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The Big Sleep (1946)
Ya gotta love it, no matter how confusing it is
For years, I thought I was going out of my mind every time I saw this classic detective story/film noir. Each time it screened on TV, it seemed to be different. New scenes would crop up; scenes I was certain I had seen in the past were suddenly missing. And always, the plot made no real sense.
Blame it all on Lauren Bacall. She'd been a huge hit in "To Have and to Have Not," playing opposite Bogart in her screen debut. So Warners, eager to capitalize on her natural sex appeal, had rushed her into another film, "Confidential Agent," where she played opposite Charles Boyer. They, it turned out, had no chemistry and the picture bombed. But by the time that had happened, Bogie and Betty had wrapped Bacall's third film, "The Big Sleep." So Warners held up its release so they could shoot some new scenes that would make Bacall look good.
The result was that a couple of different versions of this classic exist today and when you toss in the cutting for TV, you wind up with a mishmash of scenes that leave you guessing as to what the film is all about, who killed whom, and how could writers of the caliber of Raymond Chandler (author of the original novel) William Faulkner and Jules Furthman come up with this mess.
My favorite scene takes place at the rural gambling casino operated by Eddie Mars. There, in a side room, we come upon Bacall singing an obviously heavily rehearsed song with a whole group of backup singers providing harmony. There is no prior reference to Bacall's character being a singer and no further reference to her song in the rest of the movie.
But the real stunner is Eddie Mars' blond wife, played in her one and only scene toward the end of the film, by different actresses in the two main versions of the film.
Never mind. This picture has lots of crackling good Howard Hawks style dialogue and a great, slick Warners film noir atmosphere. Both Bogie and Betty are at the top of their games and are surrounded by great supporting players, from Dorothy Malone to Elisha Cook Jr and B-Western star Bob Steele, who was positively scary when he played a modern day killer.
Watch this one, because try as they might, nobody does this kind of work today.
A tale of abuse and corruption
It's ironic that because of the 1950s TV drama "Dragnet," Los Angeles got the reputation of being a city with a squeaky clean, incorruptible police department. It's ironic because nothing could be further from the truth for much of the city's history.
The 1920s and most of the thirties were particularly lawless decades for LA cops. LA was overflowing with gambling houses and bordellos all operating virtually openly. Cops were involved in one scandal after another, including a police chief caught during Prohibition in the back seat of a police car with a bottle of booze and a half naked hooker; vice squad cops caught up in a badger game targeting a city councilman; and the commander of the police intelligence division convicted of attempted murder in the bombing of the car of a special investigator for the grand jury looking into police corruption.
One of the hardest incidents to comprehend was the 1928 disappearance of 9-year-old Walter Collins, and his return five months later thanks to the "detective work" of the LAPD. That was a case that might have been completely forgotten by now but for one thing -- the boy's incredulous mother who took one look at the returning kid and said "That's not my son!" What could have prompted the LAPD to substitute another kid for the missing boy? Awash in a constant stream of bad publicity, targeted by reformers and plagued by the fact that it was a department of thieves, thugs, and incompetents, the 1928 department under Chief James "Two Guns" Davis was apparently desperate for any good publicity and returning a missing kid to his hard working, single mom seemed full proof. But for one thing: Mom was tougher than Davis and conducted a non stop crusade to uncover the truth and find her real son.
Sadly, unfolding at the same time was the repugnant tale of a serial killer operating out of a chicken ranch in nearby Riverside county and how he was abducting and murdering young boys.
All these elements --the Collins case, the police corruption story and the tale of the serial killer -- are expertly woven together by director Clint Eastwood into a movie that grows more interesting as it goes.
Expertly cast and beautifully mounted (the art direction is a shoe in for an Oscar nomination)the film nonetheless lives or dies on the performance of Angelina Jolie, who plays the mom, Christine Collins. Many of Jolie's roles don't do much to test her acting chops, this one does and she more than meets the challenge, turning in a beautifully controlled performance that should get her another Oscar nod too.
If I have a criticism, it is that the movie in the end gives the impression the corruption may have ended when Chief Davis was demoted following the Collins case. He was demoted, to head of the traffic division, but was made Chief again when Frank Shaw became mayor.
Corruption at city hall and in the police department simply exploded and there were so many abuses by the central vice squad, the Intelligence Division and the "Red Squad" of strike breakers and gun thugs that they eventually led to the 1938 recall of Mayor Shaw and a general house cleaning of the police department, which forced out Davis and more than 40 other high ranking officers.
But see the movie. This one is certainly worth seeing.
This is apparently a screen version of a comic book or a video game, the kind of junk that's turning the minds of young Americans to mush. The plot is that an everyman unhappy with his boring life gets a chance to become an over trained assassin and kill a lot of people, in part to avenge the murder of his father, even though he never knew the old man. That's about all the plot there is here. Charcterization? That's pretty much missing, too. The male star is forgettable because he is almost completely devoid of personality. But he fits right in at the DeCaprio, Toby McGuire school of wimps as heroes.
Morgan Freeman non-acts his way through the number three staring role.
That leaves the woman upon whom box office success rests ---Angelina Jolie. She flashes a couple of smiles, but mostly just hangs around looking enigmatic. Actually, her part could have been played by almost anyone, but she played it, so she is responsible for fostering this non stop exercise in teaching kids violence.
She should be ashamed of herself. She is capable of so much more.
I wanted my eight bucks back when this one was over, but I can never get back the two hours of my life wasted on this mess.
A polarizing movie
This appears to be one of those, you love it or hate it, films. Little room for those taking the middle path here. On the surface, you could say it is just one more Hollywood revenge movie, and as such, a manipulative piece of work that spends most of its screen time setting up the villain for the pay off at the end. And of course, there is the heavy use of sexually explicit scenes and language which seem to offend many people, even more than the brutality and violence.
On the other hand, the whole thing makes perfect sense as a depiction of the criminal class and of a smart, but lazy young woman who gets caught up in that world, in part because she likes the cheap thrills it offers her.
And then it turns pretty convincingly into a story of brutal domestic violence and how the girl sets out to defend herself, using the tools she has at her disposal, namely her own sexuality.
It is a shocking film, though, not for the faint hearted and I have to admit the big scene of domestic violence was almost too much to take.
