The refreshing Letters to Juliet features beautiful vistas of the Italian countryside, sunflowers and happy endings. Starring Amanda Seyfried (Dear John, Mamma Mia!) as a young fiancee on vacation with her entrepreneurial-minded intended in Verona, city of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the picture is a thoroughly charming boy-meets-girl tale of an unlikely duo. Seyfried plays a fact-checker at the New Yorker who aims to be a writer. While traveling in Italy with her workaholic fiance, her writing ability leads to an opportunity to tag along with an old woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson (Christopher Egan) in search of Granny’s long-lost flame. The not-so-unexpected happens and leads to some lovely moments and interludes. Letters to Juliet is light fare done well. Egan is perfect as a brash young realist and Seyfried, who resembles Goldie Hawn, relaxes into her role and doesn’t try too hard as she usually does. Redgrave has never been better. Spinning the distant memory of an affair from the summer of 1957 into serious choices, her grandmother offers wisdom to her young companions. Predictable and sappy, peppered with scenes of starry nights, bubbles and simple, restful stops along the way, these Letters are worth getting lost in.
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In her dramatic film debut, Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) shows she can act. But The Last Song, opening March 31, is not exactly her movie. The Disney drama is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose Southern-based stories (The Notebook, Dear John, Nights in Rodanthe) always involve death, grief, young love, and scenes on a beach.
Miley, with her distinctive look and voice, is one of those taste-specific actors, like Stewart or Hepburn (not that she’s in that league), and she might be better suited to comedy or musical fare. Here, in another heart-wrenching Sparks tearjerker built as her vehicle, she’s generally fine, even very good, in most scenes, but at other times she seems forced and anxious. She plays a musical prodigy who is also a troubled child of divorce recently busted for shoplifting. Told by her mom (Kelly Preston) to spend the summer with her dad (Greg Kinnear, in top form) on an island off the coast of Georgia, with younger brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) tagging along and nearly stealing the movie, she tries to bond with her absent father and possibly re-connect to playing Liszt on the piano.
Subplots encompass arson, church, domestic abuse, dishonesty, rich parents (another Sparks staple) and sea turtles, and it’s too much. But Miley’s bitter, black-booted, nose-pierced brat from New York finally warms up for a handsome local kid (Liam Hemsworth) who, like most of the males in Sparks’ pictures, follows her around like a pup. Amid the first kiss, the mudfight, and scribbling “forever” on a sneaker, something dreadful is bound to happen and it does, though it is not as awful as the long-term self-sacrifice in the recent Sparks release Dear John. Though The Last Song is not an elegy, with an anti-climactic deliverance and strings that come from nowhere, there is goodness in what Sparks, with first-time director Julie Anne Robinson, offers on loss, love, and the joy of being alive.
New on DVD (and Blu-Ray) is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which I briefly recommended when it was released in theaters. There are some things about this hand-painted feature film, which depicts an interracial romance, that I find troubling, such as the aimless prince, the fact that the only biracial character is evil, and a minimization of the heroine’s capitalist mentality. But there is much to enjoy about this animated musical fantasy adventure about Tiana, a black girl in New Orleans, who sets a goal of owning her own business, saves her money, works hard, focuses on her aims, and falls in love along the way.
The movie is delightful and the DVD, recently reviewed and available, is worth owning for repeat viewings. I could watch and listen to Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) “dig a little deeper” over and over and the best song, “Almost There”, which is too short, is a wonderful tribute to the virtue of productiveness. The DVD’s extras are satisfactory, with a music video by a young male vocalist named NeYo that tells a story in a forgettable tune, games, and other bonus bits. Lacking a narrative feature, the DVD provides what it calls deleted scenes, which are hand drawings pieced together and they don’t add much to the whole story. It’s a shame that co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) decided against sharing a peek at what they talk about in the film’s audio commentary; a cut scene in which the trumpet-playing alligator, Louis, is pursued by an amorous lady on the steamboat. The commentary, loaded with too many scores to settle, is nevertheless the finest feature on the disc, with interesting information about this enjoyable movie, which is based on The Frog Prince fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.
