Monthly Archives: August 2012

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Downfall, but instead of Hitler and his bunker, it is Versailles and the French Revolution.  Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) is pampered by a coterie of attendants, including her reader and our protagonist (Lea Seydoux) a quiet but determined girl who adores her queen.  Her adoration never wanes, even after the queen asks her to take flight and pose as a more favored courtier, Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) with whom the Queen has developed a near romantic attachment.  Seydoux knows this could be her head, but out of a childish need to please, a desire for purpose, and ultimately, the chance to at least play both above her station and the queen’s favorite, she agrees.

Shot at Versailles, the film is beautiful, even as it deglamorizes its locale (mosquitos, rats, vicious gossip, heat, and dank cellars take precedence over finery and gold).  The depiction of life at court from the vantage point of rank-and-file staff has an “Upstairs, Downstairs” feel. Kruger plays Marie with the right mixture of caprice and entitlement. Seydoux is a bit tedious, however, because she is written as little more than a teen with a crush.  Though her scene in the carriage as she pretends to be Polignac is moving (she waves to the peasants, one of whom makes a throat-slitting motion and even that does not dissuade her from fully indulging in her moment of glory), following a teen with a crush for an entire film can be a little boring. At its most dour, I yearned for Sofia Coppola’s dizzying and silly Marie Antoinette.

Romantic.  Comedy.  Can one be successful with only a little bit of both?  The Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle, The Breakup (2006), fell into the category, as it depicted the deterioration of a relationship primarily built on convenience and a shared apartment.  The scenes between Vaughn and Aniston were so arch and cringe-inducing you wondered, ‘where the hell is the ‘rom’ much less the ‘com’?'”

Friends with Kids makes The Breakup seem like Love Actually.  Three couples form the center: the unmarried, platonic sister-brother like duo (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt); the canoodling, just pregnant, earthy types (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd);and the sizzling, “just had sex in the bathroom” couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wigg).  We meet them at a fancy dinner in Manhattan and then fast forward four years to a second meal at the home of Rudolph and O’Dowd.  Scott and Westfeldt are unchanged, but Rudolph and O’Dowd are now sloppy, harried and laden with kids (she screams at him for doing nothing, he does less, and their kids scream all around them).  Hamm and Wigg bring their own newborn, who appears to be just one source of tension in their quietly crumbling relationship.  Scott and Westfeldt survey the wreckage, determine they can do it better, have their own baby while maintaining their independence (and separate apartments in the same building) and live happily ever after.

Well, no.  Westfeldt is in love with Scott, and Scott has absolutely no clue – he’s bought into their experiment.  In the meantime, they go on a ski trip with their friends, each bringing a new beau (Megan Fox and Ed Burns).  Hamm and Wigg implode, and Westfeldt realizes that her love for Scott is so strong she must profess it.

So, let’s tally.  The first scene of mayhem and bitterness (the four years later dinner) is depressing.  The scene of Scott and Westfeldt trying to make years of friendship square with sex to conceive is uncomfortable.  The scenes of Scott casually mentioning how awesome Fox is to Westfeldt are brutal.  The ski trip is akin to the dental examination in Marathon Man.  And Westfeldt’s profession of love, which is spurned by Scott, will open the vodka.

I liked the picture, but it ain’t no rom-com.  Scott, as always, is perfect, both wry and when it is called forth, impressively anguished.  What is funny in the picture is largely due to the crude banter between Scott and Westfeldt.  The other characters play well, save for Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed.  She is so pitifully earnest, it didn’t seem a fair fight.  And the exchanges between the couples are often illuminating.

The film is also quietly traditional.  Scott and Westfeldt do appear to be doing well on the outside with their arrangement, but as the fissures show, during the ski trip from hell, Hamm, in his own deteriorating marriage with Wigg (note: the mastermind of Bridesmaids provides not one single laugh in this picture) delivers an angry, vicious broadside against their hubris.

