by Tim Van Schmidt
The Girl Who Played with Fire ****
This movie, the second in a trilogy based on the popular novels of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, is not a discovery- as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was- but a continuation. It gets personal this time as the characters introduced in the first movie- specifically the mysterious computer hacker/fringe-dweller Lisbeth Salander- are fleshed out and details of their pasts are brought to light. And those details aren’t particularly pretty. Against the clean-cut background of Swedish cities, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” seethes with tension, abuse and violence. The movie also moves quick and you need to really pay attention in order to keep up- a challenge, reportedly, even for those who have read the books.
What worked for me was to watch “The Girl Who Played with Fire” twice. The first time was more like a note-taking session- getting a handle on the crowd of characters and the sometimes obscure connections between them. As an English-speaker, the necessity for this comes from depending on the subtitles for all the information about the story and it is certainly distracting to be reading, thinking and watching a fast-moving production all at the same time. The first viewing felt more like training than an enjoyable movie experience.
However, my second viewing yielded a whole new appreciation for “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Armed with enough of the back story to not have to pay attention to the subtitles so much allowed me to watch the faces of the characters more closely, aiding in illustrating the action, as well as to appreciate the great camera work. The warehouse going up in flames is a riveting image. It’s a complicated story- mature and sophisticated- and Noomi Rapace has created an indelibly vivid character in her portrayal of Lisbeth. Rather than being a confused movie watcher- as I felt I was the first time around- the second time I caught the fever the investigators on the screen had, an excitement brought on by the harsh truth being revealed, one detail at a time.
There are some who might argue that there might be something wrong with a movie that doesn’t deliver the first time around. However, I would argue, using “The Girl Who Played with Fire” as a good example, that there are some productions that are just not that easily consumed. Is it so wrong to really have to work to understand the plot? Movies like this raise the bar of quality.
Directed by Daniel Alfredson…2009…129 min…Michael Nyqvist (as Mikael Blomkvist,) Noomi Rapace (as Lisbeth Salander,) Lena Endre, Peter Andersson.
The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) ****
Simmering passion underscores a world of violence and twisted revenge.
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella…2009…129 min…featuring Ricardo Darín, Guillermo Francella, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, José Luis Gioia, Carla Quevedo, Rudy Romano, Mario Alarcón, Alejandro Abelenda.
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale ***
The super-devotion of a dog for his master results in years of patient waiting at the train station after the man’s early demise in this animal weeper. An interesting effect is the occasional scene from the dog’s perspective, shot in black and white.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom…2009…93 min…featuring Richard Gere, Joan Allen, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Sarah Roemer, Jason Alexander, Erick Avari, Davenia McFadden.
Up in the Air ****
It’s a bizarre notion that one of the “world’s sexiest men”- George Clooney- would be left out in the cold emotionally. For much of “Up in the Air,” that situation is his character’s choice. He is a cool hired hand for corporate firings who finds comfort in the routine of his incessant traveling. But as in his job- where he must deal effectively with the emotions of the people he must deliver bad news to- he also does not shy away from the emotions of the people in his life. Those emotions just don’t stick to him as he boards a plane for his next destination and escapes to the calm in the clouds.
“Up in the Air” is a movie peopled by strong characters who all end up affecting a change in Clooney’s character. They bring up questions about family and relationships as well as the economic and personal fabric of the corporate world, making this production rich in ideas. That Clooney’s character, who expresses his lack of connection matter-of-factly to those around him, is also a motivational speaker adds to the depth of the situation. He ends up motivating himself into unfamiliar action and exposes himself to unfamiliar feelings.
I liked the atmosphere of “Up in the Air.” Clooney’s trademark smirk- something that seems to say in all of his movies that he thinks the whole business of playacting is kind of funny- fits the character really well. And while he says some things that kind of make you shake your head, there is also the sense that he is not so isolated from others as he thinks he is. This creates a character that you can believe really exists. In fact, that person could be flying overhead in a jet right now. Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga add strong performances to “Up in the Air,” also featuring Jason Bateman, Sam Elliot. Directed by Jason Reitman. 2009.
The Blind Side ****
I’ve put four stars on this movie because of emotional appeal more than anything. It’s a feel good story that also feels familiar- some better-off people take an interest in a kid who has had some bad breaks and he is able to blossom as a person as a result. In this case, it’s a big guy with a bigger heart who finds success on the football field thanks to the efforts of an adoptive family and supportive teachers. Sandra Bullock appears as the strong-willed woman who champions the gentle giant. But it’s Quinton Aaron, as Big Mike, who makes this movie happen with his mysterious brooding and sudden warm smile. There are plenty of laughs throughout the production, as well as scenes designed to tug at the heart strings. It’s a good combination, while speaking to laudable core values. This movie doesn’t break any new ground whatsoever, but fulfills the need to get some emotions welling once in a while. Also includes Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates. 2009.
Maybe it was just how I was feeling that night- after a full Christmas feast- but I found the first half of this movie kind of tedious and even a little dull, but then about half way through, it picked up considerably and ended up being enjoyable indeed. Maybe that’s because in the sports drama genre, winning is the ultimate thrill. But winning here is not just about one athlete or even one team, it’s about a whole nation.
The nation in question is South Africa and this production follows the steps from the election of Nelson Mandela, played with appropriate gravity by Morgan Freeman, as President of the country to a cultural unification that occurs because of the national rugby team’s run for the World Cup championship. Matt Damon appears as Francois Pienaar, the team’s captain, who Mandela calls on to help bring about a sporting and political miracle. This becomes a movie about widespread self-discovery- the people of South Africa, both black and white, learn how to stand side by side. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 2009.
Public Enemies ***
There really seems to be something ineffective about many movies that try to tell the story of real historical figures. In this case, it’s the story of famous bank robber John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp. Everything on the screen looks like it comes from the period and the movie follows events in Dillinger’s brutal and ultimately tragic career. However, that doesn’t make the storytelling aspect of the movie come alive. In “Public Enemies,” which in a bigger sense is about the whole “movement” of bank robbers at the time- including Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson- and the formation and development of the FBI, the rather formidable cast kind of go through the motions as dictated by what happened in real life. Unfortunately, like Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie,” there isn’t a time when Johnny Depp is on the screen that you do not forget it is Johnny Depp. There just isn’t enough to suspend disbelief.
More interesting than the acting here is the notion that regular Americans at the time kind of idolized the bank robber at the same time as being fascinated with the authority figures who were trying to formulate a response to rampant lawlessness- the famous “G-men.” Also featured in this movie are Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Billy Crudup, Christian Bale, Giovanni Ribisi, Leelee Sobieski. Directed by Michael Mann. 2009.
(500) Days of Summer ***
The world needs another movie about a failed romance like I need a hole in my head. That doesn’t mean this is a badly made movie particularly- there are some few touches of creativity going on- but I couldn’t help but feel like I was wasting my time on this one. For those who enjoy the angst of mismatched relationships, even while wrapped in a kind of sugary coating, this movie might offer something of value, but I just couldn’t care less about these characters and their fake troubles. Here it is: boy meets girl in the office, enjoys a “honeymoon” period with her, then things turn south until the coupling finally dissolves. He wallows in self-pity, reconnects with her briefly which produces hope, but then he is turned away by her unexpected marriage to someone else. There isn’t much else there. That the movie cleverly tells the story by shifting the calendar of events forwards and backwards helps keep things somewhat lively, but it’s still just a flat, dull look into the lives of people who don’t really exist. Even if they existed, I wouldn’t be interested in their self-absorbed trials. Featuring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Marc Webb. 1 hr. 35 min. 2009.
