January 30, 2011

MOVIES: Best of 2010 -- top ten movies

Starting with #10 and working up to #1, these are the movies that made the biggest impression on me this year:
  • True Grit -- as usual from the Coen brothers, every role is impeccably cast (Dakin Matthews is a special treat as Mattie's horse-trading nemesis), and the tone is perfectly controlled.
  • The Social Network -- Despite the movie's factual inaccuracies and distortions, the story it does tell is wildly entertaining, and the actors handle Sorkin's dizzying dialogue with astounding grace and ease.
  • Another Year -- The more I think about this movie, the more I begin to pity its central couple, Tom and Gerri, who are so hermetically sealed within their own happiness that they are almost willfully oblivious to the sorrow of their friends.
  • The King's Speech -- Yes, it's shamelessly old-fashioned, and deliberately pushes every "give me an Oscar!" button known to man, but it pushes them extremely well, and while I think it's been a bit over-rewarded by the Academy, it's a solid piece of entertainment.
  • Tangled -- Gorgeous animation; solid voice performances; lively songs and production numbers. And the lantern scene is the animation set piece of the year.
  • Shutter Island -- A deliriously loopy homage to and parody of B-movie horror, with Scorsese setting just the right over-the-top tone, and getting impeccable performances, especially in the smaller roles.
  • The Ghost Writer -- A masterful thriller, with the best final image of the year.
  • Blue Valentine -- A devastating portrait of a marriage in collapse. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance is superb at showing the way that the traits which draw people together are the very things that will eventually pull them apart.
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop -- A spectacularly entertaining documentary about the insanities of the contemporary art world. The possibility that the entire thing is some sort of massive hoax only plays into the movie's central question: Is there any real meaning to art, or do we simply accept that art has value because we've been told that it does?
  • Toy Story 3 -- How does Pixar keep getting better and better at this? It's funny, it's devastatingly emotional, and it presents serious issues in a way that entertains the kids and moves the adults. If you're not crying after Andy's final scene, then you have no soul, my friend.
And a group of runners-up, any one of which might have made the top ten on a different day: Animal Kingdom, Barney's Version, Dogtooth, Inception, Mother and Child, Night Catches Us, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Square, Timer, Unstoppable.

MOVIES: Best of 2010 -- Actor

The runners-up:
  • Ricardo Darin, The Secret in Their Eyes
  • Michael Douglas, Solitary Man
  • Paul Giamatti, Barney's Version
  • Anthony Mackie, Night Catches Us
  • Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
The nominees:
  • Aaron Eckhart, Rabbit Hole -- Heartbreaking portrait of a man coping not only with his own grief, but with his wife's refusal/inability to cope with hers.
  • Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network -- Eisenberg finally stops trying to play lovable, and giving in to his inherent smugness and creepiness leads to his best performance ever.
  • Colin Firth, The King's Speech -- You can see the pain and frustration on his face every time he's caught by his stammer; it's a more intensely physical performance than you realize at first glance.
  • David Roberts, The Square -- The weariest performance of the year; Roberts' perpetual scowl of disappointment tells us everything we need to know about him in the first scene of the movie.
The winner:
  • Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine -- like his co-star Williams, Gosling does a fine job of showing his character's subtle changes and intensifications over time. That puppydog enthusiasm that is so appealing at first becomes grating, with only the tiniest of changes on Gosling's part.

MOVIES: Best of 2010 -- Actress

The runners-up:
  • Emma Caulfield, Timer
  • Patricia Clarkson, Cairo Time
  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
  • Paprika Steen, Applause
  • Kerry Washington, Night Catches Us
The nominees:
  • Annette Bening, Mother and Child -- An uncompromising portrayal of a "difficult person," and Bening is particularly good at showing us how she begins to adapt to a more social life without letting the rough edges be completely sanded away.
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone -- Lawrence has a remarkably communicative face, and we always know what she's thinking and (more important) what she's trying to keep hidden.
  • Emma Stone, Easy A -- Charming and likable even in her character's most smart-aleck moments, Stone carries this movie and keeps us smiling despite the unsavoriness of the plot.
  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine -- Working in two different timeframes, Williams does a subtle job of showing us how Cindy's traits, admirable and annoying, intensify over time in exactly the wrong ways, leading to the death of her marriage.
The winner:
  • Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit -- Academy be damned, there's no way this is a supporting performance. Steinfeld carries this movie from start to finish, and she displays charm, verbal dexterity, and grace that take a back seat to none of her older and more experienced co-stars.

MOVIES: Best of 2010 -- Supporting Actor

The runners-up:
  • Matt Damon, True Grit
  • Guillermo Francella, The Secret in Their Eyes
  • Bob Hoskins, Made in Dagenham
  • Ian McShane, 44 Inch Chest
  • Owen Wilson, How Do You Know
The nominees:
  • Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer -- A lovely portrait of a man led into foolish things by love, who's forced to deal with the realization of how badly he's been played.
  • Andrew Garfield, The Social Network -- A wide-ranging role, and Garfield gets all of the moments right -- giddy optimism, the pain of betrayal, the incredible patience it takes to be Zuckerberg's friend.
  • Ewan McGregor, I Love You Phillip Morris -- A performance of incredible sweetness, providing a level of emotional grounding that is much needed to balance out Carrey's more manic comedy.
  • Bill Murray, Get Low -- A marvel of quiet restraint and droll humor that was far more interesting than the overpraised performances by the bigger names in the cast.
The winner:
  • Justin Timberlake, The Social Network -- It's a high-energy movie, but the manic jolt that Timberlake's arrival brings is still a welcome change; and its impact on the Eisenberg-Garfield dynamic drives the last part of the movie.

MOVIES: Best of 2010 -- Supporting Actress

The runners-up:
  • Ann Guilbert, Please Give
  • Rosamund Pike, Barney's Version
  • Kerry Washington, Mother and Child
  • Mia Wasikowska, The Kids Are All Right
  • Dianne Wiest, Rabbit Hole
The nominees:
  • Dale Dickey, Winter's Bone -- The matriarch who rules with an iron fist, protecting her husband by enforcing his privacy, and more aware than anyone of what a bleak world her young cousin is entering.
  • Kimberly Elise, For Colored Girls -- She's handed the movie's most difficult material, forced to react to the most cartoonishly evil act, and makes the moment so heartbreakingly real that you shrink in your seat, not so much from the horror of what's been done but from the intensity of her pain.
  • Lesley Manville, Another Year -- Alternating between denial and despair, sometimes in the same breath, Manville's every emotion is instantly readable, and provides the backdrop against we recognize the willful oblivion of her friends.
  • Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom -- Grandma Smurf may not be the one pulling the trigger, but she's the most vicious member of her family, and that loving smile becomes awfully icy by the time the movie ends.
And the winner:
  • Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer -- Ruth's simmering anger and resentment run so deep that it's a bit shocking when we realize just how many of the strings she's been pulling. It's a ferocious portrayal of a woman who feels that all of her hard work has been betrayed.

