Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

'Tis The Season For Oscar Bait

Indded it is, the time of year when the studios are releasing so many movies they have Oscar hopes for, that they have to hold some of them back and give them only limited releases now, and wide releases next month. And both of the films in this column are prime examples. (By the way, I almost feel like apologizing for the relentlessly positive tone of these reviews for such a long time now. Since I tend to see most movies in second run discount houses and don't review those, the lesser titles haven't been getting reviewed here... and believe me, I've seem some lesser stuff. And when I get to use a gift card or free pass to see something first run, it tends to be something I'm might sure I'll like. These are two more upbeat, positive reviews: sorry. Maybe I should start doing an occasional second-run review just so I can have some fun tearing something apart. But for now...)
1. "Doubt". John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck") brings his own stage play to the screen here. Set in the early 1960's just as the Catholic church is beginning to institute some long hoped-for reforms that many traditionalists resent, it tells the story of a nun played by Meryl Streep who becomes convinced that a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has made "improper" advances to a young boy who is a student at their school. She has no concrete evidence... however, she's not about to let this stop her from bringing the priest down and forcing him out. But the boy's family is afraid of drawing public attention to the case for a number of reasons of their own, not the least of which is the fact that he is the school's very first black student.

SO... if Streep completely abandons any doubt and charges ahead with her plans and it turns out that Hoffman is innocent, she's destroying an innocent man's life and career. But if she lets her doubt control her and prevent her from doing anything and it turns out he DID what she suspects, the boy would continue to be abused. And even if she does the right thing, the boy is going to be "put through the ringer" one way or another. Lucky for her she has (or at least ADMITS TO having) no doubts or compassion (when Hoffman asks her "Where is your compassion?", she responds "Nowhere that YOU can get at it!").

We're wrestling with issues of religious faith, personal responsibility, basic right and wrong, racial issues, and a whole lot more here (not the least being women's issues: we're frequently reminded that this is a world in which the problems and complaints of women, no matter how well justified, are generally ignored). Obviously the sort of thing that is more common in works for the stage than for the screen. But Shanley does a fine job of making this a FILM in its own right while making the tone and approach of the original play work just as well in its new medium. Not to mention making the viewer continually ask themselves what they would do in this situation... and then re-think their original reaction, and re-think it yet again. (And possibly a final time in the very last scene.) A movie that makes you think about moral questions? Hard to believe, but true. That alone is a major point in its favor aas far as I'm concerned.

And the film comes complete with at least three performances that go a long way towards making it all VERY real and putting the audience right into the story. I can almost gaurantee that there will at least be nominations for Streep, Hoffman and Viola Davis, who plays the boy's mother in a couple of short but extremely memorable scenes. (And if I had a vote, I'd give the actual award to Davis.) Coming during the same holiday season that gave us "Frost/Nixon" (also with the original playwright adapting their own work), it's a good solid reminder that film adaptations of plays don't always HAVE TO be nothing MORE THAN filmed plays.

2. "Seven Pounds". And from a somber work about doubt and all sorts of moral questions, we go to a Will Smith movie. But it's not as much of a jump as you might think. In spite of his frequent involvement in big-budget action fare like "Independence Day" and "Men In Black", Smith has shown the capacity to give some fine performances as far back as "Six Degrees Of Separation", and has gradually been growing as an actor in recent years, even in those big budget releases: I personally thought his performance in "I Am Legend" was a genuinely top-notch one regardless of genre. In "Seven Pounds" (it's a little difficult to explain the title's significance without giving away some major spoilers), he gets a movie that is definitely a Hollywood studio release, no doubt about it, but that gives him some solid material to work with, and takes more chances than you generally see with commercial releases.

Smith's character is clearly searching for seven complete strangers with the intent of doing SOMETHING that will greatly change their lives for the better. But just who his character really is (he's definitely not what he seems), why he's doing this, and just what is causing the obvious emotional pain he's going through is a mystery. A mystery that, I might add, is not cleared up until the very end of the movie, causing some critics to call it a "gimmick" movie. But the story works just fine whether you know the conclusion or not (not that I'm going to reveal it here). And it gives him a concrete motive for his actions (something a lot of movie characters don't have). The film is told in a series of events that definitely don't follow a straight chronological line (something that some might find annoying), and the fact that it asks so many questions without revealing many answers until late in the film will strike people who want everything explained to them up front as equally bothersome. Personally, though, I think the unorthodox approach (for a Hollywood release) adds to the emotional impact of the movie.

