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Screen Shots: Up in the Air, Valentine’s Day, Alice in Wonderland

I can’t bring myself to see the usual glut of Oscar’s lousy, gloomy Best Picture contenders. One unfortunate exception is Up in the Air, another boring movie about traditionalism by way of monotonous speeches about nothing urging us to be mediocre and conservative. Consciously or not, that is the common theme of today’s most sought-after young filmmakers, such as Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover), and Up in the Air‘s director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), who generally make bland or putrid movies that exist to preach tradition for the sake of tradition. Toss Up in the Air into that category; it is as bereft of meaning as its title and that is exactly its point.

Garry Marshall’s formulaic love letter to Los Angeles, Valentine’s Day, is silly, predictable mush. In other words, it is a welcome escape from the trash. With an all-star cast, fun, catchy songs, and stories that relate to everyone in vignettes strung together by dual romances (Ashton Kutcher/Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner/Patrick Dempsey), Valentine’s Day happily celebrates being in love with life; work, husbands, wives, lovers, children, pets, sunny days, bright flowers, and the movies. Kutcher steals every scene in this extended version of ABC’s TV series Love American Style, which Mr. Marshall occasionally wrote. Go see it, cringe at the bad jokes and casting (Julia Roberts as a soldier is ridiculous), and have a good time. Bring a loved one.

Opening this weekend: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, which I was not looking forward to seeing (I’m not an admirer of director Tim Burton’s movies). I was pleasantly surprised. Read my review here.

Screen Shot: ‘The Wolfman’

Making a nicely produced piece of classic horror, if there is such a thing, director Joe Johnston (October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) depicts the son (Benicio Del Toro) of an eccentric gentleman (Anthony Hopkins) in the 1891 British countryside as they are ensnared in an Oedipal psychodrama that leads to romantic love, confrontations with religious fundamentalists, and the breathless sight of a rampaging werewolf in London.

Universal’s The Wolfman is not my cup of tea, typically, and viewers should be forewarned that the frights are deployed without warning and the blood and guts are on ample display, but for what it is, Mr. Johnston, one of Tinseltown’s top creators of exciting adventure, delivers a true thriller. Shot in black and gray, and shrouded in fog, its point that man and monster are sometimes indistinguishable comes early and often in the form of a mythical beast that is one of the screen’s best werewolves. The detail in this creature is amazing; he’s a ferocious beast with vaguely human characteristics, not an overdone computer image on steroids. Resembling Michael Landon’s classic werewolf, this wolf is cunning, nimble, and powerful, swiping with his deadly claws, tearing limbs like tissue paper, and sprinting while upright or chasing on all four legs.

With various literary and visual references to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, silver bullets, gargoyles, and the “power of Satan”, The Wolfman grabs a hold and doesn’t let go, with Mr. Hopkins simply devouring every scene as the morally monstrous father, Del Toro as Lawrence, an heroic American trying to set things right after a terrible childhood trauma, Emily Blunt (Dan in Real Life) as the young, nubile beauty whose husband was killed by the werewolf, Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) as a policeman and Geraldine Chaplin (Tonia in Doctor Zhivago) as a gypsy.

While a religious zealot warns that the wolf represents man’s pride and alternately urges the besieged villagers to loathe themselves, an intellectual who’s more monstrous than the werewolf (and whose demise is too good for him) enters the picture as the policeman persistently observes, tracks, and hunts the creature. Characters and plot are fully engaging and seeing Anthony Hopkins in this voracious role is worth the admission price alone (don’t bring the kids) for those who can stand the horror. The only downside other than the gore is a throwaway servant character, a Sikh “warrior of God”. Blunt is good, Del Toro is excellent as usual, and Weaving’s earnestly intelligent detective puts last year’s manic Sherlock Holmes to shame. The Wolfman‘s theme that man is essentially self-made, even when faced by monsters that are not, is expressed in an exchange between Del Toro’s thespian character and Blunt’s grieving widow, when he comes upon a waterfall and recalls it as a place of refuge and she asks, “from what?” He answers, “you mean from whom.” This Wolfman has a mind of his own. But be prepared to close your eyes.