MOVIES: Best of 2010

Having spent January catching up with some of the year's movies that I'd missed in theaters, the next few posts will be my annual picks for the year's best. There are three movies among the major Oscar nominees that I haven't seen: 127 Hours, not just because of how horrible the arm-chopping scene might be, but because I don't think I can take the two hours of anticipating the arm-chopping scene; Biutiful, because I've had more than my share of gloom and depression this Oscar season, and I am not so fond of Javier Bardem that he's going to get me to sit through two more hours of g&d; and The Town, which I actually went to, and left in boredom after the first half-hour. Beyond that, if your favorites aren't on the list, you have my permission to assume that I just didn't see them.

everybody needs somebody to link

The Wall Street Journal reports on an intriguing new opera that replaces the traditional pit orchestra with a group of a cappella singers -- a "voicestra."

At Slate, Shankar Vedantam argues that partisanship is the new racism.

Salon's Alonso Duralde on the woeful state of Latino cinema in the US.

At TV Guidance, Jamie Weinman makes the case that TV's so-called "death slots" may not be so deadly anymore, at least for the right shows.

Steve Pond of The Wrap offers as clear an explanation as I've ever seen of the complicated mathematics that goes into choosing the Oscar nominees.

Roger Ebert and film editor Walter Murch on why 3D doesn't work and never will.

And this collection of delightful "premakes" -- trailers for the imaginary "original" versions of recent movie hits. Here's my favorite, for the 1965 Disney live-action movie Up, starring Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas.

MOVIES: Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009/US 2010)

From Greece, here's one of this year's Oscar-nominated foreign films, and it is one of the weirdest things I've ever seen. To the extent that you can classify it at all, it's an erotic dysfunctional-family horror movie. I guess.

A family of five -- they are never named, and it appears that the children don't even have names -- lives on an isolated walled estate. The father is the only one who ever leaves, to go to his factory job. The children have been told that the world outside the walls is unsafe, and that an older brother, apparently exiled for his refusal to follow the family rules, was killed by man's most vicious predator -- a cat. (It seems fairly clear that the older brother is simply part of the legends the parents use to keep their children in line.)

The children know nothing of the outside world. The television is used only for watching home movies, and while they occasionally listen to records, they are told that (for instance) Frank Sinatra is their late grandfather, singing songs of family love and obedience.

The children are in their late teens or early 20s, and the father occasionally brings home Christina, a young co-worker, to tend to his son's sexual needs; it seems not to have occured to anyone that the daughters might have needs of their own. The small hints of the outside world that Christina leaves behind gradually get bigger and bigger, throwing the family's delicate balance out of whack, until the children grow restless, especially the older daughter.

The movie refuses to offer any explanation as to how the family came to live this way, which I think is wise; any explanation we could be given would only seem silly and raise countless loopholes and objections. The cinematography emphasizes the strangeness of the family's existence with lots of static shots, often framed so that heads or limbs are cropped out of the shot.

Be warned that there are a few brief moments of sudden, intense violence; cat lovers may find one scene particularly disturbing.

Dogtooth is not going to appeal to everyone; some people will absolutely loathe it. I found it riveting and utterly compelling, and there are moments that will stick with me for a very long time. It's a bizarre and fascinating movie.

MOVIES: Applause (Martin Zandvliet, 2009/US 2010)

The Danish film Applause is a character study of Thea (Paprika Steen), an actress struggling to put her life back together after its collapse. She's been divorced for about 18 months, and hasn't seen her two young sons for most of that time; she's barely managing to stay sober.

We get occasional flashbacks (the only cue that they're flashbacks is that Thea's still drinking) to her life on stage, where she's starring in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; it's a mark of how badly Thea's lost control of her life that her Martha seems more well adjusted and less ravaged than she does. (These scenes are taken from an actual Copenhagen production of the play in which Steen starred.)

The movie is a showcase for Steen, who is in every scene, and often filmed in extreme, unforgiving closeups. It's a performance entirely without vanity, and Steen dives headlong into Thea's self-destructive, corrosive soul. Dealing with the world without the numbness provided by alcohol is a new experience, and she's not coping well. She snaps at fans and salesclerks, and in the movie's best scene, she has a horribly awkward encounter with a man she's picked up in a bar; you suspect that it's been a long time (if ever) since Thea faced the possibility of sex without being drunk.

The rest of the movie is not up to the level of Steen's performance; the story's a bit thin, and the cinematography is ugly, which serves the point of the story for a while, emphasizing just how bleak Thea's world is, but grows tiresome in the long run. But that performance is a fine one, and while I wouldn't recommend the movie at full theatre price, Steen is reason enough to look for it when it finally gets to DVD.

January 25, 2011

BOOKS: The Radleys, Matt Haig (2010)

Is there anything left to say about vampires at this point? Probably not, but Matt Haig gives it a go in The Radleys.

The approach this time is to abandon the overheated passion of the Gothics and the thrillers for the relatively dry and clinical approach of the contemporary suburban family novel. The Radleys live in a bland little British village, where they blend in with their neighbors and seem to be perfectly ordinary suburbanites. Peter and Helen's marriage is no more dysfunctional than average, getting a bit dull, perhaps, but what marriage doesn't after twenty years? The kids, Rowan and Clara, are appropriately sullen and uncommunicative, and neither fits in particularly well at school or has lots of close friends.

But the Radleys are not ordinary suburbanites; they are abstaining vampires, surviving on a diet of "blood resister's animal meat" -- "bram," for short -- and suppressing their occasional blood cravings. Peter and Helen have adapted so successfully to the abstainer's lifestyle, in fact, that they haven't bothered to tell the kids that they are vampires. So when Clara goes vegan and stops getting the animal protein she needs -- well, very bad things happen.