Even though young star Dakota Fanning is growing up and this is a new kind of role for her, that doesn’t make this a very good movie. It comes off like a cheap and empty version of other “special human powers” type stories like the TV series “Heroes” or the “X Men” movies. Cool editing and a challenging soundtrack don’t make up for a story that lacks substance. The performances from the actors- or perhaps it’s the script- don’t really help much either. It’s a sleepwalk of a sci-fi movie, despite its volume and clatter. Also featuring Chris Evans, Djimon Hounsou. 2009.
The International **
An Interpol agent played by Clive Owen hooks up with a New York District Attorney played by Naomi Watts to uncover a scheme going on with an international banking giant involving money laundering, arms sales and more skullduggery. Despite exotic-ish European locales, it’s a whole lot of talk, talk, talk. Owens gets sufficiently battered as the action hero and shows it by adopting a perpetually stunned look for most of the movie. Watts kind of just gets dismissed from the action after a while. It’s a blur of details- suits, guns and money- and droning voices…Directed by Tom Tykwer…1 hr 58 min…2009.
Terminator: Salvation **
Despite its gritty, graphic-novel look, there isn’t any new ground broken in “Terminator: Salvation,” making it the least of the four Terminator movies. This one stars Christian Bale as the enigmatic John Connor and he brings a nervous, edgy quality to the character. Still, treating the character a certain way does not necessarily reveal anything new. In fact, Bale’s tight-lipped performance gives less about the character than previous productions.
There’s a lot of smash and crash in “Salvation,” lots of guns blazing and bombs exploding- action heaped on action, Transformer-like machines filling the landscape. The one bright spot here is the introduction of a character named Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington (also featured in the hit movie “Avatar”,) whose mysterious presence becomes the one interesting concern. Worthington’s story begins as a convicted killer who is executed, then finds himself in 2018, consorting with Connor and character Kyle Reese, who, according to Terminator lore, becomes Connor’s father. Wright is part machine, part human- and the human part includes his heart.
The future according to “Terminator: Salvation” (1 hr 54 min…2009) is bleak indeed- it’s a dirty, grimy, dangerous existence. There’s nothing anybody can do but survive. That makes Connor’s radio broadcasts all the more important. In the midst of all the burning rubble of the machines’ destructive search for the remnants of humanity, his voice comes out of the night like a beacon of hope to those huddling in holes and corners, trying to escape the relentless progress of the Hunter-Killers. That is how Connor becomes the legendary leader of the human rebels in the future- through words. Otherwise, he is scratching around, trying to survive like everyone else.
District 9 ***
In this mock documentary, a government agent becomes sympathetic with the plight of an alien race being held in detention after reaching Earth in a desperate condition, needing help to survive. The aliens arrive on Earth in South Africa, their ship hovering for two decades above the city center of Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the space travelers are rounded up and placed in a slum area for containment. Deemed too dangerous to stay where they are due to increasing crowd violence among the humans, it is decided that the aliens- over one million brutal, bug-like creatures- must be moved to a new area further away from the city. The agent is exposed to alien bio-technology and begins a transformation into a bug-human.
That’s the basic plot for “District 9,” which serves as a jumping off point for some interesting social comment. To begin with, it is no mistake that the action takes place in South Africa. The aliens are crowded together in their slums just like blacks were in the days of apartheid. Authorities show the aliens the same brutality they showed to blacks. Interestingly, the movie also portrays blacks as being part of the effort to get rid of the aliens- there are plenty of black faces in the riot scenes, showing perhaps that they too are capable of racial prejudice.
But a deeper question comes up through the interaction between the government agent and some of the aliens he comes into contact with in “District 9.” That is, is it possible for individuals from different worlds to not only work together, but care about and help each other?
I initially didn’t much like this movie when I saw it. The mock documentary device wears real thin for me after a while and its clunky adherence to the set-up limits the storytelling. The movie is also filled with gore and violence, presented kind of matter-of-factly. While watching, there were also several parts that seemed real familiar, like they were taken directly out of other sci-fi movies like “Independence Day” and “The Fly,” indicating a derivative quality to the production.
But after discussing the movie with others who viewed it, my harsher opinions have given way to admiring this creative attempt to not only entertain, but to also bring up social concerns. The movie also bucks the trend that assumes that aliens who might come to Earth would have to be strong and superior. Sure, superior alien technology enters the picture in “District 9,” but that technology isn’t enough to help the stranded aliens for the years they remain under human “care.”
“District 9” (1 hr. 52 min…2009) was directed by Neill Blomkamp and features Sharlton Copley as government agent Wikus Van De Merwe.
With the discovery of water on the moon recently, the chances of establishing a base there have realistically increased. In “Moon,” however, it is discovered that the rock on the far side of the moon- the side facing the sun- is storing energy that can be accessed by a system of huge machines, scooping up the rock and extracting the power. It’s all so automated that the whole thing is run by a single guy and a talking robot. That doesn’t seem realistic until you learn the chilling secret that ends up being the crux of this movie.
There are some eye-catching scenes of the rocky surface in “Moon” and good takes on the machinery and life support that would be needed to carry out such an operation. This makes “Moon” a lot about the hard science it would really take to live and work in such an inhospitable environment.
However, further questions arise that take “Moon” into another, more speculative direction. The chief issue here is cloning and includes a little corporate politics to boot. Is the far side of the moon far enough to go to avoid the accepted standards of human behavior? How far will a corporate operation go to secure their facilities in space? The movie becomes a mind-bending, surreal experience once the set-up for the action is fully exposed.
There are some similarities between “Moon” and other movies, such as the classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that make devices like the talking robot (using the cool, calm voice of Kevin Spacey) seem all too familiar. Maybe there’s some references to “Silent Running” too, another movie where the robots become the only interaction the main character has once he finds himself alone. Somehow, perhaps through some great need to survive, passed down from one issue to the next, this space loner gets to tell his story.
Directed by Duncan Jones…97 min…2009…Featuring Sam Rockwell (as Sam Bell)…Kevin Spacey (voice of GERTY)…also Dominque McElligott.
Julie and Julia ***
The life and career of cook book author Julia Child is mirrored by the efforts of a big city cubicle dweller named Julie to get out of the ruts of her life. Julie starts a blog project that commits her to cooking all of the recipes in Childs’ French cook book and she achieves self-confidence and success as a writer in the process. Amy Adams is Julie, Meryl Streep, in a riot of a performance, is Julia Childs. The production jumps back and forth between Childs’ formative years as a cook and Julie’s troubles with food and relationships. A light comedy, based on books “Julie & Julia” by Julie Powell and “My Life in France” by Julia Childs. Stanley Tucci plays a key role as Childs’ supportive husband. Also featuring Chris Messina, Linda Emond. Directed by Nora Ephron. 123 minutes. 2009.
I hesitate to write about “Avatar” because it is no doubt just all over the place already- reviews, articles, blogs, ads, awards. It’s still in the theaters adding to its legend as the world’s biggest-selling film. “Avatar” seems to be on everyone’s lips and, in my imagination, I hear lovers all over the continent saying “I see you” like the characters do in the movie.
