Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movie Review - Doubt

A Catholic school in New York shortly after the Kennedy assassination is the setting for a clash of wills between a priest trying to bring change to the church and a nun set on maintaining traditional discipline at any cost in this riveting film. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his play, the movie's stage origins are obvious with few attempts to open up the action for the big screen. It's just as well, since the conflicts here lend themselves to intimate settings where it's all about how these characters talk to each other. Who needs exteriors when you've got actors of this caliber bouncing off each other behind closed doors. Meryl Streep stars as Sister Aloysius, the nun who's principal of the school with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, a priest with cryptic sermons. His fresh ideas about how to relate to students put him on a collision course with the strict nun. Further complicating matters is Sister James (Amy Adams) whose heartfelt but naive attempts to take the right moral stand inadvertently create an explosive situation. When she observes Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy who's the only black student in the school, acting strangely in class after being called to the rectory by the priest, a dangerous game of speculation begins with Sister Aloysius becoming convinced of assumptions that will put Father Flynn's job and reputation on the line.

"Doubt" is full of great lines and some good laughs, with lots of meat on its bones about how flexible or inflexible morals should be. This movie would be a good companion piece to the equally engaging "The History Boys" (also adapted from the stage) which covers similar themes. Though Streep has the showiest role, I particularly admired Hoffman's seamless performance and was also impressed with Amy Adams in the difficult, less dramatic but pivotal role of Sister James. Perhaps the most amazing acting in the film comes from Viola Davis as Donald Miller's mother. With only two scenes and twelve minutes of screen time she is simply unforgettable and completely deserving of the many accolades coming her way from early awards groups. Like the characters on screen, the audience is left with plenty to think about, a renewed sense of human frailty and, pardon the pun, a mind full of doubt.

Things to love about this movie: The way it stays with you long after leaving the theater; a sweet and funny scene of students learning the bossa nova; two words -- Viola Davis; Hoffman's amazing transformation into this controversial priest
Things to hate in this movie: A few theatrical touches (usually involving wind, leaves or trees) that come off as a little too symbolic; a bit with an overhead light blowing out that's used twice (once was enough)
Pleasant surprises: No tidy resolution -- even if you think there is one, think some more
Unpleasant surprises: Streep hams it up just a bit at times; Davis is so awesome she should have been included in a few more scenes

Movie Review - The Reader

Watching this provocative, adult film was like basking in the sun after slogging through months of rain, such a welcome relief from paper thin characters and completely predictable plot development. At first glance, the clandestine affair between a teenage boy named Michael Berg (David Kross) and an older woman named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in post WWII Germany might appear to be nothing more than the usual coming-of-age erotic awakening, but this story has plenty more on its mind. Michael becomes ill early in the film and is assisted home by Hanna, a stranger who lives alone and works as a streetcar ticket collector. When the boy returns to Hanna's home to offer thanks for her assistance, a strong attraction develops that leads into a relationship bordering on obsessive as Michael prefers the company of this strange, gruff woman to that of his peers. Discovering that Hanna cannot read or write, Michael begins reading to her from "The Odyssey", Chekhov and many other books, creating an unspoken bond of kinship that becomes the touchstone by which he remembers his youth. When Hanna suddenly disappears, the boy is devastated. Several years later we find Michael, now a law student, attending the trial of several women accused of murder as concentration camp guards for the SS during the war. He is shocked to discover that Hanna is among them. Aware of information that could effect the outcome of the trial, Michael must deal not only with his conscience but also with his youthful memories as seen in the new light of Hanna's past. As a result, Michael becomes an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes) who has distanced himself from everyone in his life -- his family, his wife and his daughter. The past, forever present as a character in the story, continues its hold on this serious, damaged man and brings him yet another encounter with Hanna.

"The Reader" is that rare film that offers complicated, intelligently written characters along with riveting moral dilemmas without a cliche in sight. Even the courtroom scenes are far from typical as we're given a glimpse into the devious human actions that can influence any legal outcome. A superb cast (Fiennes, Winslet and Kross are all outstanding), a wonderful script and some surprising plot twists that have more to do with human behavior than incident make this one of my favorite movies of the year.

Things to love about this movie: The exceptionally sensual way in which the intimate scenes are handled; the written word is obviously a thing of beauty to the filmmakers and books have the power to change lives for these characters; the very personal approach taken to issues of The Holocaust and its aftermath
Things to hate about this movie: Some rather cheesy hair and make-up used to age Winslet
Pleasant surprises: Bruno Ganz makes an apperance as Michael's law professor
Unpleasant surprises: Not a one

Monday, December 29, 2008

Movie Review - Slumdog Millionaire

A gritty fable wrapped in kinetic energy, director Danny Boyle's latest movie is appearing on many year end "Best Of 2008" lists with high praise for its "uplifting" message. As usual, I'm not quite in line with the majority and have to confess that I really liked this movie but didn't love it. Dev Patel stars as orphaned teenager Jamal Malik, a hard luck kid from the slums of Mumbai who winds up on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" with the chance to win 20 million rupees while reuniting with Latika the girl he loves (Freida Pinto). As the film flashes back through Jamal's troubled life of struggle and deprivation, we come to understand exactly how and why he knows the answers to the show's questions as he draws ever closer to the big prize. Played by three different actors throughout the arc of his life, Jamal is an endearing character who encounters much of the worst life has to offer, from orphans who are deliberately blinded in order to earn more as beggars to the stunningly destitute living conditions endured by many of the city's citizens. The greatest of cynics would want him to triumph.

Boyle's outstanding way of combining street with wonderland makes the movie work despite some typical plot developments such as Jamal's brother Salim (played by Madhur Mittal as the older version) becoming involved with local drug lords and gang members or the slightly lame love story between Jamal and Latika. Since it's the love story that's supposed to drive Jamal's actions, my lack of enthusiasm for the film mostly comes down to disappointment with the romance which is poorly developed and feels more like a plot device than a true connection. Still, it's a treat to watch the many talented members of the cast bring this unlikely story to life and, as always, a pleasure to see Boyle's movie magic sending out sparks.

Things to love about this movie: Patel's marvelous performance; a fun musical number over the ending credits (don't leave too early); an authentic sense of place
Things to hate about this movie: The intense scrutiny used by authorities to determine if Jamal is somehow cheating on the show -- Would a game show contestant really be tortured? Seems a bit melodramatic to me; wonderful actor Irrfan Khan (from "A Mighty Heart") is wasted on the thankless role of a torturing police inspector; Latika seems to grow lighter skinned as the movie progresses and ends up looking like the typical model
Pleasant surprises: Jamal's less than ecstatic reaction to his increasing good fortune as he progresses through the game show; parts of the film are extremely disturbing and as far from a fairy tale as you can go
Unpleasant surprises: Boyle partially spoils the exhilarating effect of his signature rushing-through crowded-streets style by using it a few times too many

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movie Review - The Day The Earth Stood Still

It's no secret that I will go see any movie starring Keanu Reeves, so even though I'm not a big sci-fi fan and never saw the original version of this movie I trotted off to the theater for a glimpse of one of my favorite actors and hunks. I'm sure there have been timely adjustments to the story from the 1950s version but I have no idea what they might be so I approached the remake as a novice.

When a huge, glowing spheric globe lands in a park the people of Earth are confronted with a gigantic iron robot named Gort and a handsome, endearing alien known as Klaatu (played by Reeves). As usual, the military is called out while chaos breaks loose with the pathetic earthlings trying to disarm an entity (Gort) who can render all of their tanks and weapons useless with a single light ray. Klaatu is captured and studied by a host of scientists and government officials, including Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson and the Secretary of State Regina Jackson (an unconvincing Kathy Bates). There's alien/human bonding between Klaatu, Benson and Benson's stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), desperate preparation for a massive alien attack and a lethal swarm of winged metallic insects who are sent out to destroy human kind in order to save the earth (a strange but interesting concept).

I'm far from the ultimate authority on special f/x, but they seem to be mixed throughout the movie, fluctuating from fun and effective to rather silly. Judging from pictures I've seen from the original film, Gort's appearance has barely been altered for this new version which strikes me as clunky in this age of sophisticated computer enhanced tools. Still, I enjoyed the movie for what it was despite a weak script and some pointless dialogue about the true meaning of it all. It's fair to say, of course, that I probably wouldn't have been quite as entertained had someone other than Keanu been starring as Klaatu.

Things to love about this movie: Its timely and badly needed message about humans changing their destructive ways towards Mother Earth; Keanu in a suit; Jaden Smith's adorable face (even if he's playing a somewhat annoying little kid)
Things to hate about this movie: A pretty lame script; not enough interaction between Klaatu and Benson
Pleasant surprises: Fun seeing those self destructive earthlings bite the dust (must be the misanthrope in me)
Unpleasant surprises: An unsatisfying ending that feels abrupt and pointless

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Movie Review - Cadillac Records

Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Little Walter, Chuck Berry. Their names and music may be familiar to some, but it's the stars who followed in the footsteps of these pioneers who were the recipients of the lion's share of fortune and fame. Everyone from Elvis to The Rolling Stones owes a debt to the ground breaking discoveries of Leonard Chess. For this reason alone it's especially gratifying to see the long overdue homage to these original greats provided by this film. Although the movie is a standard biopic in some ways, it uncovers new territory simply by focusing on the neglected stories of some of music's most talented performers.

The amazing Jeffrey Wright stars as Muddy Waters, a poor sharecropper who plays a mean guitar and sings a mean blues song. When he comes to the attention of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a producer for Chess Records on the southside of Chicago, his music begins to be heard by a larger audience. Chess has a knack for uncovering new talent and brings the music of not only Muddy Waters but also James (Beyonce Knowles), Berry (Mos Def), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Little Walter (Columbus Short) to the public as well as the outstanding songwriting of the great Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). Along the way there are the usual problems: money (either too much or too little of it), drugs, legal and romantic entanglements, artistic temperament. The constant inspiration for both Chess and the audience is the glorious music that came out of this time and place. The performances are excellent across the board with all actors doing their own singing in a very impressive way. Although it's no surprise that Beyonce can belt out a tune with the best, she shows outstanding skill and courage in taking on such James classics as "At Last" and "All I Could Do Was Cry" and making them work. Mos Def has a lot of fun with Berry and Wright proves to be a good blues singer. Writer/Director Darnell Martin brings vibrancy, authenticity and smokin' entertainment to the screen while giving some of our truly American musical greats their due.