Like most contemporary authors, Haig picks and chooses the pieces of the traditional vampire mythology that he wants to keep. (Sunlight: unpleasant, but tolerable with heavy SPF sunblock; crucifixes: not a problem; garlic: very strong distaste, bordering on allergic reaction.) He adds a few new twists of his own, such as the "unpire," a non-vampire who drinks vampire blood, producing a temporary surge of joy, lust, and reckless abandon.

But in mixing vampire lore with suburban ennui, Haig has diluted each genre enough that both sets of fans will be disappointed. There are a few nice moments along the way. I liked the kids' reactions to their first taste of blood, for instance, and wish that the rest of the book had that intensity. As a whole, though, The Radleys is a tepid effort.

January 24, 2011

BOOKS: Gay Bar, Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson (1957/2010)

Two publication dates for the two halves of the book. Branson owned an operated a gay bar in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and published a memoir of her experiences in 1957; this new edition features commentary and historical context from Fellows, a historian who specializes in pre-Stonewall American gay culture.

Branson's understanding of her clientele is a bit condescending and warped by modern standards, but her general sympathy and the fact that she's even making the effort to understand makes her a rather remarkable figure for her era, and the book is an interesting historical curio.

Also includes the original introduction to Branson's book, written by a psychologist friend of hers, who believed (as Branson did) in reincarnation, and proposes the theory that homosexuality is caused by a spirit failing to completely adjust to life in a male body after a long string of female bodies (or vice versa).

MOVIES: Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2009/US 2010)

The latest from the legendary French director.

Marguerite's purse is stolen. Georges finds her wallet in a nearby parking garage. He makes several attempts to phone her; when he cannot reach her, he turns in the wallet to the police. They return it to Marguerite, who phones Georges to thank him. That's the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, and once that scenario is established, nothing else in the movie will make narrative or logical sense.

From there, we're off on a weird, rambling, stream-of-consciousness tale in which Georges gets obsessed and stalks Marguerite for a while, until he suddenly loses interest, which somehow leads to her stalking him. That dynamic goes back and forth a few times, never with any apparent cause or justification.

There are shreds of information that look like they might lead to a plot. There are suggestions early on that Georges is hiding a dark secret, probably something criminal, but nothing ever comes of it. Marguerite is an amateur pilot who's recently purchased a vintage Spitfire; Georges has a fondness for war movies.

Characters' personalities shift rapidly, changing as the needs of the scene require, and these changes are almost never noticed or commented on by other characters. Then again, no one really even seems to notice the personality of anyone else even within a given scene. There's a moment when Marguerite suddenly arrives to offer to take Georges and his wife flying; they accept, despite the fact that the invitation is offered in so menacing a tone that Marguerite is only a mustache and a top hat away from being Snidely Whiplash.

The movie is lovely to look at, and Resnais finds some novel ways to tell his story (such as it is). After Georges finds the wallet, for instance, we see him driving home, mentally rehearsing the phone call he'll make to Marguerite in a conversation with his own disembodied head, floating above the passenger seat next to him. And Mark Snow's score is a lovely, jazzy thing that helps to set a sinister mood.

But the clever visuals can't hide the fact that the movie has the narrative cohesion of a story told by a 3-year-old ("...and then a giant puppy comes and eats Godzilla, and then he poops everywhere, and the poop is made of chocolate, and everyone eats it, and..."). Wild Grass is a stylishly incoherent mess.

January 23, 2011

a Sunday kind of link

At io9, Alasdair Wilkins discusses our "golden age of awful television."

From the critics at MSN Entertainment, 2010's Moments Out of Time -- the most memorable images, scenes, lines, and moments from a year at the movies.

Steven Axelrod on why American Idol remains fascinating after all these years.

NeuroTribes' Steve Silberman: "The Meal That Ended My Career as a Restaurant Critic."

Conservatives like to argue that a) we should follow the meaning and intention of the Founding Fathers, and b) an individual mandate for health care is unconstitutional. Rick Ungar explains at Forbes why they may be unable to continue making both arguments.

And let's close with a little bit of the Swingle Singers:

January 22, 2011

MOVIES: I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2010)

What an odd movie this is, an attempt to combine madcap comedy and poignant romance; each half of the movie has moments that work, but the two halves never mesh into a convincing whole. Jim Carrey stars as Steven Russell, a con man who falls in love in prison with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), then spends years trying to balance his compulsion to steal with his desire to settle down in a contented life with Phillip.

Carrey, unsurprisingly, does better with the broad comic moments, and McGregor is at his best with the emotional moments; since McGregor is asked to be funny less frequently than Carrey is asked to be moving, McGregor's comes off as the more consistent performance. And a lovely one it is, too; whether Phillip is caught up in the throes of first love, horrified at Steven's latest arrest, or shattered by betrayal, you see every emotion on McGregor's face. He plays the role with the simple, pure vulnerability of an abandoned puppy.

Carrey can't quite make the love story half of the movie work; he can't wipe the wide-mouthed smirk off his face for long enough to convince you that he's ever sincere. The con-man stuff, though, he does very well; he's especially funny explaining what may be the most elaborate fake-your-own-death scene ever concocted.

It's not an entirely satisfying movie, but there are enough strong moments to recommend it, most of them in McGregor's performance.

January 21, 2011

BOOKS: Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, Otto Penzler, ed. (2010)

In addition to being one of the busiest (and best) editors and anthologists in the mystery arena, Otto Penzler also runs The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. For many years now, it has been his tradition to commission an original short story from a prominent mystery writer, which is bound into a small booklet and given as a Christmas gift to his customers and associates. Penzler asks that the story be a mystery set during the Christmas season, and that it take place (at least in part) at The Mysterious Bookshop. The booklets have become coveted prizes among mystery fans, and in this book, Penzler collects the stories from the 1993 through 2009 holidays.

It's an impressive lineup of authors -- Lawrence Block, Mary Higgins Clark, Donald E. Westlake, Anne Perry, Edward D. Hoch, etc. -- and many of them contribute stories featuring popular series characters such as Westlake's Dortmunder or Hoch's Nick Velvet. Penzler, or at least, a character bearing his name, appears in many of the stories, and given the setting, you're not surprised to find a lot of stories about stolen manuscripts.

None of the authors are doing their very best work here, but the stories add up to a delightful collection of bonbons. Highlights include Andrew Klavan's "The Killer Christian," which features a classic scene in which a hit man bursts in on an off-off-off Broadway technical rehearsal; Ron Goulart's "Murder for Dummies," in which a struggling author finally finds the key to success; and Jeremiah Healy's "The Holiday Fairy," in which John Cuddy visits from Boston to help Penzler solve a mystery. The ratio of hits to misses is quite high, though there are a couple of clunkers. Anne Perry's "My Object All Sublime" sets up an intriguing premise, but wimps out on the ending; Jonathan Santlofer's "The 74th Tale" is an attempted homage to Edgar Allan Poe that doesn't work at all.

