Doubt – A Butting of Heads


Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Rated PG-13 for thematic material
Appropriate for ages 13+

    In 1964, Sister Aloysius (Streep), the head of an all-boys school, accuses Father Flynn (Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student.  Without any proof of wrong doing on his part, she goes head-to-head with the priest at a period of time when her actions could damage both her career and her reputation. 

    Taken from the Tony Award-winning Broadway play by the same writer/director, Doubt is just as powerful on the big screen as it was on stage.  And just like on the stage, it’s the performances more than anything else that impress.  Here, Streep and Hoffman are terrific as they try to figure out how to take the other one down without damaging themselves.  Even the supporting cast turn in remarkable performances.  We could very well see three or maybe even four Oscar nominations for acting come from this film.

    While the performances, writing, and directing are all working on a high level, I just didn’t feel a connection with this film.  Maybe it’s because I knew the play going into it or maybe it’s just for the simple fact that I didn’t attend a Catholic school, but I viewed this film with an intellectual eye and it never got to me emotionally.  I almost felt like I was judging an acting contest.  While I would give the team high scores, the film never connected like Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire.  That is a true problem with seeing so many great films in the month of December – you can’t love them all.  This one I merely liked.  A-

Valkyrie – More Interesting than Entertaining


Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy
Directed By Bryan Singer (Superman Returns)
Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Appropriate for ages 13+

    Operation Valkyrie is the code for a plan to assassinate Hitler a year before he committed suicide.  Tom Cruise is Colonel Stauffenberg, a decorated war hero that finds himself amongst friends in not wanting history to remember his homeland as Hitler’s Germany.  Along with the help and craftiness of other high ranking German officials, they set out to bring down the feurer before the allies have their chance. 

    While I’m not sure how much of this film is fictional and how much is “based on a true story,” I do know that this event took place and watching this movie constantly makes you wonder what would have happened if it were successful.  Sorry for the spoiler – but the plan didn’t exactly work.  This “what if” scenario kept playing in my head throughout and even after the film and for that reason, I have to admit the film was successful.  It truly does make you think.

    As for the performances, I think they were all fine – even Cruise’s.  Many are put off by the American accents by some, British by others, and German by a few.  Singer here uses an effect taken from Hunt for Red October by having the film start in the native tongue and then switch to English.  Distracting accents or not, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

      I was also impressed by the production values of the film.  This is a good-looking film that is well-paced thanks to the talent of its director and production team.

    I do think that by going for a PG-13 rating instead of an R (which this film should have been aiming for), Hitler’s rule was trivialized.  I know that most of us as an audience (with maybe the exception of the targeted teenagers) are fully aware of how evil this man was, but for what the film makers were going for, they didn’t show it.  I don’t think there’s a possible scenario for making this an enjoyable, satisfying film, but an R rating might have made it a more powerful and emotional experience rather than just merely interesting and engaging.  B-

The Best and Worst of 2008

The Best and Worst of 2008

I have to admit it – I love lists.  I love writing them.  I love reading them.  I love both agreeing with and disagreeing with them.  I love it when someone turns me onto something special that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. 

One of the most common questions people ask me is “what is the best film you’ve ever seen?”  This time of year, however, that question is reworded to “what is the best film you have seen this year?”  So without further ado, I’d like to share with you the films of 2008 that I feel you need to see or stay far away from.

The Best of 2008

1) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Brad Pitt is a man that is born old and grows young, while the love of his life, Cate Blanchett, ages normally.  Not just a beautiful love story, this epic is more Forest Gump than wacky sci-fi.  Every minute of this film had my eyes and ears glued to the screen.

2) Slumdog Millionaire.  When a young man from the slums of Mumbai makes it to the final round of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, he must prove to the police that his win has been legit.  Director Danny Boyle has a very strong chance of taking home the Oscar this year for this brilliant picture.

3) Wall-E.  Centuries after humans have left Earth, a clean-up robot named Wall-E goes on a wild adventure that just might save human-kind.  Pixar has been very consistent at bringing us creative and thought-provoking films throughout the years and Wall-E could be the first animated film since Beauty and the Beast to get a Best Picture nod.

4) In Bruges.  Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two hitmen that are forced to lay low in Bruges, Belgium after they badly botch a hit.  With terrific performances by all, and a very clever script, In Bruges serves up a wonderful comedy as well as a dramatic thriller.

5) The Visitor.  Richard Jenkins leads this very gentle story of a man trying to move forward with his life after his beloved wife dies.  When he visits his New York apartment that he hasn’t seen in a while, he discovers a foreign couple that has been duped into thinking they were living there legitimately.  Rather than booting them to the curb, he bonds with them and tries to help them survive both the city and America. 

6) Mongol.  This film about the early years of Ghengis Khan is as big as Braveheart and almost as good.  This movie left me salivating for part two, The Great Khan, coming in 2010.

7) Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  I absolutely loved this sweet but naughty comedy about an average guy that tries to forget about his movie-star ex-girlfriend leaving him by vacationing in Hawaii, only to find that she is staying at the same resort.  Between this, Step Brothers, and Pineapple Express, the Apatow gang has proven that it is still on the cutting edge of comedy.

8) Hellboy ll: The Golden Army.  It’s been a good year for super hero films, but when it comes to originality, writing, visual effects, and action, Hellboy 2 runs circles around Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Hulk.  This is the kind of movie that Blu-ray was made for.

9) The Wrestler.  Mickey Rourke is a down-and-out professional wrestler who is desperately trying to hang on to glory.  With a performance this good, it’s hard not to imagine Rourke’s upcoming emotional Oscar speach.  After all, the film mimics his own life closer than he would want to admit.

