Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why I love Emma Thompson

I just watched Last Chance Harvey and it made me realize how much I really enjoy watching Emma Thompson practice her craft. She's such a terrific actress and has made some movies even more enjoyable by her presence. Here are some of my favorites:

Howard's End was one of her first major movies and won her the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. I watched it again recently and was surprised that it was the best performance that year, and still have trouble understanding what the voters saw that made them choose her, but perhaps it was the amazing potential she has. She plays a young woman who gets to know a wealthy family, befriending the matriarch and ultimately marrying the father when she dies. I guess in lesser hands, the role could contain a lot of smarmy deceit, but Thompson plays her with such innocence and strength that you beliive she just lucked into everything that happens.

Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespearean play turned into a movie, in large part because of the wonderful banter between Thompson and her then husband, Kenneth Branagh. She plays Beatrice, the cousin of the lead, a young Kate Beckinsale. Beatrice is known as a shrewish woman who will never marry because no man could put up with her. Thompson shows her spirit constantly by helping her cousin's attempt to regain her honor while arguing with Branagh's Benedick. Robert Sean Leonard also makes it amazing, but I love Thompson throughout.

Her next film, Remains of the Day, I constantly got confused with Howard's End (hence the rewatching), though they're completely different except that they're both period films starring Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

My favorite movie of all time, Sense and Sensibility, which Thompson won an Oscar for best adapted Screenplay for penning, also stars Thompson as Elinor Dashwood. She falls in love with Edward Ferrars and then finds out he's betrothed to someone else. She can't tell anyone about her distress, but has to watch as her sister (a wonderful Kate Winslet) throws her heart at a man who rejects her, ending them in the same boat. It's such a wonderful adaptation and Thompson's chemistry with Hugh Grant is both restrained, but obviously entrancing.

I know Thompson had terrific performances in In the name of the Father, Primary Colors, and Wit, but the next thing I love her in is Love, Actually. She plays the sister of the Prime Minister who discovers her husband (Alan Rickman) is having an affair. She has a great scene where she's listening to Joni Mitchell and trying not to scream and cry at the realization of the affair. Nothing is said, but every woman I know can empathize with the struggle she's internalizing. I love the small scenes with her daughter. She's just announced she got a part in the Nativity play as a lobster. Thompson responds with incredulity and her daughter says she's the "first lobster", and Thompson's response "there was more than one lobster at the birth of Jesus?" always kills me.

One of the reasons I made the effort to see the HBO production of Angels in America (both parts) was Thompson's appearance in several roles, most notably the angel itself. Her humor and dry wit are a match for Justin Kirk's over the top rage and fear when the angel appears. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino are beyond terrific in this too, but the supporting cast really sells the show. I really want to see this again if only for Thompson's scene breaking through the ceiling.

Thompson's performances in several Harry Potter movies as Professor Trelawny are wonderful, and bring to life all the book promises. Stranger than Fiction pairs Thompson as a depressed and depressing murder writer with Queen Latifah's straight-forward humor trying to help her finish her next book. And Thompson's next foray into screenwriting, Nanny McPhee is a terrific children's story brought to life and Thompson's transformation throughout the film is wonderful.

And her most recent film, Last Chance Harvey, pairs her again with Dustin Hoffman (from Stranger than Fiction). She's an airline employee who meets Hoffman at the end of his worst day (his daughter chose her stepfather to give her away at her wedding, and he lost his job) and they hit it off. She's been suffering taking care of her mother who drives her nuts. They talk all day and all night and spend time figuring out what makes them happy and what doesn't. It's a short film (about 85 minutes) that focuses on these two characters in this one place and time - much like Before Sunrise, and it succeeds well in achieving this small goal. Thompson and Hoffman have terrific chemistry and you believe they might be willing to find ways to overcome their obstacles and create a life together. I really liked it, 4 of 5 stars/lambs.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Night at the Smithsonian

