For better or for worse — mostly better — Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke may best be remembered for their romantically euphoric trilogy in collaboration with wunderkind Generation X auteur Richard Linklater. Each of Linklater's “Before” films — about a developing romance between a talkative American writer and a hyper-articulate Frenchwoman — has improved on its predecessor — and that's saying something. Fireworks of authentic stream-of-consciousness dialogue, spikes of emotion, and the madness of love reach a crescendo of palpable joie de vivre in “Before Midnight.” Audiences can't help but admire this bold expression of intellectually and erotically charged connection between two undeniably attracted souls.
The first collaboration “Before Sunrise” (1995) introduced romantically inclined couple Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) travelling on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Sparks of curiosity and lust ignited to the strains of Vivaldi, Straus, and Kate Bloom. “Before Sunset” (2004) found the lovers reuniting for a one-night-stand of sorts in Paris where Jesse — a successful author inspired by the events in the first film — reads from his latest book. Things got complicated.
Now, nearly two decades since they first met, the couple lives together in France with their twin daughters. The film begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece where they have spent the past six weeks sharing the exotic home of a fellow author and his family. Jesse sees his son off at the airport, destined to return to Jesse’s ex-wife. [Celine can't stand the thought of the woman.] Hawke is a caring but awkward father who worries that his 12-year-old boy didn’t have enough fun during their time spent bonding together in the Mediterranean paradise. The naturalistic scene sets the film’s neo-realistic tone. We are hooked.
A real-time conversation plays out between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their host’s house while the girls sleep in the back seat. They discuss the long-term effect on the girls of their decision to pass up a promised sightseeing stop at a natural landmark. The seemingly impromptu conversation hits a staggering number of relationship reference points that draw the audience inside their casually intimate style of communicating. No topic is off limits. Politics, sex, religion, literature, and economic realities all come percolating to the surface. It's clear that Linklater and his two actors spent much time together crafting and polishing the personalized script. The dialogue shimmers.
A farewell dinner with their hosts gives way to a gifted night at a resort hotel that promises the couple some welcome alone time. However, Celine’s possible bipolar disorder crashes the party late in the game, causing Jesse to reach deep into his pocket of tricks to bring Celine around to a romantic reality built as much on fantasy as on a unifying method for achieving harmony in the relationship. “Before Midnight” feels like two intimate weeks spent with Jesse and Celine, compressed inside a 108-minute movie. A higher compliment, I cannot imagine. Bravo.
Rated R. 108 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Silver Linings Playbook
Spinning pap from mental illness, “Sliver Linings Playbook” is more entertaining than it should be. It is still a mediocre movie. That it arrives at the same time as Jacques Audiard’s brilliant convention-breaking romantic drama “Rust and Bone,” bares the gulf that exists between Hollywood’s kneejerk watered-down formulations and a truly gutsy approach to weighty subject matter.
Director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) is slumming it here. His direction is indefensibly glib in tone. It’s disheartening to watch such trivialized material coming from the same visionary filmmaker who made his name on “Spanking the Monkey,” a groundbreaking independent movie about incest. Perhaps Russell is merely taking a paycheck so he can make a real movie the next time around. Only time will tell.
There isn’t a single role that’s appropriately cast. Bradley Cooper’s highly technical acting style is at diametric odds with his flawed character Pat, a manic-depressive presently released from an extended stint in a mental hospital after attacking the man he discovered sleeping with his wife to the strains of a Stevie Wonder song. Coincidentally, the song was the same tune Pat and his wife danced to at their wedding. Oh the maddening irony. Pat’s violent response to catching his wife committing adultery is the kind of response that used to be considered appropriate behavior the world over. Evidently, Americans are no longer allowed to go ballistic when they discover their spouse in flagrante delicto, lest they be shipped off to the funny farm. The narrative soaks in this kind of soporific thematic message. I suppose it isn’t enough that most public water supply systems in America contain the equivalent of a dose of Prozac per single-glass portion. Hollywood wants to give you an antidepressant dose to boot.
Back at home with his parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), Pat takes up a compulsive reading habit when he isn’t going for long daily running sessions. Pat desperately wants to reconnect with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Never mind that she has a restraining order against him. He’s so intent on reinventing his expired marriage that Pat is oblivious to the romantic opportunity that stands in front of him.
Pat’s damaged-goods neighbor Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is also a manic-depressive. Like Pat, Tiffany knows her way around every psychotropic drug known to modern medicine. If anything, Lawrence is even more miscast than Cooper. The worst thing you could say about her ostensibly mentally scarred character, is that Tiffany suffers from an excess of hotness. Her greatest transgression was to sleep with every co-worker at her last job. Like I said, hot.
The fact that Tiffany is a crucifix-wearing believer signals the audience not to judge her too harshly. Blame the script, the direction, and the actress. There’s nothing messy or unpredictable — read authentic — about Lawrence’s portrayal. Without putting too fine a point on it, Marion Cotillard would have been a far more appropriate choice for the role — reference her vulnerable performance in “Rust and Bone.” Kristen Stewart or Amy Adams would also have worked better in the role.
