Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones
Directed by: Tanya Wexler (“Ball in the House”)
Written by: Stephen Dyer (“Ball in the House”) and Jonah Lisa Dyer (debut)
During the closing credits of “Hysteria,” a period comedy that tells the story of how the female vibrator came to be invented, the device’s history is presented in photos of the ever-evolving sex toy over the last 100 or so years. It’s some of the most interesting information offered by the film, which, despite its intriguing narrative, doesn’t satisfy the more complex issues women faced in the late 19th century. Instead, director Tanya Wexler and screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Dyer choose to wink their eye at the audience, toss out double entendres like they were free condoms during Spring Break, and hope the lighthearted nature of their screenplay is enough to overlook the film’s bigger problems.
Actor Hugh Dancy is definitely not one of the pitfalls of “Hysteria.” He stars as Mortimer Granville, a young doctor who finds himself dealing with a medical condition known as hysteria, which, at the time, was affecting half of the women in Britain. Insomnia, depression, and nervousness were only some of the symptoms of the disorder, which would later be understood to be more about sexual frustration than anything. When Mortimer lands a job with a doctor (Jonathan Pryce) specializing in treating women suffering from hysteria, he doesn’t find the work as gratifying as he had hoped, although he makes quite a name for himself for delivering relief to his female patients. He is also quite smitten with the doctor’s prim and proper daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and confused by her volatile sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
While “Hysteria” demands attention for its own sexual revolution like 2004’s biopic “Kinsey” on scientist Alfred Kinsey, not all the pieces are here to make that happen. Dancy is marvelous as the straight-laced doctor who wants to be taken seriously as a professional, but his interaction with Gyllenhaal is not very convincing. Neither is his relationship with Jones, whose role as a wallflower is wasted.
In a comedy that should be screaming female liberation from the rooftop, Wexler and her writers seem to think any genuine thoughts or feelings of the women involved are inconsequential since we never hear from them (besides the squeals of ecstasy at the hands of Dr. Granville). Give “Hysteria” credit for livening up the era, but by not saying more than a few oohs and aahs, it really is a missed opportunity to mark a noteworthy event in medical history.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell
Directed by: Scott Cooper (debut)
Written by: Scott Cooper (debut)
Place an entire narrative on the shoulders of four-time Academy Award nominated actor Jeff Bridges (“The Last Picture Show”) and good things are bound to happen, especially if you ask him to sing, too.
Despite a fairly safe and conventional screenplay by first time director and writer Scott Cooper, the music drama “Crazy Heart” is Bridges’ closet shot to winning Oscar gold since earning his last nom for his supporting role in 2001’s “The Contender.”
While “Crazy Heart” is rich with familiar themes, Bridges doesn’t disappoint. He stars as “Bad” Blake, a down-on-his-luck country and western singer who finds himself in the twilight of his career fighting to stay a significant part of the music industry he helped build.
All the gigs Bad can book, however, are in small-town bowling alleys, run-down watering holes, and places where his fan base – although faithful – isn’t as significant as it once was during his glory days. Years of alcoholism have taken their toll on Bad, who is now flat broke. His agent want him to sit down and write new material, but Bad’s just not interested in writing songs for other performers anymore. This includes working with his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a young and popular singer who epitomizes the new generation of country music.
Instead, Bad seems comfortable doing his touring across the Southwest in his 1978 Chevy suburban, staying at ratty motels and drinking the cheapest whiskey he can find. When Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe reporter, asks for an interview during one of his tour stops in New Mexico, Bad agrees and is immediately stunned by how much he likes the young writer. Jean, too, is oddly drawn to the Merle Haggard-type star as he tries to sober up and kick-start his life and career.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb, “Crazy Heart” – as cliché as it sounds – actually feels like the cinematic version of a country song. All the ingredients are there from love to heartbreak to redemption and Cooper follows the recipe without burning the biscuits (Bad’s specialty in the kitchen). Sure, a few bites may be a bit dry, but Bridges is riding a gravy train.
As Bad, he gives an effortless performance as a man who wants a second chance to do something memorable with the talent he has. As we watch Bad fiddle with his guitar throughout the film (pieces of the Ryan Bingham/T-Bone Burnett-written “The Weary Kind” can be heard), it’s evident that there is something amazing waiting to be revealed before it’s all said and done.
