The Week in Film by Robert Mann – Week Starting 11/9/09

Julie & Julia ***½

The movie industry is one in which youth plays a very big part, the general notion being that once an actor or actress reaches a certain age they cease to be a draw at the box office. This notion is reflected in the repeated casting of younger actors in the lead roles of big blockbusters but despite such an idea that only young stars can sell films there is one actress who seems to repeatedly go against this status quo – that actress is Meryl Streep. Since 2006 Streep has starred in two blockbuster sized hits – The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia! -, not to mention several smaller successes and based on the box office performance of her latest film in the states it appears that she can now add another such success to this list. This may come as a surprise to some as, at least on paper, Julie & Julia doesn’t really sound like the recipe for commercial success. The true story (or should I say stories) of a bored diplomats wife learning to cook French cuisine then passing on her skills to the American public through a TV show and cook book, and a fed up office worker who sets herself a challenge to cook all the recipes in that book hardly sounds very cinematic after all. Yet, with the always excellent Meryl Streep (who is apparently up for another Oscar nomination for her performance) and brilliant rising star Amy Adams (working with Streep for a second time after Doubt) taking on the leading roles of (real life figures) Julia Child and Julie Powell the film has proven very appetising to American moviegoers. Popularity of course doesn’t always reflect quality though, thus raising the question as to whether this film is like dining at a fancy restaurant – delicious and unforgettable – or staying at home and eating something heated in a microwave – tasteless and barely palatable.

In 1948, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is just an American woman living in France, the wife of diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) whose job has brought them to Paris. Bored with her life she yearns for something to do with her time and decides to learn the art of cooking French cuisine. Taking up cooking classes she soon finds herself way ahead of her professional and male colleagues and decides that she would like to pass on her newly acquired skills to American housewives. Working alongside fellow cooks Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) who share a similar ambition she sets about writing a book entitled Mastering the Art of French Cooking and despite a number of obstacles that stand in her way she successfully gets her work published and eventually becomes a television personality as well. In 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is stuck. Pushing 30, living in a rundown apartment in Queens and working a soul sucking job in a cubicle that is going nowhere as her friends achieve stunning successes, she seizes on a seemingly insane plan to focus her energies. She will take her mother’s dog-eared copy of Julia Child’s 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she will cook all 524 recipes, all in the span of one year. And then she will write a blog about it. At first she thinks it will be easy but she soon realizes that there’s more to the Mastering the Art of French Cooking than meets the eye. But despite the difficulties she faces she persists in her task, including pressures on her marriage to husband Eric (Chris Messina), and somewhere along the line she realizes that she has turned her kitchen into a miracle of creation and cuisine. She has eclipses her life’s ordinariness though spectacular humour, hysteria and perseverance and soon finds herself on the path to success just like her unknowing mentor Julia.

‘Based on a true story’ – this is a phrase that has been used as a marketing ploy for films for many years. However, Julie & Julia takes it to the next level, in that it is “based on two true stories” not just one. The two different sources of inspiration work pretty well together in the film as while the two stories are very different from one another, and are based around characters who are not much alike, the differences contrast each other well, creating a good balance. Julia’s story (set in post World War Two France, the time and place being convincingly recreated) is an extremely upbeat tale based around a woman without a care in the world who takes up cooking simply for something to do in her somewhat empty life and discovers a passion that consumes her entire life, Julia herself being an ever optimistic and cheerful personality who brings out the best in everyone and always keeps her calm no matter what life throws at her. Julie’s story on the other hand (set in post 9/11 New York) is a much more real world kind of tale based on around a woman to whom life hasn’t been so kind. Despite being happily married to a loving husband she isn’t happy in life, working a depressing job for which she is extremely underappreciated, living in a rundown apartment and having a group of friends who can’t help but show of their success, with cooking being her means of escaping the monotony of her day to day life, a constant that she can always rely on and one of the few pleasures she has to look forward to, Julie herself being more a pessimist than an optimist and someone who doesn’t handle the stresses of life so well. These two stories, intercut together, sound completely different from one another and they are but they it is together that they work, with the happy fantasy of Julia’s life making a perfect contrast to the grim reality of Julie’s. Due to the obvious separation between the two stories however unfortunately the two characters never meet in person, which is a shame as it would have been nice to see Meryl Streep and Amy Adams appear together, if only for one scene. While the stories do work well together though the storyline certainly the most engrossing for a film – as I said earlier, it isn’t very cinematic, the nature of the storyline not being overtly interesting – but thanks to light humour, and portrayal of food so enticing that it is almost torturous having to settle for just watching the food when you really wanting to be eating it, the film does prove quite watchable. It is the strong performances that really bolster the film, however, with both leads performing excellently as usual. There has been much talk about Meryl Streep receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance as Julia Child and she certainly does deserve to get one. She brings Julia vividly to life, with a portrayal that captures the character’s passion for food and joy about life perfectly. Her character is bright and breezy, but never in a way that fails to convince. Amy Adams is also excellent, capturing the essence of a downtrodden woman well. The trials she faces as she carries out her “deranged assignment” are believable because we believe in her character, and she never falters even once in her portrayal. It is these two performances that make the film worth seeing and despite any flaws that I may have pointed out the film is indeed worth seeing. So, while Julia & Julia may not be the tastiest film you will ever see it is still very appetizing nonetheless (although you may actually leave the cinema feeling hungry…the food really is that mouthwatering).


