The Upside Of Anger   (Tremendous)
          Normally if I hate a movie but people I know love it, I say:  "There was no plot."  They counter with:  "Well, it was a character study."
          The Upside Of Anger is one of those character studies with not a lot of plot, but this time I'll agree with my friends.  The two characters that are central to this character study are good enough to make up for it. 
          Joan Allen is a woman whose husband has left her alone with their four teenage/college-age daughters.  She copes with her anger through a lot of booze and through sex with her neighbor, Kevin Costner.  Costner is a former baseball player dealing with his past through a lot of booze and through sex with Joan Allen.  She is our focus, and she's terrific.  You feel her anger when she glares at her daughters and you laugh along with her dark humor as she makes life uncomfortable for them.   Costner is even funnier and is the best he's been in forever. 
         The film is written and directed by a guy named Mike Binder, who created HBO's The Mind Of The Married Man.  That show tried to be a Sex & The City for men, but instead of dealing humorously with the differences between men and women, it just showed a contempt for women.  Binder learned something since, as Allen and the four daughters are very real, very likable characters.
          By the way, despite what I said about the lack of plot, there is one twist toward the end that had people in the theater talking and doing some mental back-tracking to evaluate what it is they just saw.


 

Waiting...   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          ...for an explanation as to how this piece of crap was greenlighted
          ...for Clerks or Reality Bites to come on cable so I can see a crude movie about working young people that actually has some wit and charm
          ...to read the work of other critics as they trash this thing
          ...to see if someone else can produce a worse movie this year

Walk The Line   (Tremendous)
          Johnny Cash stood behind many causes, including the musicians he believed in. He did it from the beginning when he insisted June Carter join him on the road, he did it in the middle when he sang with African-Amercian musicians on his variety show, and he did it toward the end when he covered material written by Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden.
          So Johnny wouldn't be offended that everyone is comparing the new movie about his life to the movie last year about the life of Ray Charles. They're obvious comparisons. Both are movies about tortured geniuses who came from humble beginnings, lost a beloved family member, got addicted to drugs and changed music forever with their definitive recordings. A year ago, everyone said Jamie Foxx deserved an Oscar for playing Ray Charles, and deservedly so, many are saying the same thing about Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash.
          Which movie you'll like better will depend on your personal tastes of course. Me, I'm giving a slight edge to Ray because it makes better use of the music. That's tough to say because if I'm choosing who to listen to, I give the edge to Cash. Still, it's great to be able to debate the strengths of two such great movies.
          So let's give the Cash story its due. The movie starts with Cash as a child, covers his first recordings and ends with the 1968 recording of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.  There's a lot more to cover with Johnny Cash, but moviemakers know audiences love a good love story.  The real focus is Cash's long courtship of June Carter.  As a fan, he was enamored with her, and he couldn't get her out of his mind, even while each were married to other people.  Now, it's hard to imagine one without the other (the Cashes even died four months apart), but it took forever for them to get together.  It's a passionate story but not a romantic one.  These two "sinned" to get together, and the movie doesn't ignore that.  You feel sorry for Mrs. Cash #1, which adds to Phoenix's portrayal of a conflicted man.
          This performance is Phoenix's best by far.  There was a lot to Johnny Cash. A recent box set was divided into three titles based on the themes he sang about: Love, God, Murder. He sang hymns and he sang about shooting a man just to watch him die. That's a complex guy with a lot of passion, and Phoenix captures him. Just before he sings Folsom Prison Blues at his audition, producer Sam Phillips tells Cash he doesn't "believe him" when he sings gospel. Cash asks angrily: "you don't think I believe in God?"  Love, God and Murder are all in that scene, and they're all in Phoenix. He doesn't pull off a metamorphisis like Jamie Foxx did in Ray, but he puts so much passion into his performance, that you know he's playing Johnny Cash.
          And even more gutsy, Phoenix dares to do the singing himself. It's especially brave when you realize he had very little musical training before the film and comes pretty close to one of the most unique voices ever. Music aficionados will appreciate the scenes showing Cash's first recordings at Sun Records and his camaraderie with fellow pioneers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. If you've got guys like that practically living together, there's probably a whole other movie right there.
          No offense to some of the other good performances in Ray, but what that movie lacks compared to Walk The Line is a strong co-lead performance. Reese Witherspoon has never been better. She's always been able to pull off cute, which makes her a good choice for the perky, funny and beloved June who joins Cash on tour. She's even better as the woman fighting her attraction to this tortured, flawed genius (like her song says: "It burns, burns, burns...") and as the woman who saves him.
          The day after I saw Walk The Line, I thought I might add to my Johnny Cash collection. There was just one other guy in the CD section, and I had to wait for him to get out of the Cash section so I could look. Hopefully that's happening in CD sections all over.

