Intoxicating performances make ‘Julie & Julia’ gel

Posted Aug. 13, 2009, at 6:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

JULIE & JULIA, written and directed by Nora Ephron, 123 minutes, rated PG-13.

Nora Ephron’s winning new movie is a tonic for those seeking something different from the usual summer fare of explosions, aliens and all things gone berserk. And what a swell departure it is.

It’s a movie about the life of Julia Child (Meryl Streep, terrific in the role) and the young woman, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who came to blog about her experiences of cooking every one of the 500-plus recipes from Child’s iconic cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in just one year.

What ensues is light, but not slight. The performances sell this movie straight down the line; they are so intoxicating, it’s easy to gloss over the script’s occasional lapses into cliche. For me, what was curious was that in spite of being near the end of some rather heated real estate negotiations when I went into the movie, I didn’t think about them once — or what the outcome would be just hours later — during the movie.

I mention this only because “Julie & Julia” is that absorbing. It defines escapism. It’s a film made for those who love food, love Paris and who love Julia Child, and a good deal of it is well-made.

Wisely, Ephron dips back into Child’s life long before she became a celebrity chef trained by Paris’ infamous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, she was living in Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci, excellent), and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her own life. Should she make hats? Not for her. Since she apparently can’t eat enough French food (“Look at me! I’m growing right in front of you!”), perhaps she could learn how to cook and then teach the craft?

Ephron intercuts this story with that of Julie’s. Here, we’re in New York City in 2002, the backdrop of 9-11 is everywhere, and Powell, on the cusp of turning 30, is unsure what to do with her own life. A failed novelist, she now answers phones for those affected by the events of 9-11. And then, with the help of her husband (Chris Messina), she starts her blog, breaks out the pots and pans, and gradually reveals herself to herself.

And that’s the movie’s point. Over the course of the film, these two find themselves, with Ephron maneuvering seamlessly through their lives. In spite of playing a mostly unlikable, self-centered character, Adams acquits herself as well as she can here — she remains among the brightest young talents working in Hollywood. Still, given her character’s grouchy sullenness, her story sags in comparison to the one Streep enjoys.

That likely won’t surprise anyone, particularly given Streep’s seemingly bottomless talent and the fact that she doesn’t give Child totally over to caricature. The script allows her to stand tall, literally and figuratively, amid the funny moments audiences will expect, and also the trying moments they may not have predicted. After all, success wasn’t handed to Julia Child; she had to work hard for it. In “Julie & Julia,” you feel her struggle and her disappointments, which makes the ending — and how Ephron pauses so perfectly on the final scene — such a satisfying moment to behold.

Grade: B+

On DVD

NOWHERE IN AFRICA, written and directed by Caroline Link, based on the novel by Stefanie Zweig, 138 minutes, rated R, in German with English subtitles.

Caroline Link’s excellent foreign-language film, “Nowhere in Africa,” follows such films as “Shanghai Ghetto” and “The Pianist” in that it exposes another harrowing corner of the Holocaust, strips it bare of sentiment, but, in this case, not of a sense of humor.

Based on a true story, the film follows three German Jews — father, mother and daughter — who flee Frankfurt for the rural flatlands of East Africa in the long, turbulent days leading up to the Nazi stronghold.

It’s 1938. One member of the family leaves Germany first. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), the patriarch of the group, arrives in Kenya to find work at a cattle ranch before sending for his wife, Jettel (Juliane Kohler), and their young daughter, Regina (Lea Kurka).

When Jettel and Regina arrive on a boat, it’s with the belief that all of this unpleasantness will be behind them within a year. Two years tops. As such, Jettel refuses to fully unpack. Why bother to find room for the china when their trip will be relatively brief? Removing from her bags only what she believes she’ll need, this striking woman bulldozes through her new shack of a house with the disdain of someone more used to throwing parties than throwing mosquito nets around her bed at night.

Jettel isn’t unlikable. Far from it. She is, however, complex, an alien in a foreign country struggling to come to terms with the difficulty of her circumstances. That she loves her daughter is clear. Also clear is that her strained relationship with Walter could crumble at any moment. Part of the film’s underlying tension comes from the lingering doubt that this man and this woman — this family — will remain intact through the defining years to come.

You certainly hope so, if only for Regina’s sake. She’s a special girl who is deeply shy when she leaves Germany, but finds in Africa a place and a people that help to round her into a remarkable young woman (played by Karoline Eckertz), one whose relationship with the family cook (Sidede Onyulo) is among the movie’s best qualities.

Beautifully acted and written, “Nowhere in Africa” deals honestly with the past. It refuses to romanticize the proceedings and thus asks audiences to feel something false and manufactured. With some exceptions, that’s the difference between a film made with a European mind-set and one made with a Hollywood mind-set, the latter of which is more inclined to pat our hands when all is said and done in an effort to reassure us that all is OK with the world.

Director Caroline Link knows better, and in her work, you find electrifying jolts of the truth.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

• • •

Renting a DVD? NEWS film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases. Those capped and in bold print are new to stores this week.

Body of Lies — C

Changeling — A-

Coraline — A

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — A-

The Day the Earth Stood Still — C-

Doubt — B

Dragonball: Evolution — C

Eagle Eye — D

Fast & Furious — B-

Frost/Nixon — A

Gran Torino — A-

Happy-Go-Lucky — B+

The Haunting in Connecticut — C-

Hellboy II: The Golden Army — B+

I Love You, Man — B+

The Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience — B-

Knowing — B

Last Chance Harvey — B

Let the Right One In — A-

Marley & Me — B

Milk — A

My Bloody Valentine 3-D — B-

Mutant Chronicles — D+

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — B+

Obsessed — C-

Push — C-

Race to Witch Mountain — C-

Rachel Getting Married — B-

The Reader — B

Role Models — B+

17 AGAIN — C

Valkyrie — B+

W. — C-

Waltz with Bashir — A

Watchmen — D

The Wrestler — A

Similar articles:

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business