Love Actually


Love Actually

Is it love actually or lust actually?

(2003) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Rodrigo Santoro, Gregor Fisher, Thomas Sangster, Lucia Moniz, Andrew Lincoln. Directed by Richard Curtis

Our world can be a hard, cruel place. We are buffeted on all sides by cruelty and meanness. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us sane in this world is the love of another, but that seems to be in short supply in these hard times. However, if you look carefully enough, you may find that love, actually, is all around us.

Billy Mack (Nighy), a fading rock and roll legend, tries to kickstart a comeback with a Christmas version of one of his hits as shepherded by his long-suffering manager Joe (Fisher). The new Prime Minister (Grant) falls for Natalie (McCutcheon), a plucky member of his staff. Jamie Bennett (Firth), a writer, mends his broken heart in France while cared for by a Portugese housekeeper named Aurelia (Moniz); the two begin to develop a deep fondness for one another despite the language barrier.

Daniel (Neeson) grieves for his late wife while his son Sam (Sangster) pines for a schoolmate. His friend Karen (Thompson) – who is also the Prime Minister’s sister – prepares for a school Christmas pageant. Her husband Henry (Rickman) runs a graphic design business, where Sarah (Linney), an American employee, yearns for Karl (Santoro), an enigmatic designer while Henry struggles with infidelity with an aggressive receptionist.

Colin (Marshall), an upbeat courier, gives up on finding the right woman in the UK and prepares to immigrate to the United States. Newlyweds Peter (Ejiofor) and Juliet (Knightley) have their lives complicated somewhat by Peter’s best friend John (Lincoln) who has a deep crush on Juliet, one that he would never act on. All of these stories intertwine an  intersect in London at Christmastime, perhaps one of the most magical places on Earth.

First of all, let me get this out of the way – this is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an astonishing piece of work, considering this is Richard Curtis’ first feature as a director (he had previously written a number of terrific movies, including Four Weddings and a Funeral). Here, he skillfully interweaves the stories among one another, linking some together directly and others indirectly, creating a viable whole giving none of them short shrift; it’s quite the tightrope walking act, and it is so rarely done well that when it is it must be applauded just on that basis alone.

I wrestled with using this as part of my Holly and the Quill series of Christmas movies, but eventually decided this isn’t a Christmas movie so much as a movie set at Christmastime. It is about love and could easily be set any time of the year. However I admit the Christmas setting adds to the overall warmth of the film.

One of the things I love about this movie is that not all of the relationships work out in the end. Like love itself, things can be pretty tangled and end up unfinished. Of course, some of the relationships also pan out. Will those relationships succeed? Who knows! All that I know is that love is wonderful while you’re in it, especially when you’re in it with the right person long term. All of these relationships – showing love at various stages of the relationship – have a sense of realism to them. The movie is well cast and all the couples have legitimate chemistry and an organic feel to their relationships.

This is a movie I watch often, usually with Da Queen and we always enjoy it, even after many viewings. We own the soundtrack, which is one of the better ones in any movie in the last ten years. In fact, this is one of my favorite movies of all time – but I’ve said that already. If you’re looking for a movie to snuggle up with your honey to this Valentine’s Day, this should be at the top of your list.

WHY RENT THIS: All of the vignettes work; there aren’t any weak moments or characters. The movie is sexy and funny and nearly everyone gets enough screen time to sufficiently develop their characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe it’s too English for you or you just don’t like romantic comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexuality, a little bit of nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos here, as well as a featurette in which Curtis discusses the movie’s music.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $246.9M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sanctum

The Last Legion


The Last Legion

"This island of Capri - I can't imagine anyone else ever wanting to visit. Why are you looking at me that way?"

(2007) Swords and Sandals Action/Adventure (Weinstein) Sir Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth, Aishwarya Rai, Thomas Sangster, John Hannah, Alexander Siddig, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, Iain Glen, Rupert Friend, Nonso Anozie, Owen Teale, Harry van Gorkum, Robert Pugh. Directed by Doug Lefler.

With the success of Gladiator and 300, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing more sword-and-sandal epics coming our way. Stacked up against the two movies previously mentioned, The Last Legion doesn’t really belong in that kind of company. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be relegated to the avoid-at-all-costs list.

