Thursday, December 31, 2009

BEST & WORST of 2009

Best of 2009

Honorable mention- Up- A very warm human comedy told through rich animation.

10) Star Trek- Works on every level. Great casting, credible story and action at warp speed. This one delivers the goods!

9) The Messenger- Excellent human drama with fantastic performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster

8) Avatar- Spectacular visuals enliven and enhance the retread plot. Tells an old story in an entirely new setting and makes it fresh and exciting

7) Precious- devastating urban drama with amazing performances.

6) Fantastic Mr. Fox- Delightful. Visually brilliant in its simplicity and crafty in it’s dialog.

5) An Education- Coming of age story brilliantly written and acted.

4) District 9- Fantastic, original filmmaking. A political Sc-fi film like no other.

3) Inglorious Basterds- Another triumph from Quentin Tarantino.

2) Up in the Air- Very entertaining but also depressing dramady with spot on acting by George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Famiga.

1) The Hurt Locker- Authentic, visceral, and gripping story of war that keeps you on edge with unbearable suspense.

Worst of 2009

10) Wolverine- All Style and little substance. Decent action but flimsy story.

9) Paul Blart Mall Cop- Silly comedy with a few laughs courtesy of Kevin James.

8) Duplicity- Audience is the one who gets duped in this confusing, empty star vehicle for Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

7) Twilight:New Moon- I just don’t get it but then again I’m not a teenage girl.

6) Sherlock Holmes- Overindulgent and actually tedious with characters that have no depth at all.

5) The International- Clive Owen can’t save this “Bourne” ripoff minus the action. A silly plot and a wasted Naomi Watts can’t make for the great worldwide locations and one solid action sequence.

4) Nine- Some enjoyable flashes but disappointing and a miscast Daniel Day Lewis.

3) Knowing- Not knowing would have been better. Un-original and dreary.

2) Year One- An awful mess on every level. How disappointing from the man who directed “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes”.

1) The Box- better left unopened.

It's Complicated

Rich white woman fairy tale with a charming Alec Baldwin and a very natural Meryl Streep. Nobody does "chick flicks" for adult women better than writer/director Nancy Meyers. However her films never seem to take place in the "real world". You have to laugh when Ms. Streep explains to her architect, "now I can have a real kitchen" when the one she is standing in comes right out of Architecture Digest. And this is also an alternative universe where minorities don't exist.

Steve Martin co-stars as a potential love interest for Ms. Streep who, after 10 years, is suddenly having an affair with her ex-husband played by Mr. Baldwin. Once again, the trailer gives you the best bits but John Krasinski provides much comic relief not seen in the trailers. Even if you know what's coming, the movie is still light and fun, even if unrealistic outside of certain circles.

If not for the A-list cast, this would have made a fine Lifetime Channel film. The principles elevate it beyond that and it does have it's charms. Who can resist Meryl Streep exclaiming "turns out I'm a bit of a slut"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Messenger

How unfortunate that this film is disappearing all too quickly from theaters. It is a powerful, moving and honest drama with wonderful performances from Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, and Samantha Morton.

Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, a solider back from Iraq after being wounded in a firefight. With three months left on his tour of duty, he is assigned to the Casualty Notification Unit reporting to Tony Stone, played by Woody Harrelson. It is the job of these officers to notify the next of kin when a soldier is killed in service. Samantha Morton plays a young mother notified of her husband's death who touches something in Mr. Foster and Steve Buscemi has a moving cameo as a notified parent. On the surface, you might dismiss the plot as too depressing but there is also humor and healing at work here.

Each notification brings it's own special circumstances and as the two men bond, their own emotional layers reveal themselves as they grow closer. The acting is just superb. Ben Foster is no stranger to complex roles and this is easily one of the best things he's ever done. Woody Harrelson caps a busy year of work with a terrific performance and both actors honor the work of the real military personnel who perform this difficult assignment.

