I’m back from Chicago, thank God, since they’re expecting an arctic cold front this week with temperatures as low as 20 below zero. It was blizzarding when I left but somehow my plane managed to take off. I love Chicago, but I’m happy to be back with my non-frostbitten limbs intact. I’m sitting in a coffee shop watching people walk by in shorts and T-shirts—hooray for Los Angeles!
Since writing my Fall Movie Round-Up, I’ve mentioned a few of the films I saw during the holiday season but I had always intended to write a little more about them. So now, before I forget them completely and get too caught up in my current freelance project and my jury duty which starts this week, I thought I’d give it a shot. You know, just in case anyone is breathlessly waiting for my opinions of the films I’ve seen in the last month or two. [cough] What? No one is waiting? Oh well, here they are anyway, with the films listed in alphabetical order. If you wildly disagree with my reactions to these movies and think I’m clinically insane, remember that I’ve been on a lot of Novocaine over the past few days!
Australia. I was saddened to see this movie tank at the box office and to see the very talented Nicole Kidman labeled “box office poison” the way Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were for a brief period in the 1930s. I don’t think she deserves the harsh criticism she’s received for this sprawling film set in northern Australia in the period just before World War II, though I’m not sure Kidman herself would agree. In a surprising interview I read on the plane yesterday, Kidman says she “squirmed” in her seat while watching this film at the Sydney premiere last November. “I sat there and I looked at Keith and went ‘Am I any good in this movie?’” While not the best movie she’s made, I thought Kidman and co-star Hugh Jackman did an excellent job in this Baz Luhrmann film. Maybe I just like old-fashioned movies—this one had the feel of those sweeping road show epics of yesteryear such as “Doctor Zhivago” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” The three-hour length didn’t help attract audiences but I never felt it dragged. True, the soap opera story of Kidman’s English aristocrat falling in love with Jackman’s hard-riding Australian cowboy was cheesy as hell, but I remain a fan of these two actors. I still think Nicole Kidman's best work was in 1995’s “To Die For.”
Bolt. Leah and I caught this animated 3-D Disney feature just before it completed its glitzy holiday run at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (complete with live stage show before the film). What a surprise—I loved it! Great script about a dog who is the star of a weekly television show about a superhero canine. He doesn’t realize his superpowers are special effects and when he suddenly finds himself outside the walls of the TV studio, it takes him a while to understand that he’s just a regular dog. I was surprisingly moved by this story and laughed out loud more than I have at most adult live-action comedies lately. John Travolta did a fine job as Bolt but it was Susie Essman (from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) as a down-on-her-luck cynical alley-cat named Mittens who had me on the floor repeatedly. Essman has the kind of delivery that could make a reading of the phone book a comedy tour-de-force.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I discussed this film already in my Brad and Jen rant but since then I’ve been surprised by the number of people I know who didn’t care for it at all. They say it’s too gimmicky but I maintain it is far more than just a special-effects showcase. I admit that a big part of my attraction to this film is due to the superb performance by Cate Blanchett, an actress I’ve been raving about since I started this blog. On the plane I read the current Vanity Fair profile of the actress and was happy to hear how down-to-earth and un-diva-like she is. She’s also one of the few performers who could get me to the movie theatre no matter what the film was. I read that she’s gearing up to play Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the theatre she and her husband Andrew Upton run in Sydney. Damn, I would love to see that. Like her good friend and fellow Australian Nicole Kidman, Blanchett hates watching herself on film. “You know, when you see yourself on a big screen, I tend to watch from behind my hands. There is absolutely the regret. You always get that at the end of every project. That’s what's great about theater: at least every night you get the chance to go out and re-offend. I’m endlessly disappointed, which is what propels me into the next project, probably, not to repair the damage but to kind of hopefully keep developing. Otherwise there's no reason to keep doing it, is there?”
Defiance. One of the many films this year that takes place during World War II, but this one does not focus on the current trend of profiling “good Nazis.” The film is based on the true story of the Jewish Bielski brothers who escape into the forest rather than follow the rest of their village into the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Poland. The Ed Zwick film is a little preachy, a little cliché-ridden, but for me it ended up being a riveting take on the often overlooked story of the people who tried to save themselves during those horrible times. I haven’t seen any of the new James Bond films, but Daniel Craig was very good as the oldest brother. I’ve always been a big fan of Liev Shreiber, and Jamie Bell has come a long way since “Billy Elliot.” I thought the female characters were less well drawn, odd for the creator of “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again.” I enjoyed seeing character actor Allan Corduner playing the role of the rabbi-like Shamon Haretz. 25 years earlier, Corduner played Shimmele, one of Barbra Streisand’s Torah-study partners in “Yentl.” The timeframe works so that I could imagine Shamon as the much older Shimmele, thus providing a sequel of sorts for that character since “Yentl” took place decades before the Holocaust.
