Category Archives: 4.5 of 5

Penny Serenade (1941)


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Penny Serenade

Penny Serenade

As Julie prepares to leave her husband Roger, she begins to play through a stack of recordings, each of which reminds her of events in their lives together. One of them is the song that was playing when she and Roger first met in a music store. Other songs remind her of their courtship, their marriage, their desire for a child, and the joys and sorrows that they have shared. A flood of memories comes back to her as she ponders their present problems and how they arose.

One of my favorite tear-jerkers of all time, starring one of my favorite screen couples. “Penny Serenade” always puts me through the ringer, even though I have seen it a dozen or so times. It can still make me cry and, thankfully, it can still make me laugh.

The music-stirring-memories plot device makes for a lovely soundtrack, as well as our main characters’ meet-cute. We start the film knowing that Julie and Roger are ending their marriage. We learn through flashbacks everything they’ve faced and why they feel it is so hopeless now.

The cast is full of top-notch talent, the writing is solid, the direction stellar. As melodramatic a film as this, though, would have floundered with lesser performers in the main roles. Cary Grant is at his charming best, Irene Dunne could tell the entire story with just her face. Together, in this movie and others, they have a chemistry so winning, you can’t help but be drawn in to their world.

There are some standout scenes; baby’s first bath, Roger’s impassioned plea to the judge… However, it is the whole of the movie that makes it great.

If you enjoy an old movie now & then, and you don’t mind your companions seeing you cry, do yourself a favor and catch “Penny Serenade” It is available at many libraries – and even on YouTube.

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 93%; Audience 74%

Speaking of the Cary Grant / Irene Dunne chemistry, I found this video that was made for a contemporary song, using some of the sweetest, kissiest moments from Penny Serenade

Brave (2012)


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Pixar's Brave


Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a skilled archer and the impetuous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the uproarious lords of the land: massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Merida’s actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch (Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it’s too late. — (C) Disney

I must confess I was predisposed to enjoy this movie. Adorable, feisty red-head making her mark in medieval Scotland — what’s not to like? As it turns out, not much. The story is intriguing, the animation is charming, the casting was spot-on.

Some bits were slightly over-the-top silly, like the appalling suitors who come to compete for her hand, but the kids will probably love it. The mix of fantasy & folklore makes for a richer background than some recent animated fare. It is fun, with a message or two. Quite enjoyable.

Since D enjoyed it, too, I can be confident scoring it higher on the Word of Mouth Scale. 4½

UPDATE: The Academy seems to approve of Brave, as well. It is nominated for Animated Feature Film

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 78%; Audience 79%

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)


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Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl

Lars (Ryan Gosling) and Gus (Paul Schneider) are the grown children of a father who died recently and a mother who died giving birth to Lars. But as brothers, they couldn’t be more different. While Gus lives in the family home and has a loving wife (Emily Mortimer) and a child on the way, Lars leads a more reclusive existence in the family’s garage, hiding in plain sight of his small, wintry hometown. Painfully shy and eccentric, Lars fails to recognize that his co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner) has a major crush on him, and he picks up on a casual reference made by his cubicle mate, who mentions a website where you can order life-sized, anatomically correct sex dolls. But instead of seeing a sex object, Lars sees in this doll a potential life partner and the only kind of social “peer” he can relate to. So Lars orders a doll, whom he names Bianca, and begins treating her with utmost gentlemanly respect — and as though she’s his real-life, flesh-and-blood girlfriend. As he begins bringing Bianca with him everywhere he goes, the townspeople have to find just the right balance between supporting Lars’ unusual romance and trying to introduce him to a more conventional partner. Lars and the Real Girl was written by Six Feet Under scribe Nancy Oliver and directed by Mr. Woodcock’s Craig Gillespie.

~ Derek Armstrong


I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while, but had a hard time ‘selling’ it to D. After all, “guy falls in love with a sex doll” doesn’t exactly scream quality entertainment. In this case, however, quality entertainment is exactly what we get.

The part of Lars seems written specifically for Ryan Gosling’s delivery; his quiet, quirky, charmingly unsure delivery brings Lars to life for viewers (much as Lars’ affection brings Bianca to life for the townspeople). His pain and growth really come through.

Kelli GarnerAlso particularly well cast is Margo (Kelli Garner, right), whose shy infatuation with Lars has you wishing for his recovery. The lengths to which sister-in-law Karin is willing to go in her attempts to reach Lars in his self-imposed bubble may have been less believably sweet if not for the deft portrayal of Emily Mortimer

The stand out in this very strong cast though was, for me, Patricia Clarkson as Dagmar. She is the doctor who treats “Bianca” in her physical ailments, and Lars in his emotional ones. The role is small and quiet … and absolutely vital. Through her we learn who Lars is and why he is in such pain. Through her (and the other ladies), Lars learns who he is and how to deal with his pain.

