Thursday, February 26, 2009

Role Models (2008)

Movie quotes:
Danny (Paul Rudd): Sarah. Ah, Sarah! You ever talk to her?
Augie: (Christopher Mintz-Plasse): No, I killed her a couple of times in battle, but that’s not really…

Wheeler (Seann William Scott): I don't have crabs! What have you been telling these kids?
Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson): That you have crabs.

"Jeez, it's like Shrek's piss."
- Danny, while urinating neon green liquid

"Now let us gingerly touch our tips."
- Kuzzik (Joe Lo Truglio)

At a glance:
Role Models has its share of pandering to lovers of all things tasteless, but it also has plenty of original laugh out loud humor and simulated swordplay to make it worth seeing

Our review:
Two late-twenty-something co-workers are complete opposites. Wheeler (Seann William Scott) is a one-night-stand ladies man who is happy with his life – and he loves his job, which consists of dressing up like a Minotaur and traveling from school to school to promote the green Minotaur soft drink and tell kids to say no to drugs. Danny (Paul Rudd) is the Minotaur’s partner/MC. He’s spent 10 years doing these gigs and feels like he is getting nowhere. When his dismal long-term attitude starts to affect his long-time girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), she breaks up with him – and things go downhill from there. Faced with either a jail term or community service, the guys take the latter – and end up as mentors for a couple of unusual boys. At its best in the initial stages when Rudd and Scott play off each other, and in the latter stages (with a redemption story that takes place within the confines of a Medieval Battle Club), Role Models weakens a little for a while as it is almost overwhelmed by bad taste, especially its handful of jokes that deal with child abuse. It alternates between hilarity and puerility – so fans of the puerile should be in a constant state of enjoyment. But this is not a lazy comedy; there are plenty of little touches thrown in (like many of Wheeler’s comments about actors) that would not have been there if the creators only cared about grinding out another gross-out teen pic. Good supporting work by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who plays the quintessential nerd to perfection), the remarkable Bobb'e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, and Joe Lo Truglio.

Perhaps because I have just finished watching a string of tasteful classy Oscar nominated dramas, Role Models probably seemed intensely offensive at times. But I should also temper my love of its humor, because those Oscar movies were extremely serious and virtually devoid of laughs.

Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Has a very high laugh-per-minute ratio."
-Mike McGranaghan (Aisle Seat)

"Well, here's something we don't usually see at the movies. 'Role Models' is a raucously bawdy lowbrow comedy with a brain."
-Larry Ratliff (San Antonio Express-News)

"'Role Models' is what you might expect, a juvenile farce that celebrates a sort of nihilistic, anything-goes raunchiness before revealing its heart of gold. There's nothing wrong with a formula like this when it works. Here it does."
-Rossiter Drake (San Francisco Examiner)

"Where most mainstream comedies strain to make their jokes as zany and crazy as possible, Role Models has the unspeakable bravery to base almost all of its comedy on things that could actually happen."
-Tim Brayton (Antagony & Ecstasy)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Milk (2008)

Movie quotes:
"And It was about that time that someone first called me ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’…I may have invented the term myself."
- Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

Dan White (Josh Brolin) Harvey, society can’t exist without the family.
Harvey Milk: We’re not against that.
Dan White: You’re not? What, can two men reproduce?
Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying!

At a glance:
Gus van Sant directs and Sean Penn stars in this moving and virtually perfect tribute to gay rights activist Harvey Milk, and an outstanding supporting cast helps create an authentic feeling of ‘community’

Our review:
Harvey Milk was a gay rights pioneer who saw the vaccuum of leadership and representation, and was perfectly suited to fill it. Starting in an area of San Francisco called Castro, he battled against prejudiced straights, brutal police, and a slow start to his political career to finally become the first openly gay person to be elected to public office.

There’s no doubt Sean Penn, like a fine wine, is getting better with age. His recent directorial project, Into the Wild, was a stylized success. And his portrayal of Harvey Milk retains his usual on-screen dynamic presence with a restraint not normally associated with his performances. He and a talented supporting cast, led by Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin, create a moving tribute to Milk and a seemingly accurate snapshot of the growth of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Director Gus Van Sant uses a documentary style to lend creedence to this biopic.

The film ends with a series of comparisons between the cast compared with photos of the real people they portrayed; in many cases, the likenesses are striking.

Milk has been nominated for 8 Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Penn), Best Supporting Actor (Brolin), and Best Director (van Sant).

