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December 20, 2012


I'm guessing that with To Rome with Love Woody Allen was trying to recapture some of the charm of Paris at Midnight. Paris had to do with Paris, but Rome could have as easily been set anywhere. There we had two parallel stories; here we have, if memory serves, four? There's just a bit too much going on, especially considering no story is related to any other. At the center is the Woody Allen surrogate, the neurotic New York intellectual, an architect this time played by Jesse Eisenberg, who lives with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), and who is shadowed by a sort of architect alter ego/doppelgänger (Alec Baldwin). Of the various story lines, I found the most interesting to be one involving Leopoldo, a married, low-level bureaucrat (Roberto Benigni) whose routine existence is interrupted when he is plucked from his front stoop and whisked to a television station, interviewed about the most banal aspects of his life, and thus becomes a celebrity craze hounded by paparazzi. We periodically return to his story – and the others – until, toward the end of the film, a new average Joe is similarly interviewed and Leopoldo slips back into oblivion. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

I find Steve Carrell to be something of a screen phenomenon. No matter what character he plays, he exudes empathy, and the camera loves him. Not in the way that the camera loves, say, Marilyn Monroe, John Travolta, Al Pacino. It’s something else. As if the camera isn’t even there. Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a sweet little road trip of a movie. Carrell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman who has been made redundant, as the British say, in the face of end of days. He encounters Penny (Keira Knightly, infinitely more enjoyable here than in Anna Karenina), who can’t get back to England to be with her parents for the apocalypse, and along the way they meet a Canterbury-style collection of characters. Unfortunately, just as imminent doom hovers over the movie, so does its romcom outline. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

  The two big stars of David Frankel’s Hope Springs are Tommy Lee Jones, who does a wonderful job playing against type, and Meryl Streep, who has spent an entire career playing a veritable multitude of diverse roles. The fire went out of Kay and Arnold’s marriage long ago. She has become increasingly troubled by their estrangement, enough to do something about it. That something is to insist they seek the guidance of a therapist played by Steve Carrell, who nicely rounds out the ensemble. It is always a pleasure watching these actors work, but Frankel’s movie is ultimately a Hollywood vehicle when it could have been a more complex and rewarding narrative. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Ruby Sparks takes "meet cute" into another dimension, one that I found a little annoying. Zoe Kazan wrote the screenplay and stars along with Paul Dano, who seemed miscast to me as the struggling writer Calvin. In the midst of a novel, Calvin is suffering writer’s block when, one day, the manuscript’s heroine shows up in the flesh. Initial disbelief turns to romantic infatuation once he is a) certain she is incarnate, and b) certain that he can dictate her behavior by what he writes. When Calvin comes to fully realize that manipulation is the enemy of love, the idyll must be reconciled with reality. (Stephen Holden's NYT review, which gave the film a NYT Critics' Pick)

The blurbs for the DVD of Peter Hedges' The Odd Life of Timothy Green include “Brings enchantment home…”, “An inspiring, magical story…”, “Heartwarming…”, “A celebration of family….” I usually stay far away from anything described as “heartwarming,” but it must have been a really hot day or a very uneventful weekend. Jim and Cindy have been unable to have a child so, as a final act of acceptance, they write down everything they would wish their child to be on slips of paper that they place in a box and bury in the garden. After a storm of Biblical proportions, Timothy Green sprouts from the mud, complete with leaves growing from his legs. He is smart, adorable, kind, and wise beyond his years. Many Hallmark moments. (Did Hedges, who also wrote the script, avoid naming Jim "Jack" to avoid potential comparisons?) A. O. Scott's NYT review makes an interesting observation: "The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the third movie this summer featuring a magical, wish-created companion, the others being Ted, in which a child's toy becomes a foul-mouthed best buddy, and Ruby Sparks, in which a writer's imagination conjures the perfect girlfriend. Two may be a coincidence, but three is a trend, and these movies clearly represent a disturbing crisis in human relationships."

Which brings us to Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, where aging Frank, skillfully played by the wonderful Frank Langella, in a not too distant future, receives a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard very much like Hal) from his son to serve as a surrogate companion for the senile senior. Frank is a former "two-story man" (who's done some time as a result), and warms to the robot when he realizes it's a quick study and would be useful in a heist Frank is planning of a rich, smarmy-mouthed yuppie who wants to remove the books from the town library. Susan Sarandon is the librarian Jennifer, on whom Frank has a crush. As Frank's fondness for the robot grows, the robot is careful to remind Frank on more than one occasion that  he is a robot and does not have feelings, but Frank can't help but rely on him more and more for emotional support. The film delivers its fair share of humor and high jinks, but slowly we learn more about Frank, and Jennifer, too. Proust it ain't, but it makes no pretensions to be anything more than what it is, which is a lovely little movie about the meaning of memory and love. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

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