Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Film Round-Up for December

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Emily Blunt (pictured) impresses, The Messenger depresses, Clooney regresses, and The Strip, is just kind of there (though it is nice to see Dave Foley and Checlie Ross get work.)

As always these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.

Happy holidays!

The Young Victoria (Dir: Jean-Marc Vallee). Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann. Entertaining and informative biopic covers the early years of young Queen Victoria's reign, when she emerged from familial in-fighting and a sheltered childhood to flourish as a leader and as a lady. Crucial in both developments was her cousin Prince Albert (Friend), who started off as his uncle's political pawn but ended up falling in love with her. Emerging star Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) is terrific in the lead, growing up before our eyes, with Friend shining as a husband who refuses to be marginalized. In key supporting roles, the ever-reliable Richardson (as Victoria's smother mother, the Duchess of Kent) and Bettany (as Victoria's ambitious adviser, Lord Melbourne) are excellent. Vallee and screenwriter Julian Fellowes seamlessly blend history and romance, while getting a nice assist from Hagen Bogdanski's kinetic cinematography. The movie never feels like a well-dressed history textbook or romantic puffery, making it an ideal date movie and
the star vehicle that should take Blunt to the next level. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and Martin Scorsese served as producers. [PG] ***

The Strip (Dir: Jameel Khan). Starring: Rodney Scott, Billy Aaron Brown, Dave Foley, Jenny Wade, Cory Christmas, Federico Dordei, Chelcie Ross. In the vein of Clerks and Waiting comes another slice-of-life look at young people toiling in the service industry. Here we meet the employees of a third-rate Illinois electronics store located in a shabby strip mall. Kyle (Scott) is in line for a managerial position--his dad owns the store he works in--but he isn't sure that he wants it. Kyle's underachieving friend Jeff (Brown) has been lost since things with his girlfriend ended. Nice guy Avi (Dordei) gets ready for his arranged marriage, while ace salesman Rick (Christmas, channeling Jack Black) strives for an acting career that appears well out of his reach. Writer/director Khan's low-key debut film features a likable cast (Foley, as the store's overly earnest manager, stands out) and gentle humor, but we've seen these characters before and Khan never takes full advantage of the retail setting. Not a bad movie, just one that never gets into second gear. [PG-13] **

The Messenger (Dir: Oren Moverman). Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Eamonn Walker. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is a troubled war hero, months away from ending his U.S. Army commitment and still not over his ex-lover (Malone), who gets one last long-term assignment: to personally inform relatives that their loved ones have died in combat. Paired with a hard-ass superior (Harrelson, who's everywhere these days), the young man goes about his grisly, stoic business. However, after a house call to an unflappable young mother (Morton), Montgomery becomes infatuated with her and gradually becomes a fixture in her life. Well-acted by everyone involved, but director/co-writer Moverman makes the mistake of covering the emotional turmoil of soldiers—something that's been done repeatedly—when it should be about two lost souls finding each other in a time of ungodly chaos. Because of its insistence in reciting "war is hell" cliches, Morton and Foster's painful courtship feels like a subplot, not what makes the movie special. [R] **

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Dir: Grant Heslov). Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang. Clooney, reuniting with Good Night, and Good Luck screenwriter Heslov, plays a semi-retired psychic solider (trained by the U.S. Army) who meets a rudderless, unsatisfied journalist (McGregor) in Iraq and proceeds to reveal his shadowy past as they stumble upon the story's next chapter. Alternately wacky, satirical, and heartfelt, Heslov has a difficult time transitioning between those elements, while no rapport develops between Clooney and McGregor because of the script's constant reliance on flashbacks. In supporting roles, Bridges and Spacey summon inspiration from their most memorable characters (Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski and Lester Burnham, respectively) and deliver somnolent, uninspiring performances. Goats is a classic example of a movie that mistakes activity for achievement, moving in so many directions that there's nothing substantive on which to focus. Basically, it's Oscar-intentioned artifice. The fact that this movie will probably be long gone from theaters by the time you read this is proof that the public didn't bite. [R] **

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