The Descendents

2011. 115 minutes. Rated R.

Paradise? Paradise can go @#$! Itself

I’ve never been someone’s medical proxy. I don’t have teenage daughters. I’ve never even visited Hawaii. Still, I found this story of a struggling parent with a lot on his plate wholly engaging and believable. I really enjoyed it, and weeks later, the story and scenes are lingering.

Steward of 25,000 pristine acres of undeveloped waterfront on the island of Kauai, Matt King (George Clooney), is charged with dissolving the family trust before the seven-year time limit. In the wake of this difficult decision, his daredevil wife (Patricia Hastie) has been injured in a boating accident, and is in a coma, with no brain activity. Matt must bring his clan together to vote on a buyer for the land. He circles the wagons and attempts to reign in his daughters–one a mouthy prepubescent brat and the other a wayward teen with an affinity for drugs and older men–to pay their final respects to their dying mother.

When Matt (shockingly!) learns that his wife has been unfaithful, his focus shifts to finding and meeting his wife’s lover, an adventure that includes Scottie (Amara Miller), Alex (Shailene Woodley) and her pothead friend Sid (Nick Krause), who is delightfully insightful and stupid. An island hopping trip ensues, with a stop at the piece of land that is up for sale. Alex recollects camping trips with her mother, and Scottie is disappointed that was not something she ever experienced. It’s intimated that the marriage began to fail when the family stopped being so tied to the land; the idea that it’s just time to let it all go is a powerful one that is very subtly enforced in this brief scene of looking down on a paradise that was once within grasp, but is now out of reach.

Clooney, a flexible actor who can play brooding, goofball, and lover, excels in this role as an ordinary guy (albeit, one worth a lot of money), a back-up parent struggling to understand his girls, a man who above all is trying to do the right thing and still maintain his dignity. What kind of man decides he needs to let his wife’s lover know she is dying so he can say goodbye–instead of losing it? Matt King. He barely cracks a smile when he makes a stinging sardonic comment that makes the viewer laugh, and effectively tears up at a touching moment that displays just how complex a marriage can be.

Supporting characters are strong; Matthew Lillard is exceptional as Elizabeth’s lover Brian. He plays the consummate host in his wife’s presence while behind her back, he battles his shock and fear at Matt’s revelation that he knows about the affair. Beau Bridges is affable but steely when Matt announces he may not want to sell, after all. Judy Greer is subtle and sweet as the jilted wife.

Hawaii becomes a character in her own right, with moods and actions. Clouds permeate the panoramic landscapes throughout the film, reflecting the murkiness of the characters, the heavy weight of decisions hanging over Matt’s head, and the gloomy situation he finds himself in. It is only at the end that the sun shines through. Still, Hawaii’s beauty shimmers in verdant landscapes, sparkling oceans, and delicate flora. A soundtrack of ukelele music and wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts further enhance the island atmosphere.

I hated Sideways so much I haven’t had a glass of merlot since. I couldn’t empathize with the characters, didn’t like the clever-for-cleverness’s-sake editing of the road trip montage, and found the funny and dark didn’t come together. In The Descendents, director Alexander Payne seems to have a better handle on his journey metaphor, and stronger control over the depth the characters display.

If you don’t have enough family dysfunction in your holiday season, go peer at someone else’s. The Descendants has humor and pathos, and serves as a great escape to warmer climes.

Hereafter

2011. PG-13. 129 minutes.

A life that’s all about death is no life at all…

I’ve never had a near-death experience. I’ve never been clinically dead. Heck, I’ve only been knocked out with anesthesia once (to have 4 wisdom teeth pulled). I do know people who claim to have had the experience of dying and coming back, and from a young age I’ve been fascinated with supernatural things: ghosts, astral projection, and things that go bump in the night, so I picked up Hereafter on DVD at my library on a whim (ok, I really just needed something to balance out all the romantic comedies I was lugging home for the Thanksgiving weekend).

