Saturday, December 30, 2006

Rocky Balboa

An unexpected knockout of a movie. I went into this not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised at the solid script and acting. Sylvester Stallone sends Rocky out on a high note compared to the punch drunk last few Rocky films.

There is plenty of schmaltz in "Rocky Balboa" but Stallone finds a great balance between the nostalgia of Rocky's past and a contemporary storyline that actually works. The film is very well cast with Burt Young returning as Paulie to provide sage advice and comic relief and Geraldine Hughes as a possible new romance for Rocky. Her character, Marie, is a nice touch having been introduced way back in the first Rocky film. The film also co-stars Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's grown son and Antonio Tarver as his new opponent, Mason Dixon.

The story works because Stallone keeps it simple and fairly realistic. He takes the characters back to their roots and though there may be some unintentional laughs, you really start to believe in these characters again and care about their outcome.

Adrian would be so proud.

Happy Feet

I finally caught up to this popular animated holiday film. While I found the animation terrific and the dancing and singing penguins very cute, I also had issues with the film.

The majority of the story takes place in Antarctica and watching the penguins with just a snow and ice background (and a few underwater scenes) gets pretty tedious after a while. For small children, the snow leopard sequence can be pretty frightening and even though the elephant seals are not threatening, they too can look pretty scary to a small child.

Additionally, on one hand, the animation renders the animal life incredibly realistic but on the other hand, they all sing and dance (except the predators who behave naturally). This is a mixed messages for kids and it happens over and over again with animated animal movies. There is also a subplot about ecology and the food chain. Small children won't understand it and older children won't buy the fairy tale resolution. If you want to teach your children about real penguins, take them to an aquarium or zoo.

Robin Williams provides the voice of 2 characters and both accents are racial stereotypes. Besides Mr. Williams, vocal talent is provided by Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Britney Murphy and as the lead character, "Mumble", Elijah Wood. They all do a good job with their characters.

Possibly the filmmakers were inspired by "March of The Penguins" or maybe it was the Polar Bear/Penguin Coca Cola commercial ( I expected every bird to be holding a bottle by the film's end). Either way, I've had my fill of animated penguins.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

The latest film from director Guillermo del Toro is a masterpiece. A blend of fantasy mixed with harsh reality creates a perfect film experience. The acting is excellent, the visuals amazing, and the story, original and totally captivating. Traditionally, I don't publish my yearly Top 10 list until January 1st but right now, this is the film to beat.

The year is 1944 and the civil war in Spain has just ended. A remote army outpost in the forest, run by a sadistic Army captain, is the setting for the story. The captain's pregnant wife arrives with her daughter Ofelia (from a previous marriage) to live with him while she brings her pregnancy to term. Ofelia's real father has died and she doesn't look forward to her new life until she discovers what she believes to be a fairy, and an old Labyrinth behind the building where they live.

The captain spends his days searching the forest for lingering rebels still fighting the war. Ofelia spends her days in a fantasy world of fauns and fairies. The magic of del Toro's story lies in the blending of the two worlds. Has Ofelia discovered a different existence within the labyrinth or is it of her own creation to escape her dark reality?

The art direction and cinematography are stunning. The fantasy sequences are beautiful as well as frightening. The captain's actions against the rebels are brutal and violent. This fairy tale of a film is not meant for children. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles but much of the story is visual and words aren't even necessary. This is a film not to be missed. It's simply remarkable. And if you do enjoy it (as I hope you will), rent del Toro's earlier work, "The Devil's Backbone", an excellent film as well which explores similar themes.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Children of Men

This is an intelligent but bleak vision of the future. Women are infertile and the human race faces extinction in a matter of years. The story takes place in and around London and the country is in chaos. All immigrants have been labeled illegal and are rounded up and placed in refugee camps. A rebel group, calling itself "The Fishes" is fighting back against the government and there are frequent bombings and firefights. The city is in ruins. Julianne Moore is one of the rebel leaders who recruits star Clive Owen to help with what might just be the future of mankind. Michael Caine co-stars as Owen's friend, an aging hippie, who provides help and shelter as the story progresses.

Filmed through a cold blue/gray lens, the story grows bleaker by the minute but it is Mr. Owen's new found hope for the future that drives him forward. His resolve becomes the audience's strength and we rally around him as he strives to complete his mission.

This was a risky film to release at the holidays as it certainly is far from cheery but along with solid acting and a smart script, it's ultimate message of hope for the future makes it worthy viewing.

