Saturday, July 7, 2007

Babel (2006)

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza.

Babel is a powerful, wrenching, and sad meditation on the interconnectedness of a group of people scattered across the world. Something ties all the characters together; gradually we understand what it is.

The movie centers around a married couple (Brad Pitt & Cate Blanchett) touring Morocco on a bus. While the bus traverses a remote mountainside, a bullet suddenly hits the bus and wounds Blanchett. Pitt has the bus pull over in a nearby village. Blanchett is in jeopardy, there’s no hospital close by, and Pitt is in a panic. Both Pitt and Blanchett are affecting in this film.

Meanwhile, a kindly Mexican nanny/housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) is caring for two kids in San Diego. She’s torn, though; her son is getting married in a nearby town in Mexico. She tries urgently to find someone to care for her charges so that she can attend the wedding. Barraza is outstanding in this movie; we experience her gradually increasing desperation as events unfold.
In another segment, a father purchases a gun so that his two young sons can kill the jackals that prey on their goats as they graze near their village.

Finally, we follow a deaf/mute adolescent Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) having a very unhappy day. Kikuchi delivers a powerful and wrenching performance. It makes me afraid for every father of every adolescent girl.The movie segues between these stories, gradually filling in our knowledge of each set of characters. The movie lingers in ones mind after it ends. We can only hope that not every interconnection among widely dispersed people across the world contain such elements of tragedy and misfortune.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shooter (2007)

Starring Mark Wahlberg

A former Marine sniper is framed by a mysterious agency in this violent thriller. Mark Wahlberg plays the sniper, Bob Lee Swagger. Danny Glover plays “the Colonel”, who supposedly recruits Swagger to help prevent an assassination. Glover imbues his role with oily confidence and charm.

Once the plot elements are set up, Swagger is wounded and on the run from a national manhunt while trying to figure out what happened and why.

Shooter is based on Point of Impact, a book by Stephen Hunter. The book is a well-written thriller, while the movie is only so-so. The translation from book to movie left behind the loving detail and believable action for a breakneck plot in which Wahlberg simply uses his guns and his wits to best his foes, one by one. Further, in the book Swagger is a Vietnam-era sniper, wounded in action, who isolates himself after the war for twenty years on a mountain in Arkansas. In the movie he’s a young Marine sniper who retires to Wyoming after a disastrous incident, with the story picking up two years later.

Ned Beatty plays a corrupt U.S. Senator, and is thoroughly unlikable in the few scenes in which we see him. While he richly deserves the end that awaits him, the dénouement of the film is a little basic and not particularly imaginative.

Fans of violent thrillers will enjoy this film. Everyone else, stay away. If you want to see a taut, well-done thriller, check out a DVD of Three Days of the Condor instead.

The Last Mimzy (2007)

Starring Tim Robbins and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn

The Last Mimzy is a charming, kid-friendly movie. A sister and brother on vacation discover a strange box in the ocean near Seattle, Washington. When it opens, they discover mysterious toys. As they play with them, they start to have new perceptions of the world and new abilities.

Rhiannon Leigh Wryn plays Emma, the little girl. She inhabits her role very well: we believe in her curiosity and wonder. Chris O’Neil plays her brother Noah; together the two must puzzle out the mystery of the toys, including what they are, where they came from, and what they must do with them. The young siblings must learn to get along with each other while confronting the challenge. The interaction between the kids and with their parents felt realistic.

Tim Robbins and Joely Richardson play the children’s Dad and Mom. The kids are becoming geniuses, but the parents are worried, and turn to their son’s teacher for help and advice. Rainn Wilson is quirky as the science teacher working to challenge and inspire his students. He reminded me of Jack Black.

Michael Clarke Duncan has a small role as the man investigating a perplexing event in Seattle for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s entertaining during the time he’s on-camera, but it’s a small role.

This film moves along slowly. This isn’t a criticism; the film gives itself the time it needs in order to tell a good story. It’s not terribly long at 90 minutes, but it felt just right.

There are a couple of unrealistic plot points in the movie involving the teacher and his girlfriend, and the Department of Homeland Security, but these don’t detract from the overall experience. The special effects showing what the various toys do are great. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s interesting and charming, but without a lot of violence. This movie is recommended for children and for families.

300 (2007)

Starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headly

300 is a visually stunning, violent spectacle of a movie that moves along like a freight train in order to tell a pared-down story. It’s based on the graphic novel (comic book) by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

The movie title refers to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, wherein 300 Greek warriors led by Spartan King Leonidas fought against an invading million-man Persian army led by Xerxes at a narrow pass leading into Greece. Leonidas enters the battle knowing that he and his Spartans might only be able to delay, not stop, the Persian army. The political will didn’t exist in Sparta or in the rest of Greece at that moment to mobilize and fight.

The movie is narrowly focused. Setting the stage, we meet Leonidas (Gerard Butler), his wife (Lena Headly), and a few other characters, notably the Persian leader Xerxes. Do you want deep character development, or a complicated and subtle plot? You won’t find them here. The film moves quickly along to the battle, gifting us along the way with stunning visual panoramas. The look of the movie is gorgeous. Much of what we see onscreen is created with special effects, and they’re very well done.

If you can, try to see this movie at a theater with Digital Projection. The color saturation is amazing in such a theatre. Not every film necessarily looks best in Digital Projection, but this film was meant for it. It offers iconic images and stylized violence.

This movie has two controversies associated with it, and one puzzle. First, is it too violent? It does focus on a violent (and historically significant) battle. To minimize the violence of that battle would trivialize the sacrifice of the warriors. Still, this is comic book violence, in which many are killed, but few are hurt. The film doesn’t dwell on the suffering of those who are wounded or who die. Some say this comic book quality cheapens violence; this is a question filmgoers must consider when making movie purchases and rentals. Do we want the realism of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, or the fantasy of movies like 300?

Second, some commentators have suggested that the film’s situation is somehow analogous to our own day, where a leader (the U.S. President) must valiantly confront evil enemies. Having seen the film, it seems a pretty weak comparison. These days we don’t see leaders putting themselves on the front lines of a battle in order to oppose tyranny. Further, the threat from the invading Persian army was clear; there were no phantom weapons of mass destruction used as an excuse for going to war.

Finally, why has this movie been wildly successful? I think this is because it is a well-made movie that sticks to its business and takes us into the iconic heart of a famous battle, replete with glorious visuals. Gerard Butler is convincing as the stubborn King Leonidas, and carries us along to the inevitable conclusion. Though it’s a bit early on the calendar, this is a good summer movie.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Breach (2007)

Starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe; Directed by Billy Ray

Breach is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and heart of the FBI’s worst traitor, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is a young FBI agent-in-training; he’s assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in order to investigate if the senior agent presents a security risk. Only later is O’Neill told that the FBI has discovered that Hanssen is selling secrets to Russia, and that O’Neill’s new job is to help catch him in the act. Cooper delivers a stunning, multilayered performance as Hanssen, inhabiting the role with authority, energy, and complexity. This movie is based on actual events.

The pleasure of the film is seeing the cat and mouse game between Hanssen and O’Neill. O’Neill at first admires Hanssen, seeing a very smart, intensely religious man. He tells his FBI handler that they might be making a mistake about Hanssen; far from being a security risk, he may be getting punished for being outspoken. Everything changes once he knows Hanssen is a traitor. O’Neill has to distract Hanssen at key moments so that the team tracking Hanssen has time to search for incriminating evidence. It’s tense and dangerous work. Catching Hanssen in the act is also a real challenge: he’s getting suspicious, and may decide to stop his treasonous acts.

Laura Linney is convincing as O’Neill’s handler; Dennis Haysbert (President Palmer on 24) also adds authority and intensity as one of the team tracking Hanssen.

Hanssen is a dominating, menacing man, with a threat of physical violence that has O’Neill almost shaking at times. Further, this undercover job puts a real strain on O’Neill’s marriage; he can’t tell his wife anything about what he’s doing, and she’s very curious. Apparently this is an occupational hazard for FBI agents; they must accept that their real work can seldom be shared with their spouses.

We know the outcome of this movie at its beginning, but Cooper is riveting as the traitor at the center of it all. We get clues as to why Hanssen became a traitor, but they’re not definitive. Some dark secrets of the human heart are forever hidden or can only be suggested. Cooper should get an Oscar for this performance.

Sweet Land (2006)

Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Tom Guinee, Ned Beatty, Alan Cummings, and Lois Smith; Directed by Ali Selim

Sweet Land is a sweet, charming, quiet piece about a young woman (Inge Altenberg, played by Elizabeth Reaser) who emigrates to the U.S. in 1920 to marry a Norwegian farmer in Minnesota, Olaf Torvik (played by Tom Guinee). However, troubles arise, and the marriage doesn’t happen. First a local minister (Paul Heard) refuses to marry the couple, saying she’s an alien from Germany, a country the U.S. just fought a war with. Then the county Justice of the Peace refuses to marry them, insisting that Inge needs documents and papers from her home country to prove she’s not a dangerous seditious agitator.

