Dec 16

“Collateral Beauty”: Misguided Grief Therapy

Loving support is offered to grief-stricken Howard (Will Smith) in Collateral Beauty, the star-packed film with the interesting title and trailer you were hoping was this year’s holiday heart-warmer. Think again, say most critics.

“Love, Time, Death. These three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death,” states Howard at the start of the trailer:

Plot development as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, Guardian:

This horrifyingly yucky, toxically cutesy ensemble dramedy creates a Chernobyl atmosphere of manipulative sentimentality, topped off with an ending which M Night Shyamalan might reject as too ridiculous. This isn’t Frank Capra. It is emotional literacy porn, like an aspirational self-help bestseller written by Keyser Söze. At the end of it, I screamed the way polar bears are supposed to when they get their tongues frozen to the ice.

Will Smith plays a super-brilliant ad exec with a Ted-talking visionary schtick about connectivity. But when he tragically loses his six-year-old to cancer, poor Will becomes a mumbling semi-crazy hermit who is in danger of running his company into the ground. He starts writing letters to abstract concepts like Death, Love and Time, to rail at them. So his sorrowing colleagues – Ed Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña – cook up a sneaky plan. They intercept the letters and hire three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, to go up to Will in the street and argue with him, pretending to be Death, Love and Time. (They could also have hired Jack Black to be Eat and Morgan Freeman to be Pray – but I guess there were copyright issues.)

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Even if it hadn’t come along so soon after Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s symphonic drama about a father emotionally crippled by loss, Collateral Beauty would look like silly high-concept Hollywood grief porn.

It’s a ludicrous plot device, right out of Gaslight, as Brigitte [Mirren] observes…

Good thing (?) Howard has his group therapy led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who’s also lost a child. Dan Callahan, The Wrap: “…Madeleine tells Howard about being at the hospital when an older woman turned to her to say that she must appreciate the ‘collateral beauty’ of her situation. Yes, Harris is actually made to say the ultra-lame title of this movie out loud — more than once — and she acts as if it is the most profound statement in the world.”

Peter Bradshaw, Guardian: Collateral beauty is “…like collateral damage only positive. Moments of loss are offset by revelations of human wonder at the resulting gestures of compassion and kindness. At least …I think that is how ‘collateral beauty’ is supposed to work because no-one in this movie spells it out – perhaps because doing so would reveal the concept to be dishonest nonsense.”

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush: “I still don’t know what ‘collateral beauty’ means.” Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “Forget ‘Collateral Beauty,’ whatever that means. This is ‘Collateral Schmaltz,’ the kind that has the power to close rather than open your heart as you rush out of the theater while the terribly named One Direction ballad, ‘Let’s Hurt Tonight,’ provides exit music.”

Leah Greenblatt, ew.com:  “These actors are too good to be entirely sunk by the sheer silliness of the material (with the exception of Smith, who seems fully committed to playing the role of a human frown-face emoji). But for all good Intentions, they can’t save a movie that so clearly wants to be something greater– It’s a Will-derful Life? Grief, Actually?—but mostly ends up a Collateral mess.”

Feb 19

“The Defining Decade” By Meg Jay: “Laggies” Should Read

Megan (Keira Knightley) in the film Laggies (now on DVD) could stand to read Dr. Meg Jay‘s The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now (2012). The book review of Dr. J. Anderson Thomas, Jr.: “Listen to me closely. If you know someone already in or entering the third decade of life, or their parents, or their therapist, you must give them this book. Meg Jay slams a cultural corrective on our desk. Pay attention. The twenties are the defining decade of human life where the foundation of every future is laid…No one should turn thirty without having read this book.”

Check out more of The Defining Decade book reviews: it’s been a hit. Jay’s specialization, you see, is the anxieties of twentysomethings.

“In one way or another,” says Jay, “almost every twentysomething client I have wonders, ‘Will things work out for me?’ The uncertainty behind that question is what makes twentysomething life so difficult, but it is also what makes twentysomething action so possible and so necessary. It’s unsettling to not know the future and, in a way, even more daunting to consider that what we are doing with our twentysomething lives might be determining it.”