Apparently, southpaw actress/singer Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana, insisted that the character be depicted as left-handed. I also learned that my favorite part of the movie, the “Almost There” number with Tiana singing about opening her restaurant, with minimally styled scenes of dancing waiters in black, white, orange and gold, was created based on drawings by renowned Harlem artist Aaron Douglas. The Princess and the Frog is too timid in expressing its theme of a morally ambitious girl for true Disney greatness, but it’s one of last year’s best movies and a little treasure for home entertainment.
The Runaways feels like an experiment. This dark, graphic account of two San Fernando Valley girls in 1975 who join an all-female punk rock band, based on a book by one of the band members, opens with blood dripping and closes on a curiously upbeat note while winking with Joan Jett’s hit cover tune of “Crimson and Clover”. What happens in between, in a generic tale of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, is neither original nor interesting. The five-girl band is urged by a maniacal recording industry type to “be like men” which suits most of the lost girls, who are all but abandoned by their parents, and what might have been a biting take on punk subculture is reduced to a punk version of the mediocre Dreamgirls. Kristen Stewart (Zathura) shines as lesbian rocker Joan Jett, in a sincere performance, while Dakota Fanning (Hounddog) as the blonde lead singer takes up screen time in a flat characterization that never takes root. The film is hazy in spots, reflecting the 1970s, the music is raw and crude, and the main characters are children neglected by lousy parents (look for Tatum O’Neal in a cameo). Left to fend for themselves, the girls play out the decade’s chaos and confusion. They manage to survive, but The Runaways, overloaded with Dakota Fanning and focused on style more than substance, doesn’t show us why.
Opening this weekend, director Paul Greengrass (United 93) gives us Green Zone starring Matt Damon. In what plays like a dramatization of an extended edition of NBC Universal’s Hardball on MSNBC, with host Chris Matthews harping about the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, NBC Universal’s Green Zone takes the same non-controversial position, namely, that the initial motive for taking down Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, to eliminate so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was a bust. By now, everyone knows that. It’s a narrow perspective, too narrow for what the subject deserves (Greengrass had the same problem in his morally agnostic United 93), but this picture works as a straightforward fable about the Bush administration’s incompetence in waging war against America’s religious fascist enemies.
Opening and closing with the chaos that was (and continues to be) Iraq, in an aimless, selfless military incursion which has killed thousands of Americans and accomplished nothing in our self-interest, the film features Damon as a lone soldier who eventually refuses to just follow orders. Steadying his trademark jerky camera only slightly, Greengrass depicts Baghdad’s green zone as a hedonistic haven for beer-guzzling slobs sending men off to die for no legitimate reason, stocked with ladies in bikinis and a press corps willing to go along with the government’s line of the day, usually spun by Greg Kinnear’s sniveling Bushie who could easily be one of today’s sniveling Obamatrons spewing about Iraq, Afghanistan, or, for that matter, Obama’s scheme to seize control of the medical profession and health insurance industry. Sneering Kinnear even looks and sounds like White House propaganda meister Robert Gibbs.
With Amy Ryan as a Wall Street Journal toady for the U.S. government, who begins to question what she’s done (better late than never), and Kinnear dispatching teams to throw rogue Damon off the trail proving that the emperor has no WMDs (and worse than that no purpose), the character to watch is a courageous individualist named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla in an excellent performance). In two words, “for me,” Freddy declares the proper moral imperative for an act of military self-defense, yet, as Green Zone capably illustrates, nobody’s listening to Freddy until it’s too late.
“We won,” someone asserts as a fact, after George W. Bush’s infamous Mission: Accomplished banner is seen flapping in the wind. No, we did not, we have not, and we will not, because winning by the anti-American standards set by Bush/Obama is impossible. Worse, as Green Zone amply shows with looters, snipers, and deposed generals, we have abandoned the idea that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack and the rising religious fascism of nuclearized Iran, it is urgently necessary to achieve total victory over our enemies, not coddle civilians, appease Islamism, and cater to those who seek to destroy us.
If nothing else, Green Zone gives us a man who rejects the status quo and acts to slow, if not stop, the self-sacrifice in Iraq.
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