Shorties #13

It's time for an all-movie Shorties! Once in a while, I'll find myself with a couple of spare hours and knock something out of the Netflix queue, or I'll follow up on a recommendation, or I'll be hanging out with someone who's watching a movie, and I'm taken along on the ride. These little bits of cinematic detritus get collected as the side dishes of the entertainment world, but that's not to say they're unimportant. Several Shorties wind up being more enjoyable than the tentpole movies that get far more attention. Let's hit it!

#1: Penelope: This 2006 Christina Ricci film is the epitome of a Laundry Movie. It's a fairly generic morality tale about loving-the-person-within, in which the title character is cursed with a pig nose until she finds true love. Ricci and James McAvoy are a pleasant calm eye in the middle of an overacting storm. Everyone else, from Penelope's parents to the shallow suitors who don't fit the bill, are far too hammy. It was a perfectly fine way to spend a couple of hours, but certainly not something that I'd ever hasten to recommend to others (Grade: B-)

#2: The Last of Sheila: Some movies are entertaining because they're good, but some movies are entertaining because they're interesting. 1973's The Last of Sheila was talked up on a movie website I regularly read, and I thought to myself "Eh, what the hell? I like mysteries and puzzles." While it didn't sweep me up in cinematic grandeur, there's no denying that this was a pretty weird and wonderful experience. All of the characters have secrets simmering under the surface, and when an eccentric game-master brings them all to the surface, the game turns to murder. This taking place in the '70s means that the shameful secrets are treated with an oddly high or low level of reaction, but overall, it was really fun, and unlike other murder mystery movies, this one actually drops clues that observant viewers can pick up on. (Grade: B+)

#3: It's a Disaster: I have to dance around a fine line with disaster/apocalypse movies. I generally love their premises, but they can be too gory or too silly or too lots-of-things. A lot of self-winking end-of-the-world flicks came out a couple of years ago: I mostly enjoyed This is the End, ignored Rapture-Palooza, and have been trying to decide if I want to tackle Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or not. One of the ones that slipped through the cracks was the 2012 movie It's a Disaster - an omission I corrected one weekend I was studiously avoiding cleaning the apartment. Four couples meet for one of their usual Sunday brunches. One of the couples is brand new, and the woman (Julia Stiles) is introducing her new boyfriend (David Cross) to her friend group. It's a tense gathering of people who mostly don't like each other, and the situation is not improved when news that the city has been attacked with a biological weapon reaches them. Sealed into the house, their interpersonal problems intensify. I liked that the entire movie takes place within the confines of the house, and we never see what's actually going on out there. Being trapped with no real way of acquiring news would be one of the scariest parts of such a societal breakdown, and those fears definitely afflict the characters. But, woof, what a set of characters. There isn't really a single one to root for; it's an assemblage of unpleasant people who shouldn't be friends, and you kind of wish they'd shut up and just die already. This is one of those movies that has a terrific concept, but fell apart in the execution. (Grade: C)

#4: Urbanized: I get geeky about the weirdest topics, and one of them is an interest in urban design. What makes a city succeed or fail its citizens? How does something as simple as a bike path or a series of light bulbs enhance the lives of a city's denizens? How do you balance the endless and constantly shifting needs of a populace? The 2011 documentary Urbanized does an admirable job of exploring a lot of these questions. I've mentioned before that I really liked director Gary Hustwit's previous documentary, Helvetica. The follow-up, Objectified was also informative, if not as entertaining, but this third one easily springs back from that limitation. Interviews with architects, designers, politicians, and others provide multiple perspectives about the challenges of designing city services and attractions, from parks to public transportation to roadways. The movie doesn't pull punches when it comes to cities that do things wrong, either. The film goes along at kind of a slow pace, but the fascinating subject matter more than makes up for it. (Grade: B)

#5: The Big Wedding: This 2013 movie is not one I would have picked for myself, but was willing to give it a whirl when I was staying with some friends who wanted to watch it. Oof. This is one of those farce comedies, in which Robert De Niro and ex-wife Diane Keaton must pretend to still be married, in order to...impress their adopted son's biological mother at said son's wedding. This is obviously not happy news for De Niro's longtime girlfriend Susan Sarandon. Topher Grace and Katherine Heigl round out the cast as De Niro and Keaton's insufferable children. I'm using actor names instead of character names, because the characters are so two-dimensional as to be almost non-existent. No cliche is too hoary for this movie, from the sexy foreigner who exists only to titillate the virginal son to the whooooooooa-we're-falling-in-water bit of comedy that stopped being cute in 1982. I haven't even gotten to the part where Robin Williams is allowed to let loose with spastic insults as the wedding's priest. In case I haven't made it clear yet: I wasn't a fan of this one. (Grade: C-)


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