Usually the early-October weekends bring a crush of potentially exciting awards-bait and, more importantly, too-interesting-for-awards movies from the Coen Brothers and stuff (although: A Serious Man got a Best Picture nomination last year. I know there were ten nominees, but still. Surely one of the ten weirdest movies to get a Best Picture nod). The crush is here this weekend, but the quality potential is kind of scattered and mysterious: De Niro and Edward Norton face off again, but will this be a next-gen Heat, a Righteous Kill-sized disappointment, or something in the middle, like last time they co-starred (The Score)? Wes Craven has written and directed a new movie, but horror auteurs are not the most consistent or dependable. The team behind Half Nelson and the excellent Sugar have a new movie… but it looks like the kind of self-consciously quirky, cute indie comedy their other features avoided. I’m interested in a movie about young John Lennon, but music bios often resort to formula. I’ve only seen one of these movies, but I enjoyed it more than I expected, so maybe it’s a harbinger of more happy surprises.
Tamara Drewe: With its cute Englishness and affection for sleepy, quirky small-town life, Tamara Drewe will probably be tagged as a romantic comedy, but it would be more accurately described as a comic soap—in this case, based on actual (albeit Hardy-inspired) comics, collected into a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. The titular character, played by Gemma Arterton, is less of rom-com heroine than the focal point for gossip and surprisingly palatable shenanigans. Tamara, a glamorous London journalist, moves back to her abandoned homestead, aiming to fix it up, sell it, and leave town forever. She arrives home with boosted self-confidence owed not just to her career but her new nos ejob, rendering her a head-turning beauty. Male heads turned include a pompous, successful mystery author (Roger Allam); a local handyman (Luke Evans) who had a fling with the pre-surgery Tamara; and a rock star (Dominic Cooper) visiting for a festival and nursing a recent break-up.
Bed-hopping and misunderstanding ensues, but with surprising charm. Stephen Frears, who usually hits a bit harder, occasionally splits the screen like panels for flashbacks and phonecalls, and keeps the action cartoony without resorting to grotesque caricature. Arterton is a thin starlet, of course, but there’s something striking and comic-strippy about her form—when “poured,” as one character mutters, into short-shorts in an early scene, she looks broad, almost imposing. Tamara (whose abilities as a journalist and writer are left pleasingly ambiguous) disappears from the screen for sections, leaving space for vivid supporting characters like he famous author’s put-upon wife (Tamsin Greg), a visiting American writer and self-described “loser’s loser” (Bill Camp), and a couple of teenage girls who stalk Cooper’s star drummer. It’s all amusing (if never hilarious), even with a distracting, twinkling score that would work better under a Tim Burton fantasy.
It’s still a puzzling move for Frears, who better toyed with old-timey screwballs in the underappreciated 1992 bomb Hero. Like so many screwball-inspired movies, Tamara Drewe could’ve withstood a snappier, less repetitive pace. The better bits wear a little thin after 95 minutes or so; there’s no real reason the movie has to run another fifteen, and the movie fades off without much consequence. But its retro shades don’t feel regressive; in fact, with its gossip rags and email scandals, the film feels slightly, sweetly current.
Stone: Here’s that DeNiro-versus-Norton rematch; its Overture pickup portends the previously mentioned Righteous Kill, but some of the reviews, as well as the lack of director Jon Avnet, have been encouraging. DeNiro plays a parole officer in psychological battle with an arsonist (Norton) and his sexy non-imprisoned wife (the underrated-when-not-killing-zombies Milla Jovovich).
It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck made two of the least hilarious good movies of the past bunch of years, so in theory it’ll be good to see them try their hands at a less stoic brand of misery. I wonder, though, if Half Nelson and Sugar (which, as mentioned, is really good!) haven’t provided adequate comedy boot camp and this whole thing will be a little more cute and life-affirming than actually funny.
Nowhere Boy: I was feeling kind of disappointed in my own low level of interest in this early-years John Lennon biography until I realize it was a Weinstein joint, so its limited release will probably be in dollar theaters in Texas and Canada anyway. [And, well. -Ed]
Secretariat and Life As We Know It and My Soul to Take: Yikes. Just when I thought I couldn’t want to see any Diane Lane vehicles less than Unfaithful, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Must Love Dogs, she goes and does an inspirational horse-racing movie. Well-played, Lane. On the other hand, Katherine Heigl has managed to pick a movie that I’m somewhat more likely to watch than The Ugly Truth or Killers, yet still probably won’t unless I take an airplane someplace in, oh, December or January, I guess. If I lived someplace where you could only see first-run movies in malls (and presuming I’d already seen last weekend’s high-quality combo of The Social Network and Let Me In), I, a thirtyish dude, would be all over My Soul to Take on the off chance that Wes Craven will cook up some genre excitement.
What’s amazing is that all three wide releases this weekend basically go for the lady demographic at different ages: teen girls often drive horror box office; Heigl is the star of choice for certain unchoosy twentysomethings; and then at some point those people presumably age into Diane Lane fans. Everything pandering to them while simultaneously looking pretty lousy: finally, women of all ages will truly know what it feels like to be a fifteen-year-old boy.