I get it. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a Hollywood romantic comedy made to mask the horrific downside of mental illness while still giving the audience a little sense of superiority as they walk out of the cinema. We’re not supposed to be allowed inside these characters. They are comic constructions. To that end, “Silver Linings Playbook” satirizes where it pretends to examine. As a genre exercise, the film wears its convictions on its disposable sleeve. Crazy people belong together. With any luck, they are all as bright and attractive as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. If not, you’ll just have to watch the movie again.
Rated R. 120 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Frances Ha — NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2012
Noah Baumbach takes over Woody Allen’s status as New York’s representative auteur of quirky romantic comedy. As with last year’s magnificent neo-silent film “The Artist,” “Frances Ha” demonstrates how a black-and-white treatment can invoke a nostalgic mood. Written in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, it’s the kind of movie that inspires artists of various disciplines to keep pursuing their dreams, regardless of the odds stacked against them in a collapsing America.
Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old dancer dubbed “undateable” by her closest male friend. She’s more comfortable shacking up in Brooklyn with her lifelong best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) than pursuing a romantic connection with the opposite sex. She’s just too awkward. Frances and Sophie are “like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” So it goes, until Sophie suddenly announces she is moving out to live in Manhattan’s tony Tribeca section with someone else. The split serves as an awkward wake-up call for Frances to put up or shut up about her dream to become a primary dancer in the dance troop where she understudies. She also wants to choreograph her own dances. But it takes kicking around on many floors, and sofas, before Frances can settle into her own uncomfortable skin. Rich with an organic sense of self-reflexive humor that only periodically calls too much attention to itself — the “undateable” line feels like a worn-out inside joke — “Frances Ha” is a comedy of many layers. Greta Gerwig may yet shed her Mumblecore branding once and for all.
Not Rated. 86 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A foggy malaise of midlife crisis falls over suburban West Orange, New Jersey via a lusty connection between Hugh Laurie’s vacillating patriarch David Walling and his best friend’s daughter Nina (Leighton Meester). Apart from the guilty pleasure of watching Hugh Laurie act out a male fantasy scenario of being seduced away from his character’s stale marriage by a twentysomething woman, “The Oranges” lacks wit, intelligence, and narrative command. Television director Julian Farino makes his feature debut with a script that would have faired better with a small screen treatment.
The wobbly story plays a shell game of guess-the-protagonist. David and his across-the-street neighbor Terry (Oliver Platt) have enjoyed years of ritualized camaraderie that includes regular holiday celebrations at one another’s homes. David’s frumpy daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat) gets voice-over narration duties to tell of her broken friendship with Nina, who moves back home with mom (Allison Janney) and dad after losing faith in the hipster dude she thought she was going to marry.
Catherine Keener is burdened with the thankless task of playing David’s wife Paige, who abandons her family home to ring up an enormous bill at a bed-and-breakfast hotel that she rents out in its entirety.
Screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss paint their unlikeable characters into a corner. Against all logic David chooses to pursue his relationship with Nina to its inevitable dead end. Barely a spark of humor ever pops in this would-be romantic comedy with nowhere to go.
Rated R. 92 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
VIDEO ESSAYS: FINDING NEMO 3D — LIBERAL ARTS — ARBITRAGE — CLASSIC - THE BAD NEWS BEARS
Writer-director-actor Josh Radnor follows up his debut feature (“Happythankyoumoreplease”) with a compact romantic comedy that almost works, but not quite. Radnor does his best John Krasinski impersonation as Jesse, a 36-year-old example of stunted adulthood — by way of a liberal arts education that has kept him in the hallowed halls of academia. Coming off a break-up with his girlfriend, Jesse muddles through his days working as a college admissions councilor in Manhattan.
Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse’s “second-favorite” teacher at his alma mater — Ohio’s Kenyon College — extends an invitation for Jesse to speak at his retirement dinner. Hoberg has picked his own expiration date, but is not completely sold on his own idea to leave behind his comfy existence as a tenured professor.
Jesse’s visit to his collegiate stamping grounds introduces him to 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a cute liberal arts major with a daddy complex. Olsen’s estrogen–simmering performance dominates the movie. That’s a good thing. Elizabeth, the younger sister to the famously overrated “Olsen Twins” continues to prove she received the lion’s share of the family’s talent gene. Her persuasive performances in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Silent House” were no fluke.
Zibby’s sincere appreciation for classical music and literature follows Jesse after his return to New York. Romance multiplies via an old-fashioned exchange of hand-written love letters. Cheesy as it sounds, the narrated dispatches of hyper intellectual and emotional aspiration do a nice job of anchoring the story and shedding intimate light on the characters’ newly rose-tinted world views.