------------------- spoiler alert ------------------
Some question the final pay back and why it happened the way it did. Why didn't Kat just have Big Al whacked? The answer for me is that he had to be alive so he could realize she was paying him back. She needed to do it that way to get her self respect back.
Although in places its hard to watch, this is a brilliant movie with very strong performances, but none stronger than Milla Jovovich's. She is simply a remarkable actress willing to take enormous risks. I did not discover her myself until "Ultraviolent" which I loved, in large part due to the absolute conviction she was able to bring to the role of a comic book super hero. She did just as well with her role as a small time, street hustler's girlfriend in .45. See it!
Compelling, but not necessarily satisfying
-----------------------------spoiler alert -------------------- Kimberly Peirce's first film since "Boys Don't Cry" tackles a big topic, maybe one that is too big for any director to attempt to cover in a single film. The irony is, she accomplishes her goals in terms of making a riveting movie, but perhaps fails in efforts to truly illuminate as complex an issue as the war in Iraq.
The plot is that Army sergeant Ryan Phillippe, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, finds out on the day he is mustering out of the Army that he is being stop lossed, meaning sent back involuntarily for another combat tour in Iraq.
But plot holes develop almost as quickly as he finds himself conscripted in what he refers to as a back door draft.
The first problem is that he immediately jumps the tracks and goes AWOL, when his carefully crafted image from the early parts of the movie show him to be a thoughtful, highly responsible soldier. Yes, he might eventually break the rules and jump ship, but not immediately and the film would have been even more interesting if he'd fought his situation through legal channels before deserting.
From there, a lot of the film deals with another problem, the post traumatic stress syndrome he and his small town Texas buddies are facing, in his case, largely because he led his men into a rather obvious ambush while in Baghdad, a trap that got his best friend killed and others wounded.
From there, the film deals with his life on the run, ironically with the ex-fiancé of another of his buddies, and that life affords a look at the white working class background upon which America's all volunteer Army is now built. While a little clichéd, it does remind us that there are tens of thousands of troops from that very background, many of whom seem to know or understand almost nothing about the war they have volunteered to fight.
______________________spoiler-------------------------- In the end, Phillippe's character turns himself in and winds up climbing aboard the bus that is the first step on the road back to Iraq. The trouble with the scene is it comes as a shock and its hard to know whether the filmmaker was saying Philippe was wrong all along, or that the average guy is just no match for the pressures being a good, dutiful American place on a young man.
Its sort of like Congress getting a clear mandate from voters in November of 2006 to end the war, but doing virtually nothing about it, because Democrats don't have the votes to overcome a Republican veto and then take the heat that would follow.
Whatever the message, it seemed to me to be a somewhat muddled one, and there is not much resolution to the story, as what it gives us is an ending that would have been more powerful had it come down hard on one side of the issue or the other.
Still, this film in all fairness works as a movie up to the end and I would not stay away just because it falls down there.
High style set in a bleak future
My own history with this movie is as follows: I stumbled upon it on TV while channel surfing one night, but came in half way through the movie and didn't know who or what I was watching. All I knew was, it quickly grabbed my attention, even though I have little interest in comic book violence or martial arts movies. I do love good sci-fi and have some tolerance for futuristic movies, which are often cold and gray by their very nature.
This one was not and so I immediately fell in love with its wonderful art direction.
I was also not really a fan of Milla Jovovich, finding what I have seen of the Resident Evil films nothing but mindless violence. This movie changed all that for me.
I think she delivers a terrific performance as Ultraviolet. While most women seem to me to have to force out the qualities needed to play these kick butt girls, Jovovich struggles to contain what seems like a volcano of anger within her. In one scene toward the end, when confronted by two opponents who warn her they are as strong and as fast as she is, her response is to ask "Are you one tenth as ****** off as I am?" That's the key to her character and she maintains it throughout the film. She is a seething cauldron of righteous indignation. And it seems to me that almost every look, every facial expression and every step she takes reflects this inner anger.
While some of the CGI effects may be substandard for the genre, this is a much under appreciated film. I recommend it highly.
the sum is less than its parts
This is a well produced, well directed, well written and extremely well acted film. Its essentially a one woman show, and Ellen Page becomes a star with this picture, or at least she should.
So why am I not jumping on the bandwagon? Its a game played with a stacked deck and that turns out to be its downfall.
Juno is a 16 year old high school girl who gets pregnant after a single sexual encounter with her boyfriend of sorts, Paulie. Does Juno panic? Not on your life. Juno is smart as a whip, adventurous and once she decides to have the baby, she sets out on her own to find proper adoptive parts. The first family she visits turns out to be a rich yuppie couple who seem fine and they strike a deal. After a few doubts, Juno winds up having her baby and turns the child over to the rather rigid and somewhat frigid Jennifer Garner, who probably takes the kid right home and registers him for the right pre-school.
The problem with this whole thing is that Juno encounters virtually zero problems along the way. She is not kicked out of school or ostracized by her classmates, her parents are supportive, the boyfriend doesn't disappear on her and the adoptive couple, while facing their own problems, don't turn out to be too bad.
So essentially, what we have is the after school special about teen pregnancy, or one of a thousand Lifetime channel stories on the same topic, but minus most of the conflict. Its also minus what seems to me to be the real life emotion 16 year old girls would go through if this happened to them, and any of the self doubt that goes with the decision to give up their baby.
Lastly comes the question of whether any sixteen year old would be as self assured and well rounded as this girl? It's possible, but rare.
As such, the picture is worth seeing for Page's performance, but Juno is not exactly what you'd call high drama.
Michael Clayton (2007)
First rate thriller
Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" builds slowly at first, but always manages to hold your interest because of a little slide of hand. By giving us a taste of one of the film's action sequences at the beginning, it holds on to the action motivated viewer, even as it forces him or her to pay close attention due to all the twists and turns of the complex plot.
