Wednesday, April 22, 2009

State of Play

No secrets here I’m a Russell Crowe fan and I look forward to his films when they come out. There are a few actors in Hollywood who I’ll see anything they make. Even if the film is only mediocre, their performances usually make it worth seeing. Crowe is one of them along with Daniel Day Lewis (who Crowe recently named as his favorite actor working in film during his SOP press), Sean Penn, Michael Caine, Denzel Washington, Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Judy Densch and Amy Adams. A few others hover on the outskirts, but the reasons I see them are sometimes as much for their physical attributes as their acting skills (hello, Gerard Butler, Clive Owen and Hugh Jackman) or they seem like real up and comers worth keeping an eye on (Rachel McAdams, Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling).

State of Play is a solid conspiracy story thriller set in Washington, D.C. which takes you inside of the current world of journalism with a side look at Washington politics. Crowe plays Cal McCaffrey. He’s a veteran old style journalist who believes it’s all about the story and verifying your sources. Stories that have checked out before jumping into them for pure sensationalism and to sell an extra paper. He has a dislike for the online journalists who he sees as not doing enough leg work on a story.

Crowe looks awful physically in this picture. He’s overweight and out of shape. A fast food junky who’s hair looks stuck in the 1970s and he’s lucky to make it to fifty without a coronary event. And as much as I enjoy the physical attributes of certain actors (see first paragraph), the look fits for this character. Crowe again morphs into a role to leave him hardly physically recognizable to Maximus Decimus Meridius, Jack Aubrey, James Braddock, John Nash or even his last role as Ed Hoffman in Body of Lies who Crowe came off of into this role. He truly is a character actor in the body of leading man when he chooses to be.

Cal’s best friend from college is an upwardly mobile congressman played by Ben Affleck. This is a casting problem for me in this film. There is no way you can see Russell Crowe (looking like he does in this role) being Ben Affleck’s undergraduate college roommate. There appears to be a 10 year age difference between the two men on film here. Affleck does okay here (he’s one of my least favorite wooden actors in Hollywood, minus a few roles like Hollywoodland), but I could never get past this physical disparity and kept wondering what Edward Norton would have done with the role if he hadn’t had to leave the film due to another conflicting film start after the schedule was pushed back.

Rachel McAdams plays the young online journalist who ends up as Crowe’s mentee, protégée and adversary all rolled into one. She’s good in this part and the non romantic chemistry between the two is very good. Thank goodness they didn’t go for a romantic pairing between the two and it remained collegial.

Ever scene between McCaffrey and his strong and rather overbearing sell papers at all costs boss (Helen Mirren) leaves you thirsting for more. These two are great on screen together and you really want more scenes with the two of them.

Underused is Robin Wright Penn. She’s a good actress, but her role as the put upon wife (of Affleck’s philandering character) and ex-lover (of McCaffrey’s) isn’t really given enough screen time to develop. I especially couldn’t feel a strong chemistry between her and Crowe here.

Jason Bateman has a small role that makes you sit up and go WOW. No more Teen Wolf 2. He’s terrific and also makes you want to see more of his character.

The performances are the strongest part of this film. The story is merely average with the feeling you’ve seen all the parts in a dozen other thrillers over the last 30 years. It did keep me involved until the bottom fell out of the suspense about 20 minutes before the end of the film. The director (Kevin Macdonald) should have edited this differently to keep the audience closer to the edge of their seats. He tries to pull you back in, but I never completely was again. His other film The Last King of Scotland didn’t have this same problem and it is a superior film.

I’d give this film a B. It’s entertaining and worth the admission. Without the great performances it would be merely an average thriller worth no more than a matinee price.

Sunshine Cleaning

I'm late on this review as I saw it at least a month ago, but it’s still in the top 20 box office and it’s worth a review. This is made by the same filmmakers who made Little Miss Sunshine and it is similarly a slice of life about a family. This film follows two sisters, the oldest sister’s young son and their father. Alan Arkin plays the crusty older father in a role similar to his Little Miss Sunshine role except here he plays a dreamer whose schemes of making money turn out to be losing gambles at each turn in his life.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are terrific as the two sisters. Amy is the elder sister who has landed in the caretaker role for her son and her sister. Their chemistry is wonderful and feels real as two sisters interacting. Amy Adams is a maid who ends up cleaning the homes of the women who were her classmates in high school where she was the popular cheerleader. She got pregnant and ended up as a single mom who works hard to get by. She needs a break to get out of the rut in life where she finds herself.