Romulus (Sangster) is a young boy, the son of the last female descendent of Julius Caesar. His male relatives have ascended to the throne of Rome left and right and have been assassinated. Rome is beset from without by angry Goths, led by Odoacer (Mullan), who has been denied what he believed was his rightful due as defender of the Empire by Orestes (Glen), Romulus’ arrogant father and regent, and from within by greedy, weak-willed Romans.

Orestes gets one of his finest generals, Aurelius (Firth) to be the boy’s bodyguard. Aurelius is less than thrilled about the assignment, but has sworn an oath to defend the boy to his last breath – Aurelius, not the boy’s. Orestes also sends Romulus’ tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) packing for having the temerity to encourage the boy to think for himself. That’s simply not what emperors of the known world do.

On the night of his coronation, Rome is sacked by the Goths. Odoacer’s hyperactive second-in-command, Wulfila (McKidd) kills Romulus’ parents and captures the boy. He’s all for killing the last Caesar, but Ambrosinus shows up at the last moment and persuades Odoacer to keep the boy captive – on the isle of Capri. Tough gig.

Aurelius, with boyhood friend Nestor (Hannah) and Theodorus (Siddig), the ambassador of the Eastern Empire, plot to get the kid back. Only a few of Aurelius’ men survived the Goth attack, so Theodorus sends his best warrior to assist. The best warrior turns out to be a woman named Mira (Rai). Together, she and Aurelius rescue the boy and Ambrosinus only to discover that the boy has found ex caliburnus, the fabled sword of Julius Caesar. However, things have changed when they get back to Italy and it looks like Romulus is going to need an army just to survive in this hostile world. There is a legion that has not yet switched allegiance to Odoacer; the fabled Ninth, also known as the Dragon Legion. They, however, are all the way in Britannia, a long journey. Wulfila, having been maimed in the rescue of Romulus, is also hot on the chase and breathing fire of his own.

When you read the plot on paper, it sounds terribly cheesy and in many ways, it is. In all honesty, if you go in and try not to think about historical accuracy too much and accept this as a bit of a fantasy grounded in a few facts, it’s actually not a bad piece of entertainment. Much of the story will seem a bit familiar, and there are clichés up the yin yang but the story was entertaining enough to keep my interest, and the performances solid enough to not strain the bounds of credibility. Kingsley looks a bit like a hippie in his outfit here, but Firth makes a terrific Roman. Rai, one of the most beautiful women on Earth and one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, is pretty hot as a warrior and shows some skills with a sword. Director Lefler cut his teeth on the “Hercules” and “Xena” TV shows so he knows what he’s about in this genre.

In all honesty, I was surprised. Considering that the movie got almost zero publicity during its theatrical release and had its release date pushed back several times – usually the sign of a bad movie – it’s a pretty entertaining. Don’t kid yourself – The Last Legion didn’t make anybody’s top ten lists, but you won’t leave the couch feeling disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Entertainment value. Lots of swordplay. Colin Firth. Aishwarya Rai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Script riddled with clichés. Takes a few liberties with history. Cheap CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle sequences and swordfights, but nothing gruesome. Overall, I’d say this is suitable for the entire family despite the PG-13 rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Doug Lefler used Thomas Sangster’s entire family as extras at various points in the film.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on an unreported  budget. I’m guessing the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bangkok Dangerous

Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead

New Releases for the Week of October 29, 2010


October 29, 2010
In Saw 3D the traps just grow more alluring.

SAW 3D

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flannery, Dean Armstrong, Tanedra Howard, Gabrielle D. West. Directed by Kevin Greutert

With Jigsaw finally laid to rest, a struggle breaks out over his legacy. A group of survivors of his fiendish traps gather to seek the support of a self-help guru who himself is a survivor of Jigsaw’s machinations, only to discover that the therapist has a dark agenda of his own that threatens to bring Jigsaw’s work to a massive culmination. State of the art technology was used to film this, the final film in the series and the first (and apparently, only) one to be featured in 3D.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Horror/Torture Porn

Rating: R (for scenes of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)

Conviction

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo. The amazing true story of Betty Ann Waters, who determined to see her brother freed after being unjustly convicted of murder. Despairing that she could not find a lawyer to adequately represent him, she got her GED, graduated college, got a law degree and passed the bar in order to take on his case and get him the fair trial he never received.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Nowhere Boy

(Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff. Before he was a Beatle, John Lennon was a troubled kid living on the mean streets of Liverpool, being raised by his aunt. This is an account of his adolescence that would influence the man he would become, a man who would change the world through his music.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biopic

Rating: R (for language and a scene of sexuality)