Winter Movies: Part 1
I guess you'd call them holiday leftovers, these '06 releases which I didn't get to before New Year's. Debbie and I saw the first three on consecutive nights a couple of weekends ago (preceded by pizza each time!), and Co and I went to the last while Bo was at a sleepover.
One of the surest of bets for next week's Oscar nominations? Judi Dench, Best Actress, for Notes on a Scandal (see also: Helen Mirren for The Queen, Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada... and, if it were up to me, Penelope Cruz for Volver and Maggie Gyllennhaal for Sherrybaby). In the end, Mirren will win the award, but Dench should be a close second for her wrenching, riveting performance here as the predatory, exceptionally unlikable high-school teacher who surreptitously blackmails Cate Blanchett into being her best friend, confidante and, in some delusion-fueled future, her lover. In fact, so miserable a person is Dench that I actually started to sympathize with Blanchett's also-well-played character, who lies to and cheats on her husband (Bill Nighy, in the film's good guy role) and shatters her family by acting upon her selfish desires and immature ennui by having an affair with a 15-year-old student. In the end, despite excellent acting all around, the movie's small stage, narrow narrative and what I thought were unfair leaps in emotional logic made this a good, not great, movie.
Speaking of strong performances, Naomi Watts may be the best reason to see The Painted Veil (the second best is the gorgeous settings), the story of a playful and independent young woman in 1920s England who, out of spite for her mother rather than love for the man, marries a repressed bacteriologist, nicely played by Edward Norton. Unsurprisingly, the union doesn't go well, and when Norton catches Watts having an affair, he volunteers his services to a remote village in China in the ghastly throes of a cholera epidemic... and, of course, brings along his unfaithful wife. But what could have been a murder/suicide mission turns into something else entirely, as the two come to learn both humilty and courage in equal measures.
The third movie Debbie and I saw that weekend was Perfume, a far too long and overly melodramatic adaptation of what I remember being a totally original and creepy novel. The story here begins with a birth, in an open-air market in 18th-century Paris, and the mother prompty tosses her newborn into a pile of putrid fish guts. From this most malodourous of beginnings, a miracle: the boy is saved by the mob, acquires the name Jean-Baptiste, and discovers he has been blessed with an extraordinary sense of smell (like, he can smell wet stones and frog eggs a mile away). After being rescued from a tannery by a perfume-maker (pointlessly played by Dustin Hoffman), Jean-Baptiste quickly aspires to create the world's greatest scent, and the movie's subtitle—The Story of a Murderer—comes into play. The film has its share of good moments, and the women are exceptionally well-shot, and the scenery vivid, but it's all just too much, and the silly rave/orgy ending had our theater laughing out loud.
Finally, Co and I crossed our fingers and went to the Holiday Season's big Hollywood family blockbuster, Night at the Museum... and, thank goodness, it wasn't nearly the disaster I was dreading. Here Ben Stiller plays the part he always plays (good-hearted misunderstood bufoon), this time wearing the uniform of the overnight security guard at the Museum of Natural History. What Stiller doesn't know when he takes the job is this: when the sun goes down, everything in the museum—animals, historical figures, dinosaur skeletons, ancient statues—comes alive. As you can imagine, mayhem ensues, some of it annoying (e.g., Robin Williams), some of it ridiculous (the whole Sakagewea subplot), but director Shawn Levy does keep the pacing brisk, and there's a surprising amount of genuinely amusing, clever, and even charming moments. Keep your expectations seriously low, and you and your kids should have some fun at this one.