WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Julie & Julia melds the analogous stories of cooking legend Julia Child’s life in 1950s France with the modern-day tale of writer Julie Powell’s real-life quest to prepare all 524 recipes in Child’s classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The film neatly covers Child’s life in post-World War II Paris with her foreign diplomat husband Paul her foray into and eventual mastery of French cooking and the difficulties she encountered while trying to publish her groundbreaking cookbook. Intercut with Child's story is Powell’s decision to shake up her life as an unfulfilled government employee in post-9/11 New York by challenging herself to cook and blog. Her inevitable trials (she burns an important meal gets in trouble at work and pisses off her husband) and victories (a perfectly poached egg a write-up in the New York Times) are all included.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ever lovely Amy Adams plays endearingly bedraggled Julie with hopeful conviction and Chris Messina is cute and convincing as her sweetly supportive husband. It is of course Meryl Streep who steals the show with her joyful high-energy portrayal of the 6-foot-2 master chef. Streep as she is apt to do turns in a nuanced humanizing and wholly hilarious portrayal of a cultural icon many associate with Dan Akroyd's impressions on Saturday Night Live.
Stanley Tucci proves a savvy charismatic match for Streep as Paul Child Julia’s affectionate charming and unflinchingly supportive husband. Jane Lynch momentarily steals Streep’s spotlight as Julia’s equally tall equally whirling dervishy sister Dorothy.
Julie’s life in Queens is populated by Mary Lynn Rajskub who plays her pragmatic friend and Casey Wilson and Vanessa Ferlito who make memorable cameos as Julie’s condescending corporate ladder-climbing carb-avoiding frenemies.
All of it. Nora Ephron’s script elegantly weaves the story of Child in Paris and Powell in Queens portraying both locales as the prettiest freshest versions of themselves. The film is a joy to look at not only for the sumptuous shots of Powell’s many creations and Child’s rich French fare but also for the pristine recreation of the style and fashion of 1950s Paris. It will make you want to drink champagne cocktails wear chiffon and eat chocolate cake. And beef. And bruschetta. And anything else available.
The film is superbly acted and manages to be funny inspiring and poignant without falling into schlocky chick-flick territory. The story is refreshing in its depiction of two happy drama-free marriages. The true romance here is with all the gorgeous food which Streep Tucci Adams and especially Messina consume with joyful gusto.
At just over two hours the film runs a bit long especially for a comedy. Although it never slows or bores several scenes about publishing the cookbook could have been shortened or cut completely to pick up the pace. While the ending is lovely the film then wraps up a bit hastily.
Julia first learning her cookbook might be published and frenetically rushing into the house screaming “Paul! Paul Paul Paul!” while nearly tripping over herself has just a slight advantage over the scene in which Julie confronts her moral dilemma about killing lobsters and is subsequently traumatized while boiling them alive.
Finely crafted from start to finish Meryl and the food take the cake so to speak in terms of star power. The movie is lighthearted fare for anyone desiring inspiration in the kitchen — or any other life department for that matter.