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"As a portrait of Harvey Milk, Van Sant's film is a sincere work, bolstered by an unquestionably outstanding turn by Sean Penn."
-James Mottram (Channel 4 Film)

"Van Sant’s skill as a film-maker is showcased here to inspiring effect. Rarely has a lesson in political history felt so involving and alive."
-Wendy Ide Times [UK])

Friday, February 20, 2009

Australia (2008)

Movie quotes:
Drover (Hugh Jackman): We're not really used to -
Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman): A woman? I suppose you think I should be back in Darwin, at the church fete or a lady's whatever you call it. Well I will have you know, I am as capable as any man.
Drover: Guests. We're not used to guests is what I was about to say but now that you mention it I happen to quite like the women of the outback.

At a glance:
Baz Luhrmann’s epic portrayal of outback Australia during World War II is a combination western, romance, and war movie, with indigenous mysticism, too, and Luhrmann fans – and fans of pure spectacle and entertainment – will love it

Our review:
There are certain ambitious directors who bring and stamp their own mood, agenda, and personality onto every film they make. Baz Luhrmann is one of those directors. If you don’t relate to his point of view, watching one of his films could be a long, confusing slog (hence the mixed reviews for this film). If you do relate to his personality and are like-minded in the way you view the world, then he can pretty much throw any scene and/or visual imagery at you, and you will understand what he is trying to do.

I connect with Baz Luhrmann. Consequentially, I loved Australia.

The story: during World War II, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to her Australian outback cattle property to find out why her husband has not returned. She believes he is there to have dalliances, but he was actually trying to run cattle and compete with cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), the man who has a regional beef monopoly. Her cattle have been stolen by Carney’s evil employee, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Thoroughly out of her element, Lady Sarah must deal with the outback hardships while getting a crash course in aboriginal culture. For help, she turns to an honest, free spirited larrikin called The Drover (Hugh Jackman).

Australia crams almost everything into its long running time of 165 minutes. It’s a western war romance, with a dose of indigenous spirituality. It tries to be as big a film as Australia the country, and, for the most part, it succeeds. For all its length and spectacle, its main point of view is refreshingly simple: Australia can be a beautiful place if we treat people and the land with respect and tolerance. Reviews have been mixed, but I believe that as time goes on, the opinion of this film will slowly improve.

Australia is populated with a who’s who of Australian actors: Barry Otto, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, Ben Mendelsohn, and striking newcomer Brandon Walters as Nullah. In the same way, it covers a large and important period in Australian history, taking dead-serious issues and presenting them in a way that makes them entertaining.

Baz Luhrmann is brave as always, but he was misguided if he believed that he could make a wildly successful epic film that at the same time personalized and documented in lyrical imagery the atrocities of white Australians to indigenous people. While the majority of present-day white Australians acknowledge and are sorry that these atrocities did happen, many of them would still be squirming uncomfortably when presented with such blatant dramatization of representative tragic incidents.

Whether Luhrmann knew this problem or not, one thing is certain, for he has proven this over and over; he must always make the film that he must make, with no compromises. His films may be flawed, but they are always ambitious, flamboyant, original, passionate, and aware of their own self as film.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"This is a movie for those who say they don't make 'em like they used to."
-Robert Roten (Laramie Movie Scope)

"Australia is an epic love story, and a quite extraordinary piece of kitsch. Everything about the film is wildly over the top."
-James Christopher (Times [UK])

"Though the plot is similar to a Barbara Stanwyck '50s Western by way of Out of Africa, Luhrmann goes one further, infusing the film with a mystical quality that seems wholly authentic to this aboriginal land."
-Kimberly Gadette (Indie Movies Online)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Appaloosa (2008)

Movie quotes:
Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons): You a drinking man, Marshall?
Virgil Cole (Ed Harris): Not so much.
Randall Bragg: And, uh…Mr. 8 gauge over there?
Virgil Cole: Mr. Everett Hitch
Randall Bragg: You a drinking man, Everett?
Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen): Not so much.
Randall Bragg: Hard to like a man who doesn’t drink a little.
Virgil Cole: But not impossible.

Everett: You got feelings about Allie, don’t you?
Virgil: I cared about Allie in town, and I’ll care about her when I get her back, but right now, there’s somethin’ runnin’, and we’re trying to catch it.

[after a shoot-out]
Everett Hitch: That was quick.
Virgil Cole: Yeah, everybody could shoot.

Allison French: You're a bastard! Don't listen to him. He tried to put his hands on me when I showed him our house.
Everett Hitch: No, Virgil. I did not.
Virgil Cole: No, Allie. Everett didn't do that.
Allison French: You believe him over me?
Virgil Cole: That's correct.