On the whole, though, it's a charming collection of miniatures, almost enough to make me go hunting for the website of The Mysterious Bookshop come November to do some shopping and get myself a copy of next year's story.

January 20, 2011

TV: Retired at 35 (TV Land, Wed 10:30)

This is TV Land's attempt to come up with a companion for Hot in Cleveland. They have failed. As old-fashioned as Cleveland is, it offers reasonably funny writing and a cast of old pros who know to sell every punchline for all it's worth; I can usually count on a few good laughs from every episode. Retired at 35 didn't make me laugh once.

Johnathan McClain stars as David, who lives in New York, but has come to visit his parents (George Segal and Jessica Walter) in Florida for his mother's birthday. He finds that he likes the laidback lifestyle more than he did as a kid, and when his obnoxious boss makes one too many demanding phone calls, he quits. And so David will be trying to settle into his old hometown, with lots of generational conflicts (there are way too many jokes in the pilot about how funny and/or disgusting it is that old people still think about or -- god forbid -- actually have sex) and old sibling rivalries.

One of the show's problems is that it's not clear what this place in Florida is. It's David's hometown -- we meet his best friend and an old high school girlfriend -- but it feels more like a retirement community than a regular all-generations kind of town.

The biggest problem, though, is the writing. Most of the younger cast members aren't terribly well known, but Segal and Walter have been doing this for long enough that by now, you don't have to give them much for them to get a laugh. But you have to give them something, for god's sake, and they are absolutely floundering here for lack of anything funny to say or do. Segal hauls out his banjo a few times; Walter displays her latest painting, a full length nude of a hunky young guy -- and these things are done as if they are inherently funny. They aren't.

McClain is a pleasant enough, albeit rather bland, leading man, or maybe he just seems bland in the face of such dull material. Casey Wilson is unforgivably shrill as David's sister, pounding the "mom and dad like you best" drum with her every line. If there is a silver lining to be found here, it's Christine Ebersole, who comes frighteningly close to getting a laugh or two as an older woman with whom David winds up in bed.

But that's awfully meager pickings. Retired at 35 is a mess, which you may cheerfully ignore without fear of missing anything.

January 19, 2011

BOOKS: The Great Movies III, Roger Ebert (2010)

Every couple of weeks, Roger Ebert selects another film and writes another essay for his "Great Movies" series; every hundred essays, they get compiled into a book. Here's the third volume.

The principal question raised this time around is a simple one: Just how many truly great movies are there, anyway? There are moments in GM3 where Ebert acknowledges that he doesn't even much like the movie he's writing about, but is including it for reasons of cultural ubiquity (The Godfather Part II), historical significance (Triumph of the Will), or sheer age (the 1914 silent epic Cabiria). I shudder to think what depths he'll have to stoop to by the time the next hundred essays are compiled: "While The Break-Up is not a great movie in the traditional sense, it represents a career pinnacle for both Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, two stars whose careers must be understood to truly appreciate the cinema of the burgeoning 21st century."

(And when it comes to Triumph of the Will, "doesn't much like" is an understatement. "It is a terrible film," he writes, "paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong, and not even 'manipulative,' because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but the true believer.")

He's including a greater number of recent movies than the earlier volumes did, movies for which a bit more historical perspective might be useful before elevating them to the canon (Pan's Labyrinth, Chop Shop), as well as titles which more obviously than ever show his odd quirks of taste (Dark City, for instance, which he has always loved more than any other critic).

Ebert is always an entertaining writer; who else would tell you that Withnail & I "conveys the experience of being drunk so well that the only way I could improve upon it would be to stand behind you and hammer your head with two-pound bags of frozen peas"? And making your way through the movies in the book would be an entertaining and informative film festival, but only if you've already seen the real classics from the first two volumes.

January 16, 2011

another bunch of links

Ms. Megan McGlover would like to share with you her feelings on the weather in Atlanta:

At Serious Film, seven great uses of pop music in 2010 movies.

From Ion Cinema, 100 movies to look forward to in 2011.

Todd VanDerWerff from The AV Club offers a useful introduction to the sitcoms of the 1980s.

January 14, 2011

TV: Shameless (Showtime, Sun 10)

Was it really a good idea to follow Episodes, a show about how badly American TV fucks up the remakes of British shows, with Shameless, a not very interesting American remake of a British show? I think not.

The setting is Chicago, and we're dealing with the struggles of the Gallagher family. We meet the six kids at the breakfast table, divvying up their proceeds from various jobs, errands, and scams to get them through another day. "You're almost nine now," one of the older kids tells Debbie. "You're going to have to start pulling your weight."

Why is it up to the kids to make ends meet? Because father Frank (William H. Macy) is an unemployed drunk, drinking away the checks he gets for his phony disability before any of the money gets to the kids.

Most of the burden falls to oldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum, a helluva long way from her usual Phantom of the Opera-type roles), as does what little personality the writers have bothered to give to any of the characters. The other kids are, at least in the first episode, allowed one character trait each; there's the smart one, the gay one, the creepy one, the other girl, and the baby. Even Macy doesn't get to bring much life to the story; he spends most of the first hour passed out drunk on the kitchen floor.

The jokes aren't funny; the actors aren't appealing; and the story isn't interesting. An hour of blah.

TV: Episodes (Showtime, Sun 9:30)

Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are successful English TV writers. Their current show, Logan's Boys, has just finished its fourth season of winning every award in sight, and they've gotten the inevitable offer from an American TV exec to come to Los Angeles to do the remake. It'll be easy, says Merc (John Pankow); they can spend their days lounging around the pool, since the show's been written already.

But of course, Americans can never leave well enough alone, and Sean and Beverly are horrified to learn that Merc wants to change everything about the show, including firing their beloved star (a lovely cameo appearance by Richard Griffiths). As the first episode ends, the Lincolns are aghast to learn that the studio's found the perfect actor to play their wise, genteel, middle-aged, avuncaular headmaster -- Matt LeBlanc, who co-stars as "himself."

Mangan and Greig are a charming couple, and both their personal and working partnerships are completely convincing. Pankow's a bit obvious as the speak-before-you-think blustery TV producer, but Kathleen Rose Perkins is marvelous as his assistant, who tosses off the obligatory Hollywood compliments and insults with equal joy, and with equal lack of sincerity.