The newest Ben Stiller movie, Night at the Museum: The Battle for the Smithsonian, opened huge this past weekend, and I'm not surprised at all. The first movie, I liked as decent entertainment, with Ben Stiller playing a pretty funny straight man against the insanity that was a come-to-life museum exhibit. The new movie follows our now successful hero to protect the still-life exhibits as they're shipped to be stored at the Smithsonian. However, our cheeky monkey from the first movie has stolen the gold tablet whose magic turns them to life, and is bringing it to the largest museum in the world. This movie had a lot to live up to, bringing to life even more and crazier characters, including Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible, Amelia Earhart, and Abraham Lincoln. It was bigger and more over the top than the first one, but didn't really improve on the original. There was a terrifically funny scene between Stiller and Jonah Hill, and a few historical references that were fun (Jay Baruchel finds a cell phone when Stiller drops it in his painting and Joey Motorola is his name). Amy Adams was terrific as Earhart, but just like their characters, Stiller and the rest just couldn't keep up. There were a lot of little throwaway lines, but overall it just wasn't as good as the original. 3.5 of 5 stars/lambs

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Angels and Demons: review

There are a lot of movies out there that need not be the next greatest film of all time. There are many reasons to go to the movies. Since I began writing this blog, I've added another reason I go to the movies, so I can think about them and write about them more when I get home (it extends the procrastination of a single movie viewing by hours). The opening of "summer blockbusters" so early in May in an effort to jump start the season and not to compete directly with each other has given us more movies to see, for little reason that they're new and famous for one reason or another. I've happily kept up with the huge openings thus far, Star Trek, Wolverine and now Angels and Demons. I've also taken in 17 Again and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. I'm willing to bet none of these movies will achieve any awards for acting (though Zachary Quinto was really good), and likely few for special effects (though Star Trek could make the cut, it's still early). The real reason (in my opinion) to see all these movies is for the shear entertainment they provide. In that respect, Angels and Demons delivers big.

I've read the books of Dan Brown and appreciate the details he uses and the nerdy semi-historical facts he hinges his thrillers on, so I went into this movie thinking I knew what I was getting. It's now been about 5 years since I read the book, which is incredibly complicated and I'd forgotten most of the important twists and turns, and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. So as not to ruin your viewing pleasure, I'll just explain the basics. A pope has died, and thus all the cardinals must meet in the Vatican to elect a new pope. This has provided the chance for an anti-church (fictionalized) group call "the Illuminati" to wage war by kidnapping the 4 cardinals most likely to win the election, and also to steal a fictionalized substance called "anti matter" to blow up the Vatican. (now I don't mean that either the Illuminati or antimatter are fictional, but artistic license has made them both into something they are not for the purpose of the story, like Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code). Our hero, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, in a much better performance than DaVinci Code) has been called in to interpret symbols sent to the Vatican with the warning of impending doom. There's a lot of chasing around Rome and Vatican City which looks amazing and really complicated, too many whirling shots for me. The supporting cast is terrific, each giving off the "I could be the bad guy" vibe all the way through, Ewan McGregor (as the pope's assistant, the Camerlengo and interim in charge), Stellan Skarsgard (head of the Swiss guard who protect his Holiness) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (the cardinal Strauss in charge of conclave). Also, I must say the female lead, Ayelet Zurer (a huge deal in Israel and really making a splash on US audiences now) was terrific, neither cloying nor saccharine like Audrey Tautou's character in Da Vinci. Overall, it was a great thriller, violent, but constantly changing heroes. 4 of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Frozen River: up close and personal

The movie that got Melissa Leo an Oscar nod, Frozen River, takes place less than 50 miles from my house. I look out on the St. Lawrence River daily. It is a perfect representation of much of the life of people who live in relative poverty in this area. Rent-to-Own is huge, Dollar stores are in every town and every space between towns, and a double-wide trailer really is the epitome of safety and assurance that your house will stick around. The River does freeze across for less than 6 weeks a year, and gambling and safety on the Mohawk Reservation are always a matter of concern. It's a good movie, with moving performances, but yes, it can be that dreary living the lives portrayed. A terrific rental. 3.5 of 5 Lambs/stars