Whether he’s on stage singing songs from the film’s exceptional soundtrack (“The Weary Kind” is Oscar bound) or holding a sweet conversation with Jean’s little boy, Bridges knows no bounds when providing us with his subtle and sensitive character. “Crazy Heart” is his latest dream role and we’re all singing his praises.
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney
Directed by: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”)
Written by: Dave Eggers (debut) and Vendela Vida (debut)
It’s definitely a different type of relationship dynamic from Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes whose last film was the underappreciated “Revolutionary Road” of last year. In “Away We Go,” Mendes rediscovers his dark comedy pedigree that made him so successful with 1999’s Best Picture winner “American Beauty,” to tell the story of a young, directionless couple trying to find their place in the world.
When the grandparents of their first child decide to move to Belgium, unmarried parents-to-be Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) realize there’s nothing holding them back from packing up and relocating anywhere they’d like to go. Although they “don’t have the basic stuff figured out” in their lives, Burt and Verona see the spontaneous adventure as a way to start on a clean slate.
Making stops in a few cities where they know people (somehow they can afford a cross-country tour by plane but sulk over a cardboard window in their house), Burt and Verona are interested in seeing how well they might fit in places like Phoenix, Arizona, Madison, Wisconsin, and Montreal, Canada. They meet up with a former co-worker (Allison Janney plays a vulgar mother who accuses her pre-teen daughter of being lesbian) and a long-time hippy friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is offended by strollers (“Why would I want to push my baby away from me?”) and believes it is normal to have sex in front of their children.
Needless to say, Burt and Verona have a difficult time connecting to anyone on their trip, especially since first-time screenwriters and real-life couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida write the duo like a pair of self-important hipsters who know they’re more intelligent and witty that everyone else on the face of the planet. It’s an interesting characterization because the two are the sanest of the bunch, but there’s always an underlying feeling that if you were to meet the couple socially they’re mellow oddness would wear thin.
That’s what happens in “Away We Go,” but not before a few tender moments and subtle quirkiness. It’s when the eccentricities of the characters become excessively heavy for the screen when Eggers, Vida, and Mendes lose control. The film doesn’t have a lot of unnatural dialogue like “Juno,” which was generally a very likeable movie, but thematically it’s burdened with an overall artificial ambiance that comes off far too cartoonish despite the occasional charm.
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), Jonathan Nolan (“The Prestige”)
Is it possible for a film so saturated in hype to be blinding even to the most objective of viewers? With “The Dark Knight” sure to break a few box office records this weekend, it’s no surprise that a visionary director like Christopher Nolan can create such an immensely dim and entertaining crime drama masked as a superhero movie. It’s easily the best comic-book movie of the summer, but to call it more than that is the overstatement of the year.
The accolades, of course, start with the late Heath Ledger’s fiendish and amazing performance at Batman’s nemesis the Joker. Ledger is right on cue as the soulless clown who robs banks alongside his gang of criminals. It’s a completely different portrayal than that of Jack Nicholson from the 1989 version. It’s not better or worse, but it is distinctive and memorable.
Christian Bale returns to form as the most ruthless Batman of any that came before him. Torn between his responsibility as a vigilante crime fighter in Gotham City and settling down with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now more interested the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who is later burned to become Two-Face) than billionaire businessman Bruce Wayne.
As in “Batman Begins,” Nolan has recreated the denseness of a city on the brink of chaos in “The Dark Knight” and it permeates through the entire film. It’s a real-world story with comic-book tendencies and Nolan is the one that is able to mold the two genres together to produce a sort of hybrid crime thriller.
There are moments in “The Dark Knight” where the screenplay has some opportunities to really sideswipe the audience, but chooses some easy way outs of a few intense situations. Where the film could have ended up becoming macabre and transformed the Joker into an incarnate of evil, it bows out and leaves him on a level of likability.
Overall, “The Dark Knight” wowed, but didn’t have a lasting effect despite it’s full-package delivery. That’s usually what happens with summer blockbusters, even when there as impressive as this.