At a glance:
Appaloosa emulates the classic western; it has modest ambitions, and relies on its quieter moments to produce a memorable chemistry between its two protagonists

Our review:
Two professional gunmen/lawmen, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) ride into a lawless town that is controlled by the unscrupulous murderer Randall Bragg and his gang. Hired to clean up the town, Cole and Hitch start by writing their own strict laws regarding the reach of their own power (which is absolute). Order is restored, but the pursuit of Bragg for murder and the arrival of young widow Allison French (RenĂ©e Zellweger) cause complications. Ed Harris, directed, starred, and co-wrote this elegantly simple, low-budget western that sticks closely to the feel of a good B movie of the 40s/50s. Harris and Mortensen give the feeling that they really have been partners for ages. Jeremy Irons does an above par job of giving a believable rough edge to the baddie. Zellweger isn’t given much to do initially; later, her character deepens a little and her personality becomes more intriguing.

Here’s a little nit: As Virgil and Everett are escorting Randall across the river, they both have their guns pointed at him. He is between the two men. If they do decide to shoot him, there’s a good chance one of the bullets will go straight through him and hit one of them.

Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A gentle, warmly human and quietly compelling western with a wry sense of humour and some engaging performances from a group of fine actors."
-Mike Goodridge (Screen International)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Movie quotes:
"Tell me the truth, Frank: remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what's so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is, however long they've lived without it. No one forgets the truth, Frank; they just get better at lying"
- April (Kate Winslet)

At a glance:
The re-teaming of Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet produces an one-note, distasteful tale about a dysfunctional couple whose acceptance of the mediocrity of suburban life leads to anger, despair, and tragedy

Our review:
A young married couple (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) with kids feels stagnated and trapped in suburban life. He’s a salesman who finds no passion or enjoyment in his job. She’s a housewife/mother/actress who hates seeing him languishing in mediocrity and not pursuing his dream. She hatches a plan to move to Paris – the place he loved so much during the war. Surprisingly, after initial resistance, he agrees. But then an unexpected promotion at work and other issues make him begin to question his decision. Yes, it’s true; we’re supposed to dedicate two valuable hours of our lives watching these bumbling dolts and their dysfunctional relationship as they waver, argue, achieve brief happiness, and then throw it all away. To inject some modicum of interest, the pot is stirred by a no-holds-barred friend of a friend, John (Michael Shannon), who makes rude yet insightful comments about the couple in their own home while hiding behind his ‘disability’ (he’s on release from a mental institution). The story is told so slowly, giving the impression that there’s more here than meets the eye – but, sadly, this isn’t true. In the end, it goes a long way to tell a story that is simply about lost opportunities and couples who are no longer coupled. I’m sure it could have been compressed into a 30 second public service announcement in the right editor’s hands.

There’s nothing wrong with the acting, although there’s some question in my mind whether Leonardo DiCaprio is truly an A-grade thespian. Michael Shannon nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the crazy guy who speaks his mind. And Thomas Newman’s evocative music keeps making you think that something is going to happen. Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Sooner or later it becomes very hard to escape the sense that nothing actually happens in this film."
-Marc Fennell (Triple j)

"The acting is amazing but the story is one long drive to despair."
- Jackie K. Cooper (

"It leaves you feeling voyeuristically sullied; scrubbing the blood out of your mental carpet, privy to something simultaneously indulgent and inconsequential."
-Lorien Haynes (Little White Lies)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Movie quotes:
Kym (Anne Hathaway): You're a lawyer?
Kieran (Mather Zickel): Was. For about five minutes.
Kym: Say something Legal.
Kieran: Tort.

At a glance:
Anne Hathaway scored a much-deserved Best Actress nomination for her role as a struggling drug addict who emerges from rehab to participate in the full-on wedding of her sister Rachel

Our review:
Written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of acclaimed director Sidney Lumet) and directed by Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married has a title that would lead one to believe it is a lighthearted comedy. True, there is a joyous wedding, and there is a cornucopia of music, but there is also a very serious, moving story of a woman in crisis and a family that is dealing with grief.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) has just returned home from rehab to find herself in the midst of full-scale preparations for her sister Rachel’s wedding. The house has been invaded by dozens of planners, musicians, friends, and the groom-to-be. It’s not a good time for Kym to be trying to complete the final stages in her 12-step program. Kym tries to cope with her family, and they with her, but beneath the surface, and sometimes bubbling up to that surface, there is anger, guilt, resentment, and fear. The source of these feelings is not completely clear at the start; something momentously sad happened; it is hinted at, mentioned, but not fully explained. In some ways, we get to feel similar emotions to those of the characters; angst, tension, worry. There’s no happy ending here; not really, anyway, but there is an appreciation of the fleeting joy that the promise of love brings, and there is the hope that accompanies a family that is trying to heal its wounds.

Rachel Getting Married is a special film. It isn’t perfect – the wedding scene probably goes on for too long – but its Altman-esque style of film-making combined with the structure of the story made me feel involved in the drama – and let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen at the movies.

