Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter 2009 Movie Preview (Part 1)

As the big holiday movie season wraps up, January is often used by movie studios as a spot in the schedule to place films that didn’t fit anywhere else. The quality of the month’s roster can certainly vary from year to year, but gems can still be discovered.

“Youth in Revolt”
Starring Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Justin Long, Steve Buscemi
Directed by Miguel Arteta

Adapted from a series of books by C.D. Payne, “Youth” stars Michael Cera (“Juno”, “Superbad”) as a youth who creates an imaginary alter ego to help him win the heart of his dream girl (newcomer Portia Doubleday). Cera’s got a little bit of a fanbase, but it’s tough to see this appealing to a wide audience. (Jan. 8)
Official Web site

“Leap Year”
Starring Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, Adam Scott and John Lithgow
Directed by Anand Tucker

With a string of quality films under her belt in recent years, Amy Adams takes on what looks to be her most conventional role yet. Hopefully, the movie can rise above what sounds like a tired premise of a woman secretly following her longtime boyfriend to Ireland to propose to him on Leap Day. She meets up with an innkeeper (Goode) to help execute her plan. (Jan. 8)
Official Web site

“The Book of Eli”
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Malcom McDowell
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes

The Hughes brothers have returned to directing after nearly a decade of silence (their last film was 2001’s “From Hell”). Their film focuses on a post-apocalyptic world, in which a mysterious loner (Washington) makes his way across America with a sacred book that could save humanity. Naturally, some unsavory characters (led by Oldman) desire the book as well. Washington can play the tough guy well (see “American Gangster” and “Man on Fire” for examples), so this might just work. (Jan. 15)
Official Web site

“Tooth Fairy”
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, Julie Andrews, Stephen Merchant
Directed by Michael Lembeck

A rough and tumble hockey player (Johnson), nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy” for his ability to knock opponents’ teeth out, runs into trouble and is forced to serve one week as an actual tooth fairy as punishment. If the idea of “The Rock” dressed up in a tutu and wings is your idea of hilarity, then this comedy should have some appeal for you. If not, keep on moving. (Jan. 22)
Official Web site

“Extraordinary Measures”
Starring Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Dee Wallace
Directed by Tom Vaughn

Based on a true story, “Measures” involves the desperate search by John and Aileen Crowley (Fraser and Russell) to find a cure for a disease threatening the lives of two of their children. Ford plays a unconventional scientist tasked with taking on the difficult challenge. Films like these can tend to lean towards the melodramatic, but the true facts of the story and the solid cast will hopefully resist going in that direction. (Jan. 22)
Official Web site

“When in Rome”
Starring Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepherd, Danny DeVito and Angelica Huston
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

A young woman (Bell), unlucky in love, goes to Rome for her younger sister’s wedding. While there, she takes several coins from a fountain, which mysteriously makes her the subject of romantic pursuit by four wildly different suitors. The cast is certainly appealing, but the plot seems quite hokey. Still, as far as winter time diversions in the theater, you’d could probably do worse. (Jan. 29)
Official Web site

“Edge of Darkness”
Starring Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic
Directed by Martin Campbell

As hard as it might be to believe, this action-thriller marks the first starring role for Gibson since 2002’s “Signs.” He plays homicide detective Thomas Craven, who witnesses the murder of his only child. He begins to investigate, first uncovering his daughter’s secret life, then the shady people that had reason to have her killed. Suffice it to say, Craven gets all kinds of angry at these people. Gibson has a good track record in films as a determined man seeking the truth (“Payback” and “Ransom” among others). But will audiences embrace him after so much time away and less than flattering off-screen publicity? (Jan. 29)
Official Web site

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A New Year's Resolution

First off, apologies for such a long layoff from this site. General laziness and distractions were keeping me from updating this on a consistent basis. But as the new year – and decade – arrives, my resolution is to do a much better job of getting updates on here. (Yeah, that’s kind of lame as far as New Year’s resolutions go. I’m sure I’ll also come up with something more substantive not pertaining to this site.)

There will be more bite-size items to digest, be it entertainment news, commentary and reviews. I’ll occasionally throw in some longer form reviews, but will more often try to capsulize them to shorten my time writing them and your time reading them. Hopefully, that will get more of a volume of them posted, as there were plenty of movies I saw in 2009 with reviews that never saw the light of day. Hopefully, 2010 will be much improved on that front.

So for those of you who have semi-regularly checked in here this year (a quite small number, I’m sure), only to quickly leave due to a lack of updates, things should be different soon. For the rest of you intrepid online surfers, you didn’t miss much this year. But feel free to look back through the stupendous archives! And of course, Happy New Year to you all!

– MC

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movie Review: "Duplicity"

Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti
Directed by Tony Gilroy

Official Web site

Caper movies can be, by turns, thrilling, funny, intense or just plain stupid. You can certainly leave that last adjective out of describing “Duplicity,” as the film keeps the brain working throughout. A bit too much, some might argue, which could be seen as a problem.

Director Tony Gilroy also wrote the screenplay, which includes so many crosses and double-crosses, you’ll lose count. Still, there’s an air of fun to the proceedings, featuring a game cast, led by the palpable chemistry between stars Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.

Having teamed up previously on Mike Nichols’ drama, “Closer,” it’s good to see Owen (who’s rarely seen in lighter fare like this) and Roberts (who’s been rarely seen on screen at all in recent years) back together.

Owen plays Ray Koval, an ex-MI6 agent, who runs into Claire Stenwick (Roberts) while on a job. While he instantly recognizes her, she feigns having ever met him. It’s for a good reason, as she seduced him while on an assignment for the CIA years ago, stealing some secret documents he was in possession of in the process.

She eventually admits to their less than picture perfect history, but Ray finds himself still drawn to her. The feeling is likewise, or is it? When you get two spies together who are deceitful for a living, can they ever really trust anyone?

That question is a central conflict in Ray and Claire’s relationship, as they decide to team up to steal a top secret formula that has been developed by the company for whom Claire works. Her boss, Howard Tully, (Tom Wilkinson, who also co-starred in Gilroy’s sensational “Michael Clayton”) has an intense and highly competitive ongoing feud with Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Richard, who is Ray’s boss, is paranoid that his rival is on to a hot new product and is desperate to steal the formula and reveal it at an upcoming stockholders meeting.

Neither of the bosses are aware of the history between their two employees, which allows Ray and Claire to each be privy of knowledge that could help the other side – and each other.

