Monday, November 7, 2011

REVIEW: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011). Dir: Todd Strauss-Schulson. Starring Kal Penn, John Cho and  Neil Patrick Harris. IMDB.

First of all I can't believe it's been over a month since I've been to the movies. How lame is that? Anyway I broke out of my slump for my boys Harold and Kumar, back with another drug-fueled romp.

This outing finds the boys all grown up and faced with adult responsibilities. Harold is married to the beautiful Maria and living in the suburbs. But he doesn't quite get along with Maria's extended, colorful clan, and he must find the perfect Christmas tree for the family by the time they all get home from midnight Mass. Meanwhile Kumar, estranged from his old buddy, has grown fat and lazy and bearded and lives in marijuana-scented squalor when he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. But a Christmas miracle brings them back together.

The movie is very funny, full of the graphic sexual and drug references you're used to if you've seen their other movies. And if you enjoyed the two previous Harold & Kumar films, you'll enjoy this one, too. All the regular characters are back and Neil Patrick Harris is particularly hilarious poking fun at himself and his public persona. There are lots of in-jokes and the movie makes great use of 3D technology- better, frankly, than any other 3D film I've seen. And of course everything turns out OK in the end.

Rating: RUSH

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

REVIEW: The Hedgehog (2011)

The Hedgehog (2011). Original title: Le hérisson. Dir: Mona Achache. Starring: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic and Togo Igawa. IMDB. In French with English subtitles.

Now is the time on Marie's Movie's when I gush.

Okay, so Muriel Barbery's book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, of which this movie is a very faithful adaptation, was one of my very favorite books when I first read it back in 2009. It's been a while since then, so I don't remember all the details or how exactly the movie stacks up on this or that particular from the book. What I will say is, I loved this movie, and if you loved the book, run- don't walk- to the theater near you.

If you haven't read the book, here's what to expect. In the present day, a precocious little girl named Paloma lives in a posh Paris apartment building with her family; she feels isolated in a dysfunctional family and befriends Madame Michel, the building's concierge. Madame Michel is isolated too. A widow, she lives alone with her cat and her books and she lets the building's residents regard her as invisible. Then, one day, a handsome Japanese widower moves in and the strangest thing happens. He and Madame Michel become friends.

I loved this movie. Director Mona Achache adapted the story beautifully for the screen. The book is very talky, full of long internal monologues and asides; not a lot actually happens. In the movie, Achache dramatizes the monologues by giving Paloma a camera with which to film her family all the while commenting on their foibles and faults, and by giving Madame Michel a friend and a cat. (I think she may have had these in the book, too.) I worried about how a filmmaker could translate the talkiness of the book and keep the movie interesting; Achache does a great job. And the movie follows the main plot points of the book; if you've read the book you know what happens. The actors are terrific and the movie is just a joy to watch.

So yeah. Go see it. It's great!

You can find a schedule of US showings at NeoClassics Films.

Rating: RUSH

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

REVIEW: The Debt (2010)

The Debt (2010). Dir: John Madden. Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson. IMDB.

So, my friend and I went out the other night hoping to see the new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011), but it was sold out so we settled for The Debt, a ho-hum thriller about a trio of Mossad agents who botched a very important job in 1960s East Berlin and have been living a lie ever since.

The trio- Rachel, Stephan and David- are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds in the present tense, and Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington in the past. They are thrown together in post-war East Berlin and charged with rounding up a Nazi doctor so that he can stand trial in Israel. Things don't go as planned but they decide to cover up their failure and live out their lives as heroes. David, though, has a crisis of conscience, and things fall apart from there.

I like thrillers, and I basically enjoyed this movie. Mirren and Chastain were both great; the guys were sort of lackluster although Hinds can do no wrong in my book. The film sets up a tepid love triangle where Rachel is sleeping with one of her associates while in love with the other but neither of the younger male actors are really up to being romantic leads and the chemistry goes nowhere. On the other hand, I loved every scene Mirren shared with Hinds; the movie could have been greatly improved with lots more Ciarán. Jesper Christensen, who played the Nazi doctor, stole every scene he was in.

So, it was just kind of okay for me. Entertaining, yes, but I'd rent rather than see this one in the theater if I were you.

