Weepy “Keeper”

28 07 2009

My Sisters Keeper movie poster

My Sister’s Keeper 2009

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric

Filmmaker Nick Cassavetes’ agenda is clear from the start of his new film, My Sister’s Keeper, based on the novel by Jodi Piccoult. He wants to make sure no one in the audience leaves the theater dry-eyed. The subject matter is heartbreaking enough. 16-year-old Kate has spent her lifetime suffering the effects of a devastating disease, and after years of painful treatments dotted with hopeful remissions, her rare form of leukemia is killing her once again.

It’s impossible not to bring personal experience into the way certain films affect people. There is plenty for a doctor or lawyer to ponder in this film, and either would likely have a unique take on the situation that unfolds onscreen. I saw the film with my youngest sister, Molly. We happen to share another sister, Katie, the middle child in our family, who was diagnosed with leukemia at a year old. Needless to say, there are certain elements of this film that hit especially close to home.

My youngest sister and I were affected very differently by our sister’s illness. Molly was born in the midst of Katie’s struggle with cancer. Unlike My Sister’s Keeper’s Anna , Molly was not conceived as an organ, blood, and tissue donor. She was not a donor match for Katie. She was young enough at the time that she remembers even less than I do about the sick years. And I remember little. Molly mostly remembers the aftermath.

I’m not sure what all of this means about our reactions to My Sister’s Keeper, only that on some level, we both saw elements of our own life stories in the film. I would guess, without asking her, that Molly saw a lot of herself in Jesse, brother to Anna and Kate, whose needs seem overlooked by a family dealing with the more pressing problem of fighting, collectively, for Kate’s life. I didn’t much identify with any character in the film, but found it difficult not to see a lot of Katie’s struggle in a combination of Anna and Kate’s experiences, poked and prodded and hurt by people they were supposed to trust, against their will and without their actual consent. That’s the thing about childhood cancer. How do you ever trust adults, when they are the ones dishing out the painful treatments?

Back to the film. It begins with what first seems like the ultimate betrayal. Anna brings a lawsuit against her parents, suing them for medical emancipation, so that they cannot force her to make the latest necessary donation to her sister; a kidney. She has a good point about no longer wanting to be treated like a crop of organs, but we see the sisters together. We see how exceptionally close they are. Surely Anna would do anything to help save Kate’s life. What are her motives?

It turns out that the answer to that question reveals the films biggest and least believable contrivance. But what else can you expect from the director of the charmingly contrived film The Notebook? The real betrayal will be lost on some people, but the truth actually demonizes Kate needlessly. One little plot manipulation would have fixed the whole thing, and would have been a lot more graceful anyway.

Voice-over narration from different key characters explained the stories background. It should have been explained through dialogue between the players, but the technique was a nod to Picoult’s storytelling style, and fans of the book will not mind it so much. The soundtrack tugs at the heartstrings, but the music is well chosen. The subject matter is sad, after all. You wouldn’t expect Guns N’ Roses.

Book fans probably won’t like the ending, which has been completely changed. But the film actually had the right idea. Normally, so much of what is wonderful about a story is lost in adaptation. This movie ended just as it should have. It wasn’t happy and it wasn’t neat, but that’s life. And there is life after death, even for the people left living.



Toast to “The Proposal”

23 07 2009


The Proposal 2009

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson

Let’s start by pointing out the flaws in The Proposal. There are some, of course. For starters, it follows the utterly predictable and totally overused romantic comedy formula: Boy and girl start out hating each other, they suffer through a number of different silly plot contrivances that throw them together outside of their natural habitat, giving them enough time to really get to know one another, empathize over their respective plights, and fall in love. In the end, we feel smug. We knew it all along. What took them so long???

Lucky for The Proposal, Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock agreed to take on the starring roles. Reynolds is notorious for his no holds barred approach to acting, and his outrageous behavior onscreen never fails to elicit gales of laughter in an audience. But here, he plays it straight. As Andrew Paxton, the compliant assistant to Bullock’s uptight publishing exec Margaret Tate, Reynolds scores with an understated deadpan approach. Bullock, on the other hand, lets herself get carried away. The role-reversal is a welcome surprise, and we end up liking the familiar actors even more for their departure from the norm.