Although they get significantly less screen time than the two leads, Wilkinson and Giamatti both stand out in their supporting performances – something they’ve been doing quite well for much of their career. Both their characters are successful, powerful and undoubtedly wealthy, yet can’t help but obsess about the other. The opening scene of the film featuring the two men squaring off on an airport tarmac demonstrates their emotional maturity towards one another.

The screenplay is a bit too labyrinthine for its own good, which drains some of the film’s enjoyment. But if you can allow your mind to not overanalyze every plot twist (of which there are many), going along with this con game will seem like a no-brainer.

Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fall 2009 Movie Preview (Part 1)

With the summer movie season ending, the competition still seems to be fierce looking into the early fall releases, with few surefire hits on the schedule. Still, there seems to be a good variety of options for viewers. Here’s a few of the notable releases for September. October’s offerings will be coming in a few weeks.

Starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Clifton Collins Jr. and Ben Affleck
Directed by Mike Judge

The writer and director of “Office Space” returns to the workplace with a comedy about a frazzled boss (Bateman) dealing with a potentially unfaithful wife (Wiig) and problems at his flavor extract company. If the finished product matches the portion I saw Judge screen at a film festival in March, this should be great. (Sept. 4)
Official Web site

“All About Steve”
Starring Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper, Thomas Haden Church, Ken Jeong
Directed by Phil Traill

Well, what do you know? It’s Sandra Bullock and another romantic comedy. This one has her as a crossword puzzle maker convinced that she’s met the man of her dreams (Cooper). She then sets out to essentially stalk him across the country to prove they belong together. Coming off of Bullock’s success with “The Proposal,” this could turn out to have been a good decision by 20th Century Fox to have delayed this movie’s release from its original spot in March. (Sept. 4)
Official Web site

“I Can Do Bad All by Myself”
Starring Tyler Perry, Taraji P. Henson, Adam Rodriguez, Brian White, Mary J. Blige
Directed by Tyler Perry

It would be hard to find a busier filmmaker than Perry, who is churning out movies at a steady clip, while also overseeing a pair of TV shows and his own production studio. His popular Madea character is back for some comic relief in this release, but the film would seem to have more dramatic overtones. (Sept. 11)
Official Web site

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”
Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

The popular children’s book gets a big screen adaptation that could only really be done in CG, as a live-action version featuring gigantic and copious amounts of food falling from the sky wouldn’t have played well. Kids should eat this up (pun intended). (Sept. 18)
Official Web site

“Jennifer’s Body”
Starring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris
Directed by Karyn Kusama

This horror/thriller hybrid should also have some dark humor contained, as it comes from Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning writer of “Juno.” Fox plays a high school cheerleader who becomes possessed, causing her to have the desire to off her male classmates. Seyfried is a friend who takes on the task of stopping her. Hopefully, Cody can bring some creativity to what seems to be a stale premise. (Sept. 18)
Official Web site

“The Informant!”
Starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Reuniting with one of his “Oceans 11” franchise stars (Damon), Soderbergh helms this darkly comic story about a corporation’s vice president who turns whistleblower for the government about reported wrongdoings. The trailer is great, and Damon would seem to be demonstrating he can headline a comedy just as well as an action film (the “Bourne Identity” series). (Sept. 18, limited)
Official Web site

“Love Happens”
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston, Dan Fogler, Judy Greer and Martin Sheen
Directed by Brandon Camp

A widower (Eckhart) becomes a self-help guru about dealing with loss, but realizes through a developing relationship with a florist (Aniston) that he maybe hasn’t worked through the death of his wife. This is certainly a bit of a treacly premise for a movie, but the two leads are eminently likeable, so that can’t hurt its chances. (Sept. 18)
Official Web site

Starring Kay Panabaker, Naturi Naughton, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth
Directed by Kevin Tancharoen

With the gigantic success of a show like “American Idol,” it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to throw some young talent on the screen in a big musical. Hence the remake of the 1980 film, which was a hit itself, garnering six Oscar nominations. Prepare to have that catchy title song stuck in your head all over again. (Sept. 25)
Official Web site

“The Invention of Lying”
Starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe and Tina Fey
Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Having starred in the little seen and underrated “Ghost Town” last fall, Gervais is yet to catch on in movies as he has on television (the original BBC series of “The Office” and HBO’s “Extras”). But that could very possibly change with this comedy starring him as a man living in a world where everyone tells the truth. One day, he decides to lie, and things start changing rapidly. (Sept. 25)
Official Web site

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Movie Review: "Frost/Nixon"

Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones
Directed by Ron Howard

Official Web site

Recreating a series of interviews between a disgraced ex-president and a cocky journalist in a career valley wouldn’t seem to be a recipe for creating a compelling film. But mix in a couple of tremendous performances along with deftly handled direction and an intelligent screenplay, and that recipe equates to a very satisfying finished product.

Based on the stage production of the same name (written by Peter Morgan, who also handles screenwriting chores for the film), “Frost/Nixon” is a character study of two men who have tasted success in the past and are hungry to get a taste of it again. One is Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, who is seemingly most remembered by history for the unfortunate end of his presidency, as opposed to anything he accomplished in the prior five and a half years he served in the position.

The other is David Frost, a British journalist best known for his talk shows, who has a pair of shows airing in Britain and Australia as the film opens in 1977, but laments the cancellation of his show in America in the early 1970s. He sees an interview with Nixon, who has been in practical exile since his resignation in 1974, as golden opportunity to reestablish credibility in his profession.

The film is primarily told from Frost’s perspective as he rounds up members of his research team and makes pitches to television networks and advertisers to try and get the interviews broadcast. His difficulty in raising the $600,000 that Nixon agreed to for the interviews, paying a large portion of the fee up front out of his own pocket, means that Frost, like Nixon, has a lot riding on the program’s end result. Frost faces near financial ruin, while Nixon knows he faces the risk of permanent political exile.

On numerous occasions, the two men speak of each other as if they were opponents in a boxing ring. Indeed, the interviews themselves take on the guise of a sparring match, as each side’s team of advisors act like cornermen, telling their “fighter” what to do next.

Langella, in an Oscar-nominated performance, doesn’t resemble Nixon, but does an excellent job of capturing his mannerisms and the way he carried himself. The role could have easily become cartoonish, but Langella never loses sight of the vulnerablilty and wounded pride that Nixon carried during this time period.

Both leads also performed the roles on stage and that familiarity works to the film’s benefit, as each man really seems to inhabit their parts. Likewise, having the same writer (Morgan) adapt his own work pays off here, as well.

Director Ron Howard deftly moves the story along, managing to infuse it with numerous moments of tension, while avoiding getting too bogged down in extensive screen time for the interviews themselves, which were broken up into four parts. It’s within the last part, the discussion of Watergate, where the interviews (and the movie) hit their high point, and the future fortunes of two men are irrevocably decided.