A reunion at Kenyon College puts the age-inappropriate pair on a journey of mutual discovery that involves some humorous criticism of the “Twilight” novels. Jesse is unreasonably prejudiced against the teen vampire books considering that he has never picked one up. Still, he’s up for the challenge of engaging in a little instant book-club interaction with Zibby. Jesse spends an afternoon reading one of the notoriously worst books of all time, only to confirm every one of his suspicions. Needless to say, Zibby takes umbrage at Jesse’s condemnation of the books she loves to read as mindless entertainment. More than a critical thinker, Zibby judges Jesse to be a snob. All of this happens as part of the romantic circling the would-be lovers are doing to decide if they should jump in the sack together. The deliberation engages the audience to figure out which way they hope the action will go. The filmmaker savors a nearly masochistic suspense of passion. Will he or won’t he? — Will she or won’t she?
Zac Ephron stinks up the movie as Nat, an annoying new-age hippie kid who wears one of those dumb knit hats with the ties that hang down on the sides. Written into the script as a ghost-in-the-machine narrative facilitator, Ephron’s rudderless character derails the movie whenever he shows up to drop bombs of idiocy. “Fortune favors those who say yes,” Nat tells Jesse. Meh. Another pet-the-dog ploy comes in the guise of Dean, a hyper-cerebral but a mordantly depressed student who Jesse counsels. The movie would be greatly improved if Radnor had excised these two insultingly superficial subplots.
For its all-too-obvious navel-gazing machinations, the movie plays its adult character cards better. Allison Janney is drop-dead funny as Judith Farichild, Jesse’s beloved literature professor from his days as a student. Janney’s delivery of her character’s withering sarcasm during a post-coital tête-à-tête is the comic highpoint of the movie.
Josh Radnor has his heart in the right place, but can’t help putting his feet on cliché landmines. Flawed though it is, “Liberal Arts” provides a couple of significant lessons about emotional responsibility regarding dating within one’s age-range.
Not Rated. 97 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Hello I Must Be Going
Director Todd Louiso wades into Noah Baumbach’s trademark waist-deep waters of thirtysomething identity crisis, and comes up with a pearl. Melanie Lynskey is something of a revelation as Amy, a depressed, recently divorced woman reduced to living at home with her well-off but financially threatened parents. Sarah Koskoff’s humor-simmering screenplay bubbles with situational laughs. Emotionally crippled to the extent that she wears the same ratty t-shirt day in and day out, Amy hasn’t left her folks’ McMansion for three months. A dinner party concocted by Amy’s accusatory mom Ruth (Blythe Danner) introduces Amy to her emotional equal in the guise of sensitive 19-year-old actorboy Jeremy (Christopher Abbott). Lustful sparks fly, and it’s off to the races for a privately thrusting yet publicly bumpy recovery for Amy.
An ill-conceived use of commenting singer-songwriter music by Laura Veirs mucks up the action here and there, but fortunately doesn’t derail the story. “Hello I Must Be Going” is a delightful slow-boil adult romantic comedy that taps increasingly harder on your funny bone before letting you have it with a brilliantly conceived scene with exponentially embarrassing implications. Here’s some articulate and sexy fun that doesn’t get stuck in its own mud.
Rated R. 95 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
VIDEO ESSAYS: HOPE SPRINGS, NITRO CIRCUS, THE CAMPAIGN, AND CLASSIC FILM PICK - WEST SIDE STORY
If it weren’t for its outdated music video segues, “Hope Springs” could just be the best romantic comedy about marriage ever made. Television writer Vanessa Taylor’s terrific debut feature script provides an ideal stage for two of cinema’s finest actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. Convincingly playing off one another as a married couple of 31 years, Streep and Jones create an onscreen chemistry that runs the full gamut of emotional colors. The actors never share a scene that doesn’t resonate with energized drama and humor. This aging pair of master thespians are golden together.
Arnold (Jones) is a grumpy Omaha tax consultant who has lost romantic desire for his doting wife Kay (Streep). The movie opens with a telling scene of Kay making a sexual overture to Arnold in his separate bedroom. Arnold demurs, explaining that he “ate pork for lunch.” Kay retreats to her room. Kay and Arnold haven't communicated much since their children flew the coop five years ago. Kay looks into a couple’s therapist in the appropriately-named seaside Maine town of Great Hope Springs whose calmly romantic setting is idyllic without giving into cliché. Getting Arnold to come along for a weeklong therapy session under Steve Carell’s exquisitely played Dr. Feld, however, is no simple matter. But Streep’s Kay is a resourceful woman whose twinkle in her eye hasn’t gone out.
As anticipated, the therapy sequences in Dr. Feld’s comfortable office energize the story with exacting wit. In what might be Carell’s best performance to date, the mannered actor never strays from his character’s pure intentions. Dr. Feld is on the up-and-up. That’s not to say Dr. Feld is shy about probing into the couple’s sexual proclivities and fantasy lives. A good deal of narrative movement comes from the daily exercise Dr. Feld gives Kay and Arnold to experiment with in the privacy of their hotel room. Although the text never gets quite as racy as it seems it might, Streep and Jones commit to plenty of daring intimacy that ranges from humorous to excruciatingly authentic.
