Category Archives: Weekend viewing

Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)



Kate McKinnon & Mila Kunis in The Spy Who Dumped Me

For the second installment of my “Ladies’ Night at the Movies” outing, I got together a group of friends to go see The Spy Who Dumped Me. This was an excellent choice for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to get adults together! We’re busy. Second of all, it’s a little bit of a feminist agenda: Women spending money to watch movies made by women. Beyond that, it was great to see friends and a fun movie at the same time, and The Spy Who Dumped Me is a very fun – and entertaining – movie.

Co-written and directed by Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me opens in true spy-thriller fashion, with a fight and chase sequence through an Eastern European marketplace. We watch a handsome man fight his way through a crowd of enemies, run through bustling streets, leap out of windows, and ultimately blow up a building before coolly walking away. Standard stuff that cuts to a very Bond-ian opening credits sequence. But then we’re introduced to Audrey (Mila Kunis), who is having a lousy birthday. Turns out her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), just dumped her via text. What do these two things have in common? The ex-boyfriend, is, of course, the handsome spy, and when he learns that Audrey is burning his left-behind belongings, he is forced to return in order to retrieve an item which is, naturally, something every intelligence force in the world is after. In short order, Audrey and Morgan find themselves on the run through Europe with a horde of operatives on their tails. These operatives include another handsome individual named Sebastian (Sam Heughan) who may or may not be on their side. Will they blunder their way to safety and save the world in the process? The movie is a comedy, so I’ll just let you figure that one out.

This is a funny movie. I laughed a lot. I’m unable to remember any specific jokes, but I tend to think that’s a good thing; they were neither so clever as to alienate the audience, nor did they resort to easy, gross-out humor for the most part. In structure, Spy… is a true representative of the spy genre, which made it even funnier. There were aborted drop-offs, vehicle commandeerings, disguises, escapes, and double-crosses all right where you’d expect them. There was even torture and, as many reviewers have pointed out, a surprisingly high body count. I found myself wondering a bit about that: What, exactly, made the body count surprising? Was it that the movie was a comedy? Was it that the main characters were women? Having literally just watched Atomic Blonde, I didn’t find the violence surprising or egregious. It may have been a bit more bloody than your average Bond vehicle,  but not shockingly so.

That the main characters were occupying the role of victims rather than people who make a living from killing may have added to the shock value, but that is also what made the movie interesting. We’ve all wondered what we might do if we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of international intrigue, and these two women let us imagine it. They’re just average people, but by virtue of their life experiences, they find a way. Audrey plays a lot of shooter video games, and Morgan is a struggling actress; both traits that come to their aid at crucial moments. Some of their ideas don’t work so well, but ultimately the fact that they are viewed as “stupid Americans” works in their favor, and they are consistently underestimated by their enemies. It’s a clever way to advance the story and again, put the viewer into the adventure in an engaging way.

It helps that both Kunis and McKinnon (maybe less so, in her case) have an air of “everywoman” about them to begin with. A Charlize Theron or an Angelina Jolie could not pull off Audrey, but Mila’s down-to-earth delivery makes her seem like someone we might be friends with. And let me tell you: you want to be friends with these women. Their friendship,  particularly as evidenced by Kate McKinnon’s Morgan, is the best thing about The Spy Who Dumped Me. There’s nothing specifically marking the film’s point in time, but the characterizations of the women definitely suggest the present, post-2016 election, #MeToo movement day. Morgan is all about affirming the women around her, most particularly Audrey. She frequently pauses in the middle of running for their lives to tell Audrey how proud she is of her. Early on, she hilariously attempts to “indoctrinate” a Ukrainian boor in the ways of feminism. She even has praise for the creepy gymnast/assassin Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) in the midst of being tortured for information. While McKinnon can frequently be over-the-top, here that persona is written into her character and the result is a charmingly zany but real woman who is tough but open to life’s experiences. That openness makes the movie’s few heartfelt moments between Audrey and Morgan something special that we don’t often get to see in cinematic female friendships.

I was initially very skeptical about seeing The Spy Who Dumped Me. While the idea of a female-led action spoof is great on paper, the execution can often be trickier. I’m pleased to say that in this case, the film succeeds. The performances are all excellent, the script is tight, the laughs are genuine, and the story can be forgiven for being a little predictable, simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do when sending up a genre. As with most of Hollywood, there could have been more diversity (a small handful of speaking roles for people of color) but given the film focuses on a loving and supportive friendship between two women, let’s take it one step at a time. If you’ve been on the fence, definitely go see The Spy Who Dumped Me, and bring some women with you.


Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Happy birthday, Charlize Theron! I got you this review!

I am, generally speaking, a fan of female-led action movies. Admittedly I should probably watch more of them, but I’m a fan in theory, if nothing else. My love for Angelina Jolie has been well-documented, and I’ve enjoyed seeing more and more women show up in the MCU. While we’ve finally gotten our Wonder Woman, we’re still waiting on that Black Widow stand-alone, and there still haven’t been any particularly good action franchises starring a woman. There were high hopes for various Jolie vehicles, but beyond that, women still aren’t kicking ass at the same level as the guys. But, as a surprise to no-one, I’m sure, Charlize Theron is a great addition to the world of women who kick ass.

Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 operative in the midst of the Cold War 80s. She’s sent to Berlin (on the verge of bringing down the Wall) to retrieve the body of another agent and to finish his mission, which was to retrieve a list of all known operatives on all sides. In addition, she is tasked with discovering the identity of Satchel, a double-agent who is also working for the Russians. Her primary contact in Berlin is David Percival (James Mcavoy), an agent who has perhaps gone a bit too far in embedding himself into the culture of the Berlin underground. Naturally, everyone is after this list as well as a Stasi agent named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who claims to have fully memorized its contents. Broughton must contend not only with numerous KGB operatives, but also with a French agent (Sofia Boutella) who may or may not be trustworthy. It’s a maze of loyalties and agendas that she must navigate in order to complete her mission and stay alive.

Atomic Blonde is fast and fun. It’s a little sloppy on the details, but those aren’t terribly important when you compare them to a killer 80s soundtrack and intensely stylish set design and cinematography. The movie is based on a graphic novel entitled The Coldest City, and the look and feel truly calls that to mind. While not totally shot in black and white, much of the scenes seem devoid of color except for a pop here and there. Lorraine herself wears an almost entirely black and white wardrobe, and most of the other characters appear in muted colors. The result is something beautiful, sleek, cold. The chill of the Cold War is almost an extra character, enhanced by the lack of warmth from the characters themselves, not to mention Lorraine’s predilection for ice baths and vodka on the rocks.

In addition to the visuals, the film features great performances from Theron and McAvoy. I feel a little ashamed to admit that, despite it being Theron’s movie, McAvoy is actually the standout. He is having a GRAND time as the feral and ambiguous Percival. In contrast, Theron is a little too one-note. While trying to be the standard poker-faced spy, she comes across as being unengaged, and her slipshod accent (which may be purposeful) doesn’t help matters any. Fortunately, she’s fantastic to watch, and the action alone make it all worthwhile. One of the things I particularly appreciated about her fight scenes is that they are not the typical, street/martial arts-style sequences we’re used to. They are brutal. Anything close to hand is used as a deadly weapon (stiletto heel, skateboard, keys, garden hose?). People get their faces beaten into a bloody pulp. Lorraine herself seldom escapes without a scratch – in fact there are more scenes in which opponents are visibly exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone fight, than I think I’ve ever seen before. It’s a welcome (if violent) dose of realism in a genre that often seeks to give its heroes superhuman status.

It’s hard to say too much about the movie without giving away all the twists and turns. I’ve come to realize that I often prefer movies or shows where it is more difficult for me to guess what is going to happen next. In the case of Atomic Blonde, I definitely had a bit of trouble following who was on which side and what was being accomplished as opposed to what had gone wrong. Still, I would say that the audience is ultimately satisfied (if slightly confused) and while we may not root for Lorraine, strictly speaking, we at least have a healthy respect for her methods and abilities. It would be interesting to see how the character of Lorraine Broughton might return to the screen (and actually, according to IMDb a sequel is in development!) and hey: If Tom Cruise is still doing his own stunts well into his fifties, I say we give Theron a shot.


Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.

Review: Ocean’s 8 (2018)

When I came back to the blog recently, it was interesting for me to note that my last post (five years ago) had been about women in movies. These days “women in movies” is a hot topic. Women are coming forward about sexism and sexual harassment in Hollywood, pay disparities are being highlighted (and sometimes corrected), more women are being put behind the camera, and so on. Obviously things have a long way to go before we can declare Hollywood (or anywhere) a truly equitable industry, but the conversations are important in and of themselves. On-screen, too, there’s been movement toward female-led ensemble casts, from Bridesmaids to a Ghostbusters reboot, and now, Ocean’s 8.

I’m not going to go into the premise too much. The original Ocean’s 11 (1960) was a Rat Pack vehicle set in Vegas. The updated Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels featured an all-star cast led by George Clooney engaging in heists and shenanigans. Nothing too fancy, just solid entertainment. Ocean’s 8 finds us following a complex plan concocted by Danny Ocean (Clooney)’s little sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) to steal a 6-pound diamond necklace off the neck of a starlet (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala. Naturally, she invites a gang of friends along to assist, hijinks ensue, we get a few twists along the way… Nothing too fancy, just solid entertainment. With an all-star, all-FEMALE cast!