Grade: A-
(Rated R for language.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer 2009 Movie Preview (August)

While July is generally filled with potential box office smashes, the releases for August look to be a more decidedly mixed lot. There are some potential hits here, but a few could just as easily flop. The following are a few of the more notable movies coming out for the month. Release dates are subject to change.

“Julie & Julia”
Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Edmond
Directed by Nora Ephron

Streep, who has become a bit of a box office sensation in recent years (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Mamma Mia!”), headlines this story as the noted American chef Julia Child. Co-star Adams portrays a New York housewife who takes on the task of cooking all the recipies from one of her book’s over the span of one year. As noted above, Streep is on a roll with summer movies, and this one will likely continue that hot streak. (Aug. 7)
Official Web site

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”
Starring Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Channing Tatum and Dennis Quaid
Directed by Stephen Sommers

Admittedly, I loved the cartoon and action figures growing up, but even I find it hard to get excited about what is, like “Transformers,” a movie based on a toy. This one could be good, escapist fun or a bit of an embarassment. The trailer doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but the cast at least seems kind of interesting. (Aug. 7)
Official Web site

Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Fans of Japanese animation have got to be excited about the prospect of Miyazaki’s latest being a darkhorse hit. The director of “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away” has got an A-list vocal cast on board for a tale about a young boy and his friendship with a goldfish princess who wishes to become human. (Aug. 14)
Official Web site

“The Time Traveler’s Wife”
Starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston, Stephen Tobolowsky
Directed by Robert Schwenke

Those who loved “The Notebook” (and you know who you are) shouldn’t go in expecting the same thing here, despite it being a romantic drama based on a bestselling book and starring McAdams. This one would seem to incorporate a bit of science fiction, as the husband (Bana) of McAdams’ character deals with the problems created by the ability to involuntarily time travel. No other romantically-themed movies seem to be in existence during this month, so this film has that genre to itself. (Aug. 14)
Official Web site

“Inglourious Basterds”
Starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Having made a splashy and largely positive debut at the Cannes Film Festival, the central draw for audiences will be the pairing of superstar Pitt with writer/director Tarantino. The subject matter, a group of Americans form a killing squad, targeting Nazis in German-occupied France, might be a little harder for some audiences to sit through. This could prove to be a real test of Pitt’s star power. (Aug. 21)
Official Web site

“Halloween 2”
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Tyler Mane, Scout Taylor-Compton, Brad Dourif
Directed by Rob Zombie

Just in time for the holiday (OK, two months early), comes a sequel to director Zombie’s version of “Halloween,” which was in itself a remake of the 1978 classic by John Carpenter. This one is a continuation of Zombie’s first film, but is not a remake of “Halloween 2,” which picked up right where the original left off. Anybody followin all of this? Despite its missed opportunity of an October release, this could do some decent late summer business. (Aug. 28)
Official Web site

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer 2009 Movie Preview (July)

With the heat of the summer starting to really crank up in July, so too will the competition at the box office, as a lot of films look to pull audiences into air-conditioned theaters while providing their own form of fireworks. Here’s a brief look at some of the notables for the month. August releases will follow soon.

“Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs ”
Starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah
Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier

With the first two “Ice Age” films having been big hits at the box office, there’s no reason to think equal success can’t greet this offering, as no other family-oriented pictures are scheduled near this one. It’s pre-Fourth of July spot is also ideal. (July 1)
Official Web site

“Public Enemies”
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang
Directed by Michael Mann

Although they have precious little screen time in the film, this crime drama does feature the great pairing of Depp as notorious bank robber John Dillinger and Bale as the FBI agent tasked to take the criminal and his gang down. Director Mann has a strong track record with crime-oriented films (“Heat” and “Collateral”). (July 1)
Official Web site

Starring Sacha Baron Cohen
Directed by Larry Charles

Those who cringed at the antics of “Borat” should take cover, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest big screen foray will feature more of that confrontational style of comedy. “Borat” was a bit of a surprise hit, but “Brüno” likely won’t sneak up on audiences. Still, it should generate plenty of laughs, if its ad campaign is any indicator. (July 10)
Official Web site

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by David Yates

Pushed back from its original late 2008 release date, the sixth film in the hugely popular series finally hits theaters. While positioned as a darker entry in the franchise, it sets the stage for the ambitious plan to break the next “Harry Potter” film into two parts. Big business at the box office is a given, with the film likely to compete for the top moneymaker of the year. (July 15)
Official Web site

“(500) Days of Summer”
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
Directed by Marc Webb

Having garnered strong notices from its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, this unorthodox movie looks at the relationship between a greeting card writer (Gordon-Levitt) and a new employee (Deschanel), who have quite different views on love. It’s hard to imagine a trailer doing a better job at selling a movie than this one does. (July 17, limited)
Official Web site

Starring the voices of Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan, Penelope Cruz, Nicolas Cage
Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

If you’d been wondering when there would ever be a CG/live-action combination featuring a group of crime-fighting guinea pigs, then you’re in luck here. This is a film that would seem to be primarily aimed at children, but hopefully will not be a painful cinematic experience for adults. (July 24)
Official Web site

“The Ugly Truth”
Starring Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter, John Michael Higgins, Nick Searcy, Kevin Connolly and Cheryl Hines
Directed by Robert Luketic

It just wouldn’t be summer without the dependable romantic comedy genre in the mix, and with her success in “27 Dresses,” Heigl is a hot commodity in it. Here, she plays a TV morning show producer who has to deal with an egotistical new reporter (Butler) who takes on the task of finding a guy for her. This one looks to have cute and predictable written all over it, but maybe also has the ability to surprise. (July 24)
Official Web site

“Funny People”
Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Judd Apatow

Although he has produced what seems like hundreds of films in recent years, this comedy marks only the third directing venture for Apatow. Sandler, a newcomer to the Apatow stable, stars as a stand-up comedian dealing with a terminal illness, who decides to take an up-and-coming comedian (Rogen) under his wing. The premise certainly has the potential to venture into sentimentality, but the cast would seem to be good enough to avoid that pitfall. (July 31)
Official Web site

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Movie Review: "The Wrestler"

Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Official Web site

Mickey Rourke has had an interesting career in Hollywood, to say the least. After making a splash with memorable performances in films such as “Diner” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” he would proceed to make a bunch of generally crummy choices in movies over much of the next two decades. That’s not even mentioning the even worse decision to become a professional boxer – a choice that damaged his face and acting career.