Meryl Streep’s trademark naturalism is on full display. Her gift for comic timing comes through in the tiniest of gestures. A slight head-tilt or a devilish grin speaks volumes. The ever-seeping joy in her performance is catching. Kay is an American everywoman for a generation of budding grandmothers. For his part, Tommy Lee Jones enjoys more of a revelation as a comic presence thanks to his character’s broader demands in the growth department. An actor of carefully modulated emotions, Jones works in a micro-scale that is tremendously effective, as during a lovemaking moment when his facial expression “unconsciously” tells too much. Streep and Jones operate on an elevated level of acting precision that bounces gently above every dramatic beat. The sensual tension and suspense between Kay and Arnold is simultaneously eccentric and universal.
Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) has made a terribly sweet movie that will speak to generations of married couples. It’s amazing to witness big Hollywood stars throwing themselves into roles that demand such a challenging level of emotional expression and investment. “Hope Springs” is a romantic comedy with the potential to actually save some marriages.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Apartment — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Billy Wilder’s classic Manhattan-based romantic comedy comes with a sly critique regarding 50’s-era corporate culture of rampant misogyny and unbridled ambition. Jack Lemmon’s Bud Baxter is a low man on the insurance company totem pole. He loans out his one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side most nights to one of four executives at Consolidated Insurance for their adulterous assignations. They, in turn, promise to give “Buddy Boy” a hand up the corporate ladder away from his mundane number-crunching desk job--when the time is right.
One of the film’s many clever visual touches involves Wilder’s evocative depiction of Baxter’s desk amid several many rows of similar bureaus for as far as the eye can see. Florescent ceiling light fixtures triangulate the perspective. Baxter is a lowly bee in a corporate hive of bureaucratic red tape. He’ll never move up to the executive status he craves by following the rules. No one does.
At home, Baxter is less than a loner. He’s constantly cleaning up behind his company guests who drink his booze, eat his food, and complain when there are no crackers. Baxter’s neighbors Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) and his wife are convinced they live next to the biggest womanizer in town based on the constant sounds of lovemaking they overhear emanating from his apartment. When circumstances demand, Baxter is even forced to sleep on a park bench so one of his bosses can have his way with his latest conquest. All Buddy Boy gets for his trouble is a cold.
Baxter’s black-market activities don’t escape detection by the company’s big boss Mr. Sheldrake (wonderfully played by Fred MacMurray), who also wants the use of Baxter’s apartment. In return, Baxter gets the promotion he desperately wants. Suddenly empowered, Baxter asks the company’s pixie-haired elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley McLaine) out on a date. If only Baxter knew Miss Kubelik was the object of Mr. Sheldrake’s extramarital affection.
Much of the theatrically bound action takes place inside Baxter’s believably lived-in apartment. The audience is invited to study its size, angles, and furnishings at length. The cozy apartment’s seemingly personal space is infected with the lingering knowledge of the corporate brutes that use it like an old dishrag. Meanwhile Mr. Sheldrake lives a luxurious suburban lifestyle with his wife and children. Miss Kubelik lives with her sister and overprotective brother-in-law. But Baxter has no family. Romance, to him is playing a game of gin rummy or making spaghetti he uses a tennis racquet to strain. In Billy Wilder’s universe, the workers at the bottom are really the top; it just takes them a little time to realize it.Tweet
What do you get when you cross one of cinema’s most talented character actors with one of the hottest actresses on the planet? In director Jay Chandresekhar’s amateurish comedy “The Babymakers,” the answer is: a flop. As much as you want to root for Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn as a married couple trying to get pregnant in spite of hubby’s physiological shortcomings, “The Babymakers” shuts down all audience goodwill. Tommy (Schneider) and Audrey (Munn) have been married for three years when they decide it’s time to procreate. Trouble is, Tommy’s shooting blanks. Good thing he deposited 20 doses of his manjuice in a sperm bank years before. Now Tommy needs to get back the last remaining test tube of his precious bodily fluid, which has been purchased by a gay couple. A sophomoric script by the screenwriting team of Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow is exacerbated by poor production values and shoddy direction. Olivia Munn is fun to look at, but you’d never guess at how talented Paul Schneider really is from the looks of this comic travesty.
Rated R. 98 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Screenwriter/actress Zoe Kazan touts her romantic appeal from both sides of the camera. The spirited Kazan plays the fantasized object of desire to Paul Dano’s one-hit-wonder novelist Calvin Weir-Fields. Self-doubting Calvin lives a lonely existence in his modern lap-pool-appointed Los Angeles home from which he attempts to reinvent the literary success he stumbled into a decade ago when he was still a teen. Writer’s block is a problem. With only his dog to comfort him, Calvin follows a writing assignment from his psychiatrist (Elliot Gould). In so doing Calvin writes into existence the redheaded girl of his daydreams — Ruby Sparks. In fact, Calvin can amend Ruby’s behavior at whim with a few keystrokes on his trusty manual typewriter.
Calvin’s businessman brother Harry (Chris Messina) can’t believe his sibling’s manifestation of malleable femininity. Herein lies the wobbly thematic rub of Kazan’s script, which professes to comment — however absurdly — on man’s never-ending quest to invent, conquer, and control the woman at his immediate emotional disposal. As such, Ruby is little more than a waking-talking-Barbie-doll until an unannounced pms-fit threatens to shatter Calvin’s ideal of romantic perfection. A house party given by Calvin’s smarmy literary agent Langdon Tharp (predictably well played Steve Coogan) gives Ruby an opportunity to break character once more. “Ruby Sparks” is a humorous observation of the dysfunctional ground between men and women, especially during the early stages of a relationship. It has “date-movie” written all over it.