Movie Review: Dear John

Dear JohnDirector Lasse Hallstrom’s first movie in four years, Dear John, feels half-hearted. Working with a screenplay by Jamie Linden (who wrote the powerful We Are Marshall), based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), Hollywood’s best director starts with refined, beautiful scenes of young lovers on a beach in Charleston. As the story of two self-sacrificing lovers comes undone, so does Dear John. What’s left is an empty exchange between selfless characters competing to do themselves in.

That might be alright if the result was involving, as is typically the case with Lasse Hallstrom’s movies, such as Casanova, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, or his best picture, Chocolat. Instead, we get vacant Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and blank John (Channing Tatum), each saddled with sacrifice after sacrifice. The only person in the movie with something close to a sense of purpose is Savannah and her goal is to open a camp for kids with “special needs”, not necessarily because she loves the work; she says they need help, so Savannah feels a duty to serve others. So does everyone else in this sad, forlorn movie. John serves in the military merely as something to do and, later, as an evasion of reality. Watching this pair deny themselves for two hours is tedious.

With a theme that one must live for the sake of others, anyone can see where the plot will lead. But it isn’t convincing in Mr. Hallstrom’s hands. He can’t resist focusing on life, which means showing the couple in lingering close-ups and focusing on singularly meaningful pieces of property, such as rare coins that are rich with history or a dish with a simple yet elegant pattern. His tendency to evoke people in motion, fleetingly in love with life, people, places and things, only makes one impatient with the zombies these characters become. John used to be a tough guy; he serves in the Army and likes to surf and that’s about it. Savannah is a rich kid; she goes to college, builds houses for charity, and seeks to serve the disabled. They act like a brochure for national service. They talk in slogans. They both lack an ego.

Add an apparently unemployed family friend (Henry Thomas) and his son, John’s father (The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins), and America’s worst act of war (appallingly described as “buildings falling” with no mention of war let alone those who started it), mix in cancer, autism and a guitar-driven soundtrack more suited to 1970s southern California than early 2000s South Carolina and Dear John disappoints. Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) and Tatum (Stop-Loss, Coach Carter) have decent moments as they exchange letters across a jumbled timeline but they are reduced to holding up the morals of the Peace Corps, an ideal which, it turns out, is undramatic. Having the hero plead for Savannah to tell him what to do after he was shot by unnamed enemies is more sadistic than romantic. Even the presumed “benefits” of Savannah’s altruism don’t come off: one never sees the completed charity house and we never lay eyes upon those who will own it.

Lasse Hallstrom remains one of most talented artists in pictures. He is a masterful storyteller and he makes marvelous movies that celebrate life. Unfortunately, Dear John is not one of them.

Screen Shots

I know I am behind on movie posts. Besides a review of the dreadful Avatar, I’m tracking movies with categorized posts here and I am sorry to say most of them have been just awful. Recent entry It’s Complicated and Disney‘s When in Rome (opening this weekend) come to mind. When in Rome is another misfire from Disney, a studio whose movies are rapidly becoming the worst in town. The romantic comedy is built around an actress named Kristen Bell, who can’t act, let alone carry a picture. The script is asinine. There’s no romance, not much about Rome, and the plot defies reality and description. Josh Duhamel (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) Danny DeVito (Taxi), Don Johnson (Miami Vice), and Dax Shephard (Zathura) are wasted in this pap about a magic spell. This movie combines the worst of everything: formulaic plotting, cardboard characters, bad dialogue, overdone slapstick, and an overbearing soundtrack. In most scenes, Bell looks, talks, and acts like a 12-year-old Olsen twin and seems very uncomfortable in the lead, evoking the late Brittany Murphy.