In a nutshell, its the story of a corporate lawyer whose best friend in the firm is handing a billion dollar liability suit against a huge Midwestern corporation, only to discover that the corporate was directly responsible for deaths. But since the law firm is representing the corporation and not the victims, Tom Wilkerson, who plays the friend, finds himself in such a moral dilemma that he mentally jumps the tracks, taking off all his clothes during a deposition and chasing people naked through a parking lot. ( in fairness, he is portrayed as a guy who had been on meds for years and has gone off them, triggering the breakdown.) This forces the firm, headed by Sydney Pollack in his actor mode, to send in Michael Clayton to clean things up. This movie is basically something of a character study of Clayton, who even though he is a lawyer and former prosecutor, is now essentially the fixer and sometimes bag man for this monster size, 600 lawyer, firm. Its a role Hollywood has often explored before, in pictures like "The Barefoot Contessa" and "The Harder they Fall" in the fifties, right up to "Syriana" a few years ago. It seems to be becoming George Clooney's screen persona and in this film he makes the most of it, turning in a riveting performance as a talented guy trying to hold it all together. And he has personal problems of his own, of course, not the least of which is a 75K debt to an apparent loan shark over a restaurant investment that went bad. (This is the film's weakest point, as everyone knows most restaurant investments go bad. That's why they hire guys like MIchael Clayton to find arsonists to burn the places down for the insurance money.)
At any rate, Clooney is just great here and may well get himself an Oscar nomination. Also good acting from Tilda Swenson as a corporate lawyer scared out of her wits most of the time for fear of failing, Wilkerson as the lawyer who goes bonkers and Pollack as the seeming sympathetic boss of the law firm who is as manipulative as they come.
He has one of the films best lines in the end, pointing out to Clooney that of course the corporation is guilty; they always knew that; that's how the law firm makes money, pulling irons out of the fire for companies like that.
Clooney comes back for one final big scene in the end, where he wraps it all up; essentially telling the dishonest corporate types that where they made their big mistake was taking him on. Like most corporate types they were good in a board room fight, but rotten in a street fight. Where as he was a pro at being a crook and was in the end going to out fox them one way or the other.
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
The big movies about the Vietnam war -- Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket -- didn't reach the screen until about five years after the war ended. But movies dealing with Iraq and terrorism are cropping up all over even as this war still rages.
What exactly that means is hard to know, but it would seem to indicate that no matter which side of the issue they come down on, the filmmakers are willing to risk alienating about half the potential audience in an America more polarized today than at any point in our history.
"In the Valley of Elah" treads lightly on the politics for most of the movie, concentrating on the unfolding mystery of what happened to a young soldier who vanishes shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Looking for answers are his father, a former sergeant in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and a young female civilian detective, who gets involved in the case, gets bounced off in a jurisdictional dispute, but winds up back on the case when its determined the crime took place off military property.
While director Paul Haggis gets uniformly good performances out of all the characters, the movie belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the grieving father and Charlize Theron as the determined detective. Both turn in outstanding performances. Jones shines, playing a man who has spent his life holding in his emotions and can't change now, even as his world falls apart. Theron radiates strength as a woman trying to survive in a sexist police department where all her male colleagues are certain she slept her way into her detective's job. That is somewhat important to the story, because the movie provides a look into the lower class white community that provides the bulk of the recruits in the all volunteer army.
None of this really deals with the politics of the war, though, and it is not until the very end of the film that politics come into play, and even there, it is handled with great care. The message is more about the kind of war America finds itself fighting today and what that type of combat does to the men who engage in it. Unlike world wars one and two, Vietnam and Iraq are not wars between easily recognized enemies. We are not battling the Germans or the Japanese. In both Nam and Iraq, Americans find it is difficult to tell friend from foe. That means they often must make snap decisions that sometimes determine whether they themselves live or die. Needless to say, their decisions also determine the fate of the people in the sights of their weapons..
"In the Valley of Elah" does an excellent job of showing that post traumatic stress syndrome is not an oddity, but rather a growing problem in an army of young men whose job requires them to be quick on the trigger.
Every American should see this movie and then think long and hard about it.
Perfect Stranger (2007)
James Foley's "Perfect Stranger" is neither a really good nor a really bad movie. Actually, its sort of a second feature or B movie type film from the forties shot with an "A" movie budget.
The acting by all the principles is pretty flat and not very involving, just as the plot itself is not very involving.
One of the problems is stories about rich and powerful men who may be murderers are not uncommon in American films. And here just isn't anything new in this film, despite all the efforts to gussy it up with the perils of meeting people on line, or the belladonna connection in the end. Actually, all that stuff did was overly complicate the plot.
What might have made a more interesting would have been to really explore sexual harassment, showing how a rich and powerful boss exploits female employees for sexual favors. You could have left the whole murder plot out, because it really didn't work very well anyway. I never felt Halle Berry was in any real peril and I never found Bruce Willis all that menacing, despite the totally unbelievable scene showing him physically pummeling a subordinate in his office in front of a room full of on lookers. (Can anyone say law suit?) But you could have explored the sexual predator angle quite well with this film and cast. In fact, to make it really interesting, you could have moved the story to Hollywood and made it about a studio boss who constantly demanded sexual favors from pretty young actresses. While Hollywood always denies this sort of thing happens, during the heyday of the studio system some studio bosses even had small bedrooms off of their offices where they could take naps when needed. Right, take naps.
Anyway, this film is probably best left viewed on DVD, where you can skim past the dull parts.
The Ten (2007)
Belongs on the other end of the scale.
Meaning this movie would get about a two.
I saw this at a matinée in a West Hollywood theater. There were maybe two dozen other people in the theater. One guy laughed. At everything. I think he even snickered at the stone tablets. Other than that, mostly dead silence throughout the entire movie.
The film simply wasn't funny and in some cases, it was virtually offensive. Making a joke out of anal rape isn't easy, as the movie makers proved here. The question is, why did they try? When is rape a suitable topic for comedy? Of course, maybe I am being closed minded and what we really need to do is take the stigma off rape.
The movie makers here seem to think they're some modern incarnation of Mel Brooks or Woody Allen with their abilities to satirize human foibles. Sorry, but they just don't measure up.
Great cast, but it was all sizzle and no steak, meaning most of them had little to do except trade on their celebrity. "Look at me, I'm a big star, but I can get silly in some quirky little movie."
The whole thing had "acting class exercise" written all over it,
My evening with a celebrity
"Interview" is something of an old fashioned two character drama updated to cover questions about just how much of the information we get in today's media saturated world can be trusted.
