Sunday, December 20, 2009

AVATAR

Review: Avatar
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

James Cameron's “Avatar” is an amazing experience, its miraculous, built-from-scratch imagery dancing and darting across the screen, which Cameron transforms into an immersive, otherwordly terrarium. Nearly 15 years in development, this $250 million sci-fi saga is unquestionably the most incredible visual achievement to hit theaters since Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” stretching the limits of make-believe and more than living up to a colossal amount of self-induced hype. I don't know if it represents the future of movies, but it certainly raises the bar.

The story takes place in the year 2154 on Pandora, a distant, Earth-sized moon born out of Cameron's boyish imagination. Inhabited by a race of blue-skinned, cat-like, 10-foot-tall natives called the Na'vi, Pandora is the ultimate conquest of the American military, who've traveled light years to harvest its rich supply of Unobtainium, a not-so-subtly named mineral of which Earth is in dire need in light of its very real energy crisis. Problem is, the biggest stash of the mineral lies beneath the Na'vi's home base, a tree the size of the Empire State Building that the environmentally-friendly locals have no intention of abandoning.


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Monday, December 14, 2009

DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Review: Disney's A Christmas Carol
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

I've said it before: 3-D animation is as much a curse as it is a blessing. To be sure, it's often great fun to sit through a 3-D movie, and the technology is unquestionably great for the industry (it is, after all, one viewing experience that can't be pirated), but it is also a distraction, a pesky, showy contrivance that, ironically, can act as a buffer between the viewer and the art and story of the film at hand.

As such, “Disney's A Christmas Carol” is a joy and a joke. It is both a spectacular entertainment and a spectacularly gimmicky product. It's the latest from the filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, who's apparently lost interest in directing traditional, live-action movies like his Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump,” and has instead channeled all his energy into refining the motion-capture animation style he previously used to bring “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” to life. In that respect, Zemeckis has surely succeeded, as “A Christmas Carol,” for one thing, boasts the most lifelike human characters I've ever seen in a film of this type. Gone are the dead-eyed expressions and glazed complexion of Tom Hanks's train conductor in “The Polar Express.” What we now have are realistic, sometimes ugly people with emotional gazes and skin covered in blemishes, stubble, wrinkles and rosy cheeks brought on by the frigid London winter (they also have Londoners' bad teeth).


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Sunday, December 6, 2009

UP IN THE AIR

Review: Up in the Air
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's appropriate that the year's two best American films – the blissful Disney/Pixar adventure “Up” and now Jason Reitman's enormously satisfying tragicomedy “Up in the Air” – both have the same skyward direction in their titles, letting you know straight away they're a cut above the rest. What's also strangely fitting is nearly every actor in “Up in the Air,” from lead stars to cameo players, previously appeared in at least one other 2009 film, all of which were either less or far less rewarding than director and co-writer Reitman's incomparably timely tale of a man adrift in a very familiar world. It's as if the actors have been breaking us in and gearing us up for the greatness of this year-end offering.


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Sunday, November 29, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox
4.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The way I see it, there are two kinds of movie buffs: those who swoon over the exceedingly ironic whimsy of American auteur Wes Anderson, and those who can barely stomach it. Personally, I've long considered myself a card-carrying member of the latter party, finding the bone-dry, wink-wink humor and cartoonish, pseudo-hipster sensibilities of films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” not only inaccessible, but borderline intolerable. The truly fantastic “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson's stop-motion rendering of Roald Dahl's 1970 children's book, is a delightful movie that can finally unite us all in giddy, delirious harmony.

At last, Anderson has channeled his unique gifts into a project that is actually animated, rather than trying to overly animate a live-action landscape (and I'm not just referring to the literally animated flourishes that cluttered the frames of “The Life Aquatic”). At last, Anderson has found a way to retain the familiar aura that runs through all his films while welcoming everyone, not just a select few, to be in on the joke and the fun. He's created a world that is detailed and exciting, colorful and funny, and he's populated it with memorable characters who are zany and quirky, yet not to the extent they feel disingenuous. To enliven those characters, he's assembled an enviable bevy of gifted voice actors who never talk down to the audience. At last, Anderson has made a movie not to be tolerated, but adored.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

THE ROAD

Review: The Road
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Apart from its vivid imagery and heartbreaking intimacy, the most remarkable thing about Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning, post-apocalyptic 2006 novel, “The Road,” is, as always, the author's incredible way with words. In addition to such stylistic trademarks as its general lack of punctuation, what makes McCarthy's prose so distinctive is how it turns gritty, sometimes gruesome, scenarios into pure poetry.

The problem, of course, is that such magnificent language is almost always part of McCarthy's descriptions, not his dialogue, and thus the commitment of his work to film inevitably has to suffer some losses in the translation. The Coen Brothers, who masterfully adapted McCarthy's “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, understood this, using the author's words very sparingly, while also exhibiting a filmmaking technique that not only matched the artistry of those words, but exceeded it.


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Monday, November 16, 2009

2012

Review: 2012
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

According to the history books, the ancient Mayans predicted that on Dec. 21, 2012, planet Earth would undergo a global shift, changing the world as we know it. Some have interpreted this prophecy as one of a spiritual nature, others have considered it a sign of an impending apocalypse, and others have dismissed it as simply another phase of the Mayans' ongoing, cyclical calendar. One-note disaster movie director Roland Emmerich saw it as the ultimate opportunity to finally blow the entire world to smithereens, something he's come terribly close to doing before in movies like “Independence Day,” “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” If only the Mayans had warned us of the coming of this sadistic hack, they might have saved us from over a decade of mass murders dressed up as premium entertainment. Though it was never all that original, Emmerich's calamitous recipe at least had a smidgen of novelty in 1996's “Independence Day,” and in 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow” was watchable if only for its staggering visuals. But there's nothing fun about witnessing Emmerich gleefully slaughter billions and obliterate everything in sight in “2012,” the 54-year-old death junkie's most insensitive and shamelessly formulaic film to date.


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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

THE FOURTH KIND

Review: The Fourth Kind
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

There are moments in the inept, lowbrow sci-fi thriller “The Fourth Kind” when the bass is cranked up exceedingly high, as if to say, “now is the time for you to grip your armrests in terror.” I know this intimately because, in my screening, I sat in the very back row, right next to the speakers, which in those moments rattled the wall panels with the vigor of an earthquake. The blaring, bumping, dun-dun-dun! soundtrack is but one of the many ways that writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi practically bludgeons you with the notion that the events depicted in his directorial debut are very dramatic, very frightening and very, very real.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

ANTICHRIST

Review: Antichrist
5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Lars Von Trier's “Antichrist” defies traditional methods of critique, yet it begs to be analyzed. I surely can't comfortably recommend it, as I imagine many a viewer will lose his or her patience, temper, lunch, or all three in succession; nor can I dissuade serious filmgoers from seeing it, as it is, for better or worse, a work of tremendous, terrible power.

The plot is decidedly simple: a husband and wife (who are courageously played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but remain nameless) suffer the death of their toddler son, who, in the movie's prologue, falls from the family's high-rise window while the couple engages in passionate sex. She, a writer studying witchcraft, is so consumed by grief that she needs to be hospitalized, and soon, her grief transforms into paralyzing fear. Believing that the source of her fears is Eden, the family's secluded cabin in the woods, he, a psychiatrist, decides that the best medicine would be for both of them to make a pilgrimage to the cabin so she can confront her demons head-on. Strange occurrences begin to accumulate, fear and distress give way to madness, and gradually, the pair inflict emotional and unmentionable physical pain on one another as a result of their tragedy, their surroundings, or, most unsettlingly, their very natures.


So, what of the title? “Antichrist” doesn't feature Linda Blair-like possessions or exorcisms, nor does it involve a creepy, Damien-like child who acts as the son of the devil. A child plays a key role in the narrative, of course, and there is talk of the devil (“Nature is Satan's church,” she says at one point), but this film in no way caters to the conventions to which audiences have grown accustomed. Nor is it really a horror movie, despite the inevitable, but misleading attempt of many (including distributor IFC Films) to place it in such a box. It is a psychological brain-teaser and eventual eye-scorcher set amidst a familiar horror backdrop (the woods) and peppered with a few staggeringly gruesome scenarios (I may never look at scissors the same way again). But much of the movie is slow and uneventful. There is an omnipresent sense of dread (with no small amount of credit due to the haunting sound design and the music by composers Hal Lindes and the famous Handel), but those expecting typical, bump-in-the-night scares would be better served – in the short and long run – by a screening of “Paranormal Activity.”

I'd say the title refers, quite literally, to Danish provocateur Von Trier's dark vision of an alternate, godless world – one that exists at odds with the one we know, which in many ways and in many circles is essentially built on biblical legend. He and she are not born into a lush garden. They do not go forth, bear children, and thrive. Contrarily, they lose their child while giving in to temptation, descend into an Eden that has become anything but lush, and devolve into an inhumane state of terror, hopelessness and despair.

