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.

United 93 (2006)

Directed by Paul Greengrass

United 93 is a sad, gripping retelling of some of the events on 9/11/01, when a secretive group of terrorists managed to perpetrate a startlingly effective attack on the U.S.

Since we know the story all too well, the movie takes on the feeling I get when watching films about the Titanic: I know the ship’s going to sink, so the only novelty is seeing exactly how it does, and the affect it has on the passengers and crew and others.

This movie feels as if it were created by a bunch of film students with handheld cameras who just happened to be situated in critical spots around the country and in the air as the events on that sad day unfolded.

We see the FAA national operations center, the air traffic control centers that interacted with flight 93 and the other doomed aircraft, the military readiness center, and the passengers and crew and terrorists on flight 93.

The moviemakers made an excellent choice not to include any recognizable stars or celebrities in this movie. There are no melodramatics and no histrionics; star power does not fuel this vehicle. Instead, we see ordinary people going about their ordinary activities, when suddenly they are confronted with a profound disconnect. Their assumptions and expectations are totally wrong, and the correct version of the truth is almost incomprehensible to them.

The scenes on flight 93 feel completely authentic. This flight is filled with our family and friends and neighbors; that is, with everyone we’ve ever shared an airline flight with. After the terrorist takeover of the plane, the passengers are confused, afraid, and disorganized. Some think they should just cooperate and they’ll be fine. The flight attendants are huddled at the back of the plane without a clue to exactly what’s going on in the cockpit.

Over time, passengers using cell phones start to piece together the sketchy information they’re getting, until they know what’s happening, They decide they must assault the terrorists and stop them from carrying out their plan. Their hurried planning feels totally real, with everyone talking at once and quickly trying to think through their plan.

That 19 determined, angry, fanatical young men could carry out a plot to ram civilian airliners into buildings was unimaginable to the people depicted in the movie. Lending even more truthfulness to this drama, the man running the FAA national operations center on 9/11 plays himself, along with other air traffic controllers and FAA workers. If the film has any heroes (other than the desperate passengers on flight 93 who try to fight back), it is this head of the FAA, Ben Sliney, who, seeing the emerging pattern of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, makes the enormous (and correct) decision to shut down U.S. airspace to all planes.

The film showed the U.S. military as totally unprepared for the unexpected. Their lines of communication with the FAA were laughable, and their response was uncoordinated and ineffective. Jets fighter scrambled to meet the threat and then flew off away from their intended targets, or they didn’t have any weapons or bullets. The president’s authority was needed for the military to shoot down hijacked planes, and he was nowhere to be found.

Both for the FAA and the military, their most accurate source of information was not the billions of dollars of equipment they possessed, or their information networks, or their procedures and rules of engagement as handled by thousands of skilled, trained personnel. It was CNN.

There was absolute silence in the theater where I saw this film when it ended. This movie shows us exactly how it was (in the FAA national operations center and arguably in the military) that day, and offers a convincing view of how it might have been had we had been a passenger on one of those doomed flights. It further challenges us to consider how we might have reacted had we been on United 93.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Starring Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett & Keke Palmer

Akeelah and the Bee is a touching, delightful film that showcases the skills of Lawrence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, plus we meet Keke Palmer as Akelaah. Palmer is a charming person to get to know; the movie is a great opportunity to spend some time with her.

Akeelah Anderson is an 11-year-old with a talent. She loves words. She's pulled into a school spelling bee, and is encouraged by her school principal to compete in a spelling bee leading up to a national championship. We get a look inside the curious world of kids and parents and lots and lots of words the kids have to memorize. It's a very competitive business, and one of the delights of the film is the innocence and charm that Akeelah lavishes on this endeavor.

Lawrence Fishburne is a professor on sabbatical who agrees to tutor Akeelah as she prepares to compete in a regional spelling bee. He doesn't have a huge amount of screen-time, but manages to fill it with a gentle, intelligent gravitas and authority that makes me wish I could have been a student of his.

Angela Bassett is outstanding as Akeelah's Mom, who works hard as a nurse while raising four children on her own. Her hard angry edge hides a warm and caring person.

