Leap Year

A new review from The Movie Snob

Leap Year (D). Metacritic.com reveals that I am not alone in wondering whether Hollywood is capable of making a decent romantic comedy any more. I’m not complaining about the formula; the formula is fine. I’m complaining about Hollywood’s apparent inability to make a formulaic movie that is believable. Here we have Amy Adams (Julie & Julia), cute and likable as ever as Bostonian Anna Brady. Anna’s boyfriend of four years won’t pop the question, so when he goes to Ireland for work, she chases after him in order to capitalize on a quaint Irish tradition that a woman can propose to a man during a leap year on February 29th. But inclement weather causes Anna to land rather a long way from Dublin, and before you can say It Happened One Night, she’s off on a road trip with the brooding Irish hunk Declan (Matthew Goode, Stoker) as chauffeur. So far, so good — It Happened One Night is a fun movie even after all these years. But Declan is such a jerk, and Anna is such a ding-dong, and so many ridiculous things pile up at the end of the movie that you just want to shake Amy Adams and ask why she doesn’t demand a better script.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

New from The Movie Snob

Fantastic Mr. Fox (B+). I was unfamiliar with the children’s book this movie is based on, but I still got a kick out of the movie. Filmed in claymation, it is basically the story of an escalating war between Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney, The Peacemaker) and three mean farmers. In this world, foxes, badgers, possums, beavers, and rabbits live basically like civilized people (except they live mostly underground). The problem is that Mr. Fox cannot resist his natural urges to steal chickens and whatnot from the farmers, despite having promised his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!) long ago that his stealing days were over. The movie is a treat visually, and the quirky dialogue and plot are perhaps no surprise given that the movie is directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). The finger-snapping rat voiced by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) steals every scene he’s in. An odd, amusing, and entertaining little film. Even the soundtrack is odd, including the seldom-heard “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys and a track by the almost-forgotten Bobby Fuller Four (known almost entirely for “I Fought the Law”).

Sherlock Holmes

From the desk of The Movie Snob

Sherlock Holmes (D+). Based on the reviews I had seen, I expected Sherlock Holmes to be mediocre–but I didn’t expect it to be this mediocre. As played by Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder), the supersleuth is not only a genius at deduction but also a formidable practitioner of the martial arts. With Dr. Watson (Jude Law, The Holiday) in tow, Holmes investigates a bizarre case in which a hanged murderer has apparently risen from the grave and threatens to take over England with an army of the undead, or something like that. Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers) has very little to do as American con artist Irene Adler. Choppily-edited fight scenes and overwhelmingly brown and gray cinematography do not add to the enjoyment. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the best 2 hours and 15 minutes of my life.

The Maltese Falcon

DVD review from The Movie Snob

The Maltese Falcon (B). Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) plays San Francisco private eye Sam Spade in this 1941 release. A beautiful and distraught woman hires him and his partner, Miles Archer, to tail a man who has supposedly run off with her sister. Next thing you know, Archer and the man he was tailing both turn up dead, and the woman’s story about her sister is exposed as a lie from start to finish. Turns out instead that she and some other underworld types are in a race to find a fabulous gold-and-jewel-encrusted totem from the Middle Ages called the Maltese Falcon, and Spade will need all his wits to figure out what’s going on and save his own neck. Not a bad little story, although Mary Astor (Little Women), who plays the femme fatale, didn’t really strike me as all that gorgeous. Sam Spade is a much meaner, colder character than Philip Marlowe, the private eye Bogart played in The Big Sleep. This film also stars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who would go on to appear with Bogart again in Casablanca, and Elisha Cook, Jr., who would appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep and would also turn up as a guest star on the original Star Trek TV series. Worth a look.

