It's Complicated

At first glance, you'd expect this to be just the sort of movie I'd hate. The plot revolves around a divorced couple who end up having an affair, which generally means that it will be full of the sort of humiliating scenes I have so much trouble watching in sitcoms. And it stars Meryl Streep, who is one of my least favorite actresses of all time. So when the movie was over and I didn't hate it, I have to admit to being a little surprised.

It turned out that there were far fewer uncomfortable scenes than I initially expected. And it seems that in light romantic comedies, Meryl Streep is capable of reigning in her self-indulgent "I AM STREEP" performance tendencies. (Come to think of it, she was pretty decent in Defending Your Life as well.) What's more, when it was getting it right, the film managed to portray some (dare I say it) complicated relationships quite deftly, not to mention some truly funny moments.

The problem, though, was that the script just had too much in it. As much as I enjoyed John Krasinki in his role as Meryl Streep's soon-to-be son-in-law, having the movie focus on him to the extent that it did took the focus away from what really mattered in the movie. In fact, having his character in the film at all was pretty unnecessary, as well at least one of the central couple's children. Talking about it with Juliette afterwards, we both ended up comparing it to Something's Gotta Give, which was a very similar movie but with a much tighter script. Which makes it all the more odd, considering that the same woman wrote and directed both movies.

I also found Alec Baldwin's performance to be a little too smirky--sort of Bill Murray-esque but in an inappropriate context and with less charm.  And both Juliette and I agreed that all three of the kids' performances were pretty poor. Still, despite all that, I expect that there are a lot of people out there who will love this movie.

Viewed: 1/1/2010 | Released: 12/24/2009 | Score: C+

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(500) Days of Summer

In the opening monologue of (500) Days of Summer, the narrator tells us, "This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story." That declaration is, on its face, a short and simple description of the film. But it's more than that, too. It references the well-established and universally-known tradition of the boy-meets-girl romantic comedy and relies on the fact that we all know that genre so well to quickly set up our expectations. The very next sentence, it turns that expectation on its ear. Really, it's a comment on the genre, itself, and the way we as audience members interact with it. And in that way, it reflects the film as a whole.

This is the thing about genre conventions, though: they're so deeply ingrained in our psyches that even with this kind of up-front warning, we can't help but fall into the trap. We can't help but expect that this movie, just like every other romantic comedy, will follow that pattern we're used to of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And that's what's so great about this movie. By being so conscious of these genre conventions, by both following them and breaking them, it manages to give us a fresh experience. What's more, by giving us a main character that is just as locked into these patterns as we are, it challenges us to re-evaluate the impact these patterns have on the way we approach real life.

Somewhat paradoxically, the film's strength is also it's weakness. By creating a main character that's so representative of the audience's expectations, the film ultimately produces a character that's unreasonable, kind of whiny, and ultimately difficult to truly sympathize with. But then, that may well be the point.

Overall, I have to give the cast pretty high marks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the lead role, seems to have matured very nicely since his days in 3rd Rock and films like 10 Things I Hate About You. Zooey Deschanel was her normal quirky self, which worked perfectly for the role. The main letdown in the cast was actually a bit part, and was ultimately what kept this from being an A movie for me. Unfortunately, I can't say much more than that without spoiling things. (Though, with a movie like this one that telegraphs so much and is so wrapped up in rom-com tropes, it's hard to say that it could really be "spoiled" as such.) But the problems were pretty minor, and I have to say that this is the smartest, freshest romantic-comedy I've seen in quite a long time.

Viewed: 8/24/2009 | Released: 8/1/2009 | Score: B+

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The Hangover

It's been almost a month since I saw this movie and I saw it over a month after it premiered. Despite the fact that it is still in first-run theaters, I think a normal person would, at this point, admit defeat and blow off writing the review altogether.

Clearly, I'm not a normal person.

