Mike at the Movies

“No Strings Attached” (R) ****

This film could have gone so wrong. It’s one of those films that looks so good in the trailer that you can’t wait to see it, only to find that the only good bits were in the trailer. Not, so in this case. Fresh off her Oscar-deserving performance in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman charms the pants off Aston Kutcher and everybody else who watches this delightful comedy.

Portman, as Emma, is not the kind of girl grandma would like her grandson to bring home: She’s a busy med student who likes the game more than practice — she doesn’t like dating or flirting or any of the girlie things that go into relationship-building. She goes for the gold as often as possible with, like the title says, “no strings attached.”

Adam, on the other hand, is a happy-go-lucky guy who blissfully ignores the fact that every woman he meets drools over him. He agrees to serve as Emma’s “best friend with privileges,” and they eagerly fall into bed for their first coupling. Adam, always the charmer, brings her a balloon with “Congratulations!” on it. When she asks why he gave her a balloon, Adam explains, “I thought you did a good job.”

That is not the worst thing he does: He also makes a “Period Mix Tape” for her and her three PMS-suffering roommates. One is a male, but take my word for it, he appreciates the tape. The worst thing Adam does is to fall asleep, fully clothed, on Emma’s bed. When they wake up, spooning, Emma decides he’s too serious and breaks it off.

The supporting cast is magnificent. Ludicris and Jake Johnson as Adam’s best friends are wisely funny, and Emma’s friends, played by Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) and Greta Gerwig are spot-on. Kevin Kline has a virtuoso turn as Adam’s father, a man with a propensity for dating Adam’s exes. (“I can’t date you either. You’re not my dad’s type.”)

But in the end it’s once again Portman’s film. She is deliciously gorgeous, neat, nifty, smart and utterly vulnerable, even when scarfing down a box of doughnut holes to fight off depression. And she makes Kutcher look like he belongs in this film instead of those Judd Apatow-like formula guys movies that he has so often found himself in. She makes him likeable. But then, again, she’s Natalie Portman and the lady is on a roll.

“The Company Men” (R) ****

This film is subtler than it at first appears. It appears to be the painful, predictable story of three different men in 2008 as the “downsizing” that struck American businesses headed into high gear. The subtlety comes from the fact that the men — Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) — are of three different levels in their careers, and one of them is considerably younger than the other two.

Those differences color their attempts to deal with the disaster that strikes them with the layoffs. While Bobby faces his layoff with determination and confidence that he’ll get another job, the other two realize that, closer to 60 than 40, their chances of re-employment are slim at best. Phil is told bluntly that this is true. He should dye his hair, a blunt career counselor tells him.

Bobby’s wife, exquisitely played by Rosemarie DeWitt, tries to go with the flow while putting the house up for sale, arranging for the sale of Bobby’s Porsche and cancelling his country club membership. Her father, played with surprising deftness by Kevin Costner, gives Bobby a job as a carpenter and makes sure his family survives, albeit barely.

Maria Bello is her usual bewitching self as Gene’s mistress and head of HR at “GTX,” the company doing all the firing. Craig T. Nelson is the villain of the piece, directing the ruin of his company while taking down over $20 million in salary and bonuses and the sale of the company that brings him another gazillion.

The film reinforces the point that, though women lose their jobs peripherally, it is the men of the piece that lose their identities along with their titles, their homes and their cars. They are truly emasculated in small and large ways, and it tells on all of them.

DeWitt’s practical sense as Maggie, keeps her family afloat while she encourages Bobby to find another job. She also sees advantages of his new status. When he apologizes for letting her down, she shrugs and says, “It’s not that bad. You’re here.” He wasn’t before.

This could have been a bombastic, melodramatic attack on American corporate culture. Instead, it insinuates its way into the heart of that culture like a stiletto. Either way, bombast or knife stab, it is a deadly picture of what we did to each other and what some of the wreckage looks like.

“The Rite” (PG-13) **

This is Anthony Hopkins’ picture, and he’s welcome to it. What could have been a fascinating exploration of science vs. religion becomes a Roman Catholic recruitment film, complete with heavenly choirs, victories over Satan (Beelzebub, the Devil, call him/her what you will), and various principles of good sense that get trampled on the Road to Redemption.