This movie is a charmer, and is appropriate for all audiences. Four stars, two thumbs up, worth the price of admission.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2006)

A film about the life of John Peterson of Illinois, written and narrated by John Peterson

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is an astounding film that documents the curious and interesting life of a unique man. It is by turns funny, warm, optimistic, and heartbreaking.

I must first note that I’m a city boy through and through. But this movie gave me a much clearer and deeper understanding and sympathy for those whose living lies on the land.

The film is a documentary, which fills in with sights and sounds the thoughts and experiences of a man who grew up on a farm that his father worked, and his father before him. Peterson makes clear in his commentary his deep and abiding love for everything on the farm; the smell and taste of the soil, the roar of a tractor engine, and the feel of pulling steel through the earth in order to make crops burst forth from it.

There are family home movies skillfully woven into the film. They give us a closer feeling for John’s family and their life together working the land. Basically, it appears that farming is a lot of hard work, punctuated by some joys but weighed down by lots of challenges and problems and worries.

John’s family goes through them all. He loses his father early, and suddenly finds himself with the responsibility of running the farm while he goes to school.

We also witness a playful, curious part of John’s personality. We see him throw himself into the 1960s with some wild and experimental friends who come back to his farm in order to “get close to the land.” They dance; they paint; they make movies. (Meanwhile, John is working 80 hours a week to keep the crops planted, tended, and harvested.)

Then John runs head-on into the 1980s farm crisis, wherein the expenses kept on rising, and the farmers kept on borrowing money from their banks to stay in business, until finally the banks pulled the plug and started foreclosing on insolvent farms. John loses 95% of his land, and all of his farm equipment, to debt. For a proud man who loves farming and takes pride in carrying on with the farm that his grandfather bought in the depression, and that his father carried on, it’s almost more than John can bear to think that he brought it all to a sad end.

Interestingly, though, even though he lost almost all of his farm, you see in the film that John keeps on returning again and again to the land to farm. It’s in his blood, and nothing’s going to pull him away from it permanently.

John takes up organic farming. He finds it’s an awful lot of work, requiring a lot of people to keep it going. Not for the first time, he finds himself wondering if he should quit. He stays on in part because of his wonderful mother. We see a woman approaching old age. She doesn’t regret anything she did, and she loves keeping busy. She runs the farm stand that sells all the organic produce John is growing. She says to John, “If you quit farming, what will I do if I don’t have the farm stand to run?” She’s a key central part of this movie; we see her as a young wife all the way through the rest of her life. John dedicates the movie to her.

John gets in on the leading edge of something called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which families who want fresh produce from a farm make a deal with the farmer to buy shares in his crops, which are then distributed to the families throughout the growing season. It’s a way of more closely connecting the people who grow the food with the people who eat it.

Altogether, this is an amazing, moving, and fascinating look into the farming life. Who should see it? Farmers will see parts of themselves in this (though they may not feel totally comfortable with some of the wild and unique parts of John’s personality). People who grew up on farms should see it to be reminded of their roots. Non-farmers should see it in order to have a rare opportunity to understand some of the passion and dedication that farmers bestow upon their beloved land.

Inside Man (2006)

Starring Denzel Washington, Willem Dafoe & Jodie Foster; Directed by Spike Lee

Inside Man is a riveting thriller wrapped around a bank robbery. There are guns, and hostages, and police SWAT teams with deadly-looking weapons who scuttle around ready to "take someone down." It also has an unexpected thoughtful element, which asks you to look beyond the seemingly dire and terrible immediate situation.

Denzel Washington is a hostage negotiator in New York City. He's got a bank full of hostages, so he thinks his job is clear. Talk with the baddies, get concessions, don't get anyone killed, and eventually get the robbers to surrender. The film goes through the motions of bank robbery movies; cops seal off the streets, a mobile command center is set up, and the robbers make requests for food and demands for a bus and an airplane.

Everything should be clear-cut for Washington. But things aren't what they seem; Washington starts to suspect that he doesn't really understand what's going on. That's when a hostage negotiator loses control, and can no longer do his job.