Guard of Honor (book review)

From The Movie Snob

Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens (1948). Last year, I read a piece by a critic who singled out this long and forgotten novel as one of the very best English-language novels about World War II that there is. So I sought out the Dallas Public Library’s old, yellowing copy and gave it a try. I really liked it. Perhaps unusually, it is not about battle; it takes place entirely within the U.S., and primarily at an army air force base in Florida. There are lots of characters, but they are vividly drawn and pretty easy to keep straight. Two of the most important are non-career-military guys: a 60-year-old judge named Colonel Ross and a 38-year-old magazine editor named Captain Hicks. They are thoughtful men, and although they don’t necessarily buy into the honor-and-duty culture of the military, they do respect it and even understand its necessity during dark times like the war. A substantial part of the plot concerns unrest among African-American soldiers caused by the segregation of the officers’ club. (This was supposedly based on an actual event.) In sum, I thought it was an interesting and well-written book.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

DVD review from The Movie Snob

The Postman Always Rings Twice (D). This is the 1946 original, not the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson (Wolf) and Jessica Lange (King Kong). I guess it’s considered a classic of film noir, but I just didn’t buy it. Lana Turner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is a gorgeous blond femme fatale. She plays Cora Smith, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who is much, much older than she is and a doofus to boot. A drifter blows into their roadside gas station/restaurant and takes a job there. Forbidden passion flames between the drifter and Cora, and they hatch a scheme to take hubby out of the picture–permanently. But things don’t go according to plan, and things spiral out of control. This movie just didn’t work for me, especially the ending, but it’s almost worth watching just for the lovely Lana Turner. Almost.

42 Up

DVD review from The Movie Snob

42 Up (B). The Borg Queen and I continued to watch this series of British documentaries that started in the early 1960s with 7 Up. This 1998 installment checks in with the folks from all walks of British life at age 42 — my own age, actually. As you might expect, there are not too many dramatic changes from the last installment, when they were all 35. But there are a couple of surprises that are saved for near the end that are, well, fairly surprising. I find myself wondering about one of the boys who has not participated in probably the last three installments–he went on to become a writer, I think, and then to work for the BBC, and he apparently permitted the filmmakers to use a couple of up-to-date photographs of him in the movie. I just wonder why he wouldn’t go all the way and appear in the movie already.

Fireproof

DVD review from The Movie Snob

Fireproof (C+). I was kind of curious about this movie, so I was glad The Borg Queen decided to order it through Netflix. I had only a vague impression that it was a Christian movie about a firefighter in a failing marriage. And that is basically what it is. Kirk Cameron (TV’s Growing Pains) stars as Caleb Holt, a firefighter whose addiction to internet pornography and general all-around jerkiness have run his marriage to the lovely Catherine (Erin Bethea, Letters to God) onto the rocks. His wise, Christian dad urges him to try a 40-day program to save his marriage, and I did kind of get invested in whether he and Catherine would work things out. But the show is not particularly well-acted, and the Christian message is presented in a pretty thudding fashion. Still, its heart is in the right place, and I applaud the effort.

The Young Victoria

New review by The Movie Snob

The Young Victoria (B+). This independent flick stars Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) as Victoria, Queen of Great Britain from 1837-1901. As the only heir apparent to the throne, Victoria has grown up a virtual prisoner in the palace, and she is not well-prepared to assume the duties of the monarchy. Relatives and politicians alike jockey for position and try to manipulate the young queen, most especially the prime minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany, Wimbledon). King Leopold of Belgium, who was Victoria’s uncle, sent his nephew (and Victoria’s first cousin) Prince Albert (Rupert Friend, Pride & Prejudice) to England to make his own play for the young queen, and it famously happened that the two fell in love and wed. The movie is most successful as a love story, and as such it works very well indeed. It falls a little short in explaining the politics of the period, such as why Victoria’s early decisions caused a public outcry against her, and its very brief coverage of events after the royal wedding might better have been left out. But as a romance I thought it was a very good little movie.

The Princess and the Frog

From the desk of The Movie Snob

The Princess and the Frog (B+). I thought this latest Disney production was generally quite charming. In early 1900s New Orleans, young Tiana grows up working double shifts as a waitress, trying to save up enough money to open a restaurant of her own. Meanwhile, the charming but shiftless Prince Naveen from some fictional foreign land (Malbonia?) is paying a visit to the Big Easy when he runs afoul of a voodoo witch doctor called the Shadowman and gets himself turned into a frog. Naveen persuades Tiana to kiss him, but instead of making him human the kiss turns her into a frog too. They flee into the bayou, and adventures ensue. The jazzy soundtrack is fun, and Tiana and Naveen make a cute couple. Some of the voodoo stuff might be a little intense for the littlest kids, but otherwise this should be a good movie for the whole family.