Ocean’s 8 is a fun, entertaining movie. The cast (including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, and Awkwafina) boasts an absurd amount of talent, and everyone delivers. While the script is not quite as zingy as one might like, there are still plenty of great moments and inside jokes. The formula follows that of the earlier Ocean’s movies with a few winks and nods to fans, including cameos by two of the original gang. There are also a number of fun details for fans of both the fashion and film industries; Anna Wintour being interrupted watching a Roger Federer match, Katie Holmes & Zac Posen seated together at the Gala, the requisite cameos of famous Gala attendees, Sandra Bullock getting to employ her fluency in German. And of course, everyone is wearing fabulous clothes (I personally would very much like to have Blanchett’s entire wardrobe). The movie ticks off all the boxes you’d expect from a summer blockbuster, but with a little something extra.

While there may be complaints like “Why do the girls have to rob the Met Gala?” and “How does Sandra Bullock’s hair look so great in prison?”, the movie is really very aware of itself and the different world its characters occupy by virtue of their sex. Anne Hathaway has been rightfully acknowledged as a stand-out for her slyly funny take on a seemingly stereotypically ditzy, self-obsessed starlet. She’s more than she seems, of course, and Hathaway’s portrayal is clearly designed to acknowledge that as an actress, she herself has been viewed through the lens she’s portraying. Bullock delivers a great line at one point about how she wants the team to be women because women are so often ignored, and that’s what is needed for the plan to work. And there’s no love interest! There’s an oily ex (Richard Armitage) in need of comeuppance, but his place in the proceedings is that of a pawn, rather than a prize to be won.

It is often the case that movies with women need to be doubly good to be successful,  and that they are often more harshly criticized when they fail to live up to the standards set by a more conventional (male-dominated) film. When we think about true equality in movies, what we’re really talking about is the ability for women to star in a mediocre film that is nonetheless successful and is viewed as a working formula. Too much time has likely been spent comparing Ocean’s 8 to Ocean’s Eleven, which doesn’t help anyone. But, if we insist on thinking about it in those terms, it is perhaps not as good as Eleven, but is much better than Twelve –  which means, if we can hope that Hollywood will be consistent in how they bankroll projects –  I look forward to seeing Ocean’s 9 in theaters sometime in the next couple of years.


Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock, Rihanna in Ocean’s 8 (2018)


Weekend viewing: Critical acclaim

 This weekend, we managed to watch not one, not two, but THREE of the movies currently in contention this award season. Impressive, no? Much thanks to Netflix and MLK day (parents off + daycare open=MATINEE).


The movies themselves were equally impressive. In fact, I am going to call it; right here, right now. One of these films is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Which one? You’ve already got a hint, but read on …

Moneyball (2011)

I like good movies, and my husband likes baseball, so this film was an obvious choice. I am not a rabid Brad Pitt fan, per se, but I do think that he is consistently under-rated as an actor, and his performance in Moneyball certainly deserves the attention it’s receiving. As Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland As, Pitt conveys a convincing “every man” quality that I think can sometimes be difficult for big movie stars, particularly ones who really look like movie stars. He also gives us the motivation and baggage behind the man who puts everything on the line to change how the business of baseball works. Equally impressive (and more surprising) is Jonah Hill as Beane’s numbers man, Peter Brand. Hill is the extremely smart guy thrown in among a bunch of baseball types, and his awkwardness and attempts to fit in are very realistically portrayed. Overall, Moneyball brings some heart and inside knowledge to the back-end workings of America’s pastime; it’s a little slow in places, which is disappointing given Aaron Sorkin’s crisp work on The Social Network in 2010. Still, it’s a movie that should certainly be part of the conversation, and while I don’t think it’s Brad Pitt’s year, his performance here ought to at least remind audiences that he is more than just a pretty face.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

I’m not really much for Woody Allen, although I’ve definitely enjoyed some of his newer films. I attribute this to two facts: 1. good casting, and 2. the fact that Allen himself is not in the movies. See, while he generally has someone acting as his stand-in (check out this video for the proof), they are somehow less annoying than he is, and even manage, in some cases, to be sort of charming. Owen Wilson’s frustrated writer, Gil, in Midnight in Paris is such a one, although you shouldn’t really watch the film for him. The original story, the views of Paris, and the stunning supporting cast are what make this film a contender. In addition to being Allen’s stand-in, Gil is mainly the medium through which we enjoy the journey back in time to the Paris of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston, yay! and Alison Pill). I feel the need to mention Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams (surprisingly unlikable) as well, and out of all these great little performances, Adrien Brody (in one scene, as Salvador Dali) is the highlight. In the end, it’s the story that makes this film an excellent one; for despite a lack of explanation, Gil’s experiences and their ultimate outcome are surprisingly realistic and insightful.Take away the time travel and the literary superstars, and you’ve got a simple, well-told story about two people who are realizing that they’re not as happy as they think they are, and we all know that the simple stories are always the best.