An article by Jay in The Huffington Post offers a list of how “twentysomethings screw up their lives. Click on the link for more details.

1. Spending all your time with your urban tribe–you’re not at Burning Man! “…The urban tribe is overrated. Twentysomethings who won’t ask outsiders for advice and favors and invitations fall behind those who will.”
2. Hoping that Powerball ticket will make your dreams come true. “…The question twentysomethings really need to ask themselves is ‘What would I do with my life if I didn’t win the lottery?’ What do you do well enough to support the life you want and what do you enjoy enough that you won’t mind working at it, in some form or another, for decades to come?
3. Stalking on Facebook (and then sulking at home). “…See Facebook pages for what they are, as one of my clients calls them: ‘self-advertisements.’ You have to be aware of what you’re seeing–and what you’re not seeing–or else you’ll never get off the couch and face the real world.”
4. Dating losers. “Too many twentysomethings have low-criteria or no-criteria relationships because they don’t think who they date in their 20s matters. But dating down is dangerous when a series of bad relationships leaves us damaged and depressed–or when suddenly that person we never had any intention of staying with starts to look better than starting over. Find someone you deserve and who is worth it.”
5. Being “too cool” for a desk job. “…Twentysomething unemployment and underemployment isn’t cool. Maybe you imagine you’ll get it together one day but salaries peak–and plateau–in our 40s, so people who start careers in their 30s never catch up with those who started earlier.”
6. Spending too much time with your Playstation. “…These are use-it-or-lose years when neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.
7. Shacking up too early. “…Couples who cohabitate before becoming engaged are less satisfied and committed in their marriages–and are more likely to divorce–than couples who don’t….”
8. Acting like you’re on a reality TV show. “…The twentysomething brain finds negative information–such as reprimands from bosses and rejections from lovers–more memorable and exciting than positive information. Don’t stoke the drama via Gchat and text messages. Teach your still-forming brain to calm itself down with what is going right. Twentysomethings who can control their emotions keep their jobs and relationships…”
9. Ignoring your ovaries. “…Did you know female fertility peaks at 28? That ≤ of your fertility is gone by age 35? That the average cost of fertility treatments at age 40 is $100,000? That half of childless couples wish they weren’t childless? Planning to deal with kids at 40 is no plan…”

You can also see her TED talk, “Why 30 Is Not the New 20,” below:

Jul 16

“Begin Again”: A Music-Themed Relationship Story

Writer/director John Carney had a huge hit with the musical/romance Once (2006). His current offering, dramedy Begin Again, also has music-focused relationships at its core, though in a different way.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley play the leads. Steven Rea, Philly.com, sets up the plot:

[There’s]…Dan Mulligan…a divorced dad with a drinking problem who wakes up late for a big meeting at the record company he cofounded, only to find out, when he finally shows, that he’s been fired.
Drowning his sorrows at a downtown bar, he sees Gretta take the stage, pick up a guitar, and go into a dark, twangy number about contemplating a leap off the subway platform. Sure, Gretta’s ditty matches Dan’s desperate mood, but he hears something in her song. ‘I’m thinking Norah Jones, singer/songwriter thing!’ he tells her later, loonily, over beers. Beers she has to pay for because he’s broke.
So begins the professional courtship of Gretta and Dan. She’s reluctant, ready to go home to London. He sees redemption in her songs, calling in old favors to record a demo that will make Gretta famous, and make him the industry whizbang he once was.

Other characters include the wife (Catherine Keener) from whom Dan is separated, their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s rapper friend (Cee Lo Green), and Gretta’s boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine).

Watch the trailer:

What follows are review excerpts that approximate my own opinions after seeing it.

DAN

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Ruffalo plays him as a damaged guy, and though the man might be attractive, the damage is not, and it’s extensive. He’s not beaten up in the way a 30-year-old might be. This is late 40s beat up, like life has been pummeling him with a baseball every day for decades.”