Anne Hathaway gives an atypical performance and richly deserves her Best Actress nomination. She is well-supported by Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel, and also Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, and Debra Winger.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Those who surrender to Demme’s disarming, almost participatory technique will find themselves overwhelmed, exhilarated and inspired by the eternal possibilities of cinema."
-Tom Huddlestone (Time Out)

"It's not Demme's most polished film, granted – but dysfunction is all the more piercing when you don't put a gloss on it."
-Tim Robey (Daily Telegraph)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Movie quotes:
Cassidy (Marisa Tomei): He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him. And by his wounds, we were healed.
Randy (Mickey Rourke): What was that all about?
Cassidy: That’s the Passion of the Christ! You have the same hair. You’ve never seen it? Dude, you gotta, it’s amazing! They throw everything at him: whips, arrows rocks. Threw everything the fuck at him the whole two hours - he just takes it.
Randy: Tough dude.

At a glance:
Darren Aronofsky’s no-holds-barred tale of an ageing wrestler at the tail end of his career delves deeply into the details of his daily life to reveal much about the psyche of the man and indeed of any celebrity

Our review:
I’ve been a huge fan of Darren Aronofsky ever since 1998’s Pi. His films are confronting, original, sometimes ugly, but purpose-built ugly, if you will – beautiful ugly. What touches would he put on a more conventional story of well-worn, ageing wrestling star Randy ‘Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) at the tail end of his fading career?

First, he involved his long-time musical collaborator, Clint Mansell, to effectively set the mood. Next, he often used a ‘walk-behind’ style of direction so we can view the world the way Ram does. He added all those little touches: the way Ram contemplates and then keeps the autograph-seeker’s pen; the action-figure wrestler on the dashboard; even the way Cassidy’s goodbye hip wriggle means so much more to Ram than it probably does to her.

Most importantly, he elicits a world-class performance from Rourke, whose first-ever Best Actor nomination is not only warranted, but hopefully will be fulfilled. His performance is all about the small details as well. Every movement he makes requires such extreme effort; even the act of closing the curtains on his trailer makes him grunt heavily. Rourke goes about as far as any actor can in inhabiting his role; he is, for all intents and purposes, that ageing wrestler, and anyone who is not aware that Rourke is a career thespian would probably assume he is just playing himself.

The story behind The Wrestler parallels that of any celebrity who is faced with the end of their career. In many situations, that career has, however destructively, provided for all of their needs. Faced with this loss, they search for meaning in more conventional areas (like human relationships). Ram explores the idea of making something more serious with his long-term sexy stripper friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and he tries to renew the severed bond with his mature daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has long tried to forget him the way he once forgot her. The Wrestler doesn’t have any easy answers; it taunts us with the hint of resolution and happy Hollywood endings, but it also insists of staying true to the reality of the story it tells. It is a real slice of life, and nothing more – and for that, it should be receive a standing ovation.

Marisa Tomei also goes all out in her role as a highly sensual (ageing) stripper whose career mirrors that of Ram; it earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Fluctuating eloquently between hope and sorrow, tenderness and isolation, 'The Wrestler' packs an emotional punch - a deeply personal story of one man's search for truth, love, and life outside of the ring."
-Mark Sells (Oregon Herald)

"This is Rourke's big comeback role, and he definitely deserves the Academy Award nomination he received."
-Jeff Vice (Deseret News, Salt Lake City)

"You will feel pinned to your seat watching Rourke's characterization of a broken man in this modern take on the old-school boxing movie."
-Michael Smith (Tulsa World)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Changeling (2008)

Movie quotes:
Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan): Mrs. Collins, your son was missing for five months, for at least part of that time in the company of an unidentified drifter. Who knows what such a disturbed individual might have done. He could have had him circumcised. He could have -
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie): - made him shorter?

At a glance:
Clint Eastwood directs this handsome but uneven and overly dramatic period piece about a 1920s single mom whose son goes missing

Our review:
Angelina Jolie’s 2008 Best Actress nomination for her role in Changeling led me to watch it. Normally, I wouldn’t rush to screen a Clint Eastwood film; despite their general good reviews and public reception, I’ve never warmed to one, often finding them overrated. Fortunately for me, Changeling is, in my view, a cut above the rest.