In Hereafter, three stories come together in an examination of what happens when we die. Marie (Cecile De France), a hard hitting reporter, has a near-death experience during the 2005 tsunami while on holiday with her lover. It’s a miracle that she survives after almost drowning, and that they find one another in the aftermath. Accustomed to asking the tough questions in expose interviews, Marie is preoccupied and then obsessed with her experience, and strives to understand what happened to her while she was clinically dead for a number of minutes.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Jason and Marcus (Frank & George McLaren) are prepubescent twins with an alcoholic/addict mother. She doesn’t take conscientious care of them on a good day, but when Jas is hit by a car and killed, she goes off the deep end and Marcus is placed in child protective services custody with a lovely foster couple. Marcus struggles to adjust to life without his other half. His brother was the chatterbox smartmouth who looked out for him, and he wishes there was a way to reconnect.

Meanwhile, in the US, George (Matt Damon) is a pyschic — the real deal — who can, upon physical connection with another person, tap into the messages their deceased loved ones have to share before they move on. Although he once had a career (money, fame and fortune) from his gift/curse, the burden and attention grew overwhelming. In spite of his greedy brother’s (Jay Mohr) attempts to push him back into the spotlight, George claims satisfaction in his laborer’s job and solitary lifestyle. Could George have the answers Marie and Marcus seek? And, how will the three cross continents to come together, as we are sure from the beginning they will?

Set in London, Paris, and San Francisco, this partially subtitled film has an international tone in style, setting and character. Visual clues like the Eiffel Tower establish where were are in each scene, and there is never any confusion as to whose story we are peeking in on at any given moment. The pacing has a deliberate ebb and flow like a tide between moments of disaster that are theatrical but not over-the-top sensational and quietly dramatic: the tidal wave that wipes out a third of a population; a London tube bombing that kills hundreds; a single tear from Marie who learns nothing is as secure as she thought; a heartbreaking moment of insight when George’s cooking class companion insists he “read” her.

The acting throughout feels self-assured and real; no false notes, no hysterics. I believed these were real people with real emotions and real experiences. Marcus is shell-shocked, George is resigned, Marie is eager. The performances are subtle, perhaps verging on so understated that coupled with the slow (for American audiences) pace, I can see why some reviewers would say this movie lags.

Multitalented director Clint Eastwood has composed a haunting soundtrack that amps up in dramatic moments and is poignant with strings in others. Mirrors figure heavily into the cinematography, perhaps to capture the reflective nature of the film? There is the mirror image of twins, using mirrors to contact the dead, shooting into a mirror and then changing the camera angle to focus on the actual subject.

The film is not without flaws. I questioned why George had to explain his process and form a “connection” with his seeker before getting his messages, when in several scenes, just touching someone’s hand brought on the unwelcome visions. And this is a minor thing, but it’s hard to keep suspension of disbelief when there are technical errors: in the cooking class George registers for to seek some sort of connection with others, there is no coverage of knife skills. The instructor chef welcomes his students and gets them chopping tomatoes. Damon’s knife skills are hideous, and no self-respecting chef would let that go; it would be a teachable moment, especially given the fact that one character comments on another who has brought her own knife to class. As an avid home cook trained by a Le Cordon Bleu graduate in proper knife technique, this made me cringe (if you don’t know, and have a burning desire to cut yourself less often, check out this tutorial).

Finally, while Marcus’s story was resolved, I still had questions about George and Marie, so it ended on a frustrating note for me. It didn’t stop me from enjoying Hereafter, but it did jar me out of the zone. This doesn’t change my own beliefs (which are mostly of the “there are still a lot of things we don’t–can’t–understand” variety) but I’m still thinking about this film a few days later, and to me, that’s always a sign that it was a good investment of my time.

127 Hours

After telling some ladies he’s guiding through Blue John Canyon in Utah that “these stones never move, they’ve been here for centuries,” Aron Ralston is caught by his forearm when the rock he’s standing on gives way and pinions him against the wall in a crevice.