Olaf’s friend Frandsen (Alan Cummings) and his wife take her in, and she slowly learns English as she lives with the couple and their many children. Cummings shines in this small role; we really like the playful, charming character he creates.

This film has a lyrical soundtrack, gentle and lovely, that meshes with the quiet images and the slow development of the plot. Violin and piano provide perfect accompaniment for the images on the screen. This movie doesn’t rush anything, nor do the young couple forbidden to marry. Guinee imbues his character with dignity and strength. Reaser is engaging as Inge, challenged to overcome one obstacle after another.

Though set in Minnesota, the film could just as easily have been set anywhere in the Midwest. The sky presents an endless vista from horizon to horizon, and the farm is always in need of attention. Though we see tractors and even a steam-powered threshing machine, much of the farm work is done by hand. (At that, not everyone can afford a thresher.)

An opportunistic banker, played with cheerful gusto by Ned Beatty, intrudes. He informs Olaf’s friend Frandsen that he’s foreclosing on his mortgage. Frandsen and his wife and many kids will be forced from their home, and their farm and property will be sold at auction. Some slick city fellows show up at the auction, intent on grabbing a bargain.

This scene reminds us that bankers and farmers have had an uneasy relationship going back generations; farmers need capital to do their farming, but bankers need regular payments, or else. Olaf says to the banker after a telling moment in the film, “Banking and farming don’t mix.”

This is a satisfying movie, engaging but easy-going, of a young couple coming to know and love each other amidst a beautiful unbounded sky and the verdant land. They must find ways to overcome the mistrust of their fellow farmers and of the local minister. Inge begins to earn her place in America by her actions, not her words, ending in a scene of great beauty in which all that is important is suggested, not shown.

This is Ali Selim’s first time as a director; he also produced and wrote the film, based on a short story by Will Weaver. The movie is a beautiful achievement; we can expect great things from Selim going forward.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Over the Hedge (2006)

Animated; Starring the voices of Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling

Over the Hedge is an entertaining animated children’s movie. It features a talented ensemble of actors who bring the story to life. Bruce Willis is a wily raccoon whose love of food gets him into trouble with a nasty, selfish bear (Nick Nolte). Willis destroys Nolte’s food stash, and now has to go out and steal all the food (and other items) needed to replace it.

On the snoop for food, Willis runs into a group of forest animals just coming out a hibernation. They consist of a hyperactive squirrel, a cautious turtle (Garry Shandling), a skunk, a family of porcupines, and a family of possums. There’s some of the flavor of Ice Age, with this unlikely group of animals considering itself a family; they share an old hollow log for their hibernation, and gather food together to prepare for their annual rest.

The animals face a strange new world. While they were sleeping, their forest was transformed. A hedge now surrounds their forest world; an alien landscape awaits them on the other side of this mysterious new precisely manicured object: suburbia. A luxury housing development of uniform mansions now dominates the area that used to be part of the animal’s forest. Willis sees all the food the humans have, and immediately covets it in order to pay off the bear threatening his life. The other animals are (justifiably) nervous about invading this mysterious world.

But Willis uses all his charm to trick the herd into helping his food gathering. There are some entertaining moments as the animals overcome challenges like sprinklers, guard cats, and cars.

Finally, one of the suburban dwellers, the nasty president of the homeowner’s association (Allison Janney), calls in an exterminator (Dwayne the Verminator, amusingly played by Thomas Haden Church) to “terminate with prejudice” all the animals that have invaded her neat manicured world. Willis and the other animals have to use all their tricks and all their skills to survive.

Along the way Willis faces a choice between selfish hedonism and selfless charity. Since this is a children’s film, his choice can be reliably predicted.

This film isn’t the greatest of the animated films released in recent months; I’d give that honor to Ice Age: The Meltdown, which was visually more stunning. But Over the Edge entertains, and has some fun and imaginative action sequences, and some entertaining character interactions. I’d recommend this film for children up through twelve or so.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Starring Tilda Swinton and Liam Neeson

This movie is a charmer, beautifully filmed, with characters we care about who face moral dilemmas that have real-world consequences. It’s a fantasy movie, but it plays fair: the supernatural can be understood, and it behaves consistently just as in the Harry Potter series.

Some English schoolchildren have been sent to the country to escape the London Blitz during World War II. They explore the old mansion they wind up in, and stumble across an old wardrobe that transports them to an unknown new world called Narnia.

Narnia is a strange, magical land, and before they know it the four Pevensie children are caught up in the war between the White Witch (played with chilling menace by Tilda Swinton) and the mysterious lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). There are talking animals in this world, and mythical creatures such as fauns and satyrs. The amazing thing is how ordinary it all feels. We’re not trapped in special-effects-land: the overall feeling is surprisingly normal and naturalistic. Moviemakers who feel the impulse to overuse (and abuse) special effects in their movies could learn a lot from this movie.

This is the best rendition of the Narnia books that I’ve yet seen on the screen. Georgie Henley breathes life into her role as Lucie Pevensie, the youngest sister. The other children turn in good performances as well.

There’s treachery, heroism, and loads of allegory in this movie. C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was a staunch Christian. He imbues the Narnia books with his beliefs, but also tells some very good and entertaining stories along the way. Allegory is a painless way to absorb the ideas that Lewis cares most about; good and evil, honesty, beauty, and sacrifice.

Take The Lead (2006)

Starring Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown and Alfre Woodword; Directed by Liz Friedlander

Take the Lead is a dance movie through and through-it's high-spirited and fun, and draws you in with a mix of classic and popular music. Antonio Banderas is Pierre Dulaine, a smooth, skilled dancer who competes in ballroom dancing competitions, and teaches at a dance studio filled with wealthy patrons.

After witnessing a bit of mean-spirited vandalism by a high school kid, Dulaine goes to the high school and asks to teach ballroom dancing to the students. The skeptical principal, played by Alfre Woodward with toughness masking her caring, almost laughs him out of her office; she then sends him down to the detention hall, which happens to be in a deep basement that resembles a dungeon. It's so close to the boiler room that you can almost hear the hiss of steam and the drip of water.

Banderas is a pleasure to watch through this entire movie. He's courtly, polite, and kind, and meets every obstacle thrown at him with tact and courtesy. His Spanish-tinted English suggests a world of rich Corinthian leather. The kids are intrigued by him; he's like an alien from another world. They can't relate to his music or his dance moves, until he brings in a skilled and beautiful partner who dances an extremely suggestive tango with him. After that, the kids’ resistance is futile.

One of my favorite scenes is a PTA meeting where a smarmy teacher who dislikes the idea that "dance class" is competing with the serious subjects the students should be learning. Dulaine disarms the parents and teachers by demonstrating a little dancing with Alfre Woodward (who is charmed in spite of herself) while telling them why learning to dance is relevant for the kids, and how it will assist their growth to maturity and identity.

There’s a nice sub-plot of a young girl from a wealthy family who decides to join the detention kids at the high school. She's getting ready for her debutante debut at a high-society dance, and feels awkward and shy. She figures that joining this bunch of misfits trying to learn to dance might help her to overcome her fears.

Rob Brown, star of Finding Forester, is one of the hard-case kids. In seeing his life outside of class we understand just what a challenge it is for kids in the inner city to see beyond today's rent and tomorrow's bills. Brown is convincing in the good and bad choices he makes, and in the growth he experiences in the movie.

This movie is based on a true story, which makes it all the more enjoyable. At the end of the movie the kids enter a city-wide ballroom dance competition. There's a live orchestra playing, and the best dancers in the city have arrived to compete. Are the kids good enough? Do they win? See this infectious, toe-tapping movie to find out.

The Celestine Prophecy (2006)


Directed by Armand Mastroianni

The Celestine Prophecy is a spiritual quest movie about a man seeking to learn about some mysterious prophecies that are unearthed in Peru. The prophecies are about an expansion of human consciousness predicted to occur near the end of the 20th Century.

The movie curiously mixes in a sub-plot involving bad guys who menace/chase/attack/imprison the people who are hunting the prophecy and attempting to understand its meaning. It’s based on the book The Celestine Prophecy.

There are some very beautiful parts of the movie—we see gorgeous shots of mountainsides and trees and old ruins. Peru is a country I’d like to visit some day, just based on this movie. There are parts of the quest that are also interesting, while others seem more in the vein of telling rather than showing (seldom a winning formula).

The closest movie The Celestine Prophecy can be compared to is The Da Vinci Code. Again, people search for hidden knowledge while being chased by mysterious opponents. The difference is that Tom Hanks is one of America’s best actors, and they didn’t have Tom Hanks for this movie. The star of the movie didn’t ensnare me into the movie’s world, and I found myself uninvolved in what happened in the plot. They’re chased, they’re captured, they get away, they understand another piece of the prophecy. Next? This is not a bad movie—it has interesting scenes, and some fascinating ideas as well. It just isn’t a great movie.

