reel reviews
movie reviews
December '08


Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Frost/Nixon is a superb film that may have a difficult time attracting a large audience.

Directed by Ron Howard and based on a play by Peter Morgan, it’s a story about two dissimilar men — one fallen from power, the other seeking more of it — engaged in psychological and intellectual game of rehabilitation and one-upmanship before a world more curious than really interested (which may sum up the attitude of those who pay to see this film).

Frank Langella plays the disgraced 37th President of the United States Richard M. Nixon. After his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon retreats behind the walls of his San Clemente, CA home, cursing his participation in golf, believing ex-presidents take up the game as a show of dignified retirement, while working on a book.

David Frost, played by Michael Sheen, is a playboy Brit making a name for himself in Australia and Britain as a coltish talk-show host with a great smile and always-perfect ‘70s hair. But Frost suffers from the nagging feeling he’s a lightweight where the word “journalist” is a laughable introduction for him on the seen-and-be-seen rich/hip party circuit.

The under-fulfilled Frost, viewing Nixon on television as he leaves the White House for the last time, asks for the “numbers” (viewers) Soon, he decides to pursue Nixon for an interview. His producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) is mildly amused. He reminds Frost of his current success, to which Frost replies, “Success in America is unlike anywhere else.”

Nixon, utilizing the Hollywood dealmaker Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), becomes convinced Frost would be an easier avenue toward getting “the record straight” along with a bigger paycheck than talking with Mike Wallace from CBS. With that, Lazar goes about setting the hook and a four-part interview is scheduled. Frost makes the rounds with the networks for financial backing, gets turned down, and sets about raising the production money himself, eventually tapping his own funds.

Howard moves the story along in places with after-the-fact documentary-like interviews. Included are journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and researcher James Reston (Sam Rockwell), both in Frost’s camp, and Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s ever-faithful protector and aide.

The interviews, along with actual news clips from the era, help present some background to the story — Watergate burglary, White House tapes, impeachment hearings — which adds to the tension and setting leading up to and during the Frost/Nixon interviews.

But if one is under 50 years old, view knowing American political history only as an inoculation against failure in college, much of the context attached to these historic interviews of 1977 won’t be that revealing, at least to the extent that appreciation for Langella and Sheen’s work goes beyond just being good.

Both actors, who also performed in Morgan’s theatrical production, bring more to the characters than most books on Nixon and most anything ever done as television news or biography. Langella doesn’t imitate Nixon, he inhabits the man and the darkness, sadness, self-delusion and painful longing Nixon could never shed. There seems no limit to the complexity of Langella’s Nixon, as one could argue for the real ex-president as well. While his performance does not redeem Nixon in any way, it does rekindle the revulsion and fascination of Nixon once held by millions angry and frightened of what he did as president.

And in doing that by viewing this film, Nixon’s crimes beg a comparison to the current outgoing president and vice-president, elevating Nixon to some, at least, for having enough insight to resign when confronting a Congress with the courage to investigate his misdeeds.

Sheen’s Frost helps us understand Langella’s Nixon but not his political motivations. Still, it’s Nixon who reaches for those shared connections with Frost, be it power, sex and the obsessive yet necessary pursuit to prove those “snobs who look down upon us” wrong. Frost, beholding and bewildered by Nixon, issues no hallelujah moment when he gets Nixon, during the last interview, to admit that he let the American people down.

Frost/Nixon is a film to return to, to learn from and to applaud the masterful performances of Langella and Sheen. Over three decades have passed since his corrupting influence was felt — yet corruption remains in American politics. This film is another reminder, a reoccurring knowledge that may keep some people away from seeing it. Nixon/Frost does not absolve the Nixon legacy and neither does it make our political system any more decent. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/24/08)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There’s nothing odd about two six-year-olds sitting under a bed at night sharing secrets by the glow of a flashlight. But this typical sleepover scene takes on new dimensions when one of the six-year-olds is a boy who looks like an 80-year-old man and the other is a regular girl.

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button this scene concludes with a horrified elderly woman telling the girl to stay away from the boy and telling the boy that he should be ashamed of himself.

Button employs scenes such as this to amuse viewers and to challenge conventional ideas about age and the passage of time.

Based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film tells the story of a boy (Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button) who ages in reverse. After being abandoned by his father, the infant is taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a kind black woman who runs a residence for senior citizens.

Queenie takes care of Benjamin, and he learns about life and death while in her care. Then he strikes out on his own with the heart and limited understanding of a child and the face of an old man. He is an innocent, much like the title character of Forrest Gump.

Life seems to just happen to Benjamin, and he just accepts the experiences as they come. He seems to take to heart Queenie’s adage: “You never know what’s comin’ for ya.”

