Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lonely at the Top (Moon and Into the Storm)

(Spoilers for Moon, as well as Into the Storm [Hint: World War II...we won.])

If Sam Rockwell is your cup o' tea -- and he seems to be for many -- then at least two of him might constitute, as Al Swearengen would approve, "that fucking Black Darjeeling." If, however, like me, you think his acting style boils down to wrapping himself around one physical tic and squeezing until it bursts, Moon will have you bracing for a chore. To his credit -- or more likely, that of first-time director Duncan Jones -- Rockwell dials down most of his annoying habits for the role of Sam Bell, a lone (and lonely) astronaut wrapping up a three-year stint at a lunar station on the moon, excavating supplies of Helium-3, a new source of fuel used on Earth. His only companion, the station's super-computer GERTY (Kevin Spacey, more effective these days as a disembodied voice than a physical presence), Sam gets an unexpected visitor -- a second Sam Bell -- following an accident that leaves him unconscious on the moon's surface.

A bit too much of this comes off as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Multiplicity, with echoes of Solaris and Gattaca thrown in for good measure. Yet Jones works wonders with a modest budget: he and his production team create an evocative atmosphere of loneliness around Sam, who longs to go home and reconcile with his estranged wife (Dominique McElligott). Moon also succeeds in undercutting our expectations. When tensions build between the two Sams, and Spacey's GERTY starts dissembling a la HAL in 2001, the movie appears to be setting up a nihilistic finish, so it's a pleasant surprise that things don't play out that way.

By emphasizing character over special effects (or, rather, having those effects serve his characters) Jones keeps his eye on the ball and makes Moon a better movie than I was expecting it to be. So why am I still unsatisfied? I think partly because the film's ideas are so intriguing it could have taken them even further (though the budget may not have allowed it). And partly because Rockwell's anti-charisma doesn't hold my interest. He's not as terrible as he is in the titular scene of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford: while Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck exude beautifully understated gravitas, Rockwell sweats and stammers like the guilty party in a episode of Perry Mason. Rockwell has a couple of nice scenes with himself in Moon, as one Sam starts to deteriorate and the other one treats him with unexpected compassion. Yet he doesn't pull of the kind of miracle Nicolas Cage did in Adaptation, where splitting his personality into two halves shored up his worst instincts and brought out his best. With Rockwell, more is simply more. 

I fell asleep around the halfway point of Into the Storm, HBO's acclaimed Winston Churchill docudrama that holds the distinction of making World War II boring. The director, Thaddeus O'Sullivan, stages the (in)action as though believing we've never lain our eyes on a biopic before. There's a framing device where Churchill (Brendan Gleeson) waits restlessly for the results of his doomed bid for re-election near the war's end, while his wife (the ever-tall Janet McTeer) strains with exasperation. Also included are flashbacks depicting his stern resolve in the face of what seemed like imminent invasion. Into the Storm is the kind of movie that plays off our collective hindsight: emasculated peaceniks are repeatedly trotted onscreen for a derisive chuckle. (At least the John Adams miniseries gave Zeljko Ivanek's reconciler John Dickinson a shred of dignity.) Meanwhile, Churchill's famous quotes originate out of scenarios as contrived as the songs in the films about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. (You half-expect the Prime Minister to encounter a drug-dealer in a restroom.) Gleeson, one of my favorite actors, doesn't get to play to his strengths here: whether in starring roles (The General, In Bruges) or supporting parts (28 Days Later, Cold Mountain), he thrives on creating characters around his own personality, not hiding inside an icon as he's forced to do here. When it comes to recent screen Churchills, I prefer Rod Taylor's brief appearance in Inglourious Basterds, debating if Goebbels is the Nazi Selznick or Mayer.  

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Losing Your Head (Shutter Island)

(Warning: major spoilers.)

For such a venerated director and film historian, Martin Scorsese is remarkably coy about his cinematic influences. It was only grudgingly acknowledged that his last feature, The Departed, was a by-the-book remake of the Hong Kong procedural Infernal Affairs (possibly because the latter is a better movie). Now, with Shutter Island, Scorsese's defenders -- Glenn "Don't Call Him 'Marty'" Kenny, et al. -- are bending over backwards with praise of the film's "movie-ness" at the expense of trivialities like genuine depth of feeling. Furthermore, nobody seems to realize that this story has been quite literally done before.

