Film Reviews

Film Reviews

2012

Apparently, if the apocalypse arrives, Amanda Peet will survive.  While this is good news for any warm-blooded male who also survives, it does seem a bit improbable.  However, 2012 establishes early that it isn’t overly concerned with probabilities, including as it does the melting of the Earth’s crust, the reversal of the Earth’s polarity and the near-complete annihilation of mankind by natural forces… three years from now.

Which is kind of liberating.  It’s one thing to pore over the science fiction of Primer (2004), a time-travel movie whose writer drew from existing academic work (Google the Meissner Effect or Feynman diagrams).  Attention to detail invites critical scrutiny.  Not so in 2012.  When an aircraft carrier, swept along by a tidal wave, crushes the White House, there’s no point in saying, “Aha!  The USS John F Kennedy was decommissioned in 2007 and is in Philadelphia!”  (Although that is true.)

2012 is more in the spirit of (read: rehashes) popcorn-chompers like Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), all three of which were directed by Roland Emmerich, have date-related titles and feature the widespread destruction of the United States (respectively by alien invasion, an instant Ice Age and solar explosions).  You know you’re in a rut when you’re obliterating the White House for the third time.

Emmerich revels in epic destruction.  All three disaster films spend time and most of their obscene budgets on wide shots of cities in peril.  In 2012, we see the last of Los Angeles, then Las Vegas, then Washington, then New York.  While this is good news for anyone who dislikes America, it does seem a bit… oh great, now we’re rehashing, too.

You’d think Emmerich, who is German, would be less prone to Hollywood’s narcissistic obsession.  A major part of the appeal of District 9, this summer’s alien-invasion flick, was that it took place in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Finally, a disaster movie didn’t have America at its geological or ideological epicenter.  For Jamaican audiences, a blockbuster full of black people is way more shocking than an erupting supervolcano.

2012, which has both an erupting supervolcano and black people, adheres to Hollywood’s unofficial miscegenation laws.  Thus Amanda Peet and John Cusack (both Caucasian) fall in love, as do Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor (both Negroid).  Any other combination, the thinking goes, and American audiences would really think the world was coming to an end.  (And if the word ‘Negroid’ bothers you, stop giving money to filmmakers who perpetuate its necessity.)

If you can ignore the loopy plot, the sense of deja vu, the American bias and the romantic segregation, 2012 is fun to sit through.  For the first hour.  Maybe you’ll last through the second.  But once it enters hour number three, you just want everyone to hurry up and die.  (Except Amanda Peet.)  With most of humanity lost, Emmerich can’t readily make a sequel to 2012.  While this is good news for everyone, it does seem a bit… oh, never mind.

Film Reviews

This Is It

As a work of art, This Is It isn’t all that.  There’s no cinematography to speak of—just a couple of cameramen running around with videocameras.  No lighting—except for the million or so watts from the stage lights.  No conscious aesthetic choices—unless you consider the naturalistic, handheld look to be more than necessity. It isn’t edited with innovation or novelty—director Kenny Ortega, who had been directing the concert, organizes footage for each number into self-contained packages strung one after the other.

But then there’s Michael.  To lift a phrase from “Dangerous”, the man is divinity in motion (assuming God considers crotch-grabbing to be kosher).  Although we see a dozen backup dancers in This Is It learning to be copycats, no one moves like him.  On stage he outshines them, though they’re half his age.  After more than forty years in the spotlight, he doesn’t have any new moves (as he did 25 years ago, at the 1983 Motown 25 concert) or any new songs (as he did at his 30th Anniversary concert in 2001).  His act has been around long enough for current performers to count him as an influence—see Usher (born circa Off the Wall), Chris Brown (born circa Bad) et al.  None of that matters.  Now, as the New York Times said then (1984), “In the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else.”