She’s having an affair with the love of her life that ended up marrying someone else. He’s a town cop (played by Steve Zahn in another good non-stoner role; see Rescue Dawn also) who gives her the idea of starting her own crime scene clean up business. She enlists her younger loser sister (Emily Blunt) and the business is begun. The odd thing is the two are good at the business and it begins to flourish. That’s enough plot set up. See the movie!

This film is a dramedy though there are fewer laughs and more toward drama than Little Miss Sunshine. This is a good film. One I’ll see again when it comes out on DVD. On the A to F scale I’d give it a B+. The big bonuses for this film is a good story, well told with two excellent young actresses who among the best working in Hollywood today.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

81st Academy Awards

The ceremony is tomorrow. I've seen all the films except Frost/Nixon.

My top picks (more than one pick indicates equally fine films or performances):
Actor: Sean Penn
Actress: Kate Winslet/Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis/Amy Adams
Film: Slumdog Millionaire/Milk/The Reader
Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire

My top picks for the best five films of 2008 in no specific order:
Gran Torino
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

The Wrestler

I really didn’t like this film. It was dark, depressing and the main character was so weak that when given the chance to change his life for the better, he escapes to the easy and the known even though that means his own destruction. He is so seduced by the mediocre fame he had as a popular wrestler 20 years ago that he can’t live his life in the present with a woman who cares about him or a daughter who gives him a second chance.

Mickey Rourke gives a very good performance. He deserves his Oscar nomination. He’s an actor I always enjoyed watching on screen. There’s an old 80s film with he and Bob Hoskins called A Prayer for the Dying. He’s terrific in that film. It’s good to see him back in film. Marissa Tomei is good as a stripper who is a friend to Rourke’s character, Randy. He wants more than friendship, but she is reluctant because he’s a client at the strip joint and she doesn’t date clients.

I think someone who enjoys wrestling would like this film better. I found the wrestling scenes rather disgusting and nauseating to watch. The pain and violence inflicted on their opponent for entertainment purposes wasn’t entertaining to me.

I’d give this film a C+. The plus only because of the performances.

The Reader

This is one of the top films of 2008. It contains one of the two top performances by an actress of 2008 (Meryl Streep is the other in Doubt). Kate Winslet is phenomenal in this film. Obviously the writing of her character Hanna Schmitz is very fine. But Winslet makes you care for a former SS guard who has shared responsibility for the deaths of quite a few Jews who were murdered during WW II and also conducts an affair with a 15 year old boy. Just think about that for a moment…

She is certainly not the most sympathetic character. Yet Winslet brings such a fully realized character to life that you find your self sympathizing with Hanna’s plight when she ends up being the guard who is railroaded into to taking the brunt of guilt for a crime that she was involved in as an SS guard, but no more than her fellow female guards who walk away with a much lesser sentence. Hanna takes the blame because of embarrassment. I don’t want to give away more plot than this.

When I was a child I thought about what it might have been like to be a German in post WW II Germany while I studied history. What must the guilt have been like that the horror of the Holocaust was allowed to happen when so many turned a blind eye as to what was going on in their country, town and back yard. I thought about it because my ethnic background is German and distant family could possibly have been involved. This is the first movie I’ve seen that dealt with that guilt.

The main character in this story is played by a young German actor named David Kross (a terrific first film performance). Because of his involvement with Hanna as a young man and his subsequently finding out about her involvement in the extermination of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, his entire life is affected. This story takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This boy was too young to have memories of WW II. He wouldn’t have been born until the end of the war. But, the shame existed for him nonetheless.

Ralph Fiennes does a very good job of playing him as a man. He seems to give an interesting performance worth watching no matter what character he plays in a film. Just this year his roles in In Bruges, The Duchess and The Reader catch your eye as you watch these movies. Again how did he not win an AA for Schindler’s List?

Another movie you’ve got to see. I give this one an A-. Don’t forget In Bruges, and The Visitor are already out on DVD.


