The Morning After #3: July 12, 2010

This weekend was more booked than I expected, but largely because I found that the film selected last week for the Feed the Queue feature was available to watch through Netflix online, so I did. So, we have five films (Despicable Me, Fanny, Julia, Michael Clayton and Moonstruck) and the latest episodes of Soap to review.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

Despicable Me

The best part of this film is that it’s entertaining. It isn’t particularly smart, profound or clever like most Pixar features, but it is enjoyable. The voice actors are barely recognizable, which helps keep the film from feeling like the latest stunt-casting animated feature of the week. It’s probably the cutest film of the year, but is also mostly innocuous. Most of the common animated elements are there, including cute-as-buttons children; adorable but strange creatures; and plenty of cartoonish action. While some may humor may not be that appropriate for younger children, they aren’t likely to get it anyway.

If you need a movie to delight the kids without feeling like your brain is being pureed in a blender, then Despicable Me may be the perfect choice. You will want to take the little monsters with you, you may be surprised at just how quiet and attentive they are. After all, other than one humiliating outburst from near the back row at my showing, the kids in the audience were quieter than I’ve heard them at any recent animated film I’ve seen.

Fanny

Parisian life must be wildly aloof and colorful as well as bombastic and self-centered while being simultaneously subdued and selfless. Fanny, much like Gigi, is a boisterous visual fling that covers no new territory, but present plenty of visual feasts. Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron are back together again suggesting that there weren’t a lot of recognizable French actors in that period. Caron is quiet and controlled as a young French woman, daughter of a local fishmonger, who falls in love with a handsome barkeep’s son (Horst Buchholz). She let’s him pursue his own life hoping he will return to her but without realizing the call of the sea was much stronger than she expected.

The film starts of overly expressive, far-fetched and overzealous, covering no new narrative territory. The characters presented by Chevalier and Charles Boyer are lent very little credibility as they jockey themselves for a position of superiority within the film. Although the film centers mostly on Caron and Buchholz, their exuberance threatens to sink the entire production. Yet, in the end, the characters calm down and pull out of their exaggerated performances to deliver a final act that is somewhat poignant and a little more non-traditional than the first two would have suggested.

Julia

The 1970s seemed to be the decade to go to for period dramas that not only looked gorgeous, but avoided many of the traditional narrative pitfalls of costume dramas. Julia may be stylish, but it’s a courageous portrait of a woman whose safe, non-confrontational life is enlivened by the charismatic, compassionate, revolutionary she grew up with. Jane Fonda gives one of her strongest performances as Lillian Hellman, the real-life playwright whose timid approach to life is changed when, at the outset of World War II, her childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes embroiled in an Austrian resistance movement aimed at saving Jews from the violent thumb of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Redgrave is luminous in her brief, but anchoring performance. There’s a world weary spirit in her eyes, the conflict and hatred surrounding her having tried to dim her enthusiasm. The film itself is a strange mixture of period drama and spy thriller that doesn’t have the explosions, violence or excitement reserved for James Bond and his ilk, but instead, Lillian is constantly watching her back and trying to avoid detection as she performs a dangerous mission that will bring great aide to her dear friend. The film starts off a bit slowly, but through the middle act, you get drawn in so effectively that director Fred Zinnemann could ask you to carry a package to Germany and you’d have little choice but to agree. The last half hour of the film sets a different tone from the rest of the film and ends rather abruptly, but the middle section supports the rest of the film in spite of it all.

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is masculine version of Erin Brockovich with a few extra twists thrown in and quite a bit more danger. Buoyed by a strong central performance from George Clooney, the film navigates the dangerous waters surrounding corporate greed and corruption. Clooney plays an ex-lawyer-turned-fixer called in when an old friend played by Tom Wilkinson who has gone off his meds amidst the dreadful realization that he’s spent the last year of his life preparing a defense for a vicious and irresponsible corporation whose products have killed many while knowing of the harsh side effects of their farming chemical.

Wilkinson’s performance verges on excessive, but there are a few scenes where he nails the desperation and frustration and intelligence of his character, which more than make up for some of his more bombastic antics. The other noted performance in the film comes from Tilda Swinton who plays a ranks-climbing executive at the chemical company at the center of the criminal case who must make tough decisions on how to keep the information Wilkinson has uncovered from reaching the public and destroying her company and her career. Being a new corporate addition, her frustration, timidity and fear are as clear as her confidence and the preparation she must take to get there. It’s the performance of an actress assured in her abilities.

Moonstruck

If you’ve ever fell in love with New York or in New York, this may very well be the embodiment of that event. Moonstruck is an exuberant, aggressive and rewarding film about a New York divorcee (Cher) whose love life is so dire and frustrating that she agrees to marry a man who she does not love just to get herself off the playing field. As her fiancee (Danny Aiello) flies to Italy to be with his ailing mother, he asks her to do one thing for him while she’s gone, find his brother and convince him to put the past behind them and come to his wedding.

As you can expect, after a volatile first encounter with the brother (Nicolas Cage), the two become romantically involved as Cher’s father Vincent Gardenia cats around with another woman and her mother Olympia Dukakis acts as the family’s column of support despite her own feelings of dissatisfaction. It is played as if this were the quintessential Italian New York family and for the most part it is the embodiment of what we’ve seen in film for quite some time, but whether it’s authentic or not isn’t really that important to whether the film is enjoyable and despite not being your typical event-laden melodrama of New York romantic endeavors, it’s a pleasing, smallish film that evinces that love can still be found even when you’ve given up hope.

Soap

I’m really starting to run out of things to say about Soap. As I push through the third season of the show, I’m reminded how quickly a solid, entertaining program can start fading in intelligence, wit and humor. Although there are still many laugh-out-loud moments in the show, it is slowly dwindling in terms of creative energy. The plots are either becoming placid and unexceptional or exceedingly outrageous. It’s still a fun show and I have no quandaries about finishing things out, but it’s becoming clear why the show wasn’t able to last more than four seasons.

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