At least, there was Michael Jackson.  Because we know both the backstory and how the story ends, This Is It has accidental emotional hits.  When Michael uses his hands to send little energy pulses to his dancers and stage crew, the genuine, innocent gesture creates empathy for a man twice accused of child molestation.  When he works out the introduction for “The Way You Make Me Feel” with his arranger—slowly, meticulously, until it feels just right—you can’t help but have renewed appreciation for the musical prowess of a man overshadowed by spectacle and sensationalism.  And when at the end of a spectacular, sensational dance routine, frozen in final position, right before the darkness steals him away, Michael smiles… you can’t help but smile with him.

And agree—the show was going to be awesome.  For the This Is It tour, Ortega and Jackson shot elaborate film sequences for “Thriller”, “Smooth Criminal” and other numbers.  These sequences segued into live performances with pyrotechnics, Orwellian screens, and dancers everywhere—dangling in the air, blasted from the stage floor, moving through the audience.  It would have been Jackson’s most expensive—and expansive—show, running through more than JA$1.8 billion and 30 years of music.  Jackson was one of a handful of singers with a catalogue deep enough to pick, choose and refuse between hit songs.

Following the months-long media frenzy surrounding his death, and coinciding with an album release, the film teeters on the edge of exploitation.  Sony, AEG Live and the Jackson estate are all a little bit richer thanks to This Is It.  But then again, having seen Michael’s last moonwalk, so are we.

Film Reviews

Land of the Lost

Land of the Lost used to be an American television series for children, airing for three seasons between 1974 and 1976.  The show featured a park ranger and his two children as they explored a parallel world filled with anachronistic dinosaurs, cavemen, obelisks and time portals.  It is now, according to the immutable laws of Hollywood, a massive motion picture that cost nine billion Jamaican dollars to make (that’s the actual budget), and casts Will Ferrell as the intrepid explorer, Rick Marshall. However, the title could equally well refer to the audiences conned into sitting through this atrocious movie.

A lot of children’s entertainment, including the original Land of the Lost series, is designed around the principle of recreating, or reflecting, the supposedly fantastical, untethered worldview of children themselves.  Hence the talking puppet monsters of Sesame Street, the androgynous playmates on Teletubbies and so on.  Whatever the merits of this approach for kids (a subject open to debate), pitching the same material at adults is insulting.

And Land of the Lost—the movie—is made for grown-ups, albeit grown-ups who haven’t quite grown up.  It aims for the college fraternity humour that currently dominates American film comedies—the province of Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and, naturally, Will Ferrell.  This aesthetic, where men in their twenties and thirties are stuck in a perpetual adolescence, thrives on scatalogical jokes, male bonding with an undercurrent of homophobia, and the misogynistic pairing of pasty, paunchy men with attractive women.

Two men, on either side of the camera, epitomize this trend.  One is Judd Apatow, with a hand in every recent entrant in the genre—writer of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan and Funny People; producer of Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express and a half dozen more.

The other is Will Ferrell, who has marshalled a long list of not-so-funny comedies—Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, Step Brothers and now Land of the Lost.  The Ferrell type remains static—slightly dimwitted, overly masculine, out of shape, untanned, lacking social etiquette, childless, immature and overconfident.  In other words, a suburban teenager, just older.

Ferrell, like fellow alums Sandler, Schneider and Mike Myers, honed his craft on the sketch show Saturday Night Live, whose stock-in-trade is the five-minute skit.  But five minutes, stretched to fill 90 minutes, should only get you one or two movies.  After cashing in with a few easy hits, the comedians struggle to stay fresh and relevant.  Adam Sandler has had mixed success with more serious roles (Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me).  Ferrell’s attempts to escape his persona (Melinda and Melinda, Stranger than Fiction) failed at the box office—thus more tired retreads like Land of the Lost.

In addition to (or perhaps subtraction from) Ferrell, Land of the Lost has Danny McBride as yet another pudgy deadbeat, and Anna Friel as cheesecake (she spends most of her time in pigtails, a tank top and cut-offs).  This one should be deliberately lost in the Universal film archives.