As with The Sixth Sense -- the last time I remember audiences smacking their noggins in astonishment over a climactic twist while I slumped in my seat resembling Joseph Cotten at the opera in Citizen Kane -- there's no way to critique Shutter Island or reveal its influences without giving away the game, so read no further if you don't want to be spoiled.

In partial fairness to Scorsese, Shutter Island is adapted from Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name, so the blame starts with Lehane. The protagonist, Boston federal marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film), arrives at the titular island with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a violent patient -- a war widow who drowned her three children -- from the mental institution located at an old military fortress atop a remote island. Daniels, himself battling demons from his tour in World War II, finds both patients and staff behaving oddly, particularly the head of the institution Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley). Eventually, Daniels learns that he himself is a patient on Shutter Island, traumatized not only from his war experiences but from killing his wife (Michelle Williams, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and flashbacks). It turns that she's the one who murdered their own children, and that Daniels, who actually was a federal marshal before his crack-up, is in a state of denial. The entire story turns out to be an elaborate bit of role-playing, staged by Dr. Crawley, in the hope of breaking through to Daniels. Crawley hopes that by pretending Daniels has the run of the place, letting him imagine himself a hero and solving the "mystery," that he'll heal himself in order to avoid the more common 1954-era treatments like lobotomy.

For the first half of the movie, I wondered why this story felt so familiar. Then, when Max von Sydow appeared as another psychiatrist on the island (looking 80 as he has for the last 40 years), something clicked: I thought of von Sydow; then The Exorcist; then William Peter Blatty; and finally Blatty's The Ninth Configuration. I've written about Blatty before, but to offer more details: his original 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane (eventually rewritten by the author in 1978, as Bill Ryan points out) was directed by Blatty himself in what became a cult 1980 movie called The Ninth Configuration. The protagonist, army psychiatrist Col. Vincent Kane (played by Stacy Keach in the film), arrives at a mental institution located at a remote castle in the Oregonian wilderness to treat its patients, all war veterans recovering from various traumas experienced during the Vietnam War. It is eventually learned that Kane, himself battling demons experienced in Vietnam, is a mental patient himself, brought to the institution by Col. Fell (Ed Flanders), who lets Kane act out the charade in a bit of role-playing, hoping that by pretending he has the run of the place, helping others and imagining himself a hero Kane will heal himself.

There are some differences. For starters, both Blatty's book and film are very funny. The Ninth Configuration is structured initially like a Catch-22-type absurdist farce, each of Kane's patients given distinct personalities. Eventually the focus narrows to one, Scott Wilson's troublemaker Cutshaw, also a veteran as well as a former astronaut who had a nervous breakdown prior to launch. ("There's nothing up there!") Kane and Cutshaw square off over theological arguments that are Blatty's bread-and-butter, and ultimately the movie closes on a fine line between the pretentious and the profound.

In contrast, Shutter Island feigns profundity as all of Lehane's novels do: by exploiting children (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.). The screen version grimly follows with more of the same, grafting on to what is in essence a B-thriller not only familial tragedy but imagery from the Holocaust as well. (The latter appears for no other reason -- besides serving as a cheap red-herring -- than perhaps a means of fulfilling Scorsese's own bit of role-playing as the original director of Schindler's List.) As usual, Mark Ruffalo provides some shading to a thinly-written role; but Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and others are wasted as other patients: they're plot points rather than personalities.

Yet the biggest difference in Shutter Island's strikingly similar premise is it's not any fun. Scorsese directs with mechanical precision, like a skilled magician growing bored with his own tricks. He's free of pretentions, unlike bogus faith-healer M. Night Shyamalan, whose own "originality" in The Sixth Sense was a crock to those who had seen Jacob's Ladder or read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (i.e., hardly anyone). But no longer does Scorsese set any challenges for himself, the way Hitchcock did to keep from getting rusty: dutifully he goes through the motions of a plot that echoes not only The Ninth Configuration but also The Game and every other movie where Things Are Not As They Seem. Whereas The Departed was at least funny, Shutter Island takes itself with deadly seriousness. It's not as appalling as Scorsese's overheated Cape Fear remake, but easily his worst movie since.