I’m not much of a climber. I prefer company in the great outdoors. I’m sort of squeamish when it comes to the sight of blood. This story about a cocky canyoneer who gets trapped for over 5 days and resorts to extreme measures to escape was just riveting. Based on Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 portrays true events (and hallucinated ones) from 2003.

Once stuck, Ralston tries everything: screaming for help, levering the rock, rigging up a rope and pulley. Nothing budges it, and his supplies run dangerously low. It’s cold at night in the canyon, and even during the day he only gets about 15 minutes of sunlight. Delirium sets in with the derth of food, lack of water, and shock: he has vivid dreams of escape, insane hallucinations of Scooby Doo, and an epic vision of his future offspring before the end of the film.

Things I love:

The Convincingness
James Franco isn’t an exact look-alike, but there are some similarities, and it seems he conveyed Ralston well enough for the subject to give his stamp of approval by appearing at the end of the film. Franco is satisfyingly charming, intense, crazed, furious, and agonized by turns, and moves effortlessly back and forth from Ralston in the present at the start of the film to Ralston in his own memories as he examines pivotal moments in his life to Ralston caught in a canyon. It’s decent, convincing acting. I actually got thirsty, watching him ration his water, and gasped aloud when he knocked over his bottle, spilling a few precious milliliters.

In most cases, the book is better than the movie; in this case, the movie is equally as good, because of the attention to detail. In one scene in the film, Ralston takes a photo of an S-shaped piece of weathered wood stuck in a crevasse, and the photo appears in the book–I can only assume what’s shown on screen is his picture. Clothing, gear, and location all are so frighteningly accurate it must have been difficult for Ralston himself to watch this movie.

The Editing
The editing was really interesting. In one scene, we get a shot of the interior of the tubing from his Camelback water reservoir that’s just amazing, and nicely contrasted when Ralston resorts to drinking his own urine in an effort to stay hydrated. The director uses a three-screen split near the beginning to capture Ralston playing around on his bike, and when he meets up with some ladies and shows them a rock slide that drops into a water-filled cavern, repetitive footage of the three new friends sliding and splashing has an almost snapshot-like quality, even though the scenes are full of motion–it’s like a video slideshow.

Ralston did a daily video diary during his entrapment, and director Danny Boyle worked that in really well; in one scene we watch Ralston watching himself on camera, while in another he can’t stand to look at himself, and watching the two images is odd. In another scene, delirious from lack of food and water, he pretends to interview himself on a morning news show. He’s all Guy Smiley, asking self-deprecating questions about how he ended up in this predicament. The camera focuses on his camcorder screen for his humble responses, giving the impression that we are the viewer watching him on screen at home. It’s a nifty device.

The Soundtrack
The music in this film is really kick ass: a mix of grinding rock and mellower jam band-ish sounds. I know Ralston is a huge fan of Phish and the String Cheese Incident, and the music seems carefully chosen to reflect his taste as well as mood, and to convey tone: fun, urgency, pain.

SPOILER: The sound effects are really cool, too. In the book, where Ralston writes about severing his arm (oh, come on, you all know he cuts his arm off! There is no way this is a spoiler, so don’t bother to send me nasty emails), he compares the bundle of nerves to a guitar string. In the film, Franco tweaks the nerve bundle just a little, testing to see how much it’s going to hurt, and a reverberating stringed instrument twang is akin to nails screeching on a chalkboard. It’s a powerful way to make the audience almost FEEL his pain by making us physically uncomfortable.

Let’s face it: I’m never going to go hiking alone in a desert canyon. But I don’t have to, because I feel like I’ve lived through it with Aron Ralston. And THAT is what makes this such an effective and memorable biopic.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlhLOWTnVoQ 

Saawariya

I am not at all up on my Russian authors. I didn’t know what a palanquin was until I Googled it. I’ve only seen two other Bollywood movies–Monsoon Wedding and Bride and Prejudice (“Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t count,” says my friend Dan). Still, I found Saawariya completely enchanting.

