REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘2009’

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

In Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, Musical, P, Romance on July 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

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STUDIOWalt Disney Pictures

CAST – Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman

DIRECTORS – Ron Clements, John Musker

MPAA Rating: G

Back in 1937, Walt Disney did something that no other movie studio had ever done before: produce an animated motion picture. It was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it became both an instant sensation and the start of an enduring legacy. Over the next 67 years, there were over 40 traditionally-animated Disney motion pictures, ending with Home on the Range, in 2004. At the time, computer-animated motion pictures were coming to the forefront (2002’s Treasure Planet had employed CG backgrounds from start to finish), so the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of their hand-drawn animated studio. They released a few non-Pixar computer-animated movies, with mixed results. Then, in 2009, Disney marked the return of its traditional animation studio, and a return to the studio’s roots, with The Princess and the Frog.

In 1920s New Orleans, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress, working two jobs in order to save up enough money to open her own restaurant. When her best friend Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody) announces that the visiting Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) will be at her masquerade ball that evening, she pays Tiana to cater at the event. Now that she has enough money, Tiana buys an abandoned sugar mill and sets her sights on her dream.

Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) tells Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) she has to kiss him

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, encounters Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David), a local witch doctor. Dr. Facilier unleashes a plot to take over the city by transforming the prince into a frog, and his valet Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett) into the prince. The plan: Bartlett attends the ball in the prince’s place, proposes to Charlotte, and gains access to her family’s fortune. Later, at the ball, Tiana learns from the realtors she had been outbid. Heartbroken, she wishes on the Evening Star, only to find a frog sitting beside her. She mockingly asks if he wants a kiss, and when he answers, she gets the surprise of her life.

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, The Princess and the Frog takes you on a journey of discovery, temptation, greed, and love. This is the first entry of Disney’s animation studio (which now uses a clip from the classic cartoon “Steamboat Willie” as its billboard) since its announced return in 2006. Disney’s forté in animated cinema once was fairy tales, but they had lost their direction beginning in the 1990s, with some hits (The Lion King, Tarzan) and more than a few misses (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range). This movie not only marks the return of conventional animation for Disney, it brings back a tradition which has been a Disney staple for 73 years (and counting).

As for the movie itself, the characters are for the most part believable, the pacing is fairly quick, and the story doesn’t feel too contrived. Oh, there is a mild case or two of deus ex machina, but not enough to distract you from the enjoyment of the movie. And this movie is quite enjoyable. There are a few scenes involving Dr. Facilier’s voodoo magic which may be a bit intense for the younger set, but he wouldn’t be much of a villain without them. And, because Tiana is Disney’s first “princess” of African-American origin, and the setting is 1920s New Orleans, there are a couple of moments of veiled racism to provide a sense of credibility to the plot and some historical accuracy. Fans of Tennessee Williams will enjoy John Goodman’s turn as Charlotte’s father (whom she calls “Big Daddy”), and whose dog is named Stella (You can almost hear the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” references now, can you?). And Randy Newman, who had previously done musical work for Disney/Pixar projects, succeeds in his first foray into the traditional animated world.

The DVD includes the usual string of Disney promos and trailers, including a teaser trailer for the next animated movie, Tangled, based on the story of Rapunzel. There is also a set of deleted scenes, hosted by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, which are presented in sketch, storyboard, or rough animation form; these provide a rare glimpse into the creative process used in feature animation. For the kids, there is an interactive game of identifying Disney princesses; it isn’t random, but once you get through it, you are then presented with a series of thumbnail stories of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, including clips from each movie.