The Artist (2011)

Ordinarily, I don’t like hype. Sometimes, though, something comes along that’s worthy of all the buzz, and this year, that something is The Artist. It’s not an original idea, and in fact there are multiple references to my favorite movie, Singin’ in the Rain, but the finished product is something truly original and unique. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius deserves every ounce of acclaim that he’s raking in for this picture, and yes, I do believe he will walk away with the biggest prizes of them all next month. Performers Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo should be no less celebrated for their great performances. The movie is not perfect (it drags a bit in the middle), but it’s an impressive piece of work, an excellent blend of nostalgia and modern story-telling. While it adopts the style of “old” movie-making (in case you didn’t already know, it’s a black and white silent film!), it carries the dramatic weight of a current-day story as it follows silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin)’s fall, his struggles against pride and progress, and his final redemption and acceptance of change. While I can imagine some audiences are deterred by the nature of the film, I’d like to believe that anyone would to find The Artist enjoyable, and I think that it stands alone this year in terms of its vision, originality, execution, and overall, entertainment value. If it’s still playing near you, go see it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

This-coming weekend, we’ll be going a little older with The Music Man (the 2003 version with Matthew Broderick. Yeah, I’m also skeptical.) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Liz Taylor! Paul Newman! Need more be said?). What’re your viewing plans? If you’re looking for something to see, well, you’ve just had three pretty glowing recommendations, so what’re you waiting for? Get to it!

Weekend viewing

Thanks to the long holiday weekends (and the end of the holiday performance schedules) we actually managed to squeeze in some movies by the end of 2011. One of them was even released in the same year! Shocking, I know. Here’s what we saw …

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Somehow I missed out on a lot of the “Christmas classics”. I hadn’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life until last Christmas, and I still haven’t seen A Christmas Story. I think that we may make watching a Christmas movie a family tradition, though, so maybe we’ll cue that one up for 2012. At any rate, I very much enjoyed Miracle on 34th Street. Featuring credible performances by Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, and a young Natalie Wood, this charming little story is about a man who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. He becomes involved in the lives of skeptic Doris Walker (O’Hara) and her daughter, Susan (Wood), and quietly works some Christmas miracles, not only for them and their handsome neighbor, Mr. Gailey (Payne), but also the city of New York. As you may know, this movie is pretty much a 96 minute ad for Macy’s, but it definitely works hard to convey the message that Christmas is about more than consumerism. It takes a little while to warm up, but when it gets going it’s laugh out loud funny, and you’ll feel like applauding at the end. Definitely recommended for holiday (or any day) viewing!

Beginners (2011)

You may recall that I featured the trailer for this charming little picture when it released. At the time, I posited that it looked whimsical and intimate. The film is a semi-autobiographical look at director Mike Mills’ (“Oliver,” played by Ewan McGregor) relationship with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who comes out to him after the death of his wife, and dies of cancer a few years later. Oliver looks back over his and his parents’ relationship as he attempts to overcome his own fears of commitment while attempting a relationship with fellow commitment-phobe Anna (Melanie Laurent). Though a little hard to follow at times (the chronology jumps around a lot), Beginners is gorgeous to look at and definitely carries some emotional heft. It is indeed a very intimate piece, more a character study in some ways than a conventional story with discernible plot lines, a beginning and an end. The main message that we take away from the film is actually that the end is the beginning, at least for Oliver and Anna. All of the performances here are stellar; Christopher Plummer is nearly a lock to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at this point, although we thought that Melanie Laurent was a little bit more of a stand-out. Well, Melanie Laurent and Cosmo the Dog. Beginners is a must-see if you’re into small, quirky dramedies and/or cute dogs.

King Kong (1933)

Number 43 on the AFI list, King Kong is noteworthy for helping to originate the monster movie. Unlike Frankenstein two years earlier, though, Kong is actually pretty good. It’s the story of Machiavellian movie director Carl Denham(Robert Armstrong), who hires a ship’s crew and aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to venture to an unknown island in order to film a movie, the plot of which he keeps secret. Once we arrive on the island, it becomes apparent that Denham’s plan is to capture on film a legendary monster, and to create a story about beauty and the beast. Life reflects art when Kong really does take a shine to Miss Darrow, and the movie takes off when the ship’s crew, led by handsome First Mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) race through an uncharted wilderness to rescue her. They encounter prehistoric beasts and Kong himself, but ultimately Driscoll and Darrow manage to escape. Meanwhile, Denham, still looking for a story, decides to capture the great ape and bring him back to New York as “the eighth wonder of the world.” The ending of the movie is iconic, of course, so we’ll stop there. King Kong is impressive for a number of reasons. First, although audiences today would snicker at the special effects, one has to consider that they were quite impressive for 1933, and overall, the cinematography and camera work is really first rate. Second, although the acting and dialogue is nothing special, the story has a lot going on. Denham’s hubris and disregard for natural order brings destruction; first to the ship’s crew, many of whom lose their lives in Kong’s jungle, then to the city of New York, and ultimately to Kong himself. One wonders if, even at the end of the film, Denham has learned a lesson. And then there’s King Kong, the beast. Throughout the film, he puts himself in danger to protect the object of his affection, but that goes largely unrecognized by the humans he encounters. Obviously, he wreaks a lot of havoc, but that’s really all he knows how to do. In the end, one can’t help but feel sympathetic toward him. Even though Kong is obviously clunky technology and not (as in the 2005 remake) motion-captured Andy Serkis, he’s a poignant character. Overall, an impressive piece of film-making; it’s easy to see why the original spawned a variety of sequels and remakes. I think I’d recommend that you accept no substitutes, though.