In addition to being practically devoid of entertainment value, “Antichrist” offers no moral or existential lessons or benefits. At most, it gives us a glimpse into Von Trier's mind, which, albeit perverse, has produced some of the most interesting film projects of the last two decades (“Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Breaking the Waves,” the Dogme 95 movement). For many critics, that glimpse has proven more than a little unsavory, as the ultra-violent and hyper-sexualized “Antichrist” has been dismissed as being “pretentious,” “artsy-fartsy,” “headline-grabbing,” “misogynistic” “torture-porn.” For you, that glimpse may well provide one hellish night at the movies, quite possibly leaving you with nausea and nightmares. For me, that glimpse was more than enough, as Von Trier has succeeded in piercing my psyche and unraveling my nerves.


“Antichrist” is the most profoundly disturbing film I've seen in years. Though calling certain scenes wince-inducing is putting it mildly, it is not so much its images that disturb, but their implications. Von Trier hints at some devastating larger truths within the story, and takes your imagination to places it would never independently explore. The visceral experience of watching the movie is tame compared to its ability to sear itself in the memory. I was initially provoked to think long and hard about what I'd seen, began to obsess over it, and then felt myself slipping into what can only be called a depression. Other responsibilities felt frivolous, for my mind was wholly preoccupied with Von Trier's “pretentious” little art film. And then I read the director's statement, which was released to the press: “Two years ago, I suffered from depression. Everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial. I couldn't work. Six months later, I wrote a script. It was a test to see if I would ever make another film [that film, of course, became 'Antichrist'].” I find it incredible that Von Trier was able to transmit those very feelings into his work, so fully and so potently that he elicited the same feelings in me. And if that means I fell for his “manipulative,” “headline-grabbing” scheme, then so be it.

I'm anointing “Antichrist” with five stars not just because I want to, but because I must. It is far too polarizing to be given some middle-of-the-road grade, and it's too visionary, impactful and artfully constructed to be abandoned at the bottom end of the scale. It is a beast of a movie – one that warrants in-depth study, but one that even the most hardened film scholars may not want to revisit. Also in his statement, Von Trier wrote, “('Antichrist') was filmed without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.” What's really scary is imagining what the writer/director might have created had he been firing on all cylinders.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

AMELIA

Review: Amelia
2 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The memory and mystique of an American hero is reduced to family-channel folly in “Amelia,” director Mira Nair's gutless, ham-fisted biopic of Amelia Earhart. Calling it conventional would be kind, and comparing it to Martin Scorsese's “The Aviator” – which many journalists have done – is insulting to a true piece of cinematic art. Watching it is like witnessing a tragedy, and I'm in no way referring to the legendary pilot's enigmatic fate. It's one thing for a dumb comedy or a delirious actioner to leave you scrambling for a refund; it's quite another for a potential Oscar contender pregnant with possibility to disappoint so fully. Nair, whose filmmaking prowess has been beautifully displayed in movies like “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake,” guides this featherweight craft through impossibly sunny skies, dodging every dramatic storm cloud in favor of safe, smiley, old-school fluff. Hilary Swank, who many believed would be vying for her third Best Actress prize, has a better shot at landing a Razzie for her work in the title role. Truth be told, “Monsters vs. Aliens” was more gripping than this dud.


“Amelia” does begin with a clean little opening credit sequence, in which the titles appear on the screen and then dissolve into thin air just like the doomed aviatrix. It's a nice touch, but it also marks the extent of this movie's subtlety. Before long, we get the first of many cornball voice-overs, which have our heroine offering affirmations like, “flying lets me move in three dimensions” (as if walking didn't do the same). Are these silly sayings the actual words and thoughts of Amelia Earhart? It occurred to me as I queasily jotted them down verbatim. “Amelia” is based on the biographies, “The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell and “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler, but Earhart did author at least two books of her own. As we learn in the movie, such is how she met her eventual husband, George Putnam (Richard Gere), a publishing giant who commissioned Earhart to write about her experience as the first female passenger on a transatlantic flight. She went on to write another book after becoming the first woman to take that same flight on her own, an achievement that also appears in the film. But even if trite lines like, “I want to be a vagabond of the air,” were lifted directly from Earhart's memoirs, the filmmakers and actors lay them on so agonizingly thick that there's no hope for sincerity.

I'm certainly not a Swank fan, but an actress doesn't win two Oscars for nothing, and when handed fertile, more masculine roles (like this one), she tends to deliver. And yet, her performance here suggests that her talents have degenerated. With her short-cropped hair, freckled face and bright blue eyes, she no doubt looks the part, but that credit goes to the makeup department. And, granted, she is working from a laughable mess of a script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (who've both penned a handful of screenplays over the last 20 years, but could've easily fooled me into believing they were previously employed by Hallmark). But Swank doesn't bring anything exciting to the table, and she reads all that clichéd nonsense – or “hooey,” to borrow a word from the film – with the flat, unconvincing strain of a novice. What I remember most about the performance are Swank's super-sized incisors, which she flashes so often you'd think someone was tickling her off-camera. Gere is no better, hamming it up big time and employing theatrical ticks and broad gestures reminiscent of an old Hollywood comedy. Together, the actors have very little chemistry, and intimate exchanges between their characters are embarrassingly banal.


Ewan McGregor appears in a supporting role as federal aviation administrator and TWA founder Gene Vidal (father of Gore), with whom Earhart had an affair. When this tidbit began to surface, I thought, “Finally! A little bit of juice!” But, alas, “Amelia” is so utterly devoted to keeping its characters and scenarios shiny and happy that anything even resembling negativity or actual tension is resolved or avoided in a snap. The affair ends as quickly as it begins, Putnam takes Earhart back without hesitation, and the couple even remains chummy with Vidal (which may have been the case, but I'm sure there was a lot more gray area, something this movie knows nothing about). Similarly, when Earhardt comes into a bit of trouble during that first solo flight across the Atlantic, there's the goofy diversion of an emotionally-forced flashback to her childhood in Kansas, followed by the wholly improbable, personal pep talk, “if Lindbergh could do it, you can do it!” And while it acts as an appropriate framing device, Earhart's final, 'round-the-world trek is equally innocuous (you can bet the filmmakers steer clear of addressing what may or may not have happened to the fallen icon).

Something tells me that if Earhart were alive today, this isn't the kind of movie she'd want to be telling her story. It doesn't play like a fascinating portrait of a life, but like an inauthentic, episodic, manufactured imitation of one. Save some poorly handled allusions to an alcoholic father, little is revealed about the woman, as the film hinges her identity on all that gooey “hooey.” Perhaps the only thing graceful about it is its cinematography (which, given the high altitudes and numerous exotic locations, is, of course, rather beautiful). Ultimately, “Amelia” commits the greatest sin a biopic possibly could: it dishonors its subject.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Review: Where the Wild Things Are
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Unlike what certainly seems to be the rest of the world's population, I didn't grow up reading Maurice Sendak's immortal children's book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” So, I can't say if writer/director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have faithfully recreated the spirit of the beloved, 10-sentence tale in their new feature-length adaptation. I did, however, grow up building forts, playing in the woods, breaking rules, wanting to write my name on everything, creating new worlds in my imagination or with intricate miniature models, and desperately craving attention from my parents, my older sibling and her friends. It's these personal yet universal themes and cornerstones of childhood that Jonze and Eggers have so accurately and wildly captured, fleshing out Sendak's basic structure with an effervescent, heartfelt anarchy that seems to have sprung from the mind of a nine-year-old.

Such an approach is perhaps the best way this much-anticipated movie could have been made, since the bulk of the story is indeed a product of the imagination of nine-year-old Max (played by 12-year-old newcomer Max Records). We are almost always seeing the events from his point of view, and the filmmakers are savvy and sensitive enough to make that perspective relatable to anyone who remembers the competing feelings of wonder and frustration that come with being a kid. Max is introduced as someone who apparently has no friends, and who entertains himself by talking to imaginary playmates and constructing things like igloos in the snow. He's seen manipulating his older sister's friends into joining him in a snowball fight, but they're more amused than interested, and they take it too far, crushing Max's igloo and his feelings.


Max's mother (the always-welcome Catherine Keener) clearly loves her son, but she's a single mom with a presumably full-time job who can't give Max the amount of unconditional companionship he requires. On one particularly stressful night, Mom invites her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for a dinner date and entertains him instead of playing spaceship games with Max. Fed up with being ignored, Max – dressed in tailed and whiskered wolf pajamas, just like in the book – makes a raucous scene in the kitchen and storms out of the house, barreling down his suburban street as the highly original, jungle-like music by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. echoes in the background with rising vigor. When he reaches a dark, wooded area, Max begins growling and howling, and we're led to believe he's unleashing the feral creature within. He finds a boat, crosses an unnamed ocean and soon arrives at a mysterious island, the home of other untamed beasts – the tall, furry, big-headed and beclawed “Wild Things.” Feeling unthreatened and finally among kindred spirits, Max willingly introduces himself and declares himself their king – the king of a land where, at long last, carefree is the way to be.

