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