In Los Angeles of 1928, Christine (Angelina Jolie) is a young working woman left on her own to raise her son after her husband deserts her. When her boy disppears, she receives little help in finding him from a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department that is more concerned with being on the take while propping up their public image. This meticulous period piece, based on a true story, has a few long frustrating periods early on, where too much time is spent indulging the inane arguments of the LAPD, but once the events turn more sinister, it becomes engrossing, almost in spite of itself. Sadly, it then loses itself again in a ridiculously emotional movie-style trial, and other forced dramatics that have no relation to reality. (Spoilers follow) For example, there’s no reason for Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) to be trying to convince Christine that Walter is dead, especially since there were no remains found.  And Jason Butler Harner’s overt quirkiness makes his character less scary and more of a humorous distraction. There is also way too much time spent tieing (almost) everything up and making sure we, the audience, get to see everyone bad get punished for their sins. Still, Eastwood (who also wrote the film’s score) can be proud that at his age, instead of declining into Woody Allen territory, he continues to make respectable (and for the most part, non-cringeworthy) films.

Note: The script was written by Babylon 5 creator/writer J. Michael Straczynski.

Silly observation: Christine confirms in the opening scene that women in the 1920s go to bed (and wake up) wearing all of their makeup. Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Eastwood and Jolie take their time trying to draw a realistic and complex character sketch, which runs at odds with the hyped-up surroundings and circumstances."
-Michael Dequina (Mr. Brown's Movies)

"Clint Eastwood is a vital force of nature. Born May 31, 1930, the unflappable 78-year old director is still creating powerful, unique movies. Changeling is remarkable evidence of that."
-Tony Macklin (Fayetteville Free Weekly)

"Changeling fails because, despite its awful subject matter, it isn't very moving. Eastwood is too classical, too restrained a director to get inside his characters; they feel like well-costumed showroom dummies."
-Sukhdev Sandhu (Daily Telegraph)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frozen River (2008)

Movie quotes:
Ray (Melissa Leo) I want my half. You hear me; I want my half!
Lila (Misty Upham): I’ll give you the money if you give me the car.
Ray: No way.
Lila: The money’s gone.
Ray: Then I want to get more of those Chinese.

At a glance:
Melissa Leo earned an Academy Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of a desperate mom who turns to people smuggling to make a better life for her family

Our review:
For Ray (Melissa Leo), her dreams of moving up from poverty are squashed by her low-paying job and a husband that gambles away their savings. Pressured by a 15 year-old son who wants to drop out of school to work, and tricked into a situation from which she can’t escape, she turns to smuggling illegal aliens from Canada via a frozen river break in the border through a Mohawk reservation. She forms an unlikely partnership with a young Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham). Indie film is all about the characters and the locations, providing a glimpse at life on the reservation and how the ‘res’ world and ‘white’ world intersect. The realistic settings and dialogue often make this feel more like a documentary than fiction. The almost-perfect script is weakened just a bit by a couple of dumbed-down character moments introduced to further the plot. Still, the locations are unique, and writer/director Courtney Hunt shows wonderful brevity and effective storytelling. Melissa Leo earned a Best Actress nomination for her work. Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Hunt, in a confident debut, grafts a crackerjack thriller with a fascinating cultural study of the uneasy relationship between tribal members and their white neighbors."
-Sean Means (Salt Lake Tribune)

"Hunt has keenly observed the details of impoverished rural life."
-Lawrence Toppman (Charlotte Observer)

"The stories of women are so disparaged -- or worse, ignored -- in our culture unless they have something to do with pleasing men, but here's one that demands to be seen."
-MaryAnn Johanson (Flick Filosopher)

"Leo gives the kind of performance that's easy to overlook because it doesn't have any Big fully inhabited that it never crosses your mind that you're not watching a real woman."
-Tim Brayton (Antagony & Ecstasy)

Interview with writer/director Courtney Hunt

Click here if you cannot view the video above

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Movie quotes:
"I'm not frightened. I'm not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need. You will leave life even more beautiful than you ended it. Heaven will take you back and look at you and say: Only one thing can make a soul complete and that thing is love."
- Michael (David Kross)

At a glance:
The Reader unsuccessfully tries to hide its illogical, regret-laden, emotionless soft-porn script with the superficial trappings of an Academy Award aspiree: good acting, a central holocaust theme, and numerous snippets from classic literature

Our review:
(Spoilers follow)

In Germany in 1953, a teenage boy (Michael, played by David Kross) meets an older woman (Hannah, played by Kate Winslet) who introduces him to the sensual pleasures of love. He reads classic books to her (first, after they make love, and, later, before) as per her instructions. When things get a little serious, she disappears. She reappears in his life quite unexpectedly when he attends a trial of former SS workers, of which she was one. During the war, she chose which prisoners would be killed at Auschwitz. Michael begins a quest to understand how a human being could act this way. When staring at her in the court room for long periods of time yields no answers, he visits Auschwitz instead.

