Month: February 2016

Secrets of the Tower of London

secrets of the tower of london

In a wonderful bit of irony, America’s public broadcaster has produced a series of documentaries about beloved British institutions and buildings. Secrets of the Tower of London provides a wide-ranging look at what has become one of London’s biggest tourist attractions. This impressive piece of real estate dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and in the past millennium has served as a royal residence, a treasury, a zoo, and most famously, a prison.

The Tower’s many lives are explored in this fast-paced program. It’s the video equivalent of a one-hour guided tour and takes viewers through the requisite highlights. There’s a degree of visual claustrophobia. Aside from the occasional aerial view, the program relies on a lot of tight shots that don’t give much sense of space or orientation, but you still ed up where you’re meant to be. The camera passes through the entrance where exotic animals would have greeted – and sometimes eaten – visitors, through the courtyards where heads parted company with bodies, and into the chapel where remains of prisoners, including Anne Boleyn, are buried.

This is an enjoyable documentary because it tells stories you won’t find in your average history book and allows access to places you won’t see on the Beefeaters’ tour – including their private residence and members’ only pub. The Yeoman Warders, as they are actually called, live within the Tower walls, and it’s jarring to my American mind that one might take afternoon tea in modern kitchen whilst gazing onto the same green where kings and queens strolled centuries ago. But this is England. A behind-the-scenes dive to the underbelly of Tower Bridge also yields a showcase of Victorian engineering, a reminder that transformative technology is not the reserve of our own era.

Secrets ticks off biographies of the famous, infamous, and not-so-famous prisoners as well. In what might be a bone to the home crowd in PBS-land, we learn more about Henry Laurens, who has the distinction of being the only American imprisoned in the Tower and, more notably, John Laurens’s father. (Yes, Hamilton fans.) There are also filling but bite-sized segments on the Crown Jewels and the Tower ravens. The program closes with the Ceremony of the Keys, which a Yeoman Warder proudly claims is the oldest military ceremony in the world. It also seems the silliest, but again, I side with the folks who threw tea into the sea.

Released: 2013
Dir: Vicky Matthews
Narrator: Samuel West
Time: 55 min
Country: United States
Network: PBS
Reviewed: 2016

I Love You, Man

i love you man

Male friendship is sometimes treated like a disease in popular film. Unless it happens on a sports ground or in a traditionally male domain, it can be uncomfortable to address. When the subject is broached, it’s padded with generous amounts of bro-y humor, lest the characters or audience come in direct contact with actual emotions. Then along comes I Love You, Man, a love story about two heterosexual men that is neither masked in testosterone nor homophobia. Like its lonely protagonists, it tries its best to be comfortable and assertive in its own disarmingly awkward way.

Peter (Paul Rudd), according to his brother (Andy Samberg), is a girlfriend guy, someone who puts all his energy into his partner to the detriment of his male friendships. His nice guy persona endears him to women; he chats effortlessly with his female colleagues at the real estate agency where he works and his new fiancée’s girlfriends agree he’s the perfect man, especially when he treats the lot of them to homemade root beer floats. As he and Zooey (a very agreeable Rashida Jones) begin planning their wedding, however, his lack of close male friends comes into focus.

Peter’s immediate need to find a best man and groomsmen is underlined by a broader sense of otherness around guys. He doesn’t chug enough beers to hang out with his poker playing acquaintances and he can’t connect on a more intimate level with his fencing partners. Sensing his unease, Zooey and his family encourage Peter to go on man-dates, with little success. It isn’t until Sydney (Jason Segel), a layabout with no apparent career, crashes one of his open houses that Peter thinks he’s found the one.

That their friendship unfolds like a romance is deliberate. They give each other nicknames, sneak phone calls and texts, and discover a mutual devotion to the same band, a love that no one else seems to share. That thrill of a new and meaningful relationship, however, leads Peter to stray in his relationship with Zooey, and in time, she begins to feel like the third wheel.

What I Love You, Man manages, clumsily on occasion and not always wittily, is an expanded idea of male behavior and friendship. The film creates a space where two guys jamming to Rush in a mancave can coexist with men watching Chocolat by themselves. That Peter’s father (J. K. Simmons) is best friends with his gay son gives an added dimension. It all contributes to a great normalizing of relationships, whatever the form.

Part of that is embracing adulthood, and the characters do their best to confront conflict and uncertainty. Everyone’s willing to take chances on each other without knowing where or how things will end. But there is a measure of trust and reason, like when Zooey learns that Peter has been oversharing about their sex life, that allows them to deal with the consequences rather than denying them. Rudd and Segel should get credit; for characters who are supposed to somewhat quirky, insecure loners, the actors show them to be remarkably normal.