Dorian Gray **½

Literary adaptations have long been a staple of the film industry and it is probably difficult, if not impossible, to find a piece of beloved classic literature that has not been adapted for the big screen at some point. In fact some stories are so beloved that they haven’t been adapted just once, or even twice, but numerous times over the years. For example, screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice are now a dime a dozen. And now, after a total of 15 (!) adaptations to date (not counting appearances of the central character in films such as ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’), Oscar Wilde’s classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has been brought to the big screen yet again. With the story having been adapted so many times already there is an immense level of pressure on director Oliver Parker (2007’s St. Trinians, among other home-grown British films) to do something new with the material but does Dorian Gray manage to provide a new spin on a tired formula or is just a shallow vanity project for its star Ben Barnes?

Returning home to Victorian London after the death of his father who has left his entire estate to him, the handsome Dorian Gray is immediately thrown into the social world of the upper classes and attracts the attentions of painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) who paints a portrait of Gray, one that will preserve his good looks for all eternity. Initially very shy and timid, Gray soon attracts the attention of the charismatic and cunning Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), who devotes his life to pleasure and debauchery, despite on the surface appearing to be a happily married man. Wotton introduces Gray to the hedonistic pleasures of the city and, following a tragedy involving his first love Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood), Gray immerses himself in these pleasures completely. It isn’t long before Gray realizes that he isn’t like everyone else. While all those around him age and scar he somehow maintains his youthful looks and over the years, as everyone gets older and older he continues looking just as youthful as when he first arrived in the city. Initially this seems like a gift but Gray soon realizes that his debaucheries are manifesting themselves on the portrait painted by Basil and that as the years pass the darkness within his soul consumes him more and more. He finally gets a chance at redemption when he meets Wotton’s grown-up daughter Emily (Rebecca Hall) and falls in love once again but, as his curse reveals the darkness that can result from the destructive power of beauty and the blind pursuit of pleasure, can he truly change or is he destined to remain a cursed man for all eternity?

