Sunday, November 29, 2009

Easy Virtue

Easy laughs can be had from conflicting morals between stuffy traditionalists and trendy progressives.  Stuffiness is easy to caricature, but loose morals have their consequences as well.  Easy Virtue finds the matriarch of the Whittaker family awaiting the arrival of her son from his wanderings.  To her dismay, he arrives with his new wife, an American race car driver.  Chaos ensues.

Easy Virtue, based on the play by Noel Coward, captures the British upper class in the era between the wars.  John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), male heir to the Whittaker estate, finds himself caught between his duties as keeper of the traditions and status of the family, and his desire to embrace the looser morals and values of the era.  Larita (Jessica Biel), his bride, does try to put on her best face for the in-laws, but it quickly becomes clear that she does not fit with the proper, traditional, upper-class British ways.  Even though John is madly in love with Larita, and initially talks about moving with her to London to get out from under the pressure of the family estate, over time he finds himself torn between his duty to family and his duty to his bride.

There are lots of good performances in Easy Virtue.  Colin Firth is perfect as Mr. Whittaker, who, as it turns out, is going through struggles of his own over whether to remain committed to the Whittaker estate.  And Furber (Kris Marshall), the butler, provides some oh-so-proper comic relief as he quietly aids and abets Larita's rebellion.

Not to take away from the acting or plot, one of the most entertaining elements of Easy Virtue was the soundtrack.  It includes some standards of the swing era by Cole Porter, some songs written by Noel Coward, and, in an amusing twist, some more recent songs performed in a swing style, such as "Car Wash," "When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going," and "Sex Bomb."  This video, clips from the movie, plays the latter, and gives good taste of the style and tone of both the movie and the soundtrack.

The traditionalist in me wishes Easy Virtue would have spent at least a little time on the consequences of a morally loose lifestyle.  Larita's choices have already brought her a certain degree of legal trouble and internal strife.  The film leaves the impression that the honorable and reasonable people follow their wanderlust and shirk responsibility, while those who hold down tradition are suckers.  This is certainly not the first place where such a point is made, but whenever it is, I find myself wishing for some middle ground or celebration of those who keep to tradition.  Maybe Noel Coward is the anti-Frank Capra.  And maybe there is a place for both.

Easy Virtue, billed as a comedy, certainly induces lots of laughs, but, like any good comedy, has some thoughtful elements, social commentary, and historical context to add more richness.  Despite its morally and culturally ambiguous message, I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I like the tag line on the cover of the DVD: "You can't escape your lies." Transsiberian is a creepy good movie. Poor Roy (Woody Harrelson). He is an over-the-top, super-nice hardware store owner from Iowa. We meet him and his wife as they're finishing up a mission trip to China. While the rest of the team heads home, they embark on a transsiberian train trip. Roy, a train buff, is fulfilling his dream of taking a trip on this famous train route.

Shortly he and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) meet up with Carlos and Abby, who share the cramped train compartment with them.  Carlos, a charming but suspicious acting Spaniard, and Abby, a detatched, moody American, say they've been teaching English abroad and are simply gadding about.  But everything about them, as friendly as they seem to be, raises suspicion.  At one stop, Roy and Carlos wander around looking at the trains while the ladies shop.  Carlos returns but Roy doesn't.  Jessie panics, and at the next stop the three of them check into a hotel to await Roy.  Here's where things get interesting.  Carlos tries to take advantage of Jessie, a move he doesn't live to regret.  Roy shows up, giddy from his adventure, and he Jessie hop on the train to continue their journey.

They are met by Grinko (Ben Kingsley--does he play any role that's not creepy?  OK, Ghandi wasn't exactly creepy, but other than that. . . .)  He's an investigator, going after drug traffickers on the Transsiberian.  Surprise, surprise, Carlos was suspicious acting because he's a drug trafficker!  And he snuck some of his goods into Jessie's luggage!  And Grinko is really a bad guy!  And he wants the money Carlos stole!  Roy and Jessie get stuck in the middle of all of it, and Jessie's lies to cover up her bad choices just make things worse.  The result is a gripping ride with some nice twists. 