I’m a sucker for love stories, and I love musical theatricality; Saawariya features both. There are ten songs (11 if you count the reprise) to set the tone and further the plot, which follows Fydor Dostoevsky’s short story of unrequited love, White Nights. The film features several musical tropes, including a (male) tenor ingenue, dancing like you’re fighting, no song for the villain, and multiple summonings of backup dancers who just happen to know the choreography.

Narrated by Gulabji (Rani Mukeji), a jaded lady of the night, Saawariya tells the story of Ranbir Raj’s (Ranbir Kapoor) arrival in town. A talented young musician with a Beatles haircut and the moves of young Elvis (with a little Michael Jackson thrown in), Raj’s first number (“Saawariya”)  is both an “I want” and am “I am” song that declares his desire love and be loved. Hired on as the new lead singer at the RK Bar in the red light district, he opts to live amongst the whores, being kind to those who are someone else’s mothers, sisters, or daughters. They at first laugh at him, then are touched, and he wins them over one at a time, never asking anything in return but their smiles. Gulabji becomes a friend and confidant, and perhaps falls a little bit for Raj, herself.

On the eve of Eid (a major holiday in Muslim countries, celebrating sacrifice), Raj meets a quiet stranger in a dark alley and it’s love at first sight. Raj serenades Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) with “Masha-Allah” (translated to Gosh, so beautiful, though the real meaning is, by the grace of God) in s sweet, bashful way that is completely endearing. Kapoor plays Raj with an  earnestness that isn’t familiar in American films; it’s a nice counterpoint to the timidity and naivete of the character in White Nights.

Over a handful of evenings, Raj falls in love, writing Sakina’s name on the walls all over town, but Sakina reveals she has awaited the return of her lover Imaan (Salman Khan) over the past year; he has promised to return at Eid. She and Raj must remain only friends. To add insult to injury, just as he is about to proclaim his feelings, she mistakes the writing on the wall as a sign of Imaan’s return. He proposes, but she doesn’t take him seriously. At least he gets to keep the umbrella.

Humor balances out the pathos, ranging from wordplay to physical jokes: shopkeepers turn off their lights, as Raj approaches them one by one in an attempt to escape his shame at Sakina’s teasing. Raj’s cantakerous landlady Lillian’ (Zohra Sehgal) steals every scene she is in, whether she is griping at Raj, missing her son, or singing off-key.

Comparisons to Baz Lurhmann’s work are not far off: stunning stage-like sets, gorgeous traditional costume, and synchronized dance numbers. The lighting is particularly fantastic; the scenes are all set at night, and yet lit like it’s a full moon, in beautiful blues accented with purple and gold streetlamps and bulbs. The soundtrack is lush–lots of strings, and captivating drum rhythms. Great attention is given to visual cues, as well: waterlilies abound, representing life, fertility, divinity and enlightenment.  A ticking clock is ever present in the background. And ever so eloquently, Raj’s disappointment is set to rainfall.

I grew up in a town that is still 90% white, and chose a college that prided itself on it’s multicultural diversity. I’d like to think I’m educated and not culturally illiterate, but I am embarrassed to say that I was surprised to find so much English in the film. How would native Hindi speakers get the signage and the smattering of English throughout? Then I remembered that although speaking only one language is the norm here in the States, it’s not unusual in many other parts of the world to be be fluent–FLUENT–in 3, 4 or even 5 languages.

I felt sort of naive for being surprised, and disappointed to not be able to appreciate all the nuances. I was lucky to see the first half of the film with my friend Meena–who is fluent in Hinda and shared the inside jokes and cultural connotations that went over this white girl’s head–and Dan, who is well-schooled in Bollywood films and could speak to the things that made this first Indian film to be released by a North American distributor a success, including such international appeals  as giving the male lead his own provocative (and scantily clad) item number.