Rated R. 104 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
“Family Guy”- originator Seth McFarlane stacks his romantic-comedy deck by repurposing his popular animated television series’ brand of irreverent humor. Writer-director-actor McFarlane turns a corner into live action feature films with a smack-talking teddy bear appropriately named Ted (hysterically voiced by McFarland). As the film’s preamble narration informs us, Ted is the result of a little boy named John’s Christmas wish in 1985.
Flashbacks show Ted’s quick rise to national stardom that placed him on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” However, Ted’s days of talking-stuffed-bear celebrity are long behind him. Now, 27-years since he was “born,” Ted and his lifelong pal John (Mark Wahlberg) indulge in wake-and-bake bong sessions before John heads off to work for a Boston rental-car agency. John’s four-year relationship with his warm-hearted girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) demands that he do some growing up. Wedding bells should be on the horizon, but John still loves sharing endless inside and outré jokes with Ted, who talks like an old-school Boston geezer. Much of the film’s humor derives from snappy one-liners — many of which poke fun at Boston’s infamous racist mentality. “Jews,” “blacks,” “white trash bimbos” and “Mexicans” are targets. Although never mean-spirited, certain jokes will sting audience members unprepared for McFarlane’s take-no-prisoners humor. McFarlane’s bawdy wit is deceptively sophisticated even if a goodly dose of it derives from sexual, scatological, and fart absurdity.
McFarlane writes likable characters. Ted, John, and Lori are self-effacing in spite of their prevailing character traits — a talking stuffed animal, a good-looking guy with a quick wit, and a hot chick, respectively. The joke-heavy movie is balanced with slapstick humor that extends to a comical fistfight between Ted and John in a hotel room that doesn’t fare so well. The two-foot high Ted packs a punch. Non-sequitur cultural icons get put through McFarlane’s comic blender. Nora Jones, Tom Skerritt, and television’s Flash Gordon actor Sam Jones all get a light roasting. “Ted” is an R-rated romantic comedy with a clever hook. There’s just something funny about a stuffed animal who likes to have sex with loose women even if he doesn’t have genitals.
Rated R. 115 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
To Rome With Love
Woody’s European Tour Jumps the Track
By Cole Smithey
Woody Allen hasn’t made a memorable movie since “Match Point” in 2006, when he began his current series of European-based films. He showed a brief spark in 2008 with his Spanish installment, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but the aging director is sadly less than a pale shadow of the auteur/performer who enthralled audiences in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the early ‘90s with masterful comedies such as “Annie Hall,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Husbands and Wives.”
It would be an insincere compliment to call “To Rome With Love” a piecemeal comic reverie. The film’s construction is so shabby that it continuously warrants confusion about its disjointed subplots. “To Rome With Love” could easily be construed as more of a “French letter” than a love letter to Italy’s Eternal City.
Allen’s shaky storyline jockeys between four underdeveloped subplots involving couples whose relationships are tested by external — and distinctly Italian — circumstances. Fleeting postcard images of Rome’s landmarks fade behind a movie with little substance, much less an adequate amount of cognitive cohesion.
Allison Pill enjoys barely any screentime as Hayley, an American in Rome who has a love-at-first-sight experience with a leftist attorney-of-the-people, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Hayley’s parents Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive in Rome to meet the family of their future son-in-law. Jerry can’t help insulting Michelangelo and his parents in the time-honored manner that many crassly entitled Americans implement when visiting foreign lands. Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s undertaker dad Max (Fabio Armiliato) singing opera in the shower. Neurotic Jerry becomes obsessed with the idea of coming out of retirement to act as Max’s manager for an avant garde-styled approach to stage an opera built around Max’s magnificent voice.
Roberto Benigni suffers the indignity of playing a working-class man made famous overnight by a fickle media infatuated with turning every bit of minutiae about his grooming habits into editorial hyperbole. Fame proves a marginalizing force even if it delivers a plethora of sensual perks to Benigni’s one-dimensional character. You’ve never seen Benigni less funny than he seems here.
The most promising story thread involves John (Alec Baldwin), a commercially successful — read sell-out — architect revisiting Rome for the first time since his college days, when he lived there for a year. In a page torn from Allen’s last film (“Midnight in Paris”), John is transported to an alternate reality. While walking around looking for his old stamping grounds, John is befriended by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young aspiring architect. Jack invites John to his apartment — coincidentally on the street where John used to live. Jack is busy living out a modern version of the romantic ineptitude John experienced in his youth. Baldwin’s character becomes an advising apparition to Jack, who develops a romantic attraction for his live-in girlfriend Sally’s (Greta Gerwig) best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Needless to say, Jack does not listen to any of John’s sage advice. The only time the movie comes to life is when Ellen Page lights up the screen as an affection-hungry actress ready to wreak havoc on the personal lives of anyone around her.