The movie borrows plot elements from The Family Stone, Two Weeks Notice, and just about every other romantic comedy ever made in the history of film. After a hundred years, they’ve simply run out of new ideas in Hollywood, the land where romance (both onscreen and off) goes to die a painful and hyper-visible death. Now they just produce hybrids of the originals, which were usually better. The fact that the film has a small edge over some of its predecessors, and generates enough belly-laughter to conceal any missteps, is no small feat. Don’t set your hopes too high, and you won’t be disappointed.


“Revolutionary Road”

5 04 2009


“Revolutionary Road” 2008

Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DeCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon

The thing about Revolutionary Road is, you can’t appreciate the enormity of its message unless you are aware of the story’s background. The novel upon which the film was based was published in 1962. When the film was released several decades later, it was produced in a social climate fully aware of the 1950s housewife as a symbol of sexism and repression.

In the early 60s, however, we were a culture teetering on the brink of an all-out sexual revolution in which women began to challenge their submissive function in a household. For a novel of its nature to have been published amidst a still-repressive society was nothing short of revolutionary. Perhaps it is an allusion that a knowing author made in the title of his book, which refers to the road on which the main characters, a young married couple named Frank and April, build their home.

April has grand dreams of a life full of experience and adventure. When she meets Frank, she is an aspiring stage actress with a great deal of ambition and a crippling lack of talent. They fall in love. The film does not dwell on the initial stages of their romance. They are not important, because even the most hopeful dreamers are not immune to falling in love. This film is a devastating tragedy about the price one pays for postponing a dream to accommodate romance.

There will be many who argue that the outcome is tragic for both Frank (Leonardo DeCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet). To be certain, it is very sad for Frank. But it is a tragedy of his own making. April is the ultimate victim, first for trying to mold herself into the only kind of woman that her society has deemed appropriate, and then for trusting her husband to support her desire to revolt. He does, for a time (while the exhilaration of their newfound passion holds out). But he is eventually seduced by the stifling prospect of comfort, at the expense of delicious uncertainty and great adventure.

Note Frank’s reaction to April’s Stepford Wife-like transformation near the end of the film. He is pleased with what he feels is the first satisfying conversation he has had with her in a long time. She is doting, subservient, and robotic. Should we pity him? Because he signed on for a life with a shell of a woman and came home one day to discover that a warm-blooded human had grown in her place?


Unsatisfying “Underworld”

27 01 2009


“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” 2009

Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, Steven Mackintosh

I usually find it more difficult to write a review for a movie I loved than for one that I hated. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” seems to be an exception to my rule.

From what I can gather, this is the storyline (assuming there was a storyline, and not just a vague scribble of dialogue designed to accommodate the showy special effects): Apparently, the vampires and the werewolves don’t like each other, but the live together as master and slave, respectively. The werewolves seem to have more power outside of the vampire fortress walls, though it takes them far too long to decide to revolt and run, despite their strength in numbers and their seriously intimidating alter-egos.

The vampire princess has inconveniently fallen in love with the werewolf king, thus providing a predictable foundation for the ultimate battle between the two monster kingdoms. If you are still interested in how the story ends then you are just the audience this film intends to target. For the rest of you, those who care about anything more than dizzying slaughter scenes and gratuitous gore, I recommend that you take a pass on this film. Spend your nine dollars on lunch. It will be much more satisfying.

Second Chances

27 01 2009


“Last Chance Harvey” 2009

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin

Last Chance Harvey could easily have been a fable warning viewers of the risks of choosing work over family, solitude over companionship. The moral of this story is always the same. Prioritize your career above your personal relationships, and you will wind up alone.

Luckily, the film is not a cautionary tale but a hopeful one. It is never too late, it seems to say, to forge new connections or to repair those that you have damaged.

Despite the title, I’m not convinced that the relationship between Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate (Emma Thompson) represents his last chance for love. It is simply a connection that he chooses to pursue, rather than sacrifice. The relationship is not different because she is more worthy of his love than Harvey’s former wife, or because Kate and Harvey make a more compatible couple. (In fact, both women seem equally incompatible with a man like Harvey). It is different simply because he chooses for it to be different. And opening the door to a new possibility for love succeeds in restoring the confidence Harvey needs to mend the old relationships that suffered as a result of his insecurity and self-absorption.