However, what better place to start a new movie theme page about the wild worlds of the universe- the ones in our heads, anyway? “Avatar” is indeed a “world of wonder,” a gorgeous piece of art and action that succeeds in taking the audience to another time and place entirely. It is truly a memorable experience- especially seeing it in 3-D in the theater- and the technology that was used to create it is state-of-the-art. No, way beyond state-of-the-art. Others will have to make leaps and bounds to catch up to the spectacle of “Avatar.” “Avatar” is a top notch science fiction fantasy against which all others can be judged. So, it’s the best place to start “Worlds of Wonder.”
So, what, write about the plot of “Avatar”? the actors? the message? All worthy subjects but, as stated, overdone in the current media already. Rather, I’d like to muse on why this exploration into a world that does not exist is important, maybe even necessary. That is, while the world of Pandora- the scene of all the action in “Avatar”- may not really exist, it could. Such is the power of the human mind- to imagine something outside any real experience but is possible- maybe a huge long shot, but possible. It has to do with taking known elements- like what we know about biology, geology and astronomy- and asking how they can be fit together in a new way. That has become the genius of science fiction- to create new possibilities.
That is exactly what the human race and even Earth itself needs is new possibilities. OK, so maybe the world of “Avatar” is ultimately a fairy fantasy, but its process of asking “what if?” is so strong that the change of perspective this elaborate pipe dream offers is both challenging and refreshing. It is inspiring as a physical accomplishment and for its ideas and we must savor inspiration in whatever form we find it. Yes, you could claim a production like “Avatar” is escapist. But what’s important is what you bring back from that escape. “Avatar” leaves you with a desire for a better world- a better universe- and that’s valuable. That we can want to improve ourselves makes considering these new possibilities, no matter how farfetched, necessary.
Directed by James Cameron…162 min…2009…featuring Sam Worthington (Jake Sully)…Zoe Saldana (Neytiri)…Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine)…also Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest ****
The third installment of Steig Larsson’s “Millennium Triolgy”- the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” movies- is cool and static. After all the violence of the first two movies, the waiting for the heroine Lisbeth to heal in the hospital, then having to sit through her trial seems anticlimactic.
But that does not mean that nothing is happening in “Hornets’ Nest.” There’s hacking going on, legal manipulations, a few murders, threats against Millennium magazine and the relentless pursuit of the man who feels no pain. Throw in a high level government conspiracy and a motorcycle gang and there’s plenty to sort out.
Noomi Rapace has created an enduring and indelible figure as Lisbeth in the course of all three “Dragon Tattoo” movies and in “Hornets’ Nest” she becomes even more inscrutable than ever. Though Lisbeth has acted as a vigilante before and does get her own kind of revenge on some of her enemies, she ultimately gives way to the legal system in “Hornet’s Nest” to clear up the rest.
Directed by Daniel Alfredson…2009…147 min…featuring Michael NyGvist (as Mikael Blomkvist,) Noomi Rapace (as Lisbeth Salander,) Lena Endre (as Erika Berger,) Annika Hallin, Jacob Ericksson, Anders Ahlbom, Micke Spreitz, Georgi Staykov, Mirja Turestedt, Hans Alfredson.
In “Surrogates,” people do not leave their homes to work or even interact anymore. Instead they send out surrogate robots that do all the dirty work- actually, all of the work, including police work. That is, except in certain robot-free reservations, violently defended by actual humans. So starts this remote-controlled action thriller that manages to raise some important questions about what it really is to be human. The actors are particularly challenged by adopting a subtle jerky motion to imitate machines when in their surrogate characters.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow…2009…89 min…featuring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames.
Whip It ***
Jaba the Slut, Pocket Rocket, Eva Destruction, Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks, Iron Maven, Smashley Simpson, Maggie Mayhem: just this list of colorful characters that fill “Whip It” tells you something about the movie. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, it’s got a great soundtrack, plenty of action and some heartstring pulling besides.
The whole thing is a little unbelievable- a disgruntled beauty pageant contestant in a small Texas town becomes a roller derby queen in the nearby big city of Austin- that’s a wide swing of change. But none of it is meant to be serious enough to worry about the plausibility. Despite the tough talk and the violence of the sport, this is a pretty lighthearted movie about pursuing dreams- even if they are wild and crazy. Upbeat and even inspirational.
Directed by Drew Barrymore…2009…111 min…featuring Ellen Page (as Bliss Cavendar/Babe Ruthless), Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Carlo Alban, Landon Pigg, Daniel Stern, Andrew Wilson.
Where the Wild Things Are ***
An overactive, uncontrolled boy indulges his wildest fantasies with the help of a posse of huge, furry monsters.
Directed by Spike Jonze…2009…101 min. featuring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Pepita Emmerichs, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Forrest Whitaker, Chris Cooper.
Get Low ****
An old hermit decides to invite everyone in his rural county to his funeral- and attend the event himself. The discovery becomes that this crazy dude that everyone has been picking on for years has much more passion and deepness to him than anyone could have imagined. In the process of setting up the funeral- which becomes kind of like a freak show to the general populace- the hermit must open up to others to get it done and that allows them to open up to him.
Directed by Aaron Schneider…2009…100 min…featuring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Bill Cobbs
Action adventure about global catastrophe. You cannot help but be impressed with the scale of this production- the vast earthquakes and tsunamis- as well as the effort to save just a fraction of mankind. Perhaps there is even too much of it- the Indiana Jones/Independence Day narrow escapes, one after the other, become exhausting. You could also find familiarity here with the Tom Cruise/War of the Worlds estranged Dad in the middle of a crisis of epic proportions. However, the entire closing sequences are mightily imagined and ultimately upbeat.
Directed by Roland Emmerich…2009…158 min…featuring John Cusack, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Morgan Lily, Johann Urb.
Fish Tank ***
A harsh slice of life in an English urban setting. A teenage tenement dweller finds life uncomfortable everywhere she goes- at home and on the street- and her bitter attitude makes things worse. The only thing that gives her release is dancing to a boom box. Her naive hope to escape her surroundings by dancing leads to an audition for a strip club and the attentions of her mother’s boyfriend. Unflinchingly realistic presentation.
Directed by Andrea Arnold…2009…123 min…featuring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing.
Want serious zombie action? You won’t get it here. But big action and laughs are plentiful in “Zombieland.” So , it’s not scary- a zombie movie along the lines of “Shaun of the Dead”- but you have to howl when Woody Harrelson’s character brutally dispatches zombie after zombie with totally satisfying violence. Yeah, “Zombieland” is full of gore- the zombies more disgusting than most- but the goofy monologue by Jesse Eisenberg’s character and his very practical rules for survival make sure nothing gets taken too seriously. I mean, really, this is a movie where Bill Murray appears as himself, disguised as a zombie, and gets blown to pieces as a result. Just good, family fun.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer…2009…88 min…featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray.
The Young Victoria ****
Costumes, hair, settings, historical political intrigue- “The Young Victoria” has it all, as do many period movies. What “The Young Victoria” has that most of the other period movies do not is a believable romance.