The plot is simple. News magazine writer Pierre, who in his salad days was a top political reporter, has fallen from grace and is now lucky to pick up celebrity profile interviews. One night in New York he is assigned to interview a beautiful actress known for B movie horror films and highly sexed cable TV fare of the "Sex in the City" variety. Her only real claim to fame seems to be that she underwent a breast reduction operation, getting her implants removed.
Through a fluke what starts off as an interview so disastrous that both want to immediately end it, turns into an all night affair when he bumps his head in a fender bender accident outside the restaurant where they meet. Rather than going their separate ways, they wind up going to her spacious loft where they spend the next few hours bobbing and weaving around each other like a pair of good middle weight boxers. And over the course of the evening, we learn quite a bit about both of them, or so we think.
Steve Buscemi, who also directed, gets good marks for his acting, but even better for his work helming this story. He keeps it moving along with such energy and such conviction that one hardly notices that this is a two character set piece probably better suited to the theater and a small theater at that.
The real revelation for me, though, was Sienna Miller, who I had never seen before and know virtually nothing about. She sparkles as the under appreciated sex symbol who goes along with that game because it has made her rich and famous. But there would appear to be a lot more to her than meets the eye, and luckily for us, she is not played as the clichéd dumb blonde with a heart of gold Hollywood usually trucks out in this kind of story. Miller's character is smart, at times highly manipulative, and more than able to handle herself in a verbal street fight.
Whether in real life any actress, much less any journalist, would reveal their deepest secrets to a total stranger is highly questionable. But then part of the plothere is that we never quite know how much of what they say is the truth, and how much is manufactured. This is very much a story about how the media and celebrities use each other to attain their own ends.
So what we come out with in the end is people who are smarter than they seem, but maybe a little less ethical than we would like them to be. And first and foremost in that category is the journalist, who we come to realize is not only capable of stretching the truth when it suits his needs, but also of betraying confidences if that will further his career.
Miller's character is less easily defined, though, and some of that may be the script's fault, or some of that may be by design. There is a spot near the end of the film in which Miller's character clearly puts the mask back on. She re-establishes the wall between movie star and the member of the press who is there to interview her, nothing more.
What that says is that most of, maybe all of, what happened on this unusual night was an illusion. Was it just the under appreciated actress proving she was much better at her craft than people thought? Was it a girl pigeon holed as a bimbo proving she was just as smart as the condescending intellectual reluctantly interviewing her? We never quite know in the end and that may be "interview's" one failure, because in the end, we really want to like the actress. We're just not sure if we do.
A Mighty Heart (2007)
Compelling movie making
Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart" is probably the most important film released so far in 2007. And it will probably be the most controversial this whole year, saddled as it is with political implications that could make it the target of activists on both the left and the right.
Surprisingly enough, the movie is almost politics free. The basic story we all know. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl disappears while trying to tie up one last interview about terrorism while on assignment in Pakistan. From there, his pregnant wife Mariane, their close friends, and various branches of various governments pull out all the stops to find him, but don't get there in time. Pearl is beheaded by his terrorist captors.
While the questions about politics could have dominated this story, it is much more of a police procedural, focusing for the most part on how you track down criminals in a city as crowded as Karachi, Pakistan. And incidentally, the film does a magnificent job of creating a time and place in an Asian city most Americsns know nothing about.
Politics hardly comes into play, although the story does touch on the topic at various places along the way, noting Pearl was a Jew in a country that was a hotbed for Islamic extremism; that there are consequences to US policies around the world, including the operation of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the politics virtually fly by in this film.
For its actually the story of Mariane Pearl and how she holds up as she takes a very active role in the search for her husband, but must take it from her home, because she is very pregnant with their first child and can't go out and kick in doors herself.
The real political fireworks here are over the performance of Angelina Jolie. Many of us have long suspected that she is among the best actresses around today, but her talent is too often buried in mindless spectacle films.
Here, Jolie delivers not her standard tough girl performance, a staple of her early career, but a very nuanced portrayal of a woman who has to be strong in order to lead the effort to free her husband. So she holds it in -- literally everything including at one point her urine. That makes her occasional explosions very expected. But the final eruption, when she learns her husband really has been murdered, is one of the most shattering scenes in recent film memory.
Some people, though, won't like this picture because they don't like Jolie, for all kinds of reasons. Some spout nonsense about her not being black, yet playing a woman who is black, even though the real life Mariane Pearl is French, considers herself of multi-ethnic background, and asked Angelina to play her. Others on the right attack Jolie for everything from adopting orphaned kids to visiting war refugee camps, all of which they associate with liberal Hollywood and thus adoption and caring about refugees must be evil.
Hopefully, most people will ignore both sides, for this picture is more about how one stands up in times of crisis than anything else. If this movie was a crisis, Jolie stands up well. She'll probably get a best actress nomination for this role and she deserves it. See the movie.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
One of the top films in its genre
Much is often made of this being a low budget sci fi movie with cheap special effects. Actually, there are almost no special effects, save the costume worn by pre-Gunsmoke James Arness as the title character.
That's one of the film's strengths. The movie is well past the halfway point before we even see the monster and our first looks at him are in the dark or as he is being viewed through a closing door or running away with his back turned.
So the suspense about what this thing is continues until he finally bursts through the door in the final battle. That, in my view, is called good movie making.
Howard Harks reportedly directed much of this film and it crackles with Hawks style dialog, which although not quite in the "His Girl Friday" league, is sharp enough to keep you glued to the screen with your ears cocked.
It is, in fact, the dialog and how the people trapped in an Arctic research station react to a flying saucer landing and potential alien invasion, that makes this film so special.
The heroes are the fly-boys who had just won WWII for us and so were well equipped to take on aliens from outer space. Seriously, their low key, its all part of a day's work approach to this new threat is wonderful to watch. As is the reaction of the women in the picture, who don't run screaming at the mere mention of the monster's name, as we see in so much of science fiction. They stay and become part of the fight, without looking like stereotyped, kickass broads.
Lastly, much has been made of the message here. For some, Hawks famed "Watch the skies" tagline was proof he was warning about the dangers of communism, for others, the dangers of communist witch hunts.
Who know? Looking back from a perspective of 50 years plus, neither seems to matter much.
See the movie. It is well worth the effort.