Still, by now, what can I really add to the discussion? Does anybody not know what this movie is about?  That the humor is male-oriented and vulgar? Has anybody not heard about the credits? (Anybody that would actually see this movie, I mean.) Probably not. I guess all that leaves is my own opinion.

Well, I thought it was funny. OK, really funny. Obviously we're not treading any new ground here, but that's hardly the point. I mean, would you criticize Bachelor Party for not being innovative Oscar material? Of course not. I could have done without Ken Jeong's full frontal nudity, but on the other hand, Mike Tyson rocking out to "In the Air Tonight" was genius.

All in all, if you're in the mood for a raunchy guy comedy, this should fit the bill pretty nicely.

Viewed: 7/11/2009 | Released: 6/5/2009 | Score: B

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Star Trek

Juliette and I finally got a chance to go see a movie this weekend for the first time in almost five months. As you might imagine, since we hadn't been to one in a while and probably won't get to go to another for a while, we wanted to make sure that we saw the one that was really pulling at us. Actually, it turned out that Juliette didn't have any that she was dying to see, which meant that I got to satisfy my inner geek and go see Star Trek. As it happened, not only was it a successful outing for me, but Juliette also really enjoyed it.

Now, the fact that I'm a big Star Trek geek might make you think I'm biased, but the truth is that sci-fi fans--especially Trek fans--are notoriously difficult to please. A movie like this has to walk a fine line between innovation and nostalgia. Too far in one direction and the fans will be outraged at having their cherished memories violated. Too far in the other and the film will be nothing more than a stale rehash of stuff we've already seen. I think that director J. J. Abrams managed to pull it off. There were enough references to satisfy a veteran fan like me but it also stood on its own legs enough that someone like Juliette--who I'm not sure has ever actually seen an episode of any of the shows--had no trouble following along. The characters were all familiar and recognizable, but the film's premise required them to also be a little different from the ones I knew, and the contrast was fun to see. The cast was, overall, pretty good. I particularly liked Karl Urban, whose Dr. McCoy was just spot-on. Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine as Spock and Kirk were also good, and Simon Pegg's take on Scotty was fun.

That's not to say that the movie was perfect. There were some pretty big plot holes, and some of the action scenes got a little repetitive. And some long-time fans may be disappointed at the fact that it's a pretty straight-ahead adventure story with little in the way of unexpected twists and turns. For me, though, that's not really a problem--as far as I'm concerned, Trek has always been about adventure, especially the original series. Certainly some of the later shows added some depth of concept or character development that's beyond what you'll find here, but I think that Abram's Star Trek captures the spirit of Roddenberry's original show quite well.

I'm definitely planning to buy this one when it comes out on DVD. Probably the highest praise, though, comes from Juliette: watching this movie made her want to try out the show.

Viewed: 5/30/2009 | Released: 5/8/2009 | Score: A-

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Slumdog Millionaire

This year, our best friends gave me and Juliette gift certificates for a night at the movies for Christmas, along with a promise to babysit while we were out. As you might have guessed from the steep drop-off in movie reviews over the last six months, this was a real treat for us. What with the Oscars coming up and all of the attendant buzz, the choice of what to see was a little daunting, but we were able to narrow it down pretty quickly to either The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire. Benjamin Button being over two and a half hours long, we opted for Slumdog. Well, I don't know how Benjamin Button would have been, but this was a fantastic choice for our night out.

On the off chance you haven't heard of this one--it won four Golden Globes and got ten Oscar nominations, so people have been talking about it a lot--Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young man, Jamal, who makes it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the opening of the film Jamal is one question shy of winning the top prize of twenty million rupees but has been arrested on suspicion of cheating because of the incredulity of an uneducated kid from the Mumbai slums being able to correctly answer so many trivia questions. Much of the rest of the story is told in flashback, showing scenes from Jamal's life that explain how he knew the answers to the specific questions he was asked.