While on trial, Hannah makes an important decision: rather than admitting that she cannot read or write, she takes responsibility for the deaths of 300 prisoners in a locked church. This is a woman who is highly embarrassed about her illiteracy, but doesn’t mind at all if everyone thinks she’s a heartless Nazi mass-murderer. Go figure.

Sad and somber, and admittedly with some quietly beautiful moments, The Reader touches all the right bases for Academy Award consideration (with old-age makeup and quotes from classic literature), but it sits in that area where it will be appreciated more by the Academy than by any actual moviegoer. It’s an actor’s movie, featuring good performances throughout, but enjoyment is lacking. Are we supposed to feel compassion for a woman who blindly followed orders that led to numerous murders, yet now feels no remorse? Within the story, character’s motivations for their actions are driven by only one objective: to regret them later. For example, Michael schedules an appointment to meet with Hannah and convince her that she should admit her illiteracy rather than take responsibility for 300 deaths – but at the last minute, he turns away. It creates another sad scene of Hannah waiting in the prisoner visitor area, but how do we rationalize his motivations for turning away at the last minute when, obviously, his motivations for getting to that point were so overwhelming? And why would his law teacher suggest he meet with her anyway? Wouldn’t it make more sense for his teacher to suggest that he go straight to the court to present his evidence?

Kate Winslet earned a Best Actress nomination for her role (which included enduring seven hours of old-age makeup to play the Hannah in her later years). Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"An airless vacuum labeled Serious Film."
-Amy Nicholson (I.E. Weekly)

"The Reader is the most undeserving of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. A nice quality for a movie to have is if it has one or more characters to whom one can relate. In The Reader the two main characters are clods."
-Tony Macklin (Fayetteville Free Weekly)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

Movie quotes:
"He's doing some sort of yoga Fosse thing."
- Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale)

At a glance:
Channeling the spirit of the great musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, High School Musical 3 is a lavish feast of choreography and boy/girl band songs, but while some sequences are fantastic, others are weak, and its dearth of false endings make it run a little too long

Our review:
High School Musical 3 is the first of the 3 films I have had the pleasure of seeing…and a pleasure it is for most of the way. The G-rated film about, you guessed it, high school seniors has a squeaky, clean, ‘Christian’ feel to it, making it suitable for all ages. The major problems these kids deal with is where to go to college and will they get accepted in Julliard. This is definitely an ode to the upper class of America.

Having not seen the other films, and not knowing what to expect, I was impressed by the song and dance talents of the class. My personal favorite was the quirky Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), whose Astaire-like moves reminded me a little of an earlier time.

However, the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. There are three fantastic sequences (the choreography of the opening basketball number is spot-on, Ryan and Sharpay’s dance (and the cavalcade of sets they dance through) is amazing, and the contrast between the boys and the girls in the ‘prom prep’ number is a lot of fun. Strangely, these three blockbuster sequences are all in the first 40 minutes of the film, making the latter stages of the film inferior (where it should be building to a climax). The culmination, the stage production, is an abbreviated rehash of earlier, better numbers. Musical 3 also overstays its welcome by around 20 minutes; it should have ended when the big stage production ended, but I assume this was to provide a long goodbye to dedicated watchers of the series.

By the way, I must mention here that this review, like all my reviews, is fully written first; then, to provide a sampling of other views, I find and grab quotes and links from fellow reviewers. The language used by Jim Schembri below is purely a coincidence. I had not viewed his review until after I wrote mine; it’s just that we must be kindred spirits to use the term ‘overstays its welcome’ and to coincidentally agree – so precisely – on the running time being 20 minutes too long.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"High School Musical 3 overstays its welcome, stretching out about 20 minutes longer than it needs to, thanks chiefly to a final celebratory reel that simply refuses to end."
-Jim Schembri (The Age [Australia])

"Regardless of whether Disney's G-rated phenomenon is your cup of tea, you have to admire this films boundless will to create fun, inspiring entertainment on a level second to none."
-Bruce Bennett (Spectrum [St. George, Utah])

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Movie quotes:
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Where is your compassion?
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep): Nowhere you can get at it.

At a glance:
Doubt features some excellent starring and supporting performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, but in the end, it is done in by overly illogical dramatics and a lack of desire to confront real issues

Our review:
In a Catholic school of 1964, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) becomes convinced that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is behaving ‘incorrectly’ with the school’s first black student. She takes it upon herself to stop him. Gray areas are everywhere in this tale of doubt and accusations. Is Flynn what he seems to be? And is Sister Aloysius a hard-nosed disciplinarian or an abuser herself? A powerful scene featuring a series of heated confrontations between two prodigious actors – Hoffman and Streep – tries to answer this question, but instead there are more gray areas. Counterpoint to all this is the sweet naivete of Sister James (Amy Adams). Doubt is a story about the general abuse of power, but it’s also a study of the patriarchal Catholic church. The nuns eat sparse meals in silence, accompanied by glasses of milk. (Off-camera, they also have to do their own housekeeping and cooking). The priests, meanwhile, drink and smoke while dining in lavish comfort, with all of their cooking and domestic chores handled by hired support staff.