Hostel: Part II picks up where the first Hostel left off—and then Paxton (Jay Hernandez) wakes up. It’s the last nightmare he’ll ever (be able to) have. Cut to Rome where three American girls—wealthy Beth (Lauren German) sex-craving Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and naïve awkward Lorna (Heather Matarazzo)—have completed their art class after painting a nude model (Vera Jordanova) and are off to Prague via train. While en route they bump into that same nude model who convinces them to change their plans and come with her to an exclusive hot-springs spa in Slovakia. And so their fates are sealed. Once they check in at their hostel with the bellboy who might as well be Satan’s little helper the bidding begins. All around the world the well-to-do-but-not-well-meaning vie for a chance at torturing and savagely murdering these fresh American college gals. And the winners are: Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi) two Americans with WAY too much money on their hands. Thus begins the torturing—of the audience. There is an underrated skill in being able to act scared to death for your life—and in Hostel II’s case whatever prop cutlery was used to poke at the victims’ bodies probably made acting spontaneously easier. Most of the cast however tends to overdo it here. The lone exception is German (A Walk to Remember) making this by far her biggest acting splash to date as the heroine…type. She more so than the others is forced to emote rather than just shriek and she shows ability that reaches beyond horror movies. Phillips (Bully) and Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) meanwhile though disparate character-wise both over-act: Matarazzo especially tries too hard to be gawky even if it makes for a starker contrast when her character is well you know. And grossly—pun intended—miscast is Desperate Housewives actor Bart who--no matter the volume and amount of F-bombs he drops--isn’t game for the uber-depravity that writer-director Eli Roth was going for. In fact the foreign unknowns outperform their American counterparts quite a bit in this sequel. First thing’s first: If Hostel II managed to snag an R rating then hardcore porn should be rated G! Now on to writer-director Eli Roth. To his credit the horror god possesses a mind sicker than any other contemporary filmmaker including returning exec-producer/endorser Quentin Tarantino but that doesn’t mean he knows how to tell a story. There's not a whole that goes on between the jaw-dropping scenes of torture the audience has come to half-see which begs the question: Would Hostel II be anything at all if not for said sadism? In addition a lack of true story brings to light another potential flaw in the Roth system—he doesn’t frighten us so much as disturb. But therein lies the good as well. If you like to be disturbed in a strictly I’d-never-do-this-but-maybe-it-happens-somewhere kind of way Roth is most certainly your man. Of course if you like to be disturbed by a film in any way Roth is most certainly your man. He’s got a wild and prolific imagination and when he turns it on the resulting images are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or want to see again—impossible to look at or away from. If only he could expend it on the stuff surrounding the imagery.
Set in 1986 Brooklyn the Berkman family is dealing with the harsh fact that parents Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) are getting a divorce. Both Bernard and Joan are writers and intellectuals but Bernard feels like he's failed when his wife is suddenly more successful as a writer with a looming book deal that challenges her ex-husband's masculinity and self-worth. The split-up is also affecting their sons 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) in very different ways. The older son Walt is dealing with it creatively by diving into his music. He has entered a talent contest falsely saying that he wrote a song called "Hey You"--the Pink Floyd song. Meanwhile the younger brother Frank drinks beer swears a lot and talks about his Mom's sex life. As the marriage collapses the couple deals with the painful process of splitting up households and working out where the boys are living at any given time and even how the cat gets transported from one house to another in order to be fair. The boys are a bit stressed about the two home addresses but they are more upset about the new relationships their parents are having soon after the split--Dad with his young student Lili (Anna Paquin) and Mom with their tennis instructor (William Baldwin). The boys hang onto the hope that their parents will someday unite again but things only seem to get worse. All of the performances are stellar including Oscar-caliber performances from Daniels and Linney. But just like Kramer vs. Kramer it's the little kid who steals the show. Owen Kline is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and the only acting he ever did previously was a family performance that they did in The Anniversary Party recreating a skit they often do at home for fun. Kline shows a lot of depth and humor in the role as he swears and tries to act like a big guy while rebelling against his parents and their divorce. He is obviously hurting inside and he shows a huge range of emotion as his character develops. Eisenberg an up-and-comer in the new generation of teen actors who made his mark in Roger Dodger does a find job as the older brother. Billy Baldwin makes a decent comeback of sorts as the appropriately wooden but sexy and sincere tennis instructor who never made it as a pro. The biggest disappointment is Oscar-winning actress Paquin who seems a bit wasted in a role that any actress of her age could have done. She has more of an emotional arc as the comic book character Rogue in the X-Men series than here. Even if you don't know what the squid and the whale is at the Museum of Natural History you'll know how a kid could be fascinated by the giant plaster figures of them in a constant battle as they hang from the ceiling of the museum. Noah Baumbach took this personal material which is loosely based on his own family and turned it into a psychological exploration of family dynamics. It's not as overly dramatic as a Danny Bonaduce story nor does it pander to the reality show trend but it does offer a window into the pains of a supposedly idyllic family as the parents slowly figure out they can't stand living under the same roof anymore. The writing is restrained and realistic as the couple and their kids talk around the issues that are the most pressing. There's a tender heart-tugging and combative scene between Linney and Daniels on the stoop of their brownstone which shows how they probably still love each other but in that moment know that they can never give it another go. It's impossible to know whether that's the writing the actors the direction or the fact that the director lived that real moment and knew exactly what he wanted.