And DiCaprio? It's always worth a laugh to see the hype machine's increasingly desperate efforts to compare his partnership-in-mediocrity with Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) to the zenith of De Niro's collaborations (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino). I don't dislike Leo. He's always likable, and truly in his element playing guileless shysters like Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio is at his most effective when gliding along the surface of a story, less convincing when forced to dig for depth. The more out of depth he is, the more frenetic his performance becomes. In Shutter Island he looks like a drama student in a high school production of The Big Sleep, and in light of what we learn, Ruffalo's performance (praising Daniels' abilities as a detective, calling him "boss") is amusing in retrospect. DiCaprio telegraphs everything, however, without gradations. Even the harshest critics of this film are praising his emoting in the Climactic Revelation, but if you've heard one "Nooooooooooo!" you've heard them all.     

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Speaking the King's (Bright Star and In the Loop)

(Warning: spoilers.)

Some were surprised to learn that Quentin Tarantino was a big fan of Bright Star, but it's really not so hard to fathom. Jane Campion's movie about the short-lived, lovestruck romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats takes language and art seriously and is "chaste" in the best possible sense. (During the above-linked interview, Ella Taylor replies to QT, "Your movies are pretty chaste too.") The film even offers a shot that eroticizes Fanny's feet. Ever the sensualist, Campion has had a bit of a wayward streak since causing a stir with 1993's The Piano. Holy Smoke and In the Cut were crackpot efforts nevertheless more interesting than given credit for, and critics who took umbrage at her unabashedly feminist perspective gleefully pounced. Bright Star is made with clearer purpose and control without sacrificing Campion's tactile sense of atmosphere, and it's a great film for about three quarters of the way through.

The Australian actress Abbie Cornish plays Brawne as a voluptuous and emotionally direct 19th-century woman, an archetypal Campion heroine if ever there was one. The opening image shows fashionista Fanny stitching one of her many self-designed outfits (made by Janet Patterson, deservedly nominated for an academy award). The close-up of a needle going through thread initially made me think Campion was inviting us to laugh at her patented phallic imagery, but the movie doesn't play out as a subversive take on the period romance genre. Bright Star is Campion's Straight Story, and unlike Lynch's covert weirdness in that film, she unironically commits herself to telling the story straight.

Filtering John Keats through Fanny's perspective does free the movie from typical biopic conventions. Played by Ben Whishaw (who recently starred as a more contemporary poet, one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There), his Keats is no legendary bard but a penniless, self-effacing rail of a man who falls in love with Fanny not long after she criticizes one of his poems. Their relationship evolves as these things typically do, with the kind of repressed-British-polite-manners-walks-in-the-countryside-romantic-misunderstandings that drive me crazy in nearly every Jane Austen adaptation. (I sort of liked Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice adaptation, thanks mainly to Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland and despite Brenda Blethyn's best efforts to sabotage their good work with her grating look-at-me-isms.) Yet Paul Schneider brings some unpredictably crazy energy to the role of Keats's colleague, friend and possible rival Charles Brown, who locks horns with Fanny so intensely it's unclear exactly with whom he's in love with. Campion, meanwhile, along with her cinematographer Greig Fraser, conjure some remarkable images of nature as a visual complement to Keats' poetry. (The lovely score by Mark Bradshaw -- the antithesis of James Horner's sis-boom-ba! -- provides an assist.)

Bright Star stumbles only in the overlong third act, when an Ominous Cough precedes a sharp decline in Keats's health, and there's nothing left for the characters to do but await the inevitable. (He died at 25.) Brown's behavior also takes a bizarre turn as the result of his philandering with the Brawne family maid (a funny turn by Antonia Campbell-Hughes). Additionally, I concur with The Film Doctor's astute point that Fanny's own artistic talents are raised only to turn her into a "groupie" by film's end. (Early on, Fanny boasts to Keats and Brown that her profession affords her the opportunity to actually make money.) If Campion is trying to say something about gender roles here I missed it. Her voice is stronger when it uses the love letters between Brawne and Keats (based on their actual correspondence) to show how passions can ignite when a couple is apart; and her eye speaks more profoundly than any words when Fanny sits in a field of violet flowers, lies in bed before a curtain wafting in the wind, or transforms her bedroom into a haven for butterflies.

Had Bright Star come out a few years earlier, it may have provided a punchline for Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the scabrous Chief of Communications for Great Britain in the brutally funny political satire In the Loop, who tries to steer, swindle, bully and blackmail his more pensive cohorts into following the United States into an unnamed war in the Middle East. (The year is 2004, take a wild guess.) Tucker, who resembles a starving hyena eager to suck a marrow, would seem on the face of it to have no personal life, yet his colorful use of language is peppered with pop-culture references. He calls one underling, "baby from Eraserhead," and another "woman from The Crying Game." When a waffling deputy minister (Tom Hollander) pivots from publicly calling war "unforseeable" to assuring Britannia that they must "climb the mountain of conflict," Tucker barks, "You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!"