Doubt. Did I already talk about this film? Meryl Streep can do no wrong in my book (well, “Mamma Mia” was a little scary, but Meryl knew what she was getting into!) and she certainly does not disappoint in this somber tale of a New York nun who tries to break a priest she suspects of foul play with a young male student. She has no hard evidence but refuses to budge from her “certainty” that the priest is guilty despite his vehement denials and explanations. Amy Adams is great as the naïve, idealistic younger nun and Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect as Father Flynn. My one issue with the film was the “doubt” of the title. When I saw it, I thought it was very clear whether the priest was guilty or innocent. Talking to some friends this weekend, however, they were just as convinced the other way, so maybe there’s more doubt in the story than I thought. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley, just like he did for the stage play, told only the actor playing the priest whether he was guilty or not, leaving all of the other cast members to draw their own conclusions.
Gran Torino. At 78, Clint Eastwood seems to be at the height of his talent. He directed this excellent film and his lead performance is the best acting he’s done in ages. It’s a part that few other actors could have pulled off—his grunting, sour Korean War vet could have lapsed into parody if performed by someone with less skill, but Eastwood is very moving in the role, as are the Hmong actors who play Eastwood’s neighbors in the old ‘hood that he refuses to leave, even after his beloved wife dies. Of the 30 films Eastwood has directed, this one is my favorite, although I liked this year’s “The Changeling” as well. As he approaches 80, Eastwood sure as hell isn’t slowing down. But this may be his last starring role. “That will probably do it for me as far as acting is concerned,” he said in a recent interview. “You always want to quit while you are ahead. You don’t want to be like a fighter who stays too long in the ring until you're not performing at your best.”
I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime). A haunting French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman who gets out of prison after 15 years and goes to live with her estranged younger sister (played by the wonderful Elsa Zylberstein). Who knew that Scott Thomas could speak French so fluently? (I liked that they took the time to explain her English accent.) I had some major issues with the Big Reveal at the end of this taut, gripping film, but the unsentimental performance of Kristin Scott Thomas carries the day regardless of the plot holes. I’d be thrilled if she took home a Best Actress Oscar next month. If she does, that would make two actresses in a row who won for a non-English performance, following Marion Cotillard’s Oscar last year for playing Edith Piaf. Before Cotillard, Sophia Loren and Roberto Benigni were the only actors to take home the prize for a non-English role.
Last Chance Harvey. I already mentioned in passing how much I liked this film and believe me, my expectations were low. On the other hand, my expectations are always high for actors like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and they were excellent despite the wafer-thin plot. There was an article about Hoffman in my American Airlines magazine yesterday and he said that the film was largely improvised, they weren’t even sure how it was going to end when they started. Much is made in the film about the age difference between Hoffman and Thompson. Is it awful to say that I didn’t even notice it? Is that because 71-year-old Hoffman looks way younger than his years and 49-year-old Thompson has a history of playing much older women? I didn’t realize that Hoffman always longed to be a jazz pianist. That’s really him playing the piano toward the end of the film, an original tune he wrote following a love affair that ended badly decades ago.
Marley & Me. Don’t even. I said everything I needed to say about this mess here, I refuse to think about it for one more second.
Milk. I wrote about this excellent biopic here. I predicted a sure-bet Oscar win for Sean Penn and we’ll see if tonight’s Golden Globes provide a preview of that. I was surprised to read fellow nominee Mickey Rourke trashing Penn’s performance, calling him an “average actor” and a “homophobe.” Sour grapes, Mick? To be fair, these comments were from an intercepted private text message that Rourke denies sending but it wouldn’t be the first time the outspoken actor’s big mouth got him in trouble.
The Reader. Fascinating film with a complex performance by Kate Winslet as a former SS guard who seems to have little remorse for her role in the war when her past catches up with her. There were so many opportunities in the film to sentimentalize Winslet’s character and “explain” her past actions, but the filmmakers bravely resisted all temptations to make her more sympathetic, and that, to me, is the best part of this intelligent and difficult film. Winslet was the director’s first choice for the film but she had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts with “Revolutionary Road.” Nicole Kidman agreed to take on the role as soon as she completed “Australia” but then had to back out when she got pregnant. By then, Winslet was available again, and she agreed to replace Kidman. I loved Winslet, but it would have been great to see Kidman tackle such a challenging part, especially after all the negative press she received for her so-called wooden performance in “Australia.”