Finally, there’s Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi). The Italian newlyweds are visiting Rome on their honeymoon. Shy and nerdy Antonio gets a crash-course in lovemaking from a high society prostitute (Penelope Cruz), while Milly takes her own amorous diversion with one of Italy’s most popular actors. The amount of gratuitous fantasy on display is suffocating.
“Midnight in Paris” was a fluke in that it became Woody Allen’s highest grossing movie in America. The film’s success is a strange commentary on the movie business considering that “Midnight in Paris” doesn’t hold a candle to a dozen of Allen’s earlier films. With the release of “To Rome With Love” it’s too late for Woody Allen to quit while he’s ahead. That still doesn’t mean there isn’t time for him to retire while the blush of success is still bright upon his cheek.
Rated R. 95 mins. (C-) ( Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Your Sister’s Sister
Mumblecore standard-bearer Lynn Shelton (“Humpday”) shows promising signs of maturing with this originally executed romantic comedy. Shelton regular Mark Duplass doesn’t stray far from the man-child character he normally plays. The first anniversary of Jack’s (Duplass) brother's death incites him to hilariously, though pathetically, vent his spleen at a party where his deceased brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) is in attendance. Iris recognizes the shambles of Jack’s rudderless existence, and sends him on a retreat at her dad’s tranquil cabin in Puget Sound. Jack is more than a little surprised to find Iris’s lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) inhabiting the cabin when he arrives by bicycle in the middle of the night. A little witty repartee, over a bottle of tequila, leads to an unexpected exchange of bodily fluids in a gut-wrenchingly funny sex scene. Iris’s unexpected arrival the next day sets the stage for a clash of wills in the context of embarrassing secrets and ulterior motives. “Your Sister’s Sister” is not without its flaws. Some plot points are too exaggerated for the film’s naturalistic tone. Still, the partially improvised dialogue rings like a bell more often than not. Emily Blunt is something of a revelation in an independent-film context where her remarkable talents shine bright. Lynn Shelton probably isn't the next Woody Allen, but she shows great promise here.
Rated R. 91 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Greta Gerwig continues her effective one-woman crusade to make slutty girls respectable. Sadly, “Lola Versus” is an ill-conceived romantic comedy that flirts too closely with the widely reviled and obsolete Mumblecore genre. Director/co-writer Daryl Wein oversees the fallout from 29-year-old Lola’s (Gerwig) failed attempt to get married — her wishy-washy betrothed Luke (Joel Kinnaman) cuts bait and runs just before the big day arrives. New York habitué Lola stays busy working on her Ph.D dissertation when she isn’t hanging out with her metrosexual-of-questionable-intent-best-friend Henry (Hamish Linklater). A not-so-cute meet at a bakery throws Lola in bed with a cringe-inducing prison architect whose large endowment below the waist belies his icky girlie qualities. His time spent as an “incubator baby” had dynamic results for his member if not his personality or looks. Stuck Lola can’t resist going back for some make-up sex with Luke. If these kinds of plot details sound like cartoonish incidentals, that’s certainly how they come across in the movie. “Lola Versus” feels more like a crummy TV sit-com pilot than an actual feature film.
Rated R. 89 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Tonight You're Mine
As far as movies about nothing go, David Mackenzie’s synth-rock fantasy love story scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Teen idol characters and their booze-filled fans gather at Scotland’s outdoor music festival “T in the Park” to mix bodily fluids with tobacco, pot, rain, and grime. Luke Treadway’s Adam is the egotistical singer for a crummy rock duo band with a proclivity for rehearshing acoustic versions of their songs in the back of ultra-compact cars. The disposable pop musician meets his polar opposite/equal in rival bandleader Morello (Natalia Tena) when the two find themselves handcuffed together by an asinine festival prankster who promptly disappears with the key. Unskilled in the art of using a paperclip to unlock a handcuff, the pair spends the movie bickering with their respective partners when they aren’t drawn into performing onstage together against their will. Short on substance, and barely approaching any degree of musical interest, “Tonight You’re Mine” is a half-baked piece of cinematic fluff for barely pubescent female audiences who ostensibly don’t know any better. What a snooze.
Rated R. 80 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Turn Me On, Dammit!
Finally, there is a coming-of-age teen comedy that addresses the confused effects of horniness from a young girl’s perspective. That such an inevitable viewpoint comes from Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, a Norwegian woman filmmaker, seems fitting. Jacobsen’s debut film draws its twitching heart and soul from its 15-year-old leading character Alma (persuasively played Helene Bergsholm).
Alma hates her small rural town of Skoddenheimen, Norway. She and her friends ritually flip the bird at the town’s roadside sign whenever they pass it.
Momentarily addicted to masturbating with the aid of a paid phone sex line, Alma almost gets her real-life wish when her heart-throb neighbor Artur (Matias Myren) presses his bare member against her dress while the two chat privately outside a house party. Excited by the event, Alma makes the grievous mistake of announcing Artur’s sexual overture to everyone at the party. Ostracized by the community, and given the unfortunate title of “Dick Alma,” the confused young woman suffers even more than her reproving single-parent mother could ever hope for as punishment. Based on a popular Norwegian novel, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is at once a celebration of youthful sexuality and a cautionary tale of kissing-and-telling.