The entirety of In the Loop is one quotable zinger after another, and the basic premise along with a couple of characters (namely Capaldi's Tucker and Chris Addison's Eraserhead-baby doppelganger Toby Wright) have been adapted by director/co-writer Armando Ianucci from his British TV series The Thick of It. I've never seen an episode, but the movie stands well enough on its own, racing back and forth between London and Washington, D.C. and populated by an Anglo-American cast who dig into their roles with relish. James Gandolfini is the dovish general who warns that the number of troops committed to the invasion will be the number of actual casualties -- "and at the end of a war you need to have some soldiers left," he deadpans, "or else it looks like you've lost." Mimi Kennedy plays a State Department official whose efforts to stop the war are undermined by an ill-timed dental issue, while David Rasche's dry wit is put to hilarious use as her superior, the Assistant Secretary of State, who complains that he "cannot stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth" because "it reminds me of that country-and-western music, which I cannot abide."

Hawks and doves, fake hawks and fake doves, conspire with and against each other on both sides of the pond, and everyone ends up corrupted or compromised. In the Loop is more focused than its predecessor Wag the Dog, which started promisingly before going slack via Barry Levinson's typical meandering. The movie also features the funniest and most pervasive profanity since Deadwood, spat by Capaldi and the rest of the cast like shards of glass. If the jadedness of In the Loop starts to feel a little relentless while you're watching it, individual scenes become even funnier when replayed later in your mind. One such instance is a confrontation between Malcolm Tucker and Gandolfini's general where the latter informs the former, "You might be some scary little poodle-fucker over in England, but over here you're nothing," and Tucker, with full Scottish brogue, replies, "Don't ever call me fucking English again." 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fellow Travelers (Trucker and Lost, S6 Premiere: "LA X")

I like Michelle Monaghan. In the three films I recall seeing her in (she's been in a couple more where I don't remember), she's exhibited a no-bullshit straight-shooter's focus and a sharp-elbowed physicality that resembles Evangeline Lilly with acting chops. She elevated what could have been stereotypical squeezes in the spry comic noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the effectively grim procedural Gone Baby Gone; she even gets the pivotal moment in the latter movie, jumping from a cliff into water to save a child with an unpremeditated impulsiveness that's selflessly appealing.

Now, in Trucker, Monaghan sinks her teeth into the best role of her young career, a stand-out performance in an even more pitiful year than usual for plum female parts. She plays Diane Ford, a hard-edged loner who drives a big rig for a living and prides herself on delivering shipments early. It's always an encouraging sign when a movie's female characters get to have last names -- or when they get to be unapologetic about their sexuality, as conveyed in the opening scene, when a random pickup concludes with the guy struggling to make small-talk in bed and Diane bolting out the door.

Diane, as you quickly glean, is the kind of woman who makes men unsure of themselves. We see this in her cockteasing relationship back home with the married Runner (Nathan Fillion), and when we learn that years ago she left her husband Len (Benjamin Bratt) and young son Peter (Jimmy Bennett) because she couldn't handle being a stay-at-home mom. When Len becomes bedridden with cancer, and his live-in girlfriend (Joey Lauren Adams) preoccupied with helping him, 11-year-old Peter is left in the unwelcoming arms of Diane, who is forced to take him with her on the road.

I'll grant that this plot has been done to death, notably in treacly comedies starring either Adam Sandler or The Rock, but I've never seen it play out in quite the same way. To observe that Diane and Peter cramp each other's styles would be an understatement: he calls her "bitch" and she calls him "little shit" with enough barbed abandon to make one nostalgic for family reunions. If they do gradually come to a degree of mutual trust and understanding, it's in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back manner that feels true to life.

Trucker is the feature debut of writer-director James Mottern, and he clearly has affection for the blue-collar southern California milieu that is rarely noticed in movies. He avoids for the most part histrionics and cliches, particularly with Fillion and Bratt's characters. It's a great relief to find men in a movie like this who negate the wife-beater archetype, who are afforded some humor and charm so that we can actually see what might attract a woman like Diane in the first place. The DP, Lawrence Sher, caresses images so lovingly (namely an Altmanesque long reverse-zoom of Diane's rig pulling out of her driveway onto the interstate at the crack of dawn) that I'm inclined to believe the shoddy look of The Hangover wasn't his fault.