What comes for him is camaraderie, sex, love and more. And what comes for the audience in the process is a low-key cinematic prose-poem about the silliness and seriousness of life and love.

Pitt makes a great Benjamin Button, because of that childlike sparkle in his eyes and because he has the ability to just exist on camera, to avoid the appearance of performing. Then there’s the tenderness between him and Cate Blanchett, who plays his love interest and childhood friend, Daisy.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button plays like a combination of the romance Somewhere in Time (1980) and the comedy Forrest Gump (1994). The Gump connection might have something to do with screenwriter Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplays for both Button and Gump.

Button is reminiscent of Somewhere in Time because Daisy and Benjamin seem to keep returning to each other as time passes and their lives change dramatically but continue to intersect. The gorgeous cinematography of Claudio Miranda ratchets the romantic ambience. Although it’s probably 15 minutes too long, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will likely evoke both laughter and tears. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/24/08)

Bedtime Stories
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s a little odd that making a film for children has almost made Adam Sandler grow up.

Bedtime Stories features some of the same mild profanity and body function humor that has graced his previous movies, but forcing Sandler to tone down his comic temper tantrums has made him somewhat funnier. The film isn’t necessarily for posterity, but by the modest standards Sandler sets for the movies he produces himself, it qualifies as a breakthrough.

Sandler plays a handyman named Skeeter Bronson who fixes everything from plumbing to TVs at a swank LA hotel. While he’s good at repairing the building’s various problems, he once had been promised the chance to run the place.

On the week that he has to baby sit his sister Wendy’s (Courtney Cox) kids, Skeeter discovers that portions of the bedtime stories he tells the youngsters come to life the next morning. After telling a medieval story where he and his chief rival Kendall (Guy Pearce) face off in a chance to impress the king, Skeeter discovers that he and Kendall will be competing to pick the theme of a new hotel.

Skeeter’s luck isn’t always good because the kids revise the stories as he tells them. Their revisions, which are often amusingly absurd, tend to come true more often than the passages based on Skeeter’s desires. So if the kids say, the hero of the tale was attacked by a midget, Skeeter had better be protective of his own shins.

The production is more elaborate than Sandler’s usual fare, so the fantasy sequences, which take him from ancient Greece to outer space, look more impressive than the usual centerpieces for his movies. Sandler is also willing to share the spotlight, which allows Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to steal the show as the hotel’s goofy cook. There’s also a computer-generated guinea pig that winds up getting chuckles merely for being cute.

Bedtime Stories is thankfully free of the mean-spiritedness that plagued Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds, but having seen what happens when Sandler pushes himself a little harder, it would have been nice if he and his cohorts had exerted themselves more. With all the effort that went into bringing the bug-eyed guinea pig to life, it’s sad that director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) and writers Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer) and Matt Lopez didn’t resist the urge to have the critter release some flatulence.

When he’s working with a director like P.T. Anderson, Sandler has shown that he’s a first-rate actor. It’s too bad his more profitable movies have featured him playing shallow man-children, but playing to actual children seems to be a step up for him. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/24/08)

A Christmas Tale
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you want to see a Christmas story that’s genuinely heartwarming and entertaining without ever slipping into phony sentimentality, you’d better learn to read subtitles.

This French import from director Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queens) features vivid, if dysfunctional, characters, believable situations and an all-star cast working in peak form. Even though A Christmas Tale runs around two and a half hours, the bickering Vuillard family is as mesmerizing as a five-alarm fire. It’s guilt-inducing to stare into this family’s painful interaction, but it’s difficult to turn around.

The family’s matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve, Belle de jour) needs a bone marrow transplant to avoid certain death, and compatible donors are difficult to find. Even most of her relatives are unable to give.

While Junon manages to be rather sanguine about her fate, the situation is so dire that siblings who have had no contact with each other in years reluctantly agree to meet for Christmas in the hope that at least one might be able to help.

This is a tall order because Junon’s daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has banished her middle brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace) for a business deal gone bad, and his younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is married to a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) that his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) pines after.

Desplechin isn’t tugging on his viewers’ heartstrings as much as he’s lighting a fuse. To his own and his cast’s credit, he manages to make viewers care about the Vuillards even though their hostility frequently has petty origins. While A Christmas Tale might seem to be edging toward a Gallic soap opera, Desplechin and his co-screenwriter Emmanuel Bourdieu defuse the histrionics with black humor. Henri’s caustic drunken outbursts are defused by the fact that he passes out in the middle of them.

