January 22, 2011

No Strings Attached

A surprisingly good, thoughtful, mature, and nuanced romantic sex comedy.
The TV commercials made it look like FuckBuddies: The Movie, but the movie itself does a lot more than that.
Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are childhood friends who run into each other every couple of years, When Harry Met Sally style. When Adam's father (Kevin Kline) starts sleeping with Adam's ex girlfriend, he goes on a night of manic drinking. He wakes up naked in Emma's apartment: he didn't have sex with her the night before, but they have a fifteen-years-in-the-making quickie by the dawn's early light.
Thus begins a no-strings-attached sex-only non-friendship. Unlike that episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry and Elaine are exes-turned-friends who want to start having the sex part again, Emma and Adam aren't exes, and they aren't really friends.
Emma refuses to open up emotionally, she uses Adam as a sexual release only. Adam is the romantic puppy dog type, which is against their ground rules, but speaks the truth about what they're both feeling.

The plot and structure break no new ground, but I really appreciated the adult tone, and by "adult", I don't mean gross-out humor, sex talk, or swearing as a punchline, although that stuff is present. What I mean is, the characters talk like real people talk, they swear like real people do. They have impromptu sex, with fumbling of clothes and condom applicating, like real people (just prettier.) On TV and in PG-13 movies, you don't always miss the lack of swearing, until you watch a rated R movie like No Strings Attached, where people talk frankly. At one point in the movie, a character calls another and opens themselves up emotionally...but gets turned down. Their response? "Oh fuck!"
The plot and structure won't win any awards, but the movie gets kudos for not fucking up the ending. The last scene of the movie nearly takes place at a wedding ceremony, but thank God that was avoided.
My review has a twist ending: the movie was directed by Ivan Reitman! He directed Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. Since 1984, he's directed ten mostly forgettable movies, and now this. No Strings Attached is hardly a comedy classic, but "thoughtful and nuanced romantic comedy" is okay too.
The Cast: The TV commercials didn't interest me, but once I heard that this movie was above average, I was intrigued to see if Natalie Portman could be funny. Answer: surprisingly YES. She has a couple of funny scenes, especially when she gets drunk. Her drunk walk is terrific, and she goes off on some other drunken skanks like a berzerking hamster. Ashton Kutcher is a foot taller than Portman, and they do make jokes about this in the movie. I never really watched That 70s Show, but I have liked Kutcher since Dude, Where's My Car? He's charming, funny, and pleasantly subtle and vulnerable. Jake Johnson and Ludacris are terrific as Adam's friends. Emma's friends are also great, especially Mindy Kaling. Lake Bell is a manic talkative coworker of Adam's, and who knew she could be funny? She was sexy, tall, and dramatic on the TV show Surface, Alec Baldwin's Amazonian wife in It's Complicated, and somehow she's only 5'8"? She looks seven feet tall!
SEX NOTE: Natalie Portman has had graphic movie sex with two stars of That 70s Show: Kutcher, and Mila Kunis in Black Swan. Topher Grace, call your agent!
TRAILER NOTES: A few weeks ago I saw a preview for this movie plus two others: The Farelly Brothers' new comedy Hall Pass, where two married men are given a week off from their marriages, and Friends With Benefits, which might be the exact same premise as No Strings Attached, except with Justin Timberlake and a different petite brunette from Black Swan (Mila Kunis)? Apparently romantic sex comedies come in threes.
THEATER NOTES: At the Harvard Square Church St Screen 1. Thanks to Amy, Mary Beth, and Laura for coming out to the movies in the subzero temperatures. Especially Laura, who traditionally prefers more explosions and gunfire in her movies! This was one of those Los Angeles Utopia movies which makes you want to move there, and be wealthy, and not have to work. I Love You, Man had the same effect on me. All those t-shirts and jeans, gentle Pacific breezes, and rust-free vintage cars are especially alluring when you're wearing six wool and flannel-lined layers. No one has to park in a snowbank in this movie.

January 5, 2011

New Year's Weekend Super-Babysitting Movie Madness!

Four Movies in Four Days
Five years ago, I saw five movies in six days, over the New Year's vacation break. Half a decade later, my wife and I see a combined four in four days...

Date: Thursday December 30
Guys Movie Night: TRON LEGACY 3D
Regal Fenway Screen 13 "Regal Premium eXperience" ($16 per ticket!)
With: Adam, George, Jeff, and Marc

It turns out I was the only one of the five who had seen and remembered the plot of the 1982 TRON. I gave Adam the two-minute plot summary, I condensed  that down to 30 seconds for George, then George summed it up as "Jeff Bridges gets sucked into a computer" for Jeff and Marc.
In the wake of The Matrix movies, the world is more than ready for a new TRON movie, and this sequel delivers. Terrific game sequences, the visual effects are great, the music is outstanding, the volume of the sound system was awe-inspiring, and the skintight plastic costumes were jaw-dropping. Seems like we get a lot of those at Guys Movie Night?
I really appreciate the hard work and ambition which went into the "Clu" character, aka, "The Young CGI Jeff Bridges". He looked 98% real. The missing 2% was super-creepy, but I could not look away.
The basic plot is the same as the original ("voyage across computer landscape to destroy evil despot, meet string of strange characters along the way") but the subplots didn't make any sense at all.
Special hooray for the return of Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role from the original. It's been twelve years since Babylon 5 went off the air, and at age 60 he looks great.
I was surprised at how good Olivia Wilde was as Flynn's adopted program-daughter Quorra. I don't like her on the TV show "House", and I assumed (based on the TV spots) that she was a sex object in this movie, but she actually was kind of like a curious wide-eyed child instead.