Great movies possess a unity and magic that encourages us to relax our doubts and overlook their imperfections. Less than great movies, like this one, leave us scratching our heads. Why didn’t it live up to its full potential? Did the director have the wrong touch? Did the screenwriter(s) mess up? Did the actors fail in their performances? This reminds me of the old expression about families; happy ones are all alike, while unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways.

King Kong (2005)

Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Jack Black; Directed by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson’s take on the King Kong story is entertaining, thrilling and surprising. He manages to make a movie that’s entertaining in its own right, and that’s tough when you’re doing a remake of a 1933 classic (that was previously remade in 1976). I worried before seeing this movie that a Kong remake would be a big letdown for Jackson after The Lord of the Rings. But Jackson makes a believer out of me. The movie has charm, beauty, and exciting action sequences, both in Manhattan and on Skull Island.

The movie is set in the Depression, and that time is beautifully evoked in New York City with vintage cars and clothes. This works much better than the 1976 movie with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, which was set in the 1970s. (Though to tell the truth, it was pretty cool when Kong jumped from one World Trade Center tower to the other.)

Kong’s relationship with The Girl is the center of this movie, and Jackson takes an hour to let us get to know hard-luck actress Ann Darrow (Watts), penniless playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody) and moviemaker Carl Denham (Black) before we meet the title character.

But the focus of the movie is that big ape Kong. This time around Kong looks like a giant gorilla, naturally hunching over and moving around on all fours most of the time. Andy Serkis (Gollum in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) is an amazing physical performer, and manages to imbue Kong with a lot of personality. Kong is not just a mad beast, but shows a lot of heart once you get past his gruff exterior (assuming you survive the first encounter). His fights with various prehistoric beasts on Skull Island are amazing.

This movie has a cheerful, breezy B-movie feeling that carries us comfortably through most of the (pretty long) movie, though I had to cover my eyes briefly for scenes featuring prehistoric insect and worms. There’s an amazing action sequence on Skull Island in a deep ravine with a couple of hungry dinosaurs, Kong, The Girl, and a spider web of vines that has to be seen to be believed.

Superman Returns (2006)

Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey

Superman Returns promises a lot but under delivers. It’s a blockbuster, filled with amazing special effects and heroic actions. But the movie falls down on a psychology-laden screenplay and lackluster directing, and ultimately doesn’t measure up to the superlative work seen in Superman and Superman II starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. If you want some of that old Superman magic, make a point of watching the first two movies again on DVD.

Brandon Routh puts on the cape and tights for this outing. He’s an Iowa boy, and shows a lot of promise playing the alien from Krypton with superhuman powers. At times he reminded me of the young Christopher Reeve. He could have been a great Superman with a better screenplay and better directing; in this film he seems too serious. Perhaps he’ll do better in his next outing, assuming he gets a better script.

Kate Bosworth is moving as Lois Lane, torn between her husband and child and Superman, who has just returned after five years away visiting the remains of Krypton. She is a bright spot in the movie.

Frank Langella tries mightily to be Perry White, but Jackie Cooper pretty well defined the character for us in the original movies.

Kevin Spacey plays Lex Luthor, but is unable to muster the difficult mix of humor and malice that Gene Hackman practically patented in the first two Superman films. Hackman was a genial con man; you enjoyed watching his character even as he tried to destroy California and kill millions of people. Spacey, in contrast, simply comes across as a nasty and vicious criminal.

This film lacks a critical ingredient of the original films: humor. They managed to make fun of the title character, and the people around him, and the challenges he faced while spinning entertaining blockbuster stories. Reeve understood that he had to add lightness and playfulness to his character in order to make him more human. Routh, in contrast, is not given the lines or the directing to allow him similar fun within his role.

The special effects are light-years ahead of the original Superman. But they fail to move us the way those in the original did. I’ll take somewhat cheesy special effects combined with wonderful writing, directing, and acting over superlative special effects combined with so-so writing, uneven directing, and decent performances.

It’s sad to see so much great potential wasted. I wish a director like Peter Jackson (whose King Kong remake shines) had been given a crack at this movie. But it’s too late; the cat is out of the bag and Superman has left the building.

Cars (2006)

Animated; Starring the voices of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, and Bonnie Hunt; Directed by John Lasseter

Cars is a fun, kinetic, imaginative animated film that is just plain fun to watch. The folks at Pixar Animation (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc) continue to produce a top-quality product. They start with an interesting idea—a world populated not by people but by cars. Then they take that idea and run (or drive) with it. A car race takes on new meaning: the stands are filled with cars instead of people. They do the wave by lifting their hoods (since they don't have hands).

A logical person might ask how the cars were able to build themselves without opposable thumbs, or how they reproduce. Don't go there. This movie is visually stunning, with beautiful panoramas of the western town and surroundings in which most of the story takes place. Paul Newman is wonderful as Doc Hudson, an old car who still has some tricks left in him. Owen Wilson plays a brash young racing car with a lot of lessons to learn about life, love and commitment. Bonnie Hunt brings a lot of soul to her role as a lawyer/sports car who has moved to a small town.

Parts of this movie are pretty predictable, but it's all a delight to watch, and I recommend it for kids and adults alike. It's a nice break from movies that emphasize either violence or romance (or both).

The Departed (2006)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson; Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Departed is a cinematic tour de force by a director at the height of his game. Scorsese paints an extremely violent and unpleasant portrait of a Boston mob boss (played with great intensity by Jack Nicholson). Circling around Nicholson is pretty much the entire cast of the movie and the entire plot. He is the dark center of it all; he exudes a sensual magnetic attraction that infuses every character and every situation with his lusts, fears, and naked brutality. I think Nicholson deserves an Oscar for this movie, and Scorsese as well.

The Massachusetts State Police want to bring Nicholson down. They send in an undercover policeman (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a stunning performance) to insinuate his way into Nicholson’s gang and send back information in order to catch Nicholson in the act, arrest and convict him.
At the same time, Nicholson sends a spy into the State Police to infiltrate them and send back warning and information about the forces trying to bring him down. Matt Damon is very convincing as the spy, slyly working his way into the trust of the various police officials as he helps keep Nicholson a step ahead of the law.

The movie is a kind of shadow play, as DiCaprio and Damon work in their two venues, feeding their information back to their chiefs while cloaking themselves from suspicion, and constantly looking over their shoulders. DiCaprio has quite the more dangerous task: if Damon is caught, he goes to jail. If DiCaprio is caught, Nicholson’s techniques are brutal, direct, and fatal.

The most interesting part of the movie is how DiCaprio and Damon detect the presence of the other, and try desperately to find who each-other are before they themselves are revealed..

The Departed is a bit like The Godfather, except that it’s a lot more violent. Also, Nicholson plays a monster of a character, with no redeeming features that we can see. He’s violent, greedy, and lustful, and gets pretty much whatever he wants by simply taking it. At least Don Corleone loved his family and tried to protect his people.

The movie takes some unexpected turns as it winds its way to its conclusion. At its heart it’s a gangster film, with a whiff of Al Pacino’s Scarface. It may be that violence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. But it’s a shame when so many people have to die in this movie in order to reach that point.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Starring Ryan Phillipe and Adam Beach; Directed by Clint Eastwood

Flags of our Fathers is a wrenching look at a terrible battle in WWII, and also an object lessen in celebrity and hero-creation, and the equally terrible costs therein.

The battle of Iwo Jima was 40 days of close-in combat between 22,000 dug-in Japanese defenders and the 100,000+ Americans attacking the island. Once the island was conquered it served as a forward base for U.S. planes attacking and bombing Japan.

One of the more famous photographs of WWII was taken a few days into the battle, of five Marines and a Navy corpsman (medic) raising an American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi. The picture became famous as a symbol of hope for the U.S.’s eventual victory in the war. So, the U.S. flew the surviving Marines and the Navy corpsman who raised the flag back to the U.S. to go on a tour of the country. As the U.S. Treasury Secretary explains to the soldiers, the U.S. is broke, and can’t afford to continue to pay to fight the war unless it sells people a lot more war bonds. So the soldiers tour the U.S., acclaimed as heroes and lionized by politicians as they talk up war bonds.

But the soldiers hate being called heroes; they had simply been ordered to raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi during a lull in the fighting. It was, in fact, not even the first flag to be raised there. But a photographer was with them, and caught that indelible image of apparent herorism during a horrible battle.

Adam Beach is excellent as an American Indian who’s one of the Marines; he’s tortured by his memories of the battle, and the gap between what he did during the battle and how he’s being treated on the tour. This is a tough role, and Beach does a great job portraying his character’s agony. Beach was a standout in the earlier movie Windtalkers.