But after some stints doing supporting work in films such as “Sin City,” Rourke was given the opportunity of a lifetime to tackle the lead in “The Wrestler,” director Darren Aronofsky’s vision of a broken down man grappling with demons while trying to recapture a little of his past glory. It’s a task that the actor proves to be up to, both physically and emotionally.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson was once a great professional wrestler, coming up on 20 years since his most memorable match at the peak of his popularity. But, the time since hasn’t been too kind to Randy, who still toils away in the ring. The crowds are significantly smaller, as are the venues, with old assembly halls and American Legion posts serving as the location of the matches. Still, the fans that do show up still have an adoration for Randy, and he for them. He takes a physical pounding during the fights – a scripted one, to be sure – but his body could hardly tell the difference. In the ring, he feels powerful and in control, which is in stark contrast to his life outside of it.

He struggles to pay his bills and keep his rough-looking trailer home, while maintaining an unsatisfying job at a local grocery store. He makes the occasional visit to a strip club, where one of his few friends, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), works as a dancer.

The tenuous control Randy feels he has in his life takes a blow when he suffers a heart attack following a particularly brutal match. Heavy prescription drug usage over the years has certainly done nothing to help his heart, and with his doctor urging him to stop wrestling, retirement would seem to be his only option.

That decision leads him to more closely examine his mess of a personal life, particularly his non-existent relationship with daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). His attempts to ingratiate himself back into her life are met with heavy skepticism by Stephanie, who was essentially abandoned by her father at a young age. There’s both a genuine sweetness and awkwardness in watching Randy try to reconnect with someone he knows next to nothing about. He’s helped a little in his effort by Cassidy, who is a parent herself. She and Randy have an attraction to one another, but Cassidy (who goes by Pam, her real name, outside of work) is very hesitant to become involved with Randy, who she refers to as one of her customers. It’s simply forbidden in her line of work, she explains, but really comes across to Randy as an easy excuse to avoid the possibility of getting hurt.

The scenes involving the three leads have a genuine emotional rawness to them, with Rourke and Tomei giving exceptional performances. There’s a physical and emotional demand involved for both of them, with each realizing that anything less than a total commitment to the roles would ring false with audiences.

With a script by Robert Siegel, the story throws in a bit too many cliches along the way to be completely effective. And the film’s concluding scenes have a compressed feel to them, as if there was a need to rush to the end credits.

Still, “The Wrestler” does a good job of showing the impact that leading a life such as Randy’s can have on a body as well as a soul. And try as he might, not every wound can be healed.

Grade: B
(Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movie Review: "Slumdog Millionaire"

Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Directed by Danny Boyle

Official Web site

Stories about the little guy triumphing against all odds has been a tried and true formula for successful movies, pretty much ever since the medium became popular. Just look back at Charlie Chaplin comedies to see just how far back popular underdog stories existed in the mainstream.

A number of films have met with Academy Award success following that same blueprint (“Rocky” immediately springs to mind). Now “Slumdog Millionaire” can easily be added to that list, having garnered eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Removed from all the Oscar hype, “Slumdog” can be seen as a movie that probably isn’t as good as all the awards that has earned. But, it still is a notable cinematic achievement worthy of praise.

While the advertising campaign prominently features children (portraying the main characters at younger ages), this is by no means a children’s movie. It’s R rated for a reason, folks.

At times it reflects an almost unflinching look at the impoverished conditions that seemingly so many in India live in. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”) gets his cameras right into the slums, presenting an unprecedented look into India, that no other major motion picture has been so successful in showing. A good amount of the cast, most notably many of the youngsters, were plucked right on location to be in the movie. They help bring an authenticity to the film that might not have been possible with professional child actors.

The millionaire portion of the film’s title comes from the appearance of Jamal (Dev Patel), an orphan who rises from the slums of Mumbai to be a very successful contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” As the film opens, his ascent to the pinnacle of the show is questioned by the show’s egotistical host (Anil Kapoor) and the security staff. They wonder how he could possibly know so much, having no formal education. Security personnel feel the need to try and torture information out of him to admit that he’s cheating.

What they don’t know, and what the film shows through frequent flashbacks, is that Jamal’s knowledge of the various answers was learned from the streets and his sometimes brutal life experiences.

The use of flashbacks is sometimes an overused technique in movies, but still seems to work here (just barely) in the Oscar-winning screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. It provides the film a chance to introduce its mostly young cast by laying down the foundation of their personalities without lingering for too long. The story is then able to jump around to different periods of Jamal’s childhood, along with his older brother, Salim and girl he befriends, Latika (who becomes a love interest for Jamal as they grow older). Still, the flashbacks do drain some of the suspense out of the present-day portion of the story.

Boyle’s taut direction, along with snappy editing and some exceptional cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, helps keep the story’s forward momentum going, even as it leads to its fairly predictable conclusion. One look at the title pretty much tells you the result of the game show, right? Still, the saying that “it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts,” applies well here. And the movie makes it clear just how arduous and far of a journey it’s been for Jamal to make to get to this point in his life. The same could probably be said for the film itself, as it had humble beginnings as the little picture that could – and eventually did.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movie Review: "Changeling"

Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Official Web site

Having helmed a handful of standout American films over the past couple of decades (“Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby”), Clint Eastwood has left an indelible mark on the movie industry at an age when most directors have long since retired. At the least, most are long past their prime and are hardly prolific anymore. “Changeling,” one of two films Eastwood directed in 2008, doesn’t quite fall into the category that the above mentioned Oscar-winners do. Still, it is confidently directed, with solid acting and generally avoids sentimentality and manipulation.

Led by an emotionally dense performance by Angelina Jolie (who received an Oscar nomination for it), the film has elements of an old-fashioned thriller at its core. However, it never really seeks to build momentum followed by the big payoff that most thrillers do, which usually consists of revealing the identity of the villain. In this instance, it doesn’t have to. The components of the true story, which takes place in Los Angeles, are compelling enough without too much embellishment.

Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a single mother raising her 9-year-old son comes home from her job at the telephone company one day to find him missing. She searches frantically for him, eventually turning to the police for help. The police investigation is led by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who after five months of searching, shows up at Christine’s workplace one day to announce he’s found her son. Upon being brought to a train station to reunite with him, Christine immediately realizes the young boy is not her son. However, in a state of confusion and at the insistence of Jones, who has used the occasion to garner some positive press for the department, she agrees to take the boy home with her.

But in the days to come, she realizes her first instincts were correct, as the boy is three inches shorter than her son, and has been circumcised. Jones attempts to explain away the obvious differences with varied excuses that do little to placate Christine, while the boy continues to extend the ruse, only adding to the stressful situation.

