Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Reader



An intense human drama capped by an excellent performance by Kate Winslet. "The Reader" starts as an affair between a young man and older woman in post war Germany that affects them both for the rest of their lives.

The young man is played by David Kross and his older version played by Ralph Fiennes. Both are very well cast. Mr. Fiennes is particularly good as the elder Michael Berg, tortured by actions of the past. As good as the two men are, the film really belongs to Ms. Winslet. She plays Hanna Schmitz with restrained emotion, holding on to secrets of her own.

The film takes unexpected twists and turns with intricate results. It is a film that is sure to spark conversation and debate when it ends. A fascinating story that will definitely stay with you.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


David Fincher has always been a visionary director. He's made some remarkable films over the years and "Benjamin Button" is no exception. Everything about the production is first rate. There's just one thing nagging you as you sit in the dark enjoying the film, "where have I seen this before?", you're thinking to yourself...

"Benjamin Button" is "Forest Gump" revisited. Don't get me wrong. I thought Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were excellent, especially Ms. Blanchett. I thought the special effects of Mr. Pitt's aging were amazing but the story was "Forest Gump" with a different plot device and it just bothered me throughout the film.

The concept of reverse aging was original and the love story, classic with a twist. If you haven't seen, "Gump", you will have a wonderful film experience seeing "Benjamin Button". But even if you have seen the earlier film, "Button" is still very enjoyable, just not original.

Run Benjamin, run....

Monday, December 29, 2008

Marley & Me



A terrific memoir reduced to a TV movie of the week masquerading as big screen entertainment. Yes, the dog is cute but unfortunately the film is not.

To begin with, Marley as a young puppy is adorable but there is too little screen time for the pup and before you can say pooperscooper, Marley is an adult dog tearing through the house chewing anything in his way. Nicknamed "the world's worst dog" simply because he was never trained properly is certainly not Marley's fault. Who waits until a dog is an adult before going for training or obedience lessons? I guess his owners, played by Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston, were too busy trying to find chemistry between them or solving their own life problems. For a film named for the dog, way too much attention is spent on the humans.

All the cute fun moments are found in the trailer or commercial and for the few laughs and smiles they produce, there is much more sad and unsettling moments throughout the film. Certainly any dog lover will need a full box of tissues by the credits.

Pass on " Marley & Me" and rent the DVD of "My Dog Skip" instead.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Happy Go Lucky


From writer/director Mike Leigh comes a charming story of an eternal optimist. The film has all but disappeared from most theaters but is well worth hunting down. It has made quite a few Top 10 lists for this year and much about it is merited.

Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, a free spirited young woman who rolls with life's punches with a smile and laugh. Ms. Hawkins is wonderful in the role and you can't help getting caught up in her good nature and positive outlook. When her bike is stolen Poppy signs up for driving lessons and Scott, her instructor turns out to be her exact opposite. This makes for some terrific scenes during the driving lessons. During the course of the film, Poppy encounters many of life's curveballs but she keeps swinging away affecting everyone around her.

This is a "small film" filled with many little pleasures. The acting is terrific and Mr. Leigh's direction, as always, is simple and direct, letting his actors create their roles along the way. You can't help but feel good after "Happy Go Lucky".

Friday, December 26, 2008

Slumdog Millioniare


A friend recommended this months ago and then the buzz began to build. I finally got a chance to see it for myself and the buzz is real. This is one of the best movies of the year.

When an Indian street kid gets a chance to appear on the Indian TV version of game show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", it seems like everyone in India begins to root for him except the police who think he's cheating. Through flashbacks we learn how a poor, uneducated boy named Malik manages to make it to the final question.

This is a suspenseful journey giving us a glimpse of life on the streets of Mumbai. It is also at it's heart, a love story between brothers, Salim and Malik and Latika, the true love of Malik's life. It is a remarkable tale of survival, love and destiny.

Throughout his life, Malik endures terrible hardships which the camera doesn't hide but the film is ultimately uplifting and director Danny Boyle does a wonderful job with his Indian cast.

Don't miss this soaring achievement.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Spirit



"The Spirit" was created by Will Eisner, a pioneer in American comics. Artist and writer Frank Miller brings the character to life in the film version. The film has the look and feel of Mr. Miller's earlier film, "Sin City" but not the energy.

Comic fans and fans of "Sin City" will flock to "The Spirit" and probably admire the effort but the problem is Mr. Miller should have left the direction to someone else. The material is fun and the visuals unique and exciting but the film drags the thin plot out like a wet rope. There are some inspired sequences but much of the film is boring exposition and Mr. Miller would have been better off again with Robert Rodriquez as director.

Curiously the look of the film is 1940's and yet, people use computers and cell phones. There is also a Nazi sequence for absolutely no reason. While it's an interesting script, it does tend to meander in strange directions and that's where a better director might have tightened the story.

The film stars Gabriel Macht as The Spirit, Samuel Jackson as his nemesis, The Octopus. Mr. Macht plays the part as straight as a boy scout while Mr. Jackson is totally over the top, obviously having fun with the part. Also starring as various good/bad girls are Eva Mendes, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, and Scarlett Johansson. Jamie King also has a minor role as Lorelei, the angel of death and is barely recognizable. Louis Lombardi plays multiple clones of henchmen to The Octopus and Dan Lauria does his best tough cop bit as Inspector Dolan.

This one is strictly for the fans...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gran Torino


Archie Bunker meets Dirty Harry. These may be dated references but they are American icons and so is Clint Eastwood. More occupied in directing (including this one) than acting, this may be Mr. Eastwood's acting swansong. If so, he goes out on top with an Oscar worthy performance as Walt kowalski, a cranky, bigoted Korean War veteran.