Marber who also wrote the screenplay describes Closer as "a love story. It's about other things [too]--sexual jealousy the male gaze the lies we tell ourselves and those we are most intimate with the ways in which people find themselves through using others. But in the end it's a nice simple love story. And as with most love stories things go wrong…" Boy do they ever. In this case the "love stories" revolve around two couples: Dan (Jude Law) a frustrated novelist who falls for quirky stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) after a chance meeting on a London street and Larry (Clive Owen) a boorish dermatologist who falls for esoteric photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) after a chance meeting in a London aquarium. Through happenstance these four people manage to intermix their relationships falling in and out of love with each other at an alarming and brutal speed over the course of a few years. Giving away who ends up with whom would spoil the fun but one thing's for certain--just like in real life these characters are never quite sure if they are truly happy with the final choices they have made.
This movie is an actor's dream--as most plays-turned-movies are--and all four of Closer's protagonists rise to the occasion. Here Law's streak of mediocre films finally comes to an end and he definitely has saved the best for last. In a switch from Alfie's confident lothario Law's Dan is a bespectacled soft-spoken fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve as his love vacillates between Alice and then Anna. As Anna Roberts is Dan's counterpart bouncing just as impulsively between Dan and Larry but playing it far more reserved and aloof. It's a welcomed departure from Roberts' usual perkiness--and probably her strongest performance to date. It is Portman and Owen however who steal the show. Besides a face that could launch a thousand ships the all-grown up Portman is brilliant as the tough-as-nails stripper who is secretly oh-so-fragile and the most honest of the four while Owen best known to American audiences as King Arthur roars on screen as the self-assured Larry a character so full of passion and bravado it's hard to take your eyes off him. Oscar should come calling.
Backed by a major studio and featuring an all-star cast Closer still manages to maintain that indie unpretentious feel--which is just the way director Mike Nichols who made his name making small powerful gems about human relationships such as The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge likes it. And much like the gritty We Don't Live Here Anymore a similarly themed indie released earlier this year Closer doesn't get sugarcoated. The raw language will more than likely hit a nerve and anyone who has ever been in love will spot a few of their own characteristics and experiences. As Nichols explains "Closer concerns itself with the fact that in love we remember beginnings and endings and tend to edit it out the middles…" Being that the film is based on a play the scenes tend to be over dramatized in parts but each juicy intense moment still holds you completely riveted to your seat as the four characters continue to raise the stakes and keep you guessing who is going to betray who next.
Love means never having to say you're sorry; it's a many splendored thing; it's all you need. But in tennis love means zero; it means you lose. Or does it? For Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) a British pro tennis player seeded near the bottom of the world tennis ranks love actually inspires him. After scoring a wild card to play in the prestigious Wimbledon tournament he meets and falls for the rising and highly competitive American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) fueling a winning streak he hasn't had since he began his career. For Lizzie however the love thing doesn't necessarily work out as well. Her feelings for Peter become a distraction throwing her off her game. Hmmm. Can these two crazy kids keep it together long enough so Peter can fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the men's singles title even if it means his muse might have to sacrifice her first Wimbledon title?