Determined to build a case proving the police have not found her son, Christine crosses paths with Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local preacher and radio talk show host, who is a vocal critic of the violent and corrupt police force. He immediately believes Christine is right, but warns her of the risks involved in going against the police department.

Where the plot goes from there is best left unsaid, but the story certainly paints an unseemly portrait of the hierarchy of the L.A. police force in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Donovan is quite good as the bullheaded captain, who refuses to admit the department’s mistake, and seeks to simply make the problem go away rather than do his job.

The film does a very good job of building up the components of the case and the aftermath of the fake son’s reveal, yet later court scenes involving Christine’s case against the police are largely, and surprisingly, devoid of much of an emotional payoff. A subplot involving Gordon Northcott, a strange motorist (Jason Butler Harner, practically oozing creepiness in his performance) and a criminal case being built against him becomes more of a focal point in the movie’s third act. This also introduces some sordid details to the story, which makes it a bit tougher to watch at times. Still, a number of the scenes involving Northcott are pretty compelling, thanks in large part to Harner’s performance and Eastwood’s straightforward visual style.

“Changeling” doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch it probably should, based on the material it involves, yet still shows a filmmaker near the top of his game. As Eastwood is set to turn 79 years old later this year, we should all be so fortunate to have something similar said about us.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wrapping up SXSW

The 2009 edition of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas, officially wrapped up its run March 21, with more than 130 feature-length films and more than 50 world premieres unspooling at various city locales. Some of the films had previously made their debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in January. A few were even making big splashes before their wide release into theaters (“I Love You, Man,” “Observe and Report” and “500 Days of Summer”).

All the aforementioned films, which held red carpet premieres at the ritzy Paramount Theater, included appearances by their stars – Paul Rudd and Jason Segel with “I Love You, Man,” Seth Rogen and Anna Faris with “Observe and Report” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel for “500 Days.” (And to answer your question – no, I didn’t see any of them, as I was unable to attend any of those premieres.) But I did get to see writer/director Mike Judge, who appeared for a special 10th anniversary showing of “Office Space.” (More on that later.)

As the festival has screenings covering nine days, from late morning to midnight and later, suffice it to say that catching all the films would be a complete impossibility. Even getting close would be extremely difficult, as a number of the movies only had one showing. So I learned it’s best to just try to make out a short list of films you desire to see, and not to try to run yourself ragged in overscheduling yourself. Of course, you also have to budget in time to stand in line, as getting to most features at least 30 minutes early is highly recommended.
But enough about the festival watching strategy. Here’s a not-so-brief wrap-up of my few days down in Austin.

The Good
• This being my first (and hopefully not last) visit to the film fest, I was impressed by the general organization of it all. Granted, they have had the film portion of SXSW in place since 1994, but from my limited vantage point, things ran fairly smoothly. In my experience, people were orderly, respectful and enthusiastic while waiting in line to get into the theaters. That enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the features themselves, as interesting Q&A sessions were held with filmmakers after every screening I attended.

• The theaters, which included the Paramount, Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lamar, were great venues to watch a movie. It’s truly to a film festival’s benefit to have theaters that have a unique atmosphere – and that’s something that Austin seems to have no shortage of. These aren’t the soulless googleplexes you’ll typically find in a shopping mall. Plus, the Alamo Drafthouses also act as a restaurant, allowing you to order food and drinks right at your seat while watching the movie. Can’t beat that!

• The schedule of films was diverse, offering a variety of genres and topics from which to choose. If you felt like laughing, crying, receiving a good scare, or to be intellectually challenged, you could find something at SXSW.

The Bad
• If you’re not the type that can tolerate standing spending copious amounts of time waiting in long lines, SXSW isn’t for you. Some of the films screening at the festival were so popular that people were lining up a good couple of hours before showtime to secure a seat. This was especially the case for a few of the midnight movies (among which included an early look at director Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” set to open in May). Luckily, March isn’t oppressively hot in Austin; still, scheduling time to have to wait in lines isn’t my idea of a good time.

• Having to sit in the front row of any theater sucks – particularly when you were sick the day before, such as I was. But, due to the staff at the Ritz reserving numerous seats for people who still hadn’t arrived by five minutes to showtime (most of them never showed, evidently), I was forced to sit in the dreaded front row. And at an awkward angle, to boot, which forced me to have to crane my neck a bit to try to take in the screen.

But, I managed to feel well during the course of the film, so at least watching from that seat didn’t have any negative physical effects. As it turned out, that was the only real bad experience I had at any of the five films I caught over the four days I was there. If only I had been feeling better on one of those days, that number could have easily jumped to seven.

The Films
“RiP: A Remix Manifesto”
Official Web site
Director Brett Gaylor’s documentary looks into copyright issues in the 21st century, and the lines that have seemingly become more blurred as technological advances have seemingly grown exponentially. His primary case study in the film is Greg Gillis, much better known as Girl Talk, who makes music by mashing up samples from other artists in a variety of genres. Is what he’s doing theft, or true musical creativity?

The documentary makes a compelling argument for the latter, but some could bring its objectivity into question. There’s not a lot of artist protection views brought up in the film, and those that do come are brief and held up for derision. Still, even coming from a biased point of view, “RiP” is a good-looking and sounding film that touches on a timely and ever-evolving issue in this age of YouTube and digital downloads.
Grade: B+

“The Yes Men Fix the World”
Official Web site
This is actually a follow-up to another Yes Men documentary, with this one following the duo (who take on social/political issues through a bit of extreme activism) as they pose as representatives of major corporations such as Dow Chemical, Exxon and Halliburton.

As amazing as it seems, the Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) are able to dupe lots of people to speak as these reps at press conferences, seminars and, in one very entertaining sequence, live on BBC News. In that interview, Bichlbaum, as the “spokesman,” says Dow is finally taking responsibility for the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, which was the largest industrial accident in history. Company stock dropped by $2 billion in less than half an hour after the announcement, to give you an idea of the impact that some of their pranks can have.

With the film covering several different pranks over a several year period, it tends to feel a little episodic at times. And some may not agree with their methods at eliciting reactions, but few can argue that these targets don’t have it coming. The film elicits quite a few laughs along the way, while bringing to light serious issues that some of these companies have with their seemingly endless search for profits – at any cost.
Grade: B

“Best Worst Movie”
Official Web site
A documentary paying tribute to something truly terrible? That’s the case with this film that looks back at the now cult classic movie, “Troll 2,” which has been “honored” as the worst film ever at More specifically, the documentary reflects on the phenomenon that has occurred since the movie was released in 1990 – having built up a rabid fan base that revels in the movie’s awfulness.