I admired the way Jonze chose to visualize Max's journey to the island, forgoing the obvious, “Wizard of Oz”-like dream sequence and instead heading in a more seamless, natural and earthly direction. It's a style that seeps into the rest of the production, from the unvarnished, topographically diverse shooting locations of Melbourne, Australia, to the dazzling sets (which, interestingly, are built before our eyes), to the creatures themselves, which are exquisite mash-ups of minimal CGI and animatronic suits by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (another staple of my youth). How refreshing it is to see a modern, multi-million dollar fantasy film that employs old-school effects techniques and isn't bogged down by frantic, ostentatious spectacle. Even cinematographer Lance Acord's homespun, handheld camerawork – an aesthetic I've been growing tired of given its overuse in the industry – feels right, communicating Max's dreamlike state and no-rules reign over his newfound stomping grounds.


The voice actors who add life to the the surprisingly dimensional “Wild Things” are well cast, namely Catherine O'Hara as the hilariously cynical Judith, Paul Dano as the mild-mannered Alexander, and Lauren Ambrose as the aloof and free-spirited KW, who utters the highly advertised, climactic line, “Don't go. I'll eat you up I love you so.” Other voice talents include Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini, who grunts, grumbles and, eventually, even cries a bit as the beasts' temperamental and manic-depressive head honcho, Carol. Before his kingly powers are revealed as a sham, Max engages in plenty of uninhibited outdoor activities with his new friends, like the book's famous “Wild Rumpus” and an impromptu dirt fight. These scenes are perhaps the movies best because the characters approach the silly games with the sincere seriousness of playful children. And why shouldn't they? After all, we soon realize that the creatures are all manifestations of Max's own troubles and personality traits, each of which he must come to terms with if he is to grow and mature (psychologists will have a field day dissecting what each character represents).

If the film stumbles, it is over its insistence on being a little too somber, and there are also stretches where it's realized that the youthful frivolity, however insightfully depicted, can't really hold up to meaty drama and good, old-fashioned conflict. But the somberness is also a merit of the movie. This isn't a flashy flick for wide-eyed children, and while it probably won't scare them, it may leave them feeling pretty bored. This is, through and through, a movie for adults, many of whom will, like me, be touched by its rather heartbreaking ability to convey a believable nostalgia for the highs and lows of pre-adolescence. I found that the most remarkable thing about “Where the Wild Things Are” really has little to do with whether or not Jonze and Eggers have done Sendak's book justice (though I can only imagine that you, the rest of the known world, will be pleased). It's that both Jonze and Eggers somehow managed to tap into not only their inner children, but my inner child. Watching this movie, I often felt that what was on screen wasn't the product of the filmmakers' imaginations, but that of my own nine-year-old self. I don't think I've ever experienced that before.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

Review: Law Abiding Citizen
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Moviegoers in and around Philadelphia will likely eat up “Law Abiding Citizen,” a fast-paced maniac-versus-the-system thriller that's set in the familiar metropolis, was shot on location, and could even be read as being celebratory of the city. Am I just reading it that way because I hail from a Philadelphia suburb? Perhaps. But I don't believe I've ever seen the City of Brotherly Love as handsomely or as expressly captured as I did in this film (no, not even in 1993's “Philadelphia”). No doubt attempting to emphasize the film's theme of justice (or lack thereof), City Hall, specifically, is painted as an imperial structure of Roman grandiosity, its limestone, granite and marble exterior scanned repeatedly by cinematographer Jonathan Sela with a kind of awestruck respect. Additional segments were filmed at the old Broadmeadows prison (a now-defunct facility in suburban Thornton that was built in the same panopticon style as Eastern State Penitentiary), Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse is incorporated, and even Mayor Michael Nutter makes a brief cameo in a pivotal scene. If I didn't know better, I'd think the movie was made specifically for Philadelphia audiences.


But what about those millions of viewers who dwell outside of the city and its surrounding areas? What will they make of it? I suspect they'll be highly entertained, though not exactly riveted, as “Law Abiding Citizen” is fine popcorn fare, but it isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Since the man at the helm is superior action director F. Gary Gray (who made films like “Set It Off,” “The Negotiator” and “The Italian Job” far more virtuous than they would have been in less adept hands), the movie is a whoosh of a ride, packed with excitement and hard-edged fun (expect plenty of f-words, explosions, blood and dismemberments). But since much of the action is dependent on the mad genius of an idealistic criminal mastermind, the fact that we can anticipate many of his moves weakens not only the movie's tension, but its already shaky plausibility. It's a classic mistake, really: if the audience can see the twists coming, why can't the other characters? The predictable plotting of Kurt Wimmer's Hollywood-mainstream script is where the film takes the biggest hit, but Gray makes rounding those familiar bases a rather exhilarating blast.

I don't particularly care for Gerard Butler, the Scottish actor who rose to super-stardom after his lead performance in “300” was seen by every geek on the planet, and whose other film credits in 2009 – “The Ugly Truth,” “Gamer” – have been anything but stellar. But Butler is engaging and persuasive as Clyde Shelton, an engineer whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered in front of him by burglar Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte, greasy and gross) in the film's opening scene. Darby and his accomplice (Josh Stewart) are caught; however, the hotshot assistant D.A. on the case, Nick Rice (a superb Jamie Foxx), agrees to a plea bargain whereby Darby will serve a measly five years for testifying against his less-guilty partner, who'll suffer the death penalty. Consumed by grief, Clyde tearfully protests the decision, but Nick resolutely informs him that the deal is done (“some justice is better than no justice at all,” he says). The film then jarringly jumps ahead an entire decade in a flash, and soon shows Clyde taking justice into his own hands by tampering with the accomplice's execution device – to worsen the pain, not to stop the process – and gruesomely murdering Darby. Clyde turns himself in, but he's “just getting warmed up,” and from within prison walls, the “expert planner” and former spy initiates a deadly cat-and-mouse game that threatens the lives of everyone who worked on the case and ultimately holds the city under siege.


Clyde insists his actions aren't motivated by revenge, but by his unswerving belief that the justice system is corrupt beyond repair and needs to be upended. This stimulating notion is where “Law Abiding Citizen” finds its strongest narrative foothold, and it's the closest the movie comes to delivering a message deeper than “buckle up and hold on tight.” It's certainly an efficient means of inspiring audience involvement – challenging viewers' morals and causing them to perhaps question the ways of society. After all, Clyde's methods of seeking justice are beyond extreme, but what man wouldn't want to right the wrongs of a legal system that failed him after his family was slaughtered before his eyes? Right? These are the questions the film asks in obvious, yet resonant ways. There's a great courtroom scene in which Clyde, acting as his own legal counsel, insists that he's not a flight risk and that he should be allowed to post bail since the prosecution has no evidence of his guilt. When the judge (a dry, no-nonsense Annie Corley) agrees with Clyde's statements, he laughs and verbally assaults her for proving his point that killers can go free with scary, remarkable ease. It may just be the predominantly surface-level movie's harshest, truest moment.

Beyond that theme, what we've got is a sleek thriller that, for every eye-roll-prompting element – the predictability, the soon-to-be-dead characters' obligatory parting monologues, Butler's inexplicable nudity (isn't that what “300” was for?), and, yeah, Nutter's silly appearance – offers positives that rectify and satisfy. Usual-suspect side players Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill and Michael Kelly provide strong supporting work, as do the newly-dramatic Regina Hall (free from the “Scary Movie” series) and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”), who, as the city's mayor, boosts her budding career as a professional scene-stealer. The remote gadgets and gizmos that Clyde dreams up to wreak havoc from behind bars are nifty in a “Saw”/ “Final Destination” / how-else-can-we-creatively-kill-people kind of way, and they factor into some impressively-staged sequences. Though awash in those inescapable filter tones of cool blue and gun-metal grey, the photography is excellent – crisp, pristine and fluid, as the camera loops and swoops around the recognizable streets and landmarks. For Philadelphians, “Law Abiding Citizen” is enthusiastically recommended, and for everyone else, only somewhat less so.

Monday, October 5, 2009

THE BOYS ARE BACK

Review: The Boys are Back
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the right hands, movies about families in crisis-aftermath mode can be breeding grounds for captivating drama. There are countless examples of such, but the one I'll cite is last year's “Rachel Getting Married,” in which director Jonathan Demme found the harmonic heartbeat of a dysfunctional, emotionally-bruised brood and exposed their highs, lows and secrets with an organic, warts-and-all vitality. Though admittedly aiming for a slightly lighter tone, “The Boys are Back,” an Australian film about an oft-absent father who must buck up and embrace the challenges of single parenthood after his wife's sudden death, slips up considerably in this regard. There are no great truths revealed, no real profound lessons learned, and the meat of the story is rather flavorless. Therein lies the biggest problem: this movie isn't bad, or even boring, per say, just hopelessly bland.

One of the many elements that director Scott Hicks insists we soak up and then basically hangs out to dry is the literally messy, female-free living conditions of the father and his two sons, who inhabit a pigsty of a house in the Australian countryside that feels and is treated more like an elaborate, carefully cluttered set than an actual, increasingly yuck-ified man-cave (or “hog heaven,” as it is affectionately called). “The Boys are Back” could use more mess, in forms both literal and beyond, to spice it up.