GRETTA

Steven Rea, Philly.com: “The best thing about Begin Again is Knightley, who brings those daunting cheekbones to bear on a screenplay that allows her to cite the artistic integrity of Randy Newman, to insist it’s the music that matters, not the color of your hair, and to tell Adam Levine to bugger off.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Next to Ruffalo, Knightley looks like the essence of freshness, and she has never been more charming onscreen. Her smile is genuine, her poise is winning, and her singing is quite good, even if she sounds like everybody else on the radio. Knightley makes us believe that Dan is right, that Greta is a person of value, who deserves success, whether or not she gets it.”

THE RELATIONSHIP

Peter Debruge, Variety: “What follows is a courtship, but not the kind you might expect. Rather, it’s a professional tango, as Dan tries to convince Gretta to trust him with her music, while she slowly comes to believe in and encourage the qualities in Dan with which he’d lost touch…”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I enjoyed, pretty consistently, was the brittle chemistry between Dan and Gretta, who are falling provisionally in love but aren’t sure how real that is and where it’s likely to lead. They have rescued each other in an unfriendly and heartbroken world and maybe that’s more than enough, especially since each of them is conspicuously still in love with someone else. This is a real love story that’s not about consummation or certainty, a variety we’ve all experienced in real life that only occasionally shows up in the movies.

THE MUSIC

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I did not particularly enjoy in ‘Begin Again,’ sad to say, were the songs, which are largely written by Gregg Alexander with various collaborators. Oh, they’re OK, in an exhausted folk-pop vein, which might also describe Knightley’s capable but unmemorable singing voice. But put this movie’s intended hits, like ‘Step You Can’t Take Back’ or ‘Lost Stars,’ up against anything sung by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in ‘Once,’ and they sound essentially manufactured. Which is more than a little ironic in a movie that is purportedly about rejecting pop-music artifice and embracing authenticity. There’s a reason that the high point of Dan and Gretta’s ambiguous romance, and their obligatory late-night ramble through Manhattan, is set to ‘As Time Goes By,’ Stevie Wonder singing ‘For Once in My Life’ and Sinatra singing ‘Luck Be a Lady.’ There is no conflict between artifice and authenticity in those songs; both are in abundance. That’s always been the key to great pop.

OVERALL REVIEWS

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…Carney deserves great credit for the movie’s clever, layered structure, and for resisting a few obvious plot turns along the way. Lightning doesn’t strike, but sunshine works, too.”

Steve Pond, TheWrap: “…(T)here are times when the thing you want most is not a big, important movie but a simple, beautiful story told with sensitivity, warmth, humor and a big heart. Times when you don’t need a movie to save your life, you just need a movie to make you feel good.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “‘Begin Again’ may not always swing, but it makes up for that in sincerity and a welcome willingness to ambush expectations.”

Steven Rea, Philly.com:

So, can a song save your life? [former title of Begin Again] And can an impossibly mushy, mawkish movie make you feel good?
The answer to the second question, anyway, is yes.

Feb 14

“Atonement”: For Your Anti-Valentine’s Consideration

But how can a person atone? Some wrongs can’t be righted. Some crimes can’t be forgiven. When a moment is lost, it’s lost. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, regarding Atonement

Always for some reason interested in what’s new in Anti-Valentine’s sentiments, I came across the listing of Atonement, a favorite movie of mine from 2007, as someone’s idea of something to watch if you’re a viewer who isn’t feeling so Valentine-y, whether now or ever.

Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan, is about love, yes, but it’s actually a romance of the tragic kind—as well as a mystery of sorts.

Many who’d read the book were afraid the movie wouldn’t do it justice. Most were more than pleased with the results.

Atonement starts out in rural England, 1935. We meet 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). She and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) are of an upper crust family, whereas Cecilia’s romantic interest, Robbie (James McAvoy), has working-class roots.

Ann HornadayWashington Post: “Central to it all is Briony, who is fairly bursting with passion, ambition, anxiety and thwarted desire. The emotional muddle out of which Briony observes those around her, resulting in events that will change their lives forever, can be attributed to adolescent hormones, but also the spirit of a precocious artist coming to terms with her powerful gifts.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, sets up the initial scenes, which reveal how Briony’s youth and situational confusion heralds major trouble:

Briony is the sister of Cecilia (Knightley), who is in love with Robbie (McAvoy), though he doesn’t know it. For the first few minutes of the film, we see Cecilia and Robbie’s burgeoning passion through the hungry but uncomprehending gaze of Briony. From an upstairs window, she witnesses an odd scene that seems faintly depraved to her eyes. And then, in the first indication that this is no Jane Austen retread, the movie does something narratively innovative: It rewinds the clock by about 15 minutes and shows us the same incident from the perspective of Cecilia and Robbie. It’s much more innocent the second time.