War Of The Worlds    (Tremendous)
          Fine, he's marrying Katie Holmes. Fascinating, he's been squirted by water. OK, he's fighting with Brooke Shields over anti-depressants.
          The thing that needs to be said in advance of War Of The Worlds is: Tom Cruise is starring in a Steven Spielberg sci-fi movie.
          Remember E.T.? Close Encounters Of The Third Kind? Even Minority Report, also starring Cruise? Spielberg knows his way around sci-fi.
          In an odd way, I'm glad that Cruise and his couch-jumping has distracted from the content of the movie. (As an aside, Cruise was nutty on Oprah, but it's not like he was on Charlie Rose jumping on the desk. Did you hear the screaming idiots in Oprah's audience? He gave them what they wanted.) I'm glad my first look at the "tripods" coming out of the ground or at the carnage they leave behind was on the big screen. The visuals are astounding.
          There are two scenes that really stand out. One, when the tripods first emerge from the ground and begin their attack. From the special effects to the sheer panic they cause, the scene is unbelievable. A thirty second snippet from that scene in a commercial could have had people talking more about the movie and a little less about Cruise's love life.
           I in no way want to compare the fantasy of War Of The Worlds to the real life horrors of D-Day, but watching that scene I couldn't help but think of the opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.  In both, Spielberg crafts an extended scene of sheer chaos that you cannot look away from, no matter how bad it gets.
          Then there's a scene where Cruise and daughter Dakota Fanning are holed up in a basement with a survivalist played by Tim Robbins. It's very similar to the scene with the kids and the raptors in the kitchen in Jurassic Park. And just as nerve-wracking.
          This is a lot darker than say Independence Day, which had a similar theme. Of course when that came out, the idea of our national monuments being attacked seemed like science fiction.  Now, we've lived a little bit of this movie (Fanning asks "Is it terrorists?" while she runs for her life).  Real life may have made Spielberg "turn" on his former extra-terrestrial subjects.
          So while we do get some chuckles out of watching Tom Cruise try to handle his kids, there's nothing like Will Smith or Randy Quaid's Independence Day characters in War Of The Worlds. There is certainly no President Bill Pullman rallying the country to fight back either. Cruise's only real concern is his family's survival. He is in no way an action hero in this. Be warned if you take your kids, there is some really grisly stuff. Very far from E.T.
          Cruise himself is fine. He brings star power to the movie, but not necessarily a performance that somebody else couldn't have done. That said, he's a big movie star and we like him-- so we're going to root for him in impossible odds. And we also root for him as he tries to protect and bond with his two kids. Fanning as his daughter continues to impress.  She's an amazing little actress.
          I was not thrilled by the ending. I thought we invested a lot of time in this world crisis to have it end too abruptly. I'm told that ending is faithful to the book, but this is a movie. I've never read a book with an "abrupt ending." I don't suddenly flip the page and think "It's the last page already?"
          In keeping with the movie's spirit, I'll end the review abruptly.  Go to War.


The Weather Man   (Tremendous)
          Nicolas Cage's Dave Spritz is a pretty good weatherman, but he's not nearly as good at forecasting his life as he is the weather.  He's struggling to patch things up with his estranged wife, his daughter lacks motivation, his son is in drug rehab, and he's intimidated by the reputation of his father (Michael Caine), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
          Heavy stuff, but before the audience can get too depressed, Cage gets hit in the face by a Wendy's Frosty.  Then by a taco.  Then by a Big Gulp.  Few things are funnier than someone getting smacked in the face by something so silly, especially when that someone has that deadpan, morose Nicolas Cage face. 
          There are all kinds of dark laughs like that.  The Weather Man makes especially good use of four-letter words-- delivered at just the right time in just the right way.
          It may not be for everyone-- the things Spritz deals with are pretty depressing, and if you're not in the mood, you may not laugh.  At least one situtation takes a very serious turn, making a dark comedy into a darker film for a little bit.   Howver, if you're the type who chuckles at life's ironies, even when they're happening to you, you'll identify with the poor guy.
          Memo to my friends in the biz:  I know the preferred term is "meteorologist," but they make a point in this movie to point out that Spritz is not a scientist.  And I didn't name the movie.  So no need to throw Big Gulps.