The Princess of Montpensier

2010. 139 minutes. Unrated.

In the midst of the Catholic/Protestant wars of the 16th century, a woman marries against her wishes and tries to put her husband’s cousin out of her mind; she’s successful until they encounter one another at Court.

I love period films with focused attention to detail. I’m a sucker for unrequited love. And, okay, I might also have a thing for movies where girls are forced to marry against their will, and find passion and romance. It didn’t quite work out that way in The Princess of Montpensier. This film, like Lady Jane, is based on a true story: Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry) is engaged to a nice-enough cousin of hers, Mayenne de Guise; the only thing she looks forward to about the marriage is that it will keep her in close contact with his brother, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), a bad boy hottie with whom she has intense chemistry. Unfortunately for her, along comes the Duke of Montpensier, who convinces her father that his son the Prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) is a much better match (and that the de Guises suck), and the engagement is broken and a new one formed. After the wedding, everyone stands around and listens while the marriage is consummated behind the bed curtains.

Almost immediately upon the newlywed’s arrival to their home, the Prince is called away to soldier, and leaves Marie in the care of his dear friend and mentor, the Comte of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), with instructions to teach her the ways of the court, so she will impress when they are inevitably called to audience with the King and Queen. After a particularly gory battle that compromised values he didn’t even know he had, the Comte deserted and swore not to fight again; while the Prince harbors the Comte at his estate, the Comte looks after the Princess and teaches her some poetry. They grow to be friends and she confides in him about her past love for Henri. The count falls for her, too. And then, guess what; so does the dashing Duke of Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz).

Things I hated:

The princess
Marie had no redeeming qualities to inspire devotion from not one, not two, but four men–five, if you count her original fiance. She’s not particularly smart, kind, feisty or pious, merely self-centered. I guess she has nice enough penmanship. I know blond hair & blue eyes is perennially popular, but seriously, her pouty mouth looks like she got hit in the face with a brick. She is totally unsympathetic, and gets what she deserves in the end.

Her whiny husband
First, he was immature. Second, he was weak. Third, he looks like my cousin Jenn’s husband, and I found that extremely distracting, because every time I saw his face, I thought, “oh, look, it’s Doug!” Luckily, Doug has much more strength of character.

The pendulum pacing
The tedium was threefold: the affection of friendship/lust/friendship/lust with Henri; the back and forth from castle to court to castle; the war/truce/war peace. At over two hours, this is supposed to be a lush, romantic, period love pentagon got bogged down with too many characters and a myriad of subplots (another was the Prince’s waning mother and his peacocky father’s desire to be a social climber).

The swordfighting scenes were great (although, it was pretty predictable that the Duke’s and Prince’s friendly spar at the beginning predicated the nasty duel to come). The clothes were beyond beautiful. The battle scenes were delightfully gory, and the historical details accurate. The acting was decent–Lambert’s Comte was the best part of the film: he was confessor, mentor, and solider who paid the price for getting too entangled. I went in expecting PASSION, and all the good parts took place behind curtains or off screen. (Side note: gentlemen, it is never acceptable to use a women’s breast as a handle, as Henri casually does to Marie).

As we left the theater, I apologized to my (then) boyfriend, who’d kindly accompanied me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought that was going to be better than it was.”
“No, I LOVED it!” he said.
“Really?! What did you love about it?” I asked.
“The Princess!” he replied.
“What?! Not you too!” I said. “Well, you can’t have her, either.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

1966. 131 minutes. unrated.

George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that’s perfectly okay, that’s all right.
Martha: You can stand it!
George: I cannot stand it!
Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it!

It won five Academy awards (and got thirteen nominations). It was the most expensive black and white film made at the time, costing $7.5 million to produce. It was considered obscene when it came out, resulting in at least one arrest (of a Nashville theater owner). And 45 years later, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains crisp, relevant and mesmerizing.