We Are Marshall

In 1970, a plane crash claimed the lives of 75 people made up of players, coaches and fans of Marshall University's football team. This was the worst disaster in sports history. Not only are the families devastated but it leaves Marshall University and the entire town of Huntington W. Virginia with a loss many thought would never be overcome. "We Are Marshall" is the story of how rebuilding a team could heal a town. As long as there are real life inspirational sports stories, Hollywood will keep turning them into movies. "We Are Marshall" joins the "A" list of films like "Hoosiers" or "Rudy". As with those films, it is inspirational and heartfelt and filled with time worn clichés and stock characters. What sets it apart is the tragic story that sets up the the comeback.

Many films like this one start out with the words "inspired by true events" or "based on real events". "Marshall" starts out with "this is a true story". Since that is the case, it's really hard to criticize the story. What is fair game are the performances of the actors, which is always tough when they are portraying real people. Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, the coach hired by Marshall to rebuild the team. Unless we know the real Jack Lengyel, we can only assume his performance is honest. One annoying trait was talking out of the side of his mouth. If that was his own invention, he would have been better served without it. Matthew Fox has a very emotional role as Red Dawson, a surviving coach, and basically plays his TV character, Jack, the tortured doctor from "Lost" with red hair. Ian McShane, in a complete reversal of his "Deadwood" character, plays a grieving father, representing the grief of the entire town.

If you are a fan of these types of films, it has everything you look for, including a groovy '70's soundtrack played over montage after montage of team rebuilding, the injured player who just won't quit, and of course, the coaches' speech before the "big game". It took years for Marshall to be a competitive football team again but eventually they did, going on to have many championship seasons. Even though you recognize the clichés, you can't help but be moved by the story.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Director Robert DeNiro sets out to make "The Godfather" of espionage films but loses his way in the editing room. There is an intelligent, absorbing story buried in the excesses of this plodding, numbing film and knowing when to cut may have saved it.

Billed as the untold story of the birth of the CIA, the premise is very inviting but after a promising start, the film gets caught in it's own complexities and loses its focus. Staying centered on the CIA's inception would have been far more interesting without Matt Damon's soap opera of personal issues. His personal sacrifices become the heart of the film and could have been expressed in a more economical fashion and still made the point.

The acting is actually very good. Mr. Damon maintains his stoic, icy demeanor throughout keeping his family, and unfortunately the audience, at a distance. Angelina Jolie, while terribly miscast as his wife, makes the most of her role and brings much needed energy to the dull proceedings. The rest of the pedigree cast (including William Hurt, Alex Baldwin and John Turturro) do fine work but unfortunately Mr. DeNiro's glacial direction keeps the audience struggling to appreciate the effort.

The central question (no pun intended) is how much will a man sacrifice for his country? The film answers the question but takes too long to tell the tale.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood has reached a new pinnacle in his career. First he brings us the superb film, "Flags of Our Fathers" and in the same year follows it up with it's brilliant companion piece, "Letters From Iwo Jima". The two films cover the same historical moment in time but couldn't be further apart. "Flags" covered the American point of view of the battle of Iwo Jima, focusing on the famous flag raising and the guilt that haunted the men responsible for their effort when pressed into service by the military propaganda machine. "Letters" focuses on the battle itself, told completely from the Japanese point of view. It is an intimate portrait of war told through the letters and memories of the soldiers that lived and died during terrible battle.

After a brief contemporary prologue, the story shifts to 1944 as the Japanese prepare to defend Iwo Jima from the coming American attack. The story focuses on a handful of Japanese soldiers, enlisted men and officers alike, and follows them through the attack and battle for possession of the island. Through their story we come to know them not as the enemy but rather husbands and sons just like our own troops, fighting and dying in a conflict not of their choosing.

The steel gray cinematography lends itself perfectly to the barren island, it's black sand beaches and it's man-made caves. The score is haunting and compliments the story without overwhelming it. "Letters From Iwo Jima is this generation's "All Quiet On The Western Front". As a bookend to "Flags of Our Fathers", Mr. Eastwood has delivered a masterful one-two punch on the futility of war.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Night At The Museum

Great Special effects and an original story make this a really fun film. It takes a minute to get rolling but once Ben Stiller accepts the job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History, the film shifts into overdrive. Plenty of mayhem ensues when everything at the Museum comes to life at night, thanks to a magic Egyptian charm. The clever screenplay mixes slapstick, family values, history lessons, and an unlikely love story into basically a two hour commercial for the museum.

The casting is excellent. Ben Stiller is a master at controlled chaos and Robin Williams is a restrained but perfect Teddy Roosevelt. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are great fun as a feuding cowboy and Roman general. And for the adults in the audience, it's good to see Mickey Rooney, Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobb still haven't lost their touch.