Happy 2012 to you! I’m looking forward to award season and trying to squeeze in more movie viewings during the year, and I hope you’ll check back in to judge my progress! As always, thanks for reading.

News, thoughts, and other nonsense.

Hello, there. Yes, I’m still alive. I won’t bore you with a bunch of excuses for being a slacker; I’ll just say life has been busy. But! The world of movies has also been busy, and there are plenty of interesting things to discuss. So let’s, shall we?

1. Momentum is building around a film adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. A lot of us nerds might be cranky about a movie being made, but realistically, it was going to happen someday, and I personally think that if it’s done well, it’ll make a pretty good movie. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s the story of a extraordinarily gifted boy who is recruited by the government to rid humanity of an alien enemy. That’s oversimplified, of course, but that’s the gist of it. There will be lots of special effects, and I think given the popularity of things like the Hunger Games series right now, it’s a natural choice for Hollywood (or whoever). The most recent news regarding the project is the announcement that Asa Butterfield, currently to be seen as the title character of Hugo, has signed on to play Ender. Given the positive buzz surrounding Hugo and Butterfield’s performance specifically, I think this is a good thing. (Has anyone seen Hugo? I’m dying to.) At any rate, in the new internet tradition of trumpeting every single casting decision from the rafters, I’m sure we’ll be getting up-to-the-minute news on this one. Apparently Harrison Ford is also being discussed? Ooh.

2. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yeah, Christmas, but I’m talking about the start-up of awards season. Despite all its flaws and intricacies, I love it dearly. I’ve particularly enjoyed playing with the prediction charts over at the Gold Derby website. It’s interesting to see who would appear to be a lock (Christopher Plummer for Beginners, yay!) and who doesn’t have as much buzz as one might like (Fassbender for Shame). I realize that having these discussions is silly when I haven’t seen any of the movies in question, and I know that a lot of people like to argue for the things they like without any understanding or appreciation of the “politics” involved, but, for me, all of that is part of the fun. I guess it’s sort of like fantasy sports, in some ways. It’s less about team loyalties and how good you think something/someone is and more about how it all shakes down when you look at all the factors.

3. In further Les Miserables news, we are now being subjected to an awful list of potential Eponines, including Lea Michele, Taylor Swift, and Scarlett Johansson. Given that Eponine’s got some great songs (my husband is rolling his eyes right now), I guess the best choice would be Michele, who has actually played the role on stage, but admitting that really depresses me. She just doesn’t fit with the rest of the cast, somehow. I think that Anne Hathaway is a poor choice for Fantine (clearly, CZJ was busy), but she might actually have served better as Eponine. Who’s your pick? I feel like I’m missing someone good …

4. Finally, a bit of movie-going research! You might recall that a few weeks ago, I posted about why everyone should see A Fish Called Wanda. Now, when I posted that link to Facebook, I got quite a lot of response from a particular group of friends, none of whom had ever seen the movie before. As it so happened, we were going to be in a position to get together with those people over Thanksgiving, and so we arranged a screening in order to educate them. They were all very kind to humor me and not only sit through the movie, but also provide me with a bit of feedback. And so, we’ll let the jury (ha ha, get it?) decide whether or not AFCW is a “must-see”.

Our viewing group was made up of a seven individuals, four women (not counting me) and three men. Now, full disclosure, one of the men present had seen the movie before, but he saw it with me (about a year or so ago) because I told him that he really HAD to, and so he still counts for the purposes of this very highly scientific study. So! Of the seven, only one declared that she flat-out didn’t like the movie, citing a lack of sympathetic characters and character development, which I can understand. She did acknowledge that it was funny, however. Of the remaining 6 people, two deemed it enjoyable, but not anything they’d have chosen to watch without coercion. The rest all gave it positive reviews, citing the excellent cast, comedic timing, and the performances of Kevin Kline and John Cleese, particularly. All in all, I think I am going to count this showing a success, and officially declare A Fish Called Wanda a truly “must-see” movie. I shall leave you with some poster-worthy quotes from my guinea pigs fellow movie fans. Enjoy!