I have to say, I loved this movie. The look it gave into life in the Mumbai slums was gut-wrenching, but there were also laughs and love. None of the performances really stood out as particularly amazing--though I did appreciate Irfan Khan's turn as the police inspector who interrogates Jamal--but everyone was competent, and the story was so compelling, and both Juliette and I left the theater feeling good.

A final note: Slumdog won the Golden Globe for best score, and is nominated for the Oscar in the same category, and I heartily agree with both. The music in this film was just great, and I plan on getting the soundtrack as soon as I have some spare cash.

Viewed: 1/31/2009 | Released: 11/12/2008 | Score: A

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Marley and Me

I had some serious misgivings about this one when I first heard it was going to be made. I loved the book, but I just didn't think it was the sort of thing that Hollywood would handle right. When I heard that Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were going to be the leads, my suspicions deepened. With that kind of cast, I figured the movie would turn out to be a slapstick-y mess--pretty much Beethoven with a lab. But, I am happy to say that the movie exceeded my expectations.

I still don't think that the movie really should have been made--nothing is really added to the experience in the transition to film. They also changed the story in ways that I thought were quite unnecessary, turning John Grogan into a man trapped in a domestic life he doesn't want, dreaming of being a hotshot reporter. Still, the filmmakers managed to capture a lot of what I really loved about the book and, sure enough, I cried at the end. Owen Wilson particularly surprised me by turning in a performance with some real emotional depth to it beyond the normal bumbling comedic hero he usually plays--though, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been all that surprised, as some of his work with Wes Anderson has also been pretty heartfelt.

All in all, it was a pretty good movie, and I think if you like dogs and haven't read the book, you'll probably like this version of Marley and Me.

Viewed: 12/26/2008 | Released: 12/25/2008 | Score: B-

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The Dark Knight

So, as usual, this review is very late. So late that surely everyone who wants to see it must have done so. I do have a good excuse this time, though. But enough of that--what did I think of the movie? Well, I have to say, I had very high expectations going in and I was not disappointed.

Naturally, most of the buzz surrounding this film centered around Heath Ledger, it being his last completed film. And, indeed, his performance as the Joker was simply amazing. Nicholson's Joker (in Tim Burton's Batman) certainly must have been a shock to people who were used to seeing Cesar Romero in the old TV show. But as far as Nicholson took his performance, Ledger did that much more with his Joker. The amazing--and kind of scary--thing about Ledger's Joker is that he seems so plausible. And that plausibility is, in part, what makes The Dark Knight seem like less a superhero movie than a thriller that just happens to have a superhero in it.

I think that difference in tone is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. I mean, we're all getting a little sick of the superhero thing, I think. There have just been too many of them in the past few years, and they're all kind of running together. It's mostly the same combination of special effects and superhero angst. So, seeing a movie like this one where the film doesn't really revolve around the title character is quite a breath of fresh air.

What else. I have tended to like Aaron Eckhart in the other movies I've seen him in, and I continue to like him in this one. (Just a note, the rest of this paragraph will contain some mild spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the Batman universe.) He did particularly well in this one leading up to his change into Two-Face, giving his performance just the right touch to show us an bright, upstanding District Attorney while hinting at what he will become. Unfortunately, he didn't really manage the transition into villain quite as well--his wrath at the end of the movie just came off as a little cartoonish.

As usual, Michael Caine was a pleasure to watch, and if Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal were good without being great, that's OK because the movie wasn't really focused on them. (It really only disappoints at all just because I've seen both of them do really amazing stuff in the past.) Similarly, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman got the job done and I can't find any flaws with their work here, but they also didn't particularly wow me--which they shouldn't have.

This is the last movie I saw before my son was born, which means it'll be the last one I see in the theaters for a while. I'm glad that I'm ending this run on such a high note.

Viewed: 7/19/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: A

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Mamma Mia!