Washington is convincing as the detective who's having a very bad day, which looks to get worse and worse the longer the hostage situation continues. Willem Dafoe is always fun to watch; in this case he's head of the SWAT response team; for him, the only good bank robber is a dead bank robber. It bugs him that his men can't just go in with guns blazing. But he understands (albeit reluctantly) that there's the small matter of the hostages.

Curiously, this is a thinking-man's bank robbery movie. It works on several levels: caper film, police procedural, political commentary, and mystery. I also detected homages to Dog Day Afternoon and Quick Change, which is an interesting mix.

Jodie Foster is a delight as a sort of fixer. (If you're Osama Bin Laden's nephew, you come to her to buy a condo overlooking Central Park.) She's brought into the robbery situation, and her steely menace and obvious competence are a marked contrast with some of her other roles in which she plays a sensitive, caring character. She's such a good actress that she pulls it off. She doesn't waste a moment of her screen time.

Director Spike Lee has made an entertaining movie: it's fun to watch, and in spite of the seeming context of guns and robbers is somewhat lacking the violence we've come to expect in this sort of film. I'd recommend it for anyone who enjoys action films, and even for some who don't. It's more of a thriller, actually; lots of suspense, unanswered questions, and a ticking bomb of a plot that you want to see through to its (explosive?) conclusion.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

Starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguiazamo, and Denis Leary

Ice Age: The Meltdown is a very funny, very exciting animated adventure story. If you enjoyed the original movie, you’ll like this sequel. After years of watching and re-watching Ice Age, it’s nice to finally have some new material to watch involving the great ensemble assembled in the first movie. Ray Romano continues to delight as Manny the mammoth. John Leguizamo riffs as Sid the sloth, and Denis Leary entertains as Diego the saber tooth tiger. This unlikely herd of three faces a new threat: the huge ice dam at the head of their valley is starting to melt; if they don’t do something, they’ll be swept away in a flood of epic proportions.

There’s one other delightful holdover from the first movie; Scrat, the squirrel/rodent who covets acorns almost more than life itself. The moviemakers wisely give us a lot more Scrat screentime. Scrat alone is reason enough to go see this movie. I can’t reveal Scrat’s final scene without giving away too much, suffice to say it’s both hilarious and touching.

We also meet some new characters who are a lot of fun. Queen Latifah is Ellie, a mammoth who thinks she’s a possum. Its side-splitting to see her trying to sleep upside while hanging from her tail. Josh Peck and Seann William Scott play her possum “brothers”, and they are also quite funny.

Some of the critics in movieland didn’t like this movie. I’m astounded at their lack of discernment. If they can’t appreciate simple and charming movies like this, how can we trust their other judgments? This movie is very funny, has gorgeous depictions of nature and some very exciting action sequences. The original Ice Age was nearly perfect in a lot of ways; this movie might not be quite as perfect, but it’s a delightful, funny ride, and I went to see it twice.

V for Vendetta (2006)

Starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman

V for Vendetta is a dark, violent comic book/movie. It takes place in a depressing vision of a future Britain which resembles what it might have been like had Hitler conquered England. Onto this dark canvas comes a hero/anti-hero, wearing a colorful mask of the British anti-hero Guy Fawkes and a black cape, and wielding swords and knives with dispatch. It’s like Phantom of the Opera/The Three Musketeers versus the Third Reich.

This movie is based on the highly-praised comic work by Alan Brooks. Like many movies spawned from comics (Spiderman, Superman, X-Men, et al), it follows a certain set of rules. The rules include the suspension of the laws of physics, the elevation of sensation over thinking or plot logic, and the demonizing/emphasizing of the bad guys so that the victory of the good guys is that much more heroic.

There’s a serious subtext in this movie. It speaks to how totalitarianism grows, and what it become once it is victorious. Basically, the victory of evil is also ironically its defeat; the seeds of its downfall are sown by the methods used to grab power. (Just like in the U.S. Congress; when one party wins power, it becomes corrupt and thinks it’s invincible, until its hubris leads to its downfall.)