Just after coming home from the faculty mixer at 2:30AM, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) informs her professorial husband George (Richard Burton) that they have guests coming over— Nick (George Segal), the rising star of the biology department, and his mousy wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). The younger couple become a vehicle for Martha and George’s bitter relationship, propelled by contempt and alcohol.

My favorite things:

The Drinking
You could make a drinking game out of counting the number of drinks poured. There were so many, it it made me crave a gin & tonic.

The Dialogue
Funny, smart, scathing, the way George and Martha treat one another ranges into cringeworthy at times:
Martha [derogatorily, to George] Hey, swamp! Hey swampy!
George: Yes, Martha? Can I get you something?
Martha: Ah, well, sure. You can, um, light my cigarette, if you’re of a mind to.
George: No. There are limits. I mean, a man can put up with only so much without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder, which is up your line. Now, I will hold your hand when it’s dark and you’re afraid of the boogeyman and I will tote your gin bottles out after midnight so no one can see but I will not light your cigarette. And that, as they say, is that.
Martha: Jesus.

The Acting
Did I mention every billed character got a nod from the Academy, and both Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won Oscars for their portrayals? Dennis has the most textured performance, as she gets charmingly intoxicated, then brayingly loud, puking, stinking drunk.

Movies were just made differently way back then. The blocking is very reminiscent of the stage, and scenes are longer than the fast paced scenes in today’s films. Characters are more physically static. The dialogue is so intense, that the viewer is left to focus on the acting. Martha is over the top in her disdain of her spouse George, but George is more passively aggressive, and sometimes his tone doesn’t match his words, so careful attention must be paid, or you’ll miss his brilliant, cutting commentary.

Stick to straight bourbon while you are watching this gem, and remember: Never mix, never worry!

Joueuse (Queen to Play)

I can’t play chess in my head. I’m a poor strategist. I didn’t even discover castling until college. But I know the basic moves of chess, and I love the IDEA of chess as foreplay, and it works pretty well in this French romantic comedy, even if the endgame is (satisfyingly!) predictable.

This is the second French romantic comedy I’ve seen, and something about them leaves me a little cold. Are French women just too polished and sophisticated for me to relate to? They aren’t real to me in the way that American women in American romantic comedies are. I want to be buddies with Drew Barrymore (who insists that there is a scene that shows women eating real food — not salads–in every film) and genuine, girl-next-door Jennifer Garner. Something about their untouchable beauty puts me off. Or, maybe it’s the smoking, which I find disgusting.

Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) moved to the isolated isle of Corsica to be married, and her teenage daughter can’t wait to get off the island–she frequently shouts about how she wants to avoid her parent’s fate of a life of poverty. Perhaps it is this, coupled with watching two lovers playing chess on the balcony at the hotel where she works, that drives Helene’s restless desire to fill her life with something.

When an attempt to engage her shipbuilder husband Ange (Francis Renaud) in the of game of chess fails, she teaches herself, but finds an electronic device a poor substitute for a flesh and blood person. She implores the American ex-pat who employs her in a side cleaning job to instruct her. At first, Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline, in his first French-speaking film role) is cantankerous, but the two warm to one another (of course). He gives her books (and reads aloud to her! swoon) and encouragement. Kline’s deadpan delivery and cranky character add a level of humor to the film; Bonnaire is luminous.

Things I loved:

The Visual Clues
Director Caroline Bottaro shines at giving neat little visual clues to advance the plot. As Helene learns chess at the hands of Dr. Kroeger, the passing of time is indicated with the characters posed in the exact same positions but wearing different clothes to signify a different day. It’s a very clever device.

Helene’s hubby Ange spends a lot of time with friends, playing backgammon with someone named Jacky. About 3/4 of the way through the film, when we learn who Jacky is, our assumptions get turned upside down. This three-second scene then flavors everything we thought we knew about a complex marriage.