One thing I would have liked to have seen developed is Roy and Jessie's faith.  Roy, a church-goer and a short-term missionary, marries Jessie, a self-proclaimed wild child.  Does she not share his faith?  Is she a new Christian struggling with her past, or a non-Christian tolerating Roy's devotion?  What role does Roy's faith play in the choices he makes?  This is decidedly not a Billy Graham film, but since their trip to Asia starts with a short-term mission, it might have been interesting to see how their faith informs their choices.

There's a little bit of gore in Transsiberian, some shoot-em-up violence, and some intense action.  The movie's not driven by that but by the dense plotting.  I think this was direct to DVD.  It's better than many movies in the theaters, though! 

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

State of Play

Don't you love it when you pick up a movie you've never heard of, hoping that it will be decent, but knowing that most of the time you'll be disappointed, then you watch the movie and wonder why you have never heard of it because it's so much better than most of the garbage that's out there? That was my experience with State of Play.

This isn't really a new concept. An unkempt yet respectable investigative reported at a big Washington newspaper stumbles into a big, big story that reaches into the very halls of power. (By the way, I always think of Russell Crowe in Gladiator. I don't know if he put on weight for this role, or if he's just gained some weight. But he does not have an action hero physique in State of Play! Presumably he'll shape up for Robin Hood.)

Washington is agog over the latest big scandal. An aide to Representative Collins (Ben Affleck) has apparently committed suicide on the Metro tracks. When Collins breaks down at a hearing, it's quickly discovered that he was having an affair with the aide. Meanwhile, Crowe, who happens to be an old buddy of Collins, is looking into a homicide, which everyone assumes is drug related. He gets a lucky but unnerving scoop when he uncovers a seeming connection between the murder and the aide's suicide. Determined to get to the bottom of it, he drives his editor (Helen Mirren) crazy chasing down leads.

Yes, complex personal backstories, random connections, coincidental meetings, and implausible moments clutter the plot a bit. But it's all woven together in a way that kept me guessing and cheering for Crowe. I especially liked the use of the spy camera perspective, giving the impression that watchers were everywhere. And they were!

On a policy note, the question of using private contractors for domestic surveillance and Patriot Act enforcement. The story drives State of Play; this policy question is in the background, but it adds an urgency and reality to the story.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for a political thriller, but I really liked this movie. Turns out it's based on a BBC miniseries. I might have to track that down, too.

Bottom line, a strong 3 1/2 stars!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Max Payne

Video game movie adaptations are always questionable, in my mind. I remember reading in a movie review, maybe it was for a Tomb Raider movie, that watching the movie was like watching someone play the video game. I have never played the Max Payne video game; I don't guess I ever heard of it before this movie came out. (Not much of a gamer am I.) But if playing the game is anything like watching this movie, I'm sure I'd just as soon not play it. On the other hand, maybe watching someone play Max Payne would be more fun than watching this movie.

On the positive side, this movie is very visually interesting. The settings and backdrops seemed consistently simple and uncluttered, yet purposeful in the details. The action sequences were cool, too. Also on the positive, Marky Mark Wahlberg has turned into a decent actor. This role was a little one-dimensional, so he came across as wooden, but he fit the role and performed it well.

Wahlberg plays a policeman in the cold case division. He obsesses over finding the killers of his wife and child, and stumbles onto a secret military development program that produced a potent street drug with terrifying side effects. He shoots lots and lots of people.

I feel inadequate to discuss Max Payne, having never played or seen the video game. I have no idea whether it is faithful to the game or strays far from it. I would assume that the movie provides the back story for the video game, so fans of the game might like it. But the movie was not compelling enough for me to want to pick up the game or explore Max's story further.