Backstabbing Brides-To-Be

27 01 2009


“Bride Wars” 2009

Starring: Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Bryan Greenberg, Candice Bergen

Bride Wars provides ninety minutes of mindless, inconsequential amusement. Anyone looking for depth or insight should look elsewhere.

The movie trailer reveals everything that potential viewers need to know before seeing the film. It is a story of two girls, lifelong friends, who do everything together, including get engaged to their long-term boyfriends. When a mix-up leaves the ladies with the same “big day,” the real fun begins. This is not a film about love, marriage, or even friendship, really. Those minor themes merely set the stage for riotous pre-wedding sabotage by two popular, likable actresses.

It doesn’t intend to, but what this film does best is prove that weddings for our generation have become little more than expensive excuses to impress and outdo our friends. And if you can’t even have your best friend around to demonstrate the obligatory envy, what’s the point of going through the exhaustive motions in the first place?

The pranks are neither grave nor particularly creative, but the leading ladies are appealing and funny, which helped me to forgive the fact that they are mostly portrayed as catty, brainless wedding-zombies willing to forfeit ten years worth of savings for another one of those big fussy parties.


Calling Dog Lovers Everywhere

27 01 2009


“Marley & Me” 2008

Starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Dane, Alan Arkin

Growing up, my family was always a cat family. My sisters and I once found a stray kitten that we kept for weeks in a treehouse, fed bologna and slices of processed American cheese until we cautiously presented our adopted pet to our father, who mercifully allowed us to bring “Tigit” into our home. Many years and many stray cats later, Tigit remains a part of our family, re-Christened “Bones” to reflect his startling weight loss and his overactive up-chuck reflex. All evidence to the contrary, we’re told by our veterinarian that he’s still comfortable and healthy. Vets know best, we hope.

The point is, we were always animal lovers. But our cats were independent creatures, despite our best efforts to make them affectionate and loyal. We had no idea how profound our love for a little furry beast could be until the year I turned nineteen, when Dad finally, finally found the perfect puppy. Seamus was so much more than a pet. My entire family was instantly bewitched by the droopy-eyed, floppy-eared pup who peed excitedly every time a sister or stranger walked through the front door; who jumped on a wooden trunk to crawl through the slats of my parents bed, wiggling frantically when his behind grew just big enough that he could no longer slide effortlessly through the metal bars. The cats were peeved with their new live-in guest. We were totally, hopelessly in love.

I could write for hours about Seamus, and then about McKensie, the black Labrador mix I adopted two years later, after moving across the country and abandoning any chance of snuggling daily with my fuzzy brother Seamus. McKensie earned the nickname “Little Wackie,” a reflection of her exhaustive supply of energy and enthusiasm. She preferred to bestow wet, sloppy face-kisses over modest licks of affection. She passed on chew toys in favor of woodwork and table legs.

And so I can understand Mr. Grogan’s (played by Owen Wilson) predicament in raising Marley. I’ve had a Marley of my own, you see. This film is custom-made for the millions of people out there who embraced the simultaneous adoration and sheer exasperation that come from adopting a furry friend. You will laugh heartily, frown knowingly, and cry wholeheartedly as you watch a young couple develop over the years into a six-member family: Mom, Dad, brothers, sister, Marley.

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston (playing John and Jenny Grogan) provide a marriage that is both believable and hopeful. They love each other, like each other, and occasionally drive each another completely crazy. Marley joins the family as a gift to Jenny, with John’s silent hope that a puppy will temporarily halt his wife’s biological clock. Marley “redecorates” the Grogan’s garage, howls noisily during thunderstorms, and gets himself kicked out of obedience school. It is impossible to explain how or why such a nuisance becomes an indispensable family member, but you know it if you’ve done it before.

I often wonder if McKensie really loves me, her “master” or “mother,” depending on who you ask or how you look at it, as much as I love her. When she wakes me with a wet kiss or nips protectively at any dog vying for my attention, does she do it out of instinctive loyalty or out of genuine affection? Perhaps I’ll never know. That’s the thing about dogs, and the theme at the center of Marley & Me. They ask so little of us, and end up giving us so much more than we ever expected them to.