Walt is a combination Archie, Harry and some William Munny thrown in too. The film opens with the funeral of his wife and we quickly learn this is a man living with past demons in a modern world not to his liking. Walt could easily have been played over the top but Mr. Eastwood has tight control on the character and the layers come away ever so slowly.

The Asian family next door set off a series of events that reluctantly begin to involve Walt and while the racial slurs fly, he slowly comes around to his new neighbors.
The gang that terrorizes the family are stereotypical but a necessary evil to further the story. While you may think you know where it's going, you just may be surprised.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

El rey de la montanta (King of The Hill)


A U.S. Premiere at the Spanish Cinema Now festival at Lincoln Center features the beautiful scenery of Spain's mountains but transforms them into something evil and menacing.

A man and woman, strangers brought together by a chance encounter soon find themselves targets of an unseen sniper. The film is a tense game of cat and mouse and plays out like an existential "Deliverance". There are no heroes nor villains, no clear motives and while there is closure, it is devastating and the final image may haunt you for some time.

Shot entirely on location in the mountains with a minimal cast and not much dialog, this may not be a film for everyone. Ultimately, it will provoke conversation long after it ends. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Changeling



This one will be hard to find as it's been shoved aside for newer holiday films. I still wanted to see it before Award season and I'm glad I did.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, with his usual attention to detail. "Changeling" tells the true story of a missing child in 1928 Los Angeles. Angelina Joie stars as Christine Collins, a single mother who comes home from work to find her 9 year old son, Walter missing. What follows is an absorbing but tragic story that goes deeper than just an abduction. Christine's treatment by the Los Angeles Police department is a horrendous crime by itself.

Showing great range, Ms. Joie is excellent as Christine. It's amazing that this is the same actress who was so tough and strong in "Wanted". Her frailty here masks an inner strength that rises to the surface over the course of her ordeal. Ms. Jolie does a great job losing herself in the character and keeping the audience involved in her plight.

The film co-stars John Malkovich, Amy Ryan ( who steals her few short scenes), and Jeffrey Donovan. Credit Mr. Eastwood for employing many other actors who are just right for their parts and not stuffed into the film for name recognition. Colm Feore, Michael Kelly, Peter Gerety, and the rest of the cast are all terrific.

One could argue that the film runs too long but that is typical of Mr. Eastwood. He doesn't make short movies. He takes his time to involve his audience and give you a full, rich movie experience.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still


Not even the grandeur of IMAX can save this stinker. Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as an emotionless alien who drops into Central Park (in a swirling globe of bad CGI) to warn earthlings that the grand intelligence of the cosmos has decided to wipe us out as a species because we're screwing up the planet.

We then spend almost two hours watching a ridiculous Katy Bates as the Secretary of Defense, Jennifer Connelly as an Astro-biologist going all weepy over her step son, and Jaden Smith as the annoying step son, all debating over to kill or listen to Mr. Reeves.

As a New York Jet fan, my only satisfaction was watching Giant Stadium get destroyed by the aliens although I think I have a better model in a snow globe at home.

This film is boring, badly acted and a complete waste of time. Rent "Independence Day" ironically starring Jaden Smith's father, if you want to see landmarks being destroyed. And if you really want quality Sci-fi, rent the original "Day The Earth Stood Still" (cheesy effects by today's standard, but still the superior film).

And note to John Hamm- stick to "Mad Men"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Frost/Nixon


There are simply not enough superlatives to fit a 30 second review. This film is a crowning achievement for director Ron Howard and everyone associated with the movie.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen recreate their Broadway roles and both are remarkable.

Mr. Langella won the Tony Award for the Broadway show and there is no doubt he will be nominated and have an excellent chance of taking home an Oscar as well. With hardly any makeup, he completely transforms himself into Richard Nixon. It is a performance of such depth and honesty, it takes your breath away. Michael Sheen matches him scene for scene in the interview sequences and channels every nuance of Mr. Frost.

The direction is crisp, lively and Mr. Howard opens up the story very naturally while keeping the intimacy of the theater experience. The lighting, music, and sets all recreate the period perfectly and enhance the story which plays out like a political version of "Rocky".

I can't say enough about the supporting cast either. Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, and Matthew MacFadyen are all brilliant.

Intellectual, yet immensely entertaining, "Frost/Nixon" is not to be missed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Milk


Utilizing archival footage and recreated scenes, director Gus Van Sant brings us the life and times of Harvey Milk (not to be confused with the documentary of the same name). Mr. Milk was the first openly gay official elected to public office back in the late 70's. His short time as San Francisco City Supervisor was a major victory for gay and civil rights.

Sean Penn, as Mr. Milk, adds another terrific performance to his portfolio. He is truly the best actor of his generation. Along with Mr. Penn, the film also features James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Allison Pill, Dennis O'Hare, and Josh Brolin. All are excellent in their roles with Mr. Brolin, especially adding another excellent notch to his belt coming off "No Country For Old Men", and "W.". James Franco, as well, has shown depth and diversity to every film he's been in this year and he does the same in "Milk".

While a fascinating and important time capsule of a turbulent time, "Milk" becomes a bit tedious with protest after protest and election after election. It is Mr. Penn's powerful performance that propels the film to it's inevitable end. Where "Milk" succeeds is in honoring the life of a remarkable man who helped bring change to a country very much in need of it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

W.


Oliver Stone has done a remarkable job documenting past Presidents. In "W.", he chronicles the life of a president while still in office and misses the mark of his earlier films.

W. is interesting enough, giving the viewer insight into what makes Mr. Bush tick and showing us the uneven road his life has taken to the White House but it is little more than a TV movie of the week missing much of the bombastic style Mr. Stone is best known for.

