185: Hope Springs

hope-springs

Marriage is hard. I can tell you this from experience. It is a delicate game of give and take that can be screwed up far too easily. Kay (Meryl Streep) knows this all too well. She has been married for over three decades, but over the years anything resembling passion has been replaced by routine and more importantly… distance. Her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), doesn’t see the problem. He gets his breakfast every morning, is home for dinner and falls asleep in front of the television. Kay and Arnold have become roommates instead of a married couple and Kay wants some of their old life back. She arranges an intense therapy session and tells Arnold she is going, whether he wants to come or not. Along the course of the therapy sessions, led by Dr. Feld (a surprisingly restrained Steve Carell), secrets are revealed and problems are laid bare.

What Hope Springs wants to tell us is that when we want a marriage to work there has to be passion and communication. Without those two elements there is no use in staying married. Even more important is the message that forcing these two elements is often even worse. Both Kay and Arnold try to force their love for each other in extreme ways and both times they fail. They (and we) come to the conclusion that love is organic and inexplicable and that it can’t be coerced by way of some strawberries or candles. It probably helps a little, but if the foundation isn’t there, forget about it.

Hope Springs is surprisingly candid about all these revelations and this is mostly due to the brilliant performances of the central cast. I connected a lot with Jones, mostly because I recognize some of myself in him (and vowed to change some of those traits after seeing the film). Streep channels her age perfectly and shows us a vulnerable side that is heartbreaking. Carell rounds out the trio with a performance we have not seen often from him. He never loses his cool and moderates the conversation between Kay and Arnold instead of dictating it with his usual shenanigans.

I had already heard through the grapevine that Hope Springs was a lot better than the poster or trailer made it out to be. This is true, but there are certainly problems with Hope Springs. Director David Frankel’s (The Devil Wears Prada) incessant use of songs is so overtly manipulative that it becomes almost expected that we get Annie Lennox’s Why? blaring from the speakers when our heroes need to work out something crucial in their relationship. Luckily the performances overcome Frankel’s constant search for melodrama by not giving in to his wishes. Streep and Jones play their parts so down to earth that no amount of musical melodrama could tear them down. Maybe that’s why Hope Springs works so well.

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069: Despicable Me

In my memory Despicable Me was a minor entry in the ever expanding world of animated movies. It struck me as a movie full of low-brow comedy and lesser animation. Well, sometimes your memory can play tricks on you, because Despicable Me is an excellent movie and watching it again brought back everything I liked about it.

I think I got messed up in the head because of the time it was released. It came hot on the heels of brilliant movies like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, and the animation looked a lot like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with its bright colors and exaggerated character models and surroundings. I guess my brain just couldn’t handle any more great animation at that moment.

In Despicable Me everything revolves around Gru, a mastermind in villainy, although his practices have stooped to the level of pestering children and not, say, stealing the Egyptian pyramids and replacing them with inflatable ones. That questionable honor goes to Vector, the next great super-villain in town. Gru can’t stand this, obviously, and he devices a diabolical plan to… steal the Moon. For this he needs a shrink ray that happens to be in the possession of Vector. Gru needs to find a way to enter Vector not-so-secret lair and steal the shrink ray. Three orphaned girls selling cookies seem to be the perfect ruse, but then something strange happens: Gru starts to have paternal feelings for the girls. Feelings that could bring the whole operation to a shrieking halt.

There you have it, the basic plot for Despicable Me. There was even more that I didn’t even mention. There are the hoards of ‘evil’ minions who stomp around Gru’s lab. They are actually quite violent toward each other and absolutely hilarious in the process. And then there is Gru’s mother (Julie Andrews), who instilled an enormous feeling of inadequacy in Gru, something he could never be able to overcome. And there is the orphanage run by an evil woman (Kristen Wiig). As you see, there is a lot going on in Despicable Me, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud manage to direct a logical path through all the mayhem and create a lot of heartwarming moments along the way. Center stage is reserved for Steve Carell, who as Gru goes out of his way to create one of his funniest characters ever. His voice is unmistakably Carell, but the faux Eastern Europe accent makes Gru into a caricature of himself, just as a super villain ought to be. But he also creates enough tender sides to Gru to make us root for him and his transformation into a loving father for his ‘daughters’. Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig take on supporting roles.

All the vibrant colors and breathtaking action sequences are a sight to behold, but those would be for nought if there wouldn’t be a heart in the story. Luckily Despicable Me has that in spades. Take for instance the scene where Gru reluctantly reads a bedtime story to the girls. This scene is handled with such tenderness. It is not used for cheap laughs, but to build Gru into a multi-dimensional character instead of the two-dimensional villain he chooses to be at the beginning of the movie. I am so glad I decided to revisit Despicable Me. If only because my kids are now in love with the minions.

> IMDb

065: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

With Will Ferrell’s announcement on Conan that a sequel to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is in the works at Paramount I thought it would be fitting to revisit this comedic gem. Anchorman marked the beginning of a feature film collaboration that brought us Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. All of them from Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay.

Where I am from, The Netherlands in Europe, Anchorman wasn’t even picked up for distribution in the theaters. I guess Universal didn’t feel that there would be a connection between the contents of Anchorman and the audience. Our news culture is a lot different then here in the United States. It’s a lot less flashy over there. Add to that the fact that Will Ferrell wasn’t the household name that he is now and that the Judd Apatow craze had not yet taken off. That wasn’t until The 40 Year Old Virgin hit the theaters a year later.

In Anchorman we follow the exploits of the most misogynistic news team ever led by anchor Ron Burgundy, a local legend in San Diego. One day a woman, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), dares to step into the ring that is called The News. She dreams of a job as anchor, but Ron and his cohorts will do anything to stop that from happening. When it does happen, all hell breaks loose and the race for the anchor spot is on. There is not much of a plot here, but that is not what Anchorman is about. Anchorman is about seeing some of the finest comedians in the world have fun with a concept that is very funny to begin with: the ’70s. Everybody is dressed in ridiculous clothing and the sets look amazingly dated.

The lines in this movie are hilarious. Most of them have probably been improvised on the spot by the crack comedy team consisting of Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner. These guys can really finish each other’s sentences. I am sure there was a screenplay that formed the basis for Anchorman, but a lot of the dialogue probably got thrown out the window, because this team got a lot of room to make this their own. This can briefly be seen during the credits, where you get to see some of the other options the editors got to choose from. Other lines were definitely written in the script, but sound ridiculous nonetheless. Seeing Ferrell recite a line like “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale’s vagina.” straight-faced and not crack up while doing it is priceless (except during the credits where we get to see him crack up).

Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins and Luke Wilson play bit parts, which is to be expected, because they always appear in each other’s movies. It all adds to the fun they had while making the movie and that shines through the screen. The jokes fly across the screen in such high speed that it is impossible to take it all in at first. You need to watch this again and again and again. Let’s hope the creative team behind Anchorman 2 can maintain that high level of energy so we can enjoy another round of Ron Burgundy and his ludicrous news team for many years to come.

> IMDb