playing catch-up

I missed a lot of movies in 2009 and I’m playing catch-up. Here are some worth seeing:

Milky brought this one over; I’d wanted to see it, but he got it first. This is perhaps one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. Written and directed by Duncan Jones, it tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, Choke) an astronaut who works for Lunar Corp, managing their mining operations on the lunar surface. It of course recalls 2001 but also the ’70s cult classic Silent Running, because he is alone with his robot Gerty on the barren moon. The movie has a fantastic tone of solitude and agoraphobia; Sam has a 3 year contract, but seems to be going a little stir crazy. He starts seeing things; or does he? Is the man on the moon not alone? It’s a great story, and I won’t spoil it for you. This one’s a winner, and Rockwell deserves a nomination for his role. Milky and I both give it:

5 bare-assed moons out of 5.

Julie & Julia
Nora Ephron is hit or miss with me; I loved When Harry Met Sally… but much of her recent work has felt formulaic, so I skipped Julie & Julia in theaters last year when reviews felt that one half of the film was lackluster. And it is, but only compared to the other half. As a whole, the film is quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel 2 hours long. As a food blogger, I should have given this movie more respect. Amy Adams plays the food blogger, who decides to cook every recipe in Julia’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking to bring some meaning to her life. She works for the 9/11 recovery office, and feels helpless as she tries to assist people whose lives were thrown asunder by the attacks. Thankfully, the story is intertwined with Julia Child’s life in France, where after working as a file clerk for the O.S.S. in WW2, she feels empty returning to home life. But she loves French cooking, so she learns how to cook- a decidedly male profession at the time- and then decides she has to introduce America to it. We know her story is a success, but the script manages to convey just how unlikely that was.

Much has been said of Streep’s excellent portrayal, which goes beyond impersonation and makes a lively character of the younger Julia Child based on her memoirs. She says things we would never expect, comparing a hot cannelloni to a stiff cock. (Remind me to read her memoirs –ed.) Stanley Tucci is also perfect as her loving and supportive husband, showing the man’s true range- he’s getting a lot of respect for playing a twisted murderer in The Lovely Bones, but this role shouldn’t be overlooked. Contrast him with Julie’s husband, who seems to be suffering her obsession with cooking. What the film lacks is a love of food, and a bit too much time spent on the mundane and self-absorbed act of blogging. It might be fun to read, but if you watched me type this stuff or fiddle with layouts, you’d rather watch paint dry; and we’re subjected to too much of it, even if it’s only a little. Amy Adams does what she can with the Julie character, but there’s not enough there; it was brave, positioning herself across from Meryl Streep, but unfortunately, she’s not ready yet. If this had been all about Julia Child, it could have been fantastic.

3.5 slabs of butter out of 5

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Andersen does it again. I’m not his biggest fan, but I admire his work, and he makes a wonderful story for both children and adults here. As much as I liked Where the Wild Things Are (full review) I think this is even better. It’s not as wacky as a Wallace & Gromit cartoon, but the stop-motion fuzzy figures are easily as emotive and endearing. And the story works for kids and adults, generating chuckles and grins from all directions, without trying too hard. I had a blast, and Firecracker did too. Like Andersen’s live action films, every moment has little details, the characters all have their little motivations and issues, but it’s all kept lively and fun.

5 Fox Force 5’s out of 5.

Sherlock Holmes
I had reservations about Guy Ritchie turning the world’s most famous detective into an action hero, but if you put expectations aside, this is a blast. Sure, it’s more like Young Sherlock Holmes– complete with cultists operating in the middle of London- but it grabs you early on, introducing Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes the bare-knuckle pugilist. He’s excellent as usual, toning down his twitchy mannerisms and slipping into Sherlock’s pipe and muttonchops with ease. Jude Law is Watson, Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) has a delightful role as the harried police chief who needs the duo’s deductive powers, and the plot- revolving around an Aleister Crowley-esque magician with plans for Parliament- has twists and turns, but in the end, unravels to rational deduction, as it should. The weak spot is Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who just doesn’t seem wily enough to be the only person to outwit Holmes. There’s plenty of good fun with set pieces in a shipyard, and a hulking giant that the duo bests with cattle prods and ju jitsu. Looking forward to the inevitable sequel, hoping someone says “no shit, Sherlock.”

4 deductions out of 5

A Single Man
Saw this with Firecracker because it is a rare starring role for Colin Firth in a film of substance, when he’s languished a bit lately. Set in the early ’60s, he plays a British college professor in California, suffering the loss of his lover of 16 years. During a time of red-baiting and nuclear paranoia, he contemplates suicide after losing the love of his life, because nothing else seems to matter. He sees minute details, like his students’ eyes glazing over; he feels like he is drowning, in a repetitive art-house sequence where he flails underwater naked in a back-lit swimming pool. Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, the film looks beautiful, with stunning sets and some spectacular shots, making 1963 feel even more real and alive than a “Mad Men” episode. However, the story lacks focus and the film rests on the shoulders of Firth’s excellent performance. When a recognizable actor disappears into a role without extensive make-up, it is worthy of note. Also memorable is Julianne Moore as his friend Charlie, looking a bit haggard but also building a fully fleshed character with motives of her own. I felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out, perhaps cautionary, but it’s an enjoyable if morose character study of an invisible man suffering the loss of a love that at the time, still dared not speak its name. Expect an Oscar nom for Firth.

