Friday, January 23, 2009

Movie Review - Defiance

This is an action packed type of Holocaust movie, not the sort we're more accustomed to and, for me, it's only partially successful. The previously untold true story of three Jewish brothers who managed to save 1200 lives during WWII by hiding out in the forests and fighting back against those who murdered their parents is interesting but flawed. The Bielski brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), devastated by the loss of their parents, are determined to survive and assist as many other Nazi victims as possible. Tuvia takes the lead to create a new community of forest dwellers who rebuild their shattered lives one step at a time, struggling to find food and create shelter for themselves as well as avoid confrontations and capture from SS soldiers. It's a harsh existence with plenty of sacrifices and constant fear of discovery. Zus, meanwhile, aligns himself with a group of Soviet soldiers while Asael marries a fellow forest dweller in a sweet, traditional ceremony held among the trees.

While I admire the efforts of director/co-screenwriter Edward Zwick to bring this hidden story to light, I had some problems with the approach as the movie periodically explodes into big action sequences which became a distraction from the more compelling tale of these survivors who managed to avoid the fate of so many others. The characters are not particularly well developed, including the three brothers who serve more as symbols than flesh and blood people. Performances are fine, but with so little to reveal about the personalities of the people who flee to the forest there's not much the actors can do to make an impression. Although I'm usually a fan of Daniel Craig, he seemed slightly miscast in this movie and does a lot of scowling, squinting and stoic suffering. Liev Schreiber manages to create somewhat of a character despite the script's drawbacks. This is an intense, earnest film with its power reduced by Zwick's propensity for pyrotechnics over humanity.

Things to love about this movie: A new approach to the typical Holocaust tale; Jamie Bell and Mia Wasikowska (who plays Chaya, the girl he marries while hiding out) make a nice couple with good screen chemistry; some provocative moral dilemmas involving revenge and fighting back against injustices
Things to hate about this movie: Despite the horrors of war and subsistence living there's always plenty of booze around and even a golden lit love scene between Tuvia and Lilka (another refugee from the city who serves as a convenient love interest); the same flock of geese seems to be wandering through far too many scenes
Pleasant surprises: Seeing photos of the real Bielski brothers and their lives following the war
Unpleasant surprises: Once again, animals in jeopardy (a horse and a dog are killed and eaten)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Movie Review - The Wrestler

It's raw, it's intense, it's brutal, it's Mickey Rourke back with a vengeance. Hallelujah honey, where have you been! From the opening titles with flyers and posters depicting the wrestling career of Randy "The Ram" Robinson to the final, devastating scene this movie gripped me in a headlock just like the weekend warriors it depicts might use. Even if his face is a minefield of scar tissue and his reputation disastrous, Rourke uncorks the performance of the year with his soft, sexy voice and blazing talent intact, full force, unbowed. The dude is simply riveting. The Ram is a broken down wrestler whose glory days are behind him, still showing up for matches in small venues where his earnings are always low while the punishment to his aging body is high. Locked out of the trailer he calls home due to overdue rent, he crashes in the back of his truck yet still manages to play The Ram for the kids in his trailer park. With long, bleached blonde hair, spandex pants and a buffed up physique that nevertheless shows the long, hard road he's traveled, Rourke brings an authority to this role that couldn't possibly be matched by any other actor.

The bright spots in The Ram's tough, lonely life are the possibility of a rematch with The Ayatollah (one of the most notorious wrestling opponents from his days of fame in the 80s), his interest in a local lap dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and the possiblity of a reunion with his alienated daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). When The Ram suffers a heart attack following a particularly brutal wrestling match, he's forced to retire from the ring but the price is high. It's heart breaking to watch this deeply flawed character trying to work the deli counter wearing a name badge that says Robin (his given name which he doesn't acknowledge) when all he really knows how to do, or wants to do, takes place in the wrestling arena. As he struggles to make a connection with Cassidy and Stephanie, physically recover from his heart attack and deal with losing the source of his only true identity, a grim outcome seems almost certain.

Things to love about this movie: Mickey Rourke in all his glory; The Ram's approach to working behind a deli counter; two dances --a dance between father and daughter in a deserted ballroom at the beach and Rourke's solo dance in a bar; the perfect ending; Marisa Tomei's tough and tender performance
Things to hate about this movie: Bad timing -- most unfortunate that Rourke's performance falls in the same year as Sean Penn's in "Milk". Though Rourke will probably not receive awards due to his Hollywood history, for me his is the best performance of the year (male or female).
Pleasant surprises: This movie actually made wrestling exciting to me, though I've never had any interest in it before.
Unpleasant surprises: During one match a staple gun is used (yikes)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Unsung Heroes - Favorite performances of 2008

The movie year 2008 has come to an end, and now that awards season is upon us I'd like to mention some of my favorite performances of the year, selected from those who are not being nominated, toasted and otherwise glorified but nevertheless rocked my movie going experience with their exceptional portrayals and magic moments on screen. Here they are, in no particular order. Got any of your own? If so, I'd love to hear about them.