Corsica
Corsica, for those of you who don’t know, is in France, not Italy or Greece. The scenery is just lush and gorgeous. The sun-drenched hills and sea is an idyllic backdrop for a fresh story. The setting juxtaposes Helene’s impoverishment with her aspirations pretty well.

Female Empowerment
The ambiguity of the Kroeger/Helene relationship lends itself well to discourse. Were they lovers, or not? If so, it was tastefully left off-camera for the viewer to envision. If they did do it, was it on his terms, or hers? If it was inevitable that they would consummate their relationship, why does she choose to leave (albeit, after deliberately staying late and having a drink) the night he makes a pass at her, and if they didn’t do then, why is the scene in which they play chess without a board so steamy and intimate, though they never physically touch? The kiss she gives him at the end is that of a lover saying goodbye, not of a friend and mentor. Rich fodder for discussion, indeed.

Tropic Thunder

2008. 107 minutes. Rated R.

Kirk Lazarus: “I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!”

It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. There are gratuitous explosions. It toes the line with stereotypes. But Tropic Thunder was one of my favorite movies of 2008.

It’s a movie about making a movie, which is a fantastic frame; unbeknownest to the actors who have been dropped on location in Vietnam for authenticity, when the director steps on a landmine, the only shooting that continues is by drug-runners, at our heroes, who still think they are within a construct they will emerge from safely.

The motley crew includes Tugg Speedman (a very shredded, action hero-y Ben Stiller), a dumba who thinks he’s smarter than he is; Jeff Portney (Jack Black) playing the same character he always plays, an overly exuberant druggie); Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a novice in his first breakthrough role; up-and-comer rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr., in blackface!?) an Aussie actor who embraces an adopted heritage after stealing the “only good black role” from Alpa Chino.

My favorite things:

Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux’s writing. The dialogue is funny, snappy even; there is plenty of slapstick comedy. The team brilliantly pokes fun of the movie industry with the creation of characters like Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), an over the top greedy and foul-mouthed exec; his smarmy ass-kissing assistant Rob Slolom (Bill Hader); and ingratiating agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey).

The Cast. Downey got nominated for best supporting actor, and lost out to Heath Ledger that year. Ledger’s Joker was brilliant and macabre and terrifyingly terrific, yes, but… comedy NEVER gets props, and I think comedic actors are BETTER at dramatic acting than more traditional dramatists. They have better timing, more expressive faces, and can quickly switch gears from pained to silly. Downey got shafted. I found Cruise in particular committed to his role. He sold it, and made me forget I was watching Tom Cruise.

The Trailers. The trailers at the beginning of the film, for the work by the characters in Tropic Thunder, are sheer genius: ridiculous, but not so far-fetched. I won’t spoil it, but will say there are some delightful cameos; keep your eye out for someone Amazing in priestly garb.

Lady Jane

1986. 136 minutes. Rated PG-13.

”The soul takes flight to the world that is invisible. At there arriving, she is assured of bliss, and forever dwells in paradise.”

Married at 16. Queen for 9 days. Beheaded for treason at age 17. And you thought your teenage years were rough! Protestant Lady Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), cousin to the ailing King Edward, is but a pawn in her parent’s political games when the Duke of Northumberland (John Wood), the most powerful man in the country (what, you thought kings had power???) convinces Jane’s parents to wed her to his youngest son, Lord Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes). They will be well-matched and easily manipulated in a plot to keep Mary from the throne–or so the elders think.

Things I love:

The Idealism

Guildford, a cynic, educates naive Jane about why the peasants are idle and bitter, and when their discussion ends in a shouting match, apologizes to her and tries to listen, really listen, to what she believes and feels. They discover they have similar ideas, and express their socialist desires in a plethora of satisfying glass smashing (and a colossal waste of good wine). When the King dies and names Jane heir to the throne, guaranteeing her parents and the Duke the power they crave, Jane admirably and unexpectedly uses her title to try to affect real change for the lower classes. She remains true to her beliefs throughout, and cannot be broken. Her convictions are admirable.