In the end, the family gradually learns to love each other, but that trust and compassion come gradually and unpredictably as they would in real life. It’s important to note that the French gave us the Statue of Liberty as well as support during our revolution. A Christmas Tale is yet another gift that belongs in a special spot under the tree. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/24/08)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The cast featured in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is so good that it’s possible to forgive that the material they’re performing isn’t as thought provoking as it could have been.

In adapting his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Shanley, who also directs the film, comes up with a promising setup and coaxes his ace performers into getting the most out of it. Meryl Streep stars Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a draconian 1960’s Catholic school principal who maintains order through intimidation.

If there is any Christian charity in her, it doesn’t show. She’s upset by some of the recent changes coming to the Church through Vatican II, believes that “Frosty the Snowman” celebrates witchcraft and views ballpoint pens as an evil comparable to the Seven Deadly Sins.

She despises Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the younger priest who supervises her. He’s pushing hard for the school to adapt to the changing times, but Sister Aloysius believes that his interest in the pupils in her care is less than benign.

One of her teachers, Sister James (an appropriately Pollyannaish Amy Adams), notices that Flynn has an unusual relationship with the school’s only black student, and Sister Aloysius confronts him about it even though she has no proof of wrongdoing. While Flynn is suspiciously evasive on the subject, his alibis are believable.

The showdown between Hoffman and Streep is expectedly engaging. Shanley wisely leaves viewers to decide for themselves if Father Flynn is guilty. While it’s rewarding to run through Shanley’s clues to determine our own verdict, the clash of titans he promises doesn’t materialize.

Hoffman’s welcoming turn as Father Flynn is more compelling than the bitter, shallowly dogmatic Sister Aloysius. If she seemed more human, the conflict might have been rewarding. Shanley provides hints about how she came to her current bitterness, but despite Streep’s subtle touches, such as yet another dead-on regional accent, Sister Aloysius never emerges as anything more than a bully.

Shanley’s script still has plenty of choice passages. Viola Davis has only one scene as the mother of the boy who may be Father Flynn’s victim, but she leaves an indelible impression. Not only does Davis hold her own against Streep but Shanley imbues her with an oddly understandable ambivalence about Sister Aloysius’ allegations.

Shanley has nothing to be ashamed of with his work in Doubt. But having been blessed with four terrific performers, it’s a shame he couldn’t have refined the characters into more than ideological mouthpieces. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/24/08)

The Reader
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Wrestling with a series of weighty subjects, director Stephen Daldry’s reworking of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 German novel The Reader delivers gravitas from its opening frames. While the story includes illicit romance, war crimes and how contemporary Europeans deal with the guilt of World War II, the movie isn’t as engrossing as it should be because it’s consistently clinical and glum.

At times the characters seem more metaphorical than flesh-and-blood. It’s easier to become concerned about the fates of protagonists if they are more than ideological personifications.

The everyman-like character is a sickly, maladjusted lad named Michael Berg (German actor David Kross). The 15-year-old’s chance encounter with an enigmatic but seemingly compassionate woman in her mid-30s named Hannah (Kate Winslet) leads to a torrid affair. Their trysts happen on an almost daily basis, but Michael never learns anything significant about her. Even her name remains a mystery until late in the relationship.

A decade later, Michael is studying at law school and is assigned by his professor (Bruno Ganz) to watch a trial in progress. The suspects are a group of women who guarded a concentration camp twenty years before. All are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jewish women in their care. Hannah, who has not had contact with Michael in ages, is charged with being their leader.

Needless to say, Michael is conflicted about seeing the woman he once loved on trial for an unspeakable act. He still has feelings for her (his relationships with women his own age are fumbling at best), but her previously unknown past fills him with remorse for ever having been involved with her.

That The Reader is never dull can be attributed to watching Michael struggle with his uncertainty about how to deal his country’s and his own past. In the portions of the film set in the 1980s and 1990s, Ralph Fiennes takes over the role. While he looks nothing like Kross, he excels at playing characters that are tormented by thoughts they can’t express easily. As he demonstrated in The Duchess, Fiennes can do more with a brooding sigh than some actors can reciting an entire script.

Hannah is supposed to be a mystery woman, but her affair with Michael might have seemed more passionate and believable if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (who teamed up for The Hours) had provided more clues to why she was ever attracted to him. Despite being well played by Winslet, it’s difficult to feel outrage or sympathy for Hannah because she’s more of a plot device than a person. At times, the dalliances appear to be more carnal fantasies than a lifelong obsession.

The Reader does provide some chilling questions that can keep a viewer’s head spinning for a long time. It’s too bad that this love story does little for the audience’s hearts as well. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/24/08)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

While the idea of casting all-American action star Tom Cruise as a Nazi officer might seem amusingly absurd, that’s actually not one of the problems facing this disappointing recounting of a real World War II incident.