See this film about the life of slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. Gus Van Sant has made a very good film with Milk. One of the top five of 2008. The performances by the actors are wonderful. Sean Penn deserves the Academy Award for this role from what I’ve seen so far. I haven’t seen The Wrestler as yet to chime in on Mickey Rourke’s performance. Penn just won the SAG award for Best Actor for the role. Josh Brolin is great as the so tightly wound Dan White that his failures and frustrations lead him to kill his rival Harvey Milk along with Mayor Moscone (a small role by the always good character actor, Victor Garber).

Penn’s supporting players put some very good performances in here too: James Franco as his lover is especially fine and Emile Hirsch as a young man who goes from street hustler to helping to spearhead Milk’s campaigns.

What really shines through in this film is the goodness of Harvey Milk’s heart and his never give up attitude to try and give a political voice for the gay citizens of San Francisco and California. I lost count of the number of times Milk ran and lost before he finally was elected into office. You found yourself wanting to stand up and cheer each time he uttered the words, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”

Don’t miss this film! A rating.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Right off I’ll tell you I thought this film was good, but not great. The performance of Brad Pitt was very good and Tilda Swinton in a supporting role was terrific as she always is. The story was interesting as was the concept of a man born old who ages but regresses physically. Now right off this is a problem since in the beginning of his life he’s infant size, but has qualities of an old man. Yet at the end of his life he physically appears a normal infant, but inside…you guessed it, has the body of an old man. Okay, that bugged me even though I know this is fantasy and you’re supposed to suspend disbelief.

Cate Blanchett plays the love interest from their time of childhood through their time of old age. They meet in the middle for romance when they are of a similar age. Cate looked gorgeous in this role, but I really didn’t adore her Daisy that much as I have other characters she’s played in the past. The two had good chemistry as Benjamin and Daisy, but I quite enjoyed Benjamin’s first romance with the married, but lonely, Tilda Swinton character more.

Where this film seems to beg for Academy Award nominations would be in makeup. What they do with Pitt as Benjamin is amazing and impressive. You truly can’t believe your eyes. The cinematography is beautiful too.

The film moved a bit slowly and was overly long. I think it would have been better if it had been trimmed down by maybe about 20 minutes. I give the film an overall B rating.


Doubt is an excellent film about…doubt! This is a play adaptation, but I didn’t have the constant feeling that I was watching a play made into a film. The story is interesting and keeps you wrapped up in the two competing sides of the view of the Mother Superior (played by Meryl Streep) and the side or denials of the priest (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman). A young nun caught between the two is played by my favorite young actress Amy Adams. She has the ability to bring a certain wide eyed innocence to a character without it seeming to be put on (see Junebug and Enchanted).

Hoffman and Streep are terrific. In another year they would be shoe-ins for the Best Actor and Actress Academy Awards, but this is a year of many strong lead performances so they may be considered underdogs though they certainly should be nominated. So far I haven’t seen performances that I think were stronger than theirs, but perhaps equal in quality. Suddenly Sean Penn in Milk came to my mind and his is an equally amazing performance this year.

The best scenes in this film are when these two go head to head. And they sure butt heads. At first you seem convinced that this terrific priest is entirely innocent of the possible accusations. The Mother Superior is against change of nearly any kind. She believes in rules and discipline to the chagrin of the students at the school. The priest is a heralding in of the new views of the church. But, there is so much more to her and the priest’s character. As the movie unfolds you start seeing more and more shades of gray. Amy Adam’s character seems to bring out a softer gentle side of both the characters and she also hears the point of view of them.

There is one scene that is phenomenal that doesn’t include these three characters in some interaction. The one African American student at the school may be the child being abused. You would think the outrage of a parent when called to school to discuss this would blow the school apart. But, this was a different time and a different society because of the 1960s setting. Viola Davis is the actress who plays the boy’s mother. She is fabulous in this small part where she goes one on one with Streep. It was nothing that I would have expected and in that it’s such a refreshing and heartbreaking scene.

This truly is one of the five best films of 2008. I’m moving on toward countdown to the Academy Awards to try and see all the top films. Doubt gets a solid A from me. I’m hoping all four of the top performances will get acting nominations (and they did). I’d love to see this get best film, best director and best adapted screenplay nominations as well though it seems slim right now for best film and director. So far the films not to miss that I’ve seen recently were Gran Torino, Doubt, Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. Reviews are still to come on Milk and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Then later I’ll get my thoughts down on Last Chance Harvey and Marley and Me.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gran Torino

This was all I was hoping for in the film. Definitely in the top five for the year. Another contender I saw this week, but later to that film.