Notes on a Scandal (2006)
One of the year's best
************possible spoilers alert *****************
"Notes on a Scandal" easily ranks as one of the year's very best films.
While some may find the subject matter disturbing for a variety of reasons, it is hard for me not to praise the film in its dealing with complicated, yet compelling human relationships.
The plot outline is this. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba, a woman who takes a job as an art teacher in a upper middle class British high school. Married to a much older man and having helped to raise his two children by a previous marriage, including a boy who is mildly retarded, she had looked upon returning to work as a form of liberation from housewifedom.
Since she is as close as the school has to a babe, she quickly becomes the center of attention, both for lustful teenage boys and various members of the faculty. But that doesn't include Judi Dench, who plays Barbara, an elderly spinster history teacher who takes an immediate dislike to her, right up until the first moment when Cate turns her warm gaze on the older women.
From that moment on, Dench's repressed, prim, proper, judgmental authority figure of a teacher devotes almost every waking moment to taking over Sheba's life.
Barbara, it is implied, is a repressed lesbian, repressed only in that she has nobody in her life. And later we learn that Sheba is not the first younger woman Barbara has gone after. One previous teacher, now departed from the school, was going to take out a restraining order against her.
Barbara wants Sheba to think of her as best friend, mentor and eventually her lover. And to get her way, Barbara plots and schemes and maneuvers and manipulates in a fashion that is almost worthy of Shakespeare. She wages what is nothing less than a military campaign to get her way and when things don't work out, she strikes out at Sheba like the sperned lover she is, lover of course, only in her own mind.
Along the way, Sheba takes up with one of her students, a 15-year-old boy well played by Andrew Simpson, starting a sexual relationship with him. Whether she realizes the relationship is immoral or not, she clearly knows it is illegal and the whole thing is dynamite waiting to explode. Yet she seems unable to keep herself from lighting the fuse.
For some, the relationship between Sheba and her student/lover is the most interesting, but for me, the Barbara/Sheba relationship is simply amazing.
It is one of the most honest, most unflinching looks at loneliness, longing and delusion I have ever seen on the screen.
Even the somewhat surprising ending, in which Barbara gets ready to turn her attention elsewhere, was 100 percent believable to me.
Hats off to director Richard Eyre, screenwriter Patrick Marber and to Zeo Heller, whose novel forms the basis for the story.
And the actors? Cate Blanchett certainly deserves a best supporting actress nod. Her performance is spot on as the woman headed toward middle age who wants at least one last fling, even if it is with the absolute wrong person.
And Judi Dench? If she is not nominated for best actress, there is no justice. In fact, Cate deserves a salute just for not getting blown off the screen by Dench. Judi's is clearly one of the best performances by an actress in recent years.
But then, both women had lots of really strong material to work with and they didn't waste their opportunities.
The Good Shepherd (2006)
An important movie that only partly accomplishes its mission
Robert DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" may or may not be an accurate look at the early days of the CIA. But it deserves a chance with movie goers because it does at least make an effort to tear the veil away from America's mostly secret intelligence community.
The story that it tells centers around a young man played by Matt Damon who is recruited for the spy agency right out of college just before the onset of WWII and follows his career, though flashbacks, up through the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
While the film works well as history, it is less successful as a piece of cinema because of some choices it makes. One assumes the "Good Shepherd" title is supposed to describe a selfless individual who sacrifices his personal happiness for the good of his country. In order to do this, he pretty much walls himself up emotionally. Such could be one of the realities of the spy business, but unfortunately, watching an emotionally constipated man slog through a nearly three hour movie is not necessarily the most exciting of experiences.
One wonders, in fact, if you could have told the exact same story, but made the fictional protagonist a lot more demonstrative. After all, Damon's character is not a field operative lurking in shadows most of the time. He's a desk jockey supervising the people who lurk in the shadows.
His lack of emotions does play out as part of the story line, and his long suffering wife, well played by the beautiful Angelina Jolie, finds marriage to this guy a less than fulfilling experience. Actually, this is an angle that is much too underplayed, and we'd like to know more about their relationship, including the key question -- did he love her at all.
The film features a number of well done supporting roles, but hats off to John Turturro, who plays Damon's assistant and resident thug with real style and conviction.
But this movie is about more than just acting. This is a film that tells a fictionalize real life story and raises a number of disturbing questions. The questions are almost too numerous to list in any reasonable amount of space. But they include, who authorizes the CIA to plan the Bay of Pigs fiasco and similar clandestine incursions into the domestic politics of other nations? The President? By what constitutional authority? The film shows CIA wrecking the coffee crop in some other unnamed Latin American country so it can topple another government it doesn't like. Again, where does the US Constitution give anyone this right? In real life, we know the CIA helped Augusto Pinochet overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile in 1973. When did the American people authorize this? Did Richard Nixon tell us he was going to do this when he ran for re-election in 1972? The frightening thing this film does shed some light on is that a small group of men, members of the Skull and Bones fraternity at Yale, conspire in secret, making these kind of decisions, because they think they know what's best for us. But, as the coffee republic segment points out, it is also what's best for these men, who often find a way to cash in personally on the skullduggery they have authorized.
We see this today, of course, through the workings of a little company called Haliburton.
In fact, the people we see mucking things up today, the Bushes, Cheneys, etc. are all members of the same Skull and Bones secret societies that produced John Foster Dulles, his brother Allen, and the rest of the self proclaimed patriots who founded the CIA.
The real irony, of course, is that they are proved to be wrong so often. The Bay of Pigs failed, and Castro remains in power to this day, but guess what, nothing bad has happened to America because of him. Vietnam "fell" and America is now busy engaging it as a trading partner. Again, nothing bad happened to America because Vietnam went communist.
Not only are the CIA types wrong -- blinded by their own political ideology -- but despite spending billions of dollars on their spook projects, they often miss the big things. They failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, failed to predict Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and, if Bush is to be believed, said Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction when he wasn't.
Don't know about most movie fans, but "Good Shepherd" does not make me sleep better at night knowing we are in such good hands.