Speaking of which, the emotional impact: be warned up front that this is a tear-jerker of colossal proportions. I understand that there are people who have little patience for or tolerance of movies that are designed to release the old flood gates. As often as not, I would find myself among that crowd: most such films feature sub-par stories and lazy performances, on the apparent theory that if they can make you cry they don't need to do anything else. But "Seven Pounds" wants to make its audience feel connected to the rest of the human race, and understand the truth of the saying that no man is an island. Not to mention what a difference one person can make. Sorry for not being clearer, but you'd be lining up to shoot me if I got any more specific (maybe I shouldn't be assuming that you're NOT).

Accompanied by some of Smith's best work ever, and excellent support from Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan") and others, "Seven Pounds" is, to me at least, a very emotionally affecting movie of the sort that Hollywood doesn't do often enough. Though he probably won't win, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see Smith get nominated for this. And while I would probably give the award to Frank Langella myself, it would not exactly be undeserved if Smith got it. He really is that good.
Coming soon will be the annual top ten lists (one for commercial releases, one for art house films) but I thought it might be fun to list who I would personally give the Oscar to in a few major categories if I had a vote. This is by no means trying to predict who WILL get nominated or will win... just who I personally would vote for if I were able to. This, before the nominations have even been announced.

Director: Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Lead Actress: Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Lead Actor: Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Film: "Frost/Nixon"

So now we'll see...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Doubtless you've heard people say of certain movies... you may have even said it yourself... something along the lines of "I don't think they could possibly have seen the same movie I did". Latest case in point: "Australia". Aside from one single positive review in the Mpls. Star & Tribune (from a critic I USUALLY disagree with), "Australia" has gotten virtually nothing but negative comments, and Nicole Kidman in particular has been the target of most of the snarkiest commentary. I cleary did not see that movie... I saw a very entertaining throwback to the large-scale "epic" movies of some 60 or so years ago, with a talented cast and crew doing some of their best work.

Plot? Yeah, there is one: Nicole Kidman plays a British aristocrat who travels to Australia just as World War II is breaking out, for the purpose of selling her husband's land and cattle, and returning to England. But when she finds her husband dead... seemingly killed by an Aborigine... she finds herself forced to avoid the evil, land-grabbing plans of her husband's main rival... and the only way she can do this involves a cross-country cattle drive lead by Drover (Hugh Jackman), as the notorious rival attempts to sabotage the drive at every turn and even kill the participants if need be.

That would be enough for a movie right there, but "Australia" also features some pointed commentary on the racist policies that ruled Australia for many years (where Aborigine children were taken from their families to be raised by whites who supposedly "knew better" than their fathers, mothers and grandparents what was good for them), and a bit of wartime drama as the Japanese armies travel south and start to attack. A large part of the negative criticism seems to be focused on how all of this makes the movie "overstuffed" and overlong (at two hours and 45 minutes), and difficult to follow. 165 minutes is actually relatively short for this kind of film (it's easy to forget that "Gone With The Wind", for example, was nearly FOUR hours), and the film is totally consistent and coherent as it goes through its various changes in plotlines. It's all part of one story that no moviegoer should have any problem following if they actually pay attention (maybe that's the problem... it's not a movie that you can ignore for ten or fifteen minutes and not have missed anything).

As far as the actors: I personally think Nicole Kidman does some of her very best work in this film. Yes, she's definitely very "Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN" in the early part of the film... but what's wrong with that? Not only is it totally appropriate to the story (Jackman makes a nice Bogart surrogate), but she's often quite funny... intentionally, that is... which is something you can't say about her performance in, say, "Bewitched". And when the story shifts gears to drama and pathos, she's right on top of it, jerking the tears effectively when that needs doing. Jackman is fine as well, as is the largely unknown in the west Australian cast.

Baz Luhrman (who of course previously directed Kidman in "Moulin Rouge") creates a big, sweeping story of his homeland that presents it at its most beautiful and dazzling (the cinematography ought to get an Oscar nomination at least). It's not a modern type of movie at all... this is the sort of film that could easily have been made back at the time at which it's set. Which, I suppose, could also be a part of the problem for some. A lot of people don't seem to be able to appreciate a film that does quite well what movies used to do years ago but can't seem to do any more. And it's probably no coincidence that this all-Australian production had to go completely outside Hollywood in order to do so. Oh, well... Hollywood's loss.

