â€śFriends With Benefitsâ€ť (R) ****
There have been several near-miss rom-coms from Hollywood this past year, but this one, as the kids say, â€śnails it.â€ť The reasons are simple: Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake. Kunis is terminally cute in every way — sitting, standing, reading lines in her throaty voice — and in this movie displays some of the hottest and at the same time funniest sex scenes imaginable. Timberlake is no slouch with her and has wonderful moments of his own in this attempt to go against the rom-com formula.
In fact, the film goes so far against type as to frequently and blatantly spoof many of the conventions of the form. There is a spectacular supporting cast: Woody Harrelson as the gay sports editor of â€śGQ,â€ť for which Dylan (Timberlake) is the art director; Patricia Clarkson as Jamieâ€™s (Kunisâ€™s) daffy and promiscuous mother; Richard Jenkins as Dylanâ€™s father; and a particularly sympathetic and moving role played by Jenna Elfman as Dylanâ€™s sister with wit, deftness and a great emotional touch.
Since Dylan comes from LA to NY, recruited by Jamie for the GQ job, plenty of opportunities are present for skewering both cultures, and the film spares neither place, though New York clearly wins the photogenic award with great shots of the city in its glory from great angles. (Dylan: â€śI know itâ€™s New York. Iâ€™ve seen Seinfeld.â€ť)
Kunis is described by her mother as having â€śa vaguely Middle Eastern beautyâ€ť and in no film she has been in is Kunis more attractive in more ways. She is simply adorable in a way that makes even women admire her.
One word of caution: Listen very carefully because the script moves very fast and the references to popular culture and technology are quick, subtle and relentless. My favorite was Dylan and Jamie swearing to be â€śjust friendsâ€ť on an iPad with the photo of a Bible that just wonâ€™t stand still.
This movie does one other thing: The sex scenes are so hot yet funny that they surpass lust. They donâ€™t stop the plot but advance it. Not for the youngest kids, but adults will be laughing about this movie the rest of the summer, and men will wish they were going to the prom with Kunis like that Marine.
â€śCrazy, Stupid Loveâ€ť (PG-13) ****
From the trailers and talk, you might expect a farcical, slapstick rom-com. You get some of that in this wonderful movie, but its strengths lie in the quiet subtexts and subplots of family and loyalty that underlie a story of divorce and hustling.
Steve Carell, as Cal, does the divorcing from Julianne Moore as Emily, and heâ€™s not happy about it. Ryan Gosling, in his best role of a growing career, Jacob, tries to save Cal by getting him dressed for the 2011 crowd, groomed and polished. Stocked with one-liners that Cal canâ€™t quite get the rhythm of, Jacob shows him how to do it as he parades an endless number of beauties into his bed.
Cal gets stuck with a very funny schoolteacher, Kate, marvelously played by Marisa Tomei. She finds his blunt and inept honesty so beguiling that she falls into bed with him. He makes the bachelorâ€™s mistake: He does not call her afterward, and he will pay for that mistake later when their paths cross by accident.
The performances in this comedy are all sterling: Calâ€™s son, Robbie, played by Jonah Bobo, will tear your heart out as he pines for his love struck babysitter, Jessica, played by former ice skater Analeigh Tipton. Unfortunately, she is struck with love for Cal, Robbieâ€™s father, leading to major emotional problems for both poor Robbie and an unwitting Cal. Emma Stone, she of the delightful (or irritating) lisp, is perfect as Hannah, the girl who derails Jacobâ€™s one-man crusade for the Wilt Chamberlain Trophy for Scoring. Liza Lapira, as Liz, Hannahâ€™s wise and wisecracking BFF adds a punch to every scene in which she appears.
The slapstick bits are extremely well done, but the thoughtful moments make this a movie to cherish as everybody learns something about love, lust and living well, often through brutal lessons.
â€śWinnie the Poohâ€ť (G) ****
From the first strains of the ultra-familiar theme song, this film grabs parents, and the kids follow soon after. The story is mostly original, as are the songs, but the spirit is the same. I dare you to watch this film while keeping a smile off your face.
The animals are as daffy as ever: Winnie has his problems with reading, Owl with spelling, Tigger with anything more mentally demanding than his name, and Kangaâ€™s delightfully realistic take on life. At one point, impatient with excessive celebration of nothing, she snaps: â€śHow about we celebrate with silence?â€ť
Her attitude is an aspect of Rooâ€™s character as well. Asked to volunteer for a dangerous mission, Kanga ducks the assignment, pointing out: â€śI am with child.â€ť Roo pops out of her pocket with a demand to â€śSend the pig!â€ť
The problem here is Owlâ€™s misinterpretation of a note left by Christopher Robin. He says he will be â€śback soon,â€ť and Owl translates that into a kidnapping by a monster named Backson. While the groups is distracted by finding Eeyoreâ€™s lost tail — only the latest of misfortunes to strike the hypochondriacal, depressed donkey, they also have to escape the Backson while Pooh goes on his eternal quest for Hunny.