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek: Revew

I freely admit to being a Trekker (by which I mean, I've seen all the movies with Star Trek in the title and all the episodes of "The Next Generation" series, though I've never been to a convention nor dressed up in any sort of costume). This is to say I was excited to see the new Star Trek movie, but more in the way of reading the next book in a series you love, it doesn't matter how unique or special it is, just as long as it provides familiar comfort. However, the new delivers on BOTH fronts of unique and familiar. If you've never seen a single moment of previous Trek video, you'd still be in for a great story with excellent action, terrific acting and wonderful special effects. However, if you're already a fan, there's an even greater level of terrific familiarity, filling in the gaps of previous stories and fully creating characters. It is what Wolverine should have (could have) been. Here's what I think the story was about (time travel usually confuses me, so I've thought about it, but could be wrong). *Spoiler Alert* (though given that it's a prequel you know who survives). James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is at the Star Fleet Academy, where Spock (Zachary Quinto) has been an instructor. A great problem arrives that necessitates the cadets to help on star ships. Basically, far into the future the planet Romulus is destroyed by a super nova. A Romulan, Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana) who feels it was Spock's fault manages to come back in time with a super-future awesome ship and manages to destroy Vulcan and is on the path to destroy Earth (given that Spock is half human, he has two home worlds). Star Fleet has to figure out a way to stop him. With the help of the people we'll all recognize as the future Enterprise crew (Uhura, "Bones", Chekov, Sulu, and eventually Scotty - a terrific Simon Pegg). With each character there's a little bit of the original character, but not a parody or exact duplicate, just a recognizably familiar character. Overall, it's a great movie, with really terrific acting and directing from a new set of actors and directors. My one pet peeve was the "red matter" (something that can create a black hole) appears as a large, unexplained red ball remarkably similar to the bad stuff in "Alias" (another J.J. Abrams creation). Great film, will probably see it again in theaters. 4 lambs/stars

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: Review

This could have been a good, holiday movie. It has the classic Dickensian story behind it, and even had a good update concept, however, it falls pretty short, due in large part to the bland supporting cast. While I recognized most of them, I couldn't name any of them, and in their stereotypical roles, there was a lot of room for stand-out performances. The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is the story of Connor Meade (Matthew McConaughey), a womanizing photographer who is attending his brother's (Breckin Meyer?) wedding at their late uncle's (Michael Douglas) estate. The maid of honor, Jenny (Jennifer Garner) is the childhood love of Connor, though she tries to keep him in line, he rants against marriage at the rehersal dinner. He is visited by his deceased uncle (in the Jacob Marley role) who tells him he'll be visited by 3 ghosts that night, and that his life is not one to emulate as he died sad and alone. The first ghost (from his high school past, in all her '80s glory, including braces), the second, his current assistant, and then the silent ghost who shows him how awful his future will look. He realizes, of course, he loves Jenny and thinks love and marriage is wonderful. It's a funny movie most of the way through, but it would have been better had it been released at Christmas (it's set in winter) and possibly with a stronger cast. McConaughey and Garner are very good, but without much fun around them, it's hard to keep watching. 2/5 stars/Lambs