Things to love about this movie: Seeing Jeffrey Wright take center stage in a sexy, full bodied performance; the great music; some pretty cool cadillac cars; Mos Def proving once again that he's an exciting actor in addition to a terrific musician
Things to hate about this movie: Would have liked to see more about the personal life and background of Etta James included in the movie aside from her heroin addiction (and Beyonce seems to have the acting chops to do it)
Pleasant surprises: The movie actually focuses on the musicians instead of the white man who discovered them
Unpleasant surprises: Lovely Gabrielle Union is given a rather thankless role as the hopelessly devoted love of Muddy Waters; some unflattering camera angles on Adrien Brody during romantic scenes

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review - Milk

Director extraordinaire Gus Van Sant brings light to one of the darkest chapters in San Francisco history in this perfect pairing of film and filmmaker. Since I was living in San Francisco at the time this story takes place and personally remember the events depicted in the movie, my response to "Milk" is a particularly emotional one.

A great character in a city full of characters, Harvey Milk once again comes alive in an astounding performance by the ultimate chameleon actor Sean Penn, giving us a full blooded portrait of the guy who made history by becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Milk arrives in the city by the bay as a transplanted New Yorker, opens a small camera shop in the Castro District of the city and proceeds to make neighborhood connections as well as create a safe haven for the many gay citizens who are closeted or discriminated against. Eventually Milk becomes known as The Mayor of Castro Street and begins a long series of attempts to win public office, finally succeeding to become a City Supervisor. Lovers (Scott Smith played by James Franco, Jack Lira played by Diego Luna), supporters (Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, Alison Pill as campaign manager Anne Kronenberg) and fellow politicians (Victor Garber portrays Mayor George Moscone and Josh Brolin is City Supervisor Dan White) all figure into the mix. The reconfiguration of the city's districts and a vile proposition by John Briggs to prevent gays from teaching in public schools align to bring Milk into the forefront. A lethal dynamic develops between the outrageous Milk and the ex-cop turned fellow supervisor White as they try to negotiate their clashing approaches to governing the city. We know where this will end, of course, but the way the film delineates the growing antagonism between the two makes the outcome extremely disturbing just the same.

Filmed on location in San Francisco, the period is well captured by Van Sant and his superb cast. Documentary footage of Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the murders of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk are chilling, along with actual scenes from the candlelight vigil that took place following the assassinations. It was also interesting to see clips of the infamous Anita Bryant making heinous, homophobic remarks which have branded her name as synonymous with rampant prejudice forever. Thankfully Milk isn't shown in a noble light but becomes all the more compelling with his ambitions and complicated personal relationships present along with his courage. Here is an American hero who truly gave his all to further the cause of equality for every citizen. I'm sure somewhere Harvey must be smiling.

Things to love about this movie: Classic Van Sant touches, such as the ever expanding photos of contacts that fill the screen as Cleve Jones works a phone bank; James Franco's performance (sexy and refreshingly free of "gay" mannerisms); photos at the end of the film showing the real people on whom the movie characterizations are based; the always phenomenal Sean Penn disappearing once again, this time into the flamboyant character of Milk
Things to hate about this movie: The fact that 30 years later the same battles fought by Harvey Milk are still being waged today
Pleasant surprises: Josh Brolin brings surprising nuance to Dan White (the "villain" of the story); gay men are allowed to kiss on screen (what a concept)
Unpleasant surprises: Would have liked to see a little more of San Francisco as a character in the film; Jack Lira is shown in an unflattering, one dimensional way despite Luna's good performance

Monday, December 8, 2008

Movie Review - I've Loved You So Long

Despite its rather lame title, this French film is anything but ordinary and a welcome relief from the unusually tired slate of movies we've been subjected to so far this year. In true European style, the story and characters unfold slowly, almost as though we're being given an insider's look into the every day lives of a family. Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Juliette Fontaine, recently released from a 15 year prison term and invited to live in her younger sister's household. Since there is a large age gap between the two sisters, they are almost strangers despite some happy memories of their early life together. Younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), whose concern and love for Juliette are tempered by her husband Luc's (Serge Hazanavicius) misgivings about the new arrangement, discovers that the road to adjustment for Juliette and the new family unit will be a long and unexpectedly arduous one as everyone struggles with such issues as finding a job for Juliette and trusting her to babysit Lea's two young daughters. A revelation about Juliette's crime towards the end of the movie clarifies several things about her mysterious character, although we have already become so involved with her life that the additional piece of the puzzle isn't really crucial.

Scott Thomas is in fine form as the prickly Juliette along with Zylberstein who gives an outstanding performance as Lea. A couple of interesting men enter Juliette's life, including her parole office (Frederic Pierrot) and Michel, a kind, gentlemanly friend of Lea's whose non-aggressive approach allows Juliette to open up. She also shares a special bond with Luc's father (Jean-Claude Arnaud) who has lost the power of speech due to a stroke. The drama here is on a human scale and proves to be much more powerful than any super hero or arch villain could ever conjure.

Things to love about this movie: The understated, nice romance between Juliette and Michel; time is taken to reveal these characters thoughtfully--even supporting characters are given fascinating quirks; a touching piano duet between the sisters
Things to hate about this movie: It reminds me of just how formulaic and shallow many American movies have become
Pleasant surprises: Lea's older daughter, delightfully called P'tit Lyse and played by Lise Segur, is everything child actors should be but seldom are
Unpleasant surprises: The unexpected death of one of the most appealing characters (a real surprise)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Movie Review - Australia

Big, overblown and rowdy as the country of its title, this movie is not, alas, nearly as much fun as that country. Baz Luhrmann has an over the top, almost operatic style of filmmaking that usually works like gangbusters for me, but this time it misfires in an odd attempt at homage to old timers like "The African Queen" and "Gone With the Wind". There's an unlikely romance between a priggish, uptight woman and a rough and rugged guy, not exactly a fresh concept. The couple in question are Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and a herder known simply as The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Lady Ashley arrives in Australia in search of her wayward husband, who turns up dead with the ranch house and property Faraway Downs which he owned thus falling to his widow, the befuddled city slicker Lady Ashley. At first she wants to sell the place, but the discovery that her cattle are being stolen, along with a land takeover plot by local power hungry barons, brings her a resolve to hold onto the property. A secondary, and much more appealing storyline involves a young half-caste Aboriginal boy named Nullah (the beautiful Brandon Walters) and his grandfather King George (Aboriginal actor supreme David Gulpilil), a magic man who is teaching the young boy the ways of his ancestors despite Lady Sarah's growing attachment to the kid.

As in several recent movies I've seen, the secondary storyline is the most rewarding part of the film. It's admirable that Luhrmann has chosen to devote generous portions of this movie to the Aboriginal culture, and the mystical side of the native beliefs shines through very effectively. The practice of kidnapping half caste children to train them in the ways of the white man has previously been covered in more detail in another, much betterAustralian film, "Rabbit Proof Fence." Luhrmann adds some nice touches, such as a sweet rendition of "Over the Rainbow" (with its double meaning of the land of Oz) between Lady Ashley and Nullah, then proceeds to overuse it to the point of ruination. As a director, he doesn't know when to stop and elicits a poor performance from Kidman. He's also thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, with the bombing of Darwin during WWII, way too many barroom brawls, a lengthy cattle drive across rough terrain and aforesaid romance. Done right, it might have constituted an epic. As it turns out, it merely constitutes a movie full of loose ends, none of which really work with the exception of the Aboriginal strands.

Things to love in this movie: The storyline involving Nulla and King George; glorious costumes by Baz Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin; those fabulous Australian landscapes; a breathtaking scene involving a cattle stampede; looking at Hugh Jackman (though his character is not that enthralling); seeing the inimitable David Gulpilil on screen
Things to hate in this movie: Cardboard characters and disappointing script; way too long (and feels like it); the causal killing of a kangaroo
Pleasant surprises: A nice ending
Unpleasant surprises: Very little chemistry between the two stars, particularly in the romantic scenes; not enough sense of the country of its title; the fact that there are no surprises

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie Review - Twilight

In a way, vampire lovers are akin to addicts of all kinds (alcoholics, druggies, coffee fiends). There may be certain types of our chosen addiction which we prefer or especially enjoy, which really get us where we want to be, but at the end of the day we'd take almost anything that even vaguely resembles what we love. So even if "Twilight" may be vampires lite, I'll take it. I've never really met a vampire I didn't like, and Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson) happens to be a type of vampire I haven't seen before. Not having read the hugely popular book series on which this movie is based, I had no expectations or preconceived ideas of what the lead vampire in the story should be. Unlike vampires of the past, from classics like the great Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula to the hunky, rock & roll vampires in "The Lost Boys", Edward is a rather reserved, if intense, vampire who saves the human female of his dreams (Kristen Stewart as Bella Swann) instead of destroying her.

Moving to the rainy northwest from sunny Tucson, Bella is out of place living with her dad, the local police chief (Billy Burke) and attending a new school. One of the more intriguing aspects of her new life is a family of vampires, the Cullens, including "father" Dr. Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), "mother" Esme (Elizabeth Reaser), Alice (Ashley Greene), Jasper (Jackson Rathbone), Emmet (Kellan Lutz) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed). And then there's Edward. Of course there's an immediate attraction between the awkward Bella and the gorgeous, stand-offish Edward which becomes the main theme of the story. The romance between the human girl and the 17 year old vampire (who's actually been around for over a hundred years) is complicted by the fact that Edward mustn't ever give in to his overwhelming desire to chomp down on Bella. A subplot involves 3 "bad" vampires (Cam Gigandet, Edi Gathegi and Rachelle Lefevre) who begin ripping up the citizens of the small town, and one of them develops a fixation on Bella. A childhood friend of Bella's, a Quileute Indian boy named Jacob (played by darling Taylor Lautner), also shows up to warn Bella about the mysterious Cullens while cultivating his own sweet crush on her. There are some exciting scenes, including a game of vampire baseball during a thunderstorm and a clash of vampires when the Cullens must face off with the evil vampires in order to protect Bella. This isn't the best vampire movie I've ever seen by any means, but it's entertaining enough and, despite my reluctance to admit it, I'm actually thinking about going to see it again. Guess the teenage girl in me isn't quite dead after all.

