Sometimes all I want in a movie is a little bit of escapism and Tim Burton.  The new Alice in Wonderland movie does just that, it allowed me to escape into Wonderland with some of the kookiest characters, played by some of the best actors of our time.  The retelling takes place several years after Alice’s first trip to Wonderland, this time she is nineteen and believes that it is all just a crazy dream that she can wake up from if someone would only pinch her really hard.  I like the idea of having an older Alice re-entering Wonderland at a time in her life when she is starting to question so many things.  I loved the character of the Cheshire Cat (voiced by the very awesome Stephen Fry), but it was the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) that just broke my heart.  I also thought that  Helena Bonham Carter was great as the Red Queen (with a slight lisp to match her huge head) and the fact that Crispin Glover was in it, well that was the icing on the cake.  I could go on and on about all the other actors (I heart Alan Rickman), but you get the picture.  Alice Purists have been ranting about the film, but it gave me exactly what I wanted – a wonderful escape on a Saturday afternoon.  4 out of 5 monkeys


A Serious Man (2009)

I love the Cohen Brothers and the majority of their movies, but I did not get the point of A Serious Man.  I felt like there was this private joke going on throughout the film that I just didn’t get; I felt like an outcast as an audience member.  I have seen many films set in other time periods, such as this one that is set in 1970 and I have never before felt this way.  The film revolves around the character of  Larry Gopnik ( Michael Stuhlbarg), “a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, who has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.” (http://filminfocus.com/focusfeatures/film/a_serious_man/synopsis).  Larry is a pathetic character who fantasizes about standing up for himself, but in reality never does.  After a while, I stopped feeling sorry for him because he wasn’t doing anything proactive.  Granted all of the people around him were causing the problems, but it began to grate on my nerves.  I heard that this film was supposed to be an ode of sort to Joel and Ethan’s father, so maybe for that reason it was worth making.  I can’t really see any other reason.  2 and a half monkeys out of 5.

It’s not often you find yourself empathizing with someone who walks around with his fly open.  But I did just that while watching Jeff Bridges portray Bad Blake, a down on his luck country singer at the end of his run.  Like many alcoholics,  most of the time all Bad can think about is how to get his next drink.  We see him roaming from town to town in his beatup truck, playing in run-down bars and the occasional bowling alley.  This is a man who was once a star, who would fill arenas full of fans and who apparently wrote some of the best country music out there (the good stuff, not pop-country).  But by the time we meet him, he can barely keep his pants on, let alone make it through a whole performance without puking or passing out.  Yet he still gets the ladies or at least the ones who are as haggard and broken down as he is.

There are however glimmers of hope for Bad and he does have a certain charm about him.  He occasionally reminds you of those pictures of the cowboys from the seventies (like a scruffy Steve McQueen), all sunburned and rugged.  You spend much of the movie thinking if he could just get his act together, he could make a come back or at the VERY least keep his pants buttoned up.  A few characters in the film feel the same way that we do about Bad, such as his friend Wayne the bartender (Robert Duvall) and of course the  love interest Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhall). We see a different side of Bad through the relationships of the people that care about him.  Some of my favorite scenes are between Bad Blake and Jean’s four year old son.  They are so truthful that the film is worth seeing for these short gems alone.  4 out of 5 monkeys

The Young Victoria (2009)

If you are a romantic at heart and you like historical dramas about England, the film The Young Victoria is one that you will enjoy. Victoria was Queen of England from 1837 until 1876 (63 years), the longest reign of any monarch in England’s history, so of course there are many books and films written and made about her.  She became queen at a very young age (18 years old) and this particular film focuses on the year prior to her reign and on into the first few years of “queendom”.  The film doesn’t delve too deeply into the politics of the day, but instead chooses to focus on Victoria’s struggle for independence, but also her need for companionship and guidance.  At its heart, it is a love story between a powerful woman and the one man that she could be herself with.  It is a story of partnership, which is something that every good marriage is, even those that don’t involve ruling a country.

Emily Blunt is radiant as Victoria, a truly good choice to portray the woman in her days of youth and romance.  Rupert Friend as Prince Albert was charming and awkward in that British way that so many of us American girls love.  It was quite interesting to see the relationship between Victoria and Albert unfold, first as a potential arrangement (he had his duty to the King of Belgium, she was pressed to marry before her coronation), next as a deep friendship and then as a young love and eventual partnership.  From what I have read, few films about Victoria’s life have focused on the early years, so I believe that this was a nice addition to the films such as Mrs. Brown.  It will not change your life, but you will go away feeling good about at least one marriage in this world.  4 out of 5 monkeys