Hugo Weaving is great as the mask-wearing and tortured soul “V”. Natalie Portman is fabulous as the scarred girl/woman who comes to understand who (and what) V is. The arc of the story takes us to dark and violent places; this is not a movie for those who find on-screen violence offensive. Knives and swords draw blood; while symbolically they may be instruments for peace and good in this movie, they also wreak havoc amongst the evil guys. Fortunately the violence has a comic-book quality; while many people get killed, only a few get hurt, and those are the baddies who really deserve it.

I enjoyed this movie. It is dark, but it has interesting ideas. Those interested in drawing analogies will notice that the evil dictatorship of the movie grabbed power by lying, playing to people’s fears, and offering to solve all their problems for them so that they no longer have to think for themselves.

Those who find it difficult to witness the depiction of killing, torture, and suppression of free thought should avoid this movie. It’s not a pretty picture; it is also a great pity that we live in a real world in which such actions are debated and discussed on our TV news and in our culture as part of our national choices on how we react to the problems in our world.

She’s The Man (2006)

Starring Amanda Bynes

She’s the Man is a mildly funny and mildly enjoyable teen romance/comedy. Amanda Bynes plays Viola, a teen soccer player, who’s disappointed that the girl’s soccer team at her High School is disbanded. How can she play and prove she deserves a soccer scholarship at the college of her choice? Opportunity (of a sort) arises when her twin brother Sebastian tells her he’s going to London for two weeks to play some music gigs, instead of registering at a nearby high school for classes. So Viola, through some makeup magic, registers in his place and tries out for the boy’s soccer team.

This movie is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, in which another Viola pretends to be her brother Sebastian. But Shakespeare handled the material a lot better than this movie, which manages to miss Shakespeare’s wit and humor and talent for creating memorable characters who live on after his plays are over.

The problem with this movie is Amanda Byne’s performance. She’s a charming, funny, interesting girl as far as we can see in the movie. But her attempts to pretend to be a boy aren’t at all convincing. It’s tough to see the actors around her hitting their marks and speaking their lines, yet having to behave as if it’s not obvious that she isn’t a boy.

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for a decent movie. This movie, unfortunately, didn’t quite measure up. There were laughs, and there was a bit of romance that made sense. But the rest was a huge gulf of unrealized potential and missed opportunities.

When movies work, they become an organic whole. Nothing is wasted: every scene and every moment contributes to the movie. When they don’t work, it seems impossible to imagine how they could have worked. What if Bynes in this movie had done a better job? What if the script had been better? What if the director had controlled his actors and his scenes better? Alas, it’s too late. What we see is all we’ll get.

This movie is a must-see only for Amanda Bynes fans. Otherwise, check out a DVD of 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s also based on Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew), but it’s witty, funny, and moving in ways She’s the Man can only dream of.

Failure to Launch (2006)

Starring Matthew McConaghey and Sarah Jessica Parker

Failure to Launch is a frothy romantic comedy that manages to skewer the romantic comedy genre while still being a romantic comedy. It follows the (miss) adventures of three male friends who all have careers yet somehow all still live at home with their parents (i.e., they have failed to launch). Some of the parents wish their sons would move out so that they could relax into their own lives.

The movie follows one set of parents, played with humor and fun by Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw. They love their son Trip (McConaghey), but want him to get on with his life. In comes Paula (Parker), a professional at getting men to move out of their parent's homes. Her strategy is simple and ruthless: get them to fall in love with her, get them moved out of Mom and Dad's, and then dump them. Her methods read like a cookbook for creating a romantic comedy.

If you complain that Failure to Launch is unrealistic and unlikely, then you probably shouldn't go to see many romantic comedies. Realism isn't their strong suit. If you like humor, slapstick, and snappy dialogue, this film delivers. I particularly liked Zooey Deshanel as Paula's friend and roommate. She injects an interesting and funny energy into the film.

This movie isn't for everyone. It has adult themes that would exclude children up to about fifteen. Plus, if McConaghey or Parker aren't your cup of tea, then this movie won't be, either. Personally, I like McConaghey a lot, and Parker is very good in this role, successfully avoiding repeating the persona of the hard-edged controlling New Yorker she played in The Family Stone. So, I give this film three stars, with the proviso that you check your super-critical plot examination skills at the door of the theatre.