So, we have a movie about death, and pain, and sex-dolls…and I am going to recommend it to most of my friends. It is lovely and sweet and explores what relationships mean to us – with family, with friends, and with that special someone (or something?) to whom we give our heart.

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 81%; Audience 83%

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Atlas Shrugged Part II (2012)


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Atlas Shrugged Part II

With the global economy on the brink of collapse, Dagny Taggart discovers what might be the answer to a mounting energy crisis and races against the clock to prevent the motor of the World from being stopped for good.

Who Is John Galt?As I said when I reviewed 2016: When it comes to political movies of the Right, you can generally tell if they hit their mark by the critics’ reaction. The “independent” critics show their true colors by panning the movie for making points with which they disagree, not the quality of the film itself. So it is with the Atlas Shrugged trilogy; both installments released so far have been panned by the film critics, most of whom out themselves by criticizing the “message” rather than the movie. Both installments have rated highly among the audience, however, perhaps also more for the message than the movie.

On that front, Part II does a much better job with the message. It is a cleaner, smoother, more entertaining movie. Though in some ways it suffers by comparison.

Before I bore you with my nit-picks over casting, I should share what is good here.

  • The story is better, and could stand on it’s own even without Part I to set the stage.
  • The higher budget is definitely in evidence (though some effects are still…iffy).
  • The flow is smoother, allowing Rand’s speeches to seem a part of the narrative, rather than a narrative of their own.
  • The cliffhanger is more intriguing, leaving me wanting to see what happens next
  • The message is tailored more to our current world; whereas Part I gave us a mysterious distant-future-sometime* with cities in ruin, Part II could be happening next year. (Yes, that makes for a continuity issue)

Because it was a better movie, and I will recommend it to the same people in my circle, Atlas Shrugged: Part II gets 4 1/2 on the WOM Scale.

And now, casting. My impression leaving the theater: Stronger movie, weaker cast.

I was disappointed when I initially heard they had reworked the entire cast. I tried to brush it off, hoping that with the increased budget they were bringing in more seasoned actors. Unfortunately, in almost every case, the replacement actor makes a diminished impression. This is most apparent when it comes to Dagny Taggart, our heroine, and Lillian Rearden, the conniving wife of our hero.

Taylor Schilling may have been simply a passable Dagny, but she was at least passably likeable – and relatable. Samantha Mathis is … not. Her Dagny is drawn and rough, conveying every emotion as some odd variation of a pouting grimace. I realize Dagny has the weight of the world on her shoulders, but portraying her as unflinchingly sullen denies us glimpsing the fire & light inside her. I found I was less invested in her and the fight she was waging.

I’m guessing they may have been unable to bring Rebecca Wisocky back as Lillian Rearden; I can think of no other reason to forgo one of the brightest spots from Part I. Wisocky brought a gleeful edge to Mrs Reardon that Kim Rhodes lacks (and let’s face it, a little humor is welcome in a Rand tale).

Grant Bowler was a much better Hank Rearden if only because he was less of a caricature version than his replacement. Our new Hank, Jason Beghe, would have been fine if cast originally. However, as a new edition, his delivery seems just a bit like a gravelly voiced impersonation – and the chemistry between Dagny & Hank is just not there.

The new Eddie Willers, Richard T. Jones, was a positive move. As much as I enjoyed Edi Gathegi in Part I, this Eddie is much more commanding – and more convincingly protective.

The other casting changes mostly created issues with continuity, making it even more difficult to keep track of the plethora of characters.

Please, producers, if you plan on presenting a story in “III” parts, do your best to secure the same talent each time. It makes it so much easier on your audience

* The DVD says “The year is 2016”, but it felt much more distant

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 0%; Audience 84%

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Bernie (2011)


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Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, well-loved assistant funeral director in a small Texas town. Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie Nugent, wealthy, cranky, unpopular widow. The way their paths cross is the meat of Bernie, a dark comedy based on a true story. The movie seems far-fetched, but, according to Marjorie’s nephew, the outlandish details were “ripped from the headlines“.

There are little things in “Bernie” that aren’t exactly true, bits of dialogue, a changed name here and there. But the big things, the weirdest things, the things you’d assume would have to be made up, happened exactly as the movie says they did.

Black gives one of his best performances to date, showing us the melancholy and heart in a man somehow driven to murder. MacLaine is an ideal choice as the cranky, crazy old codger fated to be folded into a freezer. The one weak link in casting is Matthew McConaughey playing a Texas lawyer (shocker, McConaughey cast as a lawyer!) set with the unpopular task of prosecuting the town’s favorite resident.