Having been to the real museum many times, you can easily imagine many of the exhibits coming to life. There may be some concern that the film would scare children from visiting the museum but even the few scary moments are quickly played for laughs, particularly initial moments with the T-Rex and The Mummy. Actually, I believe by the film's end, people will be encouraged to visit the museum and that's a good thing as it's a wonderful institution. For any family, this is a enjoyable "night" out.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curse Of The Golden Flower

If you enjoyed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", or "Hero", you will certainly be looking forward to this latest period piece out of China. I know I was. Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li and directed by Yimou Zhang, "Golden Flower" had all the ingredients for a smash hit. Unfortunately, the film does not perform up to the standards of the previously mentioned films.

The story is full of family secrets, double crosses, incest, and betrayals but bogs down terribly in the first half. The setup for all this intrigue is very slow and not much actually happens but Zhang redeems himself in the second half of the film when secrets are revealed and betrayals are set in motion.The CGI work in the climatic battles scenes could have been better. Much of the fighting resembles a videogame but the close-up martial arts work is terrific. The good news is the film is beautiful to watch. The colors, sets, costumes, and pageantry are outstanding.

Yun-Fat, playing the Emperor, (aside from a quick sword fight he performs sitting down) doesn't have much to do except brood and Gong Li, beautiful as always, plays her part as the Empress pretty much the same way with much biting of the lip. The story is Shakespearean in scope (although it actually predates Shakespeare) and for fans of this genre, it works but it could have been stronger.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Inspired by Chris Gardner's true story, this film is perfect for the holidays. Chris Gardner was a smart man dealt a tough hand. Struggling to make ends meet with only a high school degree, he hustles everyday for his family. After his wife (played by an effective Thandie Newton) has had enough and leaves, it is up to Chris to keep it together for him and his 5 year old son.

Will Smith is outstanding as Gardner. He is certain to pick up an Academy Award nomination for his work here. Not one minute of his performance rings false. You feel his pain, frustration and exhaustion in every frame. Smith's film son is portrayed by his real life son, Jaden Smith, and he does a fine job holding his own against his dad. I don't think he's quite ready for his acceptance speech yet but if he wants to follow in his dad's footsteps, he's got a future.

Credit the screen writer and director (as well as Smith) for a story that stays honest and never gets too sappy. It's a dog eat dog world and you have to credit Gardner's resolve to stay in step with the pack. Smith's performance and this story are both an inspiration.

Friday, December 15, 2006


After everything I had heard about the violence of this film, frankly, I was expecting a lot worse. Is it violent? Yes, but it is also a terrific film. Say what you will about Mel Gibson's personal behavior but when he's behind the camera, he is an excellent filmmaker. Mr. Gibson definitely has issues. With each of his last few films, he has upped the violence level considerably. However, he has also written and directed a film with a simple yet powerful story, well acted and beautifully shot.

Jaguar Paw lives a peaceful existence in the Mayan jungle with his son and pregnant wife. Their village is raided by another more powerful tribe and many are killed. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son but is captured along with other men of the tribe. They will be kept alive only to be sacrificed later to appease the gods. His escape and the manhunt that ensues make up the rest of the film. The sacrifices made at the temple are extremely violent but actually could have been far more graphic. Knowing what these men are capable of makes things all that more exciting as Jaguar Paw is pursued through the jungle, determined to survive and find his family.

The cinematography is wonderful. The pace of the film is frenetic and never lets up. The music, by James Horner, compliments the story beautifully and don't be put off by the sub-titles. Yes, the film is spoken in a Mayan dialect but dialog is kept to a minimum and visually, the story is very easy to follow.

Cover your eyes at times but don't be afraid to see this original, well crafted, exciting, adventure.

Blood Diamond

"Blood Diamond" presents itself as a serious "Romancing The Stone". It's a decent enough action adventure but it features stock characters in a film that tries to hard to be an important message movie. Leonardo DeCaprio is the hardened diamond smuggler out to find the rare "Blood Diamond" discovered and hidden by Djimon Hounsou. Hounsou plays the proud fisherman kidnapped from his family by the evil rebels and forced to work in the conflict diamond mines. Rounding out this African "Mod Squad" is Jennifer Connelly as a reporter who wants the story and of course, falls for DeCaprio. The acting is solid especially from Hounsou (who's always good) but the script contains too much silly dialog and too many repetitive chase scenes.

