comedy drama

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Waffle Street (2015)

Waffle Street is like your average Lifetime movie of the week, except it’s not a television film and is even less nuanced. After a hedge fund manager gets caught in a perfect storm of ethics violations and the 2008 recession, he goes back to square one and attempts to pull himself up again with some honest, back-busting blue collar work. In this case, it’s a job at Papa’s Chicken and Waffles, a regional chain à la Waffle House, where he starts as a kitchen and bus boy before graduating to waiter with hopes of owning his own franchise.

The narrative and emotional arc of this story is straight as they come and why you’ll love it or leave it. Those looking for an inspirational tale of hard scrabble folk who persevere through the good and the bad will appreciate this dominant strain of the American Dream. It’s all very Horatio Alger, and you could make a drinking game out of the many working class clichés. Aligning with the anti-Wall Street mood of the hoi polloi, the movie takes a dim view of the financial sector while giving a little spit shine to the unglamorous world of service jobs.

Our introduction to Jimmy Adams (James Lafferty) comes as he is trying to reason his way through an unethical but legal deal, for which he is eventually fired. Blackballed by his former employers, he has to try his luck in another field and eventually and somewhat accidentally settles on the restaurant business. He can be forgiven for that initial lapse in judgment, and presumably all his previous ones, though because Jimmy immediately redeems himself through his humility and tenacity. At first, his managers don’t know what to make of this man who is overqualified and out of his depth, someone who studiously highlights a 100+ page employee handbook the night before he starts work and who willingly sticks his arm into a clogged toilet because someone stole the plunger. These qualities make him an admirable and sympathetic character but also a convenient stereotype.

Jimmy hardly deviates from his ambition of owning his own Papa’s Chicken and Waffle, which he’s qualified to do after logging in 1000 hours, and that’s the big problem with this movie if you’re hoping to see a true story about the real toll of the financial crisis. His biggest troubles are first physical, keeping up with the demands of the job, and then strategic, as he formulates a plan to work enough hours and raise enough capital. But anyone who’s ever been through a job loss or career change of this magnitude knows that there’s a bigger existential crisis at hand, one that is never fully explored in this movie. We see Jimmy’s frustrations with work but not with the dramatic change in his financial or social status. What is the emotional weight of all this? Or is he just content with soldiering on?

Despite some misgivings, his wife (Julie Gonzalo) is fully onboard, even though, as she points out, it kind of makes their years of sacrifice for his MBA all for naught. For someone whose husband has gone from a hedge fund manager to a waiter at the local waffle joint, she’s exceedingly accommodating. The same is true for Jimmy’s father and grandfather, who eye him warily from the sidelines at first. In fact, it’s their working class roots that encourage his desire to have a “real” job.

I like the attention and respect given to blue collar work, but I have a real issue with the dishonesty that goes along with it. Waffle House oversimplifies this journey that Jimmy embarks on, scrubbing away difficult questions about opportunities and what work we value and how. In place of that story is a watered down narrative about not being too proud to get dirty and start over, which is admirable but ultimately unchallenging. I do think the movie ends in a better place and avoids the easy, comfortable resolution. Jimmy and his friend, a line cook played by Danny Glover, both get satisfying conclusions but not ones that they, or we, necessarily expect.

Released: 2015
Dir: Ian Nelms, Esholm Nelms
Writer: Esholm Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Adam Johnson, Yolanda Wood
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas

“I’m all toasty inside,” says the Grinch when he discovers that Christmas isn’t about presents and toys – but about something else that fills us with joy. That seems to be the aim at least behind this live action retelling of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book. The movie, sweet but not cloyingly so, is a fine addition to the Christmas canon, and you may find yourself, like the Grinch, getting leaky and reaching for the tissues by the time the credits roll.

Under the direction of Ron Howard, The Grinch lovingly recreates the world of Whoville, where Christmas reigns eternal. The town is a living mall display, a place of fun house proportions that is perpetually festooned in bright holiday colors. It also buzzes with the frantic energy of Black Friday. The residents of Whoville are serious about their celebrations, and it’s a constant race to buy gifts, decorate the house, and ready themselves for the great Whobilation, a town-wide festival that culminates in the crowning of the year’s Holiday Cheermeister.