Well intentioned miss
First, let me offer a personal note. I was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot, although I had to leave the hotel to perform my own job as a wire service journalist before the Senator came down to the ballroom, so I was not there after midnight when the shooting took place. However, my wife at the time was there and for one moment, was one of those standing over Kennedy's body. I was back at the office working on the Kennedy victory story when word came though of the shooting. It was devastating, even more so for me because we learned very quickly that a woman was among those shot, but there were no ids available and in the days before cell phones, I had no way to reach my wife. It was hours before she was able to get to a pay phone to call me and let me know she was alright.
That all made watching the last few minutes of this film very difficult for me, even though the incident took place nearly four decades ago.
The assassination segment is gut wrenching to say the least, as are the newsreel clips of Kennedy on the campaign trail.
Other positives of the film are the acting and overall direction from Emelio Estevez.
The problem for me with this film was, I could not get a real handle on what it was saying. About 90 percent of the movie gives us capsule glimpses into the lives of people either working or staying at the Ambassdor before the shooting.
We find out the hotel manager is having an affair with a switchboard operator, a bus boy has Dodger tickets he will not be able to use, two college age nerds drop acid for the first time, and a comely young lady is going to marry a boy to keep him from being sent to Vietnam. (I'm not sure that actually worked, as many married men I knew wound up getting sent to Nam in that era. And I met many others while I was in the army.) Okay, the idea was to show us, not just a cross section of 60s culture, but also a glimpse into the lives touched by the assassination. Trouble is, we got a lot of their back stories, but since the film ends with the shooting, we never get to see what impact this terrible night had on them, other than that some, but not all of them, are among the wounded.
Consequently, it is never clear to me what all these stories add up to. For instance, Anthony HOpkins and Harry Bellefonte play a couple of retired hotel doormen who are apparently allowed to spend their retirement years hanging out in the hotel lobby, playing chess. Cute, but irrelevant to the story, since they don't even talk about politics on this, California primary day.
Again, some of these people are apparently fictionalized versions of those wounded, but they all survive and what we never find out is, was this incident life changing for them. And if it was, is it any different for them than it is for any other crime victim? For me, the assassination was and I eventually dropped out and went to Europe for a while. I don't know what happens to the people here and since I got so much back story, I feel cheated. Did the hotel manager and his wife reconcile? Did the boy who got shot get sent to Nam anyway? Did the two college boys become hard core stoners? Did either of them score with the hot lunch counter waitress?
I think this script needed some major adjustments to make the film work for me.
Come Early Morning (2006)
Joey Lauren Admans "Come Early Morning" seems almost like a continuation of the film that made its star, Ashley Judd, famous, Victor Nunez' "Ruby in Paradise." Both pictures are about girls trying to make a life for themselves in small southern towns, but Lucy, the protagonist of "Early Morning" is at least a decade older than Ruby. That is why it seems almost to be the next chapter in Ruby's story.
The decade has not treated the protagonist well. Where as Ruby was a sort of wide eyed innocent, Lucy is now a woman whose journey through life is encumbered by a lot of baggage.
She has problems relating to men on a romantic level, seeing them as either cold and unresponsive like her father or just mean and domineering like some of the other men in her family and the slugs she picks up in local bars.
So, somewhat predictably, when she meets a nice guy, she rejects him enough times that he eventually moves on.
Ashley Judd is such a fine, appealing actress that she keeps you glued to the screen, despite the somewhat predictable plot twists. But there is something about the screenplay which fails, for I never had much faith in her character, who in many ways seemed as emotionally bottled up as her father.
And that's the film's failure. "Ruby" ended on a hopeful note, if for no other reason than that the central character was smart, resourceful and had her whole life ahead of her. "Come Early Morning's" protagonist faces a cloudy future and while the film showed guts in admitting that, it didn't leave you wanting to see more of Lucy the way the earlier film made you want more of Ruby.
Nice try by everyone involved, but it was just too dark a picture in many ways.
One final note. So many films these days have no significant subplot. Lucy had some kind of construction business, but it was so downplayed that in the end, when she takes over the business, we don't exactly know how big an achievement that is, or if it really means more to her than just taking on harder work for no real pay off.
This film could have been more effective had her career or some other aspect of her life been more fully developed so that she faced some real test there as well. Subplots are important in that they give stories and their protagonists depth. And of course, the stakes always need to be higher for the protagonist, to make us care.
The Departed (2006)
Well done, to a point
There is little doubt that Martin Scorsese is one of the finest directors currently at work in America. Pictures like "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" established him as a master of the art. There is also evidence that, like the gangsters and heist artists he sometimes depicts on the screen, Scorsese is always looking for that one big score, the movie that will put him on easy street. He searched for it in "Cape Fear" and "Gangs of New York" and he's back in the hunt again with "The Departed." Scorsese's talent and craftsmanship cannot be disputed. He has the amazing ability to create a milieu, a textured background, fill it with interesting people and events and weave them all together. And despite his less than successful forays into other genres, he usually comes off best when he sticks to the genre that made him famous, the gangster flick. Scorsese may hate gangster films for all I know, just as James Cagney did before him, but he is smart enough to realize they are his bread and butter.
But like so many directors today, Scorsese is trapped in an industry that focuses so much on the youth market, in today's world, a poorly educated youth market that is swimming in media excess. This is the age, not of information, but rather of too much information. This is an age where movies and TV are more influenced by the computer screen than any other force in society. And as most of us know, computers have to have some type of information occupying ever square inch of the screen. So today, TV shows may have opening credits at the bottom of the screen, but they are often overlaid with promos for the show coming up next, even though the viewer isn't even into the current show yet. And since the information is overlaid, you actually can't read either, much less pay attention to the picture on the screen.
Up on the big screen, directors like Peter Jackson can make a horrible mess of his remake of "King Kong," by filling the screen with so much action the film is hard to follow. Don't have the big gorilla fight one T-Rex dinosaur, have him fight three of them, while falling down a bottomless pit and trying to save the girl at the same time.
The fear that letting up for even a second will lose this short attention span audience is slowly strangling the entertainment industry.
"The Departed" falls into this trap. It moves along with the speed of light and even though I found myself checking my watch when we'd crossed the two hour mark, I still enjoyed the movie.
Then came the ending.
Not only did one bad guy meet his maker, they all did. Even people who we didn't know were bad guys died in a hail of bullets. I almost expected the final scene to be somebody pulling out a gun and committing suicide, adding their own body to the pile.