Through a series of well timed escapes, the two men join together when DeCaprio promises to help Hounsou find his family if they split the profits from the diamond. Connelly's character exists only to awaken DeCaprio's conscience and provide commentary about "conflict" diamonds and their horrible impact on the people of Africa. Since the film takes place in 1999 and conditions have changed now in Sierre Leone, part of the message is moot but questions are still raised. While accords have been signed and "conflict" diamonds are only a small percentage now of the World Diamond trade, one can only look at our own diamond jewelry and wonder where those diamonds came from. Genocide still exist today in parts of Africa but "Blood Diamond" was released as holiday entertainment, so we are more concerned if DeCaprio gets his diamond, Hounsou reunites with his family, and Connelly gets her story.

Additional editing would have made for a better film. Cutting down on those endless chase scenes would have saved time for more emoting from Hounsou or silly dialog from DeCaprio. Save "Blood Diamond" for DVD and for a real important message, read about what's happening now in Darfur.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Wire-Season 4

I don't usually write about a TV show but I just watched the finale of this year's "The Wire" on HBO and had to comment.

Nothing else on TV comes close to the brilliance of this show. Each season brings more depth and intelligence to an amazing drama. Every facet of this show is pure poetry. The acting, direction, writing, and even Baltimore itself as a character, never ring false. If you have "On Demand", start watching from the beginning. Rent or buy the first three seasons. If this season of The Wire were a feature film, it would blow away the competition at the Academy Awards.

It's too smart for television but HBO, to their credit, keeps it going. Season four is filled with so much raw emotion, heartbreak, and no easy answers that at times, you can't bring yourself to watch and yet, there is the glimmer of hope and a better tomorrow for some of the characters.

If you care about quality drama that will challenge and move you, get "wired up" now.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


The title misleads you into thinking this is a film about Bobby Kennedy. The film is actually about Kennedy's impact on an assortment of real and fictitious characters at the Ambassador Hotel on the day he is shot. An all star cast including Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, and Anthony Hopkins, just to name a few, play the various characters working or staying at the hotel on that historical day. In total, 22 recognizable actors worked for scale in this labor of love by writer/director, Emilio Estevez.

Estevez does a decent job blending fact and fiction, inserting many news clips of Kennedy into the story, rather than recreating the man himself (with the exception of a few back shots). The storytelling is ambitious with so many characters (including Estevez himself as Moore's husband and manager) but Estevez fails to develop some of them along the way. His overall effort though succeeds in entertaining and enlightening us as well.

Watching the film brings to mind, old disaster movies like "Airport" and "The Towering Inferno". Star studded affairs linked by a central theme. You care for some characters more than others and in this case, you know going in, who is sure to be killed. Kennedy's impact on this particular generation and the hope he represented reverberates throughout the film and when he is shot, you instantly feel that shattered moment. That message of hope, like that of Martin Luther King and JFK before him, lives on, to one day come to fruition.

Friday, December 01, 2006


The sins of the past can come back and heal rather than harm in the latest film from Pedro Almodovar. It was Almodovar who first brought our attention to Penelope Cruz. In "Volver", she returns to her native Spanish, where her work is far better than her English speaking roles. Here, working again with Almodovar, Cruz shines as the centerpiece of this intimate family drama.

Cruz plays mother, daughter, and sister in a family of women scarred by events of the past. When tragedy strikes again, it is up to Cruz to hold everything together and when a major revelation occurs, it appears to further complicate things. Almodovar is a master when it comes to writing for, and directing women. Everyone in the film is wonderful and there are many moments of quiet beauty and surprise.

"Volver" is possibly Almodovar's most commercial film yet even as he expands on themes he has covered in some of his more outrageous films. He has a remarkable touch for creating light and poetry out of dark subject matter.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Deja Vu

An interesting action/thriller that,if you buy into its premise, will keep you entertained. Denzel Washington plays an agent for the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) who is investigating the bombing of a New Orleans ferry loaded with U.S. servicemen and their families. The film starts out as your typical “find the killer” story but takes a detour into science fiction when the plot hinges on time travel.

Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg play FBI agents working on a “top secret government project” who bring in Mr. Washington as their investigative expert. Why the FBI needs an ATF agent as their “investigative expert” is our first leap of faith. When he realizes their project can actually send things into the past, Mr. Washington uses it in an attempt to prevent the tragedy from happening in the first place. Paula Patton plays the woman who is the key to finding the killer and of course, ends up Mr. Washington’s love interest. Another leap of faith.

You sense you seen these plot elements before…Hmmm, Déjà vu? What keeps the story grounded is the serious and committed acting of Denzel Washington. He believes it so we believe it too. Time travel plots are very tricky. If you change the past, then there’s no longer a need to go into the past but if you don’t go, you don’t change it…very complicated stuff, which raises all kinds of questions at the end of the film. Don’t try to figure it all out. Movies like this are all about the ride and Director Tony Scott along with Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is very adept at giving you a fun ride. I have a strange sense they’ve done it before….