LeBlanc appears only briefly in the first episode, but the fact that he's willing to take a role like this at all suggests that he has a sense of humor about his image, and I think he always got less credit than he deserved for his work on Friends. (As for Joey, I think the problems with that show were deeper than LeBlanc.)

I enjoyed the first episode a lot, and I'm looking forward to see where this goes.

January 10, 2011

TV: Your OWN Show (OWN, Fri 9)

Well, I couldn't very well let a whole new network pop up and not watch at least one of its offerings, could I? So I picked this, the show most likely to fit with my tastes -- a reality competition. The show is produced by Mark Burnett, and it is a variation on The Apprentice, with ten contestants fighting to win their own TV show on Oprah's OWN network.

The format is familiar: The contestants are divided into two teams, and each week, a guest mentor arrives to supervise them as they produce a talk show segment in the mentor's area of expertise. The first episode gave us Dr. Phil on sex and relationships; next week, it's Vera Wang and makeovers. One team is declared the winner, and whichever member of the losing team is judged most responsible for the failure is sent home.

The first thing to note is that despite the show's subtitle -- Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star -- this isn't really Oprah's search, at least not in the sense that she's actually doing the searching. She shows up at the beginning to welcome and cheer on the contestants, and she'll no doubt be there at the end to congratulate the winner, but the task of eliminating people and sending them home is left to others. After all, we can't have Oprah, the Angel of Goodness and Light, forced to be directly responsible for causing unhappiness, can we?

No, the dirty work is left to each week's guest mentor and to the show's hosts, Nancy O'Dell and Carson Kressley. O'Dell comes off better of the two, with a warmth and charm that set the contestants at ease. Kressley struggles more, and I was reminded what an incredible fluke the chemistry of the Queer Eye cast was; without the rest of the Fab Five around him, he seems lost, and he hasn't yet found the way to tone down his mildly risque humor for the Oprah audience. (That's not to say he won't get better; it took Ted Allen two or three years on the Food Network to finally settle into being a reasonably good host.)

It seems clear that the entertainment value of each episode will depend largely on the skill and involvement of the guest mentor. I'm not a Dr. Phil fan, but he was just right here -- supportive, but not afraid to tell the teams when they'd gone completely off track.

As for the contestants? Well, some are trying too hard, like Elizabeth, the Los Angeles TV reporter who's determined to convince everyone that she knows everything, and Josh, who has cerebral palsy and is so terrified that his disability will be offputting that he speaks entirely in uncomfortable jokes designed to put people at ease, which only makes everyone else feel even more awkward. The early favorite, I think, is Alicia, a mortgage broker from Las Vegas; she seems so poised and intelligent that when the four men are asked to choose one of the six women to even out the teams, she's the instant pick.

There's nothing remotely groundbreaking about Your OWN Show, but if you enjoy this sort of thing, no one does it better than Burnett, and the show moves along with his trademark efficiency and superb knack for casting interesting contestants.

January 09, 2011

Here a link, there a link...

I've tried several times to get into the habit of posting links to the interesting stuff I find, but so far, haven't been able to make the habit stick. Let's try again, with the first in (we hope) a weekly collection of links:

At Asking the Wrong Questions, Abigail offers some good advice to the Hugo Award nominators.

What You Ought to Know debunks a popular myth about spelling.

Entertainment Weekly provides a very early look at what might be landing on TV this fall.

Dionne Searcey at the Wall Street Journal comments on the slow death of the "Dear X" salutation.

Scary news from Playbill:  Barbra Streisand wants to tackle the King Lear of musical theatre roles, a part for which she is only about 25 years too old. (Mind you, I'm sure she could still sing the hell out of Rose, but there's not enough gauze and vaseline in the world to make her young enough.)

At Mirror, Kartina has some fascinating thoughts on bathrooms,  privacy, and identity in Black Swan.

And while I'm still in mourning that StinkyLulu has discontinued his monthly Supporting Actress Smackdown, I'm delighted that he is still hosting the annual Supporting Actress blogathon, with links to (so far) more than two dozen posts on favorite supporting performances of 2010.

January 06, 2011

MOVIES: The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008/US 2010)

The Square is a nifty Australian neo-noir thriller, well worth checking out on DVD.

Ray is a middle-aged construction foreman, so battered down by life that he wears a perpetual disappointed frown, even when he's in the arms of his sexy young mistress, Carla. Carla and Ray dream of running off together one day, or at any rate, Carla dreams of it and Ray plays along to keep her happy.

Carla's husband is a second-rate thug who hides a large sack of money in the attic one day when he thinks no one's looking. It seems to Carla that this is just the opportunity that she and Ray have been looking for: Steal the money, hire someone to burn the house down so that Smithy won't be looking for the money, and live happily ever after. What could possibly go wrong?

Why, only everything, of course, and by the time the movie's over, we're reminded that a construction site is a dangerous place (especially on a rainy night), that the course of adulterous love never did run smooth, and that blackmailers have a tendency to pop up when you least expect them.

The actors, mostly not well known in the US, are solid throughout, but David Roberts is especially fine as Ray, a man powerless to do anything as the wheels of fate slowly grind away at him.

If the movie falls just short of the very best in the genre, it's because Roberts and Claire van der Boom, as Carla, don't have quite the sexual heat that you'd like to see. Still, it's terrific entertainment, well worth the time.

MOVIES: Patrik, Age 1.5 (Ella Lemhagen, 2008/2010 US)

The Swedish movie Patrik, Age 1.5 looks at a gay couple in a different stage of their relationship than most American gay movies, which tend to focus on the early "meet-cute" and courtship. Sven and Goran (Torkel Petersson and Gustaf Skarsgard) are married, settling into a new home in a small suburb, and have just been approved to adopt a child.

When the notice arrives that "Patrik, age 1.5" will be arriving at the end of the month, the men are excited. Goran is more so than Sven, who already has a teenage daugher from an earlier marriage, and has some slight hesitation about going through the parenthood thing again.

Both are rather upset, though, when Patrik arrives, and they realize that there was a crucial typographical error in that initial notice: Patrik (Tom Ljungman) is 15. He's got a history of serious delinquency, and he's not at all happy to have been placed with a gay couple. But he shows up late Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, so they're stuck with one another until at least Tuesday.