Things to love about this movie: A very cool soundtrack that perfectly enhances scenes in the movie; terrific cast of cute newcomers who bring a fresh, interesting take to the vampire myth; a marvelous scene where Edward flies Bella up to the treetops for a stunning look at the northwest countryside
Things to hate about this movie: That overdone, white faced, red lipped, pouffed hair styling for Edward (he'd be much sexier without it); the Cullens consider themselves "vegetarians" because they only kill animals -- that's an insult!
Pleasant surprises: Edward manages to act like a teenager instead of a suave, mesmerizing vampire
Unpleasant surprises: Could have used more passion in the "romantic" scenes; when Edward reveals to Bella how he actually appears in sunlight, the cheesy F/X are a bit of a let down

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movie Review - Changeling

Viewing the trailer for this movie, I was uncertain whether to see it or not, but a Clint Eastwood directed film, along with an Angelina Jolie performance, is always worth checking out. Jolie stars as Christine Collins in a true story about a missing boy, a corrupt police force and a ranch of horrors in 1928 Los Angeles. Working as a phone operator manager, Christine is a single mom who must leave her young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) at home when she's called in to work on a weekend, only to find him gone when she returns. The frantic mother scours the neighborhood but is forced to wait 24 hours before officially reporting the kid as missing. Unfortunately for Christine, the LAPD has recently suffered several public relations fiascos, including charges of violent behavior toward citizens, so a collision course is set up between a police department desperate for good press and a devastated mother who only wants the return of her beloved son. The boy is quickly recovered by the LAPD, but the anticipated joy of a reunion with Walter evaporates when the kid who shows up is a complete stranger to Christine. Despite her insistence that this boy is not her missing son, Christine is persuaded to take him into her home anyway in order to avoid yet another public embarrassment for the police force. The extent to which this hapless woman is punished, including incarceration in a mental hospital, for merely trying to recover her son (while confronting the LAPD) becomes the focus of the film. An additional storyline involving a deserted ranch full of empty chicken coops and dark secrets may hold the answer to what happened to Walter.

Although this movie isn't up there with the best of Eastwood's films, there are many things to like about it. The casting is perfect right down to the smallest roles with supporting players such as Michael Kelly (Detective Lester Ybarra), Devon Conti (the wrong boy returned to Christine), Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott, resident of the ranch), John Malkovich (a local activist minister who provides aid to Christine) and Amy Ryan (a fellow "prisoner" in the mental hospital) contributing outstanding performances. The period details are impeccable, along with a nice, understated score (also from Eastwood) plus the chance for Angelina to show that she's more than just the mother of millions of kids. She's an actress of exceptional skill, but there were times when her character became a bit weepy and melodramatically emotional. One of my problems was that the secondary storyline about the ranch and what happened there was more interesting than the main focus concerning the child's disappearance.

Things to love about this movie: Period touches such as phone operator managers on roller skates and old time street cars; a stand out performance from young Eddie Alderson as a pivotal character who shows up in connection with the ranch
Things to hate about this movie: The LAPD characters, with the exception of Detective Ybarra, were villainous to the point of caricature; scenes in the mental hospital were also overdone with lots of scenery chewing plus every cliche in the book
Pleasant surprises: Some really scary stuff featuring a maniac with cleavers and axes
Unpleasant surprises: The courtroom scenes in which Christine's predicament was brought to light were a bit anticlimactic; a scene where a back lot with a backdrop is clearly standing in for 1920/1930 Vancouver

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Movie Review - Rock N Rolla

Welcome back Guy Ritchie! Here's to real live, heart pumping, pulse jumping, pedal to the medal filmmaking. Nobody does it better. From the opening beats to the sweet mano e mano dance over the closing credits, this movie is pure Guy at his best. It's style, off beat humor, deadbeat characters, all with a kick this writer/director seems to deliver effortlessly. Taking one of the oldest plots around --- small and big time tough guys scrambling for riches -- Ritchie turns the tired story on its head, filling it with fresh, unpredictable predicaments, crazy characters and plenty of nasty humor. In fact, Ritchie himself has made a career out of retelling this same story, or something very similar, over and over again, yet every time it's as though it's never been told quite this way before. How does he do it? Impossible to say, but it's a mystery I'd rather simply enjoy than solve.

We're back in London, the new London of multi-million dollar development deals, slick Russian operators, crooked construction scams and a rapidly changing cityscape of modern chrome and steel where underworld types roam and clash. Tom Wilkinson plays Lenny, a ruthless gangster who strikes a deal with Uri (Karel Roden), a Russian guy with bottomless pockets and a "lucky" painting that becomes an unexpectedly crucial part of the action. In order to complete construction on the huge complex he wants to build, Uri must go through Lenny to bypass the usual city requirements to the tune of $7 million. Of course along the way everything not only goes awry but a motley assortment of fortune hunters comes out of the woodwork to chase the pot of cash, including a couple of lowlife pals named One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) who have a knack for messing up almost everything they touch, a sexy financial advisor known as Stella (Thandie Newton) playing both ends against the middle, and drugged out, supposedly deceased rock n roller Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) who stumbles on a valuable piece of the puzzle. Add to the mix two club operators (played by Ludacris and Jeremy Piven) trying to locate their "dead" rock singer Quid before all their clubs get shut down, plus a gay punk called Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) who's got a thing for One Two. Details of the story can't come close to doing justice to this free-for-all of a film though, so it's rather pointless to even try. It must be seen to be appreciated -- this movie is a real rock n rolla.

Things to love about this movie: As usual from Ritchie, an awesome soundtrack that makes scene after scene pop; Mark Strong's buttoned down, elegant performance as Lenny's lieutenant Archie; Ritchie's hilarious treatment of the awkward situation between One Two and Handsome Bob; Gerard Butler's dancing scene (well, actually two dancing scenes)
Things to hate about this movie: We had to wait so long for it to come along
Pleasant surprises: Thandie Newton (normally not one of my favorite actresses) is perfectly cast as the conniving Stella and gives a nice twist to the femme fatale role; the suggestion of a sequel at the movie's end (is it genuine or a joke?); there's pretty much one fun surprise after another
Unpleasant surprises: I can't help feeling relieved that Guy Ritchie will no longer be involved with Madonna so he can return to being the fantastic filmmaker I've missed

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Movie Review - Pride and Glory

Like movies about CIA espionage in the Middle East, stories about corrupt cops seem to be everywhere. It's unfortunate when these genres become so prevalent because it dilutes their effectiveness and becomes a challenge for anything new to be brought to the table. "Pride and Glory", starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell, is the latest entry in this ever growing litany. Once again, we have a multi-generational family of New York cops mixed up in nefarious dealings with drug runners, shake-downs for money and even the murders of other cops. Norton plays Ray Tierney, who is assigned by his father (Jon Voight) to the task force investigating the slaughter of 4 policemen. Though Ray is reluctant to take on the assignment, he digs in with determination and intelligence only to uncover an increasingly disturbing trail of corruption that may lead to a member of his own family. Ray's brother Francis (Noah Emmerich), who is in charge of the unit in which the murdered police officers worked, and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), also a police officer, are just two of the pieces in this complicated puzzle. Also figuring into the action are a multitude of various out of control cops-on-the-take (John Ortiz is a stand-out) and Francis' cancer stricken wife (Jennifer Ehle). As Ray moves closer to exposing the truth, loyalties to family clash with duty and honor on the job, making for an explosive finale.

It took me a little while to sort out the players and figure out exactly what was involved with the scenario of the murdered cops, especially since much of the action is fast and brutal. In fact, here's a warning: This movie contains several intensely violent scenes, so those who are bothered by such things (I am not) might want to avoid seeing it, or at least be forewarned. It's always a pleasure to see such a stellar cast turn in their usual excellent work, even if the storyline doesn't really offer anything too fresh. Along with some truly disturbing scenes and situations there are also a few too many shoot-outs and beatings that don't add anything vital. Perhaps I wouldn't have such a mixed reaction to this movie if it didn't involve such an overused premise. While it's certainly worth seeing, it lacks the spark that makes other films in this genre (such as "L.A. Confidential", "Prince of the City", "Serpico") classics.

Things to love about this movie: Terrific performances from everyone; good use of sound effects (the rumbling of the overhead trains never seemed so ominous as here)
Things to hate about this movie: One too many catastrophic problems (does Francis' wife need to by dying of cancer on top of everything else he has to deal with?)
Pleasant surprises: There is an explanation given for the nasty scar on Ray's face; Francis' tender scenes with his wife
Unpleasant surprises: An unforgettable scene featuring Jimmy, a baby and a hot iron (though unpleasant, it was highly effective)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review - The Secret Life of Bees

A house painted pink and a bevy of beautiful, talented actresses still can't make this movie fly for me. Despite its good intentions and marvelous cast, I couldn't get past the unfortunate fact that the story revolves around a brat of a main character who seems to be poison to everyone whose path she crosses. Yes, I'm referring to Dakota Fanning as Lily. I have to admit that this actress has always annoyed me, so perhaps I'm not objective enough to rate any performance she gives, but in this case it's also the character who bugs. Lily is the victim of a horrifying family situation and is obviously set up for our sympathy. At 4 years old she accidentally shoots and kills her own mother. Then life with her angry, redneck father (an almost unrecognizable Paul Bettany) becomes wretched, with dear old dad shoving, shouting and forcing the girl to kneel in a pile of grits as punishment. At 14 Lily runs away, accompanied by the family housekeeper Rosaleen (the wonderful Jennifer Hudson), who has been beaten by one of the locals. After recognizing a label on a jar of honey as one of her mother's keepsakes, Lily heads for a place called Tiburon where the honey is made. Here she and Rosaleen encounter a house full of sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). These cultured, supportive women provide a safe haven as Lily learns beekeeping along with parts of her mother's secret past.