A witty, keep you on your toes, don’t drink anything at the wrong moment or you’ll have your own spit take, delight that I would watch again. — Sarah
Better than a sharp stick in the eye! — Jake
John Cleese made the movie worth watching for me … three stars. — Heather
A charming and quirky little caper. — Sarah Jean
A very enjoyable movie overall! — Alex
Great ensemble, excellent comic timing and performance. Feel bad for Ken. — Ben
Certainly it’s funny and the clothes are hilariously awesome … the fish thing ruins the movie for me. — Jen

Review: Reign of Fire (2002)

I’ve been meaning to watch Reign of Fire for a while, because, well, in case you missed it, I’m a Gerard Butler fan. Every time I mentioned it, my husband would roll his eyes and say “Really?” and I would nod shamefacedly. You see, we’d somehow got the impression that a movie about a post-apocalyptic world wherein humans are being forced to the brink of extinction by dragons starring Christian Bale (ok, bringing a little bit of seriousness), Matthew McConaughey (canceling said seriousness out), and Gerard Butler (charming as the sidekick) would be silly, cheesy, and downright bad. I can’t imagine why we’d think that, can you? But, I am here to tell you that appearances can be deceiving, and that Reign of Fire, while not exactly great, is surprisingly none of the above.

Our story takes place in England in 2020. Civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a seemingly indestructible plague of dragons. Yes, those big winged creatures that breathe fire, and all. Apparently, they show up every so often to cleanse the earth before going back into hibernation. Anyway, Quinn (Bale), who has a history with the beasts, heads up an enclave of survivors, most of them children, along with his friend Creedy (Butler). Their safe existence is threatened by the arrival of a group of American soldiers, led by Denton Van Zan (McConaughey, doing some kind of Mad Max thing). Van Zan and his team, which includes helicopter pilot Alex Jensen (Izabella Scorupco), have perfected a method of bringing dragons down, but their numbers and supplies are much diminished, and so they appeal to Quinn and his followers for assistance. Ultimately, Quinn and Van Zan must put aside their differences in order to team up to rid the planet of dragons for good.

It sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it? Christian Bale is, I suppose, known for a certain amount of gravitas, but McConaughey is more often the exact opposite. The generalization holds true here, but the movie itself, instead of just being a cheesy action flick, is actually rather gritty and dark. Even though McConaughey’s character is completely over-the-top and crazy, he doesn’t play him for laughs. Dragon-killing is a serious business. Bale is doing the stoic, forced-into-leadership thing, whereas Butler’s job is to bring a bit of lightness to the situation. A scene in which Quinn and Creedy enact an exciting duel (no spoilers here!) for the kids before bedtime is pretty much worth the price of admission, but it’s maybe the only truly funny scene in the whole movie. The end, which is naturally fairly predictable, follows an emotional climax involving most of Van Zan’s troops and Quinn’s survivors being wiped out; the darkest hour being before dawn, and all that.

What Reign of Fire does well is treat its subject matter with just the right amount of sobriety and tension. The cinematography is quite good, the acting is above average, and I personally thought that the effects were excellent. They didn’t dwell too much on the dragons, preferring to show them from either a wide perspective or an extremely close one, which made scenes look a lot more realistic and gave the overall feel a little more weight. Where the movie falls short, however, is in terms of the dialogue and overall plot. You don’t have to have seen too many movies to know that the good guys (humans) are going to win the day, but beyond that the dialogue just didn’t leave a whole lot of room for personality or character development. The actors are simply a device that moves the story along. They’re good actors, so they do their job, but you can’t help but wish for a little more connection with them. I know action films aren’t usually where you go if you’re looking for dynamic characterization, but they could have been a little less one-note, in my opinion.

Again, it’s not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It was enjoyable to watch, and a bit more tense and dramatic than I expected. So if you’ve been saving this one for Stupid Movie Night, you might want to swap it out for something that is properly awful, instead of moderately decent. Add this one to your next Christian Bale or Gerard Butler marathon instead. Ooh, Gerard Butler marathon … that sounds fun. Hmm.

Capsule reviews

Last weekend, quite by accident, we ended up with an 80s movie extravaganza! There’s something about movies from that decade … they’re kind of unmistakable. The look and feel is similar no matter what you’re watching. In addition, I admit that I’m no film historian, but it seems to me that an awful lot of movies were made during the 80s, which means that the quality overall may have suffered a little. I know that most of us have a lot of fond memories of the decade, but I guess nostalgia is not a movie critic. Having said that …

Top Gun (1986)
Now, I know many of you are not going to like this very much, but it has to be said: Top Gun is not a good movie. It’s got some spiffy airplane scenes, and a totally rockin’ eighties soundtrack, sure. It also has next to no plot, mostly really lousy acting, and zero chemistry between its leads (I’m talking Cruise and McGillis, here. We won’t be getting into the overtones today). I know, I know, it’s a modern “classic” and all that. I think that is because it really did create a lot of cliches (my husband was surprised by how many lines he already knew, even though he’d never seen the movie before), and because it really embodies the spirit of the country during that decade. It’s all big and brash and loud and shallow and full of swagger.

I do actually think that Tom Cruise can deliver fine performances on occasion, but even the really good actors (ok, I’m mostly just referring to Val Kilmer) don’t seem to have very much to do here. Ultimately, I think what bothers me most about it is that it seriously has no plot. Again, it follows all of the tropes: talented but undisciplined lead gets his big shot, gets a training montage, gets taken down a peg, ends up a winner! But that’s not really a plot, people. That’s a theme that should be built into an actual story, but in the case of Top Gun, I think they forgot something. Sorry. You can go ahead and hate me now.