The Princess and the Frog is not without its flaws, but it is the beginning of a renewed tradition sure to last for years to come. It is vibrant, entertaining, and romantic, with valuable life lessons such as “It takes hard work to capture a dream” and “It’s okay to go after what you want, as long as you remember what you need”. Overall, this is a solid movie, suitable for almost any age.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)

CRAZY HEART (2009)

In C, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

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STUDIO
– Fox Searchlight

CAST – Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jack Nation

DIRECTOR – Scott Cooper

MPAA Rating: R

In the days before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was watching TV at my mother’s house, when the trailer for Crazy Heart came on. After seeing the trailer only once, I said “I have got to see this movie!” I immediately put it into my Queue, and when Jeff Bridges took home the Best Actor Award a few weeks later, I moved it up. Now that I have seen this movie, I can say it is worth the wait.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a once-famous country music star who, because of years of hard living (and hard drinking), has been relegated to playing bars and bowling alleys to make a living. Traveling by himself cross-country, just him, his guitars, and his ’78 Chevy Suburban, a day in Bad’s life constitutes wandering into town, meeting the pick-up band of the night, checking into a motel, procuring his nightly bottle of McClure’s, doing the show (with the occasional emergency trip off-stage to throw up), then finishing off the bottle, quietly leaving the groupie of the night asleep at the motel the next morning. Not exactly what you would call a glamorous life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) performs in Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter from the local newspaper (and niece of the keyboard player in the local band). At first, their relationship is professional (she’s there to interview him), but they quickly form an unlikely bond. Soon, his agent has him diverted to Phoenix, where he is slated to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s one-time protégé, who is now a major recording star in his own right. Bad resists at first, but the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people again (and getting decent pay doing it) appeals to him, so he agrees. Later, on his way home to Houston, he makes plans to stop over at Jean’s for a few days.

To venture any further into the story would mean spoilers, but I will say that Crazy Heart is a movie about living a hard life and paying dues. I think many of us can relate to that in one way or another; I can say that I’ve been paying my dues for some time. Anyway, Bad likes doing what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like where he does it (As stated earlier, his first performance in the movie is at a bowling alley), but he keeps plugging away, hoping his next gig is better than his last.

His relationship with Tommy seems to have some drama involved, but I don’t think it had to do with Tommy himself. From the looks of things, the rift between them was actually caused by the record label, but when your blood is 80-Proof, your judgment get clouded and you don’t see the outside influence; you only see what’s in front of you. In Phoenix, Bad and Tommy talk about the old times, and that night’s show went off pretty much without a hitch, so it’s obvious these two really still like each other. But Bad is set in his ways, much to the chagrin of those around him.

I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges. He has an easygoing way about him that makes him look so natural on the screen. Here, his performance is very solid, and his portrayal of Bad (who says his given name will be on his tombstone) is among the best of any movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Those of you who are familiar with country music from the 1970s will recognize the name Kris Kristosfferson, himself a one-time hard-drinking former star who later got a second chance. Bridges channels Kristofferson so well that in some of the performance scenes, he nearly looks like him. By the way, both Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell did their own singing, and from the looks of it, all the performances were recorded live on location (either that, or the sound editors were vastly underpaid for their services).

Though this may be considered a romance film, I put this in that rare field of “romance films for men”. It’s a movie told from a man’s perspective, it’s not a “five-tissue” movie (though it is still powerfully emotional), and it doesn’t have a typical romantic ending. In fact, I think the ending is about as realistic as can be, given the circumstances surrounding a key incident between Bad and Jean regarding her son, Buddy (Jack Nation). There is also an influence from the movie Tender Mercies, thanks to co-star and producer Robert Duvall (who won his Oscar in that movie). The songs are all very good, too. One of them, “The Weary Kind”, written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, resulted in this movie’s second Oscar. On a side note, it isn’t often that a character and a real person who share the same name are mentioned at the same Academy Awards ceremony (Goerge Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was also named Ryan Bingham).

Crazy Heart isn’t for everyone, but this is one of the better films of 2009 that I have seen so far. Anyone who has an appreciation for country and/or blues should see it. I may not be a country fan, but I do like the blues, and this movie is definitely about having the blues!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

NINE (2009)

In Drama, Motion Pictures, Musical, N, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 12, 2010 at 1:19 am

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STUDIO – The Weinstein Company

CASTDaniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson

DIRECTOR – Rob Marshall

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In 1982, Raul Julia took the Broadway stage to star in a musical based on the Federico Fellini classic . It won four Tony Awards, and ran for over 800 performances. Then, in 2003, Antonio Banderas starred in the Broadway revival of the production, which garnered two more Tonys. And in 2009, Chicago director Rob Marshall has brought Nine to the big screen, this time with two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as tormented film director Guido Contini.