Film Reviews

Law Abiding Citizen

By the time the title flashes on the screen, fractured white letters on a black rectangle, we’ve already witnessed a robbery, an attempted rape and two murders.  Then again, in thrillers like Law Abiding Citizen, unpredictable in thoroughly predictable ways, you expect that kind of trick.  But for the handful of you who still believe in the Easter bunny, let’s make it clear—many, many, many laws are broken in this movie.

Not that the title is inappropriate.  The multiple meanings, pursuit and intent of the law—and those who profess to uphold it—form the cerebral cortex of Law Abiding Citizen (at least, the parts of it where no one gets blown to bits).  Jamie Foxx, as Nick Rice, is a young, handsome, pitch-perfect lawyer with a great conviction rate and an eye on the district attorneyship.  You know he’s good at his job because his suits are impossibly well-tailored and he likes to converse while descending big marble staircases.  Can’t go wrong there.

Gerard Butler plays the victim of most of the crimes in the first paragraph, Clyde Shelton.  Rice settles, on Shelton’s behalf, for one death sentence and one get-out-of-jailbird, enough for his stats but not enough for Shelton.  Thus with the revenge motive firmly in place, the movie transposes into a head-to-head between the two men.

Vengeance, like love, is an inexhaustible font for storytellers.  Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) featured legendary knockabout Charles Bronson as a gunslinger whose brother had been hung.  His relentless pursuit of the murderer righted that wrong, but also represented citizen resistance to corporate greed.  Death Wish (1974) starred (who else?) Bronson as a Manhattan architect whose wife and daughter are raped and killed by street thugs.  His vigilante justice satisfied his personal loss and stood in for the real class anxiety and bourgeois fears in 1970s New York.

Law Abiding Citizen, by contrast, lacks originality, a topical social context, and Charles Bronson, any one of which might have saved the picture.  Shelton’s quest, while entertaining, seems wildly disproportionate to his loss and highly improbable (the script makes him rich just so he has enough money to keep blowing stuff up).  In addition, his system of retribution has the same evils as the marble-encrusted one he despises, killing relative innocents and meting out uneven punishments.

Crucially, in a film rife with transgressions, Law Abiding Citizen adheres to every tired law of Hollywood thrillers—black guy vs white guy (Crimson Tide, Along Came a Spider); criminal mastermind in jail (Silence of the Lambs); races against the clock (Nick of Time, 16 Blocks); car bombs (The Pelican Brief); loved ones in danger (12 Rounds, Die Hard); lots and lots of police vehicles (The Fugitive, Enemy of the State).

Butler is no Bronson, but he delivers a much more energetic performance than Foxx, who merely squints and grimaces his way through the film.  Although Foxx may have been thinking about the mediocrity of Law Abiding Citizen, and how he could recover from it… without breaking any laws of celebrity.

Film Reviews

Surrogates

This is how it usually works in America—little movies have big ideas, and big movies have little ideas.  For little movies with big ideas, think Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (1989) or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) or Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), respectively tackling voyeurism, addiction and memory.  For big movies with little ideas, consider Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve (2002) or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005).

Little movies with big ideas are easy to love, and big movies with little ideas easy to hate.  High art, low art.  Simple.  So when a big movie tackles big ideas, as in The Matrix (1999), Wall-E (2008) and now Surrogates, it’s a little disorienting.

Feeling disoriented is intrinsic to Surrogates, which extrapolates advances in prosthetic limbs, along with our current penchant for creating virtual selves, to a time when everyone navigates the world via humanoid-robot versions of themselves.  Just like the Internet, everyone makes their alter ego more attractive than in reality.  Living vicariously through their beautiful surrogates, people experience the upside of life—like sexual promiscuity—without the nasty downside—like viral diseases.  Fail-safe mechanisms prevent extreme pain—running into a bus, for example—from transmitting to the operator.

The real upshot of surrogacy, however, is that societal evils and violent crimes have all but disappeared (since all the real people are ensconced at home).  No racism, no sexism, no murder.  Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, an FBI agent without much to do until he grabs a rare homicide.  His investigation provides the narrative arc for Surrogates; the emotional arc stems from his ambivalence towards the technology.