The screenplay by writer/director John Patrick Shanley (adapted from his stage play) functions beautifully until the final 1/3, when the implausibility of the situations fail it. Poor Viola Davis has the thankless role of suggesting that her son be allowed to be abused by the priest – better that than be killed by his father. Amazingly, Davis makes this ridiculous argument work, and for that, she has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (as has Amy Adams). Meryl Streep received a Best Actress nomination, and she is great, although at times I found her reactions flippant (especially at the end of the Davis scene). Some of these overtly illogical dramatic moments tend to play better from the stage.

In the end, Doubt strives to be thought-provoking, but it’s difficult to provoke thought when you are more concerned with being inoffensive and confusing for the sake of intrigue itself.

One thing I can confirm from personal experience: Doubt faithfully recreates a New York Catholic school/church of the 1960s. Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The cast is so good that it's possible to forgive that the material they're performing isn't as thought provoking as it could have been."
- Dan Lybarger (

"An uneven, unfulfilling film, that hosts two or three really good dramatic scenes."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Movie quotes:
David Frost (Michael Sheen): Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?
Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal!

David Frost: I've had an idea for an interview: Richard Nixon.
John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen): You're a talk show host. I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees.
David Frost: Weren't they terrific?

"…David had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get; Richard Nixon's face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist."
- James Reston, Jr (Sam Rockwell)

At a glance:
Director Ron Howard’s retelling of the dramatic 1977 interviews between David Frost and disgraced president Richard Nixon is captivating, entertaining, and well-deserving of its Best Picture nomination

Our review:
In 1977, ‘lite’ talk show host and former comic David Frost spent his own money and those of his friends to finance a series of television interviews with former president Richard Nixon. For Frost, it was an opportunity to jump-start his stagnant career. For Nixon, it was a chance to explain and vindicate his actions as a springboard to a re-entry public and political life. Somewhere along the line, the interviews begin to mean something else as well - they became a jousting match between two warriors, and only one would walk away.

Frost/Nixon is based on true events, but many situations are embellished or shuffled for dramatic effect (for example, Nixon’s statement that "…when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal" occurred in the third interview, not the last one). Since I was unaware of the actual interviews, these discrepancies did not bother me, but those familiar with the original interviews might be somewhat distracted.

Director Ron Howard is fortunate to have at his disposal one of the top-shelf character actors, Frank Langella. Years ago, Langella proved his mettle by playing Dracula in the long-running Broadway play, and, later, in the film of the same name. And what better preparation could you have to play Richard Nixon, a man who sucked the blood from the US presidency? Langella doesn’t try to do a straight imitation (Oliver Platt is hilarious in his brief attempt), but, instead, he reinvents Nixon as himself. By the end of the film, you’ll think Langella is more Nixon than Nixon was. Michael Sheen is also good as Frost, and there’s excellent supporting work from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell. Additionally, Rebecca Hall is beautiful and so different from her recent neurotic role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona that she is almost unrecognizable (which is usually the mark of a good actor).

This is probably Ron Howard’s best film to date; it’s the first one I’ve enjoyed since 1985’s Cocoon, and the first one that I have truly respected as an art form. It probably won’t win the Best Picture Oscar, but it is, undoubtedly, Best Picture pedigree.

Writer Peter Morgan is on a winning streak, having also penned The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Nit: When Frost finishes filming his talk show in Australia, he watches a live broadcast of news coverage of Nixon resigning. Someone says it is 9am in the USA. If it is 9am in Washington, it is either 11pm or midnight on the east coast of Australia. It is highly unlikely that he would be filming or taping his show at that hour.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Textbook example of a Howard film -- with exactly the strengths and weaknesses this conveys. It differs only in that it's built around Frank Langella's towering performance."
- Ken Hanke (Mountain Xpress [Asheville, NC])

"A history lesson and an acting lesson tied up in one stunning entertainment package."
- Jackie K. Cooper (

"Thought Ron Howard was going to stuff it up? Think again - Frost/Nixon's a great advert for stage-to-screen adaptations. And if you'd forgotten the power of the close-up, prepare to be dazzled by dapper Dave and Tricky Dick."
- Richard Luck (Channel 4 Film)

"It sounds like an awful night out in the cinema. But you will be amazed. In Frost/Nixon Ron Howard turns this duel between Michael Sheen’s glossy playboy and Frank Langella’s shifty ex-President into a gripping tango of egos."
- James Christopher (Times [UK])

