Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hearty Rom-Coms

Generally speaking, I'm not the hugest fan of romantic comedies ... or romantic movies ... or most of the ones that pass for "comedic" these days. But there were a couple of movies that were on my "to watch" list for quite some time that I finally got around to, which both are purportedly part of the rom-com genre.

First up, a movie called Playing by the Heart. Never heard of? I'm not surprised, because it didn't seem to win much critical or box office love when it came out back in 1998. What is surprising is how so many talented actors were convinced to take part in this unexceptional film. The movie opens with a number of unconnected couples in various stages of relationships: 
- Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are an older couple facing the end of their relationship now that Paul's been diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor. One shocking revelation still remains though: An old affair that Paul had is discovered by Hannah. "Fun" note: watching how Paul tries to explain away this affair is pathetic. Second "fun" note: Paul's terminal illness no longer seems to be an issue at the tacked-on "happy" ending.
- Joan (Angelia Jolie) just got out of a terrible and ridiculous relationship but after breaking up with her boyfriend via a payphone in a club, she immediately turns upon the stranger (Ryan Phillippe) standing next to the phone and tries to pick him up. This happens repeatedly, night after night, despite his unwillingness to be in a relationship. "Fun" note: Ryan Phillippe's angsty portrayal is just him looking sullen all the time. 
- Meredith (Gillian Anderson) is a workaholic divorcee whose "meet cute" with an architect (Jon Stewart) involves a wall-sized bookcase falling over on her tiny self. "Fun" note: Jon Stewart's character is basically an asshole masquerading as a "nice guy." Yet I'm 99% sure the audience is supposed to think he really is a nice guy. Nope.
- Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) is having an affair because the "mystique" of it is so much better than her "boring" husband. "Fun" note: Shut up, Gracie. Second "fun" note: Even she seems to be have a more or less optimistic ending, despite all odds.
- Hugh (Dennis Quaid) keeps trying to tell a different sob story to whatever woman will listen to in bars across town. "Fun" note: Hugh could probably save himself a lot of grief by being more honest.
- And last but not least is the only non-romantic couple in the cast: Mark (Jay Mohr) is dying of AIDS and now has to open up to his mother (Ellen Burstyn) about his homosexuality. "Fun" note: The movie tries so hard to be open-minded and modern, but its handling of this topic feels both so preachy and so dated. 

These disparate characters and storylines eventually come together in an ending that I *think* is supposed to surprise the viewer, although it is easily predictable early enough into the movie. As you can probably gather from my sarcastic comments above, I wasn't a big fan of this movie. Almost everything about it felt contrived and/or saccharine, and the relationships depicted were all so unhealthy, yet we're clearly supposed to be happy at the ending. No thank you. And despite having such a talented cast, the performances were mostly pretty shoddy, although I can't help to think that a lot of that has to do with a corny plot and terrible dialogue. The only real standout is Ellen Burstyn as the grieving mother of a dying son, but even that is just a small part of the movie. There are a few funny moments scattered here and there in the movie, but honestly even those aren't that good.

Final word: Do yourself a favor and save your time by staying away from this title. I didn't believe Jon Stewart when he made fun of his movie career by holding this movie up as an example of wretchedness. No wonder this movie was hard to get a copy of -- it's not worth watching.

Next up was In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine, and based on the book of the same name. Rose (Collette) and Maggie (Diaz) are two sisters who couldn't be more dissimilar -- Rose is practical and plain; Maggie is flighty and primped. When a particularly painful betrayal happens, Rose kicks Maggie out. Forced to find her way on her own, Maggie discovers a grandmother (MacLaine) the girls never knew they had.

So I read the book this movie was based on way back when and loved it. When the movie came out, I wanted to see it but for some reason I just never got around to it. Recently, I read a memoir by Jennifer Weiner (the author of In Her Shoes) and her mentioning the movie in that memoir renewed my interest in watching it. Luckily my library had a copy, so I grabbed it right up. 