Director Ella Lemhagen, who also adapted the script from Michael Druker's play, doesn't run from the cliches in the story; it's inevitable that Patrik's presence exposes the cracks in Sven and Goran's relationship, and that the three will eventually become a happy family. But the actors are charming, and they bring enough subtlety to their performances that the journey is, for all its predictability, a pleasant one.

Skarsgard (son of Stellan) has a irresistible sweetness, and Ljungman does very well with Patrik's reluctant softening; you can't help but root for them to find a way to be together as father and son. Petersson has a more thankless role as the relative villain of the piece, but he makes Sven's ultimate transformation and acceptance believable.

Not an earthshattering cinematic accomplishment, but a sweet little charmer.

January 05, 2011

MOVIES: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

I've never seen a movie so utterly devoted to the comic book/video game aesthetic as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It doesn't always work, but its best moments are remarkable.

Michael Cera stars, playing the guy Michael Cera always plays; this time, he's named Scott Pilgrim, and he's a schlumpy Toronto hipster wannabe, currently between jobs and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-Omb. He has a girlfriend, a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but is drifting through life rather aimlessly.

Then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and it's love at first sight. She's sexy, funny, and the fact that she's not impressed by Scott's feeble arsenal of opening lines and anecdotes is half the appeal. Unfortunately, she comes with baggage -- seven evil exes, whom Scott must defeat in martial arts battles if he is to continue dating Ramona.

The battles are staged as video games. Point values appear in midair and coins drop from the sky each time Scott punches an opponent; Scott and the exes leap through the sky like characters in kung-fu movies; a particular impressive victory even wins Scott an extra life.

That's not the extent of director Edgar Wright's visual creativity, though. The screen is frequently filled (even in non-battle moments) with Batman-style sound effects ("thunk" and "pow" and so on) and animated emotional graphics (little hearts float through the air when Scott and Ramona kiss). It all gets to be a bit much, with the visuals occasionally detracting from the story.

Some of the effects, though, are lovely. Scott and Knives are in a record store when he breaks up with her, and at the moment he says the word, the set disappears and they're floating in a black void. There's a marvelous shot of the crowd at a rock club -- everyone dressed in black and gray, with Ramona's blue hair glowing like a beacon in the middle of the room.

The movie would have been well served by cutting back on the battle scenes. When they're spread out over several issues of a comic book, they probably don't feel so repetitious, but six big battles in a 2-hour movie are hard to keep interesting, and even the individual battles could have been shortened.

Cera is an actor of limited range, but he's capable of surprising subtlety within that range, and is often quite funny here. Love the deadpan reaction to finding out that one of Ramona's exes, an action movie star, is filming in town: "They shoot movies in Toronto?" And some of the supporting players are terrific -- Chris Evans as that lunkhead actor, Anna Kendrick as Scott's big sister, Kieran Culkin as his gay roommate. Brandon Routh is surprisingly funny as a sanctimonious vegan.

This might have worked better as a TV miniseries instead of a movie. Devote an hour each week to one ex, culminating in the battle, which gives you time to better flesh out the characters and focus on the relationship story, which often gets lost in the visual whirlwind. But there are enough terrific moments along the way, and enough entertaining performances, that I'm glad to have seen the movie.

MOVIES: Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

Stephen Dorff is Johnny Marco, a movie star currently living at the Chateau Marmont, a Hollwyood hotel that caters to celebrities' every whim. It's never quite clear how big a star Johnny is, but his fame seems to be mostly foreign; he's whisked off to Milan to collect an award of some sort, and there are only foreign journalists at a press conference to promote his new movie. On the other hand, he's doing well enough that he can afford to stay at the Marmont.

His life, such as it is, is disrupted when his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) arrives for an extended visit (her mother has decided that she "needs some time"). Johnny and Cleo order room service; he takes her to Milan with him; she cooks an occasional meal; they lounge poolside at the Marmont.

All of this is shown to us in long, lingering shots with minimal dialogue; there's a shot of Johnny and Cleo sitting by the pool that starts close in and lasts for about three minutes -- no dialogue, no movement -- as the camera slooooooooowly pans out. And that's one of the exciting scenes.

We're supposed to feel sorry for poor Johnny, who is so bored with life that he can't stay awake long enough to finish having sex, but Coppola doesn't tell us enough about him, or give him enough of a personality, that we have any reason to care about him. He's just a poor little rich boy.

This is Coppola's third movie in a row about how lonely and sad it is to be rich and famous. I rather liked Lost in Translation, mostly for Bill Murray's performance; and while I was less fond of Marie Antoinette, it at least had an occasional amusing moment from its supporting players. But Somewhere offers nothing of interest; it's the most uneventful waste of time you could spend at the movies this holiday season.

MOVIES: Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Blue Valentine is the story of a disintegrating marraige. We follow Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) through the last few days of their relationship, periodically jumping back in time to the early days -- their meeting, rapid courtship, and marriage.

Director Derek Cianfrance doesn't mark those time jumps with "five years earlier" labels, and it sometimes takes a moment to register that we've switched time frames. (If Gosling is in the scene, his hairline is your biggest cue; Dean's going bald very quickly.)

Those "oh, have we changed periods?" moments are, I think, important. It's not as if either Dean or Cindy is a dramatically different person at the end of the story than they are at the beginning. The traits that drew them together -- his impulsiveness and sense of romance, her stoic practicality and determination -- are still there at the end, and they've become the things that each struggles to put up with in the other.

The bigger problem is that they've never learned to talk to one another; their marriage happened so quickly (for a variety of reasons) that all they really had going for them was the heady rush of first love/lust; once that fades, they have no idea how to communicate. Dean tries harder than Cindy does, I think; the movie's biggest weakness is a slight lack of evenhandedness in the way it presents the characters, making Cindy the villain.

The two central performances are both excellent, and we should be hearing more about them in this run-up to awards season than we are. Blue Valentine isn't a cheerful movie -- even the young love sequences don't have a lot of humor to them -- but its emotional precision is impressive, and it's definitely worth seeing.

January 04, 2011

MOVIES: The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

The Fighter is a standard sports-comeback story, based on actual events. It's most interesting, though, for the dueling approaches taken by its actors.

In one corner, we have Mark Wahlberg as down-on-his-luck Micky Ward, trying to get the break he needs before he's too old to fight anymore; and Amy Adams as Charlene, his bartender girlfriend. Their performances are relatively low-key and realistic (though Adams is working a little hard on the Boston accent), and their scenes together are the best ones in the movie.

