FBI’s case against the corporate giant. As the lies are revealed—even through the final moments of the film—it becomes apparent that Whitacre just has no concept that his view is completely separated from reality.

The poor FBI agents who try to help him are so blindsided by his schemes that they might as well be some of the nameless dead agents left in Bourne’s wake in Damon’s more sophisticated spy films. Scott Bakula (of “Quantum Leap” fame) gets a rare film opportunity as the baffled Special Agent, Brian Shepard. Bakula’s own earnest delivery makes it easy for the audience to believe the FBI could be so easily duped by Whitacre’s oblivion. In fact, almost everyone in this movie seems so nice and unaware that it seems like they live in what would be a wonderful world, if it weren’t for Whitacre’s strange disjointed sense of right and wrong.

Soderbergh (“Ocean’s” trilogy) steers this happy, sad, quirky ship with throwback techniques that recall the espionage filmmaking of the 60s. The use of washed out filters and film stock makes the movie look vintage. Even the font used in his credits sequences looks like something from 40 years ago. The employment of Marvin Hamlisch to compose the score is a stroke of genius. Multiple Academy Award winner Hamlisch’s scores and songs were incredibly popular throughout the 70s, and here he perfectly captures the sappy, corny innocence of an earlier period in film. The film’s entire emphasis on an innocent outlook fuels the comedy behind what are really terrible financial crimes against the American people.

The film’s goofy approach to its subject matter gives it the feel of a “Hee Haw” version of a James Bond thriller. Perhaps that’s because instead of nuclear guidance systems, the secrets being revealed here involve corn syrup, but the characterizations also have a Podunk quality to them. Everybody from Whitacre, to the FBI agents, to the higher ups at ADM are just clueless hick versions of what you might normally find in a typical spy thriller, but they’re all playing at a bigger game than any of them understand. It allows us to sit back and laugh at what they’ve done.

They say laughter has a healing quality. In times filled with Bernie Madoffs and government bailouts for both the banking and auto industries, we could all use a good laugh over corporate greed. “The Informant!” is just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Halloween II / ** (R)

Laurie Strode: Scout Taylor-Compton
Michael Myers: Tyler Mane
Dr. Samuel Loomis: Malcolm McDowell
Sherriff Lee Brackett: Brad Dourif
Deborah Myers: Sheri Moon Zombie
Young Michael: Chase Vanek
Annie Brackett: Danielle Harris
Nancy McDonald: Mary Birdsong
Mya Rockwell: Brea Grant
Harley David: Angela Timbur

Dimension Films presents a film written and directed by Rob Zombie. Running time: 101 min. Rated R (for strong brutal bloody violence throughout, terror, disturbing graphic images, language, some crude sexual content, and nudity).

As any horror aficionado knows, the art of the slasher flick lies in the art of the slasher to kill creatively. Such creativity allows for great randomness in the killings even though there may be some vague driving force behind the killer’s madness. John Carpenter’s original “Halloween”, while not the first slasher flick ever, set the standard for what a slasher flick should be. Perhaps it was foolish of anyone to think they could improve upon Carpenter’s model, but if anyone could do it, it would be Rob Zombie. Unfortunately, with his remake of “Halloween” two years ago, Zombie failed. Now, he is back with the sequel to his “Halloween” vision, and he continues to make the same mistakes the second time around.

I had great hopes that Zombie could rectify the errors of his first “Halloween” with this revisitation. Although his first movie “House of 1,000 Corpses” was a creative but flawed piece of horror, Zombie was able to craft a masterpiece with his sequel to that, “The Devil’s Rejects”. But while “The Devil’s Rejects” defined the subgenre of serial killing families, “Halloween II” seems stuck between the traditional conventions of the slasher flick and the deeper, more thoughtful filmmaking for which Zombie seems destined.

“H2” starts out hitting all the right notes. Like Carpenter’s sequel to his “Halloween”, it picks up in the moments immediately following the first film. In fact, Zombie does a stupendous job of basically retelling pretty much the entire story of the Carpenter penned “Halloween II” in the first twenty minutes of his own sequel. We follow the killer, Michael Myers, in his undefined need to continue to pursue his sister, Laurie Strode. Like the 1978 sequel, Laurie finds herself at the Haddonfield hospital following the Halloween night murders of the first movie. Michael quickly and horrifically dispatches the entire skeleton crew hospital staff to get to her. These are the best scenes in the movie, with Zombie fully embracing the conventions of the slasher flick, using location, mood, lighting, and spatial timing for effective shocks and thrilling terror. But then…

Let’s just leave it at two years pass. The world thinks Michael Myers is dead, while the audience knows better or else they wouldn’t have bought their tickets. Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton, “Obsessed”) is still failing to cope well with the events that led to the deaths of her friends and family. Now living with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif, “Deadwood”) and his daughter, Annie (Danielle Harris, “Urban Legend”), another survivor of Michael’s attacks, Laurie is still unaware of her blood relation to Myers.

Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, “Heroes”) has turned his involvement as Myers’ shrink into a career boost. He’s preparing to release a tell all book on the two year anniversary of Myers’ killing spree and is doing a pretty good job proving what an egomaniac he is on the talk circuit leading up to the book’s release. This mishandling of Loomis is one of Zombie’s greatest mistakes. The original’s Loomis, played masterfully by the great Donald Pleasance, is one of Carpenter’s greatest creations. He seemed to be a crazy man, but spoke as the voice of sanity to deaf ears. McDowell’s, by fault of the writing, not the actor, is a greedy, megalomaniac, devoid of morality, who builds his own fame and success on the suffering of Michael’s victims. I think Zombie is trying to make some statement on our media driven society, but he chooses the wrong vehicle for his message driven on a beaten down path that is far too easy a road for such an innovative filmmaker.

The voice of reason in this version is Sheriff Brackett. I’m happy to see Zombie give Dourif, who more often plays the psychotic, the opportunity to play such a good character. Unfortunately, Brackett is delivered an emotional blow late in the movie, which Zombie never gives him a chance to deal with.

Meanwhile, the family bonds between Michael and Laurie and their deceased mother, Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie, “The Devil’s Rejects”), create some interesting developments with some potentially, yet somewhat unexplored, horrific implications about the afterlife. These “dream sequences” are the most interesting aspect of Zombie’s vision. A whole movie involving them would be quite welcome and—I would speculate—quite frightening.

While Zombie’s creepy notions of life after death tease us throughout the picture, the slasher model dictates that many teenagers must die senselessly. Typically their deaths are quite creative. Here they only manage to be brutal, and therefore, disturbing. This isn’t a fun slasher flick where you wonder just how the killer is going to murder the next person. “Ooo, there’s a band saw in the background. I’ll bet that gets used.” No, here the hulking Myers, played by former pro wrestler Tyler Mane (“X-Men”), kills in the most sensible way, with his fists, his feet and a very big knife. Practical, but not exciting.

I will give Zombie credit for ending the film on just the right note, however, with a nice homage to “Psycho”.