I would like to think that there is still an audience out there for the kind of film of which "Australia" is such a good example. Believe me, I have nothing against fast-paced, contemporary movies that zip right along with a compact story and cast of characters, very MTV-style. More power to them. But if modern audiences have become so completely accustomed to such films that they can't possibly enjoy anything else, that would be a real shame. I hope more people will give "Australia" a chance... if they approach it with an open mind, they might be very pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


You better not shout, you better not cry
you better not pout, I'm telling you why
Richard Nixon's coming to town!
Well, after all, when you get right down to it, is anyone more Santa-like than Nixon? Yeah, good point. Maybe I better just get on with talking about the movie.

I have long been an admirer of MOST of the films of Ron Howard(let's face it, folks, did anyone really like "The Grinch"?), and prior to last Friday, the 12th, I would have said that "Apollo 13" was his best movie (and actually DID, on a number of occasions). But then I saw "Frost/Nixon", one of the most astonishing movies I've seen in ages, with one of the most incredible performances, and had no choice but to change my mind.

I'm old enough to remember watching the actual Frost/Nixon interviews back in 1977, and even then I think I always knew that there must have been a really fascinating story behind them. In "Frost/Nixon", Ron Howard (aided by writer Peter Morgan, with a screenplay based on his original stage play) confirms that in no uncertain terms. Three years after he resigned from office as a result of Watergare, Nixon still had not given a single major interview or even come close to admitting any participation in the Watergate break-in or cover up. Probably the least likely person to get such an interview (and in the process "give Nixon the trial he never had", as one of Frost's researchers puts it) was David Frost, up until then known primarily as a comedian and variety/talk show host whose career was not what it had once been and who was looking for a means of bringing it back to life. Frost seemed to think that the interviews would be a simple way of getting back in the spotlight, and Nixon saw them as a way to "clear his name" while avoiding the harder questions he'd probably get from people like Dan Rather or Mike Wallace. Both of them wound up being very surprised.

Howard presents the two sides as brilliant strategists fighting a series of battles aimed at winning an ultimate war, and even someone (such as myself) who knows the outcome will still find themselves on the edge of their seats as Nixon throws Frost an ingenious curveball, and Frost (after starting to take his opponent more seriously) tosses back a casual statement that has Nixon reeling. Howard achieved something of the same effect on "Apollo 13", another true story where the outcome was already known, but on "Frost/Nixon" the effect is even more powerful, with the end result of this war having a dramatic effect on not only the country, but, in the end, even the world.

Of course, as dramatic and well-told as the story itself is, the film could have been a near-miss if the performances had been less than they might have been. No need to worry. I quite literally could not name so much as one single instance of an actor portraying a real person that I've EVER seen that matches what Frank Langella does here as Nixon. It's comparatively easy to simply ape Nixon's voice and physical mannerisms (though not every actor who's played him has managed to do even that), but Langella achieves the surface stuff and then goes way, WAY deeper, down into the very core, the very soul of who and what Richard Nixon was, and puts it right up there on the screen. You're virtually watching Nixon incarnated on the screen, sitting right there in the room with the real thing. Langella's achievement borders on scary, and if he doesn't get an Oscar for it there truly is no justice. In fact, he's so good that he could probably overshadow some fine work by the other members of the cast, particularly Michael Sheen (Tony Blair of "The Queen") as Frost and the seemingly ever-present Kevin Bacon as a fierce, determinedly loyal Nixon staff member. Hopefully that won't happen, though, as they also make essential contributions to the movie that deserve to be recognized.

There might be people old enough to remember the interviews who don't see the potential drama in a simple re-enactment. Well, this film is much more than a simple re-enactment: it also gives you the story behind the scenes that you never saw, looks more deeply into the characters of its participants than you've ever seen, and makes clear the historical significance of those interviews. "Frost/Nixon" is every bit as powerful a political drama as "All The President's Men", and then some. There may also be younger people who won't understand the relevance of something that happened 30 years ago to what's going on today. They would do well to compare the Richard Nixon story to what George W. Bush has done over the past eight years, and be aware that what happened with Nixon (other than HIS getting caught) is not that far removed, and that the earlier story has a lot of light to shed on the latter. And oh, if only some intrepid current David Frost could go after Bush in a similar manner!

In fact, a subject that might to some seem dry and boring has in fact resulted in what, as far as I'm concerned, is the single best major Hollywood studio-released film of 2008 (I know it's going to be number one on my list), with possibly the most effective recreation of an actual historical figure of all time. "Frost/Nixon" is an incredibly powerful, amazing film on an emotional, intellectual, historical... oh, on any kind of level you'd care to name. It's amazing that commercial Hollywood is still capable of something like this, and it certainly doesn't happen often enough. Which would make it a real mistake if you decide not to go and see it. Maybe not quite as big a mistake as the ones Nixon made, but still...