The cast is uneven. Josh Brolin as "W." is wonderful. He captures every nuance, every gesture, of Mr. Bush perfectly and at times truly resembles him. Richard Dreyfuss is a perfect Dick Cheney, also getting the mannerisms correct. Also well cast are James Cromwell as George Bush SR., Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Scott Glen as Donald Rumsfeld, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush. Missing the mark are Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice.

The script cherry picks important moments in Mr. Bush's life (did we need the pretzel choking scene?) and range from satire to drama with a little "fairy tale" thrown in for good measure.

Once Mr. Bush leaves office, I'd like to see Mr. Stone try it again and not hold anything back.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quantum of Solace


After a terrific debut as James Bond in "Casino Royale", Daniel Craig is shaken, not stirred into a mess of a follow-up. "Quantum" has one of the worst Bond plots ever (if you can even call it a plot). It is basically one long action sequence after another in order to distract the audience from realizing how ridiculous the whole thing really is.

Daniel Craig tries his best to live up to what he started in the previous film but there is only so much he can do when everything is literally falling apart around him. He makes a dashing Bond and certainly one of the best but he's never given a chance to develop the character beyond a human killing machine. Mathieu Almaric plays one of the lamest Bond villains in history. He should stick to what he does best, serious drama and eye blinking. Olga Kurylenko is the Bond "it" girl and while beautiful, can't decide if she is a damsel in distress or an action heroine. Judi Dench is back as M and has her usually fun with the role. And Jeffrey Wright also returns as Felix Leiter, with basically nothing to do except give Bond an address.

The action scenes are excellent but by the numbers. You can almost hear the writers..."Boat chase, check. Car chase, check. Foot chase, check. Airplane chase, check." Aside from a beautiful world tour, this is a bloated soulless Bond film. At the end of the credits, we are promised, "James Bond will return". He better be carrying a better script when he does.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Zack & Miri Make A Porno


Writer/Director Kevin Smith returns with a new comedy, that true to his nature will offend many and have others singing his praises. "Borrowing" Seth Rogan from his recent run of comedy hits, Mr. Smith has made a romantic comedy filled with the most vulgar language you can imagine.

Mr. Rogan stars as Zack and Elizabeth Banks is Miri, friends who find themselves beyond broke and looking for a way to pay the bills. Craig Robinson, from "The Office" is Delaney, Zack's friend who finances their attempt at a porno film.

Mr. Smith hides a sweet romance under mountains of offensive (to some) dialog, giving Mr. Robinson the best lines. He manages to also save some good stuff for Kevin Smith regulars, Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes. Actually, Mr. Anderson probably has the funniest line in the movie following a particularly graphic scene.

Mr. Rogan and Ms. Banks have natural chemistry and their "porno" scene is at first very funny and then turns into something unexpected. This is a fun, silly film that is not about porno (although casting Traci Lords does add credibility) but rather friendship and true love. If not for his trademark dialog and sight gags, you would think Kevin Smith has gone mainstream. If you enjoy the film, make sure you stay through the credits.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

High School Musical 3



Strictly for the tweeners, this franchise is wearing out it's welcome. The songs are forgettable, the acting is below average, and the plot is wafer thin. The only thing going for it is the choreography which, while not Bob Fosse, is enough to keep adults awake during this shameless sequel.

Only in Disneyland, will you find a high school as squeaky clean as East High. Everything about this film shines like it's just come through a car wash. The film belongs on Disney channel like it's predecessors and releasing it in theaters was strictly a marketing ploy by the Disney machine to put more cash in it's coffers. And based on it's weekend take at the box office, their efforts paid off in a big way. Biggest opening ever for a musical will surely produce "High School Musical 4: The Reunion". And as long as kids continue to grow up with Disney channel, this franchise will live forever. Heaven help us!

Appaloosa


Ed Harris pulls off a trifecta, co-writing, directing and starring in this old fashioned western, in the tradition of "Unforgiven". While not as powerful as that classic, "Appaloosa" will still satisfy lovers of the western genre.

Viggo Mortensen co-stars as Everett Hitch, Mr. Harris's best friend. The two men make their living as lawmen for hire. The relationship between these two fine actors is relaxed and natural, and their characters are men you can believe in. Rene Zellweger plays the woman who comes between them in the town of Appaloosa. And rounding out the major players is Jeremy Irons as the villainous, Randall Bragg.

Much of the screenplay has been lifted verbatim from the novel by Robert B. Parker and there is some wonderful dialogue as well as beautiful cinematography by Dean Semler. The film moves slowly but methodically and is filled with many classic western themes and clich├ęs. There are moments of suspense and surprise and while an enjoyable film, it doesn't break any new ground in a familiar genre.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rachel Getting Married



Ann Hathaway plays against type in the new film from Jonathan Demme. She plays Kim, just out of rehab and returning to her family's home for her sister Rachel's wedding. Last year Noah Baumbach gave us the similarly theme, "Margot At The Wedding" with Nicole Kidman. "Rachel" is the more realistic and emotional charged film.

Ms. Hathaway reaches into her dark places and pulls out a terrific performance as Kim. Newly sober and loaded with emotional baggage, Kim bursts into the wedding weekend like a bolt of lightning, striking down everything in her path. This is a intense family drama filled with both anger and happiness.

The film co-stars Bill Irwin and Deborah Winger as Kim's divorced parents. Mr. Irwin is excellent as the father overly protective of his damaged daughter while at the same time, trying to celebrate his other daughter's big day. Ms. Winger is a welcome return to the screen and makes the most of her few scenes, especially during a raw confrontation with Kim. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, torn between an love/hate relationship with her sister, which casts a cloud over her wedding plans.