David Strathairn -Officer Arnie Copeland in "My Blueberry Nights"
Bee Vang - Thao Lor in "Gran Torino"
Jeffrey Wright - Muddy Waters in "Cadillac Records" and Colin Powell in "W." (talk about range!)
James Franco - Scott Smith in "Milk"
Catinca Untaru - Alexandria in "The Fall"
Tannishtha Chatterjee - Nazneen Ahmed in "Brick Lane"
David Gulpilil (Prince George) and Brandon Walters (Nullah) - "Australia"
Christine Baranski - Tanya in "Mamma Mia"
Ben Whishaw - Sebastian Flyte in "Brideshead Revisited"
Toby Kebbell - Johnny Quid in "RocknRolla"
Eddie Alderson - Sanford Clark in "Changeling"
David Kross and Ralph Fiennes- both as Michael Berg in "The Reader"
Dev Patel - Jamal Malik in "Slumdog Millionaire"

Movie Review - Gran Torino

For those who consider 78 years old to be hopelessly over the hill, I give you Clint Eastwood. He has not only directed two movies that were released this year but plays the starring role in "Gran Torino" with the same vital intensity he had way back when Dirty Harry made him a household name. What a guy. Walt Kowalski, the crusty Korean War vet portrayed by Eastwood, is a perfect fit for the minimalist actor, who does plenty of snarling and squint eyed glaring but manages to bring much humanity to this character. Recently widowed, Kowalski lives with his dog Daisy in a rough neighborhood full of gangbangers and ethnic minorities, causing increasingly dangerous conflicts when the angry old man begins to confront the young toughs. A Hmong family living next door further complicates Kowalski's life when the son Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walt's pride and joy, a vintage Gran Torino, as part of a gang initiation. It's a matter of honor to the family for the boy to make amends, so he begins a testy apprenticeship with Kowalski which neither one of them really wants. Of course the relationship that develops proves transformational for both. Walt grows close to Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) as well, setting up an escalating war between the vet and the siblings' gun toting, bullying cousins who are pressuring Thao to join their gang.

An additional thorn in Kowalski's side is an annoying young priest (Christopher Carley) who was close with Walt's late wife and promised her he would persuade her husband to take confession after she is gone. There's an amusing antagonism between them that becomes more interesting as the movie goes on. Meanwhile Walt's meddling sons are convinced that their father would be better off in a home, a pretty pointless and unnecessary story line that detracts from the other, more involving issues. Although there are many somewhat predictable plot elements and a few too many stereotypes, what makes the film work is the subtle way its characters slowly move towards each other to create unlikely but touching alliances. Eastwood proves once again that he's anything but washed up.

Things to love about this movie: Walt's unspoken love for his dog Daisy, her wonderful smile and the way he confides in her; Bee Vang's sweet, amazing performance; some interesting facts about Hmong customs and background
Things to hate about this movie: A little heavy handed at times with a few too many racial jokes and epithets (we get it already); Kowalski's two sons are pretty much standard jerks who add little to the story
Pleasant surprises: Sue is a delightfully feisty female who brings welcome energy to the rundown surroundings; the dog isn't killed off for a change (always a cheap shot)
Unpleasant surprises: A scene featuring some young neighborhood guys harassing Sue feels like overkill as an excuse for Walt to once more save the day

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Movie Review - Frost/Nixon

Who knew a verbal sparring match between a British talk show host and a disgraced ex-U.S. President could be so mesmerizing. At times this movie almost feels like a thriller with its behind-the-scenes rush for evidence, secret conversations in the middle of the night and nail biter outcome. Those of us who remember the events of Watergate might not necessarily savor re-living them, but there's no denying that director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have put a fascinating new spin on those dark days. Documentary footage helps set the background for the Watergate break-in as well as Nixon's resignation and pardon by new President Gerald Ford. The real meat of this story, though, centers on two men: David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) as they prepare for a televised war of wills that turns out to be anything but predictable. Both parties assemble a team of researchers and advisers as though preparing for congressional hearings, which speaks volumes to the power of the tube. On Frost's side we have John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) along with Frost's latest lady love Caroline (Rebecca Hall) for moral support. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) leads the team for Nixon's side with even Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) along for the ride. Will the dilletante Frost manage to elicit an apology to the American people from the cagey Tricky Dick? Or will Nixon run roughshod over the underfunded talk show host who spends much of his time desperately trying to obtain funding for the show? It turns out to be a rollercoaster ride well worth taking for the audience, not only for its historical interest but also for the marvelous writing, directing and performances that make this film hum.