In fact, Cruise has an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who led a group of disillusioned German officers who knew that it was just a matter of time till the Third Reich fell.

Fearing that Adolf Hitler would take his people down with him, they plotted the Führer’s death by cleverly executing a plan called “Operation Valkyrie,” which was ironically intended to perpetuate the regime in case of a coup like the one von Stauffenberg and his cohorts were planning.

There were dozens of attempts to bring about the demise of the Nazi, but what’s remarkable and inherently engrossing about von Stauffenberg’s attempt is how narrowly he and his conspirators came to achieving their goals.

No sincere recounting of the events of July 20, 1944 could be dull, but director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) comes dangerously close to succeeding with Valkyrie.

It’s no secret that von Stauffenberg and his cohorts risked their lives and possibly the lives of their families in standing up to Hitler. But screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for penning The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander fail to flesh out why the plotters took the chances they did. It’s a given that the Nazis were evil, but multitudes of Germans willingly enabled Hitler’s tyranny, knowing the same things that von Stauffenberg did.

Cruise is partnered with dozens first-rate British and Irish actors who barely make much of an impression. Kenneth Branagh is second-billed but is on screen for what seems like less than ten minutes. From a single viewing, it’s almost impossible to recount the names of the characters that Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson and Eddie Izzard play, much less clearly determine what role they played in the success or failure of the plot.

Hitler and Joseph Goebbels are both portrayed in Valkyrie, but neither is vividly or even threateningly depicted.

As a result, it gets challenging to get involved with the story when the only distinguishing traits for von Stauffenberg are his multiple war wounds.

When the actual plot goes into action, Singer returns to form, and the film achieves some of the tension that it had been striving for earlier on. Still, the courage of von Stauffenberg and his conspirators requires a more engaging depiction than the one encountered here. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/24/08)

The Tale of Despereaux
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The Tale of Despereaux is the cinematic version of afternoon story time at a local library. But on this excursion animated creatures replace naked imagination as a narrator spins a yarn based on Kate Dicamillo’s 2003 novel of the same name.

The story involves Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a mouse who doesn’t cower (an unhealthy trait in the mouse community), a rat who loves the light (also abnormal), a sad princess (Harry Potter’s Emma Watson) who has lost her father to a bout of depression, and a servant girl (Tracy Ullman) who dreams of being a princess.

It all starts with a seafaring rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) accompanying his human shipmate to the Kingdom of Dor to witness the unveiling of Chef Andre’s annual royal menu. Unfortunately, Roscuro gets so excited when he gets a whiff of the chef’s latest creation that he inadvertently causes a tragic accident.

Because of the accident the grieving king banishes rats from the land and makes soup illegal. This eventually leads to the rats carrying out a revenge plot and ultimately to the need for a hero. Along the way there are plenty twists and turns, lots of voiceover moralizing and some pretty stunning visuals.

Sometimes Despereaux’s narrative is richly poetic as evidenced by this line, which comments on the oddity of outlawing things as natural as rats and soup: “You may as well make flies illegal, or sweat, or Monday mornings.”

But sometimes screenwriter Gary Ross hammers a moral point until the fairytale ambience breaks. At one point, for example, the narrator mentions the importance of forgiveness and character after character verbalizes, “I forgive you.”

Fortunately, Despereaux’s characters are as likeable as the most charismatic live-action cast, and at times they move in compelling ways. There’s one scene during which Despereaux tumbles from a tabletop. We get a close-up of his roller coaster-like ride down a cloth, and it’s almost as if we’re experiencing the frightening spill with him.

The typical question that accompanies these kinds of films is: Will parents enjoy it as much as their kids? In this case, the better question might be will younger tots like this serious and artsy yarn as much as their folks? (G) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/19/08)

Seven Pounds
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Like Jack Nicholson before him, Will Smith has enough charm to enable viewers to tolerate some pretty disgusting on-screen behavior from him.

That appeal comes in pretty handy during Seven Pounds, which features a sequence where Smith berates a blind telephone customer service representative (Woody Harrelson) over an order of bad meat. A less endearing performer would probably send most viewers running toward the exit with those caustic remarks.

Sadly, Smith’s charisma only partially redeems Seven Pounds. Italian director Gabriele Muccino, who guided Smith to an Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness, gets the film off to a provocative start, showing a disheveled looking man named Ben Thomas (Smith) making a life-or-death 911 call. Despite the emergency, Ben is oddly calm.

In later sequences, he’s sporting a good suit and working in an IRS office, but his beachfront home is clearly beyond the means of a federal employee. He’s also making strange inquiries into the lives of a diverse people, promising to improve their lives. He takes a special interest in a young woman (Rosario Dawson), whose health issues have made paying her taxes difficult.