Bottom line, 1 and a 1/2 stars.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pink Panther 2

I grew up loving Steve Martin. I wanted to be a "wild and crazy guy." I think I even had one of those arrow-through-the-head props. I also grew up watching Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panthermovies. So I admit I was predisposed to enjoy this movie.

It's been a long time since I've seen Peter Sellers's Pink Panther
movies, but it seems to me that Steve Martin has remained faithful to the spirit of those classics. His physical comedy, while probably a bit over the top compared to Sellers, definitely fits the role. He also includes plenty of the linguistic humor. I remember Sellers trying to ask the hotel clerk if he had a "message" but the clerk kept trying to tell him where he could get a "massage." In Pink Panther 2, the security password in John Cleese's office is "hamburger" but for some reason only Martin's garbled French-ish pronunciation counts.

In another fun nod to the original, Clouseau is attacked in his own apartment. Only this time it's not his manservant, but the twin sons of his colleague, Ponton (Jean Reno), who attack him with their karate moves. Oh, and I loved when Clouseau, showing off his gadgets, pulled out what looked like a micro cassette recorder. It may look like a recorder, but it is, in fact, a pen!

After a string of robberies of high-profile artifacts, an international crime-solving "dream team" is formed. Of course it includes Inpector Clouseau. Then the unthinkable happens: the Pink Panther diamond is stolen in Paris! By ignoring the obvious and stumbling around, Clouseau manages to get to the bottom of the case.

Highlights include Clouseau's sessions with Mrs. Berenger (Lily Tomlin) who tries to purge him of his sexism, racism, and political incorrectness; Clouseau's exploration at Avellaneda's house while the rest of the dream team tries to draw Avellaneda's attention away from the security cameras; and of course his destruction of the restaurant, followed by an encore on the night of the grand re-opening.

Pink Panther 2 tells a fun story, but more than that it's just laugh-out-loud fun. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Bottom line: 3 stars.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Brendan Fraser does not have a history of starring in cinematic masterpieces. He has starred in the The Mummy Trilogyand Journey to the Center of the Earth, big budget special effects vehicles. And of course who can forget the goofiness of Blast From the Pastand George of the Jungle? Not to say these movies stink, but, well, they aren't that great.

Inkheart has some of the goofiness of Fraser's other movies, and plenty of over-the-top special effects, but the cooks got the proportions right on this one. It's a tasty treat. For an action-packed adventure movie, Inkheart, ironically, is all about the power of the written word. Fraser's character, Mo, or Silvertongue, accidentally discovers that when he reads aloud, the stories begin to happen in real life. For instance, when he reads "Little Red Riding Hood" to his little girl, a red hood magically appears. Unfortunately, not all that happens is as benign as that. A few years later, while reading an adventure story called Inkheart, the villians enter the real world. Even more unfortunately for Mo's family, when someone enters our world from a book, someone from our world transports to book world. While the villains populate our world, Mo's wife lands in the book.

The story begins with Mo, now a well-known book repairer, and his daughter Meggie, now a teenager, on a search for a copy of Inkheart. In the basement of a dusty book shop in a remote mountain village, he finds one. But no sooner does he get his hands on the book than Dustfinger, one of the book's characters, confronts him and his daughter on the street. Thus begin their adventures, tracking down and confronting the villians from the book.

Capricorn, the head baddie (who, incedentally, is played by Andy Serkis, portrayer of Gollum in the The Lord of the Ringstrilogy), somehow found another reader with the skill as Mo, and has a castle and crew read for him out of various books. Capricorn's goal is to have Mo read into existence the Shadow, a dark, demonic power from Inkheart, which he thinks will bring him ultimate power. Capricorn has discovered that Mo's daughter also has the power of reading things into existence, and forces her to read passages from Inkheart. The Shadow does appear upon her reading, but unknown to Capricorn, she and Fenoglio, the author of Inkheart, have been working on alternative passages. When those run out, Meggie begins extemporizing, writing on her arm what she wants to happen, then reading it aloud. Meggie's writing, rebuking the Shadow and thwarting its destructive powers, sending him back to the book, vividly recalled spiritual warfare, in which evil is rebuked in the name of Jesus.