Clint Eastwood is at the top of his form as an actor and director. Plus composer. What an amazing guy! And he's in his 70s.

He plays a retired man who's just lost his wife and is alienated from his family, church and neighbors. The neighbors are the bain of his existence since the etnic background of the neighborhood has completely changed from Caucasian to Asian. He hates them and doesn't trust them. Walt Kowalski is a bigot, a patriot and a Korean War veteran. In someways he could be my Dad. I understand this fifties kind of man. Think Bud White from LA Confidential as an older man.

Walt built cars for Ford in their heyday of the muscle cars in the 1970s. He assembled the Gran Torino that sits in his driveway in perfect mint condition.

Despite his not wanting anything to do with them, the humanity in Walt comes out when he gets drawn into the lives of the teenaged boy and girl who live next door.

I won't give anymore plot away. That's plenty.

See this film. It's exciting, edge of your seat as well as makes you care for the characters and story. Eastwood gets the most out of his young untested cast. I really liked the performance of the sister, Sue, played by Ahney Her and the young parish priest, Father Janovich, played by Christopher Carley.

But, then Eastwood knows how to work with actors to get the best they can give. Think of Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River. Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. And the example I always use, Kevin Costner. Yep, Kevin Costner. Not exactly the best actor in film, but if you ever saw him in Eastwood's A Perfect World, he was wonderful as Butch.

Gran Torino gets and A. This is a top notch film. See it! Make my day...okay, I couldn't resist.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Ok, for starters....YAWN!

This film is 2 hrs and 45 minutes which can fly by on a great film, but was agonizing for this film.

Most people who watch movies know the premise. Hugh Jackman plays a drover named "The Drover" and Nicole Kidman is a British aristocrat traveling to Australia to get her husband in line to sell their property in New South Wales to have some cash infusion into their British lands and holdings. She gets there and her supposedly cheating and ingoring husband is very dead.

I've seen plenty of films that build slowly that don't seem 'slow,' but this is NOT one of them. This is a beautiful film to look at that highlights the harsh land of this portion of (Darwin) of Australia, but I wasn't going to the theater for a travel film. And that was mostly what I did enjoy of the film.

Like another war film (though this is as much an Aussie cowboy movie with cattle drive and all) named Pearl Harbor it seems to have all look and little substance. Obviously I didn't like that film either.

I'd fit the blame for this lackluster film firmly in the lap of Baz Luhrmann. He was the director and cowrote the screenplay and that's where the problems are. Come on, Baz...EDIT! This film would have been better if at least 20 minutes were cut and tightened up. Seriously I didn't care about the characters either (very different from the previous film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). The half Aboriginal boy and his grandfather were the most interesting characters in the film. A much better film on the subject of what was done to the half Aboriginal and half white children of Australia is Rabbit Proof Fence.

Ack, enough said on this film. I don't recommend it. Average at best. C+ and only the plus because of the cinematography. Originally the buzz was this film would star Russell Crowe with Nicole Kidman. He'd have brought more gravitas to the role of the drover, but I think it was good for him that it didn't work out.

I'll try to get to some thoughts on the Golden Globe nominations later. I was pleased with the Slumdog Millionaire and In Bruges nominations, but was sad there was no nominations for Richard Jenkins from The Visitor. I want to see a few more of the films in the next few weeks like Frost/Nixon, Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

imdb's got the nominations of course: imdb: Golden Globe nominations

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

A bit under the weather and didn't want to subject other movie goers to my cough this weekend so...this is last weekend's films I didn't get to yet.

Friday night saw a trip to the theaters for a small film that has had a lot of acclaim. I found it a very engrossing film dealing with the subject of the holocaust through the eyes of a German child whose life was completely untouched by war and sorrow in the beginning of the film.

The film is in English and stars David Thewlis (Father) and Vera Farmiga (Mother) as the two main actors I'd recognized from other films. Also Rupert Friend who I'd seen in Pride and Prejudice. Given these two films he hopefully won't be typecast as a heavy like Sean Bean has spent much of his career on film.

The film follows a boy who is the son of a decorated German soldier who gets a 'promotion' to commandant of a concentration camp and moves his family there. His wife, daughter and son are unaware of the nature of the camp or his work. They are told the camp is a 'farm.'