District 9

Surprising in its originality and utterly fascinating, District 9 is a must see for any fan of intelligent science fiction.  The story is told as a documentary chronicling the arrival of an extraterrestrial race on earth forced to live in slum-like conditions near the city of Johannesburg, South Africa.  The story transitions into a new subject, that of Wikus van der Merwe.  Wikus is the head of operations for Multi-National United (MNU), the corporation hired by the government to relocate the aliens after complaints from local citizens.  While trying to kick start the relocation process, Wikus is exposed to a strange alien chemical and the “documentary” focuses on what happens to him and how his relationship progresses with the “Prawns” (the derogatory name for the aliens).  This film could have become clichéd and preachy, but was instead a fascinating commentary on modern day society and how little we have truly learned from our past mistakes.  Created by a team of virtual unknowns from South Africa, the film is a gritty and refreshing bit of cinema and worth watching for Sharlto Copley’s performance alone.  5 out of 5 monkeys

An Education (2009)

I have seen many films in my time about the British and their culture, but very few of them have focused on the time period and on the subject that the film An Education did.  The film tells the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a British suburban teen growing up in the suburbs of London in the 1960’s.  The film establishes that Jenny is a clever girl right off the bat, she likes to read and does well in school, but she also has a rebellious side to her (shown through her love of French music, smoking, etc.) and a want for adventure.  In walks a mysterious older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems able to give a bored suburban girl everything she wants, music, art, dancing, etc.

The film fascinated me because it would so easily glide between Jenny as a young school girl and Jenny as a woman.  At times she would look innocent. the typical fresh-faced school girl, yet when she dressed up (with her hair up in a silly 60’s hairdo), she had such an Audrey Hepburnesque quality about her that I would forget her age.  And David was so charming with both her and her parents (the subplot with the parents is a film within itself) that it seems all a bit to good to be true.  I think many young girls can relate to Jenny’s struggle, even if they didn’t have an older man chasing them.  Being bored with the life that most people would be willing to accept and wanting someone to take you out of it, even if it meant going against what you were taught.   I also enjoyed  how intelligent Jenny really was and that the film was not afraid to show this.  It would show this is clever ways by contrasting her with characters such as Helen, who were clearly not.  I would love to comment some more on the film, but I don’t want to give anything away, so see it for yourself.  4 out of 5 monkeys

Nine (2009)

I’m not in the habit of walking out of movies, even the bad ones. Still less movies packed with Oscar winners like Daniel Day-Lewis and the exquisite Marion Coutillard. I loved Chicago and have no aversion whatsoever to the movie musical, so I was stoked about seeing Nine, especially with its long roster of heavyweights. The only casting choice that gave me pause was Fergie. Ironically enough her number (Be Italian) was the only decent number in the whole movie — at least until I walked out in the middle of Nicole Kidman’s fountain soliloquy. Kathryn and I were both astonished. Fergie — Fergie, for God’s sake — blew Nicole Kidman and Marion Coutillard off the screen.

I don’t blame Nicole or Marion for this nightmare opposite day scenario; I blame Rob Marshall, Athony Minghella and Micheal Tolkin, the same screenwriting genius who brought us Gleaming the Cube. I also blame the creators of the original musical: Arthur Kopit and especially Maury Yeston, whose trite and forgettable score would have been better left undisturbed with the rest of musical theatre’s 1980’s hokum.

Nine is a film adaptation of a stage musical originally mounted in 1980 — the same year Thriller and Rock Lobster came out incidentally. In the proud tradition of Hairspray, Nine is a movie musical based on a stage musical based on a non-musical movie. In this case, the original movie was Frederico Felini’s “Otto e Mezzo,” an autobiographical story about Felini’s own creative and marital difficulties. The story revolves around a troubled Italian film director named Guido Contini. He’s trying to make a new movie. Vast quantities of money and manpower have been invested on the strength of his reputation alone and with just weeks left before shooting, Guido has nothing but a title. He flees Rome to a spa in Anzio where he hopes a change of scenery will help him focus. Instead he gets mired down in drama revolving around his tumultuous love life and in some existential what-does-it-all-mean angst revealed through flashbacks from his past, principally of his late mother and a sand tossing hooker. Sound interesting? It isn’t. When stretched out into 118 minutes by Rob Marshall, it feels thin, self-indulgent, and pointless.

The result is like any other copy of a copy of a copy: confusing, stripped of its essence and more to the point: boring. The film version does nothing to establish Contini as a character whose struggling is anything we should care about. Throughout the film, bombshell after bombshell — Kate Hudson, Marion Coutillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman — burst into song about what a genius Contini is. The problem is we never see it. It’s a classic case of telling instead of showing. As a result, we don’t care about him. We don’t care what happens to him and when we’re forced to watch the most beautiful women in the world sing about his genius and pain, it rings false. It was unbearable to sit through, so I didn’t.

Nine is a self-indulgent vanity project. In a way it reminded me of Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, another film featuring Sophia Loren apparently made to impress a small group of the director’s pretentious friends. Skip them both. 1 monkey for Fergie.