Mr. Demme's direction brings out the best in Ms. Hathaway, struggling with her family and her inner demons. She carries the film and it's her performance you'll remember most.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Wrestler


From Darren Aronofsky, the man who bought us "PI", "Requiem For A Dream" and the metaphysical mess, "The Fountain" comes a raw and powerful new film, "The Wrestler". This is not a "Rocky" or "Raging Bull" saga, but rather an intimate portrait of man 20 years past his prime trying to find his place in the world.

Mickey Rourke...that's right, Mickey Rourke, gives the performance of a lifetime as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, past his glory days and looking for worth beyond the ring. Mr. Rourke bares his soul and gives everything he has to this character. It is an Oscar caliber performance that will not be forgotten.

Co-starring is Marisa Tomei as a world weary stripper connecting, against her better judgment, with "The Ram". Evan Rachel Wood also stars as the daughter long ago left behind, angry and bitter when Mr. Rourke shows up at her door. They only have a few scenes together but they are filled with emotion as father and daughter try to reconnect.

Mr. Aronofsky films with camera work that puts you in the story, capturing every detail and bringing stinging reality to every scene. This is an honest, sometimes violent, and yet poignant film that will thoroughly surprise you.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Miracle At St. Anna


Spike Lee goes to war and leaves me confused. The film starts out in the 80's when a postal worker, working at his window, shoot a customer point blank in the chest. The police discover the head of an Italian statue in his apartment and he refuses to explain the head or his actions. A few scenes later and we flashback to Italy in WWII where the majority of the film takes place.

The story centers on a group of four African American soldiers who become separated behind enemy lines. What starts out as a war story about the Buffalo soldiers division soon turns into a more intimate tale of these four men and their impact on the Italian village where they are hiding from the Germans.

Early on there is a massacre at a river and while it doesn't equal the ferocity of the opening moments of "Saving Private Ryan", it certainly makes it's point. Mr. Lee actually drills his point home as the camera lingers far too long over the dead soldiers floating in the bloody river. His characters are stereotypes of almost any war movie including the over the top racist Major.

Eventually we learn why the postal worker kills the customer and along the way there is much death and destruction. The ending, while obvious, is still too easy and I'm still left wondering why a postal worker would bring a gun to work everyday, much less get away with hiding it under his counter.

I admire Mr. Lee's past work but this project is very ambitious and could have been shorter, tighter, and more cohesive.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Eagle Eye


Apart from his acting skills, Shia LeBeouf can really run. He's run in "Transformers", "Indiana Jones", and "Disturbia" (limited in range due to ankle bracelet). He's making a career out of running and in "Eagle Eye", he's at the top of his running game.

This is an exciting chase film that leaves much logic behind but is action packed and very suspenseful. It's a perfect Indian summer popcorn movie. Besides Mr. LaBeouf, the film stars Michelle Monaghan (his running "partner"), Billy Bob Thornton (the FBI agent running after him), Rosario Dawson ( the Military agent running after everyone), and Michael Chiklis (the Secretary of Defense who doesn't run at all but he does enough running on "The Shield").

The film borrows liberally from movies like "Enemy of The State", "any Bourne film, the last "Die Hard", "Wargames" and especially the 60's film, "Collosus:The Forbin Project" but still manages to put a spin on current technology and character twists and turns. Like it's lead character, it's not that smart but still fun to watch. One thing is for certain, you will leave the theater with a high level of paranoia.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Burn After Reading


Following the dramatic masterpiece, "No Country For Old Men", the Coen Brothers return to familiar waters in this silly, yet violent, comedy. The film plays like a cross between "Blood Simple" and Intolerable Cruelty".

Featuring an all-star cast, many of whom are Coen Brother regulars, the film is a twisted tale of cheating spouses, unlikely blackmailers, and inept CIA agents. Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins and John Malkovich all seem to be really enjoying themselves as they lie, steal, cheat, and sometimes kill with reckless abandon.

There is no depth to the screenplay. The story is set in motion when a former CIA agent, played by Mr. Malkovich decides to write his memoirs and they end up in the wrong hands. It's all superficial fun (except when 2 major characters are killed) and doesn't ask much of it's audience except to sit back and enjoy the shenanigans. It's fun to watch but 90 minutes later, you'll probably "forget after viewing".

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Righteous Kill


Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino together for an entire film....Critic proof! And a good thing too because this is more ill than kill.

The pairing of these two screen icons is too good to pass up but someone should have thought about a plot worthy of acting legends, rather the the ridiculous, implausible, obvious bore that is "Righteous Kill". The film creeps along with both actors mugging their way through a serial killer plot filled with simply laughable dialog.

Along for the ride is Carla Gugino as a NY CSI, Brian Dennehy as the tough talking police Lieutenant and Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo as fellow detectives following cops DeNiro and Pacino on the same case. Also in a key role is rapper 50 Cent playing a drug dealing club owner...big stretch there, Fitty.

The fast forward plot device points to one person responsible for all the murders but if you are still awake and paying attention, the identity of the killer should be pretty obvious anyway.

I expected more from the writer of "Inside Man", Spike Lee's excellent bank heist film from last year and obviously more from Mr. DeNiro and Mr. Pacino but this one is all about a paycheck. If you are a fan (and who isn't), save time and money and rent it later this year on DVD.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2


Written and directed by Andrew Fleming, Hamlet 2 is this year's "Napoleon Dynamite". It is most definitely a left of center comedy with flashes of brilliance but not for everyone.

The film stars the British actor, Steve Coogan, as an American drama teacher trying to keep it together in Tucson Arizona. His life is a mess. His acting career never got off the ground, his student can't stand him, his wife has become distant, and his plays (based on movies) are a flop. Things start to change as he decides to stage his original work, Hamlet 2.