Everybodyâ€™s search is fulfilled except for finding the Backson, and along the way there are elegant touches such as references to the printed text of the story. Eventually, Pooh uses a stack of letters from the text to get out of a hole dug to trap Backson, but the constant tripping over letters and hanging from them and generally enjoying them adds to the charm of this superb family film.
It was hard to hear all of the dialogue of the film over the running commentary of an absorbed 3-year old near us, but she only added to the enjoyment of this new family classic. Donâ€™t be surprised if you find yourself laughing through a choked throat as nostalgia and humor collide inside you.
Take the little ones and let them react to what they see and hear. It adds to the surprising wallop of this little film.
â€śHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2â€ť (PG-13) ***
The films in this series are legends for reasons that have little to do with film and everything to do with literature and faddism. It is almost useless to criticize them. This, the last, is typical of the franchise in that, as film, it has a lot of problems: There is little or no exposition; its atmosphere is almost entirely murky; the plot is almost impossible to follow if you have not read the books or seen previous films in the series. (This is the eighth in a series that started in 2001.)
It is primarily a triumph of longevity for a cast that has remained remarkably intact: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione, and Dohnhall Gleeson as Weasley, not to mention the villains — Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, Alan Rickman as Severus and Helena Bonham Carter as Lestrange.
In this last episode (there are already hints that J.K. Rowling has been writing again and that Harry may have yet another life) the Intrepid Ones are after the last of the horcruxes, after which they can slay Voldemort (or not, depending on the strength of wands. The Boss Wand is called the â€śElderwand.â€ť) Harry leads the gang since he has mysterious insights into Voldemortâ€™s mind ,and the film more or less ends with their battle and the results.
This film has the advantage, to the uninitiated, of being advertised as â€śthe last of the series,â€ť so the sometimes seemingly meaningless chase scenes and mass destruction of such places as Hogwarts, the school, may mean the end of Harry or may not. Without that added fillip, many of the confrontations in the film are both hard to see, since they are so dark, or meaningless because we are not sure what the purpose of them may be.
The film will make millions no matter what it represents as film, and for many of you, this may bring closure to an experience with Harry and his friends that lasted over a decade, from childhood to adulthood. For parents, it is a final shot at understanding the whole craze. Grab your wands and hang on.
â€śCowboys and Aliensâ€ť (PG-13) ***
This is a hard movie to judge. Basically, itâ€™s an old-fashioned Western with Harrison Ford trying and failing to channel John Wayne as the crusty old pater familias landowner who runs the town; Paul Dano (of â€śLittle Miss Sunshineâ€ť) as his bullying and not-too-bright son; Olivia Wilde, she of the spooky blue eyes, as a mysterious presence named Ella; and most mysterious of all, Daniel Craig as most-wanted gunslinger Jake Lonergan.
When we first see Jake, he is emerging from a traumatic dream sequence to find himself wounded and wearing a chunky bracelet that glows at odd times. Enter the â€śAlienâ€ť part. For this typical Western — mysterious stranger, gorgeous woman, crusty old guy, corruption in town, bartender (who is also sort of a doctor) preacher — youâ€™ve seen them all before — swerves a bit and becomes a piece of sci-fi. Oddly enough, most of the townspeople react very little to the presence of aliens in their midst who snatch their women and children on swoops through town in their spaceships.
It soon becomes apparent that Jakeâ€™s bracelet gives him powers that allow him to defend himself and his friends against the worst of the creatures, but it all becomes a somewhat goofy mishmash as the action moves to the Mother Ship outside of town. The saving grace of the film is that not all the good guys survive to the end. There are enough of them left, however, to allow a solo ride into the sunset at fadeout. How else could this bizarre amalgam of elements have ended?
â€śThe Smurfsâ€ť (PG) **
So. The Smurfs are allegedly cute. They were created by a Belgian cartoonist back in 1958, became a television series and now have resurfaced in a clichĂ©-ridden, hard-working attempt to pile cute on cute. The piling soon collapses under the weight of the fact that the characters, never all that charming to begin with, have very little charm here other than their predictable, Seven-Dwarfs-rip-off names like Clumsy and Gutsy, Brainy and even Grouchy!
They stumble into Manhattan and into the lives of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays.) A married couple expecting, of course, their first child (what could be cuter?) they take to the Smurfs reluctantly at first. Patrick has employment issues with a woefully miscast Sofia Vergara (from â€śModern Familyâ€ť). Not only is her part that of a cruel Meryl Streep-like fashion CEO, but she is bound up in formal business suits that camouflage her most notable assets, and her accent is even toned down to be snarly rather than funny. At least she avoided cute, which the rest of the movie strives in every frame to be.
The script avoids cleverness like the plague and focuses on bad slapstick, a mangy automated cat and a truly execrable bit of emoting from Hank Azaria as the villain, Gargamel. He is an embarrassment. The little ones will not have seen enough good childrenâ€™s films (reference â€śWinnie the Poohâ€ť) to know the difference and will laugh at the stupid cat and all the crashing and smashing that goes on, but parents may be seen checking their watches, stunned that â€śPoohâ€ť could be more rewarding in a short hour than this almost two hour snoozefest.