Whether all this carnage was needed, or whether Scorsese just thought that's what kids wants these days, we will never know.
Does the film work, yes. Would I recommend it? Yes, but only with the warning that it contains much bloodshed and too much action for most of us to easily follow the plot.
Is the acting good? Mostly, yes. Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are good in lead roles, Martin Sheen, Alex Baldwin and particularly, Mark Walberg are good in supporting roles and actress Vera Farmiga provides some very welcome relief as the love interest, if only in that her scenes provide some of the few moments of calm in this frenetic story.
What about Jack? Nicholson ranges from brilliant to just plain Jack, an actor who is basically playing himself and done it so many times he is now almost a parody of himself.
Is the story credible? Hard to say. It is supposedly adapted from an Asian gangster film. It provides a look into the Irish mob in Boston and thus seems to be fashioned in part on the career of Whitey Bulger, a Boston mob leader who was also an FBI informant and who is still a fugitive.
Lastly, I have one question for the director. Why did he call his fictional crime boss Frank Costello, naming him after a very real Italian-American crime lord once known as the Prime Minster of the Underworld. Costello was probably the most powerful mobster in America during the 1940s and early fifties. He was a dapper dresser and soft spoken hood who lived at the Waldorf Astoria, frequented the Stork Club, and, since he was top man in "the outfit" which reached from New York to New Orleans, Miami to Los Angeles, he probably very rarely turned up in warehouses in the middle of the night where he could get caught in the middle of shady deals. He went to prison, alright, but for what they eventually got most of the big hoods on, a tax rap.
The Illusionist (2006)
This is a passable period piece, a film set around the turn of the last century in Vienna. Its about the star crossed romance between a Duchess and a poor boy who makes good on the stage as a magician. Its nicely mounted,well directed by Neil Burger and mildly engaging.
But it could have been a much better film, if it had undergone a serious rewrite, been better cast and had its feel good, montage ending reedited.
The core of the story is the illusionist played blandly by Edward Norton. While glib on stage and good under pressure, he is nonetheless a nondescript magician without any engaging character traits. He is neither a tortured mystic struggling to cope with his powers, nor a skillful conman using his talents to make a killing duping audiences. He's simply a quiet success. Too quiet. He is not a larger than life character and that seriously hurts the entertainment value of the film, for he seems to be a man with no major motivations, no big goals he's trying to achieve. He doesn't even seem all that fascinated with his magic.
Seeing him in blandness and raising him is Jessica Biel as the Duchess. She is beautiful, but about as uninvolved a princess in an ivory tower as you will see in a film. Her big scene in which she breaks up with the abusive Austrain prince she is engaged to is almost unbelievably dull.
The lone exception to the blandness rule that controls this film is Paul Giamatti, who plays a Vienna police detective fascinated with Norton's magic tricks, but forced by politics to play ball with the demented prince.
Giamatti goes in the other direction, mugging for the camera at every opportunity, and actually almost going into a parody mode at the end of the film as he "figures it all out." For a hint about how to play the important third party --especially if he is a detective -- see Edward G. Robinson's performance in "Double Indemnity."
The film is not without merit, and the action moves the picture along with few dead spots. Nonetheless, you can't help feeling that this is a picture about magic that lacks magic, both literally and symbolically.
Nancy Drew goes to London
Awhile back, Woody Allen said what men really want in women is a beautiful female version of themselves. You can kind of see that in his relationship with his new muse, Scarlett Johansson. One can almost envision them cuddling together in some out of the way restaurant, the gorgeous Scarlett looking up admiringly at Woody and nodding her complete agreement to every single opinion he expresses. At least, that's his fantasy.
"Scoop," the second of their collaborations, is a paper thin murder mystery of the old fashioned variety, clever, mildly amusing, but decidedly light weight.
It has the depth of an old Charlie Chan movie, although Woody was probably hoping more for the feel of the Nick and Nora Charles series launched in the early thirties with "The Thin Man." Woody portrays a tired night club magician who finds himself playing second banana to an aspiring girl journalist who is trying to solve a string of Jack the Ripper style murders of prostitutes in London.
Its not a bad premise, at least on paper, but it is hard to pull off on the screen, because Woody is used to being the center of attention, not the comic relief. Its as if Charlie Chan and his "colored" chauffeur were on equal terms and bantering at each other, rather than the chauffeur appearing on the tail end of scenes to lighten the mood a little.
This movie features numerous scenes in which the two of them, although recent acquaintances, bicker like an old Jewish married couple. And the irony is, sometimes you can hear what are clearly Woody Allen lines coming out of Scarlett's mouth -- lines Woody would have given himself in his younger days. Now, they're split between Woody and his young, sexy female surrogate. Its as if Woody was reborn in Scarlett's body, which in someways would seem to be what he has been hoping for in real life all along.
Anyway, the plot sees Scarlett meet and then begin romancing the prime suspect in the murder cases, a wealthy aristocrat played by Hugh Jackman. And, in a decided un-Nancy Drew fashion, winds up sleeping with him, all the while suspecting him of being a serial killer. Woody, meanwhile, wanders around uttering cautionary notes like Charlie Chan's chauffeur warning that they shouldn't go into that dark attic or cellar, or in the case of this film, a vault.
In some ways the film is fun, and its nice to find a murder mystery where nobody's throat is going to get slit on camera. Hopefully, there will always be a place for films not soaked in blood, reeling from special effects and drowning in loud rock music.
But there are times when the movie seems very thin, where Woody and Scarlett's bickering scenes seem forced and more importantly, devoid of really clever dialogue. And the ending seems almost rushed through, as if Woody wanted to wrap this one up to get the camera off Scarlett and on to himself in his coda scene which in many ways is Woody's tribute to Woody. He sails off into the after life, but is just as entertaining dead as he was alive.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Mary Tyler Moore for the new millennium
I reluctantly went to see this film, but came away very glad I did. While in many ways very much the "chic flick, "The Devil Wears Prada" is more than just a pretty picture.