Muccino and screenwriter Grant Nieporte invert the story’s chronology so it’s intentionally difficult to tell what’s happening until the story has ended. This construction is clever, but the film’s relentlessly somber tone becomes alienating. It’s hard to care what the conclusion is if only more gloom awaits.

With The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith and Muccino were able to keep the tale engaging because the scenario, despite deviations from the true story that inspired it, seemed credible. In their latest collaboration, once the conclusion is in sight, the story feels forced and becomes more groan-inducing than tragic.

Because December is Gold Derby season, there’s a sense that Hollywood movies have to be glum to be worthy of awards. But to deserve that sort of recognition, a movie shouldn’t make viewers feel as if their strings have been pulled. Seven Pounds leaves the audience with severe rope burns (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/19/08)

Yes Man
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It's easy to wish that Jim Carrey had declined the chance to appear in this film that celebrates saying "Yes" to life's possibilities. But his wholehearted embrace of this mediocre material winds up proving the value of negativity.

Carrey's rubbery features and his willingness to do just about anything for a laugh, including bungee jumping for real, guarantee at least a few chuckles, but he's at his funniest when you can't see his manic outbursts coming.

The thin script for Yes Man follows a template similar to Carrey's hit Liar Liar, only it's not as credible or as fertile. Whereas a magic spell forced Carrey's character in the previous film to tell nothing but the truth, the new movie features the comic playing a bitter loan officer named Carl Allen who shuts out even his best friends because he's smarting from a tough breakup.

A fraudulent motivational guru (Terence Stamp, essentially reprising his role in Bowfinger) challenges the prickly Carl to say “yes” to any opportunity that comes his way, no matter how dangerous or repellent it might be.

Carl goes along with the idea and discovers that despite some odd setbacks, his life gradually becomes more rewarding and adventurous. He meets a young woman (Zooey Deschanel) whose quirky obsessions — like playing in an alt-rock band and taking photos while jogging — somehow manage to make her a living.

Director Peyton Reed and screenwriters Nicholas Stoller, Jarrod Paul and Andrew Mogel never manage to make the situation believable and telegraph just about every outburst or shot of Carrey's posterior. With Liar Liar, for all of its flaws, it was funnier and more cinematically credible to follow Carrey as the spell forced him to admit difficult truths.

The opportunities that come Carrey's way in Yes Man have plot point written all over them, and one wonders if the screenwriters considered having him say yes to a Nigerian 419 email.

Carrey is reportedly so enthusiastic about this film, loosely adapted from a book by Scottish humorist Danny Wallace, that he took no up front money for appearing in it and will make all his compensation from the film's grosses. While Carrey's willingness to sing for his supper is commendable, the movie is an offer that's easy to refuse. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 12/19/08)

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Being a white straight liberal won’t get you killed — not for that reason alone. Being a gay man or a lesbian can get you killed for that alone. Maybe less so now than when Harvey Milk was alive, but the threat remains. Being hated more for what you are than what you believe drives a murderous rage the world over.

Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, starring Sean Penn as politician/gay activist Harvey Milk, won’t turn a tide against such intolerance. To begin to do that so-called “values” voters — rabid against gay marriage — would have to see Milk. They won’t. Yet those sympathetic to gay rights won’t find Milk a preachy film railing against irrational hate. This is a film of celebration about an extraordinary individual. As Brian Juergens writes at, “This isn’t about a gay man struggling to come to terms with himself, it’s about a gay man struggling to get the world to come to terms with him. And for that fact alone, this film is like no other that has come before it.”

Milk opens with a montage of news footage of gay bars being raided by police. Though many men hide their faces from the cameras, it’s a behavior absent a sense of shame or contrition. In one scene, an up-close news camera lingers on one man hiding his face as he sits at a table, drink before him, mayhem building behind him as police roust patrons in the bar. Suddenly, he attacks the camera, seemingly fed up with the aggression being levied at him because of who he is and whom he chooses to be with.

Harvey Milk wouldn’t have attacked, at least not in that way. He might have stood up, smiled, maybe flashed a peace sign and then sought out a friendly lawyer, as would any citizen feeling their rights had been violated.

At 40, Milk leaves New York and his closeted life. With him is his young partner Scott Smith (James Franco). Twenty years his junior, Scott is intrigued, excited, supportive and admiring of Milk. The pair open a camera shop in the Castro district of San Francisco. It is here where Milk finds a relative measure of contentment, and in reacting to a sea of intolerance surrounding Castro, discovers a political awareness centered on the inherent power of the gay community. His charisma, leadership skills and instinctive political abilities unfold, eventually leading him to become the first openly gay man to hold elective office in the United States.