Wedding Crashers   (Tremendous)
          Wedding Crashers is "Old School" comedy.
          I don't say that because it stars Vince Vaughn and one of the Wilson brothers.  I say that because 25 years ago, this would have starred Chevy Chase or Tim Matheson.  Ty Webb or Otter would have thought of crashing weddings just for the chicks.
            Wedding Crashers is the first really good comedy of the summer, and the first raunchy sex comedy in a long time to be funny.  Vaughn and Owen Wilson hit "wedding season" hard every year.  They make up names and backgrounds, crash weddings, and make sure they're the life of the party.  It's all to make sure they go home with a bridesmaid, who is all emotional after the big day. 
          Eventually, they crash a wedding hosted by the Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken).  Wilson falls for one of his daughters (The Notebook's Rachel McAdams), while Vaughn attracts another daughter, who turns out to be something of a stalker.  They end up spending the weekend with the whole Kennedy-like family, where there are more problems.  (There's that "old school" comedy again.  Who makes better villains for characters like Otter than rich boyfriends or fathers?)
          Wedding Crashers owes most of its success to Vaughn and Wilson, who while playing sexist pigs still manage to be very likable.  (Women have asked me about this movie, mostly because they like these guys.)  Their relationships with the women are less important to the movie than their relationship with each other.  It's fun to watch them work as a team at the weddings-- and struggle to keep the team together while they try to get through their weekend with Walken's family.
          I'm liking this team of actors (Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black... am I missing one?) who seem to keep appearing in each other's movies.  In any movie starring one of them, you get at least two more.  They're putting out consistently funny movies (brilliant films like The Royal Tenenbaums to stupidly funny things like Dogdeball and Anchorman), and at least seem to enjoy working together.   Remember when the grouping was Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, et. al.?  Hopefully the modern grouping has more "old school" hits to come.

The Wedding Date   (Kept Checking My Watch)
           In the movie world, it's probably an insult to say a movie has a sitcom-like premise.  But The Wedding Date starring Will & Grace's Debra Messing has a story that would actually make for a good episode of a sitcom-- a woman hires a date to take her to her sister's wedding, so she can make her ex-boyfriend jealous   It'd be a fairly funny episode of Friends or even Will & Grace.   Imagine the fun watching the wacky in-laws played by some big stars or the confusion as Grace and her date can't get their stories straight.
           The family isn't nearly wacky enough.  In fact, they're unnecessarily cruel to her because she didn't get married first.  You end up feeling sorry for Messing instead of laughing along at her problems.   At the movie's end, when we get a wrap-up of "where they are now"-- you really don't care.
           Messing for some reason plays it almost straight.   Watching Grace in this situation could be funny-- the character on TV is full of insecurities but can still come off as charming.  Here, she's much more restrained.  Maybe she was told to be serious-- this is a film, after all.  But you need funny in a romantic comedy.
           The script was written by Brighton High School graduate Dana Fox.  We're proud of her for getting there--- and hoping the next one is better.

 

Zathura   (It Is What It Is)
          Children's books author Chris Van Allsburg has a recurring theme to his books-- toys and fantasies coming to life. His stories already inspired The Polar Express and Jumanji, and now his work has inspired the film Zathura.
          Two brothers find the board game Zathura while staying with their divorced father for the weekend. Like in Jumanji, the kids are playing a magical game. As they move around the board and take cards, the action on the cards come to life. So when the card says "aliens attack," aliens attack. Their house takes off and flies into outer space, and they figure the only way to get home is to keep playing.
          The movie is kind of like watching a board game. It's fun when it's your turn, it's not that interesting in between turns. The audience's "turn" would be when the action on the cards becomes real, and they are fun parts. A stranded astronaut floats in, a robot goes out of control and meat-eating aliens come looking for dinner. (I've got to think the monsters are pretty intense for little kids. It's not just that they're monsters-- they're monsters chasing these kids in their own home. Some kids at my screening covered their eyes).
          When it's not "our" turn, it's the boys' turn, and their arguments go on way too long. Their dad (Tim Robbins, who bails on the movie too early) is annoyed by them, and rightly so. The ten year old brother is especially nasty. The movie ultimately is about the importance of families and siblings-- a nice lesson that comes way too late in the film.
          I did identify with the kids a little. As a former little boy, I could see where Zathura hits on the type of things that a little boy would dream up. That said, it's a little boy's movie. There is just one girl in the movie-- their sister, who is a ditzy caricature of how boys look at girls. There are two adults-- the aforementioned astronaut and father. The boys hog the board while playing Zathura, and it's boys who want to go see the movie.