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Fountain

Contrary to expectations, "The Fountain" is not about the fountain of youth but rather The Tree of Life. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star as lovers in this sci-fi, time traveling love story. Jackman's acting is intense and serious but wasted in this metaphysical mess.

The plot (or what resembles a plot) moves between 16th century Spain, the present and the far future where Jackman must find The Tree of Life in order to save Weisz, who appears to be immortal but apparently, is not.

The best analogy I can offer describing this film is when you have an intense dream and wake in the middle of the night to write it all down. It makes sense at the time but when you read it back in the morning, it's incomprehensible. "The Fountain" is the result of writer/director, Darron Aronofsky's dream.

On a positive note, the art direction is excellent although the lighting is so dark for most of the film, you can't appreciate it. The whole thing is a 96 minute bore ruminating on immortality, faith, love and the healing power of tree sap. Don't bother drinking from this "Fountain".

Saturday, November 18, 2006


"Babel" is the newest film from director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. As he's done in the past with "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams", he expertly weaves multiple story lines connected by a single thread. With each film, Inarritu continues to impress with this style of storytelling.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play American tourists traveling in the Moroccan desert. While they are both major stars, this film is truly an ensemble piece and their story is but one of four human dramas with one thing in common. Pitt manages to disappear into his role and does some great work with his limited scenes. Blanchett, due to the nature of her role, is limited in her acting, but still conveys a great deal of emotion. The film also features Gael Garcia Bernal and an excellent group of international co-stars.

The action shifts back and forth through time and place from the Moroccan desert to the Southwestern US, Mexico and Japan. The stories are so believable and the acting is so good, you will feel like you're watching CNN News rather than a movie. When Cate Blanchett's character is accidentally struck by a rifle shot, it sets off a series of further accidents and misunderstandings affecting her children, their Mexican nanny, the Moroccan family that owned the rifle and a Japanese deaf-mute teenage girl and her father. What transpires throughout is tragic and yet by the end, we sense a glimmer of hope for at least some of the characters.

This is a thoughtful and moving drama and one of the year's best films.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale

I am very happy to report that James Bond is back... shaken, not stirred. Much has been written since the announcement of Daniel Craig taking over the franchise, and most of it very critical. Mr. Craig has taken the iconic role and completely made it his own. While I'm sure this will be debated by die-hard fans everywhere, he is the best Bond since Sean Connery.

This film revitalizes the franchise by literally taking it back to it's roots. Staying pretty faithful to the Ian Fleming novel, "Casino Royale" introduces Bond to his first 00 mission. The film is full of the action we expect from a Bond film but this action is grounded (for the most part) in reality. The stunt work is terrific. The CGI, from what I can tell, is kept to a minimum. There is a plot that makes sense, real dramatic moments and a very human James Bond. Mr. Craig plays him as a diamond in the rough. This Bond is serious, intense, and flawed. This Bond bleeds... repeatedly. He is beaten, shot with a nail gun, poisoned, tortured, nearly drowned, and beaten some more. I could criticize his incredible healing ability but why bother, it's James Bond.

The screenwriters (including Paul Haggis. What doesn't he write these days?) have done a great job infusing the Bond elements we all love (Judy Dench as M, the exotic locations, the women, a creepy villain) into a story that, while bloated, never goes as over the top as we've seen in the recent past. The film runs two and a half hours and could have easily been cut by 20 minutes or so. There is a point when you think it may never end but end it does and it will leave you with anticipation for Mr. Craig's next turn in the tuxedo.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Saving Money At The Movies

Last week, AMC/Loews quietly raised their ticket prices. An adult ticket is now $11. I haven't checked yet but I'm sure Clearview, City Cinemas, and UA Regal theaters won't be far behind. I recommend a few ways to save some money. First, sign up for free reward cards. AMC has a movie watcher program, Clearview has a rewards program and UA Regal has a movie club card, all of which give you points towards free snacks and free tickets. Even if you don't go often these points add up and help save you money.

Another way to save is to take advantage of a little known secret at all AMC/Loews theaters in the city. If you go before noon any Friday through Sunday, or holiday, the price is just $6.
For some reason the AMC/Loews at 72nd street only has this deal on Saturdays and holidays but this theater is the only exception.

And finally, check HR sites at your job or AAA, for discount passes which can save you at least $2.50 on each ticket. Of course, you can also read my reviews and be more selective about what you see.

Running With Scissors

Despite the pedigree cast and terrific acting, "Scissors" doesn't cut it. The film is based on the true memoirs of Augusten Burroughs. Burrough's book was apparently very popular but having not read it, I was drawn to the film by the cast and not the story. Luckily the acting rises above the plot and keeps you interested.