There are certainly many things to like in this movie, particularly the strong performances by Jennifer Hudson and Sophie Okonedo, but an overload of nobility weighs down the character of August despite Queen Latifah's obvious talent. Alicia Keys does an excellent job switching gears from singer to actress, and there's good chemistry between her and Nate Parker as her boyfriend Neil. Paul Bettany chews the scenery as Lily's nasty father, but there's not much he can do with this one dimensional character. The injustices of the times (1964) are well represented as they impact the every day lives of the characters, an aspect I wish had been further explored in place of Lily's relentless perils.

Things to love about this movie: The wailing wall May has set up in the yard; a light hearted scene of singing and dancing in the kitchen; the black Mary statue from which the women gain strength and courage
Things to hate about this movie: The perpetually whining and clueless Lily involves herself in situations that prove dangerous to others when she should know better
Pleasant surprises: Delightful performance by young actor Tristan Wilds playing what could have been a throwaway character
Unpleasant surprises: A capitulation to tradition that seems out of character for one of the sisters; Jennifer Hudson should have been given more screen time and Dakota Fanning less

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Movie Review - Rachel Getting Married

Longing to attend a dysfunctional wedding? If so, "Rachel Getting Married" may be right up your alley. The new film from director Jonathan Demme uses a documentary style to give us the story of a recovering drug addict returning home for the nuptials of her sister. The prodigal daughter Kym (a beautiful performance by Anne Hathaway) is checked out of rehab to attend the event where her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) will marry the wonderful Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) while surrounded by loving members of both families. There's merry making, music, toasts, silly games, family meals, inclement weather, bridesmaids' outfits, heart-to-heart talks. In short, all the usual stuff that wedding celebrations are made of. And then there's Kym. She's a walking, smoking nightmare as she proceeds to create awkward moments and angry clashes, especially with her sister Rachel. It's clear from the outset that old wounds have never healed on the part of wayward Kym or her family members, including a desperately ingratiating father (Bill Irwin) and a somewhat distant mother (Debra Winger). The plot turns on a devastating family event from the past in which Kym and her drug addiction played a major role.

Writer Jenny Lumet has a good ear for dialogue, especially in the 12-step meetings which Kym attends and the numerous arguments between the two sisters. We're given a true sense of this family with all its conflicts and tragedies, although Kym remains the central focus and most interesting character for me. Hathaway rips up the screen with an amazing portrayal of a chronically debilitated young woman who's part drama queen, part little lost lamb. DeWitt also turns in an excellent performance, along with Mather Zickel as a wedding attendee who happens to show up in Kym's 12-step group as well. The movie meanders a bit with a few too many shouting matches, but it's an impressive first screenplay that stays with you after leaving the theater.

Things to love about this movie: Anne Hathaways' extraordinary performance; the day-by-day struggle of a former addict to cope with problems is handled with unusual subtlety; no sentimentality and only a little melodrama in dealing with the family tragedy
Things to hate about this movie: The perpetually playing band that serenades too many scenes and becomes thoroughly annoying
Pleasant surprises: Although Rachel is marrying a black man, there's little made of the racial divide with members of both families seamlessly joining forces; a strikingly brutal confrontation between Kym and her mother; a beautiful blue elephant wedding cake
Unpleasant surprises: Sidney is a marvelous character who isn't given nearly enough screen time

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movie Review - W.

Oliver Stone continues his political biopic tradition with "W.", a surprisingly even handed presentation of the life and times of George W. Bush featuring a bravura performance by Josh Brolin in the title role and Stone's biting commentary about our current president. It must have been tempting for Stone to merely poke fun at our easily spoofed leader, but he takes the more complicated, and ultimately effective, path of dissecting the life of a good ole Texas boy who became one of the most powerful people in the world with disastrous consequences for all. We pick up the W. story with his early days at Yale where his hard drinking, mediocre academic results and responsibility shirking ways put him into increasing conflict with his father. W. hops from one job to another, racks up a DUI arrest, impreganates his girlfriend while his father manages to take care of the multiple screw-ups. There's minimal coverage of W.'s marriage to Laura and his election to Governor of Texas with a little more screen time devoted to his recovery from alcoholism as a born again Christian.

An excellent cast (James Cromwell as the senior Bush, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld) offers completely believable characterizations of these well known individuals that go beyond mere imitation. There's excellent use of music with such songs as "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "What a Wonderful World" highlighting scenes of destruction and the especially appropriate Bob Dylan song "With God On Our Side" playing over the ending credits. The movie goes on a little too long and doesn't really catch fire like some of Stone's movies can do, but there's much to admire about this attempt to capture a man who is ultimately unfathomable.

Things to love about this movie: Josh Brolin's amazing portrayal of W.; a horrifying strategy session on the invasion of Iraq that conjures images of "Dr. Strangelove"
Things to hate about this movie: Stone over uses the baseball metaphor for W.'s longing to be admired and applauded as well as over emphasizing W.'s conflicts with his father
Pleasant surprises: The humor in the movie was of a deeper, angrier sort than the trailer led me to assume; not nearly as bombastic as some of Stone's other movies
Unpleasant surprises: Not much new material surfaces; Stone cuts W. a little too much slack for my taste

Monday, October 13, 2008

Movie Review - Body of Lies

As thrillers involving complicated events in the Middle East seem to be proliferating, it becomes more and more confusing to keep up with the convoluted plots of these movies and "Body of Lies" is no exception. I spent the first half hour wondering what was going on, but as things progressed I began to figure out some of the story and enjoy its intricate action. With a dynamic duo like Russell Crowe and Leonardo Dicaprio leading the way, even the CIA becomes more exciting than it should be. Crowe plays Ed Hoffman and Dicaprio is Roger Ferris, both CIA partners involved in a risky operation attempting to apprehend a terrorist cell based in Jordan. Hoffman gives orders to Ferris from Langley while dropping his kids off at school or watching his daughter's soccer game. Ferris has the dangerous task of operating covertly on the streets of Jordan and working with the Chief of Jordanian intelligence, Hani Salaam (a riveting performance by the debonair Mark Strong) who may or may not be trustworthy. Ferris chooses to adopt the approach of the locals when it comes to investigating terrorists, but Hoffman continually forges ahead with plans that thwart Ferris' efforts and set up multiple disasters.

It's always a joy to watch such outstanding actors as Crowe and Dicaprio, even if they are only sharing the screen a couple of times during the movie. There were some interesting comments on the fumbling way in which the CIA attempts to infiltrate covert terrorist operations without understanding the culture or political climate of the countries in which they're operating. There's also an effective romance between Dicaprio and a local nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). Perhaps I'm becoming a bit weary of these terrorist/CIA intrigues, because I wasn't able to become completely involved in this movie despite its many good qualities and excellent cast. It's missing some of the usual Ridley Scott punch, although the ambiguous ending and intense character dynamics make up for a less than ideal script.

Things to love about this movie: Good performances; a terrific cultural conflict scene at the dinner table when Dicaprio is introduced to Farahani's sister
Things to hate about this movie: Very confusing beginning set-up with a hard to follow plot; too many standard scenes typical of this genre (torture, bombings, etc.)
Pleasant surprises: Dicaprio is down and dirty in a fully adult role; some truly surprising plot developments
Unpleasant surprises: Crowe and Dicaprio have very few scenes together; Crowe isn't given much screen time or enough of a character to play; William Monahan's script is not up to his usual high standard

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Movie Review - Appaloosa

This mix of old school/new school western features many of the staples of the genre while spicing it up with dashes of modern humor and even a bit of social comment. Stars Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen make a delightful team as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two friends hired to take control of the town of Appaloosa from renegade rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Bragg and his men have overrun the town, killing the marshall and a couple of deputies in cold blood, taking what they want from the saloon and shops without paying and generally making life terrifying for the locals. When Virgil becomes the new de facto marshall with Everett as his deputy, an increasingly dangerous stand-off develops between Bragg and the clean-up team. Complicating matters is the arrival of widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) who immediately forms an attachment to Virgil but may have a hidden agenda.

There are some standard elements of the classic western here which somehow never get tired: a shoot-out in the street, a train hold-up (with a twist), a confrontation in a saloon, men on horseback tracking outlaws through gorgeous, scrub brush countryside. Director/co-writer Harris has added some refreshing new features including two main characters who are truly men of few words yet many ideas (which they occasionally discuss in their own succinct way), some comments on the difficult position of women in the old west and an exchange between white man and Indian warrior that is quietly but effectively nontraditional. Mortensen in particular creates a wonderful character in Everett Hitch -- I'd love to see him in another movie and learn more about him. Irons makes an excellent, slimy villain but Zellweger doesn't bring enough to the pivotal role of the widow. The movie was a bit slow in places, although its leisurely pace suited its equally laid back setting and there was still enough action to keep things moving.

Things to love about this movie: The wry and complicated relationship between Virgil and Everett; understated humor; great chemistry between Harris and Mortensen; I just fell in love with Everett's darling pack mule (yes, it's a fetish of mine, I love mules)
Things to hate about this movie: During a surprise raid by a group of local natives, a pack horse is casually shot to prevent escape and theft (I say shoot the people!)
Pleasant surprises: Cowboys actually traveling at a reasonable pace through brush and streams instead of running full tilt in every scene
Unpleasant surprise: Although the town is named Appaloosa, there's not an appaloosa horse to be found anywhere

Monday, September 29, 2008

Movie Review - The Duchess

This period potboiler, featuring gorgeous costumes and settings, an excellent cast and events "based on a true story" is entertaining as a somewhat guilty pleasure. The story revolves around Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), a Princess Diana type of figure trapped in a loveless marriage but adored by the public due to her style and social graces. While many points are made about the terribly powerless position in which the women of that time found themselves, the real entertainment of watching this movie is in the visuals and soap opera plot line of indiscretions, manipulations and child custody with some amazing hats and beautiful castles thrown in for good measure. Georgiana starts off as a fun loving young woman but is soon married off to the wealthy Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) who proves to be an uptight, controlling horror of a husband. Add a live-in mistress for the Duke (the wonderful Hayley Atwell from "Brideshead Revisited") plus relentless pressure to give birth to a son and the Duchess' life quickly becomes a nightmare, saved only by handsome young aspiring prime minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Even the attraction between the doomed Duchess and the aspiring politician, however, comes with a high price. Although the Duchess turns to her mother (Charlotte Rampling) for advice and comfort, it's clear she is expected to fulfill her wifely duties despite her unbearable predicament.