Eastwood is a master of his subject; we get a kinetic feel for the hellish experience of the soldiers as they fight on Iwo Jima, as well as for the mood of the public as the war neared its end.

Though filled with violence and sorrow, this is the kind of movie you’d want our leaders and politicians to see (and pay attention to) before deciding whether to send our country’s young men and women into war. The movie portrays all the terrible events of Iwo Jima with a gritty realism that refuses to make war look either fun or rousing. Instead, it’s about soldiers struggling to survive amidst unimaginable terror and chaos. The contrast of the war with the empty bond-selling tour is extremely effective. Eastwood shows us all of this without ever preaching.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Starring Ken Watanabe; Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Letters from Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood paints a sad and depressing picture of the futility of war and the losses it causes among those who fight. The movie is a companion piece to Eastwood’s earlier movie on war and heroism and the fleeting touch of fame, Flags of Our Fathers. Both films are focused on the battle for Iwo Jima (February-March 1945). But Flags is seen from the American side, while Letters From Iwo Jima tells the story from the viewpoint of the Japanese defenders. We hear their hopes and fears recorded in some of their letters discovered buried on the island by a modern-day Japanese archeological expedition.

Iwo Jima is a desolate volcanic island. The visuals in the film are stark and largely monochromatic. Eastwood’s sparse economy in filming is perfectly suited for this place and for the battles he portrays.

Ken Watanabe is engaging as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He’s assigned to lead the defense of Iwo Jima at his own request. He lands and immediately begins touring the island on foot and reorganizing the defenses. He finds poor planning and inadequate preparations. He cares about the men he’s leading, and inspires them with his leadership. He’s also overjoyed to find a friend and fellow officer, Takeichi Nishi, who won an Olympic medal for Japan in an equestrian event. The meeting is bittersweet, though: Kuribayashi has an impossible task.

Kuribayashi comes to realize that he won’t be getting significant support either from the Japanese Navy, Army, or Air Force. Further, other officers on the island disagree with and interfere with his defensive strategy. Kuribayashi decides not to throw his forces into holding the landing beaches. Instead, he fortifies Mount Suribachi (which towers over the rest of the island), and has his forces dig well-hidden tunnels and bunkers from which to attack the American troops once they land.

His strategy was brilliant: it made the conquest of Iwo Jima far harder for the U.S. forces. Yet ironically, his excellence at war arguably resulted in far higher casualties for both the Japanese forces (only about 1,000 survived out of 22,000 defenders) and for the U.S. forces (more than 6,800 were killed and more than 20,000 were wounded among the 100,000+ who invaded the island).

It’s grim arithmetic. We like to glorify brilliant warriors who are geniuses at their craft. The movie Patton starring George C. Scott did just that; Patton could do miracles with tank brigades. Likewise General Kuribayashi performed miracles in the defense of Iwo Jima, holding out far longer than expected against overwhelming force. But he realizes by the end of the film that his accomplishments are fleeting; his men are dying around him, and as a result will not be returning to their families or their country.

The movie has graphic and disturbing images of war, and should be required viewing for politicians who think that war is the only way to solve problems between countries. This picture garnered several Oscar nominations; it may win Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a masterpiece and deserves such recognition.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Starring Forest Whitaker

The Last King of Scotland is a mesmerizing film; Forest Whitaker gives a riveting performance as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He pulls us into the dark heart of this disturbing and disturbed man: we see his charm and warmth turned on like a faucet in dealing with people he wants to manipulate. We see his manic/depressive side as he ranges from giddy happiness to frightened paranoia. Through it all is an amazing intensity, best seen in the movie when Whitaker’s face fills the entire screen and we observe one bright, focused, crazed eye contrasted with his other lazy, wandering eye. This movie should net Whitaker an Oscar.

The movie is framed around the story of a young, callow Scots youth (Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy) who has just gotten his medical degree. Wanting to escape from his father’s influence, he spins a globe, inserts a pin and heads to Uganda to work at a rural health clinic. He seems to take up his duties satisfactorily (though sparks fly between he and the pretty wife of the senior clinic doctor), but a chance meeting on the road wherein he gives medical care to a recently victorious Idi Amin sets him on a tragic path. Amin convinces him to become his personal physician. Garrigan soon finds that he must minister both to the body and mind of the dictator; Amin even treats him as a personal counselor, seeking advice on matters of state.

At first Garrigan seems to be making a difference. He’s excited to help Amin, and even somewhat admires his dynamic, larger-than-life style. The dictator praises his advice on health, architecture and press relations. Garrigan enjoys the attention and accolades he receives for his work, and the material gifts from Amin.

Garrigan is not a particularly sympathetic character. Convenience and comfort outweigh integrity and conviction; he dallies where he shouldn’t, and finds that there are some people you never want to be on the wrong side of. As his urgency to escape increases, so does his realization that his poor decisions have left him without a lot of hope and without many friends to help him. Because actor James McAvoy does so well portraying a clueless, unanchored, and immature person, I found that I really didn’t care as much whether he escaped or not.

This movie is a tour de force for Whitaker; it’s a sad, powerful depiction of a brutal and evil man and of the lives he distorts and destroys in his embrace of virtually unlimited power. It’s tough to watch, and serves as a reminder that there are monsters loose in the world; we must recognize and avoid them lest they devour us.

The Queen (2006)

Starring Helen Mirren

The British royalty has continued virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. In The Queen, Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II. First she’s breaking in a new, young Prime Minister. Next she has to deal with the tragic death of Princess Diana. Through it all, Mirren displays a cool evenness and ease that can only arise from decades of training and generations of breeding.

Mirren is solid in a role larger than any movie star ever had to play. The Queen does not simply show up for an event and perform; every moment of her day, each of her decisions, and every one of her statement are painstakingly scrutinized by a tabloid press corps (and other equally eager journalists), and broadcast willy-nilly to the world in newspapers and on TV. She’s aware of it all, and labors always to uphold her duties and to do what’s expected of her with grace and reserve.

With little touches, Mirren convinces us she’s the Queen. While scarcely cracking a smile, she receives Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as he comes in for the obligatory Queen’s blessings before he can become Prime Minister. She gently instructs him on protocol as they move through the ritual.

Later, the royal family is ensconced at the Queen’s summer retreat, Balmoral Castle in Scotland. As depicted it’s a phenomenal place, located on more than 50,000 acres of gorgeous landscape, ranging from woods and fields to dramatic hills and streams. A huge staff of servants minister to the vacationing family.

But the news of Diana’s death filters in. At first, it’s a private tragedy for Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). He rushes to Paris to accompany the body of his former wife back to England, and urges public measures of mourning and respect for Diana. However, other family members, especially the Queen’s husband Prince Philip (a marvelous performance by James Cromwell) oppose doing anything out of the ordinary.

The death of Diana was a huge quandary for the royal family. On one hand, she had divorced Prince Charles; thus, she was no longer royalty, and so her death would not warrant royal or official attention. On the other hand, Diana was enormously popular with the British public; they mourned her loss, and expected a suitable public response from her erstwhile family.

The royals were too isolated at Balmoral Castle. Prince Philip figures that taking Prince Charles’ sons hunting will help get their minds off the loss of their mother. The royal family’s tin ear as to the state of the public and their need for closure on Diana’s death isolate the Queen and even threaten the entire royal institution.

Tony Blair emerges as a sympathetic character, seeking to educate the clueless royals about the political need to respond publicly. He knows what’s needed; they just don’t seem to get it. His role is reversed with the Queen; suddenly he’s telling her what she needs to do.

The dénouement of this movie is very satisfying. Mirren makes us care about what happens to the Queen and to her family, and whether they satisfy the needs of the grieving public. Her performance is utterly convincing and believable: she well deserves an Oscar for it. Amidst the beautiful scenery of Scotland and the hustle and bustle of London, we’re treated to an inside glimpse of a Queen at work in her realm.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Children of Men (2006)

Starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore; Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

The Children of Men is a gripping account of a terrible future, one in which every woman in the world has been rendered infertile by an unknown cause. As the film opens the last child was born 18 years ago. The world has devolved into a chaotic, depressing mess; we see Great Britain under a totalitarian regime, and learn that it is the last functioning society. Various wars and acts of terrorism have rendered all other countries unsafe.

Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, a faceless bureaucrat working at an anonymous office job. His trip into London is punctuated by random violence, and he must walk past riot-clad policemen from “Homeland Security”, and cages holding captured foreigners.

Then his world is turned upside down. He’s reunited with a former lover, Julian Taylor, played by Julianne Moore. She’s head of an underground organization fighting the repressive government. She needs a favor from Theo, and he finds himself involved almost in spite of himself.

The favor involves accompanying a mysterious woman on a harrowing journey. They travel from danger to danger, trusting changeable allies, with violence shadowing their every move, and with no guarantee of safety save an illusive rendezvous point they’re trying to reach.