This is a deeply affecting story that will linger long after it's over. Don't miss it when it's available on DVD.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes as action hero? Basil Rathbone is turning over in his grave. Director Guy Ritchie re-imagines the famous sleuth for the 21st century and the result is an over the top film starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.

Mr. Ritchie bludgeons us with fast paced sights and sounds practically begging for approval. He might as well be screaming "isn't this fun?" and "isn't this exciting?" Mr. Downey Jr. appears to have free reign over the character and his usual charm and wit are overblown and his portrayal soon becomes tedious even as total mayhem erupts on screen. Mr. Law tries his best to reel things in but as written, his relationship with Holmes plays like an 19th century version of "I Love You, Man".

Rachel McAdams co-stars as Irene Adler, a character who's motives are unclear. We never learn much about her except that she can run from the sewers of London to the top of Tower Bridge in record time. Her relationship with Holmes seems to change with every scene and while enjoyable to watch, her acting is wasted on a hollow role.

You can't escape the ads and previews for this film so once it starts, you feel as though you've already seen it. This is an prime example of Hollywood overindulgence. The audience is force fed a Holiday meal that looks appetizing but once digested, leaves you stuffed, uncomfortable and not asking for seconds. Unfortunately, the end sets up a sequel anyway. We can only hope for more character and less effects.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Writer/Director Terry Gilliam once again takes us for a wild ride inside his imagination. His vehicle is a magic mirror that transports a person into the imagination of the title character, played to perfection by Christopher Plummer. Of course many will seek out this film to see Heath Ledger's last performance, not even being familiar with Mr. Gilliam's earlier work or fertile mind.

Mr. Ledger does not disappoint as Tony, a mysterious and loveable rogue, who becomes part of the Dr. Parnassus Traveling show. In a macabre twist, when we first see Tony, he is dangling from the end of a noose, apparently dead. Revived by Dr. P's daughter, Valentina and the two other members of the troupe, Percy and Anton, Tony begins to earn his keep by attracting a bigger audience to the show.

And what a show it is. As the audience members pass though the mirror and into the mind of Dr. P, the screen fills with wild visions as the souls of each person are tempted by both good and evil. The evil comes in the form of Mr. Nick, the devil himself, played with flair and malice by Tom Waits. Besides the star power, the rest of the cast is also quite good. Verne Troyer (known primarily for Mini-Me) shows versatility as Percy, Andrew Garfield is heroic as Anton, and Lily Cole is delightful as Valentina.

What has created the most interest for this film was how to complete Mr. Ledger's role since he passed before the film was done. Luckily, the film has the luxury of a magic mirror and sequences of imagination that allow Tony to be played by three different actors, each time he passes through. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell each take turns playing Tony and the transformation works seamlessly in the context of the film. Mr. Depp and Mr. Law have the shorter scenes but do an admirable job keeping the character in synch. Mr. Farrell does a great job with the pivotal role of Tony in the last sequence.

Mr. Gilliam borrows from his earlier work with parts of the film resembling "The Fisher King" and even a nod to Monty Python with a dancing policemen bit. The film is a fanciful, trippy tale that will probably be best appreciated by Mr. Gilliam's fans but the pleasure of Mr. Plummer's performance as well as the "four Tonys" can appeal to anyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Hoping to recreate the magic of "Chicago", director Rob Marshall takes on the film adaption of the Broadway show, "Nine". Unfortunately, it lacks "all that jazz".

Daniel Day-Lewis is miscast as Guido Contini, the famous director who has lost his way while trying to make a new film. Mr. Day-Lewis is too good a dramatic actor to just brood or watch others perform from the sidelines. And as for his two musical numbers, well let's just say, stick to drama. The majority of the film is set on one incomplete sound stage where Guido is trying to start his new film and it's where most of the musical numbers take place. That alone makes things very repetitious and may have worked better if the songs were more memorable.

