Cruel Intentions (D). I wanted to go see a movie, but no current releases were really grabbing me. I noticed that this flick was in re-release for its 20th anniversary, and I remembered seeing and liking Dangerous Liaisons (on which it was based) many, many years ago, so I gave it a try. Well, it’s not so great. Sarah Michelle Gellar (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and Ryan Phillippe (Crash) star as conniving and wildly promiscuous step-siblings who love to seduce and ruin other young people. None of it is believable in the least, but Gellar and Phillippe’s interactions are somewhat amusing, and it’s also entertaining to watch Gellar try and fail to be a convincing bad girl. Reese Witherspoon (Just Like Heaven) is okay as a wholesome Midwestern gal that Phillippe sets out to ruin and accidentally falls in love with. Poor Selma Blair (Hellboy) has a thankless role as a dimwitted naif that Gellar’s character wants Phillippe to ruin. Not worth the $14+ I paid to see it, that’s for sure. I usually go to matinees; when did normal movie tickets get so expensive?
Wild (B). Co-producer Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) stars in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book about hiking up the Pacific Crest Trail. It was pretty good. Cheryl is a mess; you quickly gather that her mother died pretty young, and that this tragedy screwed young Cheryl up royally. After indulging in some seriously self-destructive behavior and destroying her marriage to a decent-seeming guy, she decides for some reason that she is going to hike this wilderness trail from the southern tip of California to Canada, or at least as far as Portland. The movie follows Cheryl’s trek linearly, but it pauses frequently for flashbacks to show how Cheryl got where she was—mostly flashbacks to life with her mother (played by Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars). The movie certainly held my interest, and there are some tense moments (mainly when tiny little Reese encounters strange men out in the middle of nowhere). But I didn’t find Cheryl all that relatable a character (kind of like the gal in Tracks, the similar true story of a woman who walked across Australia), and I would have liked to have seen more about Cheryl’s “real life” with her husband before she set out on her journey. Still, worth seeing, and I fully expect some Oscar buzz for Reese and maybe for director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club).
The Movie Snob takes a little trip on the mighty Mississip.
Mud (B). When a movie gets a 98% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I figure there must be something to it. This is writer-director Jeff Nichols’s third film, but the first I have seen, and I was duly impressed. It’s about a couple of 14-year-old boys living in a small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. They’ve heard a rumor about a boat stuck up in a tree on some small island in the River, but when they go to claim it they discover that somebody is actually living in it—a scruffy vagabond who identifies himself only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Bernie). Mud tells them some of his story, and they agree to help him lie low and carry out some other plans he has. Is he telling them the truth? Is he dangerous? Who’s looking for him and why? Part suspense movie, part coming-of-age tale, this is a solid film featuring outstanding performances by McConaughey and the two youngsters. Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) plays a decidedly unglamorous gal by the name of Juniper. None other than Joe Don Baker of Mitchell fame also shows up in a small role. I thought the final act got a little unbelievable, but all in all I enjoyed this movie.
Monsters vs. Aliens (C). I didn’t expect much out of this animated feature, and it delivered about what I expected. Reese Witherspoon (Mud) voices protagonist Susan, a woman who gets hit by a meteorite minutes before her wedding to a jerky TV newscaster. The radiation turns her into a 50-foot giant (and turns her hair completely white), which prevents the wedding from taking place and incidentally causes the U.S. government to capture her and sequester her with some other monsters like Dr. Cockroach, the Missing Link, and a blob named B.O.B. But when an alien attacks the Earth to recover the mysterious element that turned Susan into Ginormica (her government-assigned monster name), the government releases the monsters to save the day. Susan is an appealing character, and it’s cute to imagine Reese Witherspoon behind her voice, but the plot is slight and the humor is not all that hilarious. I imagine kids would like it. The only other people in the theater with me were a woman and her little boy, and I heard them laugh once or twice.