Milk is a story progressing in a lineal fashion, a fascinating presentation of a man committed to justice and believing change is possible. Penn, who is magnificent in the role of Harvey Milk, accurately projects a sense of joy, wonderment, confidence and cagey political gamesmanship as Milk becomes an astute leader of a cause, uncompromising in issues of equality, willing to go on the offense in the public arena but also aware of the benefits of gathering allies outside the gay world.

Though Milk is very much Penn’s movie, the cast around him adds weight to an awakening of purpose. As lovers, scenes with Franco and Penn are tender, funny and real, as is the craziness, sadness and tragedy in the later relationship between Milk and Jack, played by Diego Luna.

Josh Brolin as Dan White, the killer of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), succeeds in giving us an internally tortured man, as much confused by Milk’s success as his own inability to find out who he is. The film’s flaws lie in not developing Milk’s and Moscone’s relationship more and allowing only a brief mention of White’s outrageous legal defense and the ridiculously light sentence he received for the killings. Left out also, except for Alison Pill’s portrayal of Anne Kronenberg, are women and the lesbian contribution to Milk’s success. Kronenberg, as was Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), were very much responsible in helping get Milk elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Whether the major actors are gay or straight in real life is irrelevant in this film. Gays are the film and their lives as individuals and as part of a persecuted community ring very true. It seems that most all the elements of what it means to be a gay man is in Milk, that the gay community will rejoice from its making and the straight community will learn from viewing it. Milk is triumph for Penn, Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and the entire cast. It’s typicality lies in the fact that Milk is an American story of courage. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/12/08)

Slumdog Millionaire
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a tricky movie to classify. It doesn’t fit easily into any sort of genre. It’s as stylized as a typical Bollywood film with bright, almost garish colors, but it is shot on authentic locations and unflinchingly depicts the poverty and violence that have plagued the real Mumbai’s streets. Curiously, it’s this odd dissonance that gives the film its unique power and charm.

Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), working from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, begin the film near the end of the story and often reach predictable plot points, and the two find a way to easily coax viewers along. A young contestant named Jamal Malik (British actor Dev Patel) is nervously trying to compete in India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” as the show’s intimidating host Prim Kumar (Anil Kapoor, who should replace Meredith Vieira if she ever steps down) tosses out questions that would stump a Rhodes scholar.

Despite being a “slumdog” with a sporadic education who makes his living serving chai at a Mumbai call center, Jamal is getting the correct answers. A local police inspector (the redoubtable Irfan Khan) thinks Jamal has cheated and interrogates him using techniques that might have been rejected as too cruel from Guantanamo Bay.

But as the inspector discovers, Jamal’s rough life in the slums is his main asset in the contest, not a liability. Having lost their mother at an early age, Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda) and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Madhur Mittal) have had to learn to live by their wits in Mumbai’s mean streets. Life is already difficult for the lads, but they also have the additional difficulty of being Muslims in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood.

The one thing that keeps Jamal motivated is his almost insane devotion to a girl named Latika (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Freida Pinto). Jamal repeatedly takes lethal risks to be with her even though fate finds cruel ways of separating them.

The hyperactive approach Boyle took in Trainspotting works beautifully here giving the film a wonderful combination of energy and audacity. Even the occasional subtitles dart around the screen as if they were part of the action. Fortunately, he also manages to coax first-rate performances from all the cast members and especially the children.

Boyle and Beaufoy don’t shy away from depicting Mumbai’s problems, but they also show how India has become a major economic force and consistently depict the local culture without condescension.

With its complicated flashback narrative, Slumdog Millionaire does take some effort to get into, but once it’s over, it’s as exhilarating as a stiff cup of chai. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/12/08)

Nothing like the Holidays
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

There is a lot to like about the Puerto Rican comedy/drama Nothing like the Holidays…and some stuff not to like as well. The cast (mostly Puerto Rican) is wonderful and lively, and obviously dig the chance to create a realistic ethnic drama without resorting to throwing out a bunch of caricatures…except that at times they come off as, well, caricatures.

The story itself is as old as Shakespeare: The extended Rodriguez clan has gathered for their traditional Christmas dinner only to discover that it may be their last as a family. Along the way hard choices will be made, tears and laughter shed, a token outsider will find acceptance and broken hearts will finally be mended, all of which is fine…

Except that the “hard choices” presented here are paced like dominos falling and seem rather forced. Younger brother Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) must choose between staying with the family and returning to Iraq. Sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) must choose between staying with the family and returning to Hollywood. Older brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo) must choose between his family and his uptight Jewish wife (Debra Messing, who deservers better but gives it a game try). Even the matriarch of the Rodriguez family Anna (Elizabeth Pena) must choose between staying with the family or get a divorce from her possibly philandering husband Edy (Alfred Molina) Get the picture?