The big idea being tossed around (while Greer gets tossed around) reflects that ambivalence.  One of the central tenets of post-industrial societies, and the driving force behind much of the global economy, is that newer, better technology inches us towards a more perfect world.  Apple unveiled newer, better iPods in September, as they did last September, as they will next September.  Email, then instant messaging, then texting, and now Facebook provides newer, better ways to connect with anyone you’ve ever known.  Your computer, if you’re reading this on one, is already obsolete.

All of which is supposed to be unequivocal good news, allowing us to do more while doing less, and work smarter, and other productivity clichés.  You probably have an iPod, and a Facebook account, and a computer.  Surrogates asks, at what cost?  In the film, the cost is clear—without actual contact, people have forgotten, or lost, an essential part of their humanity.

One of the cleverer aspects of Surrogates is how it visually represents that loss by flipping a Hollywood convention.  From its opening frames, the film is filled with extraordinarily fit, beautiful people, the kind of anatomical exceptions American movies are known for.  Except in Surrogates, they’re everywhere, a relentless inundation of plucked eyebrows, chiseled chins and tucked tummies.  You’re so sick of seeing perfect breasts that whenever someone unplugs their surrogate and stands up, their imperfections, their sheer ordinariness—mussed hair, dimpled skin, fatigued faces—becomes stunning.

Of course, plot holes abound, the heroes are white, and things work out in the end.  But for a highly imperfect, ordinary big movie, Surrogates is a little, well, appealing.

Film Reviews

Fame

When Alan Parker directed Fame in 1980, he had already spent twenty years writing ad copy, then television commercials, then directing them, then writing movies, then directing them.  His confidence and experience is evident throughout the musical—in the brevity and playfulness of the opening audition sequence; the way the performance pieces double as character development; the presentation of New York as a city of yellow taxicabs and neon red signs, subway stations and high-rise apartments, artists and con artists.

The remake, three decades on, is still the story of a handful of students at a cutthroat New York performing arts high school, told in five acts—auditions plus four academic years.  Although the characters are reinvented, much remains the same—heartbreak, rejection and fatigue alongside the exhilaration of performance.  But where the original slowly compelled you to accept its motley gang of graduates, this version plays like a collection of music videos—perhaps because the man in charge, Kevin Tancharoen, is so young, he’s barely a man at all.

Tancharoen, now 23, parlayed his teenage talent for choreography into video collaborations with MTV darlings Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jesssica Simpson.  His immersion in the world of video pop landed him—prematurely, it turns out—in the director’s chair for Fame.

The result is adolescent—lots of style with scant substance.  Given his roots, it’s no surprise that the dancing looks incredible, as freshly ripened bodies writhe, spin and jive in synchrony.  Tancharoen places his camera low, so when feet leave the parquet floor, they soar.  And every so often, a moment of slow-motion grants the oldest and sturdiest cinematic pleasure—the human body in flight.

But Tancharoen’s Fame remains empty—his Big Apple has no core of humanity, his high school no ring of authenticity.  The students look less like post-pubescent New Yorkers and more like the cast of High School Musical.  The original, made six years before Tancharoen was born, created a environment where English class makes Leroy hurl his fist through a glass window, where Hilary has an abortion to preserve her ballerina body, and where Coco takes off her clothes because she has no choice.  It was rated R, for realism.

Tancharoen, and scribe Allison Burnett, by contrast, present a sanitized PG-13 world without strong language or strong leads, a launching pad for a franchise to compete with Miley Cyrus.  Fame’s casting of two black actors—Naturi Naughton and Collins Pennie—and two white ones—Kay Panabaker and Asher Book—is all about capturing the widest demographic in Obama’s America.  MGM, the studio behind the remake, has been struggling to revive its properties, relaunching James Bond, the Pink Panther and Rocky Balboa in 2006, Fame this year, and Robocop in 2011.