The father is Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a hotshot sports writer who travels the world to report on the greatness of all-star athletes like Michael Phelps and the Williams sisters. When wielding his laptop in press boxes at major events, Joe is an ace, churning out his witty copy with the lickety-split speed of the pros he profiles. At home, however, Joe's stats are sub-par. Years ago, after his first marriage failed, he abandoned his son, Harry, in London, thinking it best that the boy stay with his mother. It was about that time when Joe met Katy (Laura Fraser), who he married and with whom he moved to Australia and had another boy, Artie, who Joe rarely sees given his hectic schedule. After Katy unexpectedly and rapidly falls ill and dies from a wicked form of cancer, Joe decides to hone his parenting skills his way: by loosening the leash and cutting back on rules. He lets six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) do cannonballs in bathtubs and ride on the hood of an SUV. Eventually, at the request of his mother, the now-teenage Harry (Rupert Grint clone George MacKay), who carries grievances to match the other males' grief, flies Down Under and also crashes at “hog heaven.” And there, together, all three characters will presumably grow and heal.

While it doesn't dig deep enough or ring quite true enough to be all that moving, “The Boys are Back” – based on the 2001 memoir, “The Boys are Back in Town,” by Simon Carr – could have easily been a sticky sap-fest, and it's a credit to screenwriter Alan Cubitt that at least most of it isn't. On the whole, the dialogue, albeit pretty generic, isn't smothered in weepy sentimentality. And, in particular, there's an eerie, harsh reality to the way these people, specifically Artie, grieve over Katy's death: an initial disconnect that's too odd and unsettling to be read as false. There are some exchanges and passages that edge into mush (such as during the entirely unnecessary scenes in which Katy appears to Joe and counsels him from beyond the grave), and others that are simply awkward (such as when characters like Harry or Laura, Joe's potential new love interest played by Emma Booth, dish out bold, provocative statements and actions that ultimately lead nowhere). But, in general, I was just grateful that the filmmakers didn't try to forcefully syphon my tears from their ducts.


What's awfully overstated is the cinematography by Greig Fraser, who also shot Jane Campion's ravishing “Bright Star.” Captured on location in Hicks' homeland of South Australia, the imagery here is also gorgeous, but gratuitous, as the director uses every opportunity – transitions, you name it – to milk every glowing sunbeam, every crashing wave, every soaring bird, and every stretching horizon for all they're worth (which, of course, in effect, makes them worth much less). There is such a thing as too much beauty, especially if it detracts and distracts from the narrative. I found it impossible not to think that Hicks, an Oscar nominee for 1996's “Shine,” was overcompensating, or, perhaps, overindulging his affection for his stomping grounds. I also found myself wondering what I was missing while repeatedly gazing at the Australian landscape, and whether at least half of those shots could have been replaced with tidbits of juicy, gritty drama – because heaven knows this movie is in need of it.

The only real zing “The Boys are Back” boasts is that of Clive Owen, a fantastic actor of such hard-boiled emotional power, he could read off the items on a take-out menu and make it riveting. Joe is a different kind of role for Owen (one in which he smiles and laughs more than he runs and yells), but the 47-year-old Brit – who also executive-produced – brings to it his usual high level of intensity, yielding results that are better than the movie itself deserves. Owen, who always seems to be conflicted but confident, is one of the few film stars who can convey substantial character depth with only a look. Even as we're buzzing along with what too often feels like ho-hum happenings in “The Boys are Back,” we want to know Joe, what he's thinking, what he's feeling. And that's all courtesy of Owen's fine work.

The adage that Joe adopts as his new parenting slogan is “Just Say Yes,” a relatively carefree philosophy that, again, is underscored by Hicks and then isn't fully explored. My advice to you, reader, is, “Just Say No” to this film. Its heart may be in the right place, but it's only half open.

Monday, September 28, 2009

BRIGHT STAR

Review: Bright Star
5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Not familiar with the work of 19th century English poet John Keats? No matter. Let the great Jane Campion enlighten you and awaken your senses with her rapturous new film, “Bright Star,” which focuses on the last three years of Keats' tragically short life (he succumbed to tuberculosis at 25 in 1821) and his brief, yet earth-shaking affair with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door who became his muse and one and only love. After landing a screenplay Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or for “The Piano” in 1993, following that with less successful titles like 2003's “In the Cut,” and then remaining inactive until 2007, writer/director Campion returns with what is undoubtedly one of the finest movies of 2009. Romantic in every way, it beautifully captures a moment in time that, for two people, was momentous, and it contains more passion and feeling in its nuances than some films do in their entirety. I relished every moment and I long to see it again.


Ben Whishaw, whose impossibly chiseled face has popped up in recent titles like “Brideshead Revisited” and “I'm Not There,” is Keats, playing the poet as a scruffy, soulful blend of Johnny Depp and Keith Richards (perhaps someone should phone him for “Pirates 4”). Abbie Cornish, an Australian who was last seen playing an American in Kimberly Pierce's “Stop-Loss,” is Fanny, who's immediately established as headstrong, opinionated and also artistic – a fashion designer who creates all of her own stylish and colorful garments. The couple's initial interactions are not ones of instantaneous attraction. Misled by his meddling roommate and colleague, Charles Brown (the film's sleazy but pitiful villain, played tenaciously by Paul Schneider), Keats sees Fanny as a flirtatious fashionista, while she, by her own admission, has little knowledge of any poetry, let alone his. But both, we see, are curious, and Campion, exercising a restraint that's present in every component of this picture, lets the subtle sparks of their relationship slowly catch fire until the exhilaration of that first kiss is shared by the audience. Once the other characters – including Fanny's siblings and her mother, played with touching tenderness by Kerry Fox – are hip to the courtship, it has quietly ballooned into a fervid infatuation.

Inspired in part by the biography, “Keats,” by poet Andrew Motion, “Bright Star” – which gets its name from Keats' famous poem, presumably written about Fanny – claims that the affair, though peppered with roadblocks, lasted until Keats' untimely death. Campion shows the lovers in separate locations on that fateful day (she stayed in London while he fled to Rome for a healthier climate), but no less entwined, and, like all great love stories, tragedy aggrandizes their romance. So, too, do a number of additional, less conventional factors, such as Keats' actual letters to Fanny, which also inspired Campion and to which she had access throughout production. Simply knowing these documents – which surely do play a key role in the film – exist adds layers of appeal and validity to the pair's already captivating bond. Also, Keats and Fanny never consummated their love, giving it an uncommon, forever frozen innocence. And while the subject is brought up repeatedly, nor did they marry, for Keats, a penniless writer, lacked the means to support a wife even before he fell ill. Fanny, though fully encouraged, a la “Pride and Prejudice,” to marry into wealth, cares not about his empty pockets, and couldn't if she wanted to. “Bright Star” is a portrait of the truest kind of love: one that is inconvenient and insuppressible.


The beauty of this movie is often so great, it is chilling, which is to say I literally had chills while watching it. Lovingly photographed by Greig Fraser, it delivers a cool, continuous current of ravishing imagery, which Campion unfailingly clips or subdues in such a way that it never feels forced upon you. Her plain, lived-in interiors of white walls and dark wood, and gray-toned or sun-soaked exteriors of things like barren forests contrast wonderfully with the vibrant costumes (which are themselves especially meaningful since we watch Fanny make more than a few of them). And then there are the flowers, which on more than one occasion flood the bottom half of Campion's frame, and contribute to a scene with a purple dress that I'd call the film's best if it weren't preceded and followed by scenes that affected me just as deeply. Gorgeous visuals – a bedroom filled with butterflies, Keats resting atop a tree in bloom – fade into one another here with the smoothness of silk. All the while there is the alternately playful and heartbreaking original music by Mark Bradshaw, and, best of all, Keats' own words, which, whether spoken in voiceover or between the two lovers, are together perhaps one of the most beautiful soundtracks one could ask for.

Whishaw, his voice sharp and articulate, is mesmerizing when reciting these lines, as well as when giving life to Campion's own verse about the nature of poetry itself. That said, he does not speak unnecessarily or at great length, nor is he a wellspring of emotion. Played by Whishaw with an old-fashioned aura of mystery, inner demons and sly charm, his emotions are not written outright on his face or in his actions because they are reserved for things that matter most like his work and his woman. Though certainly reciprocating her feelings, he is presented, more or less, as the tall, dark and somewhat dangerous object of obsession for Fanny, who is the principal character, and who, as played by Cornish, steals the show with ease. In a recent interview, Campion said that Cornish's performance “puts her in a category with the top actors of her generation,” and that's no simple biased praise. There isn't a single identifiable falsity in Cornish's work, a perfect match for the film's unforced naturalism. There couldn't have been a more aptly-titled project in which to showcase the breakthrough of this 27-year-old actress, who is indeed its radiant epicenter. The intensity in her eyes alone speaks volumes, her smile will astound you, and a shattering scene in the film's conclusion all but cements her a place among this year's Best Actress nominees.