In the other corner, we have Christian Bale as Micky's half-brother, Dicky Eklund, a former boxer himself who now serves as Micky's trainer; and Melissa Leo as the boys' mother, Alice, who manages Micky's career. They are wildly exaggerating every gesture and line reading, as if playing to the back row of an enormous theater. Bale and Leo are entertaining, but their performances are so broad and flamboyant that they're barely in the same movie as Wahlberg and Adams. (The Greek chorus of seven harpy sisters are solidly in the Bale/Leo half of the movie.)

The story itself isn't terribly interesting or surprising -- Micky gets his big break; Dicky fucks things up for him; Charlene gives Micky the strength to keep going; climax with the big title fight -- and director David O. Russell doesn't seem interested in doing anything unexpected with it. But there is something weirdly fascinating about the clashing acting styles, and that's enough to make the movie interesting, if not exactly good.

MOVIES: Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

As we've come to expect from Mike Leigh's distinctive process, the characters in Another Year have a richness and a depth that other directors rarely match. It's a look at one year in the life of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a middle-aged London couple who serve as an island of stability and calm for their friends and family, most of whom are not quite so happy or comfortable.

The other major character in the movie is Mary (Leslie Manville), a long-time family friend and co-worker of Gerri's. Mary is a bit younger than Gerri, but old enough that she's starting to feel rather panicked about still being single; she wavers between chirpy denial and glum despair about her loneliness. It's a remarkably vivid performance; I can't remember when I saw an actor whose emotions were so instantly readable. You wonder at first how it is that Tom and Gerri don't seem to understand what's going on, but you finally realize that they're so hermetically sealed within their own perfect-couple-ness that they're blithely unaware of anything else.

There's not really an overarching plot; instead, we get four scenes, each set in a different season, giving the movie the feel of a set of linked short stories. It is, as the title tells us, just another year in these lives -- there's birth, death, comedy, drama, and the always-growing awareness that our time here is limited.

Manville gives the movie's best performance, but Broadbent and Sheen are also excellent, and even the small roles are so completely inhabited that you find yourself wanting to follow those characters off to see what's happening in their own lives. David Bradley as Tom's brother, Oliver Maltman and Karina Fernandez as Tom & Gerri's son and his girlfriend, Imelda Staunton as one of Gerri's patients -- all beautifully played.

Another Year is a lovely movie that has the quiet audacity to suggest that we don't need murder or adultery or car chases; the simple lives of ordinary people are interesting enough to hold our attention.

MOVIES: Country Strong (Shana Feste, 2010)

A year ago, Hollywood gave us Crazy Heart, featuring Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic country singer trying to put his life back together. That worked so well that we're getting a new version of the story this year. And if you think that going from Jeff Bridges to Gwyneth Paltrow is an upgrade, then you're going to love Country Strong.

OK, that's perhaps a harsher assessment than Country Strong deserves, and it's not exactly the same story. In this one, Paltrow plays Grammy-winning country diva Kelly Canter, whose husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw) has managed to get her out of rehab a month early, and plans to send her on a 3-city comeback tour through Texas.

Kelly wants a young hunk named Beau (Garrett Hedlund) for her opening act, mostly because she's been sleeping with him (he works at her rehab facility), but also because he's genuinely talented. James would rather take the former Miss Dallas, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Naturally, both wind up joining the Canter entourage.

So, we've got four big egos, lots of bed-hopping, the predictably unpredictable ups-and-downs of recovery, and lots of country music. You can probably write the rest of the screenplay yourself.

As for the music, it's not bad, though if you're expecting lots of Paltrow songs, you'll be disappointed; Kelly's problems keep Paltrow from really cutting loose until late in the movie. She handles her songs well, though she is by nature more at home with pop than with country. (Of course, these days, the lines between the two are thinner than ever.)

More of the singing falls to Meester and Hedlund, and both are fine. Meester sings light country-pop, sort of a less gritty Taylor Swift; Hedlund gets to be the serious guy who'd rather be true to country music than sell out to get radio airplay, and of the three singing actors, he is the one who seems most comfortable with country music.

(And what the hell is the logic of putting Tim McGraw in a movie about country music and casting him as the one principal character who doesn't sing?)

It's not that Country Strong is a bad movie, really; it's perfectly serviceable, and people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it very much. It's just so thumpingly ordinary and unnecessary. Everything about it is competent, and nothing is special. Sitting through Country Strong is like hoping for a Tammy Wynette concert and getting Shania Twain instead.

January 03, 2011

MOVIES: The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

The Illusionist is director Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville, but it's a very different movie, with none of the manic energy of Triplets. Chomet has adapted an unproduced script by Jacques Tati to make a story of low-key melancholy and wistful charm.

The illusionist of the title is M. Tatischeff; that was Tati's birth name, and the character looks very much like Tati. (At one point, Tatischeff wanders into a movie theater where a Tati film is playing; this is just a bit too cutesy.) He is a stage magician, grabbing whatever jobs he can find as the European vaudeville/music hall tradition slowly fades away in the late 1950s.

In a small Scottish town, he meets Alice, a young chambermaid who's still innocent enough to believe that his magic is real; she comes with him when he leaves town, and they settle into a cheap hotel room in Edinburgh. Alice is enchanted by the beautiful clothes she sees in store windows; Tatischeff sneaks out of their room at night to work demeaning odd jobs in order to buy them for her.

When the movie attempts slapstick and physical humor, it doesn't quite work. The pleasure of watching actors do that kind of humor lies in admiring their physical control, their timing, their discipline; those joys are gone when watching animated people, who can do whatever the animator wants them to. That's not to say this style of humor can't work in animation -- look at the Pixar short Presto, for instance -- but to make it work, the timing has to be even more crisp and precise than in live-action. And "crisp" is not a word that anyone would apply to The Illusionist, which is rooted in hazy, soft-focus nostalgia for a bygone era.

The movie's best moments don't rely on that type of physical energy; there's a lovely sequence in which Tatischeff grows increasingly concerned that his rabbit seems to have gone missing as Alice serves him a bowl of stew. Chomet's animation is beautifully done, and the movie's gorgeous to look at. But the charms of The Illusionist are very understated, and the movie is so subtle and wispy that it threatens to evaporate right off the screen even as you watch it. For me, it's ultimately too low-key and delicate to be memorable.