‘Atonement’ soon turns into a film that puts viewers on the edge of their seats wanting to know what happens next. The turn comes no more than 20 minutes in, with an event that’s so compelling and surprising that no one reading this deserves to have it spoiled. (Friendly advice: Don’t read any other reviews.)

I agree. If you haven’t ever seen Atonement, skip trying to know too many details about it beforehand. It’s better that way.

How about some sweeping and brief summaries instead?

Roger Ebert: “‘Atonement’ begins on joyous gossamer wings, and descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss. Its opening scenes in an English country house between the wars are like a dream of elegance, and then a 13-year-old girl sees something she misunderstands, tells a lie and destroys all possibility of happiness in three lives, including her own.”

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: “Ian McEwan’s beautiful novel, masterfully adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright (‘Pride & Prejudice’), is at its heart about language and its power: about the way a lie told by a child — inspired by a letter not intended for her eyes — changes the lives of those who hear it; and how that child later longs to make things right again…”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…(I)t’s a story of a youthful jealousy that leads to a monstrous falsehood that in turn ruins the lives of a disparate group of people, and ultimate retribution that comes decades too late.”

The trailer, of course, hints at more:

Some Brief Overall Reviews

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “It’s some kind of miracle. Written, directed and acted to perfection, Atonement sweeps you up on waves of humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance.”

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: “On paper and on screen, ‘Atonement’ is a story of rare beauty, both wrenching and wise.”

Jack MathewsNew York Daily News: “It is an amazing story, filled with quiet moments of profundity and more surprises than you could imagine.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:

Nothing comes easily in ‘Atonement,’ especially its ending, which, both happy and tragic, is as wrenching as it is genuinely satisfying.

Like McEwan, albeit with a vastly different artistic grammar, Wright casts a spell every bit as captivating as Briony’s tangled web. It’s fitting, somehow, that a novel so devoted to the precision and passionate love of language should be captured in a film that is almost too exquisite for words.

Dec 25

“Love Actually” Is All Around: A Romantic Christmas Favorite

Love Actually is irresistible. You’d have to be Ebenezer Scrooge not to walk out smiling. Claudia Puig, USA Today

The above review excerpt was written, of course, when Love Actually was in theaters in 2003. Now, instead of walking out smiling, you can smile in your pj’s and never leave the couch.

Set mostly in London in the five weeks leading up to Christmas, Love Actually features a bunch of interconnected stories with a theme of—you guessed it—love, actually. And there’s an old song by The Troggs that figures prominently, “Love Is All Around,” that one main character, a recording artist, adapts for the holiday.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, the film boasts lots of big names—Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman among them.

More from Claudia Puig:

Among the better scenarios are Grant as a bachelor prime minister who is too busy to look for a wife. He surprises himself (and everyone else) by being smitten with a down-to-earth staffer (Martine McCutcheon), a slightly more full-figured gal than average. There’s an unexpectedly bittersweet bond between the luminous Keira Knightley and her husband’s reserved best friend (Andrew Lincoln). And for tearjerking moments, no one can beat Thompson’s performance as the stalwart wife of the straying Rickman. A Christmas Eve scene showcases her talent for comedy, pathos and pluck, all the while breaking our hearts.

The sum of Love Actually is greater than its parts. The film is bookended by shots of ordinary people affectionately greeting and tearfully seeing each other off at an airport. The device is a bit forced, but ultimately touching. The same could be said for the movie as a whole, which winningly demonstrates that despite all odds, love is indeed all around us.

If you’re in the mood for Love, actually or otherwise, I believe this movie is winningly sweet. I’ve seen it twice myself. The trailer’s below:

Roger EbertChicago Sun-Times: “The movie’s only flaw is also a virtue: It’s jammed with characters, stories, warmth and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn’t want to leave anything out.”