Of course, what Campion has done is translated Keats' work (and life, and inspiration) into the language of cinema, thus creating a film that is its own kind of poetry. “Bright Star” is lyrical in ways beyond the inclusion of Keats' sonnets in the script – there is a fresh and flowing immediacy to it that makes it honest and ageless. Keats and Fanny created their own private world. Campion re-envisioned it and now it is ours to experience. It is, as Keats says of poetry, “an experience beyond thought.” See it with someone you love, or, better still, someone you can't bear not to.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE INFORMANT!

Review: The Informant!
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The virtues of director Steven Soderbergh's “The Informant!” are plentiful and plainly recognizable: the script by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) is almost dizzyingly intelligent; the cinematography by Soderbergh himself (under his usual alias, Peter Andrews) is alluring and elegantly moody; the original music by Marvin Hamlisch is gleeful and ebullient; and the acting, specifically from lead star Matt Damon, has a certain wry brilliance that never lets up. So why, then, did I emerge from this kooky dark-comedy-meets-paranoid-thriller feeling more than a little unsatisfied? The ingredients of greatness are certainly in place. But for all its strengths, “The Informant!” still leaves some things to be desired, not the least of which is even a mild release from its adamantly bone-dry tone.

Based on the 2000 non-fiction book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald (who served as one of the film's producers), “The Informant!” tells the “tattle tale” of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a successful executive at the multinational, Decatur, Illinois-based food conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who in the early '90s initiated a whistle-blowing campaign against his employers, aiming to expose their alleged price-fixing schemes. The real Whitacre is said to have been the highest-ranking corporate snitch in U.S. history. It was only after years of wire taps, secret meetings, video surveillance, and mountains of paperwork that FBI agents Brian Shepherd and Bob Herndon – who led the case and who are played here with great instincts by cunningly-cast TV favorites Scott Bakula (!) and Joel McHale (!!), respectively – discovered that Whitacre was a deranged, bipolar embezzler whose own crimes eclipsed those committed by ADM's higher-ups.


I'd be lying if I said I had no trouble keeping up with the movie during its first act, in which Damon's character, in a wild voiceover narration that continues throughout, breathlessly expounds the specifics of ADM and its operations. (His rants include, but are certainly not limited to, likening ADM's turning a profit to the digestion of corn, the company's hottest product.) The language is shrewdly complex, and I'd never condemn a script for sticking to its intricate guns, but the convoluted corporate jargon is merely the first way in which “The Informant!” keeps the viewer at arm's length. The narration lays the groundwork for what will transpire, and it definitely establishes the film's theme of comical duplicity, but there's an impenetrability to it that forbids us from fully plugging into the story.

What works wonderfully is Damon's performance, easily the best and most pronounced in a career filled with solid, impressive turns. Just as Whitacre is painted as a man who's as alarmingly delusional as he is articulate and astute (many of his scatterbrained speeches veer off into entertaining and wise sermons about the minutiae of everyday life), Damon's approach to the role seems both precisely rehearsed and madly improvised. He's funny, deceptively convincing, and he handles the challenging dialogue with a tireless, whirling dexterity that's thrilling to watch. We eventually find that we're never on solid ground with Whitacre, a sort of haphazard sociopath whose absurd behavior and uncertain motives go from laughable to intentionally infuriating, but we're always on board with Damon, if only for the joy of witnessing the great actor he's evolved into. (It helps that he packed on roughly 30 pounds and grew out a bush of a mustache, keeping the-boy-next-door, Sexiest-Man-Alive persona out of sight and out of mind.)

One may argue that the look of “The Informant!” clashes with its setting (what with the action taking place in the '90s and the film appearing to have crawled out of the '70s), but I was smitten with Soderbergh's design. His movie has an assured, laudable style, and he knows how to pique an audience's visual interest. The hazy lighting softly radiates white in the background, or, when necessary, drapes the characters in a sultry amber glow. The compositions are artful and eye-catching, and the camera movements are rhythmically, harmoniously fused with the events at hand. (Lest we forget, Soderbergh has, to great effect, photographed most of his own movies, including the exquisitely lensed “Traffic” and “The Good German.”)


What's lacking here is any shred of emotional catharsis. Watching “The Informant!,” I started to feel the slight sensation that I was being choked, not just by Whitacre's boundless lapses in judgment and imbecilic tendencies, but by the entire film's insistence on being so damned sardonic. Though chuckle-inducing at times, the sheer height of its relentless cynicism becomes taxing, and it kills any chance of genuine viewer attachment. Beyond Whitacre's paranoia and questionable self pity, the only true feelings ever presented are those of the FBI agents, who attempt to console Whitacre once it becomes clear that they can no longer remain in contact. But even their compassion is rooted in utter exhaustion, after having put up with Whitacre's mixed messages and volatile demeanor for what must have seemed like ages. (Even Whitacre's doting enabler of a wife, played by the dependably meek Melanie Lynskey, finally throws in the towel: “Why do you do this to yourself?” she pleads.) If we feel anything, it's their pain, coupled with a “D'oh!” and a palm-slap to the forehead.

Soderbergh seems fully aware of his movie's absence of humanity, as he's tried to enliven it from promotion to production: the goofy, lighthearted irony of the posters; the groovy, colorful intertitles; the boisterous, circus-like exuberance of the evocative music (think “Austin Powers” meets “Leave it to Beaver”). Fun as these finishing touches may be, they're only touches, and they can't save “The Informant!” from being a film that, however easy to like, is difficult to love.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

9

Review: 9
3 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The majority of films are driven toward, and at least somewhat dependent upon, a climactic plot twist that raises the stakes and brings greater depth and perspective to the events that precede it. “9,” an animated, post-apocalyptic fantasy-adventure directed and co-written by Shane Acker (who expands his 2005 Oscar-nominated short of the same name), has such a twist, but its effect is of little use. What's revealed doesn't just raise the stakes, it finally establishes them, after most of the movie has already passed. Prior to the revelation (which brings to light some heady stuff, indeed), we tag along with a gaggle of very thinly-written characters as they struggle through circumstances that only seem dire within the moments in which they're unfolding. The higher purpose is virtually nowhere in sight, the greater good doesn't appear to be all that great, and by the time we're privy to both, Acker no longer has our attention. It's a good thing his movie is a marvel to behold.


No doubt influenced by the macabre whimsy of Tim Burton (who, along with “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, produced the picture), Acker inhabits a desolate, debris-ridden, post-war landscape with creatures who'd fit right in with Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington. Following an opening that's directly reminiscent of another Burton-esque creation (this year's “Coraline,” which also kicked off with a pair of hands carefully constructing a tattered-looking doll), we meet our hero, 9, a ragged amalgamation of a burlap sack and spare parts who awakens in the ransacked study of a crumbling, battle-ravaged residence. Carrying a curious talisman that he found beside him and stashed in a zipper pouch within his chest, 9 – who's ably voiced by Elijah Wood and whose number/name is etched on his back – ventures out into a world that looks like Ground Zero stretched as far as the eye can see. Stumbling over heaps of rubble, incinerated vehicles and the occasional human corpse, 9 soon comes in contact with another being like himself: 2 (voiced by Martin Landau), an inquisitive explorer who's similarly branded and has the same binocular-like eyes. Almost immediately, the pair is attacked by a cat-like beast made of bones and machinery that kidnaps 2, steals the talisman and darts off into the bleak horizon.

Once introduced to the evils of this world, 9 quickly falls in with the rest of his kind, who've been evading threats like the cat-beast since the earth fell to ruin. So typical are these characters that the numbers-as-names identification system is perfectly apt. Bearing the kingly accessories of cape, crown and staff, 1 (voiced with commanding coarseness by Christopher Plummer) is the group's stubborn, conservative leader who frowns on free-thinking; 6 (voiced by go-to weirdo Crispin Glover) is the resident nutjob whose feverish, ominous doodles will come in handy later; 8 (voiced by ubiquitous voice actor Fred Tatasciore) is 1's dim-witted, muscle-bound lug of an assistant; and 5 (voiced rather lazily by John C. Reilly) is the benevolent, yet easily-intimidated worrywart who eventually joins the noble and courageous 9 in attempting to rescue 2. Before long we also encounter 7 (voiced with little distinction by Jennifer Connelly), an adventurous feminist type who's separated herself from the rest along with the childlike, precocious twins, 3 and 4. Using the now-retrieved talisman, 9 unwittingly elevates the danger for everyone by awakening a super-machine that builds other killer machines and, as we discover, was responsible for the destruction of humanity.


Giving us only brief, sporadic tidbits of the backstory (which involves the familiar matter of artificial intelligence turning on its maker), “9” asks that we accept and be patient with this ragtag ennead's existential conundrum. Questions of why or how they exist are only slightly addressed by 9 and company because they're all faced with other, more pressing dilemmas. But from the standpoint of the audience, the characters are so one-dimensional that we cannot invest ourselves in them and only them. In order to feel the urgency of their conflicts (which for a long time seem to take place in a minuscule microcosm), we need that higher purpose, that greater good, as a foundation. Our endurance, curiosity and suspension of disbelief are swiftly trumped by our desire for clarity and connection, and, like 1, who repeatedly insists that 9 not ask so many questions, the movie is slow to oblige. Such is a fundamental flaw in the mechanics of Acker and co-writer Pamela Pettler's (“Corpse Bride”) already sub-par script. “9” is presented like a backwards banquet: we're served the meal before the appetizer, and when at last the first course arrives, we're full and ready for our check.