3.5 Calvin Klein commercials out of 5

The Last Legion

Happy birthday Firecracker… here’s some hot Colin Firth for ya. And swashbucklin’ babes for me.
This sword and sandal epic released in the shadow of 300 took a serious beating from the critics and those who saw it in theaters. I decided to give it a try anyway when it was on cable in HD, thinking that like other berated B-level action films such as Eragon and Doomsday it might serve as good viewing from the comfort of my couch, rather than taking $12 out of my pocket.
The story echoes The 13th Warrior, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and better movies like Gladiator and Excalibur. It begins in Rome, 460 A.D., when the city’s might has fallen and it must deal with Goths to the north and Constantinople, the new seat of the empire. Young Romulus is the last of the line and is about to be crowned Caesar, when the Goths break treaty and invade. Aurelius (Colin Firth) is the young boy’s commander of the guard, and when the boy and his greybearded teacher Ambrosinus are exiled to Capri, he must rescue them. Luckily he still has a few good men and an ambassador from Constantinople with a kick-ass lady warrior bodyguard to help.
Ambrosinus is played by Ben Kingsley in his best impression of what he’d have done if Ian McKellen was too busy to play Gandalf, with parlor tricks, platitudes and a crooked staff for ass-whuppin’ when all else fails. It was touch keeping the supernatural ambiguous. The Goths are led by the conqueror Odoacer with his over-ambitious and bloodthirsty henchman Wulfila, a scenery-chewing villain sent to guard the boy. Colin Firth is decent as the Roman commander- he may be Mr. Darcy, but he’s still convincing as a warrior a bit long in the tooth, much like the empire he represents. If anything rings untrue, it’s his dispassion when faced with swordswoman Mira, played by Bollywood hottie Aishwarya Rai.

After an exciting rescue from the island fortress, with plenty of weaponry for us history and RPG nerds like proper gladiuses, falcatas, huge fuck-off Viking axes, a spring-bladed push dagger that Aishwarya must have brought from India, foot-pulled crossbows for launching grappling spikes, and siege engines I think were meant to be scorpions, or multiple-firing crossbows. Our heroes are a motley band- the young guy, the big black guy (Nonso Anonzie from Atonement, RockNRolla), the woman warrior, the old man, and the kid. Unfortunately it loses steam shortly after the rescue, when the backstory emerges.
The young Caesar, egged on by Ambrosinus, searches the fortress of his exile and finds a room enshrining a bejewelled sword, inscribed with prophecies. And if we’re unsure as to what it is, all mystery is removed when he chops a bed in half with it. This is an Excalibur story, and for that to work they must travel to Britannia. They do so with a few Lord of the Rings-inspired walks over mountain passes, with Wulfila not far behind. In Britain they hope to find the legendary Ninth Legion, believed lost. Of course they find them, now farmers, and the land is under siege by another tyrant named Vortgyn, whom they must fight. He wears a gold mask like Mordred in Excalibur, and tried to the sword from Ambrosinus decades ago, and wants it back. Confusing? Yes.

Directed by a veteran of the Hercules and Xena series, it certainly lacks that certain finish necessary for the big screen, but on TV it looks like a great made for TV movie. The fight choreography looks great for fifteen years ago, but we’ve seen it so many times before. It’s obviously not the director’s forte, but he manages to keep the movie flowing at a good pace and it never takes itself too seriously. The score is a little too bombastic at times, and Kingsley’s Gandalfesque “wizard” does spout wisdom that isn’t as wise as he thinks it is. The battle scenes have been criticized but they were decent- I really liked how they made Ambrosinus look like a wizard hurling fireballs, when he was just standing on the parapet in front of the catapults. It was a neat trick to pull on the invading Goths.

My biggest complaint is that it was cut to be PG-13 for U.S. audiences, and painfully obvious about it. Every time a spear hits someone, we cut away, and then see their death scene. In one of my favorite fights, Wulfila gets a scar from Aurelius using his own axe on him, but we cut away. A leader cuts off a disobedient soldier’s finger, and in the uncut version Ambrosinus’s pet crow makes a snack of it. But all that is cut. I’m tempted to throw it in my Netflix queue and see if the deleted scenes are available. The other failing is the CG- when used, it is used badly. The fireballs look fake, and what should be a spectacle at the end looks like a videogame cutscene. But this is not bad viewing if you want a light adventure movie. It’s a cute origin story for King Arthur’s Dad Uther Pendragon, and fun to watch.