Also turning heads was James Frain (True Blood, The Tudors) as Clu's #1 toady Jarvis. Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock) is ridiculous as Zuse, an albino David Bowie/Sweet Transvestite bar owner. Then again, I saw him in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans as a shirtless, bearded, oily werewolf, and my wife reports he's pretty saucy in Twilight: New Moon, so this role fits right in.
I'm sorry to report Garrett Hedlund doesn't bring a lot to the table, but at least he's more emotive than the Uncanny Valley Jeff Bridges!
Grade: B


Date: Saturday January 1, 2011
My wife saw The Fighter with her sister Sara

Date: Saturday January 1, 2011
Black Swan
West Newton Cinema
With: the wife

In the schizophrenic psycho-sexual thriller Black Swan, Natalie Portman is Nina the ballerina. Nervous, paranoid, underfed, and fragile, her quick shallow breathing marks her at every moment. She is the new lead in Swan Lake. She must become both the good white swan and the opposite black swan. All she wants is perfection, but can she be perfect in a role which requires two opposite personalities? The movie is one endless paranoid dream. We aren't granted one moment to catch our breath. Nina is watched and judged everywhere she goes. She has no privacy. No personal space. Her body is not her own- her mother, her director, her coaches, the costumers, all manhandle and manipulate her body at will. Then she discovers a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) who is either out to destroy her, or unleashing Nina's untapped id...or both. Then the unreal visions creep in, Nina comes totally unhinged, and her body begins to transform, against her will or not, she will become the black swan. This movie scared the heck out of me, and totally disturbed the older conservative crowd at West Newton. It was a little too visceral and Jungian for their taste. I thought it was juicy and terrific. My grade: A-minus

Date: Sunday January 2
The King's Speech
Landmark Kendall Square
With: Adam, Amy, and Kathy

All those nice folks who went to see Black Swan might have been less disturbed by the pleasant heart-warmer The King's Speech.
This is a biopic done right. The King's Speech tells a man's whole life story through one brief but pivotal chapter in his life. No flashbacks to an oppresive childhood, no scenes in old man makeup, just one story, over the course of a year or two, and an interesting piece of British history too: It's the story of "The Reluctant King" George VI (Colin Firth), who ascended to the throne after his elder brother abdicated for love (to a divorced American) in 1936. Besides the fact that Prince "Bertie" Albert never wanted or expected to be King in the first place, he has to become a public speaker despite a crippling stammer.
Thanks to the advent of radio, Bertie has to speak not only to small groups, but to the entire Empire at once, all over the world, on live radio. There is no pre-recording, no tape editing in 1936. Oh, and did I mention World War II is about to start and the Kingdom needs him now more than ever?
Bertie and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) -- us Yanks remember her as The Queen Mum who lived to 101-- finally turn to unconventional Aussie Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helps the Prince break through his stammer with pop psychology, simple verbal tricks, and, most importantly, friendship. That sounds super-corny, but Bertie literally has no friends, no one to speak to him bluntly and honestly, no one to order him around. As Lionel says "what are friends for?" Bertie replies "I wouldn't know."
The prospect of watching someone stammer for 90 minutes is daunting, but Colin Firth has such a reservoir of goodwill built up in the hearts of moviegoers, we are pulling for him from the beginning. His performance of the stammer is nowhere near as grating as it could be, yet it feels totally realistic. Helena Bonham Carter is terrific as the Queen Mother; like her husband, she never expected Bertie to become King, so when she meets commoners, she treats the formalities of her rank with an amused detachment.
My grade: A-minus

MPAA Rating Note: The King's Speech is rated "R" for language.  This is ridiculous. Prince Albert's therapist encourages him to shout out swear words to loosen him up. Bertie comically yells a string of curse words, including f*** a half-dozen times in a row. Besides this string of f-bombs, the film deserves a "PG" for drinking and smoking. Even the smoking, which some feel should earn any movie an automatic "R" (watch out, 101 Dalmatians and Alice In Wonderland) is presented as an unhealthy crutch. Geoffrey Rush's character points out that cigarettes will kill you, and, much like Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding, Bertie tends to light up at moments of stress and weakness. On the whole, a pretty good advertisement against smoking, wouldn't you say?

CASTING NOTES: Timothy Spall is great in a small role as Winston Churchill, but I admit I was a little distracted when Spall and Helena Bonham Carter's characters meet at a party. Bellatrix Lestrange and Wormtail? Two Death Eaters at Balmoral Castle? Of course, Dumbledore played the King of England too...
Lionel's wife is played by Jennifer Ehle, best known in her role as Elizabeth Bennet, opposite Colin Firth, in 1995's Pride and Prejudice.