“The Young Victoria” is centered around the years when 18-year-old Victoria, played by Emily Blunt, ascends to the throne of England. A long time before the event, the people around Victoria- including her mother and manipulative advisor- jockey themselves around in the murky aristocratic hierarchy, preparing themselves for her coronation and, hopefully, a chance to control the young woman- and England. Unfortunately for many of them, Victoria stands her ground and is not so easily cowed.
A part of the jockeying of positions includes the designs of various families to match the unwed Victoria with an equally available family representative. This is where Albert comes in. From the ruling family in Belgium, Albert, played by Rupert Friend, is being schooled in all the right things to say and do in order to win the hand of the young princess, soon to be Queen. He is presented as are many others in a steady stream of hopeful suitors.
Albert, however, gets the inside track not because he has done all the right wooing, but because he is genuinely sensitive- and he becomes genuinely enamored with Victoria. While Victoria takes the throne and goes about establishing her household in the newly built Buckingham Palace, beset by political and aristocratic maneuvering, Albert waits, corresponding with his love via letters.
What makes this romance believable is the way Blunt and Friend play their parts. They speak together, they compare notes as shut-in royals, but it is the way they look at each other that makes it seem true. Rather than just going through the paces according to the script, you get a sense of real fire between Friend and Blunt. As a result, this spills over to the viewer. When Victoria and Albert finally do get together, I had a real emotional reaction. I smiled at the young lovers and cheered for them.
Beyond offering a smidgen of real emotion- rather than just fulfilling parts dictated by history- I also found certain details in the production compelling. For example, there is a scene where Albert remarks about the dirty windows and cold temperatures of the palace, the results of confusion among the service groups as to who does what. It seems shocking that a figure so revered as the Queen of England would be living in a less than perfect place.
Another telling scene is when Victoria and Albert set off in a carriage together. As they get going, an assassin attempts to shoot Victoria, who is riding relatively unprotected. It is also shocking that the Queen of England would be riding in the open with so much vulnerability.
Other scenes depict the public anger- even hatred- over the make-up of Victoria’s household. Apparently, all of Victoria’s ladies in waiting represented a certain side of the political fence and the lack of servants from the other side produced rancor. So much so, the gates of the palace are mobbed and at one point, while the demur royals are meeting inside, rocks are hurtled through the window. It seems that despite the reverence and the privilege, being in a high position does not guarantee safety or immunity from the troubles of the people.
That becomes the common ground that Victoria and Albert find in their relationship- the troubles of the people. Victoria feels she should help, but doesn’t really know how. And while others, including her trusted advisor Melbourne, tell her to forget about it, Albert impresses her with a plan to help house the people drawn to the cities at the beginning of the Industrial era. Together, according to the info at the end of the movie, they improve the country’s health, education and welfare.
Victoria and Albert then share at least two passions- the love for each other and the love for the country. In the midst of all the stuffy ceremonies and selfish maneuvering of aristocrats and politicians alike, this gives something real to latch onto in “The Young Victoria.”
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee…2009…105 min…featuring Emily Blunt (as Victoria,) Rupert Friend (as Albert,) Paul Bettany (as Melbourne), Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Mark Strong.
Georgia O’Keeffe ***
Artists are a particular breed of the human species. They are driven to create something that has never been created before- a painting, a sculpture, a photograph. As such, they are curious figures to the population at large, who do not particularly feel the same creative cravings. The general public, however, loves to experience art in its many finished forms- films, books, dance, music- which also sparks interest in the creative process, so movies about artists, like “Georgia O’Keefe,” have a special appeal thanks to their attempts to reveal what makes these strange creatures tick.
Joan Allen creates a very distinctive artistic character as Georgia O’Keeffe. She is mysterious, kind of tightly wound, yet capable of creating the most elegant swirls of bright color and alluring shapes on a canvas. Her lover, promoter and husband, Alfred Steiglitz, as played by Jeremy Irons, is the exact opposite of O’Keeffe- he’s scattered, frantic and unfaithful. However, the two form a life-long relationship that may go far afield in many respects, but remains strong when the art is concerned.
Directed by Bob Balaban…2009…1 hr. 29 min…featuring Joan Allen (as Georgia O’Keefe,) Jeremy Irons (as Alfred Steiglitz.)
The Lovely Bones ****
After reading a number of reviews of “The Lovely Bones” on the IMDb site, I guess I should feel lucky that I did not read the book before seeing the movie. It seems many of the viewers who were fans of the book really did not like the movie. Not having read the book, I came to “The Lovely Bones” movie with an open mind and because of that I did not have any preconceived prejudices to battle. My experience, then, of “The Lovely Bones” was not as terrible as many of the reviewers on IMDb.
For example, I did not mind the fantasy sequences of the “in-between.” Let’s face it, this movie is not based in reality to begin with, so I was willing to suspend my expectations that the plot could be understood in a linear fashion. Rather, the fantasy sequences helped give the rest of the movie an otherworldly atmosphere- even when the action is relatively mundane. The added plus here is that the fantasy material is just so colorful, it’s rather pleasant to watch.
There are also some very good performances from the cast in “The Lovely Bones.” While characters like the father and mother of the victim- played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz- remain undeveloped and even kind of extraneous, a few are vividly drawn. For example, the young female lead, Saoirse Ronan, remains solidly in the spotlight throughout the production. Not only is she an attractive figure on the screen- her eyes in particular are bewitching- but her voice-over narratives reveal plenty of personality to boot. The other stand-out performance is by Stanley Tucci- barely recognizable in costume- who creates a truly creepy character as the murderer.
However, with all that said, I did come away from “The Lovely Bones” scratching my head a little. That’s because the severe gravity of the story’s set-up- the murder of a young girl- does not spell “fantasy” in my mind. This may work for people who have never experienced the pain of losing a child to a killer, but to those that such a thing is REAL, I could see slamming the movie as being disrespectful. Abduction and murder are not just plot points of a big movie production, they are real and horrible. Turning it into a fuzzy, feel-good/feel-bad story smacks of commercial manipulation.
Still, I found that I enjoyed “The Lovely Bones” anyway. Just because a movie takes some concentration to figure out does not make it a bad one. I found I was involved and interested throughout most of the movie and that indicates a measure of success, whether it does justice to the book or not. That it raises questions about what’s appropriate- whether or not murder is a reasonable impetus for a fantasy- makes it more interesting.
Directed by Peter Jackson…2009…136 min…featuring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan (as Susie,) Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Nikki SooHoo, Rose McIver, Reece Ritchie.
Pirate Radio ***
Otherwise known as “The Boat That Rocked,” “Pirate Radio” is a light comedy with rock music in its soul. It’s all about illegal radio broadcasting off the coast of England in 1966 and the colorful characters who spin the records by Donovan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and many more. (Not a single tune by the Beatles- what a big omission of the time!) There’s nothing serious about this movie- from the rabid music fanaticism of the DJs to the cartoonish scenes of government officials working to stamp them out. Even in the wake of what appears to be a real disaster, a happy ending appears. The humor is clipped and adolescent, but it is not possible to resist the strength of the soundtrack. Though records are included that were not released at the time, it’s the spirit of the music- upbeat and rebellious- that’s important.
Directed by Richard Curtis…2009…1 hr. 57 min…featuring Charlie Rowe, Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson.