Chances Are (1989)
Another thing the eighties seem to have done a lot of is rom-coms. Again, the more of something you have, the more the quality overall is likely to suffer. A lot of the time, you just end up with a movie that’s really weird. See: Chances Are.

Alex Finch (Robert Downey, Jr.) doesn’t know it, but he’s actually carrying around the departed soul of Louie Jeffries (Christopher McDonald), a young up-and-comer who is on top of the world when he gets hit by a car. He gets “reborn” immediately, but lies dormant for the next 23 years while Alex grows up, graduates from Yale, and heads to Washington, D.C. with dreams of being a journalist. Through an extremely coincidental set of circumstances, he finds himself on Louie’s doorstep, taken in by Louie’s best friend Phil (Ryan O’Neal), his widow Corinne (Cybill Shepherd), and his daughter, Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom Alex had a brief flirtation back at Yale only a day or two prior. Being “home” reawakens Louie’s spirit, and a comedy of errors ensues. Miranda is interested in Alex, but as soon as Louie takes over, he rebuffs his “daughter’s” advances and tries to convince his still-grieving widow that he’s returned to her. At the same time, Phil has been in love with Corinne this whole time, essentially helping her to raise Miranda, but has never revealed his feelings. Obviously, the mess has to be sorted out so that everyone can live happily ever after, or something.

Oy. Did you get all that? Seriously, this movie, while reasonably funny and charming, is mostly just strange, and sometimes a little bit squicky, given that while Downey and Shepherd have pretty good chemistry, there’s enough of an age difference to make their “romance” plenty awkward. Despite that, all of the actors acquit themselves admirably, and Downey gives us a solid performance, relying on his considerable charm and charisma to make Alex/Louie a sympathetic character. Additionally, the comedic aspects of the movie allow him to showcase his physical abilities, which I think often get overlooked. Other than that, the eighties fashions are awesomely retro, and even though you know how the story’s got to end, it’s interesting to watch them get there. I would definitely recommend this if you’re a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. and are interested in his earlier work, but other than that, there are probably better romantic comedies (even from the 80s) out there.

So, what did you watch this weekend? Any plans coming up? We’re hoping/planning to actually get out and see Moneyball soon, and have the next AFI film to look forward to as well. Wish us luck!

Capsule reviews

I know you’ll be astonished by this news, but we actually managed to watch two whole movies last weekend! One of them I was very excited about (so excited, in fact, that I set foot in a Blockbuster because Netflix doesn’t have it yet), and one I was only sort of interested in, but I enjoyed both quite a bit. What were they, you ask? Well …

Jane Eyre (2011)

FINALLY. My feelings about the newest adaptation of one of my favorite novels ran the gamut from completely disinterested to finally refusing to wait a month for Netflix to send it to me. That last bit of impatience was mostly due to seeing Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class and realizing that he is a very, very good actor. I had been very skeptical of the casting of Jane Eyre for some time, but as it turns out, I shouldn’t have been.
The acting is the strong point (very strong indeed) of the film. Mia Wasikowska made a very fine Jane, and Fassbender absolutely owned as Rochester. The magnificent Judi Dench made a truly excellent supporting turn as Mrs. Fairfax, and I wish Jamie Bell had gotten a little bit more screen time as St. John Rivers. The film is also very beautiful to look at, and I think it hit all the right notes of the story. Where it fell down for me was in its pacing, and in having lost some of the gothic feel of the novel. If I remember correctly, the trailers tried to play up the “creepy” angle, but I found none of that to actually be in evidence in the final cut.
Overall, the movie is absolutely worth seeing for the performances, but it’s my opinion that perhaps Jane Eyre is just not a novel to be served well by film adaptations. Too much of the overall feel and heart of the novel was lost, and there’s really not enough “action” to hold a movie together when large chunks of the book are taken up by narration. I guess I’ll have to get around to seeing some of the other adaptations (yes, yes, Dalton, I know) and see if they’ll prove me wrong.

Hancock (2008)

This one was in my husband’s Netflix queue, and I sat down to watch it despite being fairly ambivalent about the whole thing. And actually … I kind of loved it. A lot of the basic tenets of superhero-dom are rather impractical, and as much as I enjoy a good superhero movie, they always sort of bother me. Things like … who cleans up the mess?
Hancock addresses this by being the story of a superhero (Will Smith) who is sort of a public relations disaster. Even though he fights crime, he’s still seen as kind of a freak and an outcast. As such, he’s also a drunk and an a**hole, and the city in which he lives is tired of putting up with his messes. Enter Ray (Jason Bateman), a down-on-his-luck PR guy. After Hancock saves his life, he decides to make cleaning up the hero’s act his project, against the wishes of his wife Mary (Charlize Theron).
I’m sure you can see where this all goes, at least in part. I won’t spoil it for you. I really enjoyed the tone of the movie and the way in which the downsides of being a superhero were addressed. The second half of the movie gets a little bogged down and frankly, hard to follow, but overall I think that the talent here manages to pull it through and sell the whole thing. The cinematography is a little funky, and sometimes the effects look pretty cheap, but again, it’s the stars you’ll want to watch. Definitely recommended for fans of the genre.