Although Keira Knightley is not one of my favorite actresses, she's fine here, with a few too many weepy moments and an uncanny knack for carrying enormous hairpieces and hats atop her skinny neck. Ralph Fiennes manages to bring a vague sense of humanity to his heinous character as we become aware that the Duke is trapped in the same stifling social system that makes his wife miserable. There's good chemistry between Knightley and Cooper, but things became a little tiresome for me when the beleagured Duchess suffers one blow after another. An actress of more skill might have brought in other aspects of this character's plight while Knightley seems to rely on switching between tears and a stony faced stoicism that doesn't make the Duchess interesting enough to sustain her considerable screen time. Atwell does a much better job with the lesser role of the Duke's mistress, who comes off as a truly compromised and ambitious yet warm, strong person.

Things to love about this movie: The complicated relationship between the Duchess and the Duke's mistress; those dresses! those hats! those castles!
Things to hate about this movie: A little too much drama; the typical ending where we're told exactly what happened to each character further down the road
Pleasant surprises: The Duchess' hair actually catches on fire in one scene (it's sad and funny all at once); Fiennes plays a priggish jerk to perfection (complete with paunch and an annoying ducklike walk)
Unpleasant surprises: Would have liked to see the men (Cooper and Fiennes) given more screen time

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Movie Review - Towelhead

Writer/director Alan Ball (of "American Beauty" and "Six Feet Under" fame) has never been my cup of tea and his new movie "Towelhead" has, unfortunately, reinforced my opinion. I was actually unaware that he was the creator of this interesting, uneven but ultimately unsatisfying exploration of the cultural divide as experienced by a young Middle Eastern girl living in Houston, Texas. It was not what I'd expected from viewing the trailer, which doesn't necessarily need to be a bad thing but in this case turned out to be just that. The film's relentless emphasis on this teenage girl's budding sexuality and the middle aged men who find it irresistably fascinating took center stage, rather than an exploration of racial and cultural themes. When Ball's name came up on the credits as the writer/director, the mystery was solved. This movie, for me, was almost like "American Beauty" with a Texas accent. Yikes.

Beautiful Jasira (wonderfully played by Summer Bishil) is a 13-year-old who looks older (and sexier) than her years. When her mother (Maria Bello) outsts her from the house due to an inappropriate interaction with the mother's boyfriend, Jasira finds herself in Houston with her strict, traditional Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi in a terrific performance). Surrounded by tract housing, suburban whitebread neighbors and racist classmates the upset girl struggles to adjust while becoming acutely aware of her awakening adolescent sexuality. Next door neighbor Aaron Eckhart, a married, good old boy reservist, complicates life when he becomes attracted to Jasira. The always excellent Toni Collette rounds out the cast as a somewhat meddling but well meaning neighbor who tries to protect Jasira from the many harmful influences in her life. There's also a thoughtful boyfriend (Eugene Jones) in the picture for this popular young girl who seems to attract every male within range. The Gulf War acts as a convenient backdrop for some of the cultural conflicts experienced by both Jasira and her father.

As in "American Beauty", Ball emphasizes the irresponsible behavior of the adults and the sexual behavior of the teenagers. My problem with "Towelhead" is its almost prurient fascination with Jasira's sexuality. Perhaps this film merely suffers in comparison with another earlier, similarly themed movie, the brilliant "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (from Todd Solondz) which, for me, is the gold standard of portraying female adolescent hell. Ball's characters never really catch fire, acting more as representations of themes than actual living, breathing people.

Things to love about this movie: Some excellent, biting comments on cultural disparities; good performances across the board (especially by Macdissi and Bishil)
Things to hate about this movie: The birth of a baby ends the movie on what's obviously supposed to be an inspiring note (ho-hum, how trite); an animal bites the dust (which always bothers me when it's used for an inconsequential reason); Ball's obsession with sexy young girls and middle aged guys (a la Spacey and Suvari from "American Beauty" and now this movie)
Pleasant surprises: Eckhart makes a really good creep
Unpleasant surprises: Way too many scenes involving the shaving of Jasira's pubic hair (yes, you heard me right)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Movie Review - Burn After Reading

Call it Coen Brothers lite, but their latest offering is not only a big departure from Oscar winning "No Country for Old Men" it's tons of silly fun. These guys love movies and it shows. That signature black humor at which the brothers excel is in fine form here, especially when paired with a stellar cast (including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton) and lots of lame brain characters who manage to keep us entertained while we're laughing at their sheer stupidity. The rather wacky plot revolves around a disk containing the memoirs of former CIA operative Osborne Cox (Malkovich) and the determination of Linda Litzke (McDormand) to obtain the funds for several cosmetic surgeries she believes are vital to her job and piece of mind. When the disk is found at HardBodies, a gym where Litzke and her partner in crime Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) work, a ridiculous series of events is put into play. Feldheimer is convinced that the owner of the disk will gladly offer a reward for its return while Litzke is after higher stakes in order to cover the cost of her surgeries. This lame tag team proceeds to create all sorts of trouble for themselves and others as they contact everyone from Cox himself to the Russian consulate in a bumbling effort to cash in on the disk.

In addition to the disk plot there's a convoluted illicit sex triangle involving Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), an impossibly paranoid federal marshall, Cox and Cox's cold blooded wife Katie (Swinton) that veers from keystone cops to darkly sinister. Although Pitt is a stand out in the cast, everyone seems to be energized by working for the Coens and there's not a disappointing performance in the lot. As usual, even the smaller roles are outstanding, especially Richard Jenkins as a HardBodies co-worker and J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior Officer who blithely orders bodies burned and money spent while trying to keep track of the whole crazy mess. While this isn't one of the truly "out there" Coen movies, it's got enough lunatic characters, twists and events to keep the audience not only laughing but waiting for the next wild twist in the road.

Things to love about this movie: Brad Pitt's hilarious performance as Chad is a highlight of the movie; typically outstanding Coen Brothers script; some great fun is poked at online dating
Things to hate about this movie: It went on a little long and lagged a bit towards the end
Pleasant surprises: John Malkovich proves to be an excellent comic actor; Harry's invention/contraption in the basement
Unpleasant surprises: A major character is unexpectedly killed part way through the movie

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Movie Review - Traitor

If you like your thrillers to be thought provoking, unpredictable and well acted, this movie is worth checking out. Though there's plenty of action, "Traitor" includes consideration of moral choices, religious beliefs and even an FBI agent who majored in Arabic studies. The amazing Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a devout Muslin who may or may not be working both sides of the fence as a Special Operations agent for the U.S. government and an explosives expert assisting a terrorist cell with a series of international bombings. Horn, who grew up in Sudan, witnessed his father killed by a car bombing as a child, setting up a conflict between what he does for a living and the ethical ambiguities he feels as a Muslim. FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) track Horn's mysterious activities in an attempt to apprehend him or the group of terrorists with which he has become involved before additional bombings can be carried out. It's a typical plot line, but what makes "Traitor" a bit more interesting is its main character. We see Horn becoming increasingly conscience stricken by the results of his actions, some of which are unintentional but nevertheless highly disturbing to this surprisingly ethical man. Clayton is also more complicated than your average FBI agent. He not only reads Arabic and knows the Koran but espouses a more humane approach towards interrogation of prisoners. At one point he reveals his interest in Arabic studies to fellow agent Archer, along with the fact that he comes from a line of ministers. As the pressure intensifies with a major terrorist operation planned for the U.S., agents and terrorists alike hurtle towards a showdown.

Acting is first rate with Cheadle and Pearce both bringing much more to their characters than the customary action film usually provides. Said Taghmaoui does a good job as Omar, Horn's co-conspirator and friend, with Jeff Daniels and Archie Punjabi contributing more excellent performances. The beginning of the film was a little confusing for me, but once things got rolling this unlikely mix of thriller and character study proved to be very entertaining.

Things to love about this movie: A few nifty surprises; an international setting with scenes in Marsielles, London and Morocco; unusually nuanced writing for an action movie; good performances by Cheadle and Pearce; potent message about the responsibility of one's actions
Things to hate about this movie: A few cookie cutter terrorist operatives
Pleasant surprises: Car chases and shoot-outs kept to a minimum; getting to know FBI agent Clayton more than expected (and Pearce nails a subtle Southern accent)
Unpleasant surprises: A somewhat vague, drop off ending

Friday, September 5, 2008

Movie Review - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It's Barcelona, it's Javier Bardem, it's....Woody Allen? Yes, the angstmeister has switched locales again with a rather typical Allen film that happens to be set in Spain this time. It appears his London period has already ended. The good news is that beautiful Barcelona perfectly suits Allen's tale of two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson as Cristina and Rebecca Hall as Vicky) who get tangled up with artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) and his crazy ex-wife Maria Elena(Penelope Cruz). The bad news is the movie is just as talky and relationship-driven as most of Allen's other movies. If those are the things you like about Woody Allen movies, dig in and enjoy. If, like me, those are the things that have always bugged you about Woody Allen movies, concentrate on the wonderful performers he's gathered for this film. Though I was bothered by the endless discussions , it's hard to be too restless when you have four fascinating actors to watch.

Best friends Vicky and Cristina arrive in Barcelona for a summer's stay with a friend (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband (Kevin Dunn). The marked differences between the friends are immediately apparent as more traditional Vicky takes calls from her fiancee back in the States while free spirit Cristina happily accepts Juan Antonio's invitation to join him for a few days of fun in the town of Oviedo. Vicky, despite initial skepticism about taking off to an unknown place with a man she's just met, is persuaded to accompany Cristina and Juan Antonio. The getaway proves to be a turning point for all involved. A tricky menage a trois of sorts develops and is later further complicated by the reappearance of Maria Elena in Juan Antonio's life following a botched suicide attempt. Cruz makes the neurotic Maria Elena a vibrant focal point as she moves in with Juan Antonio and Cristina, creating an interesting, provocative chemistry that somehow balances all three of these restless characters. Vicky, meanwhile, marries her fiancee but harbors a secret longing for the love she felt for Juan Antonio.