Broken Embraces ***
A love affair between a passionate filmmaker and an aspiring actress results in tragedy in “Broken Embraces.” It’s a classic story of burning desire and hateful jealousy, told from the artist’s perspective. The performances by the actors- in this case, just about everyone in the cast- infuses this production with a simmering undertone and intensity that goes above and beyond the melodrama of the plot. Rich colors and interesting locations work to underscore the action.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar…2009…2 hr. 7 min…featuring Lluis Homar (as Mateo/Harry Caine,) Penelope Cruz (as Lena,) Blanca Portillo (as Judit,) Jose Luis Gomez (as Ernesto,) Tamar Novas.
Star Trek ****
The 2009 “Star Trek” production continues the lineage of this popular space fantasy series with panache. In fact, the new movie, with young actors taking over the roles of the old, familiar characters, may be the strongest Star Trek movie yet. It’s strong because the action is plentiful, the storyline underscores much of the series mythology and the actors were chosen carefully- all presented with state-of-the-art filmmaking.
In some ways, I did not want this movie to succeed. I was curious, of course, but I am a Star Trek fan from when the series was originally on television and the basics are burned into my brain. No one wants to put aside cherished memories to make way for the new. However, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased, even excited, that the series has not only found new energy, but there may be better movies ahead.
There’s a lot of Flash Gordon in “Star Trek”- the full speed ahead hero (James T. Kirk instead of Gordon) with his crew of trustworthy sidekicks (Spock, McCoy and Uhura instead of Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden) manage to beat tough odds and little time against a maniacal villian (Nero instead of Ming.) It all happens in the deepest reaches of space and despite tons of advanced technology, it all comes down to the quick thinking of the characters.
But “Star Trek” has gone way beyond Flash Gordon in terms of creating an alternate universe of entertainment. It has done this by not only concentrating on the action- and with cool special effects and settings- but also the character development. In “Star Trek,” the characters aren’t just tools of the plot, but are people with back stories and personalities which all get put into play at some time or another. This brings you in closer as a viewer and you get a little more emotionally involved.
Of course, the original television series and subsequent movies banked on the strong personalities of the cast. In “Star Trek” all of that is taken into account and the new actors, playing the familiar characters as young people BEFORE the adventures that were on TV, have adopted the peculiar mannerisms of each, establishing a measure of believability.
Karl Urban is right on as the acerbic Doctor McCoy, wisecracking and bellyaching all the way. Zachary Quinto manages to not only resemble the original Spock, but also to act like him- stiff and uncomfortable but not without wit. But the best of the new is Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, who oozes arrogance but also produces results, which infuriates just about everyone around him. The rest manage to resurrect the other iconic members of the USS Enterprise crew with little details- ways of speaking in particular. These actors studied their parts well and then have some fun with it, making fresh new elements along with the old.
Directed by JJ Abrams…2009…127 min…featuring Chris Pine ( as James T. Kirk,) Zachary Quinto (as young Spock,) Leonard Nimoy (as old Spock,) Eric Bana (as Nero,) Bruce Greenwood (as Christopher Pike,) Karl Urban (as McCoy,) Zoe Saldana (as Uhura,) Simon Pegg (as Scotty,) John Cho (as Sulu,) Anton Yelchin (as Chekov,) Ben Cross (as Sarek,) Winona Ryder (as Spock’s mother.)
Personal pain comes in all kinds of packages, a fact well known to one popular psychiatrist to the stars. His own pain comes from the suicide of his wife and while he continues to work with others, he starts circling the drain personally in a constant cloud of marijuana smoke. However, it ends up being his work that redeems him as interactions with various patients pull him into new territory.
Directed by Jonas Pate…2009…104 min…featuring Kevin Spacey, Mark Webber, Keke Palmer.
Solitary Man ***
A used car czar can’t sell his lies to anyone anymore and he goes on a boneheaded bender to prove it.
Directed by Brian Koppelman, David Levien…2009…90 min…featuring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jenna Fischer, Richard Schiff
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt **
A journalist goes to extreme ends to prove a Louisiana DA plants evidence to get convictions. It’s unbelievable what happens anyway, so a significant twist doesn’t really carry much impact by the end.
Directed by Peter Hyams…2009…106 min…featuring Jesse Metcalfe, Amber Tamblyn, Michael Douglas, Joel Moore, Orlando Jones.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ****
The blockbusting international murder mystery becomes a stylish movie with plenty of action and psychological twists.
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev…2009…152 min…featuring Michael Nyqvist (as Mikael Blomkvist), Noomi Rapace (as lisbeth Salander), Peter Haber, Sven-bertil Taube, Ewa Froling.
A gripping story of Jewish survival against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of Belorussia during World War II.
Directed by Edward Zwick…2009…137 min…featuring Daniel Craig (as Tuvia Bielski), Liev Schreiber (as Zus Bielski), Jamie Bell (as Asael Bielski), Alexa Davalos, Allan Davalos, George MacKay.
A Single Man ***
One big, long suicide note with an ironic change of heart at the end.
Directed by Tom Ford…2009…99 min…featuring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult.
The Watchmen ***
A colorful, masked-hero soap opera with lots of angst and lots of action.
Directed by Zack Snyder…2009…162 min…featuring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson.
Love Happens **
A grieving widower has become a motivational speaker about overcoming loss and overcomes his own emotional state thanks to the encouragement of a flower shop owner.
Directed by Brandon Camp…2009…109 min…featuring Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston, John Carroll Lynch, Martin Sheen.
Harry Brown ***
A retiree turns vigilante when an English urban street gang beats his best friend to death and generally terrorizes the neighborhood. The feelings of helplessness hang over the characters in this movie like a thick, grey cloud cover. Even when forced to act- whether it is the retiree or the police inspector who can’t do much- there isn’t much heroic about it.
Directed by Daniel Barber…2009…103 min…featuring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, David Bradley.
Law Abiding Citizen **
A man who loses his wife and daughter in a horrific home invasion goes on a diabolical rampage against everyone involved with the criminal case that ends up freeing one of the perpetrators. There’s nothing heroic about it and even platitudes about the evils of a corrupt system do not lift this production out of its dull nastiness.
Directed by F Gary Gray…2009…108 min…featuring Gerard Butler, Jamie Fox, Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis.
The Messenger ****
A gritty drama about the havoc warfare wreaks on the home front- both for soldiers who have left the battlefield and for the families of those who die there.
A soldier severely injured in Iraq returns to the States and is assigned duty on the detail that informs family members of military deaths. He is a troubled character to begin with, thanks to circumstances that lead to his being labeled a “hero,” and the emotional trauma he experiences in the performance of his assignment doesn’t help. Neither does the guidance of his superior officer, who is a simmering nut job himself. To further confuse things, the soldier also falls for a war widow with a young son.
Ben Foster plays the damaged soldier with a smoldering intensity that never quite reveals what’s going on with his character. He’s a surly but quiet guy on the outside, yet he punches holes in the walls of his apartment and listens to brain-cleaving heavy metal music when no one is around. Woody Harrelson’s trademark wild-eyed, loose-cannon character is right on in this case. The scenes of family grief during the performance of the pair’s duty are each heart-wrenchingly intense.
Directed by Oren Moverman…2009…113 min…featuring Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi.
Inglorious Basterds ****
A brutal World War II fantasy- not an average movie, but not particularly easy to watch or believe.