But in their mad scramble to make money and move on, Tancharoen, Burnett and MGM forgot the whole point of Fame—you have to earn it.  If you have $600, stay at home and buy the original on DVD from Amazon.com.

Film Reviews

Inglourious Basterds

Amongst people who do not know the director of Caged Heat (1974), the music from Across 110th Street (1972), or the length of the final car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)—which is to say, almost everyone— watching a Quentin Tarantino movie is like listening to classical music: pleasant in a vague, try-anything-once sort of way, but mostly a reminder of how ignorant and uncultured you are.

This feeling is perfectly agreeable to film critics, who accumulate this kind of arcane trivia (Jonathan Demme; soul tracks by Bobby Womack; 34 minutes) and so think of themselves as pretty smart.  But the average moviegoer (yes, we think of you as average) just wants to be entertained.

In his first three films, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), everyone wins—theatrical, memorable (and excessively talkative) characters try to stay alive through increasingly hopeless scenarios while every available shot, location, throwaway line and hand prop provides inside references for aficionados of world cinema.

His next two endeavours—the double-volume pan-Asian homage Kill Bill (2003 and 2004) and the double-feature ode to 1970s American B-movies, Grindhouse (2007)—overindulged in intertextual density and underwhelmed the public.

Inglourious Basterds heralds Tarantino’s return to form.  Structured as a series of ‘chapters’ telling interconnected stories (like Pulp Fiction), the film defies easy summary.  However, here goes: during World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, a German film premiere becomes the target of three offensives, by the French, the British and a group of American combatives known as The Basterds.

Every Tarantino picture is a post-modern pastiche, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception.  Civil-rights era American war movies like The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963) and especially The Dirty Dozen (1967) featured eclectic bands of soldiers who overcome internal differences to battle a common—invariably German—enemy.

Inglourious Basterds, which takes its title from a 1978 Italian copycat of The Dirty Dozen, reproduces the dynamic with a group of mostly Jewish-American infantrymen cobbled together by a Southern lieutenant with alleged Amerindian heritage, Aldo Raine (deliciously overplayed by Brad Pitt).  Pitt’s character is brashly, brazenly all-American, in a loose inheritance of similar roles played by older hunks Gregory Peck and Steve McQueen.

As in his other work, Tarantino eschews an original score in favor of repurposed tracks from other, older films, including several musical selections by famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West).

Though epic in scale, budget and execution, Inglourious Basterds retains Tarantino’s trademark rhythm—long stretches of dialogue that explode into moments of extreme violence.  Like any good filmmaker, he keeps making the same movie over and over without repeating himself.  Signature elements clock in regularly—the inclusion of a Mexican standoff (where three or more characters point guns at each other) and the dangerous thrill of a woman’s bare feet—without threatening the integrity of the story.

Tarantino’s relationship with cinema is that of someone towards their spouse of forty years, which is about how long he’s been watching movies.  He can’t help but adore it—wholeheartedly, unrepentingly, and forever—but also knows its shortcomings and shortcuts, its successes and failures.  He knows it, as a friend and as an enemy, exploring its boundaries and possibilities.  Inglourious Basterds is another labour of love (ten years in the making) from a man who wants all of us—even the average ones—to have that feeling.

Film Reviews

I Can Do Bad All By Myself

On September 14, Tyler Perry turned 40—that age when a man starts to look at his life in both directions: back, to see what he has accomplished; and forward, to see what he still can.  Twenty-five years ago, Perry was a high school dropout living in his car.  Now, he’s one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, banking US$75 million since last year.  And it’s all thanks to an old woman named Madea.

Madea is a character Perry developed on the Atlanta urban theatre circuit in the 1990s—played by the man himself under makeup and a body suit—as the embodiment of old-fashioned African American sensibilities.  Madea is a militant matriarch, familiar to poor black communities, where an inescapable web of dangers makes old men a scarce commodity.