I found Allen's examination of conventional versus alternative relationships and commitment versus passion appealing, but the Vicky character was a bit too whiny for me to warm up to, especially when paired with her thoroughly boring fiancee (Chris Messina). There's an entertaining sophistication to the movie that allows the audience to become involved with these self obsessed people despite their many flaws. Not as much fun as MATCH POINT, not as dreadful as SCOOP, I guess VCB falls into the category of Woody Allen movies I like in spite of myself.

Things to love about this movie: Cool glimpses of Barcelona; Javier Bardem ('nuff said); Cristina's marvelous photography
Things to hate about this movie: The terribly annoying narration (it's not the words I objected to but the actual voice of the narrator); a silly scene of a stormy plane ride
Pleasant surprises: The much discussed love scene between Scarlett and Penelope is barely a blip on the radar; customary Allen character gestures and speech patterns were kept to a minimum
Unpleasant surprises: Would have liked a little more Javier (not only in the love scenes but in the film in general)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Movie Review - Brideshead Revisited

Like Charles Ryder, the narrator and man in the middle of "Brideshead Revisited", I fell completely under the spell of Julia and Sebastian Flyte, Lady Marchmain and their luxurious, doomed lives. I've never forgotten the amazing TV mini-series from the '80s, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, so I approached this movie re-make with a certain amount of trepidation. Luckily, director Julian Jarrold and his marvelous cast have created a new and different "Brideshead" every bit as enthralling as the original despite its condensed length. One of the principal reasons the movie works for me is the performance by Ben Whishaw as my favorite character, the mesmerizing Sebastian Flyte, who draws artist Charles (Matthew Goode) into the web of the family with dire consequences for all. This is not the vivacious, slightly over-the-top Sebastian from the mini-series but a more piquant, melancholy version whose trusty teddy bear Aloysius seems more of a security blanket here than a quirky prop as he did in the TV series. I admired this actor's brave choices in creating a new character for the pivotal Sebastian. Goode's portrayal of Charles, more of a reactive character but crucial to the complicated relationships in the story, is also excellent. The entire cast, in fact, is impressive, from Emma Thompson as the family matriarch to Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain and Greta Scaachi as his Italian mistress. Hayley Atwell portrays Sebastian's sister Julia with a refreshingly earthy sauciness that leaves the vapid Keira Knightley (actress du jour of recent period pieces) in the dust.

Issues of religion and the relentless restrictions of family ties are brought to the forefront as Charles, an admitted atheist, struggles with the Marchmain family's devout Catholicism which serves as a catalyst for the downfall of many characters in the film. As a delicate and complicated menage a trois develops between Charles, Julia and Sebastian, it's impossible to tell who's corrupting who. Although the movie version is approximately two hours (compared to 16 hours in the mini-series), nothing feels neglected from the original. Watching this dysfunctional family slowly implode amidst their glorious surroundings still holds a strong fascination and this very British story remains a riveting entertainment.

Things to love about this movie: Gorgeous scenes of Venice and the Brideshead estate; excellent performances by all; a slyly romantic scene where Charles and Sebastian describe the dozens of wines they're tasting; lovely, stylish period costumes; Charles spotting Julia across a crowded room in the beginning of the movie
Things to hate about this movie: Charles' horrid father Edward (played by Patrick Malahide)
Pleasant surprises: The attraction between Charles and Sebastian is more overtly depicted in the movie
Unpleasant surprises: The delightful character Anthony Blanche (played by Joseph Beattie) was reduced to only a couple of scenes despite figuring more prominently in the TV series

Monday, July 28, 2008

Movie Review - Mamma Mia!

Is anything as silly, cheesy or more fun than an ABBA song? Well, yes -- a whole movie full of ABBA songs! "Mamma Mia!" shows why you just can't get those stupid songs out of your head, and goes one better by demonstrating the pure joy of watching a stellar cast romp through "Dancing Queen", "Waterloo" and many more ABBA favorites on a lovely Greek isle while wearing outlandish costumes. It doesn't get any better. As a big fan of the exhilarating stage show, I couldn't wait to see "Mamma Mia!" on the big screen. While there's nothing like a live stage performance, the movie comes pretty close, giving us all the energy of the original show with a few delightfully campy production numbers thrown in for good measure. The divine Meryl Streep brings her incredible talent to a completely different kind of role as Donna, who operates a funky, run down little hotel on a Greek island where she's raised a daughter Sophie (wonderful new discovery Amanda Seyfried). As Sophie's wedding day approaches, the girl's fondest wish is to know the identity of her father, a secret her mother has never divulged. After discovering her mother's diary from 20 years ago, Sophie learns that 3 different men are all on the list as a potential father. Unbeknownst to her fiercely independent mother, she invites all 3 men to the wedding, setting up a comedy of errors and a rather bizarre, but entertaining, reunion between her mother and the former beaus. Adding to the merriment is the arrival of Donna's best friends and former singing group members Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) who can still shake it with the best. The 3 potential fathers (Pierce Brosnan as Sam, Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgard as Bill) are clueless upon arrival in Greece but gradually begin to catch on to what's afoot.

The movie starts out a bit frenetically but soon settles into a breezy series of ABBA song numbers that fit effortlessly into the plot. Dominic Cooper (as Sophie's future husband Sky) acquits himself fairly well in the singing department (looking mighty good doing it too), and even though the other male voices in the movie are not quite up to snuff, it hardly matters when you're talking great chemistry (especially between Streep and Brosnan) or comical moments at which the guys all excel. Director Phyllida Lloyd's directing style is slightly rushed, but her outstanding cast goes with it. If the audience is left a bit breathless, all the better when you're in the thrall of such wildly entertaining fun.

Things to love about this movie: Meryl Streep's marvelous performance & singing voice; ditto for Amanda Seyfried; the always delightful Christine Baranksi and Julie Walter's equally terrific and funny turn; cutie pie Philip Michael (featured in a great version of "Does Your Mother Know"); middle aged women actually having fun and getting screen time; middle aged men still sexy without any young chickies in tow; plenty of no-holds-barred singing & dancing
Things to hate about this movie: Not a one
Pleasant surprises: Almost as much fun as the stage play
Unpleasant surprises: Could have used a little more of young hottie Dominic Cooper

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Movie Review - Tell No One

An eclectic mix of Harlan Coben hardboiled action and French sophistication, "Tell No One" proves once again that even American thrillers sound better in French. Francois Cluzet stars as pediatrician Alexandre Beck who's spent the last 8 years mourning the death of his beloved wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze). The film opens with a disturbing flashback scene where Margot is kidnapped, Alexandre is beaten and the audience is perfectly set up for a long, convoluted but nevertheless riveting story which keeps us, along with Beck, trying to unravel the mysterious events. When Margot's body is later found in a wooded area, it's assumed her death is the work of a serial killer who's already claimed several victims in a similar fashion. The local police, however, have always suspected that Beck is the man responsible for his wife's death. Moving to present day, the bodies of two men who were possibly related to Margot's kidnapping/death are found, causing the police to reopen the case. Meanwhile, through a series of strange email messages, Beck slowly begins to believe that perhaps his wife isn't actually dead after all.

There's a colorful cast of characters, including Beck's friend Helene (a wonderful performance by Kristen Scott-Thomas whose French is impeccable), the thuggish Bruno (Gilles Lellouche) whose hemophiliac son was treated by Beck, and a scary team of kidnappers/killers. Added to the mix are plenty of innovative action sequences along with cool scenes of Paris not usually included on the tourist routes. Director Guillaume Canet keeps the story moving without sacrificing style or substance. We feel Beck's pain over the loss of his wife as well as the frustration of his friends that he's unable to move forward with his life. For some reason Cluzet annoyed me in the lead role, although his performance was fine. An interesting soundtrack managed to work wonders at times and become distracting at others with a U2 song ("With or Without You") featured to terrific effect in one crucial scene. I was left slightly confused by the wrap-up explanations of what really happened, but even though the film went on a bit too long there wasn't a dull moment.

Things to love about this movie: Nail biter scene of Beck trying to cross a crowded beltway on foot; Beck's wonderful Briard dog Nina; romantic opening with Beck and Margot swiftly followed by her horrifying abduction and murder
Things to hate about this movie: A little too long; plot developments became too convoluted and slightly confusing towards the end
Pleasant surprises: Scenes of Beck at work -- it's rare to see movie characters actually doing their job and revealed some interesting aspects of this man; photographs of a bruised, battered Margot turn up and twist the plot in a fascinating way
Unpleasant surprises: One member of the kidnapping team seems to specialize in painfully manipulating internal organs by hand to obtain information from her victims (yikes)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Movie Review - The Dark Knight

It's all about Heath Ledger. And yes, all the hype surrounding his "final" performance is true. (This probably isn't really his last, since footage already shot for the Terry Gilliam movie "Doctor Parnassus" will supposedly include Heath's scenes.) He's absolutely mesmerizing and mind blowing as the most maniacal, amusing Joker yet with his own lethal chaos theory. In fact, for me, when Heath wasn't on screen I kept wishing he'd come back into frame. He's that good. Maybe it's because I got myself too built up about "The Dark Knight", what with all the critical acclaim and anticipation, but I was actually slightly disappointed in the movie as a whole. Let it be said that I'm sick to death of super heroes -- enough already! I know it's summer, but if I see one more comic book movie I may give up on Hollywood until the fall. Batman is my favorite comic book leading man, and Christian Bale is my favorite Batman, but 2-1/2 hours of explosions and car chases is still a little bit too much for me. Batman seems to be saving the day in an increasingly brutal fashion which is beginning to disturb me. Perhaps that's the point.

We return to Gotham City with its citizens at the mercy of rampant crime, mob activity and, of course, the diabolical stunts of The Joker. Despite his wish to hang up the bat suit forever, rich playboy Bruce Wayne gets pulled back into action as Batman, facing his most daunting enemy in a cat and mouse game of monumental proportions. It seems the very soul of Gotham City is at stake. Returning from "Batman Begins" are the wonderful Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Bruce's trusty man servant Alfred and Morgan Freeman as sophisticated weapons expert Lucius Fox. There are two newcomers to the cast: Aaron Eckhart as crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes (a character previously played by Katie Holmes). And then there's Heath, who simply burns up the screen. For me, everyone else in the movie just pales by comparison, although I really enjoyed Gary Oldman's subtle portrayal as the besieged Gordon.