As a teen, Augusten is sent to live with his mother's shrink and his family. Having difficulty enough adjusting to his parent's divorce and his metal unstable mother, Augusten must now reside with the family that puts the D in dysfunctional. The Finch family is played by Brian Cox, as Dr. Finch, Jill Clayburgh as his wife, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood as their daughters. While all do an outstanding job, Jill Clayburgh is just wonderful as the long suffering repressed wife and mother. She deserves an best supporting actress nomination at Oscar time.

All of these characters are damaged goods. Repressed, depressed, confused and somewhat psychotic, it is not a happy picture. If not for the acting, watching these characters for two hours would just be painful. But the saving grace of them all is Annette Bening as Deirdre Burroughs, a leading role with Oscar nomination written all over it. Ms. Bening is just terrific in a difficult role as a mother with delusions of grandeur coupled with intense mental anguish. Joseph Cross plays Augusten and holds his own among all these top notch actors. His scenes with Bening are heartbreaking and true. Alex Baldwin plays the small but important role of Augusten's father, downplaying his usual bombastic character and showing some real depth.

This one gets an A for acting but a D for a depressing story.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The idea of a person discovering their reality is not what it seems and confronting their maker about it has been done before with Jim Carry in "The Truman Show". Call this "The Truman Show Redeux". Instead of Mr. Carry, we now have Will Ferrell, who discovers he is a character in the imagination of author Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson.

The earlier film played for more laughs while exploring questions of one's existence. "Stranger Than Fiction" forgets the laughs and plays it straight. This is not necessarily a problem, however, one's expectations from the trailer and Mr. Ferrell's history suggest you will be laughing during this film. Mr. Ferrell's attempts at a deadpan dramatic performance are a disappointment. While I applaud his effort, it's too much of a leap for him and the audience finds itself forcing laughs at his situation just because he is Will Ferrell.

The story, moving from the Truman TV reality, places us in the literary world of Karen Eiffel's new book. A novel about Harold Crick that she hasn't finished due to a bad case of writer's block. When Harold actually begins to hear Karen's narration, his mundane world collapses and he is forced to face his mortality as Karen tries to figure out how to kill her character. Along for the ride are Maggie Gyllenhaal as a baker who inexplicably falls for Harold, Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor helping Harold figure things out and Queen Latifah, who is wasted as Karen's assistant. She simply isn't given enough to do.

This is a smarter film than you'd expect. The ideas of existence, free will, and one's fate are entwined throughout the film and the ending finds a manipulative way to keep from painting the story into a corner. It's more entertaining than a philosophy class on free will but it's been done before...and better.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Marie Antoinette

This film had me from the start but lost me somewhere between the pastry trays and the French Revolution. Sophia Coppola does a fine job of recreating 18th century Versailles and all the excesses that befit the royal family. The excess of food, drink, gambling, clothing, and most of all, boredom are all portrayed lavishly by Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, and Rip Torn.

What drives the first half of the film is the problem of consummating the marriage for Marie and Louis. Once solved, all we can do is wait for the revolution while Marie spends like crazy and Louis empties the royal treasury donating war funds to the Americans fighting their own revolution.

The use of contemporary music and dialog by Ms. Dunst work in a fun and illuminating way as we watch this young girl grow into her place in history. But even this starts to wear thin as we begin to anticipate the next song selection turning the film into a very long music video.

Ms. Coppola has a very artistic vision as a director and the film looks fabulous. The problem is she falls victim to her own excess. Endless shots of Ms. Dunst from every angle possible carry the boredom of the court into the boredom of the theater. Had she cut 20 minutes, I think the film would have been much tighter and more enjoyable.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Queen

"The Queen" takes us inside the royal family just after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. As an American, it is fascinating to watch the the machinations of the British government during this time of public shock and grief. The exchanges between the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and her royal highness are absolutely priceless. There is quite a bit of humorous dialogue which I perceived to be unintentional and only funny as an outsider looking in.

During the week between the accident and Diana's funeral, the royal family opts to remain private and retreat to their country estate. The British public, who obviously worshipped Diana as a public figure, resent the actions taken by the royal family and public opinion begins to plummet for the monarchy. Tony Blair recognizes the importance of a public show of grieving to unite the country and does his best to gently persuade The Queen to change her mind.

As The Queen, Helen Mirren is simply brilliant. One can only imagine what it's like inside the royal family and Ms. Mirren acts like she's lived the part her entire life. Every line and every look come so naturally to her, you forget she is acting. She will be very hard to beat come Oscar time. As Tony Blair, Michael Sheen is up to the challenge of verbally sparring with Ms. Mirren. The very reliable James Cromwell plays Prince Phillip and Alex Jennings portrays a spot-on Prince Charles.