The boy is lonely having left all his friends behind in the city and befriends a a boy who he thinks works at the farm and not is imprisoned in the concentration camp.

This is a very good film. Striking and devastating at the ending. Not for the faint of heart. Certainly worth seeing. I'd give it an A-.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I saw Twilight last night. I really wasn't expecting much. I thought it would only play well to the tween girls. I do like vampire films if they're done well. This was not bad. It had enough vampire lore to make it interesting. Added some new ideas like vampires being outside during daylight hours which would make them more formidable and invincible.

Since the story really revolves around a romance the chemistry between the two leads is very important. Edward and Bella had a definite pull to one another. I wanted to know more about the other vampires in the 'Cullen' family and the rogue vampires, but there wasn't too much character development there. I don't know if there was more in the book or not. I haven't read any in the Twilight series. Let's just say it intrigued me enough to perhaps read it.

Beautiful settings and scenery from the Pacific Northwest. And it helped the vampires hide in the open. I'd give the film a B or B-. Slightly above average.

If you want to see a vampire film more intriguing in theaters right now Let the Right One In is a Swedish film about a 12 year old vampire and a neighbor boy who is subjected to school bullies and becomes her friend. Most definitely more violent and bloody than Twilight too. I'd give it the same B or B- rating but you remember it far longer than the beauty of the vampires in Twilight. It is in Swedish with subtitles.

BTW, last post for Slumdog Millionaire I knew there was one more film I wanted to mention as a must see this year. It was The Visitor with Richard Jenkins. Another great small movie. Completely character driven. So if the Academy members haven't seen them...Slumdog Millionaire, The Visitor, In Bruges and Iron Man. Those were the four best I've seen this year so far...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

It's been a million years since I posted.
I saw a film last night that was terrific. Slumdog Millionaire. One of the best films I've seen this year. Up there with Iron Man and In Bruges.

An Indian film, but directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting. If you are put off by subtitles as a friend of mine is, there is no need to worry as this is mostly in English. She thought it was great too. Revolves around a chance at the Millionaire game show and a young man growing up in the slums of India with his brother with only each other to survive. They follow very different courses in their life by the time they're teens.

I'd give the film an A rating. I don't want to give too much of the story away and spoil it. There are three different actors who play the brothers and a girl at different phases in their life. It is always gripping and draws you into the story and the characters. Go see this one! You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Eight Below: An Antarctic Dog Sled Adventure for the Whole Family

This is a live action-adventure film unusual because it’s entertaining for adults and kids alike. It is distributed by Walt Disney Studios. It brings to mind the tradition of films such as Old Yeller. It’s an exciting film that will keep you involved for the duration.

Set in Antarctica, it follows the adventures of guide Jerry Shepard, played by Paul Walker, and his team of sled dogs. Jerry Shepard is sent on one last trip into the frozen land of Antarctica before the scientific team is pulled from the station for the 6 months of winter. Jerry has doubts as to the safety of the undertaking and his instincts prove right with disastrous results. The dogs get left behind to attempt survival through Antarctica’s brutal winter.

The animals are smart, fearless, loyal and lovable as well as fallible at times. They show growth and change. They are as important a part of the cast as the human actors. The dogs have such personality that you will find yourself cheering through their adventure and opening your heart to leader Maya and young dog in training Max. This film is rated PG for two scenes that had tears in our eyes and one scene that is scary enough to elevate you a couple of inches out of your seat. The adults had tears, the nine year old cheerfully reminded us later that we cried and he didn’t.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Antarctica is a land that is shown in all its cold beauty and harshness. The scene during an aurora borealis is worth the price of admission. You will grin and sigh at the same time.

This is not a perfect film. There are a couple of slow moments during the human scenes when they are separated from the dogs. Paul Walker is likeable as a man who loves his dogs as much if not more than any humans. The sidekick, played by Jason Biggs, is too goofy and quirky, but younger children may enjoy him. Bruce Greenwood is excellent as usual as a scientist trying to make his mark in his field with an exciting discovery. His character could be one dimensional, but his portrayal makes you see there is more than you first believe to this man.

Grab the kids, the popcorn and drinks and settle in your local theater seats for a fun family adventure opening February 17.