Four Christmases (D). I cannot say I wasn’t warned. The previews did not look good. The Dallas Morning News gave it a C or a C-. But I was still a little surprised at how bad this holiday romantic comedy was. Vince Vaughn (Couples Retreat) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) star as Brad and Kate, a yuppie couple that is living the life in San Francisco–no marriage, no kids, just fun all the time. And to keep the fun alive, they leave the country every Christmas to avoid their parents (all divorced) and siblings. But when all outgoing flights are canceled, they suck it up and dutifully make the rounds. Their “eccentric” families are painfully unfunny, from Brad’s “ultimate fighter” brothers, to Kate’s newly religious mother, to Brad’s mother who has now taken up with Brad’s childhood best friend. How did they get this line-up of co-stars to be in this terrible movie? The film has Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s Dad), Mary Steenburgen (Philadelphia), Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade), and others, for crying out loud. The scene in the tacky Christian church with the lame preacher (Yoakam) is among the worst. Still, I’d rather see this than see The Family Stone again.
Just in time for the holidays we have been graced with two exceptional movies for your consideration.
Pride & Prejudice (A). It is apparently very difficult to make a bad movie from a Jane Austen novel. I loved both the delightful Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma and the wonderful Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and I have greatly enjoyed updated versions of JA’s work such as Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary. (Okay, the version of Mansfield Park from a few years ago didn’t stay with me, and the recent Bollywood Bride & Prejudice was a bit of a misfire. But still, they weren’t bad.) This P&P may be the best of them all (although I’ll confess I’ve never seen the popular A&E version starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). Keira Knightley (Laggies) is charming as the intelligent but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew MacFadyen (Anna Karenina) adeptly handles the difficult chore of making Mr. Darcy simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic. Great supporting performances too, including Rosamund Pike as the lovely but shy oldest Bennet daughter Jane (hard to believe Pike was also the icy villainess in Die Another Day,that James Bond movie with Halle Berry), and Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) as Darcy’s monstrous snob of an aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg. If you have the slightest fondness for costume dramas or romance, you must see this movie.
Walk the Line (B+). I simply don’t know how to write a review of the new Johnny Cash biopic without comparing it to Ray. Both are great movies featuring great performances, and the subjects’ lives had more than a little in common. Joaquin Phoenix (her) doesn’t really look much like Johnny Cash to me, but he still does a heck of a job, and I was blown away when I learned after seeing the movie that he did all of his own playing and singing. Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) is, if anything, even better as June Carter, the great love of Cash’s life. Her singing and playing are phenomenal as well. But if memory serves, I gave Ray an A-, while I just can’t elevate this one into the “A” category. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because Cash’s life just wasn’t as vividly eventful as Charles’s. Like Charles, Cash had big problems with drugs and family life, but unlike Charles he didn’t have crosses to bear like blindness and racism. I guess being madly in love with one woman when you’re married to another (with several children to boot) would be pretty bad, but Cash spends so much of the movie bottoming out on booze and pills that he lost a little of my sympathy and interest. (Although I recall reading that Ray gave the life of Charles a bit of a whitewash, so maybe a more honest movie would have lost a point or two in my book.) But if you’re even a casual fan of Johnny Cash’s music (and I’m the casualest), you’ll enjoy this movie. Plus you’ll probably get to check off several of next year’s Oscar nominees in one movie.
Just Like Heaven (B). This new romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo has its protagonists meet under very unusual circumstances. The opening scenes establish that Dr. Elizabeth Martinson (Witherspoon) is a driven young physician who has no time for anything but her job. One rainy night after a 26-hour shift at the hospital, she has a head-on collision with a truck. Flash forward some unspecified amount of time, and mopey David Abbott (Ruffalo) rents Martinson’s old apartment. Martinson’s ghost pops up, only Abbott can see or hear her, and the movie takes off from there. Aside from one pretty good twist, the plot is nothing special, so the movie largely hangs on the charms of its actors. They aren’t bad. Witherspoon somehow makes her super-Type A character likeable, and she and Ruffalo have some chemistry. Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve) adds a few laughs as Abbott’s offbeat friend and counselor. And Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, shows up as an eccentric occult-bookstore employee who tries to help the odd couple out. It’s heavier than most rom-coms, but not bad.