Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pirate Radio

The year is 1966 and rock and roll is banned from British radio. Pirate stations take to the high seas to broadcast without government approval. This sets the stage for Pirate Radio. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Nick Frost, and Rhys Ifans. January Jones (of Mad Men fame) has a small cameo that doesn't seem worth her time (or ours). Pirate Radio could have been a dramatic retelling of rock rebellion but instead plays it light and fast in an enjoyable romp with a great soundtrack.

Mr. Branagh is over the top conservative as the uptight government official trying to shut them down. His scene at the family Christmas dinner is priceless. Mr. Hoffman plays "The Count", an American DJ and defacto leader of the radio rebels. This is rare chance to see him obviously having a good time in a fun role. Each of the other DJ's are played by well known British actors and each is a character unto themselves.

The film is nothing more than a series of vignettes about the various characters juxtaposed by the efforts of the government to ban them from the airwaves. The soundtrack is classic '60's rock and roll ( and I won't quibble if some of the songs played were post 1966).

A fun time is had by all.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Red Cliff

Director John Woo returns to his Chinese roots with this epic tale of medieval China. Fans of "Braveheart" and "300", will appreciate the fine art of war as an outmanned rebel army makes it's stand against thousands of invading soldiers.

Featuring a real cast of thousands, arrows fly and swords clash in the epic battle at Red Cliff. Mr. Woo directs like an general, leading his cast through battle after battle until the final fiery climax. The cinematography is breathtaking with sweeping panoramas and vivid close-ups. The battle scenes have striking realism, on foot, horseback or at sea, everything is authentic.

Chinese superstar, Tony Leung is in fine form as the leader of the rebel army. He is probably the most recognizable name to an American audience. Lin Chi-Ling co-stars as his wife and plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the battle. The rest of the cast all do admirable work but the real stars of the film are the action sequences, which are spectacular.

The film is in Chinese with sub-titles but once the action starts, it's just good vs. bad and their weapons do the talking. If you are a fan of this genre, don't miss it on the big screen.

The Blind Side

A terrific true story of a poor, homeless, Black American teenager who is taken in by a well to do white family is given a sugar-coated screenplay making it the "feel-good" holiday movie of the season. It's the story of Michael Oher, who manages to succeed at academics,and with the help of his adopted family, gets a football scholarship at Mississippi State. This kind of true life tale can be a true inspiration but gets bogged down in a sanitized script that ultimately still succeeds on the strength of it's cast.

Sandra Bullock stars as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the feisty mother, who feels sorry for "Big Mike" and takes him home and under her very protective wing. Ms. Bullock inhabits the role completely and is just terrific in the part. It is easily one of her best roles to date. Country singer Tim McGraw plays her husband and does a good job as second fiddle to the fiery Leigh Anne. Newcomer, Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher and he is excellent, especially with very little dialog. He has great expression and uses it effectively in every scene.

It's a great success story but the film manages to make everything look too easy. The film lacks tension until a potential problem near the end, which is resolved rather quickly. I enjoyed the acting and the football background but the film left me wanting more than a 20 second flashback of Mr. Oher's back story. In real life, I'm sure Mr. Oher's triumph came with more blood, sweat, and tears.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Broken Embraces

The latest film from Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar is a wonderful tribute to the '50's film noir, filled with many cinematic references, including nods to his own earlier work. Mr. Almodovar, once again, works with Penelope Cruz and she is just wonderful in the film. There is something so natural in their collaboration that brings out her best work.

While a homage to the "50's noir, the film is very contemporary in it's use of color. Bright colors are a staple of Mr. Almodovar's work and he paints a bright palate as he weaves his tale of love, betrayal, and deception shifting back and forth in time from the '90's to today. The cinematography is wonderful with fanciful angles and fascinating shots throughout the film.

The intricate story unfolds at it's own pace and plot points slowly reveal themselves. Ms. Cruz has never looked lovelier and does some of her best work as Lena. Lluis Homar is Mateo, the film director blinded years earlier and now living as a screenwriter. Mr. Homar is excellent as a man reinvented after horrible circumstances who finds himself reexamining the past only to confront his future. How these two lives become entwined is the central plot of the story.

The film is in Spanish with subtitles but don't let that deter you. It's a deep and rich story that will pull you in and and you'll find yourself happy in it's charms.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New Moon

Not a film I would ordinarily review but since I took 4 teenage girls to see it, I'll weigh in. Bogged down in teenage angst, the film just crawls along dragging the audience with it. The cast has returned to part two in the series and this time the focus is on Jacob (Taylor Lautner) after Edward (Robert Pattinson) turns his back on Bella (kristen Stewart).

Mr. Lautner's idea of acting is to remove his shirt and let his buff body carry him through the film. Mr. Pattinson and Ms. Stewart have cornered the market on brooding and sleepwalking through a role. The film is joyless and painful to watch as Bella procrastinates between her vampire and her werewolf.

Polling my 4 teen viewers, one really liked it, two thought it was ok, and one disliked it. The young lady who didn't like it said it didn't hold up to the expectations of the book. I didn't read the book but I did see the first film and I was expecting more as well.

The legions of fans make this film critic proof and frankly, that's just who the film is for...the fans. Everyone else can skip it and and not miss anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Devastating drama of an overweight, illiterate 16 year old African American girl in Harlem circa 1987. Director Lee Daniels pulls no punches exploring the horrors that are this young girl's everyday world. Precious has been raped twice by her father resulting in her second pregnancy as the film begins. She struggles in school, and and lives under the tyranny of her abusive mother.

Pregnant and failing, Precious is sent to an alternative school where she begins to improve under the guidance of a friendly teacher. While her educational awakening begins to change her life, her world at home continues to spiral out of control.

Gabourey Sidibe stars as Precious and she is a wonder. This is an extremely difficult part and yet Ms. Sidibe never compromises and pours out every raw emotion on screen. The film co-stars the comedienne, Mo'nique, playing against type as a monster of a mother. The physical and mental abuse she brings down on Precious is almost unbearable to watch. I would expect Oscar nominations in the future for both women.

The film also features Paula Patton, as the teacher who gets through to Precious, Lenny Kravitz as a hospital nurse and Mariah Cary, almost unrecognizable in her role as a social worker. Mr. Kravitz and Ms. Cary only have a few scenes but they are both very credible.

This is not an easy film to watch but it is powerful filmmaking. There is no doubt that girls like Precious are out there struggling to survive every day. However, while not a traditional "upbeat" ending, there is a message of hope at the end.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Box

Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella star in a film based on a Richard Matheson story...what could be bad? How about the whole thing?

Written and directed by Richard Kelly, of "Donnie Darko" fame, you expect an off the wall story and you get it. The possibility of Martians conducting human experiments , zombie-like townspeople with nosebleeds, conspiracies by NASA and The NSA, it's quite the mix for a simple tale of human imperfection. Faced with a simple choice, "push the button and get a million dollars but a stranger dies", do you push it or not?

It's a promising premise and Mr. Langella is quite chilling as the messenger (with great CGI makeup) but the film loses it's way and get tangled up in it's own intricacies. In the end, it's just a convoluted mess.