Frank Langella's astounding transformation into Richard Nixon, particularly in his vocal shadings and body language, are particularly impressive since he doesn't really physically resemble Nixon at all. Though Michael Sheen has the unenviable task of bringing David Frost to life, he does an excellent job and the two stars bring plenty of chemistry to their encounters. Director Ron Howard has avoided the sentimentality that sometimes ruin his films for me, making this strange subject matter impressively compelling with great editing and casting. I never saw the television interviews so I'm left wondering how accurately the movie captured the real events, but even without knowing such details "Frost/Nixon" stands on its own as a surprisingly entertaining film.

Things to love about this movie: Terrific supporting performances that really add to the action; Oliver Platt's hilarious Nixon impersonation in one scene
Things to hate about this movie: As usual, the lone female presence in the movie is a throwaway girlfriend who does little but smile and support her man (a waste of an appealing actress such as Rebecca Hall)
Pleasant surprises: Richard Nixon comes off as a multi-dimensional person; Kevin Bacon works as a military man (who knew); seeing Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon; John Birt running naked into the ocean (cheers)
Unpleasant surprises: Toby Jones is a bit boring as Swifty Lazar (even if he does look the part)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Movie Review - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

When I call this movie "Forrest Gump" for the new millenium, believe me it's no compliment. "Gump" is one of my most hated films of all time and now it's got "Button" for company. Sure enough, the same screenwriter, Eric Roth, is responsible for both of them. Somebody stop this guy. Based on a story by the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, the unlikely plot centers around a man (Benjamin Button) who is born just after WWI as an old man and ages backwards to become a small baby at the end of his life. It's a strange idea that doesn't really work for me in the first place, but the team of director David Fincher and actor Brad Pitt (starring as Button) has always been a winner in the past so I was hopeful that something intriguing might come of this clunky concept. There's a marvelous cast, settings all over the world, good production design and fabulous New Orleans for starters. So far, so good. There's also a writer (Roth) who reduces every character, situation and plot point into a sentimental homily and doesn't have a single original thought to offer for the movie's three hour running time. Perhaps if Button had been an interesting character the story might have worked, but he's an almost completely reactive cipher whose life experiences amount to a laundry list of cliches: experiencing his first sexual encounter at a house of prostitution, fighting an enemy submarine during WWII, having an affair with a married woman, hitting the bars with a sea captain, falling in love with a beautiful dancer, meeting up with the father who abandoned him as a child. Ho-hum.

It's shocking to me that a director of David Fincher's intensity and talent could turn out as maudlin a film as this one. The movie seems preoccupied with everyone's age to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps that is supposed to be the point of the story, but without credible, involving characters there's no reason to care about the issues of fate, death or love put forward by the filmmakers. This opus was obviously meant to be a grand, sprawling tale covering decades of change, full of colorful characters and unusual events with a touching hero who wins our hearts with his perseverance in the face of his odd circumstance. Unfortunately, for me, it is instead a movie that's much too long, packed with ideas I've already seen done so much better by any number of other writers, directors and actors and a leading character who's just plain boring. Even Brad Pitt can't save this film, although the exquisite Cate Blanchett manages to bring the badly underwritten character of Button's true love Daisy to life despite Roth's best efforts. Then there are the final insulting moments at the end where the audience is subjected to a glimpse of each character with a one word description (a dancer, an artist, blah blah blah) by Pitt's flat voiceover. If there is any momentous meaning to "Benjamin Button" it must be to remind the unsuspecting filmgoer to beware when the name of Eric Roth appears on the credits as screenwriter -- run for your life!

Things to love about this movie: The tryst between Button and the married woman (played by Tilda Swinton) at meetings in a deserted hotel works; scenes of New Orleans (though they are all too brief and rare); the woman who teaches Benjamin to play the piano
Things to hate about this movie: Some of the worst aging make-up I've ever seen; the tacky use of Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop for a character's deathbed scenes; three hours long and feels every minute of it; one mildly funny bit about a man being struck by lightning is repeated at least 5 times throughout the movie (once was enough); bad writing, bad directing, bad acting
Pleasant surprises: (This line is deliberately left blank)
Unpleasant surprises: I know it's shallow of me, but gorgeous Brad Pitt is covered by ugly, cheesy looking aging make-up for 75% of the movie; usually reliable actors such as Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond and Jared Harris are dreadful here (probably due in part to their badly written characters); this mess is actually nominated for 5 Golden Globe Awards; Button seems slightly simple (is it the "Forrest Gump" virus?)