Released: 2009
Prod: Donald De Line, John Hamburg
Dir: John Hamburg
Writer: John Hamburg, Larry Levin
Cast: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, J. K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, Jon Favreau, Jaime Pressly, Sarah Burns, Lou Ferrigno, Thomas Lennon
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

What Happens in Vegas

what happens in vegas

With its afterthought of a title, What Happens in Vegas should be a throwaway romantic comedy that reliably lives up to its Razzie Award billing. (It received nominations for Worst Actress and Worst Couple.) But something kind of crazy happened, as things are wont to do, and I actually fell for this movie. Though it’s unevenly tilted towards humor for the college crowd and makes poor use of its cast, there’s a surprising sweetness that one doesn’t expect from a film whose main gag stems from a drunken night in Vegas.

Joy (Cameron Diaz), a controlling trader – I guess that is the only kind, jets out to Sin City after her fiancé (a cold and smarmy Jason Sudeikis) dumps her at his surprise birthday party. When she and her friend Tipper (Lake Bell) arrive, they discover Jack (Ashton Kutcher), a laid back carpenter who’s just been fired by his father (Treat Williams) again, and his incompetent lawyer friend, Hater (Rob Corddry), are mistakenly booked in the same room. A penthouse upgrade, dozens of tequila shots, a sober breakfast, and a lucky quarter later, Joy and Jack are not only married but $3 million richer. Back in New York, they file for a quick divorce and an equal share of the jackpot.

But sniffing a film plot, the judge refuses. He forces the couple to make a real go at being husband and wife for six months and the audience to suffer through Joy and Jack’s tortured attempts to coexist while also completely undermining one another. She is repulsed by his lack of personal hygiene, and he is unnerved by her uptight behavior. With the help of their friends, both concoct plans to prove their spouse unfaithful or abusive. Their unimaginative tricks make this film indistinguishable from most other bland romcoms, though jokes like the one about Joy’s boss, Dick Banger, put this closer to the juvenile end of the spectrum.

Yet somehow, there is still a touching romance to be salvaged. Almost stealthily, a telling moment between Jack and his overly critical father also turns into one between him and his wife. The brief encounter reveals a far more vulnerable Jack and shows Joy to be capable of deep tenderness. This scene pivots quickly back to more familiar territory though, and part of the movie’s problem is that can’t find the right balance between loud comedy and understated sentimentality, which it could use a little more of. It’s as if What Happens is afraid of getting too close to emotional truth and tries to overcompensate with baser comedy.

Kutcher’s performance embodies that. He’s great at playing the slouch and surprisingly deft as a romantic lead but abruptly swings from one to the other. Diaz handles her character’s demands better, in part because Joy is more transparent. Still, the lack of cohesion runs throughout. Actors are underused, like Queen Latifah as the court appointed marriage counselor, and characters underwritten, like Zach Galifianakis in a useless part as Jack and Hater’s awkward friend. I’m willing to take what I can though, and where this film is endearing, it wins.

Released: 2008
Prod: Michael Aguilar, Shawn Levy, Jimmy Miller
Dir: Tom Vaughan
Writer: Dana Fox
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher, Robb Corddry, Lake Bell, Dennis Farina, Dennis Miller, Krysten Ritter, Jason Sudeikis, Michelle Krusiec, Queen Latifah, Zach Galifianakis, Treat Williams, Deirdre O’Connell
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Bride Wars

bride wars

Sometimes it pays to stick through to the end, though I’m still not sure the conclusion to Bride Wars is worth the investment. For at the very most ten minutes, Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson prove themselves to be damn good actresses, far better than the movie deserves. Having spent the first eighty minutes spitting feminist fireballs at the screen, I was surprised to find myself almost teary eyed and wanting to call my best friend, at two o’clock in the morning.

Instead, I’m writing this review and am reminded of the shrill female stereotype that is the backbone of this film. Women can be loving, lifelong friends, but the second you throw in a bit of competition, it is a full-on catfight. Emma (Hathaway) and Liv (Hudson) have gone through puberty and early adulthood as one supportive unit, even though they have opposing personalities and lifestyles. Emma is a teacher and a pushover (an oxymoron if you ask me) while her other female half is a steely corporate lawyer. Both are engaged to their boyfriends within days of each other, which only makes them giddier with delight, and it isn’t until they meet with Marion, a famous wedding planner (Candice Bergen), that the party comes to a crashing halt.