The story is cut with actual footage from the period which only serves to create an air of authenticity to the entire film. One would think the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, was a fly on the wall during that tragic week. It is easy to dismiss The Queen as the villain and Tony Blair the hero of the story but as the film unfolds, things are not so clearly defined and a key line by Ms. Mirren towards the end of the film puts everything in perspective. Whether or not it's all accurate, "The Queen" is fascinating look into a world most of us never see.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

Based on the true story of the infamous Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, "Last King" is a tour de force for actor Forest Whitaker. While the story's point of view comes from a fictional character, Dr. Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), it is Mr. Whitaker's performance that keeps you riveted to the screen.

   Amin is impressed by the Scottish doctor and makes him his personal physician. At first, the doctor isn't interested but is soon won over and begins to enjoy his involvement with the charismatic Amin. However, he slowly comes to realize the monster hidden behind the smile.

    McAvoy plays a great counterpoint to Whitaker's dictator. Naïve at first, his awakening once he learns the truth is very natural and the film's climax at Entebbe Airport is filled with tension as he attempts to free himself of Amin's control.

    Mr. Whitaker is a wonderful actor. He recently did a terrific job guest starring on the TV series, "The Shield". His portrayal of Idi Amin is Oscar worthy and he most certainly should receive a nomination at the very least. While the doctor's tale occasionally ventures into melodrama, you are jolted back to reality every time Mr. Whitaker is on the screen.
Don't miss one of this year's absolutely best performances.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Based on Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional character, Borat makes the successful jump from a TV sketch to the big screen. This formula has a shaky past and most of the time doesn't work. Fortunately, Borat lends itself perfectly to a full length film and is unlike anything you've ever seen.

The film is outrageous, offensive, and hysterically funny. It is "Blazing Saddles" for a new generation. When that film opened in the 70's audiences could not believe what they were hearing and seeing but it left them weak from laughter while breaking taboos at the same time. Borat is a TV personality from Kazakhstan who journeys to America to learn of our culture. Much like "Saddles", the film sets up outrageous situations in familiar settings but the big difference is most of the people Borat encounters are real and not in on the joke.

This sets up biting social, political, and sexual commentary. Many of the reactions to Borat's behavior are extremely funny but it's also scary to think some people in this country still have the attitudes revealed in the film.

Just as the story begins to wear thin, a new encounter or situation will have you laughing out loud. This is not a film for everyone as many will NOT get the joke but if you go with an open mind and realize this is satire, you may find yourself weak from laughter. Be warned, there is plenty of gross comedy and bad behavior but underneath there is method to the madness and it's name is Borat.

The Prestige

Without revealing any secrets, the basic plot is simple enough. Due to a tragic act, two friendly magicians-in-training become bitter enemies over the years, each trying to outperform the other causing nothing but further tragedy.

Oh how I wanted to love this film and oh, what a disappointment. Christopher Nolan has worked magic in the past with "Memento" and "Batman Returns". This time, with magic as the literal subject matter, his tricks fail to impress. The "pledge" of the trailer sets up a promising "turn" but the final act or as it's known to magicians, the "Prestige" rests on two faulty elements. One is obvious very early in the film and the other is completely ridiculous.

What does work here is the very capable performance of Christian Bale. This man is incapable of a bad performance. From his very first performance in "Empire of The Sun" (very underrated Spielberg), Bale has delivered over and over again with every film. Hugh Jackman plays the rival magician with his usual dashing aplomb. Michael Caine plays his "Alfred" role from "Batman Returns" and once again, Scarlett Johansson lends herself as eye candy in an otherwise minor role as the assistant with vacillating loyalty. There is a worthwhile cameo by David Bowie, who makes a wonderful entrance.

There have been some comparisons between this film and "The Illusionist". While both are period films about magicians, the stories are really quite different and frankly, "The Illusionist" pulls the rabbit out of the proverbial hat. "The Prestige" is left just holding the hat.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers

Aside from being one of my favorite actors, Clint Eastwood has evolved into one of my favorite directors and once again, he doesn't disappoint. I applaud his decision to tell this story and all the people involved, including the two studios that financed it. In telling the true story of the flag raising at Iwo Jima in World War Two, Eastwood doesn't portray the U.S. Government in a patriotic glow but rather a political machine using a simple act of replacing a flag as a rousing manipulative battle cry for the war effort.