It is 1965, and the celebrated auteur has been hounded by his staff, the producers, and his regular star and muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman), to produce a script (or at least reveal some plot points) for his latest project, to be entitled “Italia”. But there is one small issue: There is no script. During a press conference, Guido slips out and drives to a remote spa hotel to try to unwind from the all of the pressure. He’s so stressed, he invites both his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) to join him. Before he knows it, the whole production staff shows up, and they have set up shop at the hotel to work out the details of the new movie.

Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) greets Luisa (Marion Cotillard) at the hotel

I found Nine to be quite entertaining. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to competently channel Marcello Mastroianni with ease. The casting bore a few surprises, and admittedly a few raised eyebrows. Nearly all the musical numbers were showstoppers. In particular, I give “thumbs-up” (sorry, Mr. Ebert) to four daring numbers. First is Cruz’s smoldering “Call From the Vatican”, a playful, flirtatious, and not-innocent-at-all phone sex romp that was one clever camera angle shy of giving this movie an “R” rating. Kate Hudson was a pleasant surprise playing Stephanie, a star-struck fashion reporter convinced that Guido is Italy, and her number “Cinema Italiano” (written specifically for the movie), is the highlight of the movie. The next performance piece of note goes to Fergie (yes, as in Black-Eyed Peas) as Saraghina, and her number “Be Italian”, in which she (and her ladies) instruct young Guido and his classmates on the ways of love. Finally, Marion Cotillard had two songs in Nine, but it is her second number, “Take It All”, an angry striptease directed at Guido, that got my attention.

And the other women? You couldn’t get much better than Dame Judi Dench as costume designer Lilli, and the incomparable Sophia Loren as Guido’s mother. By the way, I think casting Sophia Loren in this movie gives it validation, as she has been associated with Italian cinema for her entire illustrious career, including a couple of movies directed by Fellini himself.

Nine was filmed both on location in Italy, and in a partially-constructed set for “Italia”, which serves as the stage for the musical numbers, each showing the set in various stages of construction. It also functions as Guido’s imagination, dark, fragmented, and full of sexual energy. This actually helped to make the story easier to follow than your average musical. Director Rob Marshall (himself a Broadway veteran) employed this tactic with Chicago, but here I think worked with greater effect.

There are a few weak spots in this movie. For example, I felt that one of the more pivotal scenes, in which Luisa spots Carla in the restaurant, seemed somewhat contrived. There are also plot differences between Nine and , some of which worked and some which did not. I will not spoil those plot points here, so I will only recommend you screen both movies (like I did) and spot them yourself. Besides, the basic story is still the same, as well as most of the characters’ motivations.

The DVD’s special features include rehearsal and audition footage for the movie, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the choreography of selected songs, and even a few music videos. I know I’ve already stated this, but I was particularly impressed with Kate Hudson’s number. In one featurette, she explains that even she didn’t know she had it in her, but then again her mother was a go-go dancer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” back in the 1960s (Yes, that really is Goldie Hawn in body paint and a bikini).

Nine is a competent retelling of one of Fellini’s greatest movies, but where is succeeds in production value, it does lack a bit in the pacing of the non-musical portions of the movie. Still, it is an irreverently sexy spectacle, sure to please both the eyes and the ears. Oh, by the way, I think Fergie needs to tackle Broadway and more film projects; she is far too talented to have a pop music career.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

In Crime, Drama, L, Mystery on May 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount/Dreamworks SKG 

CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Rachel Weisz, Saiorse Ronan, Rose McIver, Carolyn Dando 

DIRECTOR – Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 

Peter Jackson seems to be a popular guy on my blog lately! 

I don’t mean this intentionally, yet in four short months, this is the fourth movie for which I have done a write-up with his name on it. Of the first three, he directed two of them (Heavenly Creatures, Dead-Alive), and the third (District 9) he produced. This time around, we take another imaginative step into the past to uncover a murder mystery in The Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year-old girl in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She’s the oldest of three children, she wants to be a photographer, and she has a crush on a boy who’d just arrived from England. In other words, she is a normal adolescent in a quiet suburban community. But one day, on her way home time from school, she encounters George Harvey (Best Supporting Actor nominee Stanley Tucci), a doll house builder who lives down the street from the Salmons. She is neither seen nor heard from again.