This movie is reminiscent of Blade Runner. Both depict a dystopian future, a future that we would do well to avoid. The disturbing thing about The Children of Men is that this future seems a lot closer to our current situation than the high-tech world of Blade Runner. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by P.D. James.

England under totalitarian rule, with xenophobic reactions to foreigners and brutal actions by a Homeland Security agency, seem plausible outgrowths of affairs in our own world.

The movie’s message is chilling: a world lacking in children is a world lacking in laughter, happiness, compassion, and empathy. It is a world in which brutal, violent actions seem the only way to cope. It is a world without hope.

But a hope does arise in the movie, and the major characters in the film stake their lives on it. There is one transcendent moment in the film (near the end) which almost redeems all of the characters and all of the terrible things we’ve witnessed. It doesn’t last long, and the significance may be fleeting, but it is one of the most beautiful movie scenes I’ve ever seen.

This is not a film for the faint of heart. The violence is constant and horrific. I don’t recommend this movie for most children, and only for adults who can look past the violence to the important messages it imparts.

Freedom Writers (2007)

Starring Hilary Swank

Freedom Writers is a stirring movie starring Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank as a woman who becomes a teacher at a school in Los Angeles. The kids she teaches live in a violent, gang-ridden urban landscape, and school for them is a temporary thing that they’re forced to attend until they’re old enough to drop out. Hilary plays Erin Gruwell, an idealistic woman with no idea what she’s facing.

Gruwell is surrounded not only by unruly kids in her classes, but also by hostile administrators and unhappy teachers. The teachers resent what their school has become; they blame school integration for the school’s slide into poor test scores and difficult classes.

Amidst it all, Gruwell struggles to connect with her students. She tries to understand the lives they lead. In the process, she convinces them to start keeping private journals in which they can describe their lives. After sitting for hours reading their journals, she realizes that she cares deeply about these kids, and will do everything she can to make a difference for them. This includes taking a part-time job in order to buy books and other school supplies, as well as saving up in order to reward the kids with special educational trips that will definitely never be paid for from the school budget.

The movie has a subplot in Erin’s husband, Scott, played by Patrick Dempsey. Scott can’t understand why Erin is so determined to help these children in spite of the kids’ bad attitudes and an unhelpful school administration. He’s baffled why she cares so much. He resents the extra time she invests in them. Dempsey is well known for portraying an appealing doctor on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Here he takes on a difficult role, portraying a man moving away from his wife as she moves toward the things she was born to do.

There have been several movies recently about teachers who help disadvantaged kids, including Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. Cynics could say this is just a copy of those. But it’s a fresh, new take on the subject, and it’s also based on a true story. Further, the young people portraying the students do a convincing job of showing us who they are and why they behave as they do. By the end of the movie we’re rooting for each one of them, and hoping against hope that the dangerous streets will not claim any of these kids as they connect with their teacher and their world. There are some tear-jerking moments like when Gruwell introduces the kids to survivors from the Nazi death camps. They start to see that the suffering they endure in their own lives is not unique.

This movie is convincing and moving. While there are some violent moments in the film that show the place these children live, they are not over-emphasized. Without these scenes, we wouldn’t understand just how much Gruwell accomplishes. It’s an inspiration to see how a determined person can make a difference in other’s lives. There can never be too many such movies.

Dreamgirls (2006)

Starring Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Hudson

Dreamgirls is a luscious movie musical, propelled by a plot driven by ambition, deception, betrayal and redemption. A young African-American all-girl group (who call themselves “The Dreamettes”) competes at an amateur talent show. Before they know it they are singing backup for the famous Jimmy “Thunder” Early, played with sly and rapacious charm by Eddy Murphy.

Danny Glover is aging agent Marty Madison, who takes an interest in the young group. His acting is effortless; we’re on his side every moment he’s on the screen, even when his stars are stolen out from under him by an ambitious car dealer-turned-agent named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx).

Foxx is convincing as Curtis, who dreams of starting a record company and getting rich. He knows the way stars are made: payola payoffs to radio station DJs so that his group gets airtime. Teamed with a talented young songwriter (CC White, played by Keith Robinson), the Dreamettes record their first record, which payola (and their talent) transform into a hit. Curtis manipulates the group to appeal to wider audiences, replacing then getting rid of the lead singer.
Jennifer Hudson is outstanding as Effie White, the lead singer shuffled aside to make room for Deena (Beyoncé). Hudson proves the she deserves her growing fame as a singer as she outperforms Beyoncé time after time in musical numbers. She has a beautiful strong voice, and one wonders about the American Idol judges who, several years ago, decided Hudson doesn’t have what it takes to be a star. She well deserves the awards she's received for this role.

Deena (Beyoncé), the new lead singer, is better-looking and has more mainstream appeal than Effie. She helps the group break through to Pop music, and suddenly the group is “Deena and the Dreams.” There’s definitely a resonance between this story and that of “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” They garnered similar mainstream adulation, fame, and fortune.

As Deena, Beyoncé lets us feel what it’s like to be suddenly famous and rich, even as doubts emerge about what it cost to achieve them.

The movie contains some glorious music: some of the song performances rival music videos in visual flair and ideas. The film is a rich and entertaining tapestry. It feels natural when the performers express their deepest emotions and thoughts in songs. Director Bill Condon did a good job adapting what was originally a Broadway musical into this entertaining movie.

The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)

Starring Will Smith

Will Smith takes a serious turn in The Pursuit of Happiness, and creates a wonderful, thoughtful, touching movie about a man who has to deal with becoming homeless. I’ve loved Smith when he played larger-than-life characters in movies like Men In Black and Independence Day. Now, it’s also a pleasure to see him soar in a serious dramatic role.

The movie is set in San Francisco in the early 1980s, and is based on a true story. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a medical device salesman for whom nothing seems to be going right. His car is ticketed, booted, and towed. The IRS is hounding him about the money he owes them. He can’t sell the medical devices he invested his savings in to save his life. His wife leaves him, convinced he’s a loser.

Things go from bad to worse when he’s evicted from his apartment and then the hotel he moves to, thus finding himself homeless. Plus he’s caring for his young son, which doubles his troubles.
At the same time, Gardner is trying to better himself. When young he was tops in his High School class. He again received recognition in the Navy. He has a knack for mathematics; there’s a wonderful sequence with a Rubik’s Cube that proves his abilities to a potential employer.

Gardner decides to apply for a stockbroker trainee program. There are a few catches: it’s a six-month program, but doesn’t pay anything. Also, only one out of the 20 trainees will be offered a job at the end of the training period. Gardner decides to go for it anyway.

What follows is a portrait of a man who wants something badly enough to do all that’s required in order to achieve it. The scenes where he’s waiting in line at a homeless shelter with his son in order to get space to sleep that night are particularly moving.

Jaden Smith plays Gardner’s son; he’s Will Smith’s actual son, and presents a touching portrait of a little boy struggling with wrenching worries about his missing mother and his trouble-beset father. It’s hard for him to grasp how bad things are for them; at one time in the film he says, “Dad, I want to go home.” Dad, of course, finds it difficult to explain to him that they have no home: this is it. There are several such heartbreaking moments in the film.

While this film is serious, and depicts very difficult times for a man and his son, it is life-affirming and uplifting. Will Smith has a knack for transmuting just about any movie into gold, and carries this one wonderfully, assisted by a good supporting cast. This film is suitable for all audiences.

The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li; Directed by Zhang Yimou

Curse of the Golden Flower is a visually stunning movie about a very dysfunctional family. The family happens to be the royal family of the Tang Dynasty (859 AD) in China, and the dissentions and misunderstandings and plots result in terrible consequences for all concerned.

We’ve seen two other amazing movies from Zhang Yimou—Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Each had striking visuals, and each told a tale about ancient China.

This story is set in one of the most opulent palaces you’ll ever see in your life. There’s the gleam of gold on every wall, seeming miles of silk and tapestries, tons of marble and jade, and hundreds of servants scurrying around at the beck and call of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), the Empress (Gong Li), and the Emperor’s three sons. Each hour is rung out on bells, while the time-keeping servants describe the animal associated with the hour and what the hour means (e.g. “It’s 4 o’clock, the hour of the rat, heaven and earth are in balance, the Emperor keeps us safe,” etc.).

The tragedy (or curse) of the film comes from the confused and unhappy Imperial family. Discord arises early as the Empress comes to suspect that the medicine her husband is having her take may not be good for her. Other terrible inter-family things are going on, plus there’s a (somewhat) secret plot to overthrow the Emperor.

Chow Yun-Fat is not sympathetic as the cruel, power-hungry Emperor; he was far easier to love as a wise warrior in An Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this movie he out-smarts himself as well as the rest of his family. That isn’t a good thing as lives and loves and ambition hang in the balance, and each character in turn seems to make stupid or terrible choices (or both). If the Emperor had a little wisdom to balance his brilliance, the movie could have ended happily.