It’s all a little too much for six year old Cindy Lou (Taylor Momson). She wonders to her postman dad (Bill Irwin) if the preparations aren’t a tad superfluous (because Dr. Seuss is all about rhymes and SAT vocabulary) and if maybe everyone should slow the heck down. When the Grinch (Jim Carrey) leaves his home in Mt. Crumpit and makes an unexpected appearance in town, she decides to spread some Christmas cheer and invite him as her honored guest at the Whobilation, much to the dismay of Mayor May Who (a perfectly priggish Jeffrey Tambor), who wants to be the center of attention yet again. The Grinch isn’t altogether pleased either. Not only will he have to tear himself away from his miserable hobbies, which include eating glass and yelling into the void, he’ll also have to subject himself to an avalanche of holiday cheer.

Naturally, it would fall into the hands of a child to help the big people rediscover the true Christmas spirit. Momsen is delightful to watch and wonderfully captures Cindy Lou’s wide eyed innocence, a quality that allows her to see past both the superficiality of Whoville’s holiday hustle and bustle and the Grinch’s grumpy attitude. Truths somehow ring truer when delivered by a cherubic child, and the filmmakers exploit this at every turn. I was too busy gobbling up the message of anti-materialism and love and good will to care about the opportunism though.

Besides Momsen, a few actors also put in strong performances. Christine Baranski has a small role as Martha May Whovier, the love interest of both the Mayor and the Grinch, and while she doesn’t have much to say, she has a surprising repertoire of suppressed sighs and sidelong glances. Narrator Anthony Hopkins, on the other hand, does get quite a few words in even if he doesn’t appear onscreen. If ever you need to be lulled to sleep by a warm Welsh voice, his is the one. Dr. Seuss has never sounded so melodic and his rhymes so whimsical.

Of course this is really Jim Carrey’s show, and your feelings about the movie may be affected by your tolerance for the actor. Mine is generally low, but perhaps swayed by the film’s message of generosity, I thought he was well suited for the role. Carrey gets away with much of his histrionics because the Grinch makes sense as a snarky meanie who is secretly nursing a traumatic childhood wound. But his hysterical asides can be overbearing and not everyone has the patience for his manic showcase. He really redeems himself and the whole movie with the Grinch’s epiphany, however. It ranks up there as one of my favorite Christmas moments on film, a simple, mostly subdued moment of clarity that immediately fills the heart, both the Grinch’s and your own.

Released: 2000
Alt Title: The Grinch
Prod: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Dir: Ron Howard
Writer: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Wedding Date (2005)

the wedding date

If you think of The Wedding Date as an early showcase for Amy Adams, then the film is worth the time and effort. Adams, in a supporting role as the lead character’s half-sister, also called Amy, steals the show in more ways than one. It’s her wedding that is at the center of all this, and the already shaky relationship between the two sisters is further threatened by a secret she’s been keeping. By the time it all comes spilling out, the actress lets loose a dramatic range that makes you realize why she’s gone on to star in movies of every genre and to earn five Oscar nominations. At first chipper, jealous, and grating, she transforms into a fragile woman, penitent but unsure how to atone for her mistakes.

Adams’s performance excepting, however, there’s little to recommend this film about a woman who hires an escort to pose as her wedding date in order to get back at her ex-fiancé. Longer than its short running time suggests, it’s terribly morose for a romance and is not at all the comedy the trailer makes it out to be. The film is instead preoccupied with a seriousness that has little meaning. Besides her stepdad (Peter Egan), Kat (Debra Messing) is not fond of her family and goes to her sister’s wedding in London out of obligation. To make matters worse, Jeffrey (Jeremy Sheffield), the fiancé who dumped her right before their wedding is there as the best man to Ed (Jack Davenport). She figures the best solution is to bring Nick (Dermot Mulroney), whose services cost a cool $6000.

An emotional pallor dampens the whole affair with almost none of the relationships bringing light to the proceedings. Kat is understandably determined to make Jeffrey pay, but once she’s in that position, she’s not sure what to do or how to do it. Her relationship with Nick is similarly muddled. She doesn’t have the confidence to orchestrate their fake romance to her liking and, because it is just the thing to do, finds herself falling for him. Adams’s strong performance makes me wish for an emphasis on the sisters, since that’s where the real conflict seems to be anyway.