There are some thrilling action sequences and chilling scenes in the movie. One particularly effective stunt is a standoff orchestrated by The Joker in which two ferry boats are both loaded with explosives and filled with terrified people (one with convicts, the other with "regular" citizens). The passengers of both ferries are given the option of activating the detonator to blow up the other boat before their own vessel can be destroyed. Good stuff. I only wish writer/director Christopher Nolan had used more of those situations and fewer pyrotechnics. I know I'm sure to be in the minority opinion here, but I wanted to fall in love with "The Dark Knight" and ended up merely liking it.

Things to love about this movie: Heath Ledger as The Joker; some excellent twists and turns that were truly surprising; dazzling special f/x
Things to hate about this movie: It makes me long for a sequel, with Heath as The Joker, that can never be; a little too long
Pleasant surprises: Gary Oldman is given more screen time as Lt. Gordon
Unpleasant surprises: Although I'm a big fan of Aaron Eckhart, he seemed slightly miscast and not as effective as he should have been as Harvey "Two Face" Dent; the always terrific Maggie Gyllenhaal is given little to do; Dent's disfigured face make-up looked really fake

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Movie Review - Brick Lane

Cultural identity, family dynamics and the power of memory all play a part in this movie adaptation of the wonderful book by Monica Ali. Beautiful Tannishtha Chatterjee stars as Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who is married off at a young age to an older husband (Satish Kaushik) in East London. She leaves her beloved sister behind to begin life in a depressing flat where her routine consists of grocery shopping, removing her husband's coat as he returns from work and raising two daughters. Life picks up considerably when Nazneen meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), the handsome boy who picks up the sewing work she does on the side. There's an instant attraction between the almost housebound, traditional Nazneen and the westernized, politically active Karim. Their scenes together are thrilling and sensual as we see Nazneen's dazzling smile for the first time. Letters from her sister, who's living a more carefree life back in Bangladesh, also cheer her up and bring back the allure of her homeland. After the attacks on 9/11 a frightening racial and religious backlash against Muslims disturbs Nazneen's East London neighborhood, with Karim organizing a local resistance group.

Director Sarah Gavron does an excellent job of creating subtle, complicated portrayals and relationships. All of the delightful characters I remember from the book are here: Nazneen's rebellious, sarcastic older daughter Shahana (an excellent performance by Naeema Begum), the various neighbors who share the tenement-like building where Nazneen's family lives, even the East London neighborhood itself which is well captured right down to the family's stifling little apartment space. We're left uncertain of exactly where life will lead Nazneen, yet exhilarated by her brave, somewhat surprising choices.

Things to love about this movie: Remains very faithful to the book on which it's based; exquisite scenes of nature in India during Nazneem's childhood; satisfying ending; a touching, bittersweet segment where the family takes a day trip to London proper for viewing the changing of the guard and having a picnic in the park
Things to hate about this movie: I had a bit of trouble understanding some of the dialogue due to a combination of British and Indian accents
Pleasant surprises: The perfect casting of Satish Kaushik as Chanu, Nazneem's husband (exactly as I'd pictured him in the book and a wonderful performance)
Unpleasant surprises: Nazneen's younger daughter Bibi is little more than a cipher in the movie

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Movie Review - The Happening

Love them or hate them, M. Night Shymalan movies always manage to generate strong reactions from critics and audiences, which is one of the reasons I look forward to them in a world of cookie cutter horror films and action hero stories. I can honestly say I've never met a Shymalan movie I didn't like in one way or another (yes, I even enjoyed parts of "Lady in the Water"). His latest, "The Happening" is no exception. In fact, this one deserves a place among the best of his movies with its disturbing mix of fear, paranoia and good old fashioned scariness as the northeastern portion of the United States suddenly experiences a terrifying, mysterious phenomenon in which people become disoriented and then commit suicide with whatever happens to be at hand. At first it's assumed that terrorist attacks are responsible for the rapidly mounting death toll as incidents begin popping up in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Princeton and then smaller and smaller towns throughout the area. Gradually it becomes clear that some sort of natural phenomenon is responsible for the devastation. The opening scene in Central Park is a zinger, setting us up nicely for some serious fright as it's quickly followed by a very disturbing incident where construction workers begin walking off the top of a building and crashing to the ground.

Mark Wahlberg stars as an appealing every man, a science teacher namd Elliot, who leaves Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as hundreds flee the city in a blind panic after hearing about the rapid spread of the phenomenon. As usual, one of Shymalan's slyest and most effective weapons is his ability to make his characters human beings with whom the audience can become involved. Elliot and Alma are a somewhat bickering couple whose marriage is shaky. One of the people who gives the group a ride after their train leaves them in the middle of nowhere (Filbert, Pennsylvania) is a nursery owner (Frank Collison) who goes on at length about his choice of hot dogs as the perfect road trip food. Betty Buckley makes a very scary appearance as a woman whose isolated farmhouse becomes a brief haven for Elliot, Alma and Jess. There's plenty of good, dark humor throughout the movie, and we need it to balance out the increasingly grim reality the story dishes out. The musical score is also used to great effect, although there were a couple of times when it was a bit overdone for my taste. It's difficult to go into much detail without giving away plot points, but suffice it to say that Shymalan is back on his game in a big way. Like the best horror movies, "The Happening" leaves us with plenty to think about and one more scare up its sleeve.

Things to love about this movie: Shymalan has managed to recreate that group paranoia feeling that Hitchcock used so well in "The Birds"; the ecological message of the film is awesome; Mark Wahlberg gives the typical "leading man" role some extra fun, as does Zooey Deschanel as "the wife"
Things to hate about this movie: Without revealing too much, an annoying event involving the couple (Elliot and Alma)
Pleasant surprises: The ending I wanted to see (though maybe not a big surprise or plot twist, it had a nice punch just the same)
Unpleasant surprises: The always great John Leguizamo could have used more screen time

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Movie Review - The Fall

Falling for "The Fall": Sorry for the pun, but there's no other way to describe the dizzying, heart wrenching effect this film delivered for me. Yes, the visuals in "The Fall" are truly dazzling, which was to be expected from director Tarsem who specializes in creating unforgettable sights and colors on screen. What was unexpected, though, was the emotional punch the movie produced with the sweet, magical yet sad connection between an injured stuntman named Roy (the gorgeous Lee Pace) and a little girl named Alexandria (adorable Catinca Untaru). The two characters meet in a Los Angeles hospital during the 1920s where Alexandria is recuperating from a broken arm suffered in a fall while picking oranges and Roy is trying to deal with paralysis of his legs after a fall during a stunt. Roy is angry and suicidal, Alexandria is curious and full of imagination so its a match made in heaven. From his bed Roy begins telling Alexandria the epic tale of 5 mythical warriors, all of whom have been horribly wronged by the terrible Lord Odious and seek revenge. Like the little girl, we are mesmerized by the story and fascinated by its 5 wildly divergent characters: Luigi, an explosives expert (Robin Smith), the brow-stroking Indian (Jeetu Verma), the escaped slave Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), a guy named Darwin (Leo Bill) who travels with a cute monkey companion named Wallace and the Bandit who changes form from Alexandria's dead father (Emil Hostina) to the storyteller himself (Pace) as Alexandria imagines the heroes of the story while it progresses. The characters in the stuntman's story are enthralling, but the real hook is the way in which Alexandria manages to bring Roy back from the dead, at least for awhile. We may wish for that fairytale wrap-up, but as Roy so eloquently states, "There are no happy endings with me" (a statement that made me love him all the more).

Lee Pace is very impressive as Roy, fluctuating from kindness to rage while looking mighty good doing it. I'm not usually a fan of child actors, but Untaru completely stole my heart, playing Alexandria as an old soul without a hint of preciousness or pretense. All five of the actors cast as the warriors in Roy's tale are excellent with faces and costumes that are storybook ready. This movie really made me cry, wonder, smile and simply marvel at the kind of magic I've been missing so badly during this lean season for film. Leaving the theater was like waking from a dream, blinking in the sunlight and wishing you could go back to sleep and dream it all over again.

Things to love about this movie: Mind blowing visuals; exciting locations (everywhere from India to Argentina to South Africa to China to Italy, etc.); the amazing Catinca Untaru; the beautiful "Blue City"; a thrilling underwater swim with an elephant
Things to hate about this movie: Darling little monkey Wallace is shot and killed (always a bummer for me as an animal lover)
Pleasant surprises: Good looking Lee Pace playing a very negative character; the strong, effective human element that was missing from Tarsem's previous film "The Cell"
Unpleasant surprises: No disclaimer about animal safety (hopefully only due to the fact that the film is not American produced and therefore the statement isn't required, but still bothersome)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Movie Review - Before the Rains

India is a country of endless fascination, so it was a pleasure to find it captured so beautifully by director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan in this exquisitely photographed movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the slightly soap opera tinged storyline and under developed characters who appear to be little more than stand-ins for the symbolism of white British subjugation in southern India during the 1930s. Linus Roache stars as Henry Moores, a British spice baron whose latest project is building a road through mountainous territory with the assistance of the local tribes. Henry's loyal and devoted Indian partner in this endeavor, the ill fated T.K. (played by Rahul Bose) straddles the two worlds of his own native customs and those of his white employer. Complicating the lives of both men is Henry's illicit affair with his Indian housekeeper, Sajani (the lovely Nandita Das) which risks the very lives of all involved (including T.K. who must keep the secret). When two local boys spot the lovers everything falls apart with tragic consequences.

Billed as a "Merchant Ivory" production, there's an authentic period feel and look to the movie that is reminiscent of that great Merchant Ivory tradition, but the romance between Henry and Sajani is given short shrift here without the benefit of establishing any real history or detail about their relationship. Sivan does a good job of presenting the cultural divide and keeps his characters true to themselves. Linus Roache, a good actor, does what he can with the role of Henry, but the character is somewhat of a cipher and didn't generate much sympathy or interest for me. Jennifer Ehle and Leopold Benedict are effective as Henry's visiting wife and son, although they too aren't very well developed in the story. T.K. is perhaps the best written character with his growing desperation to balance two incompatible cultures while witnessing the worst of both. Still, there was something missing for me, although I can't define just what.