The “Basterds” are a special armed forces unit made up of Jewish soldiers whose mission becomes to terrorize the Nazis. This includes not only scalping the ones they kill, but also carving swastikas in the foreheads of the ones they let go. Added to this is a story about a young woman who escapes the vicious murder of her family only to become a theater operator in occupied Paris who must host a Nazi film premiere. The “Basterds” and the woman cross paths in an outrageous operation that could kill the upper echelon of the Nazi high command all at once.
While there are some impressive elements here- especially Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the “Jew-hunter” character and Brad Pitt’s take on the brutal commander of the “Basterds”- the movie ends up twisting history for its own selfish designs. While the vengeance wreaked by the film is understandable, it just isn’t real and comes off as a cheap thrill- and highly disrespectful to the people who lived through those years and did the real fighting.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino…2009…153 min…featuring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Jacky Ido, Mike Myers, Rod Taylor.
A light biography of the famous woman pilot Amelia Earhart, bright and colorfully filmed, but thin on dialogue and drama.
“Amelia” plays like an American epic with the grand sweep of time underscored by date titling throughout. Despite this scope, there isn’t much to the development of the characters other than that Earhart always wanted to fly, so she flew- in the face of convention, true, but basically doing what she says she wants to do.
While Hilary Swank provides a reasonably believable image of Earhart- according to the actual footage of Earhart that appears in the movie- you don’t get a sense of the real person behind that image. She moves through this chronicle like everyone else in the movie- going through the motions as dictated by historical events.
However, there are some strong moments when Earhart encourages those around her, specifically women, to follow their dreams and this helps establish why Earhart was an adored public figure. That she also uses her celebrity to sell stuff swings the pendulum in the opposite direction.
But one scene in particular hits the nail on the head, Earhart is in a vehicle and while passing a soup line mentions her discomfort at her success while so many around her are struggling through the Great Depression. She is encouraged to enjoy her gifts, because she “earned” them. Really though, this indicates the trouble with the whole movie- it’s about rich people succeeding and “inspiring” the poor people around them with their exploits.
Compared to the dire circumstances of the world, Earhart’s obsession with flying seems almost frivolous. This finally downgrades the drama of her final flight. This person did not have to do this. This flight did not help the world in any direct way above and beyond changing the boundaries of what was thought possible. Earhart’s death, then, seems kind of senseless. She provided something to distract people from their troubles- and even something to cheer about- but does that make her more important than the people running the soup lines? Not according to this portrayal.
Directed by Mira Nair…2009…111 min…featuring Hilary Swank (as Amelia Earhart,) Richard Gere (as George Putnam,) Ewan McGregor (as Gene Vidal,) Christopher Eccleston, Cherry Jones, William Cuddy.
The Last Station ***
The last days of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy are devoid of peace thanks to his relationship with his overly dramatic, emotionally unbalanced wife. Also out of balance is the philosophical movement that Tolstoy founded- a high-minded idealism not even the founder completely adhered to. The fight between the wife and the movement, raging while the old writer weakens, serves to make his earthly exit full of tension and angst.
The difference between ideals and reality, then, becomes the crux of “The Last Station.” While Tolstoy genuinely loves his wife, she eventually drives him away with her histrionics. While Tolstoy dreams of a new society based on equality lead by people of vision, his acolytes struggle to gain control of his income. While all of this is going on, peasants work doggedly all around the feuding principals who, despite their posturing, accept being served like royalty.
None of this really addresses a definition of WHY Tolstoy was considered a great writer and a great man. It’s all hinted at but in the end, the movie simply portrays muddled upper class maneuvering and the sad end to perhaps an epic relationship. That a certain sense of celebrity worship threads through the production, the press following Tolstoy’s every move, does not bring the viewer any closer to Tolstoy the man.
Directed by Michael Hoffman…2009…112 min…James McAvoy, Helen Mirren (as Countess,) Christopher Plummer (as Leo Tolstoy,) Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call- New Orleans **
A very black comedy which brings nothing new to the table about a drug-addicted cop and his seamy associates.
Set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there is something very familiar about how Nicolas Cage plays a cop injured in the line of duty and consequently sucks up both prescription and street drugs like a vacuum cleaner. Just as familiar are the characters he consorts with- his prostitute girlfriend, his alcoholic father, a partner willing to commit murder. All of this has become cliché-ridden, from Cage’s standard performance as a nutty loose cannon to the shallowness of the rest of the dirty cast.
There are plenty of edgy scenes where the out-of-control cop lets his inner demons do the work- shaking down everyone from drug dealers to nightclub goers. He steals from them, steals from the police station, intimidates younger people and gets in the face of his superiors.
The movie gives a kind of reason for all of this- the cop injures his back while saving a prisoner from drowning in an evacuated jail just after the hurricane and he is told he will be living with moderate to severe pain for the rest of his life. His downward slide begins with painkillers, but finally, just about anything will do including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, what have you.
What makes it a comedy, however, is that despite all the nastiness he pulls on those around him and during his investigations, he not only survives being caught but he actually is promoted. This explains the final chuckle Cage’s character gives at the very last moment of the movie- he just can’t believe how things have turned out. He gets the girl, she’s happily pregnant, everybody else gets sober and he still sucks up the drugs during his “night shift” job.
There are some very odd moments thrown into this standard fare of disintegration. The camera spends a long time angling in on some iguanas during a police stake-out, with Cage sweating in the background. After a shooting during a drug deal gone wrong, the “soul” of one of those bad guys that gets shot does some high energy break dancing. The final scene takes place in front of an aquarium tank full of sharks, the characters remaining still while the sharks remain in constant motion.
Directed by Werner Herzog…2009…122 min…featuring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit.
A Serious Man **
A static, dry look at personal disintegration as chaos closes in on a 1960s Jewish suburban dweller.
Everything looks under control for a physics professor who is on track to getting tenure. But then everything starts going haywire, from an attempted bribe from a foreign student to the sudden announcement from his wife that she wants a divorce. The guy’s kids are nasty little harpies, his wife’s new boyfriend steps boldly into the picture and even his “goy” neighbor gets into the act by threatening his property line with a new building. The TV antennae won’t work, his car gets wrecked, he’s sleeping at a cheap motel and he can’t get a female neighbor he sees sunbathing topless out of his head.
The strong Jewish support system that dominates the professor’s life outside of work isn’t much help for figuring out his problems. He sees his rabbis, but gets little useful advice. So the professor is left just swinging in the breeze as events continue to unravel his life.
The single ray of hope here seems to be the son of the professor’s bar mitzvah. Though the son is a part of the bigger problem, he also represents a fresh chance to maybe make things come out better in the future, at least for himself. The professor and wife put aside differences and beam at the boy at the ceremony. But what they don’t know is that the boy, a Jefferson Airplane fan, is very stoned- the kid is just as distracted and unfocused as everybody else, despite the power of youth in his grasp.
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen…2009…106 min…featuring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus.
A sci-fi/horror movie with plenty of gore and action, but also some social questions.
The world has been ravaged by a plague that has turned most of the population into vampires. That leaves what remains of those who are still human as potential blood machines to feed the rest. This becomes strictly business for a major corporation charged with providing not just blood but also research into a blood substitute. You see, the more humans that are captured and “farmed,” the less there are to provide new blood. The dwindling human resources creates a panic among the vampire population, dividing the haves and the have nots.