The only one who doesn’t seem to have some angst-filled worry is the goofy Uncle-type Johnny (Luis Guzman), a walking comic-relief dispenser.

All those problems are, of course, worked out. Edy’s true secret is revealed (although his actions at the big dinner before that still make little sense) and everybody is reunited. It seems odd that the director Alfredo De Villa can stage some great scenes filled with well-written dialog while keeping all the silly flaws; but then it would seem like he hasn’t found a dilemma he didn’t like.

That’s too bad because if he had dropped some of those dramatic crutches, he could have spent more time focusing on the lively scenes of Puerto Rican life in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area where must of this film was shot and where this movie really shines. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/12/08)

Cadillac Records
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

All things in life find their way into blues music — joy, sadness, bad luck, good luck, passion, anger, violence, money, love and sex, even the most mundane. (The late bluesman Albert Collins has a terrific song on one of his albums about trying to start a car on a cold winter morning.) In blues, the singing and telling could be true, could be not. The truth may not be that important but the feeling behind the playing has to be genuine.

Cadillac Records brings the feeling out real good. But it’s no documentary on the rise of Chicago-based Chess Records and the birth of electrified urban blues through one McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, played by Jeffrey Wright. His character and those of the other blues greats in the film are based on real people. How accurate their intertwined stories are presented in Cadillac Records doesn’t matter that much.

Muddy leaves his sharecropper existence in the Mississippi Delta in 1943 for Chicago after being emboldened by being recorded by Library of Congress folk archivist Alan Lomax in 1941. Supposedly, Lomax was searching for Robert Johnson but settled on Muddy instead. Johnson, one of Muddy’s major influences along with Son House, had died three years earlier.

Muddy meets Geneva (Gabrielle Union), who eventually became “Muddy’s woman,” a sweet but long-suffering companion willing to accept Muddy’s wayward yearnings. In the film Geneva gets Muddy to plug his guitar and bottleneck playing style into an amplifier, and electric blues is born.

Muddy’s reputation spreads and soon his band is playing the Macamba club on Chicago’s Southside, owned by Polish Jew immigrants Leonard (Adrien Brody) and Phil Chess. In the film, Leonard sets fire to the club for the insurance money to start a record company, and Muddy is his first recording artist. Leonard spreads payola to the DJs in the South who play “race music.” Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” becomes a hit and Chess Records, “Home of the Electric Blues,” is off and running. (The real story is much less dramatic.)

From 1950 through the end of the 1960s, Chess Records attracts an amazing list of amazing blues musicians. The film keeps the focus at a near-manageable number. In addition to Muddy, there’s Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).

Wright gives us a Muddy with the right amount of cool; “playing the blues, not living the blues,” as Leonard tell Etta one night in describing Muddy after she nearly ODs. Brody’s Leonard is a necessary but at times irritating “white” character, surrounded by talent with his only being the ability make money, and distrusted by his recording artists because of that.

Both Short and Walker bring in strong, eerie near-reincarnations of their characters. Little Walter (Jacobs), a musical innovator near equal to Muddy with his breakthrough harmonica playing, self-destructs through gambling, liquor, smack and baiting the racist Chicago police force. Walker is the Wolf, a k a Chester Arthur Burnett, capturing the ferocity of the famed Delta blues artist in one studio recording scene that rattles the phrase that the blues is “the devil’s music.”

But Cadillac Records takes a different turn with the appearance of Knowles as Etta James. Burdened by shame of being born to a whore with only rumors as to the name of her father, Knowles presents a compelling picture of a suffering artistic talent seeing no path toward the better, where relief only comes in song. (James is still performing, having survived where all the other major Chess recording artists have died. Muddy died in 1983.) It was James, and before that Chuck Berry, who “crossed-over” into a white audience by making the charts. Knowles performance of the James’ classic “At Last” is worth the movie ticket price.

Director Darnell Martin has presented this sometimes misunderstood but powerful music idiom well, helped tremendously by across-the-board superb performances and a respectable soundtrack. Still, Cadillac Records only touches some of the cream in the Chess story. In this film and in life, some people play the blues, some people live the blues, some do both. And in Martin’s film, the blues doesn’t have to be explained. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/05/08)

Fear(s) of the Dark
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If all of this holiday cheer has annoyed you beyond your limits, perhaps this disturbing French-language collection of black-and-white cartoons might appeal to you. Fear(s) of the Dark features a variety of animation styles and talent from around the world.