The famous photo of the six men raising the flag at Iwo Jima is embedded in our history and the hearts and minds of generations of Americans. When you learn the true story behind that photograph, it paints a very different picture and it's an important story that needed to be told.

Eastwood handles the battle sequences very well and of course, comparisons will be made to "Saving Private Ryan" (Spielberg is one of "Flags" producers). The digital effects are seamless and the action all too realistic. But as Eastwood has shown in many of his films, he is just as deft in the quiet moments, making his points with a poetic dignity.

Death is everywhere on Iwo Jima and the three men from the flag raising group who survive are sent home as heroes to represent patriotism at it's best. The problem is these men don't see themselves as heroes and this story is as heartbreaking as it's stirring. The three survivors are portrayed by Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, and Jesse Bradford. All three are terrific and couldn't be more different in the way they handle the sudden spotlight.

I would recommend staying for the credits as actual photos are shown and in a small way, you can do honor to the men who fought and died on that barren rock.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Little Children

From Director Todd Fields (In The Bedroom), comes another excellent adult drama. Kate Winslet gives one of her best performances as an unsatisfied suburban mother who begins an affair with Patrick Wilson, a man dreaming of a lost adolescence, trying to find his place in an adult world. The film also features a strong performance by Jackie Earl Haley as a convicted child sex offender looking for his identity in a world that reviles him.

A sadness permeates the film as it explores the relationships of these people and the other affected by them, family, friends, and enemies alike. All the characters are damaged to a degree and by the end, one can only imagine hope for at least some of them.

There is heavy stuff here but also flashes of humor, particularly in the 3rd person narration. This is the kind of film that should spark post screening conversation. I overheard someone leaving the theater say "it was like Desperate Housewives meets Happiness". A pretty accurate composite (without the campiness). I wish I had thought of it first.

The Illusionist

Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti are two of the finest actors working today and this film totally showcases their talent. Norton plays a turn of the century "illusionist" in Vienna who angers the crown prince when he renews a romance with his childhood girlfriend (now engaged to the prince), played by Jessica Biel. Giamatti is the police inspector working for the prince who is torn for his admiration for Norton and his duty to the state. Rufus Sewell plays the crown prince and makes an admirable villain.

Norton performs his own magic and illusions with a smooth sleight of hand and both he and Giamatti are at the top of their craft in this game of cat & mouse. Prague substitutes for old Vienna and looks wonderful. The attention to detail truly transports the viewer back in time. The pace of the film is slow but deliberate. This may be a turnoff for some but I still found the film absorbing and easily engaging.

The Departed

Outstanding crime drama from Martin Scorsese, this is easily one of the best films of the year. Based on an excellent Asian film, "Infernal Affairs", this American remake moves the action to Boston but maintains the basic plot of undercover moles in both the police department and the mob.

In his early years, Robert DeNiro served as Scorsese's muse. Now it's Leonardo DeCaprio's turn as he gives his best performance yet in his third film with Scorsese. Playing an undercover cop in the Boston mob, DeCaprio is just sensational, running the gambit of emotions and straining to hold it together under the pressure of discovery. On the other side, we have Matt Damon as a criminal mole in the Boston State Troopers detective division. Damon's character warrants a more restrained performance and while less showy, Damon delivers as well. And of course, in the middle of it all is Jack Nicholson. As crime boss, Frank Costello, Nicholson has his meatiest role in years. He is charming and menacing all at once. He takes the role to the top but never quite over it.

Everyone in a supporting role delivers as well. Mark Wahlberg is ferocious as the wise guy cop with a short fuse and Martin Sheen plays the wise officer-in-charge a notch down from his "President Bartlett". Alec Baldwin channels his "Glengarry Glenn Ross" sales manager into Damon's superior on the police force. And up and coming actress, Vera Faminga, (so good in "Down To The Bone") holds her own among all the testosterone as the woman caught between the two leads.

Scorsese gives a master class in direction with many scenes achieving almost poetic perfection. "The Departed" is thoroughly entertaining. Be warned however, that this is a violent film filled that doesn't hold back on the bloodshed. If that's not a concern, then don't miss it!

Abou this blog

Hello film lovers! As an Upper Eastside resident and film enthusiast, I will be writing "30 second reviews" for films playing in the neighborhood. I have a website called where you can read and post various types of entertainment reviews. My philosophy about the 30 second rule is that the average movie fan doesn't need a multi-page, full length review in order to pick a movie. Most people want a quick idea of what the film is about and if it's worth seeing. Too many reviews these days give away most of the plot and really don't get to the heart of the matter. I try to avoid that. I hope you enjoy these reviews and that they help you make an educated decision on whether to go to the theater, wait for the DVD or skip it altogether.