Just like the man himself Dorian Gray is a film that is quite nice to look at but dig deeper and what you find is an empty shell. Supposedly this film is meant to provide a contemporary take on the classic tale, whilst staying true to the period in which the novel was written and set I might note, thus doing something different to the numerous other adaptations of Wilde’s work. However, in actuality, the only thing about this film that seems explicitly different is that the content is more explicit. More lax attitudes about what is acceptable on the screen mean that now far more can be shown than could have been in many of the adaptations released during the twentieth century. Such differences as these only run skin deep and are not enough to really make this adaptation any more worthwhile than any others. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have cause for praise in some areas though. The acting is excellent across the board with Ben Barnes definitely looking the part as the eternally youthful Dorian Gray and convincing in his character’s slow and quiet transformation from a shy and timid young man into an eager, out of control and debauching monster. Despite a great performance from the lead however, it is Colin Firth who really steals the show. In recent years Firth has appeared in several films that completely wasted his acting talents but here they are utilized fully with him delivering an intense performance of a man who also undergoes a transformation, one that takes him in the opposite direction to that of Gray, from seemingly immoral debaucher to a broken man who is suffering as a result of his past misdeeds. These two performances bolster the film and the rest of the cast are also of a high standard, as is the case with many British period pieces. Another area of strength in the film is the visuals. As with most British period films the costume and set design is of a very high standard, elegant and authentic looking. Another impressive element to the film is the constantly changing painting of Gray, which perfectly reflects the increasing decrepidness resulting from Gray’s debaucheries. However, while the film may be quite sumptuous visually you cannot judge by a book by its cover. The actions of Gray are clearly meant to be shocking and in the context of the time in which the film is set they probably do seem that way but despite an increased level of explicitness in the scenes involving Gray’s debaucheries the scenes just aren’t as shocking by today’s standards and, as a result, fail to make much of an impact. The fact that such scenes involving Gray’s sexual encounters seem to be about the only particularly different thing about the film much else fails to hold any real interest. The script, written by first time writer Toby Finlay, lacks any real edge, seemingly rehashing old ideas and not really providing any new elements of interest. The story is far too slow paced and provides few opportunities for director Oliver Parker to create any chills. Not that when he does provide chills when he gets the opportunity to either mind you. Parker really doesn’t seem like the right person for the job at all. He may be good at capturing Britishness on screen but when it comes to providing a film that is tense or engaging he really misses the mark, with him refusing to break any boundaries. As a result the film feels quite sterile not being unwatchable but not making any lasting impression either. It is a shame really because the film does at times touch upon issues such as the nature of beauty and how it affects people, particularly the manner in which people can be fooled or deceived by it. Ultimately, though, these are just glimpses of a potentially great film hidden within that due to weak writing and so-so direction is unable to reveal itself. So, overall, Dorian Gray stands as a competent but unmemorable adaptation that really raises the question as to why adapt something that has already been adapted countless times if you don’t anything new to do with the material?


Whiteout **½

Comic book adaptations – they’re not all about superheroes and they’re not all for kids either. This has been demonstrated before by such comic/graphic novel adaptations as 2002’s period crime thriller Road to Perdition and 2007’s Alaskan vampire flick 30 Days of Night, and not comes another non superhero movie finding its inspiration in the pages of a comic. Based on the comic series of the same name by Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber, Whiteout is a sort of murder mystery set in the vast wilderness of Antarctica. Conceptually, the story seems to share a few things in common with 30 Days of Night (minus the vampires of course) but, while the production company behind the film is Dark Castle Entertainment, who are best known for horror films, director Dominic Sena (Swordfish) has rather gone the route of an action thriller. In this regard trailers for the film have made it look rather generic and formulaic, with the film coming across as watchable but decidedly unspectacular. But is it just the characters who will receive a chilly reception or the audience as well?

For U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), things are about to get even more dangerous. The only law enforcement in the unforgiving territory of Antarctica, she has just been sent to investigate a body on the ice. Antarctica’s first homicide – A shocking discovery in itself, it will plunge her into an even more bizarre mystery and the revelation of secrets long-buried under the endless ice – secrets that someone believes are still worth killing for. As Stetko races to find the killer before he finds her, winter is already closing in and with it six months of darkness. In the deadly Antarctic whiteout, she won’t see him till he’s a breath away.

Whiteout is a very mixed bag of a film. On one hand it is quite striking visually with director Sena making effective use of the desolate, but at the same time beautiful, terrain of Antarctica. He delivers several tense sequences that utilize the environment to great effect, most notably the opening sequence involving a nose-diving plane plummeting towards the continent and a sequence in which the protagonist is chased through a snow storm by the axe wielding killer. On the other hand, however, the film is let down by an extremely incoherent storyline, weak dialogue and so-so characterisation (a few flashbacks being pretty much it). And if you’re expecting the plot to be saved by a shock twist you’ll be in for a disappointment as the revelation of the killer’s identity makes no real sense and a subsequent revelation is both obvious and predictable. And the inclusion of a gratuitous shower scene involving star Kate Beckinsale seems like little more than a shallow ploy to draw in teenage viewers who would otherwise have no interest in the film and it adds absolutely nothing. The acting isn’t much to speak of either – other cast members including Gabriel Macht, Tom Skeritt and Columbus Short) with only Kate Beckinsale being given anything significant to work with and even she doesn’t have much. There are a few moments when she gets the chance to shine a little but these are two few and far between to count for much. So, all in all, despite a few redeeming features Whiteout is too by the numbers to really stay in the memory. A chilly reception from moviegoers is exactly what this film deserves.


Reviews by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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