I'm really disappointed that I saw this as a movie before I saw it on stage. Mamma Mia! has been one of Juliette's favorite musicals since she first saw it in London, eight years ago. (She's since seen it three more times.) So it's no surprise that she was excited about the film. Still, I was a little apprehensive, as I often am about film adaptations of stage musicals. After all, I just about died laughing when I saw Jason Alexander and Martin Short in the L.A. production of The Producers, but the movie version was so lame I hardly cracked a smile. As it turned out, I was right to be suspicious.

One of the biggest obstacles to successfully adapting a stage musical to film is that acting styles are so different between stage and screen. On stage, everything tends to be big, from movements and facial expressions to tone of voice. On the other hand, the camera can capture every tiny detail, so performances tend to be much more subtle and realistic. But subtle and realistic don't work well in a genre where people burst into song out of nowhere. Back in the days of, say, The Sound of Music, film actors were much more presentational in their performances, and, besides, Technicolor just didn't look much like real life. Nowadays, though, a movie has to actually work to be that way. When you look at films like Moulin Rouge or Chicago you see a much more stylized approach to the visuals and performances. Even films that take a more realistic style like, say, Rent or Hairspray, still have a feeling of fantasy to them. Mamma Mia! just didn't have that, and most noticeable way that affected the movie was to make the songs stick out like sore thumbs. That could have been alleviated with some better film and sound editing, but, unfortunately, it wasn't. Especially in the first half of the movie, the songs all just kind of came out of nowhere. It was very jarring.

Another problem? Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. What's more, he knows it. Man, there is little that is more uncomfortable than watching someone sing who knows he's doing a bad job. I respect Brosnan as an actor, but I really think he needs to stick to non-singing parts from now on.

And, of course, as always, I couldn't stand Meryl Streep. Here's an actress who is completely aware of the degree to which she is praised, and it comes out in every moment of her performances. There are few performers I've seen who seem more self-indulgent.

But, despite all that, it wasn't all bad. Juliette and I both particularly liked Amanda Seyfriend, who played Sophie, the girl looking for her father. As Juliette put it, she was "the perfect blend of beautiful and cute." I couldn't agree more--she was just radiant in this film, and her performance had this youthful exuberance that was delightful. What's more, she was an excellent singer, by far the best in the show.

Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were also quite good, and while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard were both shaky on the vocals, they did alright and were fun to watch.

So, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed this movie, but I got a sense of what the stage play must be like and I'm sure it's much better. Hopefully, having seen the film first won't have ruined it for me.

Viewed: 7/18/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: C+

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Like just about everyone I know, I'm a big fan of Pixar. I still haven't gotten around to seeing Cars and Ratatouille, but I've seen the rest and I love all of them. In some ways, this movie is the best of the bunch. As always, the animation has continued to get better and more beautiful--which, considering that the first half-hour or so take place in the middle of a giant garbage pile, is saying something. But what really amazed me was the quality of the storytelling. It's an amazing accomplishment to be able to take two characters who each utter no more than four or five distinct phrases throughout the entire film and make them not only sympathetic but lovable and even relatable. There was virtually no dialogue for the first thirty minutes of the film, and yet it was never boring. And the exposition was about the smoothest I've ever seen. I don't know that I can say that this is my favorite of Pixar's films--for now, that honor still goes to The Incredibles--but despite that I think that this is one of the best executed animated films of all time. I don't know how Pixar is going to top WALL-E, but I can't wait to find out.

Viewed: 7/12/2008 | Released: 6/27/2008 | Score: A

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I've become quite a Will Smith fan over the past couple of years. Certainly the last two films I saw him in--I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness--were very good, and besides being a good actor, the guy just seems really likeable. That might be the only real problem with his run in this movie--the title character is a real jerk, but despite John Hancock's uncouth manner, I couldn't help but like him. Really, though, that's a minor complaint, and I quite enjoyed Hancock. It fulfilled pretty much all of my expectations, being funny with good action. It even managed a few moments of poignancy. All in all, a good experience.

Viewed: 7/5/2008 | Released: 7/2/2008 | Score: B+

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