Though they are most certainly what distracts the narrative from being all that it could have been (Acker, after all, is not without some powerful and profound ideas), the visuals of “9” are superbly rendered. The protagonists, who are each given their own discernible traits, are an imaginative mishmash of the charming and the bizarre – they're like the distant, bedraggled cousins of WALL-E. The villains – which, in addition to the cat-beast, include a winged, bat-like monstrosity composed mostly of blades, and a frightening, caterpillar-type creature that slithers and shrieks – are even more impressive, calling to mind the misfit playthings of “Toy Story” crossed with the dreaded machines from “The Matrix.” The action is spectacular, and the editing and CGI are both tack-sharp. But a viewer can't live by eye candy alone, and, after a weak and non-redemptive conclusion, we leave wishing that the storytelling had been as inspired as the imagery.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

EXTRACT

Review: Extract
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

With his 1999 debut feature, "Office Space," writer/director Mike Judge tapped into the universal hilarity of the workplace to which so many cubicle dwellers could relate. Though it bombed at the box office, the comedy went on to achieve massive success on DVD and quickly became a major cult classic not unlike Judge's animated TV programs, "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill" (the latter of which, incidentally, wraps up its 13th and final season this month). It's safe to say that Judge's latest, "Extract," which is set in a different kind of work environment, won't gain the same devoted following of his previous efforts. For whereas they reveled in and thrived on the humor of the mundane, "Extract" simply wallows in it. Unfocused, rarely funny and utterly dispensable, it can't even qualify as a guilty pleasure since the eventual guilt of having spent money on it and time with it far outweighs the minimal pleasures provided.

In light of the recession, many viewers will undoubtedly find relevance in one of the film's disparate plot threads: a scenario in which dozens of factory workers may be in danger of losing their jobs. But since Judge has reportedly been toiling away on "Extract" for nearly a decade, such relevance is more conveniently timed than perceptively planned, and in light of another hot topic (the ever-burgeoning green movement), I offer a different observation that surely wasn't intended: Judge's indefensible wasting of his valuable resources.


For "Extract" (which gets its name from the flavor extract products manufactured in a plant where much of the action takes place), Judge assembled an enviable roster of comedic talents; however, under his fickle direction, hardly any of them are inspired to reach the potential they're known to possess. Though convincing as Joel, the disenchanted and unlucky chem wiz who owns the extract company, Jason Bateman is a little asleep at the wheel, giving us a dialed-down, less likable variant of his amusingly distraught characters in "Juno" and TV's "Arrested Develoment." As Joel's assistant manager, Brian, J.K. Simmons -- who also appeared in "Juno" -- provides the same smart-mouthed, straight-faced levity for which he's become famous, but his work here is perhaps his least remarkable. Clifton Collins, Jr. ("Sunshine Cleaning"), whose bottle-sorting employee, Step, sustains a groin injury and tries to sue the company, is reduced to a redneck stereotype, while Ben Affleck's pill-popping, advice-giving barkeep, Dean, is handed lines that are all-too-telling of the film's failings. ("I'm a bit of a character," Dean says in one of many foolhardy speeches. Quite right: a depthless character, just like the rest of these people.)

Judge's greatest sin is casting deadpan queen Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live") and then assigning her the barren role of The Little Wife. As Suzie, Joel's neglected spouse who tends to choose reality TV over sex (the film makes much of her sweatpants, which, once donned, signify "No Action"), Wiig is given only one scene in which to cut loose and utilize her considerable skills. (Unsurprisingly, said scene, which arrives far too late, is arguably the movie's best.)

Those few who do excel include David Koechner ("Anchorman"), who duly infuriates as Nathan, Joel's grotesque nightmare of a neighbor whose exasperating disposition calls to mind that of Stephen Tobolowsky's Ned Ryerson from "Groundhog Day." (Hint: Nathan factors into Wiig's shining moment.) There's also the lovely Mila Kunis, whose alluring and enlivening presence as con artist Cindy nearly hides her character's poorly-conceived and relatively inconsequential contributions to the story (there's a growing sense that Judge called Kunis just so he could throw a hot girl into the mix). Lastly, there's the dependable and distinguished character actress Beth Grant, whose disgruntled and accusatory factory worker, Mary, slightly resembles the small role Grant played in 2007's "No Country for Old Men."


Grant's part isn't the only connection to the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. Judge might be described as the poor man's Coen brother, what with his similarly-themed but less artfully realized tales of average, (usually) working-class folks who behave badly and often engage in harebrained schemes. But Judge lacks the Coens' superior craftsmanship, their ability to insightfully transcend their subject matter, and their strong clarity of vision. Granted, "Extract" is meant to be an easy-going, absurdist comedy, but it's impossible to sit through its profoundly mediocre, disproportionate scenes and not wonder: "where is all this going?" The three major storylines -- Joel's predicaments at work; his domestic issues with Suzie; and Cindy's initially pronounced, then abruptly capped-off escapades as an expert deceiver -- battle for prominence until we realize they're all headed down the same dead-end street. The tagline for "Office Space" was "work sucks." What are we to believe is the message of "Extract?" Life kinda' sucks, too?

The film isn't without its funny segments. In addition to Wiig's character's confontation with Nathan, Joel, at one point, is forced into taking a monstrous bong hit that's momentarily uproarious; KISS frontman Gene Simmons delivers a notable cameo as a cheesy, temperamental attorney; and a subplot involving a moronic gigolo acts as a droll diversion. But this is hardly the type of comedy you run home and tell your friends about. Its most significant quality is its insignificance. If Judge is indeed more responsible than his characters, he'll aim higher when devising his next harebrained scheme.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

TAKING WOODSTOCK

Review: Taking Woodstock
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

A relative of mine owns a summer home in Bethel, N.Y.
Yasgur's Farm, the 600-acre patch of rolling, alfalfa-covered hills that, for three unforgettable days, served as the site of Woodstock, is just a short drive from the house. I took that drive multiple times in my youth, and even saw a few concerts at the still-in-commission venue. At 10, I couldn't quite grasp the epic magnitude of the now 40-year-old event's cultural significance, but I knew enough to understand that the land beneath my feet wasn't just another field. Walking on it, I was overcome by the same sensation that struck me while touring the battlefields at Gettysburg: this place, the things that happened here and the people who made them happen are nothing less than the stuff of legend. There was a bit of magic in every step.

As I watched Ang Lee's “Taking Woodstock,” a fun, albeit meandering behind-the-scenes look at the planning and production of the historical hippiefest, I felt some of that magic return. Written by Focus Features president and frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus, the film is an adaptation of the memoir, “Taking Woodstock: A Riot, A Concert, and a Life,” co-written by Elliot Tiber, who, as a young man, put the small town of Bethel on the map by assisting in the organization of what arguably became the world's most famous rock concert.



In the summer of 1969, Elliot – who's portrayed by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin – takes a break from his interior design job in Greenwich Village to help his parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), in keeping the family's run-down motel business afloat. After hearing that the coordinators of Woodstock have just been denied accommodations by yet another nearby town, Elliot, hoping to draw revenue to the motel, contacts head Woodstock mastermind Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and offers the use of his family's property. When that land proves too swampy, the industrious (yet slightly insecure) Elliot – who's in possession of a much-needed music festival permit and is also the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce – introduces Lang and company to local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Negotiations are made, an agreement is reached, and Elliot and his family are given a hefty sum to provide lodging for the impending hippie invasion.

As is common in Lee's work, the first act of “Woodstock” unfolds at a leisurely pace. But unlike the director's other titles of which this is true (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility”), the foundations being laid here are only moderately successful in piquing our interests. Aside from the occasional jolt of Staunton's fierce and funny performance (Sonia, a highly animated Russian imigrant, is hilariously uptight), the initial string of slow-going scenarios – trips to the bank, encounters with a nudity-prone theater troupe that lives in the family's barn – is like a line of hurdles before the stride...they just happen to be beautifully shot by Eric Gautier (“Summer Hours”). It isn't until Yasgur signs on the dotted line and the masses start to trickle in (an evolution that Lee credibly and cleverly illustrates), that “Woodstock,” as it should, develops into a bustling party, introducing us to consistently groovy supporting characters.

In addition to Lang (Groff, with his persuasive stoner swagger, makes a strong screen debut), Lang's assistant, Tisha (Meryl Streep's dead-ringer daughter, Mamie Gummer), and a conventional but likable Vietnam vet named Billy (a shaggy Emile Hirsch, who looks most at home in the period), we also meet Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a transvestite and former marine who becomes Elliot's unlikely head of security. Played squarely by Schreiber (who adds a little contralto to his baritone voice), Vilma also becomes a confidant to Elliot, who's gay and in the process of finding himself. Refreshingly, and in the spirit of the film's and the era's progressive theme of free love, Elliot's sexuality is seen as no more outstanding than any other element of the plot.