Mr. Marshall made "Chicago" work on screen by having the musical numbers play out in the actors minds. He utilizes the same technique here but the songs aren't as strong and the actors are just adequate performing them. The exceptions are Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz, who both shine above the rest of the cast. Ms. Cotillard is easily the best actress in the film, playing Guido's long suffering wife. Her singing and acting are terrific. Ms. Cruz does a great job as the mistress, Carla and does herself proud in her big, sexy musical number.

The rest of the "star" power fizzles. Judi Dench tries hard but shouldn't be doing musicals, Nicole Kidman has nothing to do but look pretty, and Kate Hudson has a fun number but is less than memorable. Sofia Loren adds some Italian authenticity as Mama and it is nice to see her on screen once again but she's not asked to do too much. Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson doesn't act but performs the most popular song "Be Italian" and it's one of the few musical highlights.

Skip "Nine" and rent "8 1/2", the original Italian film the musical is based on. It's a classic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Director Clint Eastwood gets overly sentimental with this new film based on Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The story is inspiring enough but Mr. Eastwood manipulates the script, the music, and the cinematography to drive the emotion and inspiration over the top.

The story of how Mr. Mandela uses rugby to help unite his country is very inspirational. It's a tricky move to get an American audience involved in a film about South Africa and rugby. While the game sequences are exciting, not knowing enough about the sport hindered my emotional involvement and Mr. Eastwood's musical choices are very manipulative. When the 99% white team does a rugby clinic with a group of South African black kids, do we really need to hear a song called "Colorblind" during the scene.

Morgan Freeman is outstanding as Nelson Mandela. It's always tricky to recreate a true story with bigger than life true characters but Mr. Freeman honors Mr. Mandela with a very natural performance. The other big name in this film is Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team. Unfortunately Mr. Damon's role is reduced to some inspirational team speeches and few shots of him actually involved in the rugby matches.

Mr. Eastwood is an accomplished director, who finds the human story behind the politics and sports but "Invictus" is far from his best film.

Monday, December 21, 2009


James Cameron is once more "King of The World" with the release of his latest masterpiece, "Avatar". This new film is a visual spectacle that seamlessly fuses live action and computer images to create a stunning new world.

It's important to be dazzled by the visuals because you've seen this basic plot before in hundreds of film dating back to the earliest westerns. The evil "white man" or in this case, humans, exploit the indigenous population for their valuable resources. And, as with many of these films, resort to destroying their homes and killing off the local population to line their pockets.

Mr. Cameron liberally borrows this theme, along with plot points from the sci-fi classic book, " The Dragonriders of Pern", and even his own earlier films, "Aliens", in particular. Giovanni Ribisi, in "Avatar", basically plays the Paul Reiser role from "Aliens". But these are minor complaints because even though you've seen the plot before, you have never seen it presented like this.

Setting the story on his fictional world of Pandora, Mr. Cameron makes the story seem fresh and exciting in a most spectacular way. Every detail is perfect and moments into the film, you will forget you're watching computer generated images and everything and everyone will come alive before you. There are so many sequences that take your breath away, you might be better off with an oxygen tank rather than popcorn.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, the former Marine turned Avatar to learn about the local population. Sigourney Weaver (in "Ripley" mode) is the biologist who has developed the avatar technology and opposes the military option. Stephen Lang is Coronel Quaritch, the tough as nails military leader, who easily becomes one of the all time great screen villains. Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, and CC Pounder lend their voices and features to the main Na'vi characters. Mr. Cameron's film technology is so advanced, you just don't know where the actor stops and the technology begins.

To truly appreciate this film, I strongly recommend you see it in IMAX 3-D. This was the medium Mr. Cameron had in mind when he created the film and to see it on a regular screen in basic 2-D will just not do it justice. Avatar is a grand adventure on a whole new level.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans

In 1992, Harvey Keitel starred in "Bad Lieutenant". That film is a classic due to the raw, gutsy, over the top performance of Mr. Keitel as the most amoral cop ever. Now, Director Werner Herzog re-imagines the character, setting him in post Katrina New Orleans. This is not a sequel and has no connection to the former film except for the fact this new Lieutenant is just as amoral and into as much illegal activity as the original.