The setting to the movie is dark- literally. Most of the vampires conduct their business at night and the city streets are empty during the day- excepting for, of course, those who have special cars that block out the sunlight. The military also has devised special suits that allow them to continue to round up the humans, who are mostly on the run, but also banding together into a resistance movement.
Ethan Hawke is the morose hematologist who finally makes a breakthrough in discovering not a blood substitute but a cure for the disease, thanks to the help of some brave humans. But this discovery is not what the corporation he works for is interested in and his work makes him one of the enemy. Sam Neill plays the dapper head of the corporation, who blithely sits in his office, sipping human blood from a wine glass, so bent on profit that he allows his own daughter to be “turned.”
Some special effects and make-up work together to complete the scene, but it is the over-all atmosphere that the world is about to completely fall apart that provides the tension that fills this stomach-turning fantasy.
Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig…2009…98 min…featuring Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe.
Away We Go ***
A road trip movie for neurotics. An odd couple hits the road together to find even odder people everywhere they go. Light- very light- humor. John Krasinski. Maya Rudolph. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jeff Daniels. 2009.
The Informant ***
Getting into the mind of corporate crime- literally- and finding it’s not very interesting- just lies on top of lies. Matt Damon. 2009.
State of Play ***
Unconvincing political intrigue. Russell Crowe. Ben Affleck. Helen Mirren. Robin Wright Penn. Jason Bateman. Rachel McAdams. 2009.
I’ve had my fill of “feel bad” movies recently and I was not particularly looking forward to “Brothers” because it has “feel bad” written all over it. Sure enough, “Brothers” feels bad, but powerful performances pull it from the emotional ringer with an intensity that elevates it from being just another weeper. In this case, it is the acting of Tobey Maguire that anchors the whole production. But the support given by Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and even Sam Shepard, also adds considerably to the tension.
The story follows a family as one member is deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine. While serving his tour, the soldier gets shot down and captured. He is presumed dead by the Marines and his family, who go about the painful job of putting their lives back together. This draws the young “widow” closer to the soldier’s brother, a wild child nearly the polar opposite to his “hero” sibling. This effort of moving on- after plenty of grieving- gets derailed when the soldier is rescued and returned home, severely damaged goods.
More than anything, it is Maguire’s sunken eyes and skinny frame that is the most shocking part of his character’s post-Afghanistan experience. He has become a quiet, yet seriously simmering introvert who has lost perspective on home-life and whose unpredictable behavior drives a wedge deep into his relationship with his wife, kids and his brother. Maguire leaves behind the silliness of his Spider-Man role and produces a heavy, heart-breaking character. What his captors in Afghanistan do to him and a colleague during their imprisonment is truly horrible, but with all of the scenes to illustrate the action, nothing expresses the anguish of the situation better than Maguire’s eyes and face at the worst moment.
Directed by Jim Sheridan…2009…104 min…featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham.
Now that my daughter has grown and moved on to pursue a professional career, I don’t get to see the latest in kid movies anymore. But once in a while, one comes along that establishes a reputation for entertaining people of all-ages and “Up” is one of them. Sure enough, the movie lives up to that with laughs, color, whimsy and even heart-felt emotion.
“Up” is an animated adventure like many others in that it throws together a motley crew of characters, who learn to function together despite initial differences. There are talking animals, fantastic situations and a dastardly villain. But “Up” begins with a touching story about a relationship- a young fan of a famous explorer meets another young fan and they become friends, then life partners. As the years quickly go by, the dreams of youth are replaced by the realities of living, until the two are parted by death.
The old man carries the pain of his loss around with him in his day-to-day life even as the changing city literally surrounds his old home. An altercation with a construction crew forces the old man to move, but not in the way those around him expect. He outfits his house with a mass of helium balloons and takes off to find the adventure he and his late wife never got around to pursuing. As the house lifts off above the city, he discovers a young stow-away, determined to help him.
In “Up,” the details are fun, the colorful, fantastic landscapes are attractive to the eye and the characters are amusing, but it is this very real undercurrent of emotion- the sense of loss in terms of people and time- that makes the movie enjoyable for all-ages. It all turns out the right way, even after long sequences of dangerous action at high altitudes, but the touch of sadness that underscores it all brings the movie into your heart.
Directed by Pete Docter (Bob Peterson, co-director)…2009…96 min…featuring voices by Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo.
Grey Gardens ***
It was just by accident that I saw the original documentary film about the odd, squalid conditions relatives of Jackie Kennedy- a reclusive mother and daughter- had sunk to, hiding away in their East Hampton mansion. We had gotten the disk thinking it was this made for TV version of the story, but instead got the real thing. It was a strange and disturbing experience- not very exciting but oddly riveting as the craziness of the Beales is revealed without any touches of artificial drama.
But after seeing the documentary- and the real ladies of the story- I came to appreciate the acting in the 2009 feature film, especially Drew Barrymore’s as the younger Edie Beale. She obviously studied the documentary and there were points where I was doing some double-takes- were some of these scenes actual footage from the documentary, or were they recreations of those moments? Of course, I knew they were the recreations, but Barrymore nailed the moments so convincingly, so expertly, that the lines certainly blurred between the real stuff and this movie.
This “Grey Gardens” is a much more satisfying experience than the documentary because it gives plenty of the back story that leads up to their weird lifestyle. It’s all told with dramatic flashback scenes. Added to this is the wrap-up of the situation at the end of the movie, revealing what happened to the Edies following the time period that is the main focus here. Maybe I’m just a sucker in this case- falling for the polish and sparkle of a big Hollywood-type production- but it made this story more palatable. The documentary itself is much more stark- maybe a little too close to reality for comfort.
Directed by Michael Sucsy…104 minutes…2009…featuring Drew Barrymore…Jessica Lange…Jeanne Tripplehorn…Daniel Baldwin.
My Sister’s Keeper ***
There are weighty subjects in “My Sister’s Keeper” to be sure. Cancer. Test tube babies. Dislexia. Epilepsy. The right to die. Death itself. Not to mention intense family dynamics. And that is exactly what makes this a trying production, despite the seriousness of all of that- or maybe because of it. The movie is one big bag of pain, apparently attempting to address so many huge subjects all at once. It feels contrived and contrived with the intention of not just jerking the tears, but yanking them hard over and over again. It’s almost disrespectful how “My Sister’s Keeper” takes advantage of these very real horrors for emotional effect.
But that’s initially what “My Sister’s Keeper” is about- disrespect. An 11-year-old girl, wonderfully played by Abigail Breslin, sues her parents to retain the rights to her own body. She was conceived specifically to grow healthy body material for a chronically ill older sibling. In the huge effort to keep the older girl alive, there is a loss of respect for the younger girl’s rights- desperation, particularly on the mother’s part, clouds the issue. Sofia Vassilieva plays the stricken sister with a stoic charm and a personal strength that is inspiring. The scrapbook her character makes of her family’s history is a rich detail.
The problem isn’t the acting here. Cameron Diaz works particularly hard at being the shrill, strident mother. There are even unusually restrained, even serious, performances by Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack. It’s a story that tries to put so much hurt into one situation. It may very well be true, too, in someone’s life, but on the screen it borders on manipulation. This is the super-weepy of all tissue-soaking movies.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes…2009…109 min…featuring Abigail Breslin, Sofia Vassilieva, Cameron Diaz, Heather Wahlquist, Jason Patric, Evan Ellingson, Alec Baldwin, Brennan Bailey, Joan Cusack.
