Dinner for Schmucks

Scriptwriters are handsomely paid for a good reason. A good movie script focuses the story and advances the plot. During the filming of this remake of the superb 1999 French comedy "The Dinner Game," Director Jay Roach ("Meet the Fockers") unleashed two top comics known in their profession as terrific ad libbers. According to reports I have read, Paul Rudd ("I Love You, Man") and Steve Carell ("Date Night") cracked up cast and crew with their spontaneous dialogue during the filming. Unfortunately, in my opinion, you had to be there.

This gag-ridden comedy lacks heart, even though the talented Mr. Rudd and his romantic co-star Stephanie Szostak ("The Devil Wears Prada") give it their best shot; while Carell offers us a wide-eyed loner who creates miniature scenes that feature dead mice, which is actually cuter than it sounds. Rudd's character is an ambitious young executive invited by his boss, played by Bruce Greenwood ("Mao's Last Dancer") to a regularly scheduled dinner in which everyone competes to see who can bring the biggest idiot.

Two actors and their loathsome characters actually upset me: Jemaine Clement ("Gentlemen Broncos") plays a pretentious artiste, and the shockingly overrated Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") is Carell's humiliating boss. Both of the scenes with Galifianakis drag on and on.... Challenging them for the "Yuck" award is Lucy Punch ("Hot Fuzz") as a truly repugnant stalker.

Because of its two appealing leads, I suspect this will be a popular movie, but I beg you, please check out "The Dinner Game" to see the classic which inspired it. On my Home page, click on "alphabetized list" and look up my review of this wonderful comedy. You may be inspired to check it out of your library or Netflix.

Charlie St. Cloud

The camera loves Zac Efron's face! In this sweet little weeper geared primarily for tweens, Mr. Efron ("17 Again" and "Me and Orson Welles") not only has a chance to show off his noteworthy torso, but he also does a commendable job playing the role of a Big Man on (high school) Campus destined for Stanford on a sailing scholarship (I didn't know there was such a thing), who wrecks his mother's car and his life in one fell swoop.

Joining him on screen we see:
  • Charlie Tahan ("Nights in Rodanthe") as the much-loved little brother to whom he makes an oath he will keep, "come hell or high water!"
  • Kim Basinger ("The Informers") as his single mother, picking up extra shifts at the hospital to make ends meet.
  • Ray Liotta ("Date Night") as the EMT who has the St. Christopher's medal.
  • Amanda Crew ("Sex Drive") as a fellow sailing enthusiast.
  • Augustus Prew ("About a Boy") as a loyal co-worker. This actor is either from Australia or his character is.
Although this story supposedly takes place in Puget Sound, the Vancouver B.C. locations work just fine. The tweens clapped when Zac took off his shirt and applauded when he kissed the girl, so it really didn't matter where they shot the film, so long as his gorgeous face wasn't blurred. The shirt removal scene was the steamiest one of the entire film, which is to say, no nudity, no sweaty bodies, no profanity; lots of Efron in wet t-shirts sailing, surfing and otherwise enjoying water sports.

I hope Zac Efron has a solid career ahead of him; so far, it looks like he is doing everything right.


Life During Wartime

Writer/Director Todd Solondz ("Palindromes") continues down his angst-ridden path with this new entry for the 2010 Seattle Inter- national Film Festival. I have pondered this title and for the life of me, I can't connect this story line about paedophilia with wartime...

We meet:
  • Shirley Henderson ("Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day") as "Joy," a misnomer if ever I saw one!
  • Allison Janney ("Away We Go") plays a divorced, single mother who has a secret, but wants a normal life. 
  • Michael Lerner ("A Serious Man") just might be normal enough to fit the bill. 
  • Ciarán (Keer' uhn) Hinds ("The Eclipse"), an ex-con who really WANTS to be normal. 
  • Ally Sheedy ("Citizen Jane") delivers the only funny monologue in this film. Her character is a totally self-involved artiste. 
  • Dylan Riley Snyder ("Valley of the Moon") is a little boy trying to figure out what constitutes "normal!"
You will also see Paul Reubens ("Pee Wee Herman") and Charlotte Rampling ("The Duchess") still polishing their indy film credits, with Michael K. Williams (Omar in "The Wire") opening and closing this bleak exercise in misery.


In this mindless, over-the-top action/drama/international espionage outing, Angelina Jolie ("Wanted" and "The Changeling") takes on a role originally written for Tom Cruise. He decided (and rightly so) that the character was too much like others he can play in his sleep, so it passed to Jolie.