Scott delivers an effective rebuttal, which, of course, cements Westfeldt’s love for him:

You think that we don’t love each other? You know, I have loved this girl for nineteen years, Ben. That is fully half my life. I know everything there is to know about her. I know the mood she’s in when she wakes up in the morning – always happy, ready for the day. Can you imagine? I know that she is honest; she won’t even take the little shampoo bottles from the hotel room, or sneak into the movie theater for a double feature. She always buys a second ticket. Always. I know that we have the same values, we have the same taste, we have the same sense of humor. I know that we both think that organized religion is completely full of shit. I know that if she is ever paralyzed from the neck down, she would like me to unplug her – and I will. I know her position on just about everything, and I am on board. I am on board with everything about her, so you tell me, Ben. What better woman could I have picked to be the mother of my child?

Nonetheless, the film culminates in Scott’s realization that Hamm was right – you can’t just craft a perfect bubble of domestic bliss by jettisoning the inconvenient parts, such as “’til death do us” and fidelity.

Still, this movie can be a trial.  And the picture is not too traditional.  It is probably the only film to conclude with the line, “Fu** the sh** out of me.”

This is a very funny parody of the unraveling of Richard Nixon, by this story, at the hands of two high school girls, one of whom lives at the Watergate and happens upon G. Gordon Liddy and the gang during the break-in.  To shut them up, the girls are given jobs as dog-walkers at the White House and become seminal in our nation’s history.

Dave Foley (from “Kids in the Hall”) is hilarious as H.R. Haldeman, Dan Hedaya is a workable Nixon – not quite as sweaty as Anthony Hopkins and nowhere near the master of all Nixons, Frank Langella, but still, he’s appropriately shifty and skulking.  Priceless is one girl’s fantasy about Nixon – she has fallen in love with “Dick”, who supplants Bobby Sherman in her world – and in one fantasy, Hedaya rides up on horseback on the beach to tell the girl “Pat understands”.

Bruce McCullouch (also from “Kids”) and Will Ferrell are laugh-out-loud as a fey and bickering Bernstein and Woodward.

Lasse Hallstrom’s film about a Maine orphanage and the maturation of one of its residents (Tobey Maguire) is a beautiful and sentimental picture notable for strong performances by Michael Caine and a score of child actors, and exceptional performances by Maguire and Delroy Lindo. Filmed in Maine and Massachusetts, the film’s score is as heart-tugging as its locale (in orphanages, children leave, die and undergo numerous ordeals, so be prepared). Nonetheless, with the exception of one or two scenes, Hallstrom is restrained in his depiction of the life of a Maine obstetrician and orphanage director who also performs illegal abortions (the film is circa 1940s).

Maguire, an orphan twice-returned, becomes Caine’s protege, but as with all young men, Maguire leaves the orphanage to see the world (or more of Maine) himself. Caine wants him back to carry on his work. Maguire wants to find out about life, and does.

Nothing happens here that you don’t expect to happen, but everything is so well-paced and finely acted, the film works even in the face of your foreknowledge.  Maguire, whose unrelenting wistfulness and glistening eyes can seem manipulative, is an apt choice to play a young man who has always done rather than felt – he has not yet formed his own identity through experience.  Such a role can be easily butchered.  Think a young Robin Williams, the naif who stares at wonderment at all he sees. This is Maguire’s sweet spot and he nails it.

Delroy Lindo, as the crew boss of a group of migrant apple pickers, is commanding. Lindo has an ability to convey so much in one chosen look – violence, confusion, pride – that you find yourself studying rather than watching him. Caine won best supporting actor, and he is, as usual, very good.  But Lindo was overlooked.

The film is unabashedly pro-choice in outlook. I did not find it at all preachy, but a significant thematic rift between Caine and Maguire centers on the issue, and there is no question as to where the filmmakers come down. This may not be the kind of thing you want in a film, but the forthrightness is not offputting.

Finally, while I was uplifted by the film, I was also completely undone and what I perceived as a beautiful but painful story, others may find schmaltzy and overt.  Rachel Portman’s original score is almost unfairly touching.