Ever since they were tweens, the two friends have dreamt of a June wedding at the Plaza Hotel. Marion informs them that there is just one open date, so they must either hold their wedding at the same time or one of the women must agree to forgo June nuptials. Some things are open to compromise, but for Emma and Liv, this is not one of them. Thus begins their utterly irrational bride war.

Almost immediately, the sabotage kicks into high gear. They hijack each other’s reception DJ and bachelorette party. One ends up with a tangerine spray tan while another wakes up with blue hair. As they each try to gain the upper hand, all good sense is abandoned because, you know, girls be so crazy. In a flash, Emma and Liv become poster children for women behaving badly. The psychotic woman trope is used to full effect here, and at one point, Liv has a major freak out at work that costs her a client and the project lead. The erstwhile friends get no help from their entourage, who are content to watch the relationship disintegrate, and their only married friend is the perfect picture of a nagging wife. In contrast, Emma and Liv’s fiancés (Chris Pratt and Steve Howey) are sensible enough to first, not stress over the minutiae of wedding planning and second, not burn bridges.

A weird left turn salvages at least the film’s ending and even surprises by not taking the easy route. That storyline doesn’t get the benefit of development though and feels more like a convenience than a carefully considered plot point. At this point, I’m reminded of Marion’s motto – you’re dead until you’re married, and maybe that explains why I am so averse to Bride Wars. Given the chance to transform into a bridezilla, perhaps I’d find a greater sense of sisterhood. Or I’d find that death is happier.

Released: 2009
Prod: Kate Hudson, Matt Luber, Alan Riche, Peter Riche, Julie Yorn
Dir: Gary Winick
Writer: Greg DePaul, June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Chris Pratt, Bryan Greenberg, Candice Bergen, Steve Howey, Kristen Johnson, Michael Arden
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

License to Wed

In License to Wed, Robin Williams plays a minister who puts couples through flaming hoops before he’ll marry them. Sadie and Ben, played by Mandy Moore and John Krasinski, are blissfully in love but now find their relationship pushed to the limits, going so far as to call off the wedding in order to reevaluate their commitment to one another. About thirty minutes in, twenty if you’re lucky, you’ll realize that watching this movie approximates the feelings of anger and frustration that the couple experience, and you too will question your decision to follow through. Well, as the movie suggests, sometimes it’s better to part ways before both parties destroy any remaining affection.

There is so much to dislike that you’ll wonder why you started in the first place. Sure, it looks appealing – a romantic comedy starring effervescent Mandy Moore and loveable Jim from The Office plus the comedic fire of Robin Williams, but there are no first flushes of love. You quickly discover that it’s an uncomfortable three-way. The otherwise likable Sadie and Ben have hardly a moment alone before Minister Frank comes crashing in, and he immediately sours every scene, even when he’s offscreen.

Placing Williams at the center wouldn’t be a bad idea his character served a real purpose. That he wants to test the depth of their commitment is understandable. It’s not uncommon for minister (in this case, an interdenominational mashup of one) to enquire about a couple’s relationship before he or she marries them. But Frank’s involvement comes not out of concern but out of sheer spite. He appears to delight in tearing Sadie and Ben apart, egging them on in hypothetical arguments, forcing them to care for creepy robot babies, and forbidding them to have sex until the honeymoon. The obstacles he constructs are just mean-spirited, and one wonders if he has a hidden agenda, especially because he insists on stringing along his pint-sized assistant (Josh Flitter), supposedly a minister-in-training.

It’s easy to sympathize with Ben, and not just because he is played by John Krasinski. Sadie soon falls into the dark hole that so many women in romantic comedies do when she happily embraces Frank’s stunts, even chiding her fiancé for not taking their impending nuptials seriously. Of course the naïve girl is so swept away by this whole marriage thing that she can’t see the absurdity of driving blindfolded through New York’s streets, another one of Frank’s tests. It’s infuriating to see a sensible woman transform into an emotional loon for the sake of romance and comedy. So save yourself; don’t go through with it.

Released: 2007
Prod: Mike Medavoy, Robert Simonds, Arnold W. Messer, Nick Osborne
Dir: Ken Kwapis
Writer: Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen, Vince Di Meglio, Wayne Lloyd
Cast: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore, John Krasinski, Eric Christian Olsen, Christine Taylor, Josh Flitter, DeRay Davis, Peter Strauss, Grace Zabriskie, Roxanne Hart, Mindy Kaling
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016