It's hard to review this movie 100% fairly. It's been so long since I've read the book now that I can't accurately compare the two -- the only glaringly "wrong" thing to me was that Maggie's time in Princeton (a part which for some reason sticks out to me more than any other part of the book) is completely missing from the movie. I guess it just wouldn't have filmed as well perhaps, but I felt like it was a crucial part to her story. 

Other than that, the movie seemed to jive more or less with the overall message of the book. Somehow though -- the condensed time perhaps -- the movie lacked some of the emotional impact of the book. Although I've loved Toni Collette in many other things before (including but not limited to United States of Tara), her story seemed the most lacking in emotional "realness" -- so often, her character just burst out with something that didn't seem to mesh with anything else, or else other characters referred to changes in her emotional state that just didn't seem to be there. Mostly I chalk that up to the shortened storytelling time more than on Collette's performance, but it was still a bit disappointing. (Also, it was terribly hard to believe that her character was so insecure about being overweight when she looks like she's about a size 4.)

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised with Cameron Diaz's performance. It is probably biased of me, but I didn't expect much from the star of There's Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing (two movies I wish I had never wasted my time on). However, she really embodied the role of Maggie and brought an impressive range to the character. Shirley MacLaine also did a fine job in her role as a grandmother long estranged from her grandchildren and dealing with some heavy emotional baggage of her own.

While both the book and the movie have been cast in the ghetto of "chick lit" and "rom-com," respectively, the story of In Her Shoes is so much more than your standard romantic storyline (girl meets boy, they have a falling out of some sort, girl and boy end up back together when everything is cleared up). Deep and varied issues are addressed, ranging from mental illness and death to forgiveness and acceptance. It is not necessarily a strictly "feel good" movie, although it does end on uplifting notes.

Final word: Hard to say with this one, actually. If at all possible for you to do so, I'd recommend you read the book, which was so thoroughly good. Barring that, then maybe watching the movie is a worthwhile use of your time. It's a decent choice for when you don't want something too fluffy, but you also don't want to be slammed by something unremittingly depressing with no hope whatsoever.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Come On, Get Happy

As I've lamented before on this blog many a time, winter is my least favorite season of all. It is looong, cold, dreary, and dark. It makes me wish I was a bear who could hibernate these months away and emerge well rested for spring. But since that's just a fantasy that won't happen, I've been trying to dispel my winter blues with fun and light-hearted movies -- not my usual fare but perfect for lifting my spirits, even if just temporarily. And as I've been away from this blog for a while, I thought I would try a quick summation of those movies in this one post. (It may get a little long though...)

To try to improve my mood, I watched these three movies in recent weeks: The Answer ManZootopia, and The Peanuts Movie. Two kids' movies and a romantic comedy -- this is how I roll in the winter, people.

The Answer Man

This is a romantic comedy from 2009 about a hermetic best-selling author and a single mom with a recently opened small business who meet almost by happenstance and decide to start dating. Literally, the entire rationale behind me watching this movie was "Lauren Graham is in it." The description sounded okay, and I was willing to give it a try, but I was not expecting much. With that attitude going in, I was surprisingly pleased. Sure, the romance part was pretty flat, but the acting was superb, the comedy was good, and it was really more of a story about the author becoming a more social and caring human being than it was a purely romantic comedy. I'll address each of those points a little more fully below.

Jeff Daniels as author Arlen Faber was comedy gold in a multi-faceted role. Faber is a character who is struggling with a number of things -- physical pain from a bad back, a crisis of faith, a desire to be left alone by the people who want to adulate him for his best-selling religious books, and coming to terms with being needed by others and finding himself wanting to be around other people as part of their lives. Lauren Graham was predictably wonderful, presenting her usual mixture of fun-loving comedy turning to fierce drama at a moment's notice. As she herself once noted, she does seem to be typecast into the single mom role, and there were a few moments in the opening of the movie that felt like the movie was trying to give us Lorelei Gilmore with a young son instead of teenaged daughter. But then the character of Elizabeth comes into her own, and we see her more as a dedicated chiropractor, determined to help patients and see her small clinic succeed, and as a friend/love interest to Arlen.  Lou Taylor Pucci as recovering drug addict and struggling independent bookstore owner played perfectly whether in humorous or serious scenes, in either case serving to further stretch Faber's growth and development. Smaller roles were well acted and rounded out the cast of quirky characters.