There are few instances when words actually have power to act. God spoke the world into creation. Jesus spoke and people were healed. We can speak his name and see people healed and demons rebuked. Inkheart does not have any explicit Christian message, but it is, on one level, a fun reminder of the power of the written word, and on a deeper level, a potent reminder that God, the author of all our stories, has given us authority through Jesus to have power over the darkness and to bring the story to our own conclusion.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I love to run. I especially like to run long distances. (For more about my running endeavors, go here.) I had heard of this movie title, and think of it frequently when I am out on a long distance run. I usually don't feel particularly lonely. Alone, but in good way. I like this title because I like the loneliness/solitude/aloneness of the long distance run.

Unfortunately, I like the title of the movie much more than I like the movie itself. Originally released in 1962, the style reflects the times. There is some quality acting, to be sure, but the editing drove me crazy. Flashbacks can, of course, be very effective in films, but here they were just jarring.

The long distance runner in question, caught in a petty burglary, gets shipped off to a reform school which looks more like a private prep school than juvenille hall. The teachers notice his speed during a soccer match and recruit him to run the distance race against a neighboring prep school. As part of his training, they entrust him with the freedom to leave the grounds and run through the countryside. The movie flashes back to the events that landed him in reform school and culminates in the big meet with the other school. I won't tell you who won.

Like I said, I didn't like the style of the movie, and am not too fond of the story, and was pretty disappointed in the ending. But one thing I LOVED about the movie: the long distance running itself. When Colin leaves the school gates and runs through the fields, his joyful running inspired me. Leaping and bounding like a deer, or, more simply, like a child at play, he runs and runs.

Oftentimes, this joy and abondonment is missing during my runs. I tend to have a goal time and pace, a pre-set schdule for the day's run, and a focus on my GPS. I want to meet certain goals, but I also want to capture that joy of running that Colin displays. It's the same kind of attitude that Christopher McDougall conveys in his book Born to Run. His accounts of the running of both the Tarahumara indians of northern Mexico and American ultrarunners beautifully convey running for the love of running.

Bottom line, for the movie alone, I'll give it 2 stars.
But for some running inspiration, it earns 4 stars.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy is an endearingly pathetic young lady who has lost her dog, Lucy. She doesn't have much cash, but is trying to make her way to Alaska. Trying to save a few bucks, she shoplifts some dog food. She's caught by a store employee and hauled off in a squad car. After spending several hours in jail, she returns to the store where Lucy was tied up outside. She's gone, of course. To make matters worse, Wendy's car has broken down. Much of the movie is Wendy trying to figure out what to do next, trying to find her dog and dealing with her car repair. There is one recognizable actor, Will Patton, who's been in a bunch of stuff. I remember seeing him on "24" recently. And Michelle Williams as Wendy is terrific. But the movie has a sort of homemade feel to it, as if the other actors are real people who just happened to be around when filming began.

Not much happens in the movie, on one level, but for Wendy it's everything. Her world is crashing down. What we never learn is why this is her world. How did a seemingly bright, resourceful young lady end up driving cross-country from Indiana with her heart set on Alaska? In one scene Wendy calls up her sister. Her brother-in-law sounds pretty sympathetic, but her sister shouts at her, accusing her of calling for money. What's the story there? I don't have a ton of sympathy for Wendy, as likable as she is. But if I knew why she was there, what was behind her trek, maybe I would feel for her more. Anyone who has ever had a dog can empathize with her when she loses Lucy, of course, but I want to know more about Wendy.

By way of explanation, this style of leaving things out seems to fit the director's style. Kelly Reichardt teaches film at Bard College. On the DVD, she included, as it says on the case, "a collection of experimental gems from the Film Faculty at Bard College." I think she must have done so to contrast with her film. They are so pointless and bizarre, it makes Wendy and Lucy, a stripped-down, low budget, pedestrian film, look like a major, special-effects-filled, plot-driven blockbuster by contrast.