Catherine Keener co-stars as Mr. Coogan's unsupportive wife. She always shines in quirky films like this and is very well cast. David Arquette plays a man sharing their home for extra income and Amy Poehler has a very funny part as an lawyer, named coincidently, Feldstein.

Mr. Coogan is terrific in the film playing a very odd character. This is a very original story with what appears to be a logical plot that veers off in a bizarre direction. It makes a great double feature with the aforementioned, "Napoleon Dynamite".

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Traitor



This suspenseful new film explores what makes a terrorist and questions loyalty and religion with a conflicted lead character intelligently played by Don Cheadle.

As the film opens we meet Mr. Cheadle's character, Samir Horn as he is selling weapons to an unnamed terrorist group. Samir is a Muslim who's father was killed by a car bomb and his motives may not be all them seem. Soon he finds himself being pursued by two FBI agents played by Guy Pierce and Neal McDonough.

The action moves globally and makes for quite the travelogue as the two agents chase Horn around the world in an attempt to stop further acts of terrorism. There are some major twists that we've seen before in other films but they are used very effectively here and the film ratchets up the suspense as the terrorists plan an attack on US soil.

"Traitor" is an effective thriller heightened by the always excellent Don Cheadle. It's an intelligent film (despite some plot holes) with themes that don't always have easy answers but it's compelling just the same. It did leave me feeling uneasy as it hits close to home and could give the wrong people real ideas.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona


A light summer romp from writer/director Woody Allen. "VCB" is a visual treat both in terms of the scenery and it's leading actors. The film stars Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz as friends and lovers all romantically involved over a summer in Barcelona.

Filming in a new city seems to have refreshed Mr. Allen and the film succeeds on many levels. The cinematography paints a lovely picture of Barcelona.The dialog is fresh, clever and intelligent. The acting is perfect as everyone is very well cast. Ms. Cruz, in particular, ignites the second half of the film as Maria Elena, Mr. Bardem's unstable ex-wife. Rebecca Hall is also terrific as the conflicted, Vicky.

The film is one of Mr. Allen's sexiest, while still within PG-13 limits. To call it a comedy is a stretch but it does have some fine comedic moments and is far lighter in tone than "Matchpoint", one of Mr. Allen's most recent successes.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

American Teen


A new documentary better suited for television viewing, this is the real "Breakfast Club. Directed by Nanette Burstein, the film follows a group of High School kids as they complete their senior year of school in Warsaw, Indiana.

As in "Breakfast Club", we have a jock, an outcast, a rich spoiled girl, and a misfit but these stereotypes are real kids with real dreams and real problems. The film works like most reality TV shows, taking us into their lives as they go about their daily routines. What is hard to accept is where the reality ends and where the manipulation begins. Just how much of what we are seeing is unscripted becomes the question.

While a bit long (2 hours), the film's subjects win us over as we cheer for them, cry for them and root for our favorite teen. There are lessons to be learned, love won and lost and basketball games to win.

I imagine an inner-city version would give us a different cast of characters but every school contains these stereotypes. Stay for the credits as each major teen gets their own epilogue.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tropic Thunder


Ben Stiller sets out to make a satirical film within a film about Hollywood excess and goes over the top himself.

The film is offensive, gross, loud and very funny. There are plenty of quotable lines and great sight gags but in the end, Mr. Stiller and his partners really go to extremes and the overkill dampens the spirit in which it was made.

The film stars Mr. Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan and a thinly disguised Tom Cruise as well as a few memorable cameos. Mr. Downey Jr. ends the summer as he started it (in Iron Man), on top. His acting is just perfect as he creates an amazing character in Kirk Lazarus. Tom Cruise is hysterical as a fat, bald over the top studio executive who's dialog alone warrants the "R" rating.

The opening moments of fake ads and trailers are genius. It's a shame that the rest of the film can't sustain that creative energy. It tries very hard and there are lots of laughs but in the end, it's one explosion too many.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pineapple Express


Seth Rogan and James Franco star in the first of it's kind stoner/action movie. Cheech and Chong made a career out of stoner movies but Mr. Rogan and Mr. Franco take it to another level.

This is a very silly but funny film about male bonding and smoking lots of dope. There is actually one positive anti-drug message in the film, when Mr. Rogan points out they can't get anything done because they are always stoned. The action is fast and cartoonish but the growing relationship between the two men is genuine and it is quite sentimental. Danny McBride co-stars as Red, the resilient middleman who almost steals the film. Also appearing are Rosie Perez and Gary Cole as the cartoonish villains.

Mr. Franco is the one who actually steals the film. His portrayal of Saul, the kind hearted drug dealer is terrific. He shows a new side as a comic actor and when he's in the spotlight the film really shines.

Much of the dialog seems improvised and everyone seems to be having a terrific time. It's not the funniest comedy of the summer but it's worth the time if you are looking for something light and silly. Be warned though, there is a fair amount of gunplay and violence especially in the second half of the film.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Journey To The Center of The Earth 3D"


Brendan Frasier stars as a scientist looking to prove his brother's theories about the center of the earth. He takes his nephew, played by Josh Hutchison on a trip to Iceland following his brother's information. Before you can say, "look out below", they are falling to the center of the earth along with their cute Icelandic guide.

The film has a long set up, some terrific action sequences in the middle and wraps everything up neatly. What really makes the film entertaining is the 3D. It is truly exciting and fun to watch with the newest of 3D technology. Everything from yo-yo's to flying killer fish and dinosaur spit come flying off the screen and seemingly into your lap. The CGI backgrounds make for a visually stimulating environment and once our heroes begin their "journey", the action is pretty non-stop. They do borrow liberally from other films, like the ride through the mine in Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom" but the 3D takes it to another level.

Definitely a fun summer film for the whole family as long as you leave your logic at the door.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Frozen River


A new independent drama starring Melissa Leo, "Frozen River" is a bleak yet gripping drama of life in New York State, on the Canadian border.