Because of its omnibus format, the quality and the creepiness vary from segment-to-segment. Blutch wrote and directed a series of sequences where a sadistic 18th-century nobleman wanders through a village sending letting his enormous and ravenous dogs attack anyone in sight. These portions have an intriguing charcoal sketch appearance but are more mean-spirited and obvious than scary.

The second segment from American graphic novelist Charles Burns (Black Hole) tells the tale of a lonely and socially maladroit young man (voiced Guillaume Depardieu) who discovers that his childhood habit of collecting insects and his newfound attraction of a young woman could have tragic consequences. Although computer animated, the segment nicely captures the cold style of Burn’s drawings, and it feels even more unsettling knowing that Depardieu (Gerard’s son) died shortly after completing his work here.

Marie Caillou’s portion of the film follows a Japanese girl as a sadistic looking doctor forces her to enduring an increasingly gruesome series of nightmares. The illustration style, which resembles anime and paper cutouts, makes the story even more unsettling as it unfolds. Seeing cute characters enduring a sort of chamber of horrors seems all the more frightening.

The traditional animation segment from Eisner — the award-winning Italian graphic novelist Lorenzo Mattotti features a boy recounting how a destructive force that no one can see is killing people and animals in his village. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire and heard someone tell an effective ghost story, you’ll know how this segment will play out. It’s a good example of how childhood fears never really leave us.

The final segment is the most intriguing. It’s a wordless, seemingly simple approach that’s often more clever than it initially appears. Director Richard McGuire features a lone man breaking in an empty house from the cold. The only light he can find comes from the kerosene lamp he’s carrying. As a result, he can’t tell if he’s staring at ordinary objects or something more sinister.

The transitional segments look like a black-and-white kaleidoscope and feature a disembodied woman’s voice recounting her neuroses as if she’s in an analyst’s office. While at times amusing, these sequences quickly get old and make a viewer long for more frights.

Fear(s) of the Dark is clearly not intended for your children and is something of an acquired taste, but it is refreshing to see that animation can delight by reaching into our most unsettling thoughts. (Not Rated) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/05/08)

Punisher: War Zone
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Marvel Comics came out with a whole series of “anti-heroes” in an effort to update their image to a more adult status. A classic example of those dudes is the Punisher, a straight-out gun-happy vigilante with a giant skull painted on his body armor.

Still, as cool as that sounds, Punisher was at best a B-list hero, mostly because all he did was drive around in a van looking for thugs to blow up or shoot. He could not fight any real super-villains (unless he just shot them, and where’s the fun there?), and the coolest thing about him was his skull-emblem armor. With the release of Punisher: War Zone there will have been approximately three movies made about this character, none of which — surprise, surprise — is at all good.

I’m going to skip mentioning much about the first two, which starred Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane respectively, and you should probably skip watching them as well. Now under the directorial hands of Lexi Alexander (credited with having played Princess Kitana in Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour), this re-restart stars UK’s Ray Stevenson, whose greatest stateside fame comes from his turn as Titus Pullo in the cable series Rome.

The plot here is simple: While killing a bunch of mobsters, Frank Castle (a k a Punisher) accidentally kills an undercover agent, and must then protect that man’s family from the surviving mobsters while trying to deal with the guilt of his actions. Sounds kinda good, a straight out vengeance flick. Well it is not, and here are just a few of the reasons why this mess don’t work.

  1. Since Castle kills all but four of the gangsters in the very first fight scene, what’s left for a threat? The four survivors, led by Dominic West as Jigsaw, whose ludicrous make-up and laughable wise-guy accent makes Tommy Lee Jones’s turn as Two-Face seem like a Oscar-worthy performance, are frankly just morons.
  2. The huge amount of epically unintentional humor here is amazing. There are a couple of scenes, like the mid-air exploding of one of those annoying Parkour dudes and a late-act recruitment speech from Jigsaw that almost made soda pop come outta my nose.
  3. Why the hell is “Newman” in this movie? The inexplicable presence of Wayne Knight from Seinfeld as Micro, the Guy Who Gives Guns to Punisher, is baffling unless he needed to make a house payment or something.
  4. After starting with a pretty kick-ass killing spree, Punisher spends much of the middle of the film…crying. I am not kidding: he cries in front of his family’s graves, he cries in his underground hideout, he cries in front of women and children. Yeah, making a supposed walking death-machine cry a lot less might have been a good idea.

There are a few more things wrong with this film, like the plot, the costumes and probably even the catering, most likely leading to a re-re-restart as “Punisher: I Will Not Cry This Time. Really.” (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 12/05/08)

Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at
Deborah Young can be contacted at

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