I do have to mention the dog. I'd like to take her home.

Bottom line on this one: 2 stars

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Ah, the tender love a father. . . . OK, so maybe Liam Neeson's character's love for his daughter wasn't expressed so tenderly in Taken, but it certainly knew no bounds! The preview for this movie gripped me, and it didn't disappoint. It's an action movie, to be sure, but it's action driven by a father's unrelenting desire to rescue his daughter from the grips of a human trafficking ring.

Bryan Mills is an unassuming man. He sheepishly shows up at his daughter's birthday party and is treated like the hired help by his ex-wife, who married a multi-millionaire. His daughter Kim shows genuine appreciation for her dad's gift, but it is immediately overshadowed by the step-dad's gift horse, which she doesn't look in the mouth.

It turns out that Mills was in the CIA, and was serving his country abroad, leaving his wife feeling a tad neglected. So now, years later, regretting neglecting his family, Mills has quit and moved to be near his daughter in hopes of reconnecting with her. So when she begs his permission for her to travel to Paris with her friend, he swallows his better judgment and lets her. He warns her that it's not a good idea, and insists that she stay in close contact with him while she's in Europe.

Good thing, because his worst fears are realized when she's abducted immediately upon arriving at the apartment where she would be staying. I know it sounds a little far-fetched, but it's actually pretty believable. Through some quick thinking and lucky breaks, Mills gets enough information to start his one-man hunting party. Suffice it to say he is willing to kill anyone in his path to get his daughter back. And lots of people get in his path!

Often times we as parents feel helpless to provide our children with whatever they need. Whether providing daily needs, treating an illness, coping with a disability, walking through hardships, dealing with pain, or whatever they face, parents sometimes go to extreme, heroic measures to fulfill their parental responsibilities. Let Bryan Mills be an inspiration. Behind the special-forces, hand-to-hand combat, espionage skills--which few of us can relate to--is the commitment to pull out all the stops to be a parent--which every parent wants to do.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

On a side note, the world of sex trafficking is amazing and mysterious to me. Assuming the trade as presented in the movie reflects reality, there isn't a punishment bad enough for those criminals. Thankfully, some people are doing something about it. One group is the International Justice Mission. They are on the ground, putting themselves on the line, not just addressing sex trafficking, but other injustices as well.

Young @ Heart

Imagine, if you will, a choir of men and women in their 70s and up singing The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Or how about "I Feel Good" by James Brown. This group in Massachusetts pulls it off with style! This film is a documentary about a few weeks in the life of this amazing vocal group as they prepare a new show. The filmmaker captures the joy the singers get from singing and performing together. The groups director, much younger than any of the singers, doesn't coddle them and hold back in rehearsal, but is demanding and critical, pushing them as any good choir director would. The viewer sits in rehearsal with them, and gets to know many of the singers on a more personal level.

That would be enough to see, but the film goes much deeper. Not to give too much of the movie away, but, as you might expect in any group at that age, you will occasionally lose someone. If you are a movie crier, you might shed a few tears in the second half. Anyone would be inspired to see how the group responds to adversity, banding together in their love for one another and their common love of singing.

The singers of Young at Heart dispel many stereotypes about aging. They are very different from one another in many ways, and have varying levels of health and independence, but they have purpose and focus as they sing together. If I make it to 80 or 90 or more, I hope I still have a passion that will keep me going the way these folks do!

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

By the way, I picked this up because I thought they had done a Brave Combo (one of my favorite bands) cover. Turns out they do sing one of their songs, but it did not make it into the movie. But you can listen to it here, toward the bottom of the page:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Resuscitating a dormant blog

One interesting thing about blogs is that they tend to stick around. I started this one over 2 years ago, stopped adding entries after a few weeks, and abandoned it. So it's been sitting, I guess on a server somewhere, unattended, unviewed. I still watch a lot of movies, so I'll add a few more posts.