A self-portrait of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Peter Jackson’s eye for camera angles and visual effects makes for a visually striking movie, but I could not help noticing some similarities with his past work. What stood out for me was the metaphoric shifts between the real world, where Susie’s parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) contend with the loss of their daughter, and the “purgatory” in which Susie resides were strongly reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures. Also, some of the “blink-and-you-miss-it” shots of Susie’s realm look strangely like locations from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I guess it stands to reason, since Jackson filmed these scenes in his native New Zealand). Now, I’m not disparaging New Zealand at all. From what I understand, it is a lush, green country with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. My concern is that the Kawarau Gorge may become to Peter Jackson movies what Vasquez Rocks is to Star Trek

There are some good performances in this movie, and some not-so-good. Tucci was particularly creepy as the killer, and Miss Ronan did well, too. But, as much as I like Wahlberg and Weisz, I could not get past the notion that they simply turned on their respective “grieving parent” switches for this one. And Susan Sarandon, another otherwise talented actress, was quite forgettable as the “helpful grandmother”, who just happens to have a whiskey glass and a cigarette in her hands every chance she gets. I’m sorry, but even her portrayal of Janet in Rocky Horror was better than this! To me, the best (and most understated) performance in this movie goes to newcomer Carolyn Dando, as the mysterious Ruth Connors, who seems to have the unique ability to “touch” Susie’s lost soul. It’s a fairly small role, but a meaty one, and Dando handled it well. Keep an eye on her; I think she may be going places. 

As for the script (co-written by Jackson and his wife/writing partner Fran Walsh), it seemed somewhat incomplete to me. It’s almost as if to say there is more to the story, and as an adaptation from a novel, this is usually the case. But still, I feel as if the clairvoyance angle of the story could have been better explained (at least, from the family’s point of view). Jackson’s employment of various symbolisms (nearly all of which are explained throughout the course of the movie) works for the most part, except for the icicles. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around that one; as a result, the ending left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. 

The Lovely Bones is visually beautiful to watch, but it is far from a classic. To me, it plays out like a fictionalized version of Heavenly Creatures, only replace “repressed daughter” with “creepy single guy” and “mother” with “innocent teenager”, and place the murder at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end. I know Pater Jackson is a better filmmaker than this. I just hope his next project offers some redemption before he turns into New Zealand’s version of M. Night Shyamalan. 

THE BLIND SIDE (2009)

In B, Biography, Drama, Motion Pictures, Sports on May 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Ray McKinnon, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Kathy Bates

DIRECTOR — John Lee Hancock

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In many parts of the United States, football is more than a sport; it’s practically a religion. This is especially evident through the South and Midwest, where college football reigns supreme. I can testify to this fact, as I have seen Bulldog-themed restaurants in Georgia, Longhorn-themed stores in Texas, and Cornhusker-themed everything in Nebraska. In fact, I can personally support the theory that life all but shuts down on Saturday afternoons in the fall in the state of Nebraska. After spending 16 years of my life there, I have brought back this observation: Go shopping in a department store during a Husker game, and life stands still while a play is in progress. When the ball is snapped, everyone stops in their tracks and listens intently to the radio broadcast (guaranteed to be on in at least 95% of the businesses in the state); if there’s a touchdown, they celebrate like they’re all guests of honor in a massive bachelor(ette) party. Then when the game goes to commercial, as if by magic, they go back to whatever they’re doing. It almost looks like a scene from the classic Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” (Just watch through the first sct, and you’ll see what I mean). I do, of course, say this in jest, but it is still fascinating to witness.

There is no mistake in identifying passionate football fans. They support their favorite teams until the ends of the earth, even if they have been “rebuilding” for 15 years. They wear their hearts on their sleeve, their wardrobe is adorned with the team colors of their choice, their cars are littered with flags, decals, and other paraphernalia, and they even plan social events around the games! This is true of nearly all passionate sports fans, but college football fans really love their sport, and they really love their school, no matter where they live. Such is the case of Leigh Anne Tuohy, an Ole Miss graduate living in Memphis, Tennessee.

