Tuesday, December 22, 2009

“The Gift”

Even if Annie Wilson (Cate Blachett) didn’t have her gift of clairvoyance, “The Gift” would still be a pretty good suspense thriller. But that added dose of the supernatural gives the movie a jolt that director Sam Raimi uses to blur the lines between Annie’s visions and reality to keep you guessing. The plot of “The Gift” revolves around the disappearance of Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a woman engaged to a local school principal (Greg Kinnear) while sleeping with virtually every other man in town. After coming up dry, the police reluctantly turn to Annie. She leads them to Jessica’s body on the property of Donnie Barksdale (a menacing Keanu Reeves), the abusive husband of one of her clients (Hilary Swank). The resulting court case seems to satisfy everyone – except Annie. She’s haunted by visions that lead her to believe she’s helped convict an innocent man. And when she tries to set things right, that’s when everything starts to go wrong. “The Gift” is thoroughly enjoyable, with a top-notch cast and a surprise ending that defies prediction. It’s definitely worth a look. My tweet (influenced by recent tabloid headlines): The Gift-When Katie Holmes disappears, clairvoyant Cate Blanchett knows it’s not because she’s trying to get away from Tom Cruise. 7.5 (out of 10)

“The Gift”

Released: 2000

Rating: R

Length: 110 minutes

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear

Director: Sam Raimi

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, Mystery

Friday, December 18, 2009

“Grizzly Man”

For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell lived with the grizzly bears in a remote area of Alaska. Although he believed himself to be a protector of the bears, many people thought he was a nut. In “Grizzly Man,” Werner Herzog pieces together Treadwell’s story from video footage shot by Treadwell himself and interviews with the people who knew him. While the interviews and Herzog’s narration serve to provide context and chronology, it’s Treadwell’s footage that makes “Grizzly Man” so compelling. With his Prince Valiant haircut and Mr. Rogers’ speaking manner, he’s is quite a character. The remarkable thing is that bears have become so accustomed to Treadwell’s presence that he’s largely ignored. Likewise, he’s become so accustomed to the bears (maybe too much) that he’s fearless in his interactions with them. This is not the kind of stuff you see in National Geographic specials – from some unmanned close-up camera or shot from a safe distance. Treadwell gets up close and personal with 1,000-pound beasts that could maul or kill him in an instant. Which, unfortunately, is how it all ends. But even when you know that going in, this story/character study a well-meaning but misguided man is no less surprising. My tweet: Grizzly Man-Werner Herzog's fascinating documentary about a man who lives with bears in the wild until they have a “falling out.” 7 (out of 10)

“Grizzly Man”

Released: 2005

Rating: R

Length: 100 minutes

Cast: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Amie Huguenard, Warren Queeney

Director: Werner Herzog

Genre(s): Documentary, Nature

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“Stranger than Fiction”

Let me first say that I like Will Ferrell. You might even consider me a fan. “Blades of Glory,” great. “Talladega Nights,” terrific. “Elf,” a delight. But “Stranger than Fiction,” just okay. The difference? As Howard Crick, the main character in “Stranger than Fiction,” Ferrell’s essentially playing himself. And sorry, but he’s not that interesting an actor. It makes me wonder if he can carry a movie when not in character or doing broad comedy. If you don’t agree, rent “Melinda, Melinda.” It’s painful to watch Ferrell do his Woody Allen impersonation. Or look at the dismal box office for “Land of the Lost.” The other thing about “Stranger than Fiction” is that I liked the idea more than the movie itself. It's a pretty standard story about "living like you were dying" but with a high concept twist. I can just imagine the pitch: “The main character realizes he’s the character in the book, a la ‘The Truman Show.’” And “Stranger” tries to get all metaphysical like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich” but lacks their wit, charm and inventiveness. So while watching "Stranger" I couldn’t keep from thinking about those other movies and wondering how much better this one could have been. Which earned it this tweet: Stranger than Fiction-This Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman-esque movie suffers from not being attached to Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman. 6.5 (out of 10)

“Stranger than Fiction”

Released: 2006

Rating: PG-13

Length: 113 minutes

Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman

Director: Marc Forster

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy

Thursday, December 10, 2009

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966)

I know this isn’t a movie. But it is available on Netflix, so it’s worth a word. I have to admit, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is my must-see Christmas cartoon. Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers/Bugs Bunny/“What’s Opera, Doc?” fame lends his hand at bringing Dr. Seuss’s story about the fall and rise of the green grouch to life. And frankly, this animated TV show manages to pack more entertainment into a half hour than Ron Howard and Jim Carrey had in their bloated, live-action version. Partly because the story hews closely to the book – the only major addition are the musical numbers (including, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, a.k.a. Tony the Tiger in the Frosted Flakes commercials) – and Boris Karloff’s pitch-perfect narration. Seuss manages to teach a Dickens-worthy lesson about the spirit of Christmas without being preachy or syrupy, while Jones manages to add his special touch without getting in the way. The result of their collaboration is a cure for even the biggest holiday grump. My tweet: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)-Dr Seuss & Chuck Jones believe even hardened cynics can be redeemed. Dick Cheney, are you watching? 10 (out of 10) Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on a trailer or promo for the show, so here is one of my favorite scenes:

video

Other holiday movies worth watching: “A Christmas Story” and “Elf”