Nine

New review from The Movie Snob

Nine (C). I’m totally unfamiliar with the source material for this new musical by Chicago director Rob Marshall. I didn’t even know there was a Broadway musical called Nine, and shamefully I have never seen Fellini’s 8 ½. Anyway, Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) stars as Guido Contini, a beloved film director who is struggling to develop a script and start filming his new movie, “Italia.” As he struggles, he meditates on the various women in his life (his mother, his wife, his mistress, his frequent star, etc.), and the meditations are illustrated by musical numbers. Contini is a pitiful figure, to me, and the musical numbers range from tolerable to over-the-top histrionic. Nicole Kidman (The Invasion) is lovely as ever as Contini’s movie star/muse, but her song was pretty forgettable. Not great on the whole.

Avatar – A Second Opinion

Movie Man Mike gives us his perspective on Avatar.

Avatar. If Hollywood were judged on its ability to churn out compelling stories, I would have to downgrade virtually every movie made in the past dozen or so years. Hollywood’s profits have been driven by special effects. There’s a dearth of new and notable stories. Having written that, I have to disagree with many of the reviewers’ (including The Movie Snob’s) criticism that Avatar’s storyline is lacking. I enjoyed the storyline. True, it’s not a jaw-dropping story, but it works. You’ll hear about the incredible special effects in this movie, and that’s no understatement. I recommend seeing this in the 3-D format, but I think you’ll find that it’s still enjoyable in the 2-D format. The film delivers some great messages to viewers. And it well cast. Sam Worthington is great as the lead. I am happy to see Giovanni Ribisi in his role as the representative of a greedy corporate giant bent on raping a far-way planet for profit. Sigourney Weaver is spot-on as a scientist who is studying life on the planet. This film is very entertaining. I give it an A minus.

Crazy Heart

From the pen of The Movie Snob

Crazy Heart (B-). Jeff Bridges (Starman) stars in the Oscar-bait role of Bad Blake, a washed-up country singer-songwriter who supports his alcoholism by playing tiny concerts in bowling alleys and bars across the Southwest. During his travels, he meets the proverbial Good Woman — a reporter and single mother named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight), who interviews him for a local newspaper. We also encounter the Young Upstart (Colin Farrell, Minority Report) and the Sage Old-Timer (Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies) as Bad begins a tentative quest for redemption. It’s not a bad movie, and Bridges is probably not capable of a bad performance, but it’s all so familiar and predictable it’s hard to get too excited about it.

How Rome Fell (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

How Rome Fell, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale 2009). I thought Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar from a couple of years ago was excellent, so I was eager to read his new effort about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It is good, although not as good as Caesar: Life of a Colossus. The book sprawls across the period from about 200-500 A.D., and at times the blizzard of names of short-lived Roman emperors becomes a little too much to manage. And there seems to be a fair amount of repetition, although that may just be because history tended to repeat itself a lot. Barbarian tribes and the Persian Empire were forever pressing against the frontiers of the Roman Empire, so there was a lot of back and forth as Roman power waxed and waned. The book is most interesting and persuasive when Goldsworthy explains his theories about why the Roman Empire fell — and why it lasted so long. Predominately, it fell because the lack of a mechanism for peaceful imperial succession meant that civil wars between would-be emperors were commonplace; as the Romans fought each other, they eventually lost the ability to defend their empire. Moreover, the huge bureaucracy made it impossible for even reasonably competent emperors to govern the whole empire well–or even to know exactly what was going on in far-flung regions. On the other hand, the empire was simply so huge that for centuries there were no external powers capable of defeating it, and the many weaknesses and inefficiencies built into the government took a very long time to become fatal. In short, it’s a good book, but read Caesar: Life of a Colossus instead if you haven’t read it yet.