Monday, May 4, 2009

17 Again: Review

In the grand tradition (okay, humorous if not grand) of Big, 13 Going on 30, Freaky Friday, Like Father, Like Son and 18 Again! (with George Burns, it's really funny), we now have with Zac Efron and Matthew Perry as the 17 and 37 year old versions of Mike O'Donnell, a high school basketball star who ends up married to his high school girlfriend right out of high school, forgoing a future as a basketball star and/or college graduate. He ends up at 37 bitter about life and blaming everyone but himself. His wife, the hysterical Leslie Mann, has kicked him out and his children (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterline Knight) don't really like him. He's staying with his best friend from high school, Ned Gold (wonderfully funny Thomas Lennon), a super-geek (Star Wars, LOTR and other sci-fi fantasy paraphernalia decorate his house) turned super rich computer geek (he invented both the software to pirate music and the software to prevent piracy). Anyway, Perry thinks high school was the best time every and if he could return, he'd do everything differently. Enter, the "spirit guide" who makes him 17 again. He helps his son gain self-esteem and popularity and his daughter to be less skanky and more sure of herself and realizes he was a bad husband, but really loves his wife. It's a very funny movie, and I was pleasantly suprised to find out Zac Efron is a really good actor (I'm not quite the demographic for the High School Musicals so this was only the first time I'd seen him since his small role in Hairspray). Efron is in nearly every scene and actually does a very convincing job of being Matthew Perry as a 17-year-old, with sarcasm and speechifying to make fun of the school bully. Also, the relationship between Ned and the school principal is hysterical. Fun movie, 3.5 stars/lambs, though if you're a teenage girl, it's probably the best movie you've ever seen.

PS - A great guy I went to college with, Tommy Dewey, has a small role as Matthew Perry's boss. He's hysterical as the young VP promoting someone else over Perry. Here's hoping he keeps getting funny roles.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

X-men Origins: Wolverine

Now I've read a lot of the reviews of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that said the movie wasn't particularly good, but I disagree. It was full of action, interesting back story filling in the history of how Wolverine became who we met in the original trilogy. It wasn't a particularly complicated story, Jimmy (whose name becomes Logan, though I missed the connection) runs off with his brother Victor (Liev Schriber who becomes Sabretooth) and they fight all the American wars, since the Civil War, eventually becoming special ops searching for something in the Congo, while killing basically everyone they come in contact with. The team is composed of other mutants (including Dominic Monaghan who can communicate with his mind, lighting light bulbs, moving elevators; Will.I.Am can teleport and wears a cowboy hat; Ryan Reynolds can fight with swords really fast; and then Wolverine and Sabretooth). Wolverine decides he's had enough killing and walks away. He ends up working for a logging company in Canada, living with Kayla who seems to understand why he's a little crazy and can make bones come out of his hands. The head of the army team, Striker, comes looking for him to warn him that members of their team have been dying. Wolverine knows Sabretooth has shown up, and realizes Kayla's in danger. Wolverine finds her dead in the woods and vows to revenge her by killing his brother. However, Sabretooth is stronger and more vicious than he is, so when Striker gives him the option to have adamantium bonded to his bones (we knew this happened from the previous movies, but now we know why). While the procedure is going on, Wolverine hears Striker talking about an island and other mutants including Sabretooth. Wolverine knows he's been betrayed and adds Striker to his list of people to kill (which we know he doesn't, again, it's a prequel). In order to find the "island" Wolverine seeks out Will.I.Am (who I really liked, he was funny, but subtle instead of scene stealing) who send him to Gambit (Taylor Kitsch - Riggins from Friday Night Lights) a card playing mutant in New Orleans. Basically, lots of people fight, few die, but it turns out Striker's been trying to make a super-mutant warrior (Ryan Reynolds signs up to be altered) and the island is wasted. Wolverine and Sabretooth realize they're brothers but enemies, and that mutants are good people usually, but that Striker is still bad. It sort of sows the seeds of needing safety for the mutants, Charles Xavier does have a purpose. Overall, I liked the action and story. There were a few things that just annoyed me: 1. Everytime Wolverine and Sabretooth start fighting they run at each other from opposite ends of the room and leap into the air - EVERY TIME. 2. All of the mutants seemed to have multiple powers depending on what was necessary, ill-defined powers which are usually the most interesting. 3. The whole beginning sequence - was Victor just a bad kid or did bad things make him evil as Sabretooth later, just curious. Hugh Jackman is great - always keeps your attention when he's on screen. If you liked the X-men trilogy, you'll really enjoy this new one - it fills in some interesting blanks in the previous story. I nominate Storm for the next Origins story. 3/5 Lambs/stars