The lesson? Never underestimate the appeal of the Yiddish Mark Twain, and buy tickets in advance.

Rating: RENT

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

REVIEW: Mysteries of Lisbon (2011)

Mysteries of Lisbon (2011). Original title: Mistérios de Lisboa. Dir: Raoul Ruiz. Starring: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira. IMDB. In Portuguese and French with English subtitles.

Based on a 19th century novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon starts with the story of a little boy, Joao, "just Joao," an orphan living at a Portuguese Catholic boys' school run by the kindly Father Dinis. Very quickly, we learn that his mother has abandoned him after having him out of wedlock, and that she is a virtual prisoner of her husband.  Soon we learn the mother's backstory in detail- her family, the pressure on her to marry, how she had to forsake love for economic security and how her son came to live at Father Dinis's school. We also learn the complicated backstory and multiple identities of Father Dinis as well as those of many other characters, until the movie becomes a sort of Portuguese La Ronde (1950), a complex web of interlocking stories of love and betrayal.

There are some things to like about Mysteries of Lisbon. The movie looks great; set amongst the nobility of Portugal, France and Italy, we are treated to set after beautiful set, party scenes with beautiful clothes and stately homes. Some of the characters' stories are very interesting, especially Father Dinis, who figures prominently in the lives of many characters, even if not all of them realize it. There are moments of comic brilliance, some of which may even be intentional, although I suspect more of them are not. When Father Dinis receives a very special gift from his father, I wanted to laugh out loud even though that may not have been the director's intention. But it was still hilarious.

However, what killed the movie for me was that it was just too darn long. The thing clocks in at over four hours; at the screening I attended, many audience members simply did not come back from the intermission and I can't say I blame them. The stories also have a certain repetitive quality to them. Frustrated, socially-inappropriate love seems to be a common theme and after a while- well, I get it. Man loves woman, there's an obstacle, etc. And there is just so much talking. Very little actually happens in the way of a plot; it's just one vignette after another of endless backstory, until finally, at long last, we circle back around to Joao and it's time to leave the theater. It was more an endurance test at times than anything else.

It's hard to know who to recommend this movie to. Die-hard art-house fans or fans of Portuguese cinema? Maybe. I don't know. Maybe a version half as long, with half as many characters, would be okay. I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did.

You can view the film's trailer here.

Music Box Films is running a Win a Trip to Portugal contest in conjunction with the film. Click here to enter.

Rating: RENT

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I received free tickets to the screening from Music Box Films in exchange for my review.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

REVIEW: Sarah's Key (2011)

Sarah's Key (2011). Original Title: Elle s'appellait Sarah. Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance and Niels Arestrup. In French and English with English subtitles.

I was not a fan of Tatiana de Rosnay's 2008 novel of the same name on which this movie was based.  Or, rather, I was half a fan. The novel, like the movie, intercut the stories of Sarah Starzinsky, a French Jewish girl captured in the 1942 Vel d'Hiv roundup, with that of Julia Jarmond, a modern-day American journalist living in Paris. Julia stumbles on to Sarah's story when she's researching the Vel d'Hiv and realizes that her husband's family occupies an apartment once belonging to Sarah and her family. I loved Sarah's story and the tight, literary way de Rosnay told it; I disliked Julia and the chattier, chick-lit style of her sections. I approached the movie with trepidation, but I was curious to see what the filmmakers would do with it. And I love Kristin Scott-Thomas.

So I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed the movie. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner serves up a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, complete with almost all the same maudlin, manipulative twists the book takes, but somehow it just doesn't seem as annoying on the screen. I give Scott-Thomas a lot of the credit for making Julia significantly more likeable and sympathetic. There was some judicious editing of her character as well- there's less of the novel's Julia's problems with her boss, her family and the French in general, and less complaining generally. And the little girl who played Sarah, Mélusine Mayance, was wonderful- tough and cheeky but vulnerable too, her sequences were the best in the movie, just like they were in the book.