The Movie Snob’s 2009 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual movie round-up. If I saw a movie in the theater in 2009, I consider it fair game for this column, even if it was technically a 2008 release. I saw 62 movies in the theater last year, and these are the most worthy of your attention.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Hurt Locker, a taut thriller about the Iraq War that has a strong documentary feel to it. The actor who carries the movie, Jeremy Renner, does a heck of a job as a bomb-defusing expert. I think the movie recently came out on DVD, so check it out.

Runner Up: The number 2 spot goes to a 2008 release, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. He should have won the Oscar for his moving portrayal of a washed-up professional wrestler. The scenes in which he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are especially moving, but the whole movie is excellent.

Best Action/Adventure Flick: And my pick for the 3d best movie I saw this year would be District 9, the out-of-nowhere sci-fi movie about a shantytown of extraterrestrials living outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the clueless bureaucrat whose job is to push all the aliens into an even more remote concentration camp. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel to this one! Honorable mention goes to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise, even if he rewrote Trek history in the process.

Best Animated Feature: With the caveat that I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet, I’ll go with the obvious choice of Up, in which a grumpy old man ties enough helium balloons to his house to fly all the way to South America. But except for the awesome opening montage that tells the whole story of the man’s life in just a few minutes, I didn’t think Up was really all that great.

Best Comedy: I’ll stretch this category a teensy bit and pick My One and Only, a winsome little movie that is supposedly based on episodes in the life of George Hamilton during his teen years. The redoubtable Renee Zellweger plays George’s mother, a hapless Southern belle searching for love in all the wrong places. I’m probably exaggerating its merits, but I really liked it at the time. Same goes for Management, a romantic comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston. It involves a totally impossible romance, but the leads are so likable I just had to like the movie. In the category of crude yet funny, I liked I Love You, Man.

Best Documentary: Let’s go with the obvious choice and pick Disney’s Earth. Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? I love ’em, and I’ll go ahead and mention Under the Sea 3D as being worthwhile too.

Best Drama: Or maybe it belongs in the comedy category, but either way I really enjoyed Up in the Air starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman. It’s still in the theaters, so get out there and see it! Another movie that straddles the dramedy line is the quirky (500) Days of Summer, starring the quirky yet adorable Zooey Deschanel. While you’re at it, check out the CD she sings on, under the name She & Him. I was also grabbed by the 2008 release The Reader, although I still don’t know quite how I feel about that movie. It’s a strange one.

Best Foreign Film: I don’t think I saw too many foreign films this year, but I liked A Woman in Berlin, about the Russian conquest of Berlin in 1945 as seen through the eyes of one German woman. It was brutal without ever feeling exploitative. I also recommend the book, which I think is still listed as authored by “Anonymous” even though the woman’s identity is known. Another good one was The Class, or Entre les murs, about a French teacher trying to deal with a very fractious and multicultural classroom. Also, Summer Hours, a French movie that’s just a simple little family drama, well-told.

Honorable Mentions: I have a bunch of them. There’s Wendy and Lucy, a little movie about a sad, down-on-her-luck young woman played by Michelle Williams, and her beloved dog. Adventureland is a good little coming-of-age story starring Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland fame. Moon is a thought-provoking little sci-fi movie. In the Loop is a funny look at the run-up to a fictitious (?) war as seen through the eyes of low-to-mid-level American and British government staffers. The Informant! is a straight movie about a bizarre guy; you just can’t help asking, “Is this really based on a true story? No, really?” Ellen Page scores again in the roller derby movie Whip It. The Coen brothers ask unanswerable questions in A Serious Man. And finally I will mention, based solely on the strength of their visual effects, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and Avatar. See them in 3D, I insist!

First seen on video this year: I haven’t done this before, but I’ll go ahead and recommend a few movies I saw on video this year. The animated feature Bolt is a cute one, about a dog who thinks he has super powers — kind of like a canine Buzz Lightyear. The original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is still surprisingly good, and the 1963 version of The Haunting is still surprisingly scary. I also enjoyed the little-seen Luke Wilson movie Henry Poole Is Here, the classic Western The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the classics From Here to Eternity and To Have and Have Not.

So that’s my 2009 in a nutshell. Please post your comments and voice your own opinions!