Michael Kovak (played woodenly by Irish actor Colin O’Donoghue) is a mortician’s son in the Midwest who as a boy witnesses his father, played by Rutger Hauer, prepare his mother for her funeral. As if that’s not traumatic enough, he enters the priesthood, tries to resign and instead is recruited for what can only be called “Exorcism School.” His skepticism remains, and deepens when he witnesses the attempted exorcism of a pregnant teenager by Father Lucas (Hopkins).

Then the film goes off the rails. Instead of allowing Michael’s doubt to join Lucas’s faith in a real conflict, we get the Hollywood cliché of twisted bodies, vomited nails and all the rest. Father Lucas, in a mild attempt at humor even asks Michael: “What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea soup?” Delete the pea soup but keep the spinning heads.

As the film progresses and the conflict between the rational and irrational becomes more promising, the script goes to the supernatural side with increasingly strange music, symbols of the Devil (most particularly a room full of frogs) and eventually the collusion of a reporter, played by Alice Braga (disconcertingly with a lower voice than Kovak), who is supposed to be a neutral observer.

To answer the obvious question, yes, in rare cases Catholic priests perform exorcisms for non-Catholics — there are 14 such priests in the world — and some Protestants perform exorcisms as well. It is perhaps not ironic that, in order to be exorcised, you have to be a Believer in the first place. That forces the question: Why would a demon who wants souls care whether the Target Soul belongs to a Believer or not, a Roman Catholic or a Baptist? It is one of many questions that destroys the credibility of this film for all who are not believers in exorcism in the first place.

PG-13 is a weird rating, by the way, for a film that includes scenes of bodies being prepared for burial, a graphic miscarriage, vomiting of nails and other dream-destroying distortions of the human body.

For more of Mike’s movie reviews visit our web site at www.towncourier.com.

2011 Oscar Picks

This was a good year for great pictures, so the picking is much tougher than usual. I hope you got to see all of these performances and films. If not, there’s always the DVD.

Supporting Actress

Very tough category with Amy Adams dropping her cutesy little girl type for good and Hailee Steinfeld stealing a picture from Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. However, the most effective and gritty performance of the year was Melissa Leo’s as the hard-bitten mother in “The Fighter.” Her scenes with her daughters are the essence of aggressive mothering. Leo wins by a nose.

Supporting Actor

Christian Bale is phenomenal as the derelict brother in “The Fighter,” and Jeremy Renner absolutely convincing as the doomed hoodlum in “The Town.” But Geoffrey Rush’s nuanced performance as the Australian tutor of King George VI perfectly captures the confident bluster necessary to keep the king working on his speech defect while maintaining his equilibrium heading into the task of a lifetime. He also provides most of the humor in a surprisingly funny film. Rush takes the statue.

Best Actress

This is, for me, the only easy pick. Natalie Portman is so incredibly controlled as a schizoid, suicidal dancer, that you feel every bruise and cut she suffers. I don’t think this vote will be close, even given strong consideration for Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams as well as the always-professional Annette Benning. Portman in a walk.

Best Actor

Bridges was sensational as Rooster Cogburn; Jesse Eisenberg caught the duality of Mark Zuckerberg’s genius and raw personality. Colin Firth, though, makes a viewer weep with frustration as he deals with the burdens of ruling and the attempt to overcome his crippling stammer. With Geoffrey Rush, they make a linguistic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” they work so well together. Firth by a bit.

Best Film

Ten nominees this year — an unusually high number — and though it was fine, one of them, “Toy Story 3,” doesn’t belong. It should win “Best Animated Feature.” I’m not even sure that animated films should be eligible for top film. That being said, the award comes down to two films for me: “Black Swan” and “The King’s Speech” with a possible breakthrough for “True Grit.” All are compelling features, but my pick was because of the “Haunting Factor.” Almost everyone who talks about “Black Swan” admits that they couldn’t get it out of their mind and, in some cases, their dreams. It was the same for me. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are so good together, the film has such discipline and effective ways of indicating mental illness and the dance sequences were so wonderfully choreographed and edited, the film stays with you for months. Though I will not be surprised if “True Grit” or “The King’s Speech” wins, I will be disappointed if “Black Swan” does not.

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