She is a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy, so of course she has to go on the lam until she can find her missing husband and (maybe) save the world.

Starring with Ms. Jolie, we see:
  • Liev Schreiber ("The Manchurian Candidate" and "Defiance") as her sympathetic colleague in the CIA;
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Kinky Boots" and "Endgame") as an angry, confused FBI man. By the way, his name is pronounced "Chew-it-tell Edge-oh-for" and yes, he is British, although he is spectacularly good with dialects.
This international cast has accents to match, however I had no trouble making out the dialog...of which there is only as much as absolutely necessary; most of the 100-minute running time is taken up with impossible martial arts, preposterous vehicular mayhem, gunfire and blowie uppie stuff.

The last ten minutes are pretty good....If you paid close attention you might think you know what happened. If so, let me know, okay?


The Rape of Europa

This utterly fascinating documentary was recommended to me by a Seattle International Film Festival member, although it took me almost a year to obtain it from the library. As soon as I viewed it, I ordered my own copy and now I loan it to friends on a regular basis; it is riveting!

The "Rape" in the title is actually twofold: The first is the shameless plundering of art from all over Europe by Nazi Germany; the second is the struggle by the Allies to win the war without inflicting any further damage to the treasure troves in French, Italian, Dutch, Belgian, German, Austrian and Russian cities, churches and museums.

As we watch the gargantuan tasks assumed by Allied servicemen to find, catalog, restore and return mind-boggling numbers of priceless artifacts, we become as involved and invested in their success as they were. This sounds like a pretty unlikely topic for an entire movie, but trust me, it is engrossing from beginning to end!

You should be able to get this 2008 DVD from your local library, Netflix or a video catalog.


Despicable Me

Even though this kid-friendly animated film doesn't start out with "Once upon a time..." it certainly ends with "...and they all lived happily ever after." Or at least that is the unspoken sense we have as we exit the theater.

The animation is beautifully rendered by a French company, Mac Guff Ligne, which has an extensive résumé of mostly special effects for major motion pictures. The voice talents for this enterprise are noteworthy: Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, etc., etc., ad infinitum; but the important thing here is the STORY.

Our main character Gru, is a nefarious villain of the first water. He intends to be the world's top villain by the end of the year because he plans to shrink the moon, steal it, and hold it for ransom; but he is concerned about an up-and-coming young rival.

Gru applies for a loan at the Bank of Evil (formerly Goldman Sachs) but is rejected because he hasn't stolen the shrinker gizmo from his rival yet. As the competition escalates, he sees his arch enemy allow three orphaned Girl Scouts into his impenetrable fortress to order their cookies, so naturally our "hero" connives to adopt the little tykes. That way, he can break into the place when they go back to deliver.

Now we watch as these three little 'uns soften him up, bit by bit. There are very cute snippets with bedtime stories, ballet classes and a carnival ride, so we know long before our erstwhile crook, that he'll never be the same.

In addition, I should mention Gru's loyal army of little yellow firepluggy looking things. They provide additional comic relief and the children in the theater always greeted them enthusiastically.

The story is heart warming, the kids are cute, the action is absurd and the 3D is very good, but you absolutely MUST wait through most of the end credits, because the very BEST 3D is demonstrated there in a creative and clever sketch.



By definition, "Inception" means "the beginning of something" or in this instance, planting the seed of an idea in the brain. For action lovers, there are many levels of excitement because we explore many levels of sleep and/or dreams. For CGI lovers it means brilliant mind-bending Computer Generated Images. For lovers of involving, down-to-earth, understandable stories, it means a lot of esoteric claptrap.

See? Something for everyone!

Director Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight") has assembled a top-notch team:
  • Leonardo DiCaprio ("Shutter Island") heads a corporate espionage team which enters minds via dream invasion;
  • Marion Cotillard ("Nine") is his deceased wife;
  • Michael Caine ("Flawless") is his father;
  • Ken Watanabe ("Memoirs of a Geisha") is his boss;
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("(500) Days of Summer") is his chief architect of dreams;
  • Ellen Page ("Juno") is his new recruit; she serves as our stand-in as she is escorted around the facility and taught what they do there;
  • Cillian Murphy ("Breakfast on Pluto") is their target.
Be ready for vehicular mayhem, impossible gun fights, a spectacular fist fight in a gravity-free room, lots of explosions and an avalanche! This film has all the disjointed elements of a dream: lack of continuity, confusion, unrealistic settings, violence, abrupt changes of scene, and over-the-top emotions. Characters are dying...or not. Helpful...or not. Guilty...or not. Endings are happy...or not.