What's handled less smoothly is the sheer volume of activity, specifically in the scenes leading up to the concert's commencement. In an attempt to evoke Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary (and perhaps even his own “Hulk”), Lee makes persistent use of split-screen, which feels appropriate and nostalgic when depicting the celebration's many walks of life, but is a nightmare when showing its frantic preparation in competing, shoddy-looking frames. Similarly, the ample number of characters we meet, as amusing as those characters may be, makes establishing a truly meaningful link to any of them an impossibility. “Woodstock” is an enjoyable party, but it's the type in which you try to interact with everyone in a limited time frame, and thus, each interaction is fleeting and frivolous.

If there's one person to whom we must connect, it's Elliot, our vessel whose maturation takes place in conjunction with the development of the festival. The biggest failure of “Woodstock” is the casting of Martin, whose got a great look as the awkward overachiever, but has hardly a shred of personality. There is so much energy and liveliness surrounding Elliot, yet he, the one who supposedly made it all happen, has about as much spark as a wet joint. Casting a little-known lead was an inspired decision. Casting a little-known lead who needs to carry the film but can't, was not.

I admire the fact that Lee chose not to recreate or even show the stage performances. Collectively, they remain this sort of unseen mystical force that's larger than life. There is one brief but exceptionally beautiful scene in which Elliot, having just dropped acid and been reborn as a child of the flower, gazes down at the vast “ocean” of attendees and the small, glowing stage that pulsates at its center. Calling on some elegant CGI to visualize Elliot's hallucinations, Lee puts forth a powerful image, giving us just a glimpse of what appears to be a living thing with a beating heart. Even if enhanced by impossible, chemically-induced colors, that image instantly brought me back to my youth at Yasgur's, recreating what I myself envisioned as I surveyed those same fields. Such moments, and their ability to transport, make Lee's flawed “Woodstock” a worthwhile trip.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Review: Inglourious Basterds
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's great to have Quentin Tarantino back in the directorial saddle. The disappointments of 2007's relatively weak pet project “Death Proof” notwithstanding, his movies are steeped in a giddy, geeky love of cinema that no other working filmmaker's oeuvre can match. “Inglourious Basterds,” a wild and crazy WWII fever dream in which history is brazenly rewritten, is augmented by its creator's mad cinephilia, bringing it closer to the front lines than ever before.

Aside from integrating his usual B-movie affections (the intentionally misspelled title is pulled from an obscure 1978 picture), Tarantino makes the film industry an essential plot element of “Basterds,” which is set primarily in Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s. In addition to an infamous, “Dirty Dozen”-like group of Nazi hunters, key characters include a theater owner, a director, a film critic, two movie stars and a projectionist – not exactly the type of folks you'd expect to find in a war movie. But this is Tarantino's war movie, and it takes place in a world where movies are regarded with as much gravity and significance as the war itself.

We have Shosanna Dreyfus (French actress Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew living under the radar in Paris where she runs a movie house passed down by her late aunt and uncle. Shosanna's immediate family has been slaughtered by the SS, and like Uma Thurman's bloodthirsty Beatrix Kiddo from “Kill Bill,” she's got a mind for revenge and the means to exact it. When the head honchos of the Third Reich – including Hitler himself – express an interest in using Shosanna's venue for the gala premiere of their latest pro-Nazi feature, the vengeful vixen and her co-worker/lover hatch a diabolically clever plan for retribution.


The ragtag clan of the title – a merciless outfit of American soldiers and German recruits dead-set on killing as many Nazis as possible and collecting their scalps – also gets wind of the premiere, and devises a separate mission to ambush the rare and vulnerable gathering of so many high-ranking enemy officers. Led by the wily, barbaric southerner, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds are assisted by a film reviewer-turned-operative from British Intelligence (played by Michael Fassbender of “Hunger”) and an A-list German actress (played by Diane Kruger of “National Treasure”) who's turned on her country.

The biggest threat to all of the conspirators' success is Col. Hans Landa, the dreaded head of the SS who tracks down Jews like a malicious fox and is played with fearsome magnificence by Christoph Waltz, a multi-lingual Austria native whose work in “Basterds” won him the Best Actor prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and should put him in the running for this year's Supporting Actor Oscar. With great cunning and devilish glee, Waltz creates the best kind of villain: one whose formidable presence keeps you both in a constant state of unease and thoroughly entertained.

Though Waltz's turn is the most memorable, Tarantino gets fantastic performances from all of his well-cast actors (yes, including “Hostel” director Eli Roth, who I suppose is a perfectly logical choice to play an American Jew who delights in bashing people to a gooey pulp with a baseball bat). Pitt is far more interesting and effective here than he was in “Benjamin Button,” hilariously and convincingly embodying a red-blooded roughneck who, presumably, is as comfortable chugging beers as he is carving swastikas into his enemies' foreheads. Kruger – who, appropriately, is of German descent – has never been better. Fassbender is a cheeky delight as the critic under cover, and Laurent is but the latest in a long line of actresses who excel to heavenly heights under Tarantino's loving, conscientious care. Even Mike Myers, a performer I've all but written off, shows signs of Tarantino-inspired life in an ironic cameo appearance.

The amount of time that's passed since Tarantino last released a major movie becomes most palpable while watching his hallmark scenes of extended conversation. Few other filmmakers have the ability – or even the aspiration – to firmly hold the audience's attention through long segments in which characters simply talk. Dialogue has always been Tarantino's strongest suit, and “Basterds” wonderfully exemplifies his astute gift of gab. Although it is spliced with bursts of brutal action, this film is more or less a series of lengthy discussions, all of which are so absorbing that we barely notice just how many minutes have gone by. Tarantino always keeps the tension building within his scenes until he finally and faithfully delivers huge, exciting payoffs, which punctuate “Basterds” and supply it with an exuberant energy.


That energy is multiplied by Tarantino's stylish and savvy visual skills. His choice of the appropriate angle and camera movement for a given shot remains superior: he's a master at drawing you into the action (cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke also deserve plenty of praise). Though his work is especially geared to cult afficianados (to whom he is an estimable, venerated god), he possesses an uncommon sophistication and panache that can be appreciated by all film lovers and make him so much more than just a former video store clerk with a camera. And yet he is true to his geek roots. He has the sensibilities of both a film historian and a fantasy-obsessed teenager, and he somehow channels all of it into the creation of chic, sensationalist art. Who else could so dotingly ogle the gorgeousness of a female character as she dolls herself up, and then turn around and make that same character's death by a spray of bullets into its own thing of offbeat beauty?

My lament about the film's flaws is somewhat unfounded: the things that perturbed me in “Basterds” thrilled me in the “Kill Bill” saga. But, to me, the resurrection of so many familiar flourishes – the “Kill Bill” title sequence, the “Kill Bill” chapter stops, the “Kill Bill” Spanish guitar music – didn't register as an auteur's stamp, but as a rather pompous distraction. It is, albeit to a far lesser degree, the same problem I had with “Death Proof”: Tarantino is an extremely admirable moviemaker until his narcissism precedes his talents.

“Basterds” isn't my favorite Tarantino title, but it more than provides all the hardcore, uninhibited, celluloid-crazed merriment over which the director's fans salivate. Loaded with graphic violence and sensitive subject matter, it's bound to infuriate some, but those who can appreciate it for what it is – an intelligent, passionate and hysterical piece of pitch-black action-comedy – will bask in its twisted splendor. Don't let the title fool you: “Inglourious Basterds” has enough infectious cinematic glory to burn the house down.

Monday, August 17, 2009

DISTRICT 9

Review: District 9
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In “District 9,” a unique and ingeniously executed sci-fi adventure for the ages, a main character undergoes a crucial metamorphosis that holds as much socially relevant water as it does cinematic juice. Produced by genre wizard Peter Jackson and directed by first-timer Neill Blomkamp, this unforgettable – if not vital – film goes through transformations of its own, morphing from an immediately fascinating faux-documentary to an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller to an extremely exciting action movie and back again. The character's changes are arrestingly vivid, but the film's mutations go easily unnoticed, as each stage is deeply engrossing and the stylistic and tonal shifts compliment the smooth yet spry progression of the story. Rarely does a movie come along of which it can be said: “there's never been anything quite like it.” “District 9” is such a movie. It has apparent influences, yes, but in terms of innovative and insightful visual storytelling, it is transcendent. By combining a fully formed visual realm with a cunning script that's built on racial allegory, it acts as both a window into another world and a mirror that reflects our own.