Sometimes I think the Chinese have a different idea of how to end a movie. American moviegoers tend to like happy endings: marriages, conquest of misfortune, etc. Chinese movies (to judge from Zhang Yimou’s films, at least), celebrate sacrifice, loss, and the seeming impossibility of attaining lasting happiness in life. Instead the characters must embrace the impermanence of things and accept their lot in life. No matter how great their martial arts skill, there are always armies of warriors ready to overwhelm them with sheer numbers if not with equal skill.

This movie includes some brutal moments. The scenes featuring the Emperor’s black-cloaked “ninjas” as they swoop down to attack are unforgettable, as are their weapons of choice. You definitely would never want to meet any of these guys in a dark alley. The scenes in the enormous square overlooking the Imperial palace range from beautiful (tens of thousands of chrysanthemums, the “golden flower” of the curse), to awe-inspiring (an attacking army running into unexpected obstacles).

This film is a spectacle, with visuals that well repay the viewer who can overlook the inherent sadness of the outcome. I suppose a film in which everyone is happy, and no one needs to hatch plots and counterplots and violent insurrections wouldn’t have been as interesting. To paraphrase the old Chinese curse, in this movie, the Imperial family is doomed to live in interesting times. Because of their poor choices and poor judgment, I’m afraid they deserve what they get.

Déjà Vu (2006)

Starring Denzel Washington

Déjà Vu is a mix of movie genres (thriller, science fiction, and romance), and Denzel Washington brings them together smoothly and gracefully. He makes it all look easy, and it is not.

A ferry explodes as it approaches a New Orleans wharf, killing 500+ people including a number of sailors on leave. As authorities converge on the scene of the destruction, Denzel Washington arrives. He is an ATF agent investigating the explosion. He quickly and expertly analyzes the evidence and concludes that the explosion was not an accident, but an act of terror. So far, the movie seems like a police procedural, where we follow people as they do their jobs.

But then it veers into science fiction. A shadowy group of men in a special task force invite Washington to join them as they work to solve the case. He enters a high-tech installation filled with computers and video screens. It seems some scientists developed special technology that gives them a window into the past (four days and six hours ago, to be precise). Furthermore, it appears as if the observer is seeing the events as they unfold, and from any angle, plus hearing everything, as well. They give a semi-plausible explanation about orbiting satellites and interpolation of data, but it basically looks and feels like magic.

In other, less-skilled hands, such a movie would simply zoom into the high-tech premise and therefore be of only limited interest to most moviegoers (other than sci-fi fans). But Washington brings us into it all by reacting realistically and sympathetically to what he sees and hears. Such is his acting skill that we drop our doubts and cynicism and buy in to everything we see.

As Washington investigate the crime with the fancy high-tech stuff, he zooms in (literally as well as figuratively) on one particular woman. She was killed prior to the ferry explosion, yet seems linked to it. As Washington vicariously observes her life of four days ago, he sees the strands of a plot coalescing around her and drawing her to her death. He sees a vital, funny, beautiful, caring woman, and is moved personally as well as professionally to work to track down her killer, solve the ferry explosion, and arrest the perpetrators. Then he sees the possibility of changing what has happened…

Déjà Vu has some scenes of violence and action, but it is not primarily an action/thriller. The movie has an intricate plot, and as each scene unfolds the prior pieces fit together and make sense. Washington makes a very good leading man, and we care about what happens to him as he throws himself into trying to stop a tragedy and save the woman he realizes he’s coming to love.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson

Stranger Than Fiction is a delightful, inventive, hilarious movie that dips into fantasy, yet is filled with essential insights into, and affirmations of, life. Will Ferrell is a boring, by-the-book IRS auditor. He leads a disciplined, measured existence from the start of each day to its end. He brushes each tooth eighty times exactly, and times his departure from his home (and even the length and speed of his steps) so that he arrives at the bus stop just as his intended bus is about to pull away. The movie includes some delightful graphics to illustrate these points.

Then something strange happens. He starts to hear a voice in his head. It isn’t telling him to jump off a bridge, or kill someone, or start a new religion. Instead, the voice is narrating and commenting on his life. Suddenly, the voice is describing each of the routine, repetitive acts in his life as if they’re interesting or important, at least in the context of the story the narrator is telling.

He goes to a psychiatrist, played by Linda Hunt, who tells his he’s probably crazy and wants him to take drugs for it. Instead, Ferrell visits a professor of Literature, Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman is a thoughtful, knowledgeable teacher who takes a curious academic interest in Ferrell’s plight. After all, it seems like Ferrell finds himself in the middle of a novel: who better to help him than an expert on novels?

Hoffman wonders what kind of story Ferrell find himself in the middle of. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Does Ferrell’s new love interest, a sensual baker played with gusto and verve by Maggie Gyllenhaal, play a part?

Meanwhile, a famous novelist (Emma Thompson) has a big problem. She’s writing a novel about a lackluster IRS auditor, and is having trouble coming up with a convincing way to kill him off at the end of the book. As she flirts with the idea of suicide herself, she’s struggling with how she’ll finish this latest writing project. In walks a determined Queen Latifah, sent by Thompson’s publisher to help her get the promised book finished. (Latifah is joining my A-list of actors I look forward to seeing at the movies.)

It turns out that Thompson is “writing” Ferrell’s life, and once she finishes it off, Ferrell may be finished, too.

In the hands of this talented, stellar cast, this movie is both funny and thought provoking from start to finish. It stretches and plays with our ideas about fiction and reality. But in the midst of it all, the characters act believably and convincingly within their lives and in the ways they confront their problems and the boundaries that constrain them.

Long after the movie was over, I found myself thinking about the various characters and situations within the movie. In the best movies, like this one, the characters live on after the movie is over: we care about them because they have become real for us.

Casino Royale (2006)

Starring Daniel Craig

We didn’t realize that we were getting bored with the same old Bond. It took the new Bond film, Casino Royale, and a new Bond, Daniel Craig, to convince us. The film is a gritty, violent, entertaining take on the James Bond persona. Craig offers a totally different spin on the character than Sean Connery and the other actors who have played Bond over the years. Connery was refined and suave, Moore stepped through improbable travelogues, Timothy Dalton added intensity, and Pierce Brosnan gave us dash and ease.

All these prior Bond versions differ drastically from the character created by author Ian Fleming. His Bond was focused on spy tradecraft, direct violence, and generally realistic villains.

The movie starts at the beginning of Bond’s career. He isn’t yet a double-O agent (for that he needs two confirmed kills). The opening credits quickly dispense with that requirement. Next we see Bond trailing a bomb-maker, when the incompetence of a colleague messes up his plans. The chase that follows is fully as thrilling and satisfying as the best of the other Bond films.

Craig’s Bond is calculating and at times brutal, and the movie acknowledges that a man (whose Double-O designation means he has a license to kill) is not necessarily a nice or a perfectly balanced person. I give the screenwriters and director Martin Campbell a lot a credit for taking the time to examine the kind of man who kills for a living, and the human feelings he has to submerge or deny as he grows into his job.

There’s an absence of the gee-whiz technology emphasis of the earlier Bond movies. There’s no daffy Q loading Bond up with improbable gadgets. Instead, Bond has to rely on his wits, his physical prowess in hand-to-hand combat, and his skills with a pistol.

Also, Bond isn’t the casual omnivorous womanizer earlier portrayed. He dallies with a married woman, explaining to her that it’s safer that way. His later relationship with a treasury department liaison is sedate and touching.

In a wry update of the original novel, James Bond plays the wildly popular “No-Limit Texas Hold-‘em Poker” instead of the old fashioned Baccarat game against the villainous Le Chiffre. But it doesn’t matter. There’s some entertaining high-stakes card-playing in suitably luxurious surroundings. Also, Le Chiffre is a human-scaled villain instead of a talkative megalomaniac trying to conquer the world, another refreshing departure from the other Bond flicks.

Altogether, this is not your father’s James Bond. If you want the easier-going (and less violent) Bond, with more humor, then seek out DVDs of the earlier movies. Each Bond made some great films. I’d highlight Connery’s Goldfinger, Moore’s Moonraker, Dalton’s The Living Daylights, and Brosnan’s Tomorrow Never Dies. This movie stands on its own merits, and I’m looking forward to the next Daniel Craig Bond outing.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline; Directed by Robert Altman

A Prairie Home Companion is a very funny movie, and will be a special treat for all the fans of the public radio variety show on which it is based. A large ensemble cast joins host Garrison Keillor, including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, and Lily Tomlin.

The movie screenplay was written by Garrison Keillor, and begins with sad news: a beloved radio show (A Prairie Home Companion) is about to be shut down by a heartless corporation who bought out the original owners. The beautiful Fitzgerald Theater in which the show is performed (before a live audience) will be torn down, and a parking lot erected on the spot.