The Time Traveler’s Wife ***
A romantic fantasy, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” mixes some mind-bending concepts with heart-wrenching tragedy for an intelligent tear-jerker. First of all, in this case, time travel is not necessarily fun, interesting or adventurous, as movies of old have cast it. Eric Bana plays a man bedeviled by a condition that has made him unstuck in time, just disappearing at random and coming to in a different place and time. Besides the inconvenience of the actual time transport, there’s the problem that he doesn’t travel with his clothes on, which often puts him into stressful situations when he lands, not to mention the problems he leaves behind from the time he disappeared from.
It’s all explained as a genetic anomaly, but the science is unconvincing at best, so it’s better to gloss over that and just get to the point. That is, the love story that develops between the time traveler and his wife, stretched over a lifetime of brief incidences. It turns out that the time traveler’s uncontrolled shifting tends to keep him bouncing back to important places and people and that allows him to have relationships with his wife, mother and daughter, although interupted by an abnormal flow of time. Those closest to him know his problem and are generally glad to see him when they can. The emotion this creates- the loving devotion and the tragedy that there is so much beyond our control- supersedes the question of plausibility and becomes the main result of the movie.
Rachel McAdams plays the wife, an honest and patient lover- as patient as anyone could be, I suppose, given the circumstances. The biggest delight here, however, was the portrayal of the time traveler’s daughter, Alba, by older and younger sisters Hailey and Tatum McCann, both attractive and appropriately mysterious.
Directed by Robert Schwentke…107 minutes…2009…featuring Eric Bana…Arliss Howard…Rachel McAdams…Ron Livingston…Hailey McCann, Tatum McCann (older and younger Alba).
The Hangover ***
“The Hangover” is about a Las Vegas bachelor party gone bad. The plot complications that come along as the bachelors search for the groom the day after is what keeps this going- and the wisecracking that goes along with it. There’s nothing serious about this one.
Directed by Todd Phillips…2009…1 hr 36 min…featuring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Mike Tyson.
Couples Retreat **
Four couples agree to travel to a tropical island for a vacation, but are not prepared for the couples therapy they find they must participate in while there. It’s the same old thing with Vince Vaughn- he’s the acerbic stoic who cannot be trusted to say anything from the heart. This movie doesn’t say much from the heart either. Rather, it’s a poor excuse for light comedy.
Directed by Peter Billingsley…2009…1 hr 47 min…featuring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis. Kali Hawk, Carlos Ponce, Peter Serafinowicz, Jean Reno.
Everybody’s Fine **
Despite the heavy tone of “Everybody’s Fine,” there isn’t much substance to the movie. It’s about a widower who finds he has to physically go visit his sons and daughters- spread out across the country- in order to connect with them. What he discovers along the way is just what little connection he really has to them, not knowing the trying circumstances each has to deal with and finding that his offspring are reticent to tell him the truth about it. Most interesting about “Everybody’s Fine” are the scenes where the widower speaks to his sons and daughters as the children he remembers them as, not as the adults they have become. But the rest of the performances are static, a kind of going through the motions- emotionally thin, at best- and unconvincing. I also liked the few moments of chatter going over the telephone wires, including the widower’s children talking about him on the sly.
Directed by Kirk Jones…2009…1 hr. 39 min…featuring Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo.
Crew members wake up from hyper-sleep in a state of disorientation that makes them question the reality of everything around them- from the state of the ship they are on- a transport to another Earth-like world- to the murderous creatures lurking throughout the gigantic vessel. There’s a lot of gore, but also mind-bending twists.
Directed by Christian Alvart…2009…108 min…featuring Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Cam Gigandet.
The Road ***
A harrowing post-apocalyptic tale of a man hustling to make sure his son survives. The actual reason for the apocalypse is not explained and that is not the point here. Here the horror is the awful fact that nothing grows, nothing will grow and what’s left to scavenge is in short, short supply. So short that not only must survivors fight for food, they must fight to not become food themselves. In this bleak future, cannibal bands hunt others, who often turn to suicide to escape.
Despite the intense direness of the situation in “The Road,” the father continues to often small scraps of hope and optimism to the boy, no matter how weak. It even becomes a theme about keeping a fire burning inside. It may all boil down to taking one painful step after the next, but there is a heroic spirit in the man’s dedication to moving his son as far south as he can while he himself is dying.
Directed by John Hillcoat…2009…111 min…featuring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron.
Don McKay ***
A tongue in cheek thriller full of plot twists and an odd, slightly stunned, ambiance. It’s not serious whatsoever and entertaining for it as characters jockey for the attention of a guy no one ever pays attention to- a high school janitor.
Directed by Jake Goldberger…2009…87 min…featuring Thomas Haden Church (as Don McKay), Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo, M Emmet Walsh, James Rebhorn, Keith David, Pruitt Taylor Vince.
Mao’s Last Dancer ***
Reaching triumph over very long odds, a Communist Chinese dancer defects to the United States and becomes a star. It certainly feels good as far as the success of the human spirit is concerned since hard-line politics also hang heavy in the balance. Colorful stage scenes help flesh out the story and warm-hearted emotional triggers are generously pulled.
Directed by Bruce Beresford…2009…117 min…featuring Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan.
A passionate romance sparks between a bored French housewife and a workman. Love may rule, but it is unbelievable how quickly the housewife is willing to abandon her family and cushy life for the affair. The guy isn’t all that attractive either, so maybe this isn’t so much about a love affair but about mental illness. Melodramatic and ultimately unsatisfying.
Directed by Catherine Corsini…2009…85 min…featuring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, Yvan Attal.
Valhalla Rising ****
A Viking slave forced to fight opponents to the death in brutal hand-to-hand fighting escapes only to end up in a strange land full of more mysterious danger. Slow and even inscrutable at times, “Valhalla Rising” gets high marks nonetheless for presenting unusual storytelling- since the protagonist here is mute- and for creating a dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere that affects everything that happens. Honestly, I don’t know what’s more scary here- the brutal Viking slavers or the Christian Crusaders. The matter-of-fact violence here is especially brutal thanks to special visual and sound effects.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn…2009…93 min…featuring Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Alexander Morton
The Horde ***
This was the first feature in a zombie double feature night. There’s plenty of brutal violence in this French yarn, and that’s before the zombies show up. Here, two rival gangs converge after the death of a cop, but their dramatic showdown is interrupted by the unexplained appearance of flesh eaters. There’s no time to reason why and the survivors, trapped in a decaying high rise building, have to work together to survive. Of course, that doesn’t last long for any of them and I don’t think that’s giving away very much of the plot.
The characters here are distinctive, from the sullen cops to the Nigerian brothers to the old army veteran really digging the opportunity to engage in some ultra-violence. The gore is plentiful as the flesh eaters’ pursuit of the humans keeps up at a relentless pace. None of the characters are people you would want to know in real life, but their will to survive is intense nonetheless.
Directed by Yannick Dahan, Benjamin Rocher…2009…90 min…featuring Claude Perron, Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney, Doudou Masta, Jo Prestia.