MOVIES: Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010)

In the few years since she made her breakthrough to American audiences (well, American art-house audiences, at any rate) in Happy-Go-Lucky, I have not been particularly fond of Sally Hawkins, so I didn't go into Made in Dagenham with particularly high hopes. I was quite happily surprised. The movie is a standard issue based-on-a-true-story uplifting period piece, but Hawkins is less grating than I've found her in the past, and she's surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.

The story boils down to Norma Rae set in 1968 England, where Rita O'Grady is of one of the few female employees at the local Ford plant. The women are machinists, sewing the covers for the car seats. Their frustration at having their work defined as "unskilled" (and thus, lower on the pay scale) leads them to a one-day strike that rapidly grows bigger, to the point where the Secretary of State (Miranda Richardson) is involved and the issue has broadened to whether women should be paid equally with men.

Richardson is just one of the talented actors playing small roles here. Bob Hoskins is quite funny as the one male labor leader who supports the women's strike wholeheartedly; Daniel Mays makes a strong impression as Rita's husband, who can't quite cope with how his wife's activism changes his own life; Richard Schiff blusters nicely as the American lawyer sent by Ford to resolve the problem; and Rosamund Pike has a lovely calm dignity as the wife of a Ford executive.

Hawkins is good throughout, and does a nice job of showing us Rita's growth from bystander to activist; she's especially fine in the last act, and her big speeches at the end of the movie are completely convincing.

There are a few clunky moments, and a subplot involving a coworker's husband suffering from PTSD after WWII feels awkwardly tacked on. The casual sexism of the era is piled on just a bit too heavily, to the point where some of the men (Richardson's assistants, for instance) are reduced to cartoons.

But even though it's a predictable formula piece, the movie moves along at a nice clip, and there are enough good performances to make it a pleasant minor entertainment.

MOVIES: Frankie & Alice (Geoffrey Sax, 2010)

Do you remember that brief moment a few years back when we thought we might have to take Halle Berry seriously as an actress? Heck, they even gave her an Oscar, and then she disappeared into a bunch of crappy superhero movies.

Well, she's back, and she wants to be taken seriously again in Frankie & Alice, which gives her a great big Oscar-baity role: a stripper who has not only a heart of gold, but multiple personalities, too.

Sadly, there is nothing about this movie that deserves to be taken seriously. It's set in 1973, and looks as if that were when it was filmed; it's ugly and cheap-looking, like a low-grade Lifetime movie. The story is a tawdry melodrama about forbidden love, traumatic death, and a mother's cruelty (Phylicia Rashad plays Berry's mother in embarrassing style, with less subtlety than the average Disney wicked witch).

The challenge for any actor playing multiple personalities is to make each of the alters feel like a real person; Berry's alters are flat caricatures. Her brainy little girl is all squeaky voice and squint; the characterization of her southern belle (who happens to be white, and viciously racist) doesn't go beyond a cartoonish accent.

Even Stellan Skarsgard, as Berry's therapist, brings nothing of interest to his role. He's been given one or two personality quirks -- he likes jazz and did a lot of acid in the 60s -- in lieu of an actual character.

This is a wretched mess of a movie. Skip it at all cost.

January 02, 2011

MOVIES: How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010)

I can understand why some people will hate How Do You Know, but I liked it a lot.

Reese Witherspoon is at the middle of the movie's romantic triangle. She plays Lisa, who's just been cut from the U.S. softball team, not so much for incompetence as for age -- she's 31, after all, and there are younger players who can get to first base a step faster.

Paul Rudd, as George, faces professional problems of his own, as the target of a federal investigation for financial improprieties (that are never explained very well), and he suspects that his father (Jack Nicholson) may actually be the guilty party.

Their first meeting doesn't go particularly well, what with both of them still reeling from their respective crises, and by the time George gets a chance to make a better impression, Lisa's gotten involved with Matty (Owen Wilson). Wilson is terrific here; his Matty is clueless about what Lisa needs or wants, but he's so utterly charming and lovable that it's impossible for her (or us) to stay mad at him for very long. It's such a strong performance that it threatens to throw the triangle entirely out of whack.

I've always been puzzled by Paul Rudd. He's very likable and talented, but in leading roles, I  find that he falls just short of the charisma and presence that are required. He's stronger here than usual -- his best moments are with Kathryn Hahn, who plays his devoted secretary -- but still not quite at the level of his co-stars.

The story here is a bit less tidy than the standard rom-com, and there are fewer obvious punchlines in the dialogue; it's more about awkward pauses, difficult moments, and conversations that don't go as hoped. But I like that sloppiness, and the movie has a pleasantly relaxed feel. Yes, everything is neatly tied up at the end, and Witherspoon makes the choice you knew she would, but even if the ending is overly predictable, the twists and turns involved in getting there are less so.

MOVIES: True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010)

The Coen brothers' version of True Grit -- they insist that it's not a remake of the John Wayne movie, but a new movie that returns directly to Charles Portis' novel as its source material -- is an entertaining movie, elevated to must-see status by a spectacularly good performance from Hailee Steinfeld.

Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, whose father has been murdered by a drunken thug, and who sets out to see the killer brought to justice. She hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, growling his lines in a mumble that is all too frequently incomprehensible), and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who has been pursuing the man for his own reasons, joins the hunting party.

I can't overstate how good Steinfeld is; it's a ferocious performance, and she handles the oddly stilted dialogue so perfectly that it never sounds awkward. Mattie is an unusually poised young woman, but Steinfeld never lets you forget that she is only 14, or how hard she's fighting to be taken seriously in a world that doesn't have much patience for women or children.

Damon is also entertaining in what is the most broadly comic of the principal roles, and there are some lovely small performances -- Ed Corbin as a traveling dentist, Dakin Matthews as a horse-trader who can't quite believe he's being out-negotiated by a girl -- but it's Steinfeld's movie from start to finish, and she is all the reason you need to see it.

A moment, if I may, to rant about the Oscars and category fraud. Steinfeld is the star of True Grit. She is in every scene of the movie; it is her story being told; hers is undeniably the leading role. And yet, in a bit of complete absurdity, she is being campaigned in the supporting actress category, mostly because younger actresses are traditionally assigned there, regardless of the size of their role. (Keisha Castle-Hughes' nomination for Whale Rider was a rare exception to the rule.)

...time to get caught up...

So it's been a busy week of movie-going, and I haven't kept up with posting here at all. I'll be getting everything posted over the next week or so.

Then January will be spent catching up on DVD with (some of) the movies I missed earlier in the year, before finally assembling the "best of" lists at the end of the month.