Michael Oher (Quiton Aaron, right) at Thanksgiving dinner with the Tuohys (from left, Lily Collins, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Jae Head)

By now, I am sure that you have heard of Mrs. Tuohy, and the remarkable story of how she took in a kid from the wrong side of town because he had nowhere to go. That kid grew up to become Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens. They could not have been more different. She was an affluent, pretty, outspoken white woman with a family; he was a very large, very shy, very homeless black teenager with no ambition or direction in life. Yet, she took him into her home, fed him, clothed him, and guided him into becoming a young man who had found his destiny.

Okay, I’m not sure what has already been said about this movie, but I will say that, as sports movies go, this is one of the best I have seen in the last 20 years. One remarkable fact about The Blind Side is that it is the first motion picture with one actress billed above the title (by herself) to gross over $100 million. Now, I have had a soft spot for Sandra Bullock ever since she burst on the scene as the off-beat cop of the future in Demolition Man (1993). She is a quirky, slightly-left-of-normal girl next door, and I knew there was nothing but a bright career ahead for her. But never in a million years did I expect her to achieve serious critical acclaim, and I don’t think she did, either. When she co-starred in Crash (2004), things began to change. I noticed that Sandra Bullock was evolving from a movie star to an actress (there is a difference), and when you are an actor or actress who is also a movie star, really good things begin to happen.

The Blind Side contains fine performances from much of the cast, beginning with Bullock, who won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Tuohy. TIm McGraw was an agreeable Sean, and Quinton Aaron did very well, too. I did have one concern: Did Michael Oher, during the lost days of his youth, really lack intelligence, or did he just not care? Signs seem to point to the latter, and Aaron played from that angle fairly well (Although I did notice a few overly-vacuous spots in his performance). The breakout performance in this movie (to me, anyway) goes to Jae Head, who played Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy’s son, S.J. First of all, he had all the best lines (“Enough with the rugby shirts! You look like a giant bumble bee!”), and it was very easy to see he and Quinton Aaron bonded well. Also, watching S.J. coach Michael through drills is a sight to behold! Oh, one more cool fact about this movie: The college football coaches in the film are the real deal. Some had retired and others moved on to other positions, but yes, Virginia, that really was Lou Holtz you saw on the screen.

The Blind Side is a wonderful and inspirational story of generosity, love, and good ol’ Christian beliefs. And football. Lots of football. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then get thee to your Queue and line it up!

4 out of 5

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, U on April 25, 2010 at 1:23 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliot 

DIRECTOR — Jason Reitman 

MPAA Rating: R 

If you are reading this review, you have been fired from a job. Whether you were a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 company or flipping burgers at Dairy Queen, somewhere in your lifetime at least one employer handed you a pink slip. It’s never fun. Personally, I have been fired twice in the last ten years. The second time was probably for the best, as it really wasn’t a good fit. But the first time was at a job that I had loved. The hours were bad, the pay was worse, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in my life. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? You get called into the office, and in that office, your supervisor/manager/galactic overlord of a boss hands you an envelope and tells you that your services are no longer required. It’s one thing when you are the only one being terminated. But what about those major corporations who lay off thousands of people at a time? In the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to go a week without hearing that Company X is cutting thousands of jobs. Did you ever wonder how they do that?

Natalie Keener, Alex Goran, and Ryan Bingham (Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, George Clooney) at the Miami Hilton

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing specialist based out of Omaha, Nebraska. Ryan spends over 300 days a year flying all over the country to do one thing: fire people. And he is very good at what he does. He walks into an office somewhere in Corporate America, and the employees already know they are on borrowed time. Occasionally, he also does the odd speaking engagement, in which he asks his audience to place everything they own into an imaginary backpack and realize how heavy it is (a metaphor on the burdens of life). One day, he is called back to the home office; big things are on the on the horizon. On the way there, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another business traveler, and they form a fast… friendship. Back in Omaha, he is introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot young college graduate with a revolutionary new way to fire people, via the Internet. 