Yay, movies! Did you guys watch anything fun this weekend? It’s now the turn of Crash and The World is Not Enough (a rewatch, but we’re finishing up the James Bond project) to sit around on the coffee table for a while. Coming into a busy stretch of time, but I’ll try to make sure my loyal readers have something with which to waste a few minutes, I promise!

Capsule reviews

I have actually managed to watch some movies recently, but I’ve been slow in getting reviews up. So, I went for capsules, and now I’m all caught up! What about you? Have you seen anything good lately?

Kinsey (2004)

Normally, I don’t have a lot of interest in biopics: there’s a lot of talking and not much action. In their defense, though, they do usually showcase superior acting, and Kinsey is definitely no exception. Liam Neeson, Laura Linney (seriously, why doesn’t this woman have an Oscar yet?) and Peter Sarsgaard all inhabit their characters brilliantly. Kinsey is the story of Albert Kinsey, a scientist who turns to sex research upon realizing that Americans are woefully ignorant on the subject, and ultimately turns notions of sexuality on their heads. Neeson is powerful and touching as the titular character, who is brilliant and driven, but also at times extremely socially awkward. Linney, as Kinsey’s wife, is the heart of the film. She is a strong and “progressive” woman who supports her husband’s research, even when it affects their own relationship and lifestyle. As Clyde, one of Kinsey’s assistants, Sarsgard is an eager youngster who shifts effortlessly between sly worldliness and charming naivete. The crux of the film, really, is the way in which Kinsey’s research shapes and changes all three of these characters. It’s a really interesting story, funny at times, touching at others, and surprisingly enjoyable to watch. Great supporting performances by John Lithgow, Oliver Platt, and Tim Curry, along with a cameo by the late Lynn Redgrave make this a truly A-list piece of work.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Speaking of all talk and no action, I’m late in seeing Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Again, it was not a movie that appealed to me, but I decided I should see it, since it seemed to be kind of a big deal. I have to say that I was surprised in some areas and disappointed in others. Overall, I thought it was an interesting film, but not the brilliant work that it is often characterized as.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a fading movie star who is in Tokyo to endorse Suntory whiskey. He’s possibly the most world-weary character you will ever see on screen: he’s completely jaded about his career, his marriage, and life in general. His saving grace is that he loves his children, but work keeps him from seeing them often. During his week in Japan, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a newlywed without any idea of who she wants to be. She’s come to Japan to tag along with her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer, but she’s left on her own to aimlessly spend her time. Bob and Charlotte strike up an unlikely friendship, and spend the week indulging in harmless fun. Naturally, they do some soul-searching, and maybe learn a few things about themselves as well.
I really liked some of the themes of this movie. I found it fascinating that the two main characters could be so very different in terms of age and experience, and still find common ground. Bill Murray does an excellent job here; Scarlett Johansson, not so much. A better actress might’ve given the character a little more depth, but instead of meaningful thought coming through, one mostly got the impression that ScarJo was merely trying to “look thoughtful” much of the time. The direction and cinematography are attractive, but ultimately I think that the film doesn’t have the depth it strives for. Still, if you’re interested in Bill Murray as an actor, Lost in Translation is a must-see.

Father of the Bride (1950)

I was a huge fan of the 1991 remake of the Father of the Bride. Steven Martin was great as the put-upon dad, and Kimberly Williams was an absolutely charming ingénue. However, as you might expect, neither of them can really hold a candle to Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor in the original.
Stanley Banks (Tracy) is a typical middle-class father whose world is turned upside-down with the news that his adored daughter, Kay (Taylor) plans to marry. What starts out as a “small” wedding turns into a major production, with a price tag to match. Stanley tries to go with the flow, but his attempts to be a part of the process beyond just footing the bill are all comedically flawed in some way. In the end, it’s really the story of a loving father letting his daughter go, and acknowledging that she’s grown.
Spencer Tracy is absolutely perfect as the long-suffering Stanley. He’s got more expression in one lifted eyebrow than most actors can manage in an entire monologue, and he’s just a fabulous straight man. Even though he’s the problem at times, you feel nothing but sympathy for him as he’s steam-rolled through the entire wedding process. Taylor is, of course, luminous as young Kay, but she’s got a bit of a spine, too. It’s necessary in order to prove to Stanley (as well as the audience) that she really is becoming her own woman, and that it’s time for him to let her go.
All in all, there’s nothing really special or outstanding about the original Father of the Bride; it’s just a really cute little movie with first-class stars. It sets out to entertain, and it does so. There are moments of hilarity, moments of poignancy, and it’s enjoyable throughout. A must-see for classic movie fans, especially if you’re into Tracy or Taylor.