Rated R. 76 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
This Means War
Spy vs. Spy vs. Romance
Tom Hardy and Chris Pine Cross Swords for Luv
By Cole Smithey
Daft competitive seduction is at the heart of this scattershot romantic comedy that veers woefully into uncultivated screwball territory. The movie tries too hard to titillate perceived notions of what both sexes of audience members might expect from a love story where two males with a military arsenal compete for the affection of a woman who is more shrew than honeypot. Said audiences are more likely to be amorously anesthetized by director McG’s jarring quick-cut spasms of explosions than coerced into feeling any emotional sensation.
A skyscraper penthouse—complete with helicopter landing pad—supplies the film’s opening shoot-em-up action sequence. Best friend CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) bungle their assignment to capture a Russian kingpin who makes a remarkable escape from the incredibly high rooftop. The tone here is all gloss with no tooth.
Cinema’s latest do-it-all-action-star Tom Hardy (“Warrior”) slums it. Situated opposite relative newcomer Chris Pine (“Star Trek”), Hardy consumes all the oxygen in the room whenever the two CIA partners share a scene. Their characters are single playboys whose lavish bachelor lifestyles are the product of a fetishistic male fantasy dreamt up by a committee of aging frat boy screenwriters. Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and Timothy Dowling struggle with a story by newbie writer Marcus Gautesen.
Tuck is separated from his wife. He has a seven-year-old son whom he takes to martial arts class. With three vintage motorcycles and room to free spar with his trainer in his posh living room, Tuck doesn’t seem to mind the single life. FDR lives in a lux pad with a lap-pool glass ceiling in his hallway from which he can watch the underside of untold females swimming the breaststroke. If working as an underhanded CIA agent paid this well there would be a permanent chain of males stretching twice around D.C.’s National Mall trying to get hired.
An idea for online dating opens up Tuck to a plethora of romantic options that immediately narrow down to Reese Witherspoon’s Lauren Scott. She’s a stereotype of blonde Los Angeles womanhood who runs her own business and likes to prance around her apartment singing to out of date rap songs—witness a cringe-inducing sing-along to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do it.” Lauren’s—and the film’s—only redeeming quality is her irreverently saucy best friend Trish (exuberantly played by Chelsea Handler). If only the screenwriters had given the lusty Trish entree into the romantic fray, the movie might have had a chance. Even swapping Handler to play the lead, with Witherspoon as the supportive best friend, would have given the movie some umph where it needed it most. One thing’s certain; Chelsea Handler is primed for a leading comedic role in a film with a better script.
There’s no telling how much better the movie would have been if all of Handlers original scenes had been left in. The filmmakers cut some her bawdier dialogue to convince the MPAA to downgrade the film from an R to a PG-13 rating. Downgrade: check.
Love-at-first-sight occurs between Tuck and Lauren on their initial date. That doesn’t prevent Lauren’s wandering eye from catching FDR’s attention when the two bump into one another in a video rental store mere steps from where she just ended her brief meet cute with Tuck. Choosing to play her options, Lauren dates both men. The CIA partners apprehend the emotionally charged situation. They agree to refrain from sexual conduct while allowing Lauren to choose the best man for her. Let the best, or most motivated, man win.
A series of increasingly sloppy dates finds Tuck and FDR using their CIA surveillance resources to follow each other’s romantic efforts with Lauren. They also spy on Lauren to discern how best to mollify her personal tastes, which include a love of Gustav Klimt and a soft spot for doggies. The men act appropriately as sycophantic puppies whose idea of leading a romance means pandering to Lauren’s fairly shallow interests. This is fifth grade romance at its most heavily armed.
Considering the film’s association to the superior, but still dismal, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “This Means War” is doomed from the start. It’s another example of everything wrong with Hollywood. January and February are always the worst months of the year for new releases. This dog just confirms the maxim.
Rated PG-13. 120 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
"Monte Carlo" fails even as the cheesy teen-girl romantic pap its creators set out to achieve. The filmmakers could at least pay off on the title's promise as an armchair Riviera vacation of feature film proportions. That doesn't happen either. Many scenes were filmed in Budapest. Cough.
It's hard to imagine that four screenwriters looking over each other's shoulders could fail to catch the glaring plot holes that open up in every crevice of what should have been a slam-dunk story. Disney it-girl Selena Gomez falls flat on her face in a duel role as evil twins Grace and Cordelia. Grace is a Texas lower class bimbet. Cordelia Winthrop-Scott is a rich British faux-celebrity heiress bimbo. Think Paris Hilton with a British accent. Upon her high school graduation Grace embarks on a Parisian vacation in the company of her BFF Emma (Katie Cassidy). Grace has been saving pennies from her diner waitress job. Grace's more-than-passive-aggressive parents throw a monkey wrench in their youngest daughter's travel plans with a last minute surprise of sending along her cunning stepsister Meg (Leighton Meester). Meg openly despises Emma, and cares none too much for Grace either. With parents like these Grace needs no enemies.