Things to love about this movie: Exquisite scenes of India (filmed in Kerala); a beautiful rendezvous between Henry and Sajani by a waterfall; Sajani's explanation to Henry's son about the souls of those who die being transferred to dragonflies; Henry's gorgeous home; the wonderful faces of the Indian actors who have been perfectly cast by the director
Things to hate about this movie: A strangely indefinable lack of passion; a less than satisfying ending
Pleasant surprises: A tribal council trial that somehow works to give the audience insight into the local customs; a great elephant who actually works alongside the locals to help build the road
Unpleasant surprises: Henry's character is too cold to arouse much sympathy for his plight; not enough screen time devoted to the tragic Sajani

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Movie Review - Iron Man

Another Saturday, another comic book movie, another attempt to see a favorite performer at any cost. That's my situation for "Iron Man", the latest "super hero" action flick that happens to star one of my favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. So I once again find myself sitting through a big budget clunker, heavy on special f/x, head banger soundtrack and cartoon characters who manage to keep me mildly entertained while wondering if this is the true future of film. Yikes. The good news is this isn't just any old action hero we're talking about. Downey has somewhat of a character to play as rich playboy Tony Stark living large as head of a weapons manufacturing company with a loyal assistant Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), a loyal personal military pilot Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and a not so loyal second-in-command Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) to keep life humming along. Things change in a big way after Stark becomes a prisoner of war while visiting Afghanistan. Held captive by a group who plan to force him to build a weapon for them, Stark must use his considerable electronic skills to fashion an iron man suit of armor in order to escape from his captors. He returns to the States a transformed man, announcing, to the chagrin of Stane, that he is divesting his company of weapons. Of course he now secretly sets out to recreate a much more sophisticated, state of the art version of the crude iron suit to become the avenging "Iron Man", literally flying to spots around the world in order to destroy the weapons manufactured by his own company. At least the movie's heart is in the right place.

It's always a pleasure to watch Robert Downey Jr. and this movie is no exception. He's looking great, in top form and never disappoints me with his own brand of screen charisma. There's an excellent supporting cast as well, all of whom acquit themselves admirably. I especially liked the chemistry and dry, witty repartee between Downey and Paltrow. Also fun seeing Jeff Bridges again (it's been too long), almost unrecognizable with a bald head and white beard as the evil Stane, and Terrence Howard does a nice job with a somewhat throwaway character. Shaun Toub makes an impression in a small role as a man who assists Stark with the original iron suit during his captivity. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film strikes me as good of kind, but unfortunately it just isn't my kind. Judging from the boffo box office this movie has been generating there are many people who get a thrill watching a guy in an iron suit doing wheelies over the skies of Los Angeles. I'm just not one of them.

Things to love about this movie: Relationship and hint of romance between Downey & Paltrow
Things to hate about this movie: Why hide the fabulous face and form of a gifted actor behind a big old iron suit? Why is an American cheeseburger the only thing anyone seems to want after being held hostage?
Pleasant surprises: Favreau rewards the die hards (like me) who sit through all the end credits with a sequel teaser featuring Samuel L. Jackson
Unpleasant surprises: The heart saving hook-up Stark wears throughout most of the movie

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Movie Review - Speed Racer

A candy colored, roller coaster ride of a movie, "Speed Racer" is surprisingly entertaining in a kitschy way, with the formidable Wachowski Brothers keeping the action going and offering up a cool Japanese anime style that gives some badly needed kick to a very tired type of story. We have the "Racer" family: father Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), Speed (Emile Hirsch), Rex (Scott Porter), Spritle (Paulie Litt) and even a chimp named Chim Chim. Honorary family member Sparky (Kick Gurry) is a mechanic who works with Pops and wouldn't you know, the family business is race cars. Of course these aren't just any race cars. I was expecting endless NASCAR events, but the cars in this movie are more like one big video game. They can turn sideways, leap over other cars, shoot out weapons of destruction and operate on spinning loops of track that seem to go on forever. Even as a young boy Speed is obsessed with racing, idolizing his older brother Rex (who's already a racer) and shunning schoolwork for fantasies of taking to the track. When Rex is killed in a tragic race accident, the family is left stunned. Still, Speed is even more determined to compete, and win, the same race that killed his brother. The sleazy CEO of a big money, corporate race car company (Roger Allam, really hamming it up in a fun way) is equally determined to steal Speed away from his family's independent car operation so he can take advantage of the boy's racing talent. The appearance of a mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) complicates things for Speed as well. Is Racer X really his late brother Rex in disguise?

Although the movie goes on far too long, and has nothing to offer in the way of any surprises, character development or story originality, its style and marvelous cast make it work. It's hard for me to completely enjoy a movie in a theater full of kids, but I managed to go along for the ride just enough to feel my $6.75 bargain matinee money wasn't completely wasted. And I got my Emile Hirsch fix, albeit as a guilty pleasure.

Things to love about this movie: Its bold colors, exciting video game style and great cast
Things to hate about this movie: A few too many car races; a bit too long; too much of a kiddie movie with very simplistic story and even a big, blatant, literal message at the end
Pleasant surprises: There are very few surprises here, but I did like a scene showing several "bad guys" munching on meat and rubbing their faces in fur (a nice change of pace to a PETA supporter like myself)
Unpleasant surprises: Are you kidding? Of course not.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Movie Review - The Counterfeiters

Based on the true story of a Nazi counterfeiting operation (Operation Bernhard) run out of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during WWII, this Oscar winning German film, like many Holocaust stories, is a devastating experience but ultimately a very rewarding one. Karl Markovics stars as Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, a top notch Jewish counterfeiter operating in Berlin who finds himself suddenly struggling to survive as a prisoner of the Nazis. Sorowitsch is quickly transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp to oversee a covert counterfeiting scheme by which the Nazis hope to wreck havoc on the financial stability of the allies. A small group of prisoners, chosen for their specific skills relating to the task at hand, are charged with turning out counterfeit pounds and dollars in exchange for better living conditions (including "softer" beds, occasional showers and even a ping pong table). Among the group is idealistic Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), Kolya Karloff, a sweet young Russian from Odessa (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and the caring but powerless Dr. Klinger (August Zirner). When Burger decides to resist his role in aiding and abetting the success of the Nazis by deliberately sabotaging the counterfeiting operation, the group of prisoners begins to implode with a deadline of four weeks in which to come up with a reliable counterfeit U.S. dollar or face execution.

It's easy to see why this film was awarded Best Foreign Film of 2007 by the Academy. Although we've seen many Holocaust stories, there are several moral dilemmas addressed here for which easy answers cannot be found. Is it more important to resist complicity with evil at the risk of death, to save those individuals you can, or to simply survive at any cost? The characters slowly reveal themselves with many conflicted ideals and approaches to their situation, giving the audience a very personal view of the Holocaust's terrible toll. Performances and casting are excellent all around, including Devid Striesow as Herzog, a Nazi commander who believes he is doing his best to give these prisoners more "humane" treatment and Markovics in the lead role.

Things to love about this movie: No easy answers; subtle approach to the horrors of concentration camp life; a real sense of anger; outstanding performances
Things to hate about this movie: The fact that it's true is almost incomprehensible
Pleasant surprises: Many provocative issues that are not always included in Holocaust movies are raised here; a couple of cool scenes at Monte Carlo to begin and end the film
Unpleasant surprises: The cruel and senseless way in which one of the characters is disposed of by a Nazi solder

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Movie Review - Deception

This entertaining little mini-noir won't win any awards, but it managed to keep me interested and diverted from a rather nasty day so I'm not really complaining too much about its somewhat predictable plot and not-so-mysterious twists and turns. An appealing trio of top notch actors bring us the tale of nose-to-the-grindstone accountant Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) who inadvertently stumbles onto an exclusive sex club through his passing acquaintance with slick lawyer Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman). What follows is a series of encounters with high powered women (Natasha Henstridge, Maggie Q and Charlotte Rampling among them) who set up anonymous hotel trysts with the eager Jonathan. These ladies aren't prostitutes, and there are strict rules for the club members: no names, no conversation, no complications. When Jonathan spots the alluring Michelle Williams, first at a subway station and then as a surprise sex club contact, the 'no complications' rule goes right out the window. Although the smitten accountant knows only the first letter of his lady love's name ("S"), he falls more and more under her spell with disastrous results. They begin meeting at cozy dinners in Chinatown, gazing into each others' eyes and exchanging sweet little gifts. Then "S" goes missing from a hotel room, leaving a trace of blood on the bed and setting Jonathan on a desperate course of action to locate and save her before it's too late.

The movie doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a true noir thriller or a routine movie-of-the-week. It winds up being a little less than the first option and a little more than the second. It's obvious from the beginning that Bose is not what he seems, McQuarry is doomed as a gullible fool and "S" is bait for a rather convoluted set-up of McQuarry. What makes the story work, though, is good acting (for the most part) and the intriguing idea of the sex club. Watching the other predictable elements of the story made me wish the filmmakers had punched up the noir and toned down the false identities. McGregor seems a little miscast as the bumbling accountant, but Williams does an amazing job with her mesmerizing, slightly offbeat take on the classic femme fatale. Lisa Gay Hamilton offers an excellent performance as a detective and Charlotte Rampling brings a delightful wry amusement to her cameo appearance. The usually fabulous Jackman didn't quite work for me in the role of the wicked Bose, but I'll still watch him any day just because he's so gorgeous. Although there's nothing particularly original or even surprising about this movie, I enjoyed it for some reason. It's like a concoction that turns out to be a little more than the sum of its parts, tastier than expected and strangely satisfying despite its faults.

Things to love about this movie: Some cool scenes set in lovely Madrid and funky Chinatown; just enough noir to overcome its derivative plot; a couple of good twists that worked even if I did see them coming
Things to hate about this movie: A few too many VERY obvious clues
Pleasant surprises: Michelle Williams really rocks the classic, noir femme fatale; a brief song from the melodiously gifted Jackman
Unpleasant surprises: The usually charismatic Jackman could use a bit more pop in his performance