Madea’s grandmotherly mish-mash of empathy and empowerment ignited Perry’s drag-to-riches rise—he reprised the character in a string of hit plays, which subsequently sold well on DVD, and were subsequently adapted into a string of hit movies, the eighth of which, Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, opened on Friday.

The content of a Tyler Perry movie is simultaneously all-important and inconsequential.  I Can Do Bad All By Myself stars Tajari P Henson as an alcoholic nightclub singer (is there any other kind?) in a relationship with a married man.  Her sister’s three children, teetering on the edge of delinquency, arrive on her doorstep, newly homeless and parentless.  Thus springs forth all the usual Perry themes, designed explicitly for a non-white audience—the strength of the black church, the unity of the black community, the redemptive power of forgiveness, the binding love of family, and so on.

It’s enough to make the NAACP proud, and make film critics wonder if Walt Disney had an illegitimate son.  The two moguls share an abundance of drive and vision.  Both men built their own movie studios—Disney in California, Perry in Georgia.  Both capitalized on the popularity of a single character—Mickey Mouse and Madea.  And both men, at age 36, catapulted from businessmen to scions based on the success of niche films—Disney with his cel-animated movies for children, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and Perry, with his race-conscious pictures, starting with Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005).

But Perry, with his unique status outside the Hollywood mainstream, his prolific pace of production and his ostentatious dress sense, begs another comparison, to a even older man, relegated to history’s back pages by his black skin—Oscar Micheaux.  In the 1920s, Micheaux, a novelist, saw that black American audiences were underserved.  And, like Perry, he saw an opportunity.

Segregation had forced the creation of hundreds of movie theatres exclusively for blacks.  Micheaux, with money procured through ingenuity, perseverance and wearing one’s best suits, started churning out pictures with subjects that anticipated Tyler Perry’s oeuvre by 80 years: Within Our Gates (1920), When Men Betray (1928), Wages of Sin (1929).  Michauex gave work to underemployed Hollywood actors and newcomers (like leading man Paul Robeson), a sympathy shared by Perry (I Can Do Bad All By Myself gives major supporting roles to Brian White and Adam Rodriguez).

Micheaux’s films are unremembered—perhaps, given their quality, rightly so—but his legacy gave us independent black filmmakers like Melvin van Peebles (in the 1970s), Robert Townsend (1980s), Spike Lee (1990s), and now Tyler Perry.  So while Perry’s output—like I Can Do Bad All By Myself—may be mediocre, with luck he can look forward to the paradoxical honour of being forgotten, but not forsaken.

Film Reviews

Julie & Julia

Today, we’re going to learn how to make a successful Nora Ephron movie.

First, you will need to find, adapt or invent two people who are superficially opposites, and separated by a difficult-to-overcome barrier—attitudes (on relationships, When Harry Met Sally, 1989) or distance (a continental delta, Sleepless in Seattle, 1993) or a medium (the Internet, You’ve Got Mail, 1998) or time (fifty years in her new film, Julie & Julia).

Second, you must keep your characters apart, ensuring they meet infrequently (every five years in When Harry Met Sally), accidentally (at the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle), unknowingly (on the street in You’ve Got Mail) or, in the case of Julie & Julia, never.

Third, having set the odds massively against them, you carefully blend their stories and let it sit for two hours, finding the spiritual essence that binds them together—deep affection (When Harry Met Sally), a hole in the heart (Sleepless in Seattle) or a shared passion (for reading in You’ve Got Mail; for cooking in Julie & Julia).

Voila!  Your very own romantic dramedy, just like Julie & Julia, the interwoven lives of Julia Child, real-life American diplomat’s wife who became famous for her French cookbooks, and Julie Powell, struggling New York City writer who gained a cult following by spending a year cooking her way through all 527 recipes in Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Ephron’s movies, though insightful in a pop-psychology kind of way, are never particularly complicated.  Julie & Julia are both married to doting husbands ordinary enough to consider themselves lucky.  They are both searching for purpose in worlds which make them feel lost—post-WWII Paris for Julia, and post-9/11 New York for Julie.  Julia doesn’t understand a word anyone around her says, and an early restaurant scene with Julie’s yuppie friends tells us she doesn’t, either.