And then there's Monaghan, who effortlessly navigates Diane's uneasy mix of guilt and rage and longing and self-denial. ("I wasn't that person," she tells Peter unconvincingly). There are times when the dialogue sounds a little too on the nose (e.g., Peter informing Diane, "You're the most frightened person I know"), but then again I'm happy to see lower-middle-class characters expressing themselves with eloquence. Trucker is a buried treasure of a movie, and as its wonderful ending makes clear, a deeply affecting love story between a mother and son.

One gripe I've heard about Trucker has been that nobody as beautiful as Michelle Monaghan would earn a living driving a truck. But I can suspend disbelief just fine if the emotions feel real, whether it be with ravishingly gorgeous truck-drivers or magical islands inhabited by smoke monsters. That's my stance upon entering the sixth and final season of Lost; either you're on board with its whacked-out premise by now or you're watching CSI, and the ecstatically entertaining season premiere, brilliantly titled "LA X," had me at hello.

Or rather make that "Come on, you son of a bitch!", the sentiment uttered by Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) in last season's cliffhanger finale as she detonated the bomb that faded the screen to white. "LA X" begins with the aftermath, which ingeniously splits into parallel storylines: one where the blast sends everyone back to 2004, where Oceanic Flight 815 lands in Los Angeles as Jack (Matthew Fox) intended; and one that propels the characters from last year's 70s timeframe to 2007 where all remain captive on an island with dependency issues.

"I know it's jerking me around," my mother once said of Lost, "yet for some reason I don't mind as much." Unlike standard-bearing jerk-around shows Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Lost has stayed fresh due to an uncanny ability to reinvent itself. After floundering through parts of season 2 and the entire first half of season 3, the series' creators smartly set an end-game; and with that aim in sight began to reconfigure the plot each year -- flash-forwards, time-travel, and now alternate-realities tweaking a structure that was beginning to grow too familiar. Many of the actors seem reinvigorated as well, especially Terry O'Quinn who, in "LA X," got to play two new versions of Locke: one on the island possessed by someone (or something) with a mission certain to spell trouble; another on the mainland whose wheelchair-bound encounter with spinal-surgeon Jack at the airport may give him a chance to walk again.

"LA X" was both cathartic and a hell of a lot of fun, from Jack's refreshing humility to Machiavellian schemer Ben Linus's (Michael Emerson) long-overdue comeuppance. It probably helps one's enjoyment not to take the show's mysteries too seriously. I'm invested in the characters. And when my favorite, Sayid (Naveen Andrews), wakes up at the climax, possibly possessed by Jacob, I don't stay up nights diagramming what it all means. I wonder instead if master storyteller Joss Whedon, whose habit of killing off characters only to repeatedly resurrect them had a way of diluting the impact, watches with a grin and a shake of his head, at the crossroads between admiration and envy.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

You Are What You Eat (Food, Inc. and Julie & Julia)

Food, Inc., this year's likely Oscar winner for Best Documentary, addresses a hot-button topic in a relatively low-key manner. Writer-producer-director Mark Kenner appears onscreen at infrequent intervals, describing himself at the start as an investigative reporter by nature; but his style is the opposite of the overbearing muckraker persona of Michael Moore. Kenner is softspokenly dogged in penetrating the veil of American food production and illustrating how it affects our quality of life. And while he incorporates a few flashy graphics here and there, they don't alienate the viewer (this one, at least) in the manner of Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Kenner's instincts are correct that his subject doesn't need an assist. It's pertinent and timely enough to speak for itself.

The doc's premise is simple yet far-reaching: the ostensible variety in your local grocery store is an illusion. The iconic solitary farmer -- a myth still perpetuated in the branding of many products -- has been replaced by no more than a handful of major corporations manufacturing an overwhelming percentage of our food. Intrigued by the secrecy behind such a large-scale industry, Kenner follows several disparate strands to what he calls "the same cornfield in Iowa," where he learns that corn has become a staple in a surprising number of products, that conditions for livestock are appalling, that cutting corners has led to an alarming rise in E. coli outbreaks and diabetic infections, and that the Clinton and Bush administrations have put in charge of regulatory agencies like the FDA many of the same fat cats who run the food industry.

