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


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


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.