Seeing this as a threat to his very existence, Ryan convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that Natalie needs a taste of what it’s like on the road before this new method of “introducing future possibilities” goes into effect. Soon, Natalie learns how hard it really is to fire a complete stranger, but she eventually finds her groove. Meanwhile, Alex reenters the picture and Ryan grows closer to her. 

To proceed further would spoil the movie, but I can say that Up in the Air is fine entertainment, and it has one of the best endings I have seen in recent memory. Clooney is perfect as Bingham, with his cocksure ways and his arrogance. It almost harkens back to his “heart throb” days when he was on “ER” (Wow, was that really 16 years ago?). I especially like the little moment (seen in the trailer) when Natalie is talking on the phone with her boyfriend, and Ryan overhears her saying “I don’t even think of him that way; he’s old”, prompting him to look in the nearest mirror! We all reach that age sooner or later, when we realize that we are no longer young (though we desperately try to keep thinking that way). Also, Farmiga and Kendrick (both Best Supporting Actress nominees) were great foils to Ryan’s personal and professional lives, respectively. 

There are plenty of messages in this movie: Never settle; The slower we move, the faster we die; Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. I especially like that last one. It has given me pause to reevaluate my life (which admittedly is not that great) and made me think that I should try to get back on my career wagon again. It’s been a long time, but it’s what I was trained to do, and it’s what I love (and we all remember our true loves, right?). I am not at liberty to discuss this topic any further at this time, but I promise if anything comes of it, I will post it on my News page! Besides, I’m digressing (Gee, haven’t done that in a while). 

Up in the Air is a movie that I would dare say is a modern classic. The timing of its release, with the economic struggles of the last three years, could not have been more fortuitous. In fact, throughout the film, there are several cutaways depicting fired employees; these were real people who had recently lost their jobs (The actors, most notably J.K. Simmons, were the ones who interacted with Clooney and/or Kendrick). That dose of authenticity makes Up in the Air a wonderful time capsule of the turbulent first decade of the 21st Century. 

4 out of 5

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (2009)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, P on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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STUDIO — Lions Gate 

CAST — Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton 

DIRECTOR — Lee Daniels 

MPAA Rating: R 

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the latest “next big thing” known as Gabourey Sidibe. I am here to tell you that the claim is justified. 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe, in her motion picture debut), an overweight 16-year-old girl, pregnant with her second child by her father, and still in junior high school. As if life wasn’t already hard enough, she lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), an abusive monster of a woman whose sole purpose in life is to make nicey-nice with the social workers by using Precious’ mentally-disabled daughter as a means to keep the welfare checks coming in. 

When her school finds out about her second pregnancy, they have no choice but to expel her. But the principal reaches out by telling her of an alternative education program, where she can work toward a GED. There, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who can see the inner beauty and intelligence within Precious and, bit by bit, helps her to discover it for herself.

Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) on her first trip to alternative education school

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I was taken in and I never let go. I have seen interviews with Gabby Sidibe; she is a charming, funny young lady with a bubbly personality. Her characterization of Precious Jones was so moving, it is very easy to see how she was very likely a strong runner-up in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 2009 (which went to one of my personal favorites, Sandra Bullock). Sidibe’s performance is so captivating, it is truly hard to believe that we are actually watching (to borrow a college football term) a redshirt freshman in the role. I can only see bigger and better things for her down the road. And one might dismiss the movie altogether because the supporting cast features three singers (Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey) and a comedienne (Mo’Nique), but think again. Mo’Nique may have taken home the Oscar, but it was Mariah Carey(!) who really surprised me as social worker Ms. Weiss. Here she is, with no makeup and wearing frumpy clothes, and she looked and acted so much like a real social worker, I almost forgot this was one of the most popular (and most glamorous) singers of the last 20 years! And director Lee Daniels’ cutaways into the fantasy worlds which Precious creates whenever she is abused, whether by her father, her mother, or even some punks on the street, gives us, the viewers, a look into how an abuse victim mentally escapes from the pain, even during the act.

This movie is about the vicious cycle that is the depravity of inner city life, and how one woman gave a girl quickly slipping on that downward spiral the gift of literacy and, ultimately, the power to step out on her own and make a new life for herself and her children. But it was more than just having the right people help her; it’s also a story of finding inner strength. And where there is strength, there is courage, and it is in courage that one develops a positive self-esteem.