Fahrenheit 9/11 wove a tangled web with an uneven degree of success. In truth, I think Michael Moore has become an underrated filmmaker: the opening credit sequence of that film, where politicos are caught as their true selves right before the cameras roll, is one of the finest pieces of ominous foreshadowing and theme-establishing that I've ever seen. Yet the connections Moore draws, while individually intriguing, are often tenuous, linked only by his insinuating presence. In Food, Inc., Kenner brings together his thesis much more persuasively. It's one thing to "know," in the abstract, how poorly animals-up-for-slaughter are treated; it's quite another to see chickens so overfed they can't sit up straight, or a cow with something that looks like a gas canister on its side which, when popped open, reveals a hole deep enough for the contents of its stomach to be examined.

I feel unfit for examining too closely the possibly hypocritical stance behind arguing for humane conditions for animals many of us eat since, as a carnivore, it's a hypocrisy I share. I feel more certain in stating that the movie's overt advocacy for change is earned. Kenner errs only in overplaying the tragedy of a child whose death was the result of eating a toxic hamburger. It's essential to apply a human face to the consequences of doing nothing, but the implication that the boy's mother (a Republican) is paying for her political sins smacks of Moore and Gibney's stock tactics, no matter how unintended. Overall Food, Inc. makes it clear -- not least of which via the stirring strains of Bruce Springsteen's "This Land is Your Land" over the closing credits -- that a steady diet of complacency hits all of us where we live.

Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, her first movie not to suck in nearly twenty years, returns the writer-director to a plot device that can no longer be assumed a gimmick but rather a personal interest, if not outright obsession. Ephron's biggest hits -- You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle -- were predicated on keeping its lovers apart physically and/or emotionally. Julie & Julia goes a step further by featuring a pair of soul mates separated by time, yet connected by a shared passion for fine cuisine.

Based on the book based on the blog by Julie Powell, Ephron's script is a surprising model of structure, linking its parallel storylines via thematic echoes. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) each inhabit eras of cataclysmic change (respectively, post-9/11 New York City and post-World-War-II Paris). Both are disaffected wives of loving husbands (Chris Messina's Eric Powell and Stanley Tucci's Paul Child) who turn to cooking and then writing about cooking as a means of channeling their creative impulses. Julia learns how to cook from the finest chef in Gay Paree, and her seminal tome How to Master French Cooking becomes the impetus for Julie's goal to make every meal in Child's book, which she chronicles in an online blog over the course of a year.

It's tempting to overpraise Julie & Julia for not stinking up the joint a la Bewitched, Hanging Up, Lucky Numbers, and other Ephron-helmed boondoggles, so let me add a dash of Julia Child's perfectionism by stating that it's still not as good as it could have been. Ephron is a vexing case -- a filmmaker of sickly-sweet surfaces who, in reality, has acid wit in her veins. Her best film, the Rob Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally, holds up surprisingly well, a terrific script and Barry Sonnenfeld's richly textured images overcoming Meg Ryan's relentless cutie-pieisms. Ephron makes similarly poor use of Amy Adams, whom I found grating for the first time onscreen. Adams, a lively charmer ever since her shy brace-face grin in Catch Me if You Can, looks stunning in Julie & Julia, yet she overplays Julie's discontent enough that it curdles into whininess. (It's not good when the heroine calls herself a bitch and you nod in agreement.)

At least Ephron is wise enough to stay out of Meryl Streep's way. It's the only course of action at this point in her career, the most remarkable run of performances by an actress whom I've never believed in for a second. That's not exactly true: the scene in Adaptation where Streep, lying in bed, hopelessly stoned, admiring her own toes, still offers the most natural charm she's ever conveyed in a movie. Her Julia Child is, as usual, all external sheen, over-the-top enthusiasm and voluble accent fied in place. She's fun to watch, especially with Tucci, with whom she had great chemistry in The Devil Wears Prada and are even better together here (even with a typical groaner of an Ephron moment, when the too-old-for-children Julia gazes longingly at someone else's baby). Credit Streep's considerable gifts and savvy role selection with keeping herself relevant for over thirty years in a business where most actresses are quickly exploited and unceremoniously abandoned; she's never been down and out long enough to need a "comeback." Unlike Robert De Niro, her co-star from The Deer Hunter (back when both were dramatic heavyweights, seemingly so long ago), Streep's recent foray into comedy seems a snug fit for her abilities, even when styled liked overcooked ham.