I had a couple of issues with the movie, but they are minor. The roundup itself of French Jews takes place right at the beginning of the movie and is presented without any context or backstory; there's no sense of a bigger picture. I didn't feel the trauma of it the way I did in the very good La Rafle, a nonfictional account of the Vel d'Hiv roundup. I recommend you see that very good film for a fuller depiction of the roundup. Aidan Quinn was risible as Sarah's adult son, with perhaps one of the worst French accents I've heard. We could have done without him. I mentioned how faithful Paquet-Brenner is to the book's maudlin twists. I think I said at the time I read the book how Hollywood-ready those were and Paquet-Brenner proved me right.

Overall I thought Sarah's Key was a fine art-house film, not outstanding or anything but fine, especially if you enjoyed the book. If you didn't, or if you haven't read the book, look around your area for screenings of La Rafle. It's a better movie and it's a true story, too.

Rating: RENT

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

REVIEW: The Round Up (2010)

The Round Up (2011). Original Title: La Rafle (original release: 2010). Dir: Rose Bosch. Starring Jean Reno, Mélanie Laurent, Gad Elmalah. IMDB. In French with English subtitles.

The Round Up (2011) isn't Sarah's Key, the film adaptation of which is about to be released, but a nonfictional account of the same event in French World War 2 history- the roundup of French Jews to the Vélodrôme d'Hiver stadium (or Vel d'Hiv for short), and from there to Auschwitz. The film starts before the roundup, introducing us to several French Jewish families from different strata of society- rich, poor and middle class, with special attention paid to their children. We watch their daily lives and the gradual dissipation of their freedom before the roundup. When the roundup happens, it's harrowing and deeply frightening, but that's nothing compared to what's to come.
The kids and their families depart the Vel d'Hiv for parts unknown.
The story really belongs to three characters. Dr. David Scheinbaum, played by Jean Reno, does his best to take care of his thousands of patients living in deplorable conditions in the Vel d'Hiv stadium; assisting him to the best of her ability is a Protestant nurse, Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent); she stays with the captives right to the last minute, advocating for their care and bearing raging witness to their plight. Finally, the story belongs to little Jo Weismann, a bright scamp of a kid who does the unthinkable- he survives. (The real, elderly Weismann has a small part in the film.)
Nurse Monod looks on as Nazi officers move the families.
The Round Up is an incredible movie and I strongly encourage everyone to watch it or add it to your DVD queue if it's not playing in your area. If you read my book blog you know I wasn't crazy about Sarah's Key the novel (although I'm curious about the film and plan to see it) and really, movies like The Round Up make me wonder if we need fiction about the Holocaust at all. Sometimes, peoples' real stories are more dramatic and moving- and important- than fiction could ever be.  I would particularly urge anyone who's read Sarah's Key to see this movie alongside the adaptation of that popular novel. The actors are amazing and The Round Up, profoundly affecting and disturbing, horrible and hopeful, is, in short, essential viewing.

Rating: RUSH

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FTC Disclosure: I received complimentary tickets from Menemsha Films in exchange for a review.

Friday, July 15, 2011

REVIEW: Before Sunset (2004)

Before Sunset (2004). Dir: Richard Linklater. Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. IMDB.

Jesse and Celine met nine years before the film begins, spending a wonderful and memorable night together wandering the streets of Vienna; this evening comprised the film Before Sunrise (1995), of which Before Sunset is the sequel. Then, they had a whole night to talk and get to know each other, and they promised to stay in touch. Nine years later, Jesse in Paris on book tour for the novel he wrote about the time they shared and they have what feels like mere moments to reconnect before he has to catch a flight home.

First of all I have to say Before Sunrise is one of my all-time favorite movies; sweet and romantic, it's a lovely and true portrayal of two people who meet by chance and forge a beautiful connection. Sometimes traveling feels like being disconnected from the world and it's possible to make luminous, meaningful friendships with people one meets for a day- and never forgets, and Before Sunrise felt very real to me. Before Sunset, as much as I loved it, felt a little more forced, but it's still beautiful.

Jesse and Céline wander the streets, go to a café and finally back to Céline's apartment, and they talk. They catch up, they unwind their secrets, their triumphs and their shames. Their relationship reminds me of the kind of friends that come in and out of your life but never really leave it, the kind of true love divorced from the rest of your life that depends as much on fantasy as reality. It's one of those movies that just sweeps me up in its charm every time.

Rating: RUSH