The Pink Panther (2006)

Starring Steve Martin and Kevin Kline

The Pink Panther (2006) is a silly slapstick movie. It gets its laughs with physical gags and the excruciating embarrassment that fuels farce. It is also a remake of a classic which starred British actor Peters Sellers.

For those who haven’t seen the original (or the many remakes), Inspector Jacque Clouseau of the French Police is a bumbling, awkward, seemingly incompetent policeman. His French accent is indecipherable (even to other Frenchman), and it’s a miracle that he is able to help solve crimes at all. As Clouseau, Martin manages to keep up with the silliness and pompous self-importance and strange accent of the character, and is superb with the slapstick heart of the man. He can cause more destruction in a hotel with a water pipe than you can almost imagine.

This movie is a prequel to the timeline of the original Pink Panther series. The excuse for the movie: a soccer coach is murdered, and the Pink Panther diamond he was wearing is stolen.
Police Inspector Dreyfuss (played in this film by Kevin Kline) comes up with a scheme to put an incompetent idiot on the case to run interference while he and his crack team of investigators solve the crime out of the spotlight and in turn earn the Legion of Honor. He teams Clouseau with a low-ranking detective (played by Jean Reno). The running gag of the movie is that Kline’s Dreyfuss is just as incompetent and clueless as Clouseau.

I love Kline, I love Martin, and I love Reno, but this movie didn’t fully gel. Kline’s French accent was much more charming (and consistent) in the hilarious remance French Kiss; also, Kline doesn’t hold a candle to Herbert Lom as the original Inspector Dreyfuss. Martin is convincing, but his Clouseau does not (unfortunately) fully measure up to the effortless zaniness of Peter Sellers’ version. Reno is kind of an afterthought, and the screenwriters didn’t seem to know quite what to do with him.

You should see this movie if you love Steve Martin, or if you’re in the mood for simple pratfalls, slapstick, and physical comedy. Despite my criticism above, I laughed a great deal during this movie, and had a good time. It may not have been as good as the original, but it is a funny movie in its own right.

Otherwise, seek out the original Pink Panther and its sequel A Shot in the Dark on DVD. They have a lovely leisurely pace that is seldom found these days. Modern movie makers seem to feel that they have to bombard you with action at every moment.

Nanny McPhee (2006)

Starring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth

Nanny McPhee is a funny and delightful movie in the English tradition of unruly children confronted by a nanny who aims to tame them.

Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is a struggling undertaker. He's lost his wife, and is left with seven unruly children who have become ungovernable. The kids make a habit of driving off the various nannies that Brown hires to care for them. The agency that offers nannies locks their door and pulls in the welcome mat whenever Brown approaches for yet another victim. On top of this, Brown's business is foundering a bit; he's dependent on his Aunt Adelaide for an allowance in order to keep the wolf from the door.

Then Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) appears. She didn't come from the nanny agency; the film almost suggests she comes from the heavens a la Mary Poppins. Yet she is very different from Julie Andrews; for one things, she very stern; also, she isn't given to singing; for another thing, she's not at all pretty. But the kids will have to learn to put up with her, warts and all.
Nanny McPhee plunges in to the business of teaching the children the lessons they have to learn in order to grow beyond their anger and their fears. She seems to have magic at her beck and call, so that the children can learn in direct fashion the consequences of their actions and their misbehavior.

The movie is quite funny, due in no small part to some great character actors fleshing out the roles of the daft cook, the housekeeper with the heart of gold, the rapacious woman who wants to marry the undertaker for his money, the slightly loony aunt who wants to take charge of Brown's problems, and so on.

Central to all of this, of course, is Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee. She manages to imbue McPhee with a lot of heart and a lot of depth in a very quiet and understated way; she doesn't make speeches or rant and rave; she expresses all with a little wink or a mild "Hmph". As the children come to understand what she is, they come to cherish her. Just what she is, the viewer must determine from the clues given.