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

Released: 1966

Rating: NR

Length: 26 minutes

Cast: Boris Karloff, Thurl Ravenscroft, June Foray

Director: Chuck Jones

Genre(s): Children's Fantasy, Fantasy Comedy, Holiday



Tuesday, December 8, 2009

“Doubt”

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) doesn’t like Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). She’s an old battleaxe of a nun – all rules and regulations. He is young, charismatic and part of the new, more open church. It’s this dislike that turns into distrust and fuels the accusation at the center of “Doubt.” When Sister Aloysius voices her concern “about matters at Saint Nicholas School” to the other nuns in her charge, young Sister James (Amy Adams) tells of the school’s lone black student (Joseph Foster) being called to the rectory by Father Flynn. From that seed, Sister Aloysius spins her case to take down Father Flynn. She accuses him of an inappropriate relationship with the boy yet has nothing but her certitude, and the tiniest shreds of circumstantial evidence, to back it up. Publicly, Father Flynn has shown nothing but kindness toward a boy who has few friends. And the movie never reveals the truth. Just as is life, you’re left to draw your own conclusions. So is Sister Aloysius in the right? Or is Father Flynn the victim? Do you really expect a clear-cut answer from a film titled “Doubt?” My tweet: Sister Meryl Streep accuses Father Philip Seymour Hoffman of improper conduct with an altar boy. Hilarity does not ensue. 8.5 (out of 10)

“Doubt”

Released: 2008

Rating: PG-13

Length: 104 minutes

Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Genre(s): Drama, Adaptation, Period

Thursday, December 3, 2009

“Transamerica”

It’s been said (by me, at least) that the pretty actress who plays ugly usually gets the Oscar. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica.” (She was nominated. But the honor went to Reese Witherspoon for her portrayal of June Carter in “Walk the Line.”) They made a mistake. Huffman’s performance as Bree, a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, is nothing short of amazing. She captures the man trapped inside the woman’s body in a way that’s so believable, you’ll find yourself forgetting what the real Felicity Huffman looks or sounds like. The plot of “Transamerica” is set in motion when Bree, who’s one signature away from her sexual reassignment surgery, gets a call from the son she never knew existed (Kevin Zegers) and her therapist (Elizabeth Peña) refuses to approve the surgery until she ties up this one last loose end from her prior life. Bree reluctantly flies to New York and then offers to drive the boy back to Los Angeles – while trying to conceal her true identity. There are bumps out on the road (including the revelation of Bree’s status). But over the course of the drive, the two learn a lot about themselves and each other as their relationship grows. That may make “Transamerica” sound like a conventional road movie about self-discovery. But it’s made much more interesting because of the subtle and graceful performance at its center. My tweet: Transamerica-A pre-op transsexual travels cross-country with his son & learns how to be a father just in time to become his mother. 8 (out of 10)

“Transamerica”

Released: 2005

Rating: R

Length: 103 minutes

Cast: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young, Elizabeth Peña

Director: Duncan Tucker

Genre(s): Drama, Family, Urban

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

“Mamma Mia!”

I’ve always thought that ABBA’s music was danceable, if vacuous. But I never realized how little the music had to say until it was knit together to support the narrative behind the movie “Mamma Mia!” (Their exclamation point, not mine.) The plot revolves around Sophie Sheridan (played by Amanda Seyfried, who’s great on HBO’s “Big Love”) planning her wedding. She dreams of being given away by the father she never knew. But in this case there are three possible fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård). So she invites all three while somehow managing to conceal the real reason they’ve arrived from both them and her mother (Meryl Streep). It’s occasionally amusing, but never really funny. There were also two musical surprises in “Mamma Mia!” worth noting: Meryl Streep can sing, Pierce Brosnan shouldn’t. Frankly, I’m not sure why this movie became such a hit, or why the Broadway show in New York City packs in the tourists. So maybe I’m missing something. But I stand by my tweet: Mamma Mia!-Of all the movies featuring an ABBA-exclusive soundtrack, this is the best. 4.5 (out of 10) If you’re looking for a movie with a song catalog-backed narrative, I’d recommend “Across the Universe.” The music is better and the staging is much more inventive.

“Mamma Mia”

Released: 2008

Rating: PG-13

Length: 108 minutes

Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Genre(s): Adaptation, Romantic Comedy, Musical