A word to those who haven’t heard the radio show: Garrison Keillor is a gifted monologist; during each show he spins another story of the fictional town of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota. He tells us about the various town residents and their life experiences. The show also features radio theatre; there are various comic episodes featuring characters like Guy Noir, Private Eye, and Dusty and Lefty (a couple of cowboys who wander hither and thither on the range and through civilization). Keillor also invites folk singers, gospel singers, and singers from all manner of different music genres to come on the show and perform along with his regular performers. Finally, he features numerous commercials for fictional products like Powdermilk Biscuits (“the biscuits that give quiet people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”)

The movie gives us an up-close and personal feeling for putting on a radio show. All the different people go about the jobs: makeup person, stage manager, stars, singers, sound effects guy, and so on. Director Altman is a master of ensemble work; he lets us feel the life that blossoms within his characters as they do the show.

In the movie, Guy Noir is a private detective (down on his luck) who’s hired as the security guard for the show. Kevin Kline is spot-on perfect in the role; his clumsiness and lack of smarts in every conceivable situation is a standing joke that just gets funnier as the movie progresses. This is one of his best performances in years.

Virginia Madsen has a mysterious role as “the dangerous woman.” She plays a character dressed in a white trench coat who wanders around the set as the show progresses, observing and occasionally talking with the various performers. Is she crazy? Is she the angel of death? Her inclusion in the movie adds a fascinating, deeper element to all the business happening on stage.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the last surviving sisters of a musical family. Streep’s character’s daughter (played by Lindsay Lohan) tags along, writing poems about death and suicide. In the movie, a romance apparently occurred in the past between Streep and Keillor. Streep hasn’t let go of it, and has some hilarious moments (live on the show) talking about it.

Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play Dusty and Lefty as singing cowboys. They are hilarious when they sing a song about how they love bad jokes, punctuated by a string of very bad jokes that are also in very poor taste. The show censor is standing off stage meanwhile fuming all the while.

This is a very funny movie, and I recommend it for those who enjoy radio theatre and ensemble comedy, especially those who enjoy the actual NPR show. There are thoughtful appraisals of life and love and mortality, all lovingly fixed within the performance of a live radio show. This was also director Robert Altman’s last film.

World Trade Center (2006)

Starring Nicholas Cage; Directed by Oliver Stone

World Trade Center is a wrenching, gritty, ultimately uplifting depiction of how two New York City Transit cops were trapped in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Centers on 9/11 awaiting rescue. Oliver Stone keeps his focus simple in this movie; there are no political positions or statements as in his JFK, and the action takes place in a remarkably narrow strip; the trapped officers, their wives and families awaiting word on their fate, and a group of searchers trying to locate survivors in the grim, haunting rubble of the felled towers. 9/11 was a confusing day; no one knew exactly what had happened, reports were garbled, and these attacks seemed to appear out of thin air. The movie echoes this.

Some might call this a “patriotic” movie, or a “celebration of American values.” It’s true that these events take place during a terrible attack on the American psyche. 9/11 will stick in people’s minds like the assassination of John F. Kennedy stuck in the minds of those living in the mid-1960.

But the movie transcends the country (and the circumstances) in which it occurs. The men trapped in the rubble are not thinking of their country: they are thinking of what’s most important in their lives: their wives, their kids, and their families. 9/11 wasn’t a political tragedy: it was a human tragedy. About 2,700 people lost their lives that day, among them over 500 New York City firemen and policemen and transit cops who were called to the scene of the disaster to try to help evacuate the area and assist the injured.

The movie brings home in very sad detail the terrible waiting that the families of the officers had to endure as the hours and days passed after 9/11. For the two families depicted in the movie (based on true events and people), the wait is ultimately rewarded, and the beloved husbands were reunited with their wives and kids and families.

Left unsaid but clearly seen is that a far larger group of people waited out that agonizing time of uncertainty, only to find (eventually) that there was no longer any hope that they’d see their loved ones again, and further, that they would be denied closure since many of their loved ones’ remains were lost amidst millions of tons of ruble and debris which would ultimately take more than a year to excavate and remove. Those 2700+ people were sons, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, cousins, and so on. Nicholas Cage is excellent in this film as one of the trapped cops. He gives a restrained, moving performance.

This is a tough movie to recommend. On one hand it’s uplifting and inspiring; on the other hand, it reminds us that we live in a world filled with dangers and uncertainties. The saga of survival of the two cops (two of twenty survivors amidst the rubble) is worth seeing. But be prepared also with having to face anew the sad, violent events of 9/11 that have transformed our world since then.

The Peaceful Warrior (2006)

Starring Nick Nolte and Scott Mechlowicz

The Peaceful Warrior is the story of an unusual teacher and a young, troubled gymnast. What makes the teacher (Nick Nolte) unusual is that he is a gas station attendant. His student (Scott Mechlowicz) is a crack gymnast from the University of California who’s training for the Olympic tryouts.

The gymnast (Dan Millman) is having trouble sleeping, and wanders out at night and happens upon Nolte’s gas station. After hearing a bit of what sounds like philosophy from the gas station attendant, Dan starts calling him Socrates. As Dan’s leaving, he sees (or doesn’t see, actually) Socrates do something that absolutely intrigues him.

The rest of the movie shows Dan coming grudgingly to respect Socrates, and learn from him how to knit his life together into a satisfying whole instead of a frustrating and unhappy series of parts. Also, Dan suffers an accident that puts his gymnastic career in peril. Socrates has his work cut out for him.

It’s easy to compare this film to The Karate Kid. It’s a fun movie to watch, with only a few confusing touches like the dream sequences. Also, the director (or someone associated with this movie) seems to think that heightened states of consciousness should be broadcast with dramatic music, loud sound effects and slow motion. (Perhaps in a previous life he made martial arts movies.)

This movie is appropriate for all audiences. Some of the gymnastic scenes are very beautiful, and the relationship that develops between Nolte and Mechlowicz is a pleasure to watch. Also, watching Mechlowicz, I was reminded of Tom Cruise early in his career.

The Lady in the Water (2006)

Starring Paul Giamatti

The Lady in the Water is a beautiful, sometimes scary adult fairy tale/myth about an apartment-complex maintenance man who meets a curious visitor from another realm. A quirky collection of people live in this complex, and the film takes time to introduce us to them by following Giamatti as he fixes plumbing, electrical, and bug problems.

M. Night Shyamalan creates dense, symbol-rich movies. I think this is the best and most accessible of his films since The Sixth Sense.

I can’t describe too much of the plot; suffice to say that it’s an engaging tale of the intersection of a world of myth and magic with our own sometimes curious world.

One of the pleasures of viewing this movie is to see the slow wonder that unfolds in Giamatti. He’s moving up on to my “A” list of actors to watch for. At the beginning of the movie we see a shy, stuttering man simply doing his job. By the end, we know him a lot better, and we see a man’s passions and hopes and need for community given voice as he reaches out to many of the apartment dwellers to aid on the quest.

There are some great supporting performances, including Bob Balaban as a movie reviewer, and Cindy Cheong’s hilarious dialogs with her Chinese-speaking mother.

Along with the drama there’s a lightness and humor in the movie; Shyamalan is relaxed enough to let it all happen step by step; no slave to story, he. Shyamalan also appears as one of the characters in the story; we sense some autobiographical content.

This is a fine movie for all audiences. The scary parts are not emphasized unduly, and, overall, a sense of wonder develops that carries us along.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Starring Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, and Anne Hathaway

The Devil Wears Prada is a funny, memorable film that’s a pleasure to watch: I also found myself continuing to think about it after I left the theatre. Meryl Streep is great as Miranda Preistly, the dominating editor of a leading fashion magazine. All her employees live in fear of her, as does the worldwide fashion industry. They hang on her every opinion and pronouncement.

Anne Hathaway is entertaining as Andy Sachs, a recent college grad who takes her first job as one of Miranda’s assistants. She’s told repeatedly that, “millions of girls would die for this job.” In fact, she finds the job very difficult. She’s become a personal slave to a judgmental, dictatorial boss who demands that she be available from the crack of dawn, all through the day, and on into the night. She comes to hate her cell phone. Meanwhile, her lack of fashion sense (or even interest in fashion) is mocked, and she slowly, in spite of herself, finds herself caring about what she is wearing and how thin she is.

Meryl Streep offers us a measured, perfectly pitched performance. She doesn’t waste a word or a look, casually and effortlessly dominating every scene in which she appears. Her performance is worthy of an Oscar.

Stanley Tucci is outstanding as Nigel, a fashion expert at the magazine who helps Andy as she struggles to fit in at the magazine and to up her fashion sense. Tucci is a genius at taking on roles and wearing them so comfortably that we forget he’s merely acting.

There’s a truth imbedded in this movie about jobs; we take them, and we may not at first care particularly about the company we’re at, or its product, but when you work with something every day and with people who care about that product every day, you start to move along with them. Suddenly, the product is important, and interesting. Suddenly, you’re one of them. (At parties, you start to tell people about your company’s product.)