This is a wonderful family movie that children will enjoy along with adults. Emma Thompson shines in this film. If you liked Mary Poppins, this movie is for you. Emma Thompson also wrote the screenplay for the movie; this is one of those happy occasions when a great actor also turns out to be a great and entertaining writer.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Starring David Stathairn and George Clooney; Directed by George Clooney

Good Night, and Good Luck is a stunning, moving look back at a broadcaster in the 1950s who stood up to authority in order to say what he thought was true. It stands in painful contrast to the broadcasters and journalists of today, who seem more interested in ratings and staying safe and "balanced" than in speaking the truth, no matter how unpopular that truth might be with the politicians who are spinning, bobbing and weaving around that truth.

Edward R. Murrow was at the top of his game when he took on Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose Committee on Un-American Activities was cutting a broad swath through people's rights and lives. Murrow found evidence suggesting that McCarthy wasn't telling the truth in his accusations and claims, and decided to pursue it. His producer Fred Friendly supported him on it, and together they struggled to tell the story, regardless of the personal consequences to themselves and their careers. This included going to CBS head William Paley to make their case to be allowed to continue with the story in spite of the pull-out of sponsors.

The black-and-white photography makes this movie especially effective, though no doubt Ted Turner will colorize it when it's shown on TBS. There are also some stark cultural differences between then and now; foremost for me was that everyone in the movie is smoking cigarette after cigarette; we even see TV advertisements saying how healthy and stimulating smoking is for you. We've come a long way, baby.

As Murrow, David Stathairn is masterful. He gives a restrained, measured performance. His Murrow is not an orator, and he isn't given to colorful emotional outbursts. But his quiet, forceful style makes the message he ends up delivering all the more believable.

George Clooney is convincing as Fred Friendly. He reminds us that there is a talented actor behind all those action thrillers he's glided through with his good looks and breezy manner. In this movie he is dedicated, thoughtful, and supportive of Murrow's decision to delve into McCarthyism. He knows there may be bad consequences, but he does it because he knows it's right.

Frank Langella is also great fun as Bill Paley, head of CBS. He has a finger in the air to test which way the wind is blowing, but the ultimate courage to let his employees follow the truth wherever it takes them. He may not be delighted with the ad revenues he loses because of this, but to his credit he lets them continue their work. Men and women of his integrity seem sadly missing in today's mainstream media.

George Clooney directed this movie, and was also one of the producers. This is an impressive piece of work; he's to be applauded for helping to create it.

This movie is still relevant today as we continue to struggle to find the balance between truth and spin, between politics and real life, between corruption and integrity, and between character and appearance. None of these struggles belong to one particular political party; it's the tension (and challenge) to be found in all of them. Good Night, and Good Luck is a fascinating and inspiring film.

Glory Road (2006)

Starring Josh Lucas

Glory Road is a moving, heartfelt depiction of some key events in the history of college athletics and racial relations. It is based on a true story, which makes it a doubly significant film.
It’s 1965. Obscure girl’s high school basketball coach Don Haskins (Lucas) has become the coach of an obscure Texas college with a weak basketball team. As part of his efforts to revive the team he recruits black athletes from all over the country to play for Texas Western University.

So far, so good. He begins his program for whipping his disparate group of players into a team with discipline, hard work, and more hard work. I’m a sucker for coach-based sports movies, and this movie satiates my yearning for authority, the application of willpower, and the expression of love through the demand for excellence. The players resist, but a young unformed college kid is no match for a mature man with absolute certainty, passion, and a plan.

The team gets good, overcomes obstacles, and enters conference play. And they win. And they win some more. As they win, the narrow-minded folk in their town stop worrying about the fact that the coach is using black players and start cheering for their school. The black players must overcome problems on the road, including threats, harassment, and even violence. They must find it in themselves to continue on and remain united as a team of both black and white players.

So, seemingly inevitably, Texas Western University gets into the NCAA Tournament. Further, they do so well that they reach the finals and find themselves playing against the top team in the country, Kentucky, who has won four national titles in a row. Kentucky’s Coach Rupp has been voted the Coach of the Year. Jon Voight is great and understated as Rupp.