The Romance

Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these two. Their relationship starts out hostile, as neither wishes to marry; Jane politely requests a “cousinly” relationship, and Guilford tries to shock his betrothed with tales of a drunken evening with a lady of the night. He plays the cad, winking at dancers on their wedding night, then falls asleep before their marriage can be consummated. Away from the court, it turns out they have much in common, the religious girl has the passion that only a repressed soul can have, and they find they have much in common and fall deeply in love.

The Period Details

The courtly manners, the dress and decor, the chasm between the classes, and Jane’s character itself all seem pretty accurate in historical detail. Because of these details, I’m willing to forgive the fabrication of romance found within such a strategically arranged marriage. As a YA librarian and teen advocate, I really appreciate when teens are convincingly portrayed, and I like Carter’s take on the emotions and expressions of a willful 15-year-old girl, filled with convictions.

The acting isn’t anything special; Elwes is overly intense and Carter’s crying is terribly fake, but their chemistry is genuine and they are pretty people to watch. It’s sort of a shame that the love scenes are chaste. Jane is beautiful when she laughs after playfully stealing her husband’s boot, beautiful when she cries as they part for the last time, beautiful in her regalness. Guilford is appealing in a floppy hair/rakish grin/glinting eyes sort of way. British accents, always sexy. Pretty people + short lived romance = crying into your popcorn. Watch it and weep every time the violins swell.

Shall We Kiss?

2007. 96 minutes. unrated.

This foreign film examines the ripple effect of a kiss that launches an affair in a story-within-a-story framework. It didn’t win any major awards. It lacks the warmth of an American romantic comedy. It’s subtitled, which may be a stumbling block for some film buffs. But Shall We Kiss? is a pretty (and a pretty decent) film: well-composed, well-plotted, and well worth your time.

 When Emilie (Julie Gayet), a businesswoman lost in a provencal town, accepts a ride from Gabriel (Michael Cohen), a kind stranger, he invites her to dinner upon arriving at her hotel destination. It’s clear from their body language they are attracted, but at the end of the evening, when he asks for a kiss without consequences, she hesitates, then says it’s a bad idea, because there are always unintended consequences, in her experience.

He wants to know the story behind this assertion, so they find a place to have another drink, close down the bar, and the retire to her room for the rest of the conversation. The remainder of the film shifts back and forth from this frame to a tale of Emilie’s friend Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), who decides to help her best friend Nicholas (Emmanuel Mouret) with his “problem” (he’s horny, but wants to be with someone he connects with, because kissing is an important part of lovemaking for him, and he doesn’t want kiss someone he doesn’t care about–how very Pretty Woman of him!). They commence an affair and two discover have sexual chemistry together like with no one else, and hatch a plot to spring Judith from her marriage to the kind and unsuspecting Claudio (Stefano Accorsi).

Things I love:

The Air of Intrigue

Many little mysteries propel the narrative. How does Emilie know the intimate details of this tale? What will happen with Judith and Nicholas and Claudio? Will Emilie and Gabriel kiss?

Physical Acting

In at least two scenes (most notably when Gabriel and Emilie are having dinner) the camera views the actors from enough distance that we can’t hear the dialogue and have to surmise their conversation by reading their body language. It works.

The Colors

The director uses color to evoke mood in a number of scenes; in one, Emilie is shown in part profile, smoking, looking pensive, in a blue wash. It’s an extremely effective way to show what she is feeling–dissatisfied or unfulfilled or unhappy–with her current situation–before she herself knows it.

There is something lacking in this film for me. I didn’t care a lot about the characters, and I’m not sure why; the storytelling is what hooked me. I did like the element of pathos that brings to mind films like Love & Other Drugs or The Breakup. Shall We Kiss? might be better termed a relationship movie than a rom-com, but it’s very much worth a look.