Interspersed throughout the movie, we get bits of local residents (some of them actual residents who knew the real Tiede & Nugent) talking about the couple and the case. It’s a device that can be cheesy if poorly executed, but it works quite well here.

Despite the subject matter, this movie will appeal to just about everyone in my circle. Even those who you wouldn’t expect to get a chuckle from a murder.

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 92%; Audience 76%

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Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 (2011)


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Atlas Shrugged – Part 1

Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and steel mogul Henry Rearden form an alliance to fight the increasingly authoritarian government of the United States.

I went to see this with a group; we had all levels of interest from “never read the book, no familiarity with Rand or Objectivism” to “read the book several times and have passages memorized” I am in the middle of that spectrum, having read the book 20-some years ago and being “Rand curious”. I am far right enough to embrace many, though not all, of her philosophies.

I’ve been looking forward to this movie almost since I read the book. Through the decades several casting choices were floated, some that seemed promising, some not so much. In the end, the lead roles went to “lesser known” actors (though you will recognize most of their faces).

Overall, I think they did well. I am gratified that Hank Rearden looks the part; truly a rugged individual, a man’s man. Some of the lesser characters were spot on; the sneering Lillian, the sniveling Phil, the snarling Ellis, the snakey Paul.

I was a slightly disappointed by Dagny. Regardless of her obvious hotness, her acting left something to be desired. A bit weak in her portrayal of such a strong woman, a bit wooden in her reactions to triumph & tragedy. The role would be a tough one to cast in the best of circumstances, but for a production with limited funds and even less acceptance by “Hollywood”, the actors willing to take part may have been scarce. Still, she did well and, should they decide to make the future installments, she may grow into the part.

Some worried the production would suffer from a low budget; in fact, many of the pre-opening ‘reviews’ made a great deal of snarky hay about that problem. The issues suffered by the final product seem to have little to do with funding and more to do with a novice director. The scenes involving dialogue are a bit cramped, even awkward on occasion. The scenes involving the great outdoors are beautiful, but those involving the disintegrating cities are not quite gritty enough. And the limos. *drink* Limos driving down the street. Conversations in limos. Limos pulling up to the curb. Limos pulling away from the curb. *drink*

As far as conveying the message, I thought perhaps it was a bit heavy-handed (not a lot, but a bit – and the book was, too). However, I already know big government is bad, I already know how prophetically Rand’s story parallels the path America is on. For someone unfamiliar with the grand ideas of personal responsibility and individual greatness, maybe they will need to be hit with a 2 X 4.

I definitely recommend it, and I recommend you see it in a theater. There is something to be said for seeing an experience film with an enthusiastic crowd. Saturday at the Valley Art brought audiences who waited in long lines before the movie and applauded after. A rare thing, indeed.

*…it’s the Atlas Shrugged drinking game

UPDATE: Danno points out that in all those limo scenes, it is only the business types – not the government fat cats who would clearly be indulging in the luxury, as well.

More of our AZ bloggers thoughts on the film after today’s viewing:
Great Satan, Inc
Exurban League
SandCastle Scrolls

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 10%; Audience 85%

Cross-posted at Vox

Enchanted (2007)


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A classic Disney fairytale collides with modern-day New York City in a story about a fairytale princess who is sent to our world by an evil queen. Soon after her arrival, Princess Giselle begins to change her views on life and love after meeting a handsome lawyer. Can a storybook view of romance survive in the real world?

This movie is very aptly titled; I was enchanted, indeed.

The casting here was very important, and Amy Adams delivers as Giselle, our heroine. James Marsden, too, is well suited to the role of the bumbling, yet lovable, Prince Edward. Absolutely spot on, I can’t imagine anyone who could have done either of these roles better.

Patrick Dempsey and Susan Sarandon were fine, though nothing special, in their roles as Robert and the evil Queen Narissa. The characters were well written, and well played, but neither actor brought anything extra to the performance. Contrasted to the prince and princess, I can imagine many other performers who could have pulled off these two roles.

I loved seeing Disney gently poking fun at their history, and found it even more touching when I read the trivia and found all the ways they honored the “princesses past”. In fact, it seems they amused themselves finding ways to wink at the audience.

I saw this movie with D, and it took a while to convince him to go. As the movie began, in full on animation mode, I could tell he was not thrilled (I was laughing already, being familiar with the movies they were echoing). He came around, though, and was laughing out loud as the story unfolded.

Definitely something for everyone. Take your kids, take your parents – good, clean, fun.

Rotten Tomatoes: Critics 93%; Users 91%

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