The DVD is packed with several features, including Gabby Sidibe’s mesmerizing audition video. Did you know that over 400 women auditioned for the part in a nationwide open call? Did you know that filming of Denzel Washington’s American Gangster (2007) blocked Sidibe’s normal route to school, so she decided to go in the opposite way to the audition instead? Did you know that executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to promote the movie after the movie was completed? That last little fact debunks the theory that, since Oprah put her name on the project, her show had to be mentioned in the movie. Sorry. While it’s true Precious asks another character if she watches Oprah, the all-powerful Ms. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

Precious is a gripping and moving motion picture with a powerful message that there is strength in each of us to find the ability to reach out, to love, to learn, and to improve ourselves, all in the face of adversity. There aren’t many films that reach into the bowels of despair, yet convey a strong message of hope. This movie succeeds, and with a payoff for the ages.

3-1/2 out of 5

A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, S on March 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

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STUDIO — Focus Features  

CAST — Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus  

DIRECTORS —  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen   

MPAA Rating: R   

So, I’m putting this DVD into my player, knowing that it’s the Coen Brothers, and I come away from this movie asking more questions…  

Why is that?  

In A Serious Man, a Jewish physics professor in the Midwest  named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes home from work one day, when his wife (Sari Lennick) tells him out of the blue that she wants a divorce, as well as a “get” (a Jewish ritual divorce). Why? She has fallen for another professor (and Larry’s friend), Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And with that, we are taken on a journey that leads to a test of faith. Along the way, he has to contend with his pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff) and his upcoming bar mitzvah, his overbearing daughter (Jessica McManus) obsessed with her outward appearance, his mooching homeless brother (Richard Kind) and his gambling problem, an unscrupulous student (David Kang) trying to bribe his way to a better grade, a gentile macho neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) who apparently doesn’t know where the property line is, and the beautiful woman next door (Amy Landecker) whose husband is frequently away “on business”.  

The Gopnik family (from left: Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Aaron Wolff, Michael Stuhlbarg) at the dinner table

 Obviously, Larry has a lot on his mind. But as a physics professor, he knows that all actions have consequences, a point he made clear when confronting Clive, the student who had attempted to bribe him. And in A Serious Man, consequences account for a major contributor to the plot (such as it is — The Coen Brothers admit in the Special Features there really isn’t one). 

It is widely reported that this movie is based on the Story of Job in the Old Testament. Now, I do not claim to be religious by any means, but here is how I understand the Story of Job: God and Satan made a bet that a well-to-do farmer with a happy family would still believe in Him after everything he loves (his family, his home, his friends, his farm, etc.)gets taken away from him; God wins. 

So, what is at stake for our Professor Gopnik? Well, the movie (the main portion of it, anyway) begins with him taking a physical. We also learn he is awaiting tenure at the college where he works, and the “other man”, Sy Ableman, is so supportive of Larry it borders on creepy. 

There is a prologue in this movie about an eastern European Jewish couple, spoken completely in Yiddish. In it, the husband comes home late from work and tells his wife that his cart lost a wheel, but he got help from a man believed to have died from typhus three years earlier. He shows up at the house, and the wife, skeptical of his existence, stabs the “dybbuk” in the chest with an ice pick. The guest then laughs, gets up, and walks out the door into the snow. What does this have to do with the movie? Well, without revealing too many spoilers, Larry has a series of nightmares during his “rough patch”, and at least one of them involves talking to a ghost. 

On the surface, A Serious Man appears to be doing little more than going through the motions. But, after digesting it 24 hours later, I find myself answering many of the questions that I found myself asking when I had finished watching it. The Special Features were somewhat helpful. They included a featurette about making the movie, another about re-creating a Midwestern 1960s atmosphere, and even a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms for us  “goys” (gentiles). 

Normally, the Coen Brothers make movies that I just don’t get; this one, on the other hand, turned out to be an interesting profile of a man facing a crisis, and the consequences of the actions (and inactions) he takes in response to it. In the end, A Serious Man is an introspective movie that takes a while to sink in, but once it does, it will make you think.