The audience was riveted, but ultimately I found the endless gunfire and blowie uppie stuff to be wearisome.


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Pity the poor boomers who bring their kidlets to the multiplex expecting a remake of Walt Disney's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice!" Mickey Mouse is nowhere to be found and the only tip of the hat to the animated classic is when our hapless hero sets brooms and mops to work...and we all know how THAT turns out!
  • Jay Baruchel ("How to Train Your Dragon") is a physics major in college, still trying to live down a traumatic event ten years earlier when he was humiliated in front of the girl on whom he had a crush.
  • Teresa Palmer ("Bedtime Stories") is that girl...who has a phobia about heights.
  • Nicholas Cage ("Kick-Ass") is the sorcerer. (With all his property doesn't he own a bathtub or shower? Yuck!)
  • Alfred Molina ("An Education") is a rival sorcerer, who at least is well-groomed and suave.
This is Computer Generated Imaging from the convoluted beginning right through to the slam-bang end. Lots of totally unrealistic car chases, lots of sword play, lots of blowie uppie stuff. I liked it though, when that big bronze bull comes to life on Wall Street.

In my opinion, Jay Baruchel gets handsomer with each successive movie. He is developing nicely...Hmmm...


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Yup, she really is!

This documentary, shot during her 75th year, includes lots of archival footage (Johnny Carson, Phyllis Diller, Kathy Griffin, Don Rickles, Donald Trump, etc.), plus lots of our eponymous comedienne kvetching about how poor she is, how desperate she is to work and how many people depend on her for steady employment.

Her New York City apartment is a stunner. She describes it as a place where Marie Antoinette would live ...if she had money... Lots of crystal chandeliers, Louis XV gilt furniture, art work, and glassware.

As you might expect, she gets a lot of mileage out of her age, her plastic surgery and her husband's suicide, while we get a peek at her relationship with her daughter Melissa and her grandson.

Suffice it to say, we see an extremely driven, hard-working woman who keeps killer hours, travels incessantly and is frantic to land her next job. No gig is beneath her, and in her opinion, she is never quite good enough.

Be prepared for raunchy comedy, lots of expletives and nothing bleeped out!
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Take a look:
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The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)

They did it again! With "Flickan som lekte med elden" (English captions) they took a fairly complicated and very exciting mystery, added two of our favorite, most likeable characters, mixed them up with some truly despicable villains and kept it all straight and relatable!

Our Goth hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander is back, perfectly depicted by Noomi Rapace; Michael Nyqvist brings his investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist back to appealing life and we are once again enthralled by vengeance, violence and villainy. All of the characters in author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy come complete with fully developed back stories so we understand the how and the why of events.

This time we are dealing with sex trafficking. Not only the crooks behind the industry, but the prominent johns who have a LOT to lose if word gets out about their predilection for abusing underage girls. Naturally Millennium magazine is on the front lines with its meticulously researched exposé ready for the printers.

Our shadowy Lis and our steady Mikael are pulled inexorably into the eye of the storm. She is accused of three murders and he is convinced she didn't do it. This film is tense, bloody and violent. However, unlike standard action movies, when a character is clobbered, it hurts, disabling him or her. No leaping back up and wading back into the fray when we KNOW how unrealistic THAT would be! In fact, by the time one character approaches a muddy, bloody heap of misery and murmurs, "I'm here..." I practically swooned.

Whew! THAT was sexy!


Winter's Bone

This highly acclaimed film comes with accolades from Sundance, Seattle International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. The lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence ("The Burning Plain") has been praised by every review I've read. Given the plot overview in the SIFF catalog, I skipped this one. Now that I have read all the glowing reports and been urged by friends, I gave in today.

Everything I try to avoid is in this film:
  • Poverty: the teenage daughter is tending her younger siblings while the mother seems to be in the grips of some sort of dementia.
  • Drugs: although that part went completely by me; in fact, if I hadn't read about the meth labs in other reviews, I would never have known. I missed that part of the plot because I couldn't make out the dialogue.
  • Victims: our girl works hard under primitive conditions, but is rejected, beaten, has a tooth knocked out and is threatened with eviction because her father put up their property as collateral when he posted bail and disappeared.
  • Dreariness: there is never a smile, the bleak weather is cold, overcast, or rainy and the interiors of homes, bars, barns, etc., are cluttered and soiled.
  • Horror: by the time that hateful old crone fired up the chainsaw, I was ready to bail.
I'm sure this is an artistic triumph and for those of you who appreciate this sort of artistry, please be my guest.