Within these similar but disparate contexts, the two women discover the joys and heartaches of cooking (while the husbands discover heartburn).  Important tip: Using better ingredients improves the recipe.  Whether an Ephron film works usually depends on its co-stars.  In the aforementioned hits, Meg Ryan was, to paraphrase Julia Child, the butter to Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks’s bread.  Bewitched (2005) failed partly because Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell lacked chemistry.

In Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are like a Cabernet Sauvignon and camembert cheese—distinct tastes that grow well together.  It’s impossible to go over-the-top playing Julia Child, so Streep’s affectations, which sometimes grate in other roles, work here.  She also has the freedom (like peers Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman) of a guaranteed audience bloc—the patrons at Palace Cineplex were middle-aged or older.

More weight rests on Amy Adams, scrabbling out of the gutter of television sitcoms and cable dramas (The Office, That 70s Show, Smallville, Charmed), aspiring to the A-list apex of crossovers Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney.  Her turn as Julie Powell is competent, but nothing to write a homepage about.  However, her listless yet histrionic blogger is the right foil for Streep’s bubbly but bourgeois housewife.

With any culinary exercise, the last step is always, of course, to consume the dish.  Julie & Julia, without being subtle or aiming for jouissance, leaves a rich, dreamy aftertaste.

Film Reviews

The Time Traveler's Wife

It may have taken NASA until 1969 to put men on the moon, but moviegoers had been travelling there since 1902, thanks to Georges Melies’ Le Voyage dans la Lune.  To modern eyes, the footage looks like cardboard and plaster, but contemporary audiences sat in rapture, enthralled by its otherworldliness.  Most of us cannot afford to leave Jamaica’s shores, but for six hundred dollars, we can travel around the world (this week’s destinations include Venezuela (Up) and South Africa (District 9)).

The tricks of the camera and the soundstage have always fascinated us, and so the people who make movies have always strived for new ways to fascinate—remember The Matrix (1999)?  But in an age of ubiquitous special effects, where hundred-million-dollar budgets are a dime a dozen, and the Internet makes us all explorers, mere spectacle is not enough.

Thus The Time Traveler’s Wife, while indulging in one of cinema’s oldest tricks—making people vanish—recognizes it must also tell a good story.  Clare Abshire (played by Brooklyn Proulx and Rachel McAdams, bewitching as always) grew up as many little girls do, dreaming of the man—tall, strong and handsome—who would appear one day.  In Clare’s case, however, those days are many, since her husband, Henry, who can travel through time, keeps appearing and disappearing.

The film slowly opens the possibilities of its central gimmick.  Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana, the most striking librarian in the history shelves) can’t control his transcendent transportation, leading to moments opportune—escaping a car crash—and not so opportune—getting to the church in time becomes a double entendre.

The Time Traveler’s Wife raises as many questions as it settles, with Clare telling Henry about memories he has yet to experience.  It doesn’t explain why Henry, though altering timelines, never seems to change them.  And it never tells us how or why he is able to blast from the past back to the future and home again.

But the grey matter doesn’t matter, because The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t about the time traveller—it’s about his wife, and by extension, about all American wives (and if Jamaican women can find points of connection, that’s an unintended bonus).  The film stays with Clare even when her husband does not, showing her eating alone at a table set for two, and lying alone in their king-size bed, and waiting, too often, for too long, for her husband to come home.

In this way, The Time Traveler’s Wife provides a commentary on the modern middle-class marriage, with two careers and two cars and one too many evenings spent at the office.  Even by our relatively equal standards, men usually earn more than their wives, and spend more time doing so, leaving women feeling as if their husbands are unintentional time travellers, subject to the arbitrary dictates of the company and the stock price.

Hollywood will always take us to long-gone ages and faraway places, but The Time Traveler’s Wife serves as a timely reminder that its greatest power lies in stories of the here and now.