Revolutionary Road. A lot of people I know took issue with this emotionally agonizing film, but I thought the story of this couple in the mid-1950s dealing with lost dreams hit all the right notes. Although Kate Winslet’s role in this film could not be more different from the one she plays in “The Reader,” she courageously avoids the tendency to be more “likable” in both films. It was a pleasure to see Winslet and DeCaprio together again and to be able to erase the memory of the two of them in the vapid “Titanic.” Despite some plot holes, the emotional palette of this film rings true for me from beginning to end, and the angst of Kate Winslet’s character reminds me of the dilemmas my own mother faced when she started questioning the roles she found herself in. Winslet could easily score an Oscar nomination for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Only a few other actresses, including Emma Thompson and Cate Blanchett, have managed that impressive feat in the same year.
Slumdog Millionaire. Difficult to watch, much more violent than I anticipated, but refreshingly unique and original. I wouldn’t be surprised if this unusual film ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar this year. Probably won’t get any acting nominations, though, since there are so many “name” actors vying for the prize. I was surprised to hear this film called “the feel-good movie of the year” by some reviewers. I sure didn’t feel so good by the end of this exhausting tale of an impoverished Indian teen who finds himself a contestant on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and then is accused of cheating, but I was riveted throughout. Had my eyes shut for about a third of the film, though.
Valkyrie. Yay for all the Nazis with hearts of gold! Oy. I enjoyed this Tom Cruise film more than I thought I would, as I already discussed here, and I thought Cruise acquitted himself admirably if not magnificently. I don’t see big box office for this film, though. Failed plots to assassinate Hitler just don’t bring in the bucks as much as stupid dog tricks. The film was shot in Germany at many of the actual sites, and I was interested to read about the German laws prohibiting displays of swastikas. They got a dispensation for the filming of certain scenes in this film, since the displays were for “artistic purposes,” but some Berlin residents filed official complaints with the city and pressed charges against the filmmakers.
Waltz with Bashir. I saw this at a special screening last month with my friend who is a new Academy member and is on the committee to pick the Best Foreign Film nominees. It will surely be nominated and may well win. This is a very unique “animated documentary” about the experiences of a group of Israelis during the 1982 Lebanon War. It’s a gripping, harrowing tale that is not always flattering to the Israeli forces so I was surprised to hear about its mostly positive critical reception in Israel (before the current conflict in Gaza started). This film is not easy viewing but is definitely worth seeing.
The Wrestler. I mentioned bad boy Mickey Rourke above, but I have to say that he gives a pretty incredible performance in this film. Rourke plays retired, burned-out wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson who is looking to regain past glory and to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter played by the always excellent Evan Rachel Wood. Rourke seems so perfect for the role it’s hard to believe he wasn’t the first choice. Director Darren Aronofsky signed Nicolas Cage to play “The Ram” but he left the project because of “creative differences.” Aronofsky then tried to get Sylvester Stallone but finally settled on Mickey Rourke who gives his best performance in decades. Rourke actually did become a professional fighter in the 90s during a break from his acting career, and he was as messed up as his character in this film. “You get desensitized to pain,” he said at the time, “and for three and a half years I developed these symptoms of brain damage—you forget what you did the night before. You have to get out when the doctors tell you to, otherwise you're on queer street for the rest of your life. One doctor said to me before a big fight, ‘your neurological report doesn't look too good.’ I was like four fights away from a big, big fight and he said, ‘Mickey, how much are they paying you? Look at your tests—you won't be able to count the money.’” Also excellent is Marisa Tomei as an aging but still hot stripper named Cassidy. I found the overall story of this film a bit weak, but it’s worth seeing for the performances by Rourke, Tomei, and Wood. Many scenes in the ring are hard to watch, though. I had my hands over my eyes even more often than I did for “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Yikes, that was grueling. I had intended to write only a line or two about each film but, as usual, I allowed myself to ramble. Just be grateful I haven’t yet had a chance to view the other films on my list this holiday season, including Frost/Nixon, Yes Man, Wendy and Lucy, Bedtime Stories, Quantam of Solace, Seven Pounds, The Tale of Despereaux, The Class, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Can anyone tell me if these are worth seeing while they’re still in the theatres?