The Secret in Their Eyes

Sigh.... This is the way a romance should end...with a door quietly closing. It was waaaay more sensuous than sweaty bodies, full frontal nudity or other more overt signs of lust. In fact, I'm not sure we even saw a kiss....

Actually, this Argentine film "El secreto de sus ojos" (English captions) is a police procedural, well done and beautifully cast. We start with a scene we soon understand is from a book, after which we watch the author wad it up and throw it into a wastebasket. He is a grizzled fellow, probably in his fifties, a retired police detective convincingly played by Ricardo Darín ("The Dancer and the Thief"), still trim and fit, but unable to forget a murder which took place 20 years earlier.

In a flashback (by the way, the makeup is incredible), we see him called to the crime scene and start the process of finding the killer. Like him and the devastated widower, we become very much invested in finding justice for the victim.

The photography is excellent, with seemingly long single takes and note- worthy continuity. The characters seem authentic, as does the infighting at the police department and the relationships in the workplace, namely the loyal, hard-drinking co-worker, played by Guillermo Francella ("Incorregibles") and the new Assistant DA, played by Soledad Villamil ("It's Not You, it's Me").

I can't tell you too much because I want to avoid spoilers, but I highly recommend this film. No vehicular mayhem, no blowie uppie stuff, only eight gunshots, four of which may or may not have occurred.

This one is excellent.
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Here is a trailer (with English captions):
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The Kids Are All Right

Pity Josh Hutcherson ("Firehouse Dog")! This kid has to share the screen with titans! In this beautifully directed film about the teenaged children of a lesbian couple, who track down their sperm donor/father, Josh is working with:
  • Annette Bening ("The Women") who gives a beautifully nuanced performance as his physician mother, happy with her 20-year- long relationship;
  • Julianne Moore ("Chloe") who demonstrates why she is constantly honored by fans and critics alike, as his other mother, a little bit flaky and inconsistent;
  • Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") as his college-bound sister, the right balance of academia and sibling jabs, practical and smart;
  • Mark Ruffalo ("Date Night") is, alternately, appealing and befuddled as the sperm donor, drawn into an established family that is partly related to him.
This film took an unexpected turn or two but was consistently well acted and authentic. No one is perfect and no one qualifies for sainthood, which is pretty much like real life. Be prepared for a surprising amount of nudity and sex.

Josh DID have the best line: When asked why he doesn't want his mothers to break up, he points out, "You're too old!"



My first reaction when I saw the overview for this film was to reject it, then I read some reviews that praised it highly, so I reconsidered... I think I was right the first time!

Cyrus is a 20-year-old child raised and home-schooled by a single mother. He is played by Jonah Hill ("Get Him to the Greek"), while the mother is played by Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler"). Their relationship is intensely enmeshed, with icky Oedipal overtones.

John C. Reilly ("The Extra Man") is a long-time (seven years) divorced fellow who can't seem to get out of his rut. When his ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener ("Please Give") drops by to invite him to her up- coming wedding, his rut becomes a quagmire, so she insists he change his clothes and come to a party...whereupon he meets and falls for Ms. Tomei, who seems to respond.

The son quickly shows us, and Mr. Reilly, that his is the epitome of pas- sive aggression. Of course, his mother can't see this at all, which puts Mr. R in an extremely awkward position.

This is billed as a comedy, which it isn't; nor is it a tragedy or a musical, so I guess we'll call it a drama. We couldn't guess the writer/director Duplass brother's intended audience... Some of the screening crowd applauded, even though many of us felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, I saw it at a Landmark theater in Seattle, so the popcorn was freshly popped and THAT I enjoyed immensely.

The Last Airbender

Oh, M. Night Shyamalan, how the mighty are fallen....

Actually, the only movie in his directorial bag of tricks that impressed me was "The Sixth Sense," but even at that, the guy has been an A-Lister for years.

Why was I unbent by "The Last Airbender?" Let me count the ways:
  • Muddled story or stories, I couldn't tell which;
  • No character development, so there was no emotional connection on any level;
  • Some of the actors need diction lessons, other did fairly well;
  • Waaay too much Computer Generated Imaging, although some of it IS technically very good;
  • Only three scenes struck me as 3D, do NOT spend extra for the glasses;
  • Was this Part One of a series? Jiminy, I HOPE not!
  • The magic critter the teenagers ride was borrowed from "The Neverending Story."
  • I could list who acted in this thing, but I suspect they might prefer to forget...
When there is someone with a clipboard standing outside after a screening of this caliber, I dodge out the nearest exit! I only have so many bad things to say and I want to save them for YOU!