Ms. Leo stars as Ray, a mother of two boys struggling to make ends meet. When circumstances pair her with Lila, an Indian woman who smuggles illegal's across a frozen river from Canada, their lives become intertwined in a unlikely yet necessary relationship.

Life is hard near the border and the film pulls no punches. Ms. Leo gives a raw and powerful performance as a woman running out of options to protect her family. Misty Upham co-stars as Lila, who also gives an terrific performance. The bond that develops between these two woman is the core of the story.

There are many suspenseful moments in the film and the winter cinematography will have you chilled to the bone. The subject matter may be bleak but propelled by the strong acting, "Frozen River" won't disappoint if you like good drama.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight


Dark is not the word. Black would be more like it. While entertaining, this film is very, very, grim. Heath Ledger is brilliant and carries the film, but his untimely death adds an aura of additional darkness to an already bleak tale.

As Batman, Christian Bale continues to prove he's the best choice for the role. He does a terrific job as the tortured cape crusader but is overshadowed by Mr. Ledger. Most of the supporting cast from "Batman Returns" are also back although Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and Aaron Eckhart is introduced as DA Harvey Dent. Both welcome additions to the film.

The action sequences are very exciting and well staged. The plot tends to get very thick though and is a bit confusing at times. Was a sequence in Hong Kong really necessary? The themes of the film are very adult and the visuals can be scary for children, especially in a scene where a child is directly in harms way( but makes an amazing recovery in the next scene).

For my money, the top superhero of the summer remains Iron Man.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mamma Mia


Unless you are an Abba fan, there really is no reason to see this film. It's got some star power (Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Christie Baranski, Julie Waters and Colin Firth) but the flimsy plot collapses under the weight of everything Abba.

It's perfectly entertaining if you don't expect much but upon closer examination, it leaves little to desire. Meryl Streep looks like she's having a blast but she's embarrassing to watch. Pierce Brosnan is always dashing but when he sings, there are lots of unintentional laughs from the audience. The film turns on a plot point that is never satisfied but rather made immaterial. The cinematography is very spotting and it's poorly edited. When in doubt, turn up the music to mask another flaw.

There are some fun production numbers and Ms. Streep does an excellent job on "The Winner Takes It All" but overall, it just doesn't work as well as the Broadway show.One of the biggest charms of the show was audience participation which just doesn't work (although Ms Streep tries hard during the credits) on film.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hellboy II : The Golden Army


Hellboy II The Golden Army is strictly for the fans. It is a visual treat written and directed by Guillermo del Toro based on the comic character created by Mike Mignola. Ron Perlman returns as Hellboy as does Selma Blair, Doug Jones, and Jeffrey Tambor in all their respective roles from the first film.

This time around the art direction and fantastic creatures are left overs from the imaginative world of "Pan's Labyrinth". The story is silly and rather dull (shoot the giant plant...yawn). The "Golden Army" of the title look interesting enough but in the end, don't pose much of a threat. A good deal of the film looks like it takes place in the Cantina from "Star Wars IV". The best part is the opening moments in the auction house. It goes downhill from there.

The actors try hard but the script brings them down. Still, it all looks pretty cool and will definitely appeal to a young male teen crowd.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tell No One


Absolutely one of the best films of the year. Run, do not walk if this film is playing in your area. Based on the American novel by Harlan Corban, the film version has been made in France but retains all the twists, turns and suspense of this terrific thriller.

Eight years after Alex is beaten and his wife murdered on their country property, two more bodies are discovered. This sets off a chain of events that lead the police to think Alex may have murdered his wife and Alex to believe his wife may not really be dead at all.

The film works on every level. The direction and editing are superb. The acting is first rate and even the songs and music add and blend perfectly into the story.

The film is an adult rollercoaster ride that will have everyone discussing it long after it's over. I'm telling everyone to see "Tell No One". In French with English subtitles.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wall-E


I must admit I had reservations about seeing this and wrote it off as another cute summer kids flick that didn't deserve my time. After reading all the positive reviews, I changed my mind and I'm certainly glad I did.

This film is simply brilliant. The animation is superb. There are times it doesn't even seem animated, especially in the early sequences on a desolate earth thousands of years in the future. The plot starts as a simple boy meets girl story (substitute robots) but soon you come to realize there is a much larger message here.

It is a story that is heartfelt and tender yet filled with gentle laughs and surprising action. What the film has to say about consumerism and ecology is deliberately scary and will go over the heads of small kids. In fact, "Wall-E" really shouldn't be seen by anyone under 10 years old.

"Wall-E" doesn't pander to it's audience and is filled with many stunning sequences. It is a film that adults can appreciate even without bringing the kids.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Wackness


An Indie favorite from this year's Sundance Festival, "The Wackness" is a snapshot of NYC during the summer of 1994, seen through the eyes of Luke, a teenage drug dealer just trying to get by.

Luke is a white middle class 18 year old trying to find himself in the short time between high school and college. He deals pot for a living and looks for meaning through visits with his shrink, played by Ben Kingsley. Framed by a great rap soundtrack, we follow Luke, played by Josh Peck (all grown up now) through his life pursuing the girl of his dreams, Stephanie, played by Olivia Thirlby.

Mr. Kingsley has lots of fun with the role of Dr. Squires, a shrink who is in dire need of his own analysis, taking pot as payment from Luke's sessions. The film soon turns into a twisted kind of buddy comedy between the two and there are some very funny moments.

This is a fond remembrance to New York when it was both "dope" and "wack" and a heartfelt glimpse of a young man finding himself.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hancock



Will Smith is a very engaging actor but even he can't save this meandering script. The first half hour of Hancock delivers on the promise of the trailer, a boozy bum of a superhero who doesn't seem to really care about anything. This premise is fresh and there is plenty of action and some good laughs as well. The problem is where the story goes from there.