Overall, The Wedding Date is a dull party, one that can’t even make use of its picturesque filming location. Its occasional and awkward intrusions into romantic comedy territory, like when Kat pours water down her shirt to catch Jeffrey’s eye, misfire. The cast does a poor job juggling the script as well. Messing mimics a certain gravity, but you can sense her comedic senses ready to break out. Mulroney, also unsure how to balance his character’s smugness and sensitivity, just smolders, so much so that he puts out all the fire. Then again, there wasn’t much to begin with.

Released: 2005
Prod: Jessica Bendinger, Paul Brooks, Michelle Chydzik, Nathalie Marciano
Dir: Clare Kilner
Writer: Dana Fox
Cast: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams, Jeremy Sheffield, Jack Davenport, Sarah Parish, Peter Egan, Holland Taylor
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Annie (1982)

annie 1982

Until I got around to seeing Annie this weekend, I’d mostly associated the musical with Jay Z’s 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life,” which samples the famous showtune. It’s a blasphemous admission considering my vast library of cast albums, but I came of age right after the initial Annie fever waned and just before a small pop culture revival in the late 1990s. It’s not hard to warm to the pint-sized orphan though. Aileen Quinn, who takes on the title role, is relentlessly optimistic, almost bursting with joy. Except for a few scenes where Annie allows herself to see things the way they are instead of they way she imagines, Quinn grins like a kid who just loves being a kid.

That, of course, contrasts with the actual story about an orphan girl kept under the abusive care of one Miss Hannigan. A boozy Carol Burnett spits venom at her little charges, cutting them down at every chance she gets and ensuring they will never amount to anything better than her. She’s the tragic character of the piece, and though Burnett slinks through her scenes with cheeky abandon, she also makes Miss Hannigan one to be pitied as much as she is to be hated.

Annie gets a brief reprieve when she is whisked away to billionaire Oliver Warbucks’s (Albert Finney) mansion as a way of improving the latter’s public image. Finney barks through the first two acts until he finds his heart softening to the girl, though this change never really manifests onscreen. Warbucks’s secretary, Grace (Ann Reinking), however, offers a patient, nurturing presence to his gruff demeanor and immediately takes to Annie. Their relationship blossoms naturally, unlike Grace’s awkward romance with her employer. Like his character, Finney seems to be the odd one out, never quite figuring out who Warbucks is beyond a shouty middle-aged man.

Generally though, the film uses its cast’s talents well. Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters appear in brief but memorable roles as Hannigan’s scheming brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend, Lily. Quinn of course draws in the audience with her child’s cheerfulness and a slate of ready-made hits, but Reinking gets the biggest showcase. She radiates, demanding attention as she crisscrosses the screen in set numbers (“Let’s Go to the Movies” and “We Got Annie”) seemingly designed just for her. Casting decisions that don’t work so well 30 years later concern the characters of Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) and the Asp (Roger Minami), the mysterious butler and bodyguard imported to give the household some exotic flair. One of the orphans literally faints when she sees the darker skinned Punjab.

What does seem almost daring though is the striking harshness of the story. I can’t compare it to the stage show, which I haven’t seen, but a family film about Depression-era orphans would be far more sanitized today. The most recent remake starring Quvenzhané Wallis, for example, is almost cartoonish in its depiction of the Miss Hannigan character, bearing little of the regret that Burnett brings to her performance. A third act plot to involving Rooster and Lily also has a sinister undercurrent in this 1982 production, maybe thanks to Curry, rather than relying on the slapstick that characterizes the 2014 film. Granted, a movie that trumpets the hope of tomorrow will hardly be Dickensian in approach, but a darker edge, however slight, doesn’t dampen the mood.

“Tomorrow” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:

“It’s a Hard Knock Life” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:

“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” by Aileen Quinn and Ann Reinking:

“Let’s Go to the Movies” by Ann Reinking and Aileen Quinn:

“We Got Annie” by Ann Reinking:

Released: 1982
Prod: Ray Stark
Dir: John Huston
Writer: Carol Sobieski
Cast: Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder, Edward Hermann, Lois de Banzie
Time: 128 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015