The smutty It’s Complicated is not much better, with Meryl Streep (Doubt, Mamma Mia!) emasculating every man in the movie, sucking the air out of the theater as usual and behaving like a geriatric trollop at everyone’s expense. It’s all supposed to be terribly cute, because she’s a woman, though we’re supposed to abhor the Alec Baldwin character, who plays her ex-husband, for doing the same thing. Actually, Ms. Streep’s restaurant businesswoman, who, like When in Rome‘s female lead, has not one shred of realism, is worse. Only in this dreck could Baldwin’s insecure Baby Boomer come off as more sympathetic. Also starring Steve Martin, who fares better in yet another architect role. That this movie has a female chauvinist pig double standard, complete with a lurid trio of friends who root for her character’s transgressions like they’re watching porn at a bachelorette party, is another sign of feminist fatigue.

Quick thoughts on recent movies, which I may review later: Sherlock Holmes was every bit as obnoxious as I’d expected from the jacked-up trailer, with Robert Downey, Jr. (The Soloist) acting like a scummy junkie in an action movie utterly drained of intelligence, wit, and humor. I do recommend seeing Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, with outstanding performances, especially by Mo’Nique as an abusive parent, if you can stand the subject matter, which tells the story of an abused black girl in the ghetto named Precious who struggles to overcome the fact that she is treated as if she’s the opposite of her name. You’ll never think of an obese, inner-city welfare recipient the same way again. That you think of her and no one but her is what makes Precious insightful and inspiring.

Three other race-themed pictures I also recommend: The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s animated musical, which is good, not great, and The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock (also good in The Proposal) as a feisty Christian mother who is tough, kind, and loving. The Blind Side, based on the true story of a football player who becomes part of a self-made family, is not to be missed. Both pics are strong family fare.

Clint Eastwood continues to emerge from his morally gray period with a masterful follow-up to his Gran Torino in what amounts to last year’s best picture: Invictus. This intimate, softspoken character study has more in common with the understated Gran Torino and with another of Mr. Eastwood’s pictures, the taut, underrated Escape from Alcatraz (1979), than with his morally mixed Flags of Our Fathers, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. He seems to be striving for a theme that expresses positive values and here, in this sports movie about a moment in South African political history, after Nelson Mandela had been elected, he achieves it with near perfection. Using the term ‘comrade’, Mr. Eastwood suggests Mandela’s political philosophy and he doesn’t exactly get caught up in the disintegrated racial policy of Apartheid. Instead, the director grants Mandela a quiet grace and focuses on the South African leader’s attempt to unify the nation. The vehicle is a rugby tournament in which a team captain (Matt Damon) must rally the players behind the concept of a nation’s unity. Leaving aside political reality, Invictus succeeds in dramatizing what such a monumental feat requires, with stunning photography, gripping athletic competition, and the year’s best performance, Morgan Freeman (An Unfinished Life) in his finest role yet. Mr. Freeman strikes again, portraying the African statesman as many imagine him to be: a man of peace, serenity, and harmony. His every word, look, and movement depict the larger than life character, not the larger than life actor who has become America’s voice of God, presidents, and nightly network news. The film is named after and based on one of my favorite poems, by William Ernest Henley, which Mandela, during his imprisonment, is said to have recited. The term Invictus is Latin; it means unconquerable:

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Screen Shot: ‘Dumbo’

El Capitan’s organ was sadly silent during a recent kid-filled rainy day matinee, and the leading character does not make a live appearance, but at least Walt Disney’s classic 1941 picture, Dumbo, is being screened at the once-legendary studio’s Holllywood Boulevard movie theater. The animated feature, which was affectionately introduced by El Cap’s extremely knowledgeable manager Michael, runs at the historic theater through January 28 to honor the film’s 70th anniversary next year. Next door at Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store, there’s a caramel-topped ice cream sundae and exclusive Dumbo merchandise. Unfortunately, Dumbo is preceded by a trailer for the latest Tim Burton horror movie, sharing the title of Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature, Alice in Wonderland. The new, live action version looks like just another of his visually striking nightmares.

If only the currently volatile, unfocused, and increasingly generic Walt Disney Studios were creating movies of Dumbo‘s caliber, showing them in venues to match the quality of these outstanding twin enterprises, and cultivating outstanding cast members (that means you, ushers Melvin and Lucia). Read my review of this wonderfully colorful motion picture here.