As I've probably mentioned in the past, I'm not the hugest comedy fan - especially sitcoms or romantic comedies, which tend to feel very predictable and, as a consequence, dull. But that being said, I found myself laughing quite a bit with this movie. A lot of that came from Faber's unexpectedly foul-mouthed or flippant sayings, but some of it was physical and situational humor as well (like Elizabeth trying to promote her business by having her assistant dress up as a giant spine outside their office or Faber being pulled unexpectedly into a parent-teacher conference for Elizabeth's son). There's also a bit of the "awkward first date (or three)" conversational humor, which is a somewhat stereotypical romantic comedy move, but that's usually the best part of any rom-com in my opinion. 

And, finally, I enjoyed this movie more than the standard fare romantic comedy because it was much more than just that. The movie addressed Arlen's need to get outside of himself and his worries to connect with other people and care about them. Sure, that included a potential romantic partner, but it also included her son and people in the community like Kris the bookseller. Faber doesn't completely change his personality or attitude but he does become more willing to embrace other people and help them on their course through life, in turn helping himself to be more compassionate. That may sound overly sentimental, but the movie manages to stay *just* above the rim of being truly sappy. 

Like I said at the beginning of this movie review, I was surprisingly amused and entertained by this movie. And I'm surprised to find myself recommending it as well if you want something on the cheery side for your next movie pick.


A good number of the little kids (and grown adults for that matter) in my life had already seen this movie when it came out in theaters and loved it. I figured I'd get around to it eventually, which turned out to be a day I was still in a down mood. Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny from a small rural community who can't wait to become a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, despite the nay-saying she hears from literally everyone, ranging from the local bully to her own parents. She persists in her goals anyhow, passing all the hurdles to becoming a police officer and arriving in Zootopia to learn about an ongoing missing animals case, to which she is not assigned because, again, no one believes a small rabbit can accomplish much. But through a series of unexpected circumstances, she ends up partnering with Nick, a con-man (or con-fox, as the case is) to uncover a much bigger conspiracy that anyone expected.

As you might expect from a children's animated movie, there is all kinds of humor in Zootopia, ranging from very obvious slapstick bits for kids to references clearly meant for adults. My favorite two scenes that had me laughing out loud involved a DMV office run entirely by the slowest moving sloths and an introduction to the criminal boss, "Mr. Big," who mimicked several Godfather lines. The movie definitely hit the spot in improving my bad mood, even if it didn't succeed in doing so for a terribly long time. 

But Zootopia also succeeds in presenting a number of important issues to children in a digestible form without being overly didactic. There is soooo much about not judging people by their outside appearance but instead by their personal qualities, like commitment to righting wrongs and perseverance in the face of internal and external doubts. Yes, there are times when some of this lesson is a bit heavy handed, but it's never a "hit you over the head" morality tale. 

Like we've all come to expect with a Disney movie, this one features a lot of talented actors lending their voices to various characters, including Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy, Jason Bateman as Nick, Idris Elba as the police chief, Shakira as the pop star Gazelle (giving the film its catchy theme song), and many many more. As we've all come to expect with an animated film from Disney, the success of Zootopia has inevitably led to there being talks of a possible sequel, one which ::eye roll:: many hope will lead to Judy and Nick getting together as a romantic couple. Let's just hope that any follow-up movie is of as high a caliber as this first one was. 

