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The Lion King
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The Way Way Back is an unoriginal, predictable, but competently amusing coming of age comedy with a stellar cast of comic actors that make it worth seeing. The story of 14 boy and his hapless single mother saddled with an obnoxious boyfriend (potential step father) at the summer cottage. Duncan, sullen and monosyllabic is expertly portrayed by Liam James, who manages to infuse the character with a lot of soul. His mother is played by the great Toni Collette, who has played many such roles before, and the villainous yet human blowhard boyfriend is expertly handled by Steve Carell who infuses the man with both menace and pathos. Sam Rockwell plays the free spirit bad role model/ mentor perfected by Bill Murray in Meatballs and John Candy in Uncle Buck. On the same point, though this film is supposedly set in the present, it feels like something from the 70s and this is reinforced by Steve Carell's woody wagon. If you squint, you would think you were in a 1978 time warp.
That's just what's wrong with this film, which was brimming with potential. You've seen it before, in numerous feature films and TV episodes (John Hughes, Ivan Reitman and Rob Reiner have mined the territory throughly, both comic and serious). The Way Way Back takes a well established genre and adds nothing to it. Though the scenes are well written in isolation, the outcomes were predictable and the story line is bland. Duncan finds acceptance taking a job with the oddballs who work at the crumbling 80s water park and gets the finds the cojones to stand up to the evil Steve Carell.
Special mention must be given to the great Allison Janney who plays a boozy earth mother with warmth and outrageous spontaneity, and young Annasophia Robb as her daughter, who shines as the smart, empathetic and soulful love interest for the awkward Duncan.
Rent it if you like the actors, they will put a smile on your face but Nax Faxon and Jim Rash, writers of the Descendants, talented though they be, have cashed in their writing oscars for a so-so and forgettable directing debut.
The Great Gatsby is an overstuffed, entertaining and visually dazzling éclair full of wonderful 20's fashions, millions of extras, big crane shots, loud Jay Z hip hop music and a solid anchoring star turn by the increasingly great Leo DeCaprio. The 3D glasses are well worth the extra $5. Sadly, though it follows the plot points of F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved classic, it totally misses the meaning and emotional grounding of that book.
The story of personal reinvention and obsession is perfectly personified by DeCaprio, who is far better than the bland Robert Redford from the 70's movie. Jay Gatsby is a mysterious Long Island Millionaire with mob connections, who throws huge parties nightly in the hope that they will lure the now remarried love of his life, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Mulligan is an excellent actress in almost everything she's in, but here she is miscast as a stunning beautiful and empty object of obsession. In this film, Mulligan is merely pretty, almost mousy, not even very interesting, and it's hard to care if Gatsby wins her back or not. Toby Maguire is Nick Carraway, the failed writer and Daisy's cousin, who Gatsby uses to affect a reunion. His performance is solid and he and DeCaprio have great chemistry. Mulligan does not have great chemistry, nor with anyone else in the movie. Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan) plays Daisy's philandering husband as a moustache twirling villain, and Isla Fisher as his mistress is rather wasted in the role of the lower class vamp.
Luhrmann doesn't trust his audience's intelligence, so that when Leo makes his big Gatsby entrance half an hour into the film, fireworks are bursting over the Long Island night sky, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is cranked to '11'. Oh, I guess he's an important character, then? The second half of the movie feels more like the book, but by that time, the film has lost its chance to move the audience, and Mulligan leaves such a non-impression that when we find out she's a shallow nothing, we're not remotely surprised, or don't actually care - and this is the moment that the whole book turns on.
Baz Luhrmann had great success with a similar overblown and bold approach on Romeo and Juliet, but he had the Shakespeare script to fall back on. This script is defeated by the self-consciously overblown production. Every time I got close to having an emotion, something flew out at me or some loud hip hop number came on (BTW, I like the Beyonce remake of Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, but it still distracted me from the story). The excesses of the production detract from the emotional resonance inherent in Fitzgerald's tale. Baz is a very talented visionary director, but with no one to rein him in, he may ruin other great literature this way. I hope someone will stop him, or creatively rein him in the future, or maybe he'll stay away from classics and spare us all.
I Love You, Man is an often surprising, mostly hilarious and offbeat Hollywood comedy. It's expertly performed by a wall to wall cast of A list comedians and fresh 'slice of life' situations that are both low key and deliciously lewd. It has empathy and sensitivity for its characters, yet still manages to be raunchy - in a good way. Written and directed by John Hamburg, the auteur behind Meet the Parents and its sequels, the script delivers the laughs and more depth than this type of studio movie usually provides.
Paul Rudd, arguably the finest straight man working in comedies today, plays Pete, a repressed and slightly wimpy fellow who has no 'guy friends. His new fiance, Zooey, Rashida Jones has decided that the one thing missing before the wedding is a friend/best man, and Rudd is thrown into the cruel world of modern male bonding to find a pal. Jason Segal, plays Sydney, his budding BFF, a unfiltered and painfully honest oddball. The film is all about their on again, off again, 'bromance'.