There are three standout moments in the film as three different characters in the movie educate Hathaway about fashion (why it’s important, and how), commitment (what it means specifically in a job), and relationships (how to tell how much they mean to you, and a rough gauge on how they’re going).

I enjoyed this film so much that I went and bought the book it is based on. The film is lighter and funnier than the book, and the ending is more idealized. Movies are different animals than books: allowances must be made.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Starring Al Gore; Directed by Davis Guggenheim

An Inconvenient Truth is a surprising, frightening look at the truth behind everything we’ve been hearing about global warming. Al Gore has been assembling a slide show to educate people about global warming, and he presents the fruits of that slide show, which he’s given thousands of times all over the world, in this documentary.

After all we’ve heard about what a poor communicator Gore is, it’s interesting to see him here as he takes the role of a college professor to explain the science, and the consequences of, the warming of the earth’s climate due to the buildup of carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal. He’s pretty eloquent as he untangles all the facts and presents them in a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner, replete with helpful slides of various parts of the world and various climatic measurements made during the last 600,000 years.

Lectures can be pretty boring, and its to the credit of Gore and documentary filmmaker David Guggenheim that the film moves briskly and keeps you interested from start to finish. There’s a funny animated introduction featuring a science-fiction solution to global warming: dropping city-sized ice cubes in the ocean to cool things down. Gore talks in a relaxed, entertaining, occasionally funny manner, even though the subject he’s tackling involves a convoluted mess of politics, rhetoric, science, public opinion, and so on.

According to some politicians, global warming is a hoax. Others say the U.S. can’t afford to take the lead on trying to solve this challenge, even though the film reveals that we’re responsible for more than 25% of the problem with only a fraction of the world’s population. Gore has careful responses to these arguments; he comes across as reasonable and measured, and not panicked or extreme. He is no wild-eyed environmentalist.

Gore describes the kind of world we’ll be living in as the fruits of global warming begin to ripen. Since we’re all going to live in the future eventually, it’s a good idea to learn more about this global phenomenon which looks to be dramatically changing the worldwide climate. The prognosis: stock up on suntan oil and bottled water, and make sure your air conditioner is working right. Seriously, though, the film does offer some hope at the end, and lays out concrete steps that every person and every country can take to reverse this ominous slide into ever more hot and chaotic weather.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightly

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a fun, frenetic movie. It's like a theme-park ride brought to life, which is no coincidence since Pirates of the Caribbean, a popular Walt Disney World ride, is the source of the idea for these movies.

As a continuance of the original Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it brings back the stellar cast that we came to know and love in the first movie. The film is buoyed along by a stirring, heroic soundtrack, and wastes no time in immersing the characters in a whirlwind adventure and quest, beset with monstrous creatures, dastardly villains, and extremely funny supporting characters.

Unlike Superman Returns, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest director Gore Verbinski realizes he's directing a comic book and not a serious movie with the weight of the world on its shoulders. He relaxes and lets the actors and actresses have fun. There are wondrous special effects, but they're all in the service of the story. You won't soon forget the mill wheel, or the human balls, or the Kraken.

Depp is again great fun as the slightly odd pirate captain Jack Sparrow. Orlando Bloom shines as the virtuous Will Turner. Keira Knightly is even better in this movie than in the first as heroine Elizabeth Swann; she shows us a lively spunkiness that dominates the screen whenever she's on-screen.

This movie sets us up for a sequel, but even with its unfinished business it's a fun ride and a good way to spend a hot summer afternoon or evening.

This movie reminded me of the Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser. With pirates and monsters and supernatural forces, this could have been made as a gory, terrifying horror movie. But its light-hearted core makes it a movie that almost anyone can enjoy, though young children might be frightened by some of the (slightly) gory parts.

Eight Below (2006)

Starring Paul Walker and a bunch of talented dogs

Eight Below is a thrilling, exciting adventure film about Antarctic survival and the loyalty a man feels toward his canine helpers. It starts with a star-crossed expedition in the Antarctic (the bottom of the world; the Arctic is on the top of the world). A scientist journeys to a remote Antarctic outpost, looking for a meteorite from another world. But a sudden storm bears down, and the remote outpost must be hurriedly evacuated along with all the other Antarctic outposts. Behind the storm the long Antarctic winter is approaching, during which no flights will be possible to or from this remote and inhospitable region.

During the rush to evacuate, a string of sled dogs has to be abandoned, staked out in front of an outpost. Their handler is stricken with guilt and remorse at leaving them; half of the film shows his seemingly futile efforts to get transportation back to the Antarctic to rescue or at least honor and bury the dogs he knows and calls by name. As their handler he knows each dog's personality, experiences, strengths and weaknesses.

The other half of the movie shows how the sled dogs handle their situation. The movie gives wonderful silent voice to why people e love pets, and dogs in particular, so much. Dogs mirror our emotions and our thinking, and have the gift of communicating to us what's important.

The situation of the dogs is bleak. Unlike the penguins in March of the Penguins, dogs are not native to the Antarctic. This makes the movie all the more thrilling. Can eight dogs trained to pull sleds find ways to survive? (These dogs are the "eight below" of the title; the temperature is far colder than that.)

Eight Below is stark and beautiful. Enormous vistas of ice and snow stretch from horizon to horizon. The viewer can feel the sharp winds cutting to the bone. The night shots are unutterably moving, with sharp cold stars spread out in the sky as falling stars streak across the immensity, or the eerie glow of the Northern lights (or should we call them "Southern lights?") plays upon the snow.

This movie is a timeless classic. It tells a gripping story, and is suitable for all adults as well as most children, as long as the kids are old enough to absorb a touching and sometimes scary and sometimes sad story of survival against the odds.

The Sentinel (2006)

Starring Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland

The Sentinel is a fun, fast-paced ride that combines a police procedural and thriller. The movie begins by giving us an up-close and personal feeling for the 24-hour 7-days-a-week job of the Secret Service in protecting the President and his family. But then the movie takes a thriller turn, featuring with a break-neck pace, thin plot, and lots of action to take the place of thinking.

There appears to be a mole in the Secret Service, and Douglas plays an agent who is the prime suspect. He runs away to try to clear his name, but gets drawn in to solving the central mystery and saving the president. Kiefer Sutherland was an old friend of Douglas’s; that is, until Douglas started a romance with Sutherland’s wife. Now he’s relentlessly tracking Douglas down. Plus, Douglas is having an affair with a different woman now—the President’s wife.

Douglas is fun and convincing in this role, and Sutherland makes a great opponent for him. Their confrontation scenes crackle with emotion and anger. It’s great to see Sutherland in a non-24 role. He brings the same intensity and authority to this character.

Due to violence, I wouldn’t recommend this movie for younger children. Otherwise, it’s a thrilling mélange of action and violence as the central mystery is slowly unraveled.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Starring Tom Hanks, Directed by Ron Howard

The Da Vinci Code is a kind of fusion between a conventional thriller and a spiritual journey. It’s very engaging. The thriller part is filled with the standard thriller stuff: people on the run from violence, an implacable killer, a conspiracy impelling the chase, and the desperate attempts of the hero to “figure everything out.” But parallel to and somehow untouched by this thriller business is a separate tale; a tale of history and spirituality and religion, intertwined with mysterious symbols, riddles, and ciphers (codes).

Some Christians have criticized this movie and recommended boycotting it. A strict reading of the Bible certainly contradicts the central idea of the movie. But as an allegory or commentary on spirituality, without the necessity of rejecting or accepting it with relation to ones own religion, it is interesting, thought provoking, and inspiring.

The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. The book has a lot more detail than the movie, as is natural when you have hundreds of pages and hour after hour of your reader’s time to fill. In 2 ½ hours, the movie The Da Vinci Code can only touch on much that’s in the book, and isn’t able to develop the characters as fully. A central part of the plot is left unexplained. (If you like the movie, read the book.)

But this is quibbling. Director Ron Howard works with actor Tom Hanks to craft another satisfying, enjoyable movie (the excellent Apollo 13 was another of their collaborations). Hanks is wonderful as symbologist Robert Langdon. A symbologist knows symbols, and this is lucky, because the movie’s central plot is puzzling out a whole raft of symbols as they relate to an ancient religious mystery, and to curious rivalries and mysterious religious conflicts in the present day.

Supporting Hanks is a luminous Audrey Tautou as a woman on the run with him. Jean Reno is a determined French policeman chasing them, Ian McKellen is Sir Leigh Teabing (an expert on the central grail idea of the movie), and Paul Bettany is Silas, a chilling albino killer.

Some parts of the thriller portion of this movie are violent, but the film manages to shift into a state of grace and repose by the end, and is a good movie to catch. I left the theater feeling uplifted: it gets my seal of approval.