The aliens in “District 9” are not what you'd expect. Their presence on Earth is not an invasion but an inconvenience, and though they possess great strength and technology, they're more vulnerable than violent, more docile than dangerous. Twenty years ago, when their mothership basically ran out of gas about a mile above Johannesburg, South Africa, a salvage team found all one million of them hiding inside, malnourished and defenseless. In a sort of non-human humanitarian effort, government leaders opted to bring the aliens down to Earth and house them in a shantytown-like refugee camp known as District 9. Eventually nicknamed “prawns” because of their likeness to shellfish, the aliens are not welcomed by humans, and District 9 devolves into a segregated, overcrowded slum. The only people who voluntarily interact with the prawns are the Nigerian mafiosos who live among them and worsen the area's conditions by engaging in black market deals like weapons trading and interspecies prostitution. After two decades, the citizens of Johannesburg have grown increasingly intolerant of District 9 and its inhabitants, and a militarized mission to move all of the prawns out of the city limits is imminent.

All of this we learn via a highly convincing and remarkably comprehensive initial segment that intercuts old “news” clips with mockumentary footage. Interviews are incorporated, many of them involving academics but some involving individuals who work for Multi-National United (MNU), a private, cloak-and-dagger-ish company that's been contracted to preside over prawn-related affairs. The key interviewee from MNU is Wikus van der Merwe (unknown Sharlto Copley), a somewhat incompetent eager beaver who's appointed to lead the prawn relocation by his father-in-law, an MNU bigwig. The filmmakers follow Wikus into District 9 like an uncensored on-location news crew, catching every gritty moment as the out-of-his-league field operative and his overzealous, armed comrades knock on prawns' shack doors in a futile attempt at cooperation. And since District 9 is, naturally, loaded with security cameras, Blomkamp occasionally jumps to a surveillance perspective, further diversifying his harmonious blend of vérité aesthetics. In response to his evolving narrative (Blomkamp co-wrote the script with fellow newbie, Terri Tatchell), the director soon mixes the visual bag even more, keeping the handheld but segueing to traditional 35mm once Wikus begins to endure the side effects of a critical close encounter. And that, my friends, is when this already gripping film really takes hold.


“District 9” is a multifaceted triumph, succeeding as an enriching art film, a rip-roaring entertainment, a pointed social commentary and an instantly classic creature feature. Blomkamp, a phenomenal new talent, is a native of South Africa and is as interested and knowledgeable in the history of his homeland as he is in the great, indelible details of sci-fi essentials. Those viewers who are well versed in the same topics will certainly pick up and appreciate the references to Cape Town's District Six and apartheid, as well as the director's nods to “The Fly,” “Aliens,” “Alien Nation” and “E.T.” And every audience member, regardless of his or her grasp on global events, will feel the resonance of the film's real-world implications, which give the movie its heart but never beat you over the head. Even the rare, shallow moviegoer on whom all of the socio-political weightiness is hopelessly lost will still be in hog heaven, as “District 9” boasts all the rollicking, effects-fueled fervor of a big-budget, high-stakes blockbuster.

Though chief credit surely goes to Blomkamp (and his entire technical crew, who carried out what was obviously a monstrous logistical undertaking), the film is not without producer Jackson's distinctive touch. Gleefully unabashed in gore and ickiness, it bears more than a bit of the “Lord of the Rings” helmer's splatterific signature, which isn't as boldfaced as it was in the days of “Dead Alive,” but still ends up scrawled in at least the corner of every subsequent project. Aside from the obliterated bodies and oozing orifices, the creature effects in “District 9,” albeit grotesque, are extraordinary. Conceived by Jackson's Weta Digital and three additional effects studios, the prawns – hybrids of top-notch CG and prosthetics – look stunningly realistic, especially amidst the believable backdrop of Blomkamp's brilliantly detailed landscape. Like any supremely crafted artwork, the combined result of the integral parts – from the prawns' omnipresent hovering spacecraft to the propaganda posters that doubled as part of the film's marketing campaign – appears effortless.

Since there are just too many killer surprises to spoil, I've intentionally avoided discussing most of the particulars of the central plot. Compared to my usual mountains of anticipatory, pre-screening data, I knew very little about “District 9” going in, which led to an exceedingly awesome experience. I advise you to believe the hype, but don't read too much and ruin the fun. Get to the theater, sit near the front, and have your own close encounter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

JULIE & JULIA

Review: Julie & Julia
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Though a bit overcooked, “Julie & Julia” is, for the most part, an irresistible movie that goes down with the smooth ease of a dessert shooter. (Speaking of irresistible, dear readers, this is probably a good time to mention that you're about to be served a generous helping of food-related puns and metaphors.) A peppy ode to determined ladies, the passions that drive and define them, and the men who love them (with allegiance and minimal interference), the film has a highly conspicuous woman's touch, and for good reason: it was written and directed by Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”), whose script is an adaptation of the female-penned non-fiction books, “My Life in France” by legendary chef Julia Child (with nephew Alex Prud'homme) and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by blogger-turned-bestselling author Julie Powell.

Equally splitting the narrative between the two true stories, Ephron largely makes good on a clever and challenging concept. I have a few bones to pick with the movie, and we'll get to those in due course, but as an appetizer, you should know that “Julie & Julia” is smile-inducing, satisfying and spiked with a heart-burstingly great performance from Meryl Streep that should easily land her her 16th Oscar nomination.


“Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child,” one character says, and it's on that notion that Ephron builds one half of her two-course meal. When we're first introduced to Julia (Streep), she isn't even a cook, let alone one of the most famous cooks in history. Living in Paris in the 1940s with her foreign diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), Julia is seen searching for ways to bide her time while Paul brings home the bacon. Hat-making lessons fail to tickle her fancy, as does a short-lived membership with a bridge club. Finally, equipped with a robust appetite for food and competition, she enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu and excels dramatically, despite the cold skepticisms of the prestigious institute's elitist female dean. The film then tracks Julia's eight-year quest to get her famous culinary manual, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published, from her initial collaboration with two French women to her eventual deal with Knopf.

Periodically, we jump forward to 2002 to spend time with Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a professionally unfulfilled woman who works a thankless cubicle job and lives in a tiny Queens apartment with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Tired of her habitual inability to finish things and her decided lack of “power,” Julie, an avid Julia Child devotee, embarks on a personal quest of her own: she vows to cook all 524 recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days. She blogs about her experience, gains scores of readers and media exposure and, like her iconic idol, eventually becomes a published author (whose memoir, naturally, became the chief inspiration for this film).

While Julie's portion is palatable, the scenes involving Julia are far more savory, thanks mainly to Streep's delicious, uncanny portrayal. Once again, the chameleonic actress quickly vanishes into her character, nailing the fluctuating timbre and accentuated vowels of Julia's distinct voice and dexterously carrying off her amazon physicality (the filmmakers also have some crafty techniques for simulating Julia's 6 foot 2 inch frame, including forced perspective and, presumably, large footwear). Streep's Julia is one of the most welcoming and gladdening movie characters in recent memory: a smart yet irrepressible woman whose insatiable hunger for life seems to physically exhaust her as much as it excites her (or, perhaps she is weighed down by her own towering, plodding presence; in either case, it is brilliant work). Streep exhibits extraordinary compatibility with each of her fellow actors, notably Jane Lynch – who appears briefly but memorably as Julia's sister, Dorothy – and especially Tucci, her “Devil Wears Prada” costar with whom she has a warm, tender and comfortable on-screen relationship.


Adams – who, incidentally, starred opposite Streep in last year's “Doubt” – is fine and altogether pleasant as usual...emphasis on the usual. She's perfectly capable of embodying Julie, Ephron's new Meg Ryan-type heroine, but she doesn't give us anything we haven't seen from her before. Aside from having a healthy marriage, Julie is essentially a repeat of Adams' lead role in “Sunshine Cleaning”: a well-meaning but chronically underachieving thirty-something who uses a newfound, offbeat passion to revitalize her life (there's even the same sympathetic, first-act scene in which Adams's character encounters her far more successful – and quietly judgmental – friends). The go-to gal for likable leading ladies, Adams plays Julie well, but she's beginning to show a rather bland lack of range, and is nowhere near as captivating as Streep, the queen of reinvention.

The world that both of these actresses inhabit, as envisioned by Ephron and photographed by Stephen Goldblatt (HBO's “Angels in America”), is a sort of fact-based foodie fantasia – a reality that's been sweetened by a thick layer of Hollywood glaze. The director enjoys getting down and dirty in the kitchen (especially Julie's, where she shows the fledgling chef burn and botch more than a few recipes), but her movie is markedly tidy – even the messy parts have a cinematic sheen. The briskly edited montages alone are so spic-and-span, I kept waiting for Mr. Clean to pop in, brush his hands and proudly cross his arms. This is more an observation than a criticism. What I did find troublesome was the movie's general lack of conflict (Julie's race to meet her deadline is a good bookending device, but hardly riveting), its unapologetic (and unrealistic) sidelining of the male characters and its snappy, by-the-numbers structure (though rhythmic and stealthily paced, its abrupt, keep-the-ball-rolling scene jumps diminish its grace).

But, I digress. “Julie & Julia” is a great film for women and food afficianados, a good film for everyone else, and Streep is so delightful that the less digestible elements are easy to ignore. It's not quite gourmet, but for comfort food, it hits the spot.