Nicolas Cage is an interesting actor. He seems to make many films just for the paycheck and then every once in a while, he pulls out all the stops and digs deep into his character. In "Bad Lieutenant", he pays homage to Mr. Keitel but also makes the character his own and gives one of his best performances. While he is excellent in the film, the story lacks the depth and raw emotion of the original.

The film has features a fine supporting cast. Eva Mendes is Mr. Cage's hooker girlfriend (with an original twist), Val Kilmer is his partner, the rapper Xhibit plays a drug dealer, Brad Dourif is a bookie (nice to see him working again) and Jennifer Coolidge (playing out of her comedy safety zone in a dramatic turn) is an alcoholic step mom. I must voice two complaints, however. Since the film authentically takes place in New Orleans, why don't any of the characters have a "Nawlin's" accent and why must all rapper turned actors play drug dealers?

The first film had religious overtones with deep Catholic subtext. There is nothing in the new film to suggest guilt or atonement. Mr. Cage never seems to suffer for his transgressions but his performance is riveting and on the surface captures the spirit of the original film.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Simply delightful.

Wes Anderson has crafted a wonderful stop motion animated film for children of all ages. His cast of vocal talent couldn't be any better. George Clooney is the dashing Mr. Fox. Meryl Streep holds it altogether as Mrs. Fox. Jason Schwartzman is their odd son Ash and Bill Murray is Weasel, the lawyer. And as the lead villain, Michael Gambon is perfection.

The visuals are amazing. Animating the puppets for stop motion is painstakingly slow work but it pays off in a big way. It's familiar and yet totally original at the same time. The story is a simple tale but the dialog is subtly subversive and adult. The film will surprise you. And it's got a great eclectic soundtrack as well.

It's impossible not to like this film. Try to see it on a big screen before it disappears but if you miss it, grab the DVD when it comes out.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Road

If you've read the book, skip the film. The book, by Cormac McCarthy, was a bleak but absorbing story of a father and son trying to survive in a post apocalyptic America. As written by Mr. McCarthy, one could envision the story unfolding on the screen in his cinematic prose. The film recreates the story but just can't convey the bond between father and son with the same depth.

Viggo Mortensen is excellent as "Poppa", a man pushed to the brink, to keep his son alive. His acting with Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the son, is convincing enough but again can't reach the emotion and conviction of the book.

Robert Duvall, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael kenneth Williams all have very minor roles as people met along "The Road". Charlize Theron, also has what amounts to a cameo as Mr. Mortensen's wife (seen only in flashbacks).

The film is dark and bleak, true to it's source, as it follows the father and son on their journey across a barren and hostile wasteland. There is little in the way of hope and it is an unrelenting 90 minutes. If this storyline intrigues you, read the book instead for a more fulfilling experience.

Up In The Air

George Clooney is perfectly cast in this new comedy/drama from director Jason Reitman. His character, Ryan Bingham, is a corporate "terminator for hire" sent in to fire employees when companies can't do it themselves. He spends the majority of his life on planes, in airports, and Hilton Hotels jetting from city to city to downsize corporations.

Ryan's lifestyle is threatened by Natalie Keener, a young upstart with plans to fire via the internet and he is forced to take her on the road to "show her the ropes". This begins a journey of self examination by both Ryan and Natalie, which is further complicated when Ryan meets Alex Goran, a female equivalent of himself.

Anna Kendrick plays Natalie and she is just terrific, watching her character deepen as the story evolves. Vera Farmiga plays Alex and she plays beautifully against Mr. Clooney. In minor roles are Justin Bateman, as Mr. Clooney's boss, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis as downsized employees, and Danny McBride as a nervous bridegroom.

It's an entertaining film but, at the same time, depressing to those of us who have been "downsized" in real life. Mr. Reitman acknowledges the terminated by having real people play many of the employees fired in the film. The story itself takes some unexpected twists and turns but has much to say about corporate America in our current climate and the digital age.