Haskins makes a controversial decision to use only his black players in the championship game. He wants to show the world that black athletes are just as talented as white athletes. Though Kentucky is widely favored, the game is surprisingly competitive. Do they win? Only in the movies could such an underdog team rise up to defeat the national champions. You’ll have to see the movie to learn the outcome: I’m not telling.

This is a great sports movie. It offers a direct demonstration of how far we’ve come in this country with regard to race, at least in the athletic area. It’s inspiring seeing brave people trying to make a difference in the world. I had tears in my eyes as the movie closed.

The Producers (2006)

Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick

The Producers (2006) is a funny slapstick of a musical that delights in the tremendous talents of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

Ostensibly it’s about a sleazy Broadway producer (Lane) who seduces old ladies into giving him their money in order to produce questionable Broadway shows. He is joined by a timid accountant (Broderick) who figures out a way for them to make a fortune by producing a show that is sure to fail. They choose a sure-fire stinker called Springtime for Hitler, and the fun begins.

Just like the show that’s supposed to flop, the movie succeeds in a strange kind of way to become an entertaining, enjoyable spectacle. The innate sweetness of Broderick and the witty charm of Lane carry us along in spite of the questionable things they’re doing.

Just like some Broadway musicals, the book (the plot of the movie) is a thin tissue of ideas connected together with just enough conviction that we don’t mind that we’re being scammed, as long as we hear another of the show’s lovely songs.

This film is based on the recent Broadway musical by Mel Brooks, which in turn was based on Brook’s 1968 movie The Producers. He wrote new songs for the Broadway show, which are added in to this movie version. You can see flashes of the magic performance by Gene Wilder in Broderick’s characterization of Leo Bloom, while Lane does well reprising the Max Bialystock character immortalized by Zero Mostel’s adept performance. These are different performances in a different film, but fans of the original film may keep their loyalty to the original.

If you love musicals you should see this film. Fans of Mel Brooks will not be disappointed. Brooks also who wrote all of the show’s songs. (Advice if you go: be sure to sit through the credits; there’s a musical reward for you at their end.)

Walk the Line (2006)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon

Walk the Line is a moving, sometimes very sad, and ultimately life-affirming depiction of the life of Johnny R. Cash, starring Joaquin Phoenix. The film shows us the simple pleasures and unexpected tragedies of his boyhood, and picks up where Cash discovers his calling in life, a guitar in his hands and a song waiting to be put down on paper.

He walks into a modest recording studio and demands an audition. The record producer wants him to come back in a month, but Cash can’t wait. His rent’s overdue and he’s facing eviction. The scene with the producer Sam Phillips is wonderful, especially in the simple, direct advice Phillips passes on to Cash about what his singing has to express in order to work. Cash learns the lesson, and begins his trajectory upwards into fame and fortune.

On the music tour he rubs elbows with other up-and-coming performers. It’s a delight to recognize a young Jerry Lee Lewis and a hip-swiveling guy who looks and sounds like he might someday turn into Elvis.

But the center of the film is the relationship that develops between Cash and the veteran singer/comedienne June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Cash is instinctively drawn to her, but a few little things stand in the way, like his marriage to his childhood sweetheart and their kids, and June’s kids and husband. Plus there’s Cash’s increasing addiction to drugs and booze.
Cash and Carter’s romance is star-crossed, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see how low Cash sinks before he begins his ascent into life again. It makes you wish that hyper-talented people could somehow avoid the lows and the tough times and the self-destruction, and still manage to amaze and delight us with the highs of their performances.

Joaquim Phoenix is convincing as Cash. it's also impressive that Phoenix sings all the Cash songs in the movie. We’ve heard many of these songs from Cash himself, so our ears are prejudiced. Phoenix hits them so well that the credits have to mention that Phoenix did all the vocals in the movie.

Reese Witherspoon is equally surprising as June Carter, and also sings all of Carter’s songs throughout the picture. Reese displays a huge acting range: she’s got a lot more to show us in the movies than we might have gathered from Legally Blonde.

This movie is toe-tapping and inspiring. I want the soundtrack right now. (This is coming from someone who has never owned a Johnny Cash record or CD in his life.) But that’s going to change. The movie is that good.