The plot quickly takes a very strange twist and the film heads down an entirely different road. The tone becomes darker, the comedy is gone and suddenly we have a serious drama unfolding. The last act of the film introduces a ridiculous villain, a less than a spectacular fight scene, and an unlikely hero in a character that up until the end seemed to be in a different movie. The ending just fizzles away like extinguishing a firecracker before it explodes.

Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as the PR man who tries to change Hancock's image but he's basically playing Michael Bluth from "Arrested Development". Charlize Theron overacts because she is a serious actress miscast in a confusing role. Will Smith tries to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders but this time out, it just collapses back on him.

I'm sure this will be a huge audience favorite, easily #1 at the box office but...it's just not that good.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wanted


Check your logic at the door and strap yourself in for quite a ride. "Wanted" borrows liberally from the stunt work begun in "The Matrix" but raises the bar considerably.

James McAvoy plays Wes, a nobody in a dead-end cubicle job who is recruited by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman into a secret society of assassins. The plot is secondary to the action and there is plenty of it. Ms. Jolie basically plays the same role as she did in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" only with more of an edge. Mr. McAvoy is well cast as the assassin in training who slowly comes to believe in himself.

The stunt work is nothing short of spectacular and you will do yourself a disservice if you don't see this on a big screen. An early car chase is breathtaking and a train crash later on, while just impossible to believe, is still amazing to watch.

"Wanted" is a perfect action packed summer "popcorn" movie.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Get Smart


Way too many TV shows get remade as feature films and fail miserably. I'm happy to say, "Get Smart" doesn't fall into that trap. It is a fun, updated homage to the TV show starring Don Adams but it "smartly" avoids the pitfalls that have caused so many to crash and burn at the box office.

Steve Carrell is the perfect choice to play Maxwell Smart, Agent 86. Mr. Carrell doesn't try to mimic Mr. Adam's role but instead finds an original voice while staying true to the character. Even the familiar catchphrases are spoken as casual remarks without any forced fanfare. Ann Hathaway assumes the role of Agent 99, originally played by Barbara Felton and she too breathes new life into the character while remaining true to the spirit. Alan Arkin plays the Chief as more of a departure from the original but is still quite effective. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is well cast as Agent 23 and there are quite a few surprise cameos.

Taking a 1/2 hour comedy to the big screen requires the filmmakers to up the ante for action and special effects. The film delivers on all fronts. There is plenty of action, terrific stunt work and lots of legitimate laughs.

A very enjoyable summer comedy that works... and sets up the inevitable sequel.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Incredible Hulk


A vast improvement over the Ang Lee version from a few years back but still strictly for fans of the comic. The story closely follows the comic with a few minor changes.

Edward Norton is perfectly cast as Bruce Banner and William Hurt makes a fine General "Thunderbolt" Ross. Liv Tyler tries too hard and doesn't really do justice to Betty Ross. As Emile Blonsky, Tim Roth adds his usual blend of psychosis and gravitas. Tim Blake Nelson has a small but pivotal role which, if the sequel gets made, will become much more important.

The action sequences are nicely balanced with the human drama and the final battle between The Hulk and The Abomination had the audience actually clapping and cheering. The CGI Hulk is also an improvement over the Lee version but still too obvious.

There are some holes in the plot but also a few pleasant surprises, setting up a Marvel movie franchise for years to come.

Monday, June 09, 2008

You Don't Mess With The Zohan


I was sucker punched by a pretty funny trailer. There's no need to mess with The Zohan as it's already a mess. By far the crudest and most pointless Adam Sandler comedy yet. I wish I could say the film has some potential but, from the start, it's horrible and goes downhill from there.

The film is jammed with star cameos that are completely wasted, except a pretty funny line from Mariah Carey. The point of the film, can't we all just get along, is buried in bad taste Arab and Israeli jokes. Countless penis and crotch jokes, sex with senior citizens, the abuse of an cat (thankfully an obvious fake) and Lannie Kazan's bare rear-end will have you running from the theater.

Personally I never walk out on a film. I'd hate for someone to tell me the last ten minutes were pure genius. No worries here. Save your money and don't even walk in.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sex And The City


I admit it. I'm in touch with my feminine side and enjoyed this series very much. The film is a very satisfying visit with old friends.

Michael Patrick King does a nice job mixing the various sub-plots of Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte while still keeping Carrie in the spotlight. The girls have aged a bit and are all dealing with various new issues but King doesn't stray too far from the box and keeps everything very familiar.

The cast wear their characters like their wardrobe...fabulous, and all your favorite supporting players turn up...to support. New York still sparkles like the fairytale version depicted on the TV series.

Half the fun of watching the film in a theater is listening to the audience reactions during the screening. Besides the expected laughing and crying, you'll probably hear many comments you weren't expecting and much of it is unintentionally very funny.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Redbelt


The latest film from writer/director David Mamet has him returning to the world he loves best...doubling dealing and the art of the con, this time set in the world of Martial Arts. I believe I read somewhere that Mr. Mamet practices Martial Arts and so it was only a matter of time, he explored that world in one of his films.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, A Jiu-Jitsu instructor who is struggling to keep his school up and running. An accident on a rainy night puts into motion a series of events that drastically alter his life , forcing him to compete professionally for the first time.

While the background is Martial Arts, the real story is typical "Mamet". An innocent finds himself thrust into a wolf's den of con artists, double crossers, and everyone on the make for something. The supporting cast features many of Mr. Mamet's regulars including Ricky Jay, Joe Mantenga, David Paymer, J.J. Johnston, and of course his wife, Rebbeca Pidgeon. The film also stars Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, and Alice Braga. It's a great cast doing what they do best, interpreting Mamet's rhythms and dialog.

