There’s a scene toward the end of the comedy Late Night in which Emma Thompson’s character, the hard-driving talk show host Katherine Newbury, climbs multiple flights of stairs in a Brooklyn walk-up in order to have a heart to heart with Molly, her newest writer. Out of nowhere – or perhaps out of the early 2000s – a cheery, vaguely inspirational pop song comes on the soundtrack as Katherine huffs and puffs up those stairs, stopping at one point to take off her shoes in order to aid her ascent. It’s one of a few cliché moments (also included is an obligatory montage, showing hard work resulting in success) that stand out for all the wrong reasons in what is otherwise a smart, funny, and fresh take on both feminism and cultural diversity in the work place.
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When it comes to movies about rich, eccentric, dysfunctional (and white, you can’t forget white) families, one director comes instantly to mind: Wes Anderson. He’s exceptional at exploring broken family dynamics in pictures like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s sometime collaborator, Noah Baumbach, has plumbed the same depths of familial dysfunction, most notably in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. The two have worked together in some capacity on Anderson’s Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Baumbach’s Squid.
Baumbach has returned to this familiar subject matter for his new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), but to a decidedly mixed effect. The movie feels too reminiscent of Anderson’s masterful Tenenbaums, but with none of the emotional connection to the characters, and only a hint of that movie’s wistfulness.
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes… when the month of December rolls around, the need to watch Love Actually is a feeling that grows. I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times since friends introduced it to me seven or eight years ago. It delivers on that harmless popcorn flick level that never disappoints regardless of how many times you watch it. It’s endlessly quotable, and never fails to get laughs in all the right spots, despite year after year of viewing.
The first scene of the movie, when washed-up rock star Billy Mack attempts a comeback with a yule-themed reworking of The Trogg’s 60s hit Love is All Around, never fails to bring a smile to my face. Most of that joy is created by actor Bill Nighy’s gleefully mischievous performance as Mack. Nighy sinks his teeth into the persona of the has-been rock god like he’s biting into a thick medium-rare steak. I have to wonder if he didn’t serve as an example to the rest of the cast. Everyone involved in Love Actually takes the material they’re given – which is by turns cheesy, silly, funny, and depressing – and together they deliver an unabashedly heartfelt piece of entertainment that doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. When the film leaves Nighy as he hilariously struggles to shoehorn the correct Christmas references into the song, composer Craig Armstrong transforms the melody into a sweeping orchestral piece as we meet the rest of the characters. The joy of that opening montage is infectious, and if you let it work its magic, you realize that love actually is all around.
Director Richard Curtis set out to make the definitive romantic comedy, so he wrote this tale of nine intersecting stories about the trials and tribulations of love set in the month leading up to Christmas. Based on how many knock-offs have come in the dozen years since Love Actually was released, it’s obvious quite a few screenwriters thought Curtis was on to something. From Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve to He’s Just Not that Into You, the formula has been copied, but not as successfully as in Love Actually. Most of that success is thanks to the cast taking Curtis’ over the top situations and creating unforgettable moments with their performances.
A Walk in the Woods is a rare example of when it’s ok to judge a movie by its poster. Just look at it. Some marketing underling clearly Photoshopped stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte onto the edge of a cliff. Redford holds his arm up in what should represent exasperation, but his stance, coupled with the expression on his face, screams artificiality; every part of his body looks manipulated to produce an effect. Ditto Nolte’s posture of reluctant explanation. The whole thing looks flat, both photographically and thematically. The image is a perfect metaphor for the film. A Walk in the Woods is a superficial, monotonous mess.
Critical and financial hits like Into the Wild, 127 Hours, and Wild explore the theme of the human struggle against nature, and harken back to the popular German “mountain films” of the 1920s and 30s. Because the genre is experiencing success, it’s time for some poorly made knock-offs. A Walk in the Woods is one of these. The movie is based on the bestseller of the same name by travel writer Bill Bryson. The plan to make the book into a movie began in 1998, but the project continually hit roadblocks until these other films paved the way for its production.