The Peanuts Movie

Last, and let's admit it, least, I watched the new reincarnation of Charles Schulz's characters that is The Peanuts Movie. As a bit of background, I've never been the hugest Peanuts fan, though I do generally find some of the older short movies both funny and fun to have on around the appropriate holidays. This movie, written by Schulz's son and grandson, stays true to the original characters in interesting ways, but it is sometimes perhaps a little too true to them. Bear with me as I explain.

The Peanuts Movie is largely centered around Charlie Brown's crush on the new girl at school (known simply as The Little Red-Haired Girl) and his myriad attempts to do something great to get her to notice and like him. But because it's Charlie Brown, these attempts inevitably do not turn out as planned. Throughout his many endeavors, Charlie Brown's myriad friends, including his sister Sally and his loyal dog Snoopy, strive to help him out. At the end of the school year, when Charlie Brown finally manages to just talk directly to The Little Red-Haired Girl, she says that she admires all the good qualities he demonstrated when things went wrong, including his selflessness in advancing others before himself. 

Among many of the nods to the original comics include Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, the kite-eating tree, Marcie inexplicably calling Patty "sir," the muffled voices of all adults (voiced here in a stroke of genius by Trombone Shorty), and Snoopy's dreams of being an ace war pilot battling the Red Baron for the skies. This last one has always been a bit of an odd one in my opinion, and some parts of the movie involving these scenes went on a little too long for my liking. There's also a love interest for Snoopy here, mirroring Charlie Brown's story back in the real life part of the movie. 

Also true to the original Peanuts were the many bizarrely romantic relationships seen among schoolchildren. Perhaps because Charlie's crush is the focus on this movie, I started noticing these relationships more than I usually do. Almost all of them involve girls who nag and borderline bully boys into liking them back (e.g., Lucy and Schroeder, Sally and Linus, Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown). Meanwhile, Charlie Brown's entire basis for liking The Little Red-Haired Girl is that she's "pretty" and she chews on her pencil like he does. He never even learns her name. She is literally "The Little Red-Haired Girl" from beginning to end of the movie. The weird relationship dynamics were kind of unsettling as an adult, and it makes me wonder what kind of message is being sent to kids when they watch this movie. I understand that attempts were being made for continuity between the past Peanuts and the present, but some of this was just a bit too much. It could be left in the past.

It was interesting for me though when I went searching for the origins of the "sir" moniker for Peppermint Patty that I found this article explaining how this character was Charles Schulz's response to second-wave feminism. He chose to make a character that defied the stereotypical feminine traits, instead opting to make Patty a fan of sports who doesn't wear skirts. So that was nice to learn; I just wish that the new creators might have found some ways to bring the female characters of The Peanuts Movie past the 1960s. 

That all being said, there were pretty funny parts to this movie as well as some charming ones. Particularly hilarious to me was Charlie Brown's quest to write the perfect book report to impress The Little Red-Haired Girl, which ends up involving a mistaken search for the book "Leo's Toy Store" by Warren Peace. There was also plenty of slapstick and physical comedy to entertain those who really enjoy that kind of comedy, like the small children who are the target audience for this movie. I really did love the ending in which The Little Red-Haired Girl pointed out all the times Charlie Brown stood up and did the right thing, even if it didn't seem beneficial to him at the time. That was definitely a high note in this movie, teaching children important lessons about how being a good person is about helping others, not just promoting yourself and your achievements.

The animation style is different from the original Peanuts films, given the many changes in technology since then. I guess it could be off-putting for some, but I didn't mind it much after a few minutes of getting used to it. The look and feel of the characters was the same, even down to Lucy being a horrible bully, which I wish was addressed more. All in all, I found this movie an amusing diversion, especially for adults who grew up loving these characters. But I would be hesitant to share it with small children without discussing the problematic parts later.

Well, those are my two cents (and perhaps a little more) on these movies. Have you seen them and have any thoughts? What do you do to keep the winter blues at bay?