"Despite a rather abrupt ending (that does manage to satisfy to some degree), the film didn't get it's just due for a theatrical run and will probably be out on DVD soon. If you are a Mamet fan, don't miss it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Fall


Director Tarsem, coming off his debut film, the visually interesting but empty, "The Cell", returns with another visual stunner. This time with a much more fulfilling story.

The film is about a young child recuperating in a Los Angeles hospital who befriends another patient, Roy, who begins to tell her a fascinating story filled with romance and adventure. He fills the story with characters taken from people in and around the hospital.

Shot practically all over the world, "The Fall" is breathtaking to watch. Apparently most of all the visuals were real and not CGI and they are amazing. This is a visual treat. The swimming elephant alone is worth the price of admission.

Tarsem paints a beautiful canvas but as a director needs to work on his pacing and action sequences. "The Fall" is a big improvement over his last effort and it's good to see him growing as a director without losing his flair for visual imagery.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

OSS 117: Nest of Spies


A French comedy that has been on the Indie circuit for a while now, OSS is a very funny satire of early '60 spy films. The film takes place in 1955 Cairo but has a look and feel of Sean Connery era James Bond meets Maxwell Smart by way of Napoleon Solo. If you aren't familiar with these names, this isn't the film for you.

A suave yet bumbling secret agent, OSS 117 manages to do everything wrong but come out on top. Much of the comedy is based on the history of the times but even if you have no idea of 1955 Egyptian politics, there is still plenty to laugh at.

Jean Dujardin stars as 117 and he is terrific in the role. The cinematography and direction gets the look and feel of the film just right. I hope this is the start of a franchise. If you miss it in a theater, catch it on DVD.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of The Cyrstal Skull


"Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the blah blah blah...."

After twenty years, it's fun to have Indiana Jones swing back into our lives but shortly after a rush of nostalgic adrenaline, the film quickly turns to a bloated rehash of pieces of The "Indy" trilogy with a little "Stars Wars" and "Close Encounters" thrown in.

Harrison Ford still makes a striking hero but even he looks bored in certain scenes. There is way too much exposition to explain the convoluted plot and how many times do we have to go into scary caves and wipe away cobwebs?

Shia LaBeouf was cast to attract a younger audience and possibly keep the franchise going. Cate Blanchett vamps it up as a Russian villain but keeps misplacing her accent. Karen Allen is a nice addition if only to remind fans how much fun and magical "Raiders of The Lost Ark" really was compared to this retread.

There are some exciting moments but unfortunately the magic is gone. Enough with the sequels. It's time for Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas to really thrill us again with something new and original.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Visitor


Anchored by a terrific performance by Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor" is a gem of an Indie film buried among the arriving Hollywood blockbusters. This is the second film from writer/director Tom McCarthy, who's previous film, "The Station Agent", was an Indie hit a few years back.

This is the story of Walter Vale, a character worn by Mr. Jenkins like a second skin, a college professor sleepwalking through his life. An unusual encounter with two young immigrants begins a journey of discovery for Walter, jumpstarting his life.

"The Visitor" has a lot to say about second chances, friendship and even Immigration laws but is never heavy-handed about any of it. The film moves at a leisurely pace constantly surprising us with little moments of clarity.

Much like "the Station Agent", "The Visitor" is filled with memorable characters and a story that will linger with you for days.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man


It is so satisfying when they get a superhero movie right. Director Jon Favreau must be a fan as the plot and direction are very faithful to the original comic and as a fan myself, I really appreciate the effort. The best thing about Iron Man, aside from the special effects, is the brilliant decision to cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

Robert Downy Jr. brings an edge to the character that other actors would have missed. He is perfectly cast as are much of his co-stars. Gwyneth Paltrow not only brings "Pepper" Potts to life but he actually resembles the way Pepper is drawn in the comics. Terrence Howard plays Tony's friend Rhodey who we should see a lot more of in the sequel. And as the villain, Jeff Bridges does a great job without being too over the top (even when he's operating a monstrous version of Iron Man ).

Since this is an origin story, there is much to fill in about how Stark becomes Iron Man but rather than boring back story, the early part of the film is rich in character and detail, only updating the location from Vietnam to Afghanistan for a more contemporary connection.

The story is fast paced, filled with humor and suspense, and some excellent CGI work, particularly when Pepper sticks her hand into Stark's chest. The recreation of Iron Man's armor should win an academy award by itself. It's a perfect rendition of the comic book brought to life.

I can't wait for Iron Man 2.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Baby Mama


Basically a 90 minute Saturday Night Live skit strung together with pieces of "Baby Boom" and "The Odd Couple". I was disappointed by the weak script which gave us all the good parts in the coming attractions. While the film was written by an ex-Saturday Night Live scribe, it wasn't Tina Fey and that's pretty clear throughout the film ( a mushy sentimental ending, oh please).

As if to overcome the script, "Baby Mama" stuffs itself full of well known co-stars. Steve Martin plays Ms. Fey's new age boss. Sigourney Weaver is the owner of the Surrogate Service that tries to help Ms. Fey and Greg Kinnear plays her love interest. Mr. Martin is amusing, Ms. Weaver is over the top and Mr. Kinnear sleepwalks through the film. And of course, anything with Tina Fey has to have cameos by some of her SNL buddies, which is distracting and makes it feel even more like a TV skit.

Amy Poehler is probably the funniest woman on the planet right now and she does her best with the flimsy material. Tina Fey plays smart funny and the two women make for a great comic duo. One day they will make a truly funny buddy movie (if Tina Fey writes it). "Baby Mama" isn't it.