Kirsten Dunst may be what draws you in but Paul Bettany is the reason you don't walk out. The British actor who made an impression with American audiences playing the oh-so-witty Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and then wowed them in Oscar winners such as A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander doesn't disappoint in his first lead role. Bettany's Peter embodies all that charm we've come to love and expect in our British actors--although thankfully not as floppy as Hugh Grant--he stumbles about and apologizes profusely. It's so cute. And he makes a pretty darn believable tennis player to boot (one would hope so after the intense training session the actors apparently had to go through to prepare for the movie). Unfortunately Dunst does not fare as well. Her Lizzie is appealing and she adequately handles the tennis stuff--but she ultimately fails to connect with her male lead making their relationship seem forced. Their beginning sparks are fun but when there's suppose to be a real flame igniting between them you're left scratching your head wondering just when where and why they fell in love so hard so fast. Yep that's a big red flag.
I've said sports movies usually work (see the Mr. 3000 review). To clarify: That is team sports. Sport movies where the action revolves around a single competitor are harder to pull off. It's just not as exciting watching an underdog struggle with himself in order to win. Luckily director Richard Loncraine (HBO's My House in Umbria) seems to know this fact. Even though Peter takes Centre Court (that's the British way of spelling it) Loncraine tries to at least create a more complete picture giving us a glimpse into the world of tennis as well as delving into the traditions of Wimbledon and how the Brits feel about the prestigious tournament where British champions are few and far between. Loncraine also utilizes real-life tennis pros such as John McEnroe and Chris Evert who appear as announcers to liven up the proceedings. Even the action on the court with close-up shots of the ball whizzing over the net gets the blood pumping a little--wish there was a lot more of that. But then of course one could just turn on the TV and watch the real Wimbledon instead watching a silly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy set there.
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is an award-winning director who has jumped the shark and is now in Canada shooting deodorant commercials for nickels and dimes and well animal pelts. So when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) and her new husband slick Hollywood studio exec Hal Yeager (Treat Williams) ask him to helm Galaxy Pictures' next big-budget movie he reluctantly signs the deal. Unfortunately the script for The City That Never Sleeps reminds Val of his own failed relationship with his son and causes him to go psychosomatically blind. Poor Val doesn't want to lose this much-needed gig and allows his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to persuade him to direct the film anyway which means keeping his blindness a secret. To make matters worse the publicity department has given a reporter from Esquire magazine the green light to cover the daily happenings on the set. Needless to say no one can do a better job than Allen of talking and gesticulating to the air walking into large objects and falling off sets.
Nervous and jittery like most of his characters Woody Allen is hilarious as Val and he makes the character's blindness completely believable. Allen's performance is priceless especially in the scenes where he is out with Ellie; he tries his best to have a professional discussion with her but constantly blurts out these Turrets-like comments about their breakup. Téa Leoni (Jurassic Park III) is superb and very natural in the role of Ellie--she has come such a long way since her short-lived 1995 television series The Naked Truth. Treat Williams (Venomous) and George Hamilton (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) are perfectly cast as glossy Hollywood tycoons while Mark Rydell (Intersection) personifies perfectly the loyal entertainment agent. Will & Grace's Debra Messing struts her big screen skills with her portrayal of Lori the ditzy aspiring actress and Val's live-in girlfriend but much like sultry Tiffani Thiessen's (The Ladies Man) part her role is rather small.
Allen has written a clever satire of Hollywood films and what goes on behind the scenes. When his character Val loses his vision and exclaims that he will not be able to direct the film his agent Al responds "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" The rest of the film never lets up down to the film's crowd-pleasing "Hollywood Ending." There are quick-witted jabs at everyone and everything especially West Coast culture. The film even pokes fun at itself sometimes: Messing's character Lori leaves for an extended stay at a fitness spa early on in the film and when she finally returns Ellie comments "I forgot about her." Well so had we all. Allen also drops a lot of little references that will leave you wondering. For example his character mentions that when his first wife left him she changed their son's name. (Wasn't Seamus Allen's real life son with Mia Farrow once called Satchel?) Although there are some preachy moments including a dinner party scene where the characters discuss their favorite Hitchcock film the film is witty and entertaining.