The bench strength in the cast is the movie's ace in the hole. Rudd's parents are played by the great Jane Curtin and J.K. Simmons, his gay yet masculine brother is played by Andy Samberg, and Jamie Pressly and Jon Favreau play Zooey's best friend and her blowhard poker playing husband. All get stuff to do, and make the material really sing. Rashida Jones is saddled with a generic nice girlfriend character, but infuses it with her unique warmth and offbeat energy, a wise casting decision for an underwritten role.
What is special about the film is its quiet empathy and acceptance of various lifestyles and its unwillingness to trade in stereotypes. When Rudd is 'fixed up' with a potential best friend (Thomas Lennon), his date misunderstands and believes they are on a romantic first date. The subsequent tongue kiss is hilarious and cringe worthy, but is not a condemnation or mockery of the love struck man. We feel empathy and humanity towards him not because he is ridiculous, but because the film is about all of our missed signals and romantic mistakes.
This is unmistakably a Hollywood comedy, not an offbeat indie quirkfest, but handled by wonderful cast and a solid, cliche busting script, it was really a pleasure.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a cliche packed, guilty pleasure, made sublime by the galvanic performance of James Cagney as song and dance man George M. Cohan. Directed by the capable Michael Curtiz, who could apparently direct anything, it also has gorgeous B & W cinematography from the great James Wong Howe and wonderful supporting performances by some great Warner Brothers contract players like Walter Huston, S.Z. Sakall (Carl from Casablanca) and Cagney's sister Jeanne playing his movie sister.
The main reason to see this is for the joyful musical numbers, in particular, the title song, Give My Regards to Broadway, and It's a Grand Ol' Flag. Cagney doesn't even try to sing but spits out the lyrics with bravado and hoofs so engagingly that you can't take your eyes off him. He's no Fred Astaire, but he has such a wonderful fluid style and such a compact, lithe athleticism that he's just as watchable. The overblown chorus numbers are crackling entertainment, but be warned that they are not even half of the film's running length, so you'd have to skip through your DVD menu to avoid the schmaltzy and often maudlin scenes, like the elder Cohan's deathbed scene, which I ate up for dinner, but are for old movie fans only.
Cohan comes off as arrogant and self-absorbed, but Cagney infuses him with humanity and warmth, so we can see why his family, friends and business associates might put up with him. I have no idea how accurate YDD is to reality, apparently Cohan was a nasty fellow who tried to bust the actor's union and had a savage cruel streak. Not here.
The drama such as it is, has all the essential show biz bio flick scenes: the early struggling years, the hero's comeuppance, huge success straining the personal relationships, and the decline when the hero is considered a relic of the past, culminating in a big unexpected comeback. The film is book ended by a visit when Cohan is summoned to the White House by Roosevelt, where he related his life story to the President, who seems to have a lot of time to listen (the two hour length of the movie) especially during WWII, where you'd think the man might have more pressing concerns. This is not at the top level of the great old musical bio flicks, but it's lots of fun. It's really not much without Cagney, and fortunately this film offers a heaping helping of him.
Les Miserables is an long, mostly entertaining, over the top, melodramatic mess. Of course, it is very openly a melodrama, as per its source material of Victor Hugo's massive novel, but it falls down by cranking up the emotional volume to '11' (as per Spinal Tap) and never pulling it any lower than 9. I like the stage musical, but seeing realistic and gritty sets with hand held endless closeups of actors and their tonsils emoting their pain takes a toll on a viewer. Somehow in theater, it worked much better and had more levels and moods.
I may be the only doubter on the radical approach that director Tom Hooper took, by having the actors sing live to camera, but the tuneful songs are mostly undermined by screeching and Russell Crowe's vocal limitations. Though this approach works nicely for Ann Hathaway's Oscar moment in the sun, 'I Dreamed a Dream' which is an intimate song of despair, it mostly doesn't work for the rest of the musical material. It particularly does Hugh Jackman, a terrific singer normally, a disservice, where he shrieks unpleasantly much of the time, as his character is in pain for all three of the film's hours.
The entire cast, including Crowe (singing aside), acquit themselves admirably for the most part and are well cast. Though Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter's Thenardiers are very over the top in the baggy pants vaudeville of their comic relief, they are a welcome break from the earnest howling and gushing tears. Hathaway, who has no much more than twenty minutes screen time, deserved her Oscar, and Jackman pulls off noble and selfless as well as anyone out there, vocal screeches aside.
The film looks great from a production design point of view, but I hate how it was shot by Hooper, with way too many closeups and needless jerky handheld camera. I imagine he thought he was updating the creaky movie musical style for the new millennium, but it failed, at least here.
The songs are melodic in the spirit of Oliver!, but the lyrics are unsubtle and 'on the nose' and always were. So is the film style. This is one instance where I think the director needed to take a different approach from the source material, rather than being too faithful. For example it didn't have to be 'sung through', there could have been some spoken dialogue, giving the songs more weight. There also could have been a more intimate approach with some scenes, and the chorus numbers were awkwardly staged for realism, which is impossible, it might have been better if they stood and delivered to the movie audience and broken the 'third wall'. I realize Hooper did not want to alienate the devoted fans.
Still, it's worthwhile and interesting to see the approach that was taken to put this beloved musical on film, there's a lot of talent here. Les Miserables can be effective if you put your helmet on to prevent the whole thing beating you over the head with its bombastic style and take it for the overly rich, often nausea inducing French pastry that it is.