“Best Worst Movie” director Michael Paul Stevenson, who also happened to star in the 1990 film, has created a great film that is by turns hilarious, touching and respectful, as he tracks down pretty much everybody that had anything to do with “Troll 2.” The obvious standout here is George Hardy, a good-natured dentist in Alabama, who gets a real kick out of the new found popularity of the film and his performance in it.

It should be mentioned that seeing “Troll 2” before this film isn’t a prerequisite, as it’s very enjoyable on its own. But I guarantee your curiosity will be piqued to seek it out on DVD after seeing the documentary. If you have any fascination with the truly awful and bizarre, “Troll 2” should be on your must-see list. “Best Worst Movie” definitely makes that obvious.
Grade: A-

“Office Space”
The festival had a special 10th anniversary showing of the workplace comedy, which was shot in Austin, and stars Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston. While none of the stars were in attendance at the screening (several were in town for a similar celebration the previous month), writer/director Mike Judge was there and aired a special sneak peek of footage from his next film, with the working title of “Extract.” Starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig and Ben Affleck, the brief preview was quite funny, and should be out in the third quarter of this year, according to Judge.

I don’t think I need to give you a rundown on “Office Space,” as it’s still a great movie, with numerous quotable moments. But it was great to see it with a big crowd in a sold out theater. Plus, Judge followed it up with a Q&A session. I shot video of it, which I’ll post eventually – once I figure out how to split the 15-minute video up.
Grade: A-

“For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism”
Official Web site
Gerald Peary, himself a film critic, wrote and directed this documentary about the origin and development of film criticism in this country. Numerous critics provided interviews for the feature, allowing people to put a face to the name they may have been reading for years.

The topic was interesting, if not predictably handled, as it followed a general chronological coverage of the career’s history. Its numbers have been dwindling over the years in print publications, while its growth on the Internet has soared, with professionals and non-professionals (better than the term amateurs) sharing cyberspace.

Ultimately, the material’s probably a bit too dry for most people, and skimps on some areas, such as film criticism’s television presence and influence on the industry. Then again, it seems a bit odd to offer criticism on a film about criticism. But, there you have it.
Grade: C+

Friday, March 13, 2009

SXSW: Now Playing

Today marks the beginning of the South By Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. While I'm not there for the kickoff of the festival, I will be seeing some of it for the first time, beginning Sunday. That trip will be in conjunction with a visit to see family down in the Lone Star State. Should be a great time.

There's quite a full schedule of movies, documentaries, and short films planned over the run of the festival – some 200+ features in all. Needless to say, I won't be seeing them all. But I do plan to see a handful of films, many of which will be making their worldwide debut at the festival. SXSW is still a much bigger draw for the music portion of the festival. But the film side of it seems to be growing in popularity, and is seen by film insiders as a good alternative to the much bigger schmoozefest, the Sundance Film Festival.

I'll have a report on my opinions and experiences on the festival upon my return. And heck, I'll probably even throw in a review or two, to boot. Yeah, I know those don't appear on this site too often anymore. But I'll be working on that.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Spring 2009 Movie Preview (Part II)

While March’s movie slate has some surefire hits, April is a bit more uncertain, with films aimed at action fans, younger audiences and adults looking for (hopefully) intelligent dramatic offerings. The following is a rundown of some of the more notable releases for the month. Keep in mind, release dates are subject to change.

“Fast and Furious”
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster
Directed by Justin Lin

Not that you’d be able to tell by the title, but this marks the third film in the “Fast and Furious” series. Some wouldn’t think this should have warranted one sequel, let alone two. But the original stars are all back this time out, and probably wisely avoiding the big action movies that will be unleashed in the summer season. (April 3)
Official Web site

“Hannah Montana: The Movie”
Starring Miley Cyrus, Emily Osment, Billy Ray Cyrus
Directed by Peter Chelsom

Bringing the wildly popular TV show to the big screen seemed like a inevitability, but with star Miley Cyrus set to turn 18 this year, how much longer will she likely want to play this role? In this film, her character takes a trip to her Tennessee hometown to get away from the insane popularity of her alter-ego, music superstar Hannah Montana. (April 10)
Official Web site

“Observe and Report”
Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Pena and Ray Liotta
Directed by Jody Hill

This film has the misfortune of following in the footsteps of the poorly reviewed, but popular “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Rogen stars as a temperamental mall security guard out to stop a habitual flasher as well as win the heart of another mall employee. This might fall into the description of a raunchy comedy – something that Rogen seems to be in a lot nowadays. (April 10)
Official Web site

“17 Again”
Starring Matthew Perry, Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon
Directed by Burr Steers

Remember when there was a popular trend of body-switching movies back in the late 1980s? Need I remind you of “Like Father, Like Son” and “Vice Versa”? Well, anyway, here’s a variation of one (kind of like “Big”) about a man (Perry) dissatisfied with his life, who magically wakes up younger one day and gets a chance to relive his life as a 17-year-old (Efron). One would assume many awkward moments and valuable life lessons will ensue. (April 17)
Official Web site

“State of Play”
Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels and Helen Mirren
Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Based on a BBC miniseries, a great cast heads up a story following a pair of reporters (Crowe and McAdams) looking into the murder of a U.S. Congressman’s staff member. As one might imagine, the investigation becomes much more complicated than a single murder. With lots of the releases in previous weeks aiming at the younger audience, this is one film that looks to be targeted squarely at adults. However, it will run into competition for that audience quickly, so word of mouth will need to be strong. (April 17)
Official Web site

“The Soloist”
Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Directed by Joe Wright

Following up on a red-hot 2008 (“Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder”), Downey shares the screen with Oscar-winner Foxx as a reporter who befriends a homeless man – and a musically gifted one, at that. While the plot might sound a little far-fetched, it’s based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a cellist prodigy, who suffers from schizophrenia and becomes homeless. Although the movie was delayed from a release date last November, it has the potential to become a strong Oscar contender for 2009. (April 24)
Official Web site

Starring Idris Alba, Beyoncé Knowles, Ali Larter, Bruce McGill, Jerry O’Connell and Christine Lahti
Directed by Steve Shill

Alba plays a successful businessman who finds his life thrown into turmoil when an office temp (Larter) begins taking a disturbing interest in him. Knowles co-stars as his wife in a film that is certainly not original, but might still be able to provide a little bit of trashy fun. (April 24)
Official Web site

Friday, February 27, 2009

Spring 2009 Movie Preview (Part 1)

With winter’s chill hopefully coming to an end soon, movie studios are starting to ramp up their bigger releases for 2009. The month of March is bookended by potentially huge hits, both seeking different audiences. The following is a brief look at those two, along with other offerings for the month. April’s releases will follow next week.

Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Directed by Zack Snyder

With the court battle over the movie rights between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox having been settled, viewers can now turn their attention to whether director Snyder (“300”) can do justice to the widely praised and popular graphic novel. The story centers around a group of retired superheros and the investigation into the murder of one of their former colleagues. With plenty of publicity and a highly visible ad campaign, combined with little competition from other films, box office success would seem to be a given. (March 6)
Official Web site

“Race to Witch Mountain”
Starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Carla Gugino, Cirian Hinds, Alexander Ludwig
Directed by Andy Fickman

Johnson, better known by many as “The Rock,” reunites with Fickman (“The Game Plan”) for a remake of 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain.” In the film, Johnson plays a cab driver who takes on the task of protecting a pair of siblings with supernatural powers from a shady organization with nefarious plans. This version looks to be amping up the action and comedy, which should be a good fit for Johnson. (March 13)
Official Web site

“The Last House on the Left”
Starring Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, Sara Paxton, Martha MacIsaac, Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter
Directed by Dennis Iliadis

Another remake of a ‘70s film, this one has decidedly darker content than “Witch Mountain,” which might be an understatement. Based on the original directed by Wes Craven, “Last House” deals with the revenge that two parents seek to exact on a gang of criminals who previously kidnapped and brutally assaulted their daughter. Expect a drop of blood or two to be shed. Big surprise, I know. (March 13)
Official Web site

Starring Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury
Directed by Alex Proyas

An item retrieved from opening a time capsule at his son’s school reveals to a teacher (Cage) that several decades worth of catastrophic events in society have been accurately predicted – with more still coming in the future. But can he stop the impending disasters from happening? A better question may be can the visually gifted director Proyas (“I, Robot”) overcome a rather farfetched premise and make this something worth seeing? (March 20)
Official Web site

“I Love You, Man”
Starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segal, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, Jon Favreau, Jaime Pressly
Directed by John Hamburg

The quite busy Rudd stars as a newly engaged guy who goes on a series of dates with men to try and find someone to fit the role of best man for his wedding. Segal co-stars as a top prospect who begins putting strain on the engaged couple’s relationship. The film features a strong cast with lots of TV and movie comedy experience, which can only help here. (March 20)
Official Web site

Starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti
Directed by Tony Gilroy

After a tremendous first directing effort (“Michael Clayton”), Gilroy has attracted another talented cast to head up this tale about a pair of corporate spies (Owen and Roberts) looking to take down their respective bosses (Wilkinson and Giamatti). Things get a bit complicated when they begin to fall for one another, however. (March 20)
Official Web site

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Ryan Reynolds
Directed by Greg Mottola

Set in 1987, “Adventureland” follows the life of a young college graduate (Eisenberg), as he takes a summer job at an amusement park. There he finds some odd fellow employees, along with a possible love interest (Stewart). This marks Mottola’s follow-up to the surprise hit, “Superbad.” (March 27)
Official Web site

“Monsters vs. Aliens”
Starring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Paul Rudd, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, Stephen Colbert
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon

With a showcase Super Bowl ad slot, this animated film should have no problem with name recognition by the time of its release. And with a stellar cast of vocal talent at its disposal, not to mention its wide appeal potential, anything less than $100 million at the box office would have to be considered a disappointment by DreamWorks, the studio releasing it. (March 27)
Official Web site

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Movie Review: "Burn After Reading"

Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Official Web site

Ethan and Joel Coen have made a fairly long career out of choosing to tackle whatever projects they feel like, sometimes eschewing an easier path to success in the process. How else to explain following up their last film, "No Country for Old Men," the winner of four Academy Awards, with "Burn After Reading," a zany and comedically twisted comedy populated with a lot of stupid, self-centered people?

As usual, the Coens snag a top-flight cast, which can only help serve a decidedly entertaining, yet admittedly pointless story about a CIA analyst (John Malkovich) dealing with a blackmail scheme and a cheating wife (Tilda Swinton). The blackmail situation arises when Linda and Chad, a couple of fitness center employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), come into possession of a computer disk that appears to have top secret information about Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), a longtime CIA man with a drinking problem. Cox’s drinking leads to his end of employment with the agency, putting him in a grouchy and exasperated mood for pretty much the remainder of the movie.

Initially, Linda and Chad have no plan to blackmail Cox (whose full name Chad seems humorously obsessed with saying). However, when Cox seems ungrateful and suspicious of their having possession of the disk, they decide to try and get money from him instead — a mistake that leads to them turning to the Russian embassy for help.

Mistakes and misunderstandings by the characters in the film permeate the screwball script, co-written by the Coens. These mistakes and misunderstandings include the activities of Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married, womanizing federal marshal, who is having an affair with Cox’s wife, Katie, even while he’s seeing Linda. He also has a growing fear that he’s being watched in public. Of course, being involved in that many different romantic relationships certainly makes such a belief seem plausible.

This marks the third collaboration between the Coens and Clooney, who has a knack for playing somewhat dim men in their films (see "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty"). He, like many of the actors here, seems to be having fun playing against type. Pitt, in particular, makes good use of his limited screen time, playing the idiotic accomplice to Linda’s harebrained blackmail scheme. The cast is clearly the best part of the film, as the story itself is a bit of a jumble, filled with characters that the audience will have a difficult time rooting for. But laughing at the characters is never a problem.

Much of the humor in the movie is of a darker nature, with some of it springing up from violent encounters, verbal and physical. This means it may not appeal to all audiences, which is pretty much the same thing that can be said of most of the Coen brothers' comedies. For most people, there's should be an adequate amount of material to like here, just not quite enough to place it in the top level of their body of work.

Clearly, the Coens have no real desire to embrace conventionality, and for the most part, that’s to the benefit of audiences, who are all too frequently spoon fed simple stories with even more simple characters. That’s not to say that all of the Coens' movies lack simple people; in fact, many of their comedies are packed with them ("Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski," for instance). But movies like those, along with Burn After Reading, to a lesser extent, at least keep audiences interested to see what these idiots will do next (the characters in the movies, not the Coens — but I guess the statement could work either way).

Grade: B+
(Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Curious Case of Oscar snubs

Coming off last year’s all-time low television ratings, the Academy Awards looked to be set up this year for a perfect situation to turn its recent ratings slump around. One of the biggest Oscar contenders, “The Dark Knight,” was also a hugely popular film at the box office, garnering the second highest gross in motion picture history. That possible combination of popularity and prestige looked to be the recipe for big ratings.