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Movie quotes:
"Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?"
- Mrs Maple (Edith Ivey)

"Some nights, I'd have to sleep alone. I didn't mind, I would listen to the house breathin'. All those people sleepin'. I felt... safe."
- Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt)

At a glance:
Nominated for an Academy Award Best Picture, this sprawling birth-to-death saga about a man who is born old and ages backwards tries to be simple, nostalgic, romantic, poignant, and exciting, but the characters and the script fail to deliver an emotional payload, making it a very long journey indeed

Our review:
Benjamin Button is born as a less-than-beautiful wrinkly Shar-Pei-style baby with the deteriorating body of a tiny senior citizen. Abandoned by his father, he is raised by a woman who runs an old-age home. Slowly, he ‘ages backwards’, getting younger (and taller) as the years pass. His epic story takes him to brothels, and into the teeth of war.

The Academy loves the lengthy epics, the period pieces with a bit of romance, tragedy, nostalgia, war, and, as an added bonus, at least a partial focus on the entertainment industry itself. The Academy loves long movies, period:
"Another point of contention is the recent extreme bias toward 2-plus hour films: Crash (2006, 113m) is the shortest film to win Best Picture in the past 20 years."
- Wikipedia

The central ‘big’ concept of this film is a man who is ageing backwards, yet strangely, while he is a child in a tiny old man’s body, he stays at home – inside – with a gathering of senior citizens who could care less. The situation could have been mined by forcing him to, say, go to school, or perhaps to even, for example, leave the house and do anything that involved more interaction; but, inexplicably, he doesn’t leave the house until he is about 18! What a waste of a concept, that, in reality, has limited impact anyway.

‘Button’ also has these major Academy draws:

- Flashback stories told from a deathbed by the sick and/or elderly (as in The English Patient)

- Birth-to-death stories about simple-minded guys of few words (as in Forrest Gump)

- Simple-minded guys who recite well-worn cliches as if they have just discovered some previously unknown gem of great import (e.g. "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you.") (as in Forrest Gump)

What have you done with my David Fincher? I’ve loved his tight, compact, entertaining movies like The Game and Panic Room. Granted, they weren’t Oscar material, and this one is. Is this his big attempt to win one? If so, I hope he does, so he can then go back to making good films that tell their story in under two hours.

I wondered most of the way through the movie: why is this old actress on her deathbed so bad – and so hard to understand? Finally, the penny dropped: This was Cate Blanchett in (admittedly incredible) old age makeup. Why? Why not get a real elderly actress to play this role? Honestly, surely an elderly woman could play an elderly woman better than a middle aged woman.

So I watched. For almost three hours, I watched. And, eventually, since there was no emotional impact to enthrall me, I found myself distracted by small things: like Brad Pitt’s strange southern/Brooklyn accent (he says ‘foist’ and ‘woist’ for ‘first’ and ‘worst’ like he’s mixing a bit of Bugs Bunny in there).

It truly is ‘Forrest Gump’ (Eric Roth wrote the screenplay for this and for Gump) in reverse: a massive journey from birth to death that will either involve and captivate you, or, alternatively, make you pine for movies and moviemakers that value brevity in storytelling. Sadly for the Button, I fall into the latter camp. Chuck Jones and the aforementioned Bugs Bunny could have told this entire story better in a seven minute cartoon (and maybe Pitt could be the ‘foist’ actor to play Bunny).

Fans of old-age makeup (again, I’m not one of them) will rank this higher, as both Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt are almost unrecognizably ancient at times. Rating: 2 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Fincher's strange romantic epic has its greatest impact the first time around. Overall, the film seems more like a beautiful curio than anything else, a sort of artsy fartsy Forest Gump."
- Richard Knight (Windy City Times)

"This inventive treatment will intrigue and fulfill some audience members. But not me. Despite general critical euphoria (70% favorable on Rottentomatoes), I found it a plodding tours de force."
- Tony Macklin (Fayetteville Free Weekly)

"If only the screenplay had taken its time to fully and organically flesh out its characters and their emotions, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been a much more emotionally powerful experience."
- Avi Offer (NYC Movie Guru)

"The movie is curiously listless, with all of its passion apparently expended on its technical feats."
- Matt Brunson (Creative Loafing)

"The A-list cheekbones, CGI wow factor and sensuous cinematography can't save it. This is Hollywood at full bluster -- spectacular and sometimes iconic, but emotionally half baked."
- Jason Di Rosso (MovieTime, ABC Radio National)

"With a running time of almost three slow-going hours, the movie definitely makes you feel as though you're aging forward."
- Peter Rainer (Christian Science Monitor)