10) Let the Right One In.  Forget about Twilight, the best teenage vampire film this year was this Swedish import about a young boy who discovers that the girl next door is a vampire.  Both ultra-violent and super-scary, this little genre pic offers up one of the most disturbingly beautiful climactic sequences in recent memory.

Honarable mention: Frost/Nixon, Bolt, Rachel Getting Married, Tell No One, Burn After Reading, Milk, The Reader, Man on Wire, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The Worst of 2008

1) Mamma Mia!  Horrendous singing, bad storytelling, and hideous acting abound in this putrid Abba musical.  I can’t imagine a worse night at the movies.

2) X Files: I Want to Believe.  This was almost a dare to X-Files fans to hate their movie.  And they did.  It is hard to believe that this joke of a film could ever receive a green light.

3) The Happening.  M. Night Shyamalan bombed with his film about the revenge of Earth’s plants.  Note to Hollywood – would someone please stop giving this guy money???

4) Street Kings.  We’ve come to expect Keanu Reeves to give us bad films, but Forest Whitaker’s need for a paycheck clouded his judgement on this crooked cop caper.

5) What Happens in Vegas.  I know that there are some good romantic comedies floating around out there just begging to get made, but Hollywood keeps churning out crap like this.  With the lack of good rom coms this year, folks had to turn to other genres for their date nights.  While chick flicks aren’t dead yet – they sure were hurting in 2008. 

An Inconvenient Spoof

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, and Jaden Smith
Directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose)
Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence
Appropriate for ages 10+

A large celestial body is hurling towards Earth, but rather than a meteor, an Alien (Reeves)arrives instead.  His goal: to take mankind out of the picture before they destroy the much-needed planet and all of its resources.

If you’ve ever seen Tropic Thunder or any other film spoofing Hollywood, you should remember the clips they show of other movies within that movie.  This is like a 100-minute-long version of one of those clips.  From start to finish, it feels like a joke.  I understand the message and I agree that we need to be more responsible for the planet with which we live.  But between this film and Shyamalan’s The Happening, I am not pleased with the way the studios are trying to teach us a lesson.  While The Day After Tomorrow wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, it is Citizen Kane compared to this tripe. 

While the special effects were decent enough, and Jennifer Connelly is always easy on the eyes, I have to warn you that what you get here is not a cutting edge sci-fi flick like it’s original, but rather a preachy commercial on going green.  D-

Punisher: Warzone

Punisher: War Zone

Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, and Wayne Knight
Directed by Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans)
Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language, and some drug use
Appropriate for ages 18+

    Vigilante Frank Castle (Stevenson) is back again and desires to brutally murder every criminal he can get his hands on.  When a crime boss goes after a Federal agent’s wife that Frank accidentally killed, he sets off to protect her, no matter what the cost.

    I’ll admit, I really liked the first Punisher film.  Tom Jane made a terrific Frank Castle and John Travolta made for a truly hideous villain.  The film had a lackluster performance at the box office, mostly due to a poor marketing effort by Lion’s Gate.  But the boys at LG decided to bring him back, this time with a new director, former kick-boxing champion Lexi Alexander, and Rome’s Ray Stevenson.  Having been a fan of Lexi’s last film, Green Street Hooligans, and an even bigger fan of Stevenson as Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome, I thought that this film might have a lot of potential.  I was wrong. 

    Rather than the serious tone that the first film took, this new Punisher is pure tongue-in-cheek silly violence.  The story is only there to serve the kind of extreme violence that only gore lovers could appreciate.  And without a decent story or script to work with, the actors perform as sloppy as the crime scenes.  Instead of a compelling vigilante drama, what we end up with is almost comedic.  Since the folks involved in this picture couldn’t take it seriously, I’m sure that the audience will have the same trouble as well.  What a waste of talent and fake blood.  D+

Australia – Big Budget Mediocrity


Starring Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham
Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge)
Rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language
Appropriate for ages 13+

    In Australia, on the brink of World War 2, an English aristocrat (Kidman) travels to the land down under to discover what her cattle baron husband has been up to while he’s been away.  Upon her arrival, she discovers that her husband is dead and she is now in charge.  When she hires a rough-and-tough local (Jackman) to aid her on a huge cattle drive, she finds passion on the range, along with a country at war both externally and internally.

    One thing that director Baz Luhrmann is good at is creating a beautiful and unique looking film.  Australia, the movie, is full of color and life with great sets and terrific aesthetics.  There are many hauntingly beautiful scenes here including an amazing set piece involving a sabotaged cattle drive.  And speaking of beautiful, you can’t ask for a better looking couple than Jackman and Kidman.  If it were as simple as just putting these two together with a few big scenes, then this could be an A+ film.

    Unfortunately, there are many things wrong with this film.  First and foremost, this is a confusing movie to watch.  I finally got it towards the end, but the first act merely introduces the main characters when it should be setting up the story so that we as an audience can clearly understand what’s going on.  For about 45 minutes, I was completely lost.  To make matters worse, the film was much longer than it needed to be, leaving us to stare at slow-moving scenes that brought the pacing to a droll.  

    I was also disappointed with the overall story.  Not only was it confounding at times, but the dialogue was over-the-top as were the characters.  I’ll choose now to say that I really hate that Jackman’s character, the drover, was simply named Drover.  There is such little intimacy between the romantic couple that she never calls him by his real name, like she doesn’t even know it, and rather just refers to him as Drover for the entire movie.  There are many other little annoyances throughout that just made me roll my eyes rather than enjoy the film.  

    Also, in a film such as this, there should have been a strong villain to sustain the tension, but instead we get a cowardly bully that should have been killed off in the first act.  
    Finally, I want to give away a spoiler here, but I won’t.  Let’s just say that there was a huge error in sequencing in the third act that could have possibly saved the film, but instead it appears that Baz didn’t even see the possibility.     C-