The plot implodes in Paris when Meg and Emma notice Grace's resemblance to her double Cordelia at a ritzy hotel. Impossible opportunity allows Grace to become a Cordelia imposter. The three clueless chics get a free ride to Monte Carlo where shenanigans occur involving hunky foreign boys and a missing necklace. No information is given about the real Cordelia's whereabouts during the girls' free-for-all. "Monte Carlo" will go over big with 11-year-old girls. That's about it.
Rated PG. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Love, Wedding, Marriage
Everything about Dermont Mulroney's directorial debut falls flat. Based on Mulroney's experience acting in romantic comedies like "My Best Friend's Wedding," you might expect him to turn in a competent effort. No such luck. A p.o.s. that should have gone straight to video is a comedy without humor and a romance without attraction. Mandy Moore plays window-dressing as Eva, an implausible marriage counselor psychologist whose recent marriage to Kellan Lutz 's Johnny-hunk-lately character Charlie is not going as planned. Eva gets post wedding blues when she discovers her parents (played by a miscast Jane Seymour and a notable James Brolin) are getting separated. Mistimed pratfalls and misjudged plot points go by like local stops on an express train. There are reasons the institution of marriage is becoming more and more obsolete. "Love, Wedding, Marriage" doesn't stem the tide.
Rated PG-13. 91 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Newcomer Craig Roberts takes at least a pound and a half of inspiration from Bud Cort's romantically inclined misfit in "Harold and Maude" for his defiantly humorous portrayal of the 15-year-old Oliver Tate. However derivative of "Catcher in the Rye" Joe Dunthorne's source novel might be, screenwriter/director Richard Ayoade spins it into cinematic gold. Here is a refreshing coming-of-age movie which knows where to pull punches and where to let fly. The virgin-breaking action takes place in the windswept landscape of Swansea, Wales. Crucial to the film's success is Yasime Paige as Oliver's poker-faced precocious object of teen desire, Jordana. Like Oliver, Jordana has problematic parents. Her sick mother is tapping gently on death's door. Oliver's oddball folks (wonderfully played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) haven't had sex in ages. Wifey is being led astray by Paddy Considine's new-age guru Graham, who recently moved in to a house next door. Oliver's ongoing pithy inner monologue of quips about his flirtation with eccentric habits and off-center observations is the product of an overactive intellect matched only by his libido. Jordana effortlessly matches him in both departments. She is just as hyper verbal as he is. Fast twitch dry wit never seemed so natural. The filmmakers maintain a tantalizing tone of tongue-in-cheek affectation without giving into the saturation of irony on display. Erik Wilson's sumptuous cinematography registers filmic delight in every frame. There's real tenderness here.
Rated R. 97 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Midnight in Paris
"Midnight in Paris" is amusing. Which is fine. While it by no means represents the long-awaited return to form, it is probably as good as Woody Allen's films are likely to get in this, the final victory-lap stage of his career. With its pleasant gypsy jazz guitar score and clearly-enunciated themes of nostalgia set in the city of lights, "Midnight in Paris" dips, glides, and even manages to soar (if only for a moment here and there). Owen Wilson hangs on to his identity better than many have in the role of Woody Allen's trademark tic, the alter ego protagonist. That is if you can ignore Wilson's proclivity for pronouncing the word probably as "prolly." Gil (Owen) is a worn-out screenwriter with his first novel freshly under his belt when he travels to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her disapproving parents. "Crypto fascist airhead zombies" is one way Inez's right-wing parents are compartmentalized by Allen's scalpel of dry wit. In her role as a harpy shrew, Rachel McAdams fills space in a strictly utilitarian part that could have been executed by a dozen other actresses; no one would be any the wiser.
The story takes shape as an imaginative literary reverie. Gil enjoys during late night strolls through Paris that take him on a time-travel journey when church bell tolls at midnight. Gil adores walking in the rain in Paris. Allen's eye for immaculate postcard compositions regales the audience with a fantasy vision of Paris that transports it back to the 1920s when American ex-pats such as Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein exchanged ideas and bodily fluids. A stream of actors alternately succeeds and fails in cameo roles as famous artists, writers, dancers, and lovers. Marion Cotillard stands out as Picasso's amalgamated mistress Adriana. Here is an actress incapable of turning in a lackluster performance. Corey Stoll owns his vibrant scenes as Hemingway. Kathy Bates misses the target completely as Gertrude Stein, just as Adrien Brody turns his Salvador Dalí creation into a cartoon character of the Bugs Bunny variety.
Allen conjures up a simpler time filled with a joie de vivre sadly absent from 21st century existence. In fairness to the Woodman, the famously wistful auteur backpedals to remind us that nostalgia is a trap that prevents us from enjoying the life we have to share. "Midnight in Paris" embodies a springtime sense of romantic desire. So much the better if you happen to walk out of the cinema, as I did, onto a rainy urban street after seeing it.
Rated PG-13. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)