However, the prestige didn’t really follow on Thursday, Jan. 22, when the Oscar nominations were announced, as “The Dark Knight” ended up with just one nomination in the major categories – that for the late Heath Ledger in the best supporting actor category. So despite huge audience and critical acclaim, combinations that worked for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and, of course, "Titanic," Batman will be largely looking at technical awards to possibly take home at the Academy Awards.

There was the thought by some in Hollywood that a strong showing by "The Dark Knight" could have provided a boost to Oscar's sagging ratings, as it would have provided a hugely popular film for audiences to root for – a race that would have lasted right up to the final award of the night. That's certainly not to say that the Academy should have rewarded the movie purely to grab a larger viewing audience. But the film was widely praised upon its release, and is the rare sequel that most felt surpassed its predecessor. It's a popcorn movie, to be sure, but one with a conscience and a brain.

Still, "The Dark Knight" managed to snag eight nominations, which is certainly impressive for a movie that only has one nomination in a major category. Leading the way was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” with 13 nominations, followed by “Slumdog Millionaire” with 10.

The following is a roundup of some of the major categories and an early look at the prospects for some of the nominees on Oscar night, Feb. 22.

Best Picture
• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• “Frost/Nixon”
• “Milk”
• “The Reader”
• “Slumdog Millionaire”
For many, the most notable aspect of this category is the omission of “The Dark Knight,” while “The Reader,” which didn’t have much buzz during awards season, got nominated. “Slumdog” has picked up a lot of awards in recent weeks, and would seem to be a slight favorite.

Best Director
• David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”
• Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
• Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”
• Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
The Academy has had a habit in recent years of nominating at least one director not helming one of the best picture nominees. But that’s not the case this year, with Howard the only nominee with a win under his belt.

Best Actor
• Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
• Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
• Sean Penn, “Milk”
• Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”
Penn is the only former winner in this category, with Rourke as the comeback story, fresh off a Golden Globe victory. It could come down to these two for the Oscar, with Langella as a possible longshot contender.

Best Actress
• Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
• Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”
• Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”
• Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
• Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
The nomination for Winslet is a surprise only for the film in which she received it.
“Revolutionary Road” was the expected film for her nomination. She earned Golden
Globes for that film and “The Reader” as supporting actress. But the Academy clearly recognized this as the better of her two lead performances. Facing off against a strong group, including the ever-present Streep, this just might be Winslet’s year, after five previous nominations.

Best Supporting Actor
• Josh Brolin, “Milk”
• Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
• Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
• Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
• Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
Hoffman makes his second straight appearance in this category, but Ledger is the prohibitive favorite. The other candidates, which includes the rare nomination for an actor in a comedic role (Downey in “Tropic Thunder”), are in a tough spot. In competition with a well-liked, talented performer who died young, the odds would seem stacked against them all.

Best Supporting Actress
• Amy Adams, “Doubt”
• Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
• Viola Davis, “Doubt”
• Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
This category may prove to be the toughest to call, as none of the actresses have been dominating during awards season. Tomei has won in this category before (“My Cousin Vinny”), with Cruz and Adams as previous nominees. Cases for and against any of the five could probably be made.

Best Original Screenplay
• “Frozen River”
• “Happy-Go-Lucky”
• “In Bruges”
• “Milk”
• “WALL-E”
As much of “WALL-E” is without dialogue, it’s a true testament to the visual storytelling that it snagged a nomination. That said, the “Milk” screenplay of Dustin Lance Black seems to be the favorite.

Best Adapted Screenplay
• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• “Doubt”
• “Frost/Nixon”
• “The Reader”
• “Slumdog Millionaire”
With two of the nominees being adapted from the stage to the big screen (“Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon”), there’s a good variety to the material in this category. But unlike the original screenplay nominees, there’s no surprises here, with “Slumdog” or “Benjamin Button” possibly riding a wave of awards for their respective films.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Movie Review: "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"

Starring Christopher Bell
Directed by Christopher Bell

Official Web site

Taking its cues from Michael Moore’s style of documentaries, yet less polarizing and confrontational, writer-director Christopher Bell’s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is an entertaining and educational examination of steroids in America. But in tackling such a controversial subject, Bell chooses to delve into the highly competitive nature of Americans and why some choose performance-enhancing drugs to “gain an edge.”

Bell doesn’t approach the material from a naive and outside point of view. In fact, he readily admits to having used anabolic steroids himself in the past, while involved in competitive weightlifting. As the middle child of three, Bell interviews his two brothers, who were also into weightlifting, athletics and steroids. And while Bell regrets his use of the drug, his brothers have no problem continuing to do so on occassion, as younger brother Mark remains involved in weighlifting, while older sibling Mike is still desperately trying to establish himself on the pro wrestling circuit.

All three grew up in the 1980s, idolizing pumped up stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that all his childhood heroes were seemingly on steroids is a true letdown for Bell, who questions that if they all used, what kind of mixed message does that send to today’s youth.

While the film isn’t able to get any of the aforementioned big three on camera for interviews, Bell is able to amusingly get close to Schwarzenegger during a campaign stop. But instead of being able to question the governor about performance-enhancing drugs, he gets to be a part of a photo-op that places him on the front page of the Los
Angeles Times.

As a first-time documentary maker, Bell shows an impressive amount of prowess with his varied and large amount of interview subjects. Ranging from medical experts, athletes (including track stars Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis), models and politicians, an extensive amount of information is thrown at the viewer. However, it’s to the film’s credit that it avoids getting bogged down into medical miniutae or an overly biased point of view. That’s not to say the film maintains a completely objective position. The mere involvement of Bell’s family, including his parents, makes his seeking answers a personal pursuit that goes beyond most documentaries.

While some may walk away still questioning the true health risks that anabolic steroids pose, the film makes clear that America takes a hypocritical position at times when it comes to dealing with the issue. Politicians put baseball players under oath in a congressional hearing for doping, but were among the many who cheered some of those same players’ exploits in their prime. The film points out that Congress spent more time on this hearing than they have on the Iraq war – and to what conclusion? Some of our sports athletes cheat? Shocking!

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” doesn’t put the use of performance-enhancing drugs on trial, nor is that its intent. In fact, the film makes a point that the use of the term “performance-enhancing” is so overused, many likely don’t realize that they might be using some themselves. Stimulants (like caffeine), sedatives (beta blockers) and painkillers are all among them. So when it comes to competition in America, the documentary questions where we draw the line and what a level playing field even consists of anymore.

Grade: B+
(Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images.)