The plot is pretty simple. Andy, a recent college graduate, manages to land a dream job as number two assistant to the editor of the top women's fashion magazine in the country. Andy, played smoothly and appealingly by Anne Hathaway, is smart, resourceful and has a kind of quiet self confidence that allows her to be good at her job, even for the most part brushing aside the highly negative comments from her coworkers, most of which center around the fact that she does not dress up to their standards. But with the help of a mentor, art director Stanley Tucci, she is able to tap into all the free clothes left around there after photo shoots and winds up looking like she stepped out of Vogue every time she steps out of the house. (Okay, that does stretch things a little, as obviously the clothes would be recognized by the other girls, who would probably whine about why they didn't get the same treatment.) The big conflict here? Andy's boss makes Mary Tyler Moore's Mister Grant look like Mother Teresa. Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, is truly the boss from hell. She is the kind of officer who gets fragged by his own men on the battlefield. But, to the film's credit, she is also portrayed as smart, exceptionally good at what she does, and a person quickly able to spot a phony a mile away.
Streep gives an Academy Award winning performance here and no doubt will get a nomination. Her work is exceptional, when you consider that in her other big hit of the year, "A Prairie Home Companion," she plays a small time country western singer and pulls that role off with equal success.
While the film does in fact feature lots of nifty clothes for the women to ogle, it does go more than skin deep,for Andy slowly but surely finds herself sacrificing her life to this 24-7 job she has taken on, eventually losing her live in boyfriend and most of her friends, too.
And in the film's most controversial twist, she decides in the end, after watching Miranda lose her third husband in a row, that the job just isn't worth it. So, Andy symbolically throws her cell phone into a fountain and walks out -- on the limousines, the trips to Paris, the potentially big salary and the chance to rub shoulders with the rich, the famous and the well dressed.
Would this happen in real life? Maybe, but probably not. And when Meryl Streep whines that if she were a man, nobody would complain about the long hours she works, she may be mouthing feminist rhetoric, but not being truthful. The fact is, lots of wives complain about the very same thing, when their husbands are the ones who are never home or always missing the kids birthday parties. The fact is, people of both genders sacrifice their personal lives to achieve success in their careers.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of the film is found in Stanley Tucci's character, who is promised a major job with a new concern, only to be screwed over in the end because of Miranda's need to maneuver a rival into that job to protect her own position at the magazine.
That is probably the real lesson of this film. Even if you are very good at your job and even if you do work 24-7 and sacrifice everything for your career, there is no guarantee that some superior will not screw you over, because of his or her personal agenda or maybe do it just on a whim.
Unfortunately, all the pretty clothes and glamour of this film may conceal that important part of the message.
A walk on the wildside
This is an interesting film, but not half as interesting as many of the reviews posted on this forum -- reviews that say kids believe that if you are going to depict their lives, you'd better get it letter perfect. But the comments here also point to something else -- that white kids from affluent communities posing as rappers or gangsters are so embarrassing that kids would rather they not be put on the screen in the first place.
I personally cannot attest to the authenticity of this problem -- rich white kids who are wannabe gangbangers -- but I had heard of it before, so I assume the problem exists. I have also driven around Los Angeles for years and while most of the rap music blaring out of cars comes from cars driven by blacks, I have seen plenty of white kids cranking up the volume, too, so I am inclined to believe this really does go on.
So, is Barbara Kopple's film believable? Only partially. The idea of bored rich kids looking for "kicks" has been used in American movies since the silent era, so there is little new here. Even the idea that foolish rich girls might seek out and start affairs with gangster types is also old hat in Hollywood. (But in the film's defense, I think some of the young reviewers who have posted comments here misunderstood the film. While Allison and her girlfriend told the Latino gangbangers they wanted to join their "crew", they really meant join the gang for a couple of nights of excitement. Clearly, they would have grown bored with that life, too, in a matter of days and moved on to something else.) And yes, the film got it very wrong when it showed the gangsters who were in the process of having sex with the girls just meekly say "ok" when the girls had a change of heart. No, in all probability that would have never happened and both girls would have been raped. Attempts to prove that there was enough between Allison and Hector for him to have honored her wishes was simply wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers. While asking permission every step of the way may be accepted practice in feminist circles, that idea probably has not yet taken root in the world of Latino gangbangers.
Even the concept of the white kids venturing into gang territory to buy drugs, much less look for a fight, seemed a little far fetched in reality. Unless these rich, white high school kids are illiterates, they would have had to know the murder rate in gang infested areas of both south and East Los Angeles is staggering.
Still, the gangster mystic has always been attractive, except when it is laid bare in front of us. No scene in this movie is a powerful to my mind as the scene towards the end where the white boys pose and posture for the camera, aping the black rapper "attitudes" they have seen in so many rap videos. That was a pretty good statement about life imitating "art" which seems to be one of America's premiere problems these days. I think this was part of the film that offends so many kids writing on this forum. No one likes to be made a fool of and these white boys looked truly foolish.
Lastly, comes the big question about this film --Anne Hathaway. She is the star, the person around whom the plot really revolves. Strangely, in a film about the negative affects of trying to live up to images, image seems to be central here to her casting and performance. She does seem too old and far too sophisticated to be a high school girl and if she were one, she would be a girl dating college age boys. She would have found her wannabe gangster classmates juvenile and just plain embarrassing. Was her acting up to snuff? Without a doubt. She actually did a good job with the role, within I suspect the parameters of what her director wanted of her. Then, of course, comes the question, did Anne Hathaway take this picture to shed her good girl image and get directors to start thinking about her handing more mature roles? No doubt about it. Doing not one but two scenes where she appears topless, in one of which she simulates performing oral sex on a boy, certainly gets you away from a Disney image.
Is her career going down hill from here? Obviously, just the opposite. "The Devil Wears Prada," her breakthrough role, has already grossed something approaching $65 million and will no doubt do $100 million or more before it is done. It is a picture almost guaranteed to do well on DVD, with almost every woman in America wanting to sneak a look at the clothes in it. So "Havoc" will give her exactly what she wanted -- something she can steer casting directors to when she wants them to see she is willing to take risks and play "edgier" characters.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
So, God was NOT my copilot?
Despite reports of bad reviews, I didn't find this one nearly as hard to take as I expected. That's not to say it is any Hitchcockian masterpiece, either, although it has a Hitchcock feel to it in places.
It is a slick, well directed, well produced Hollywood thriller/potboiler that, after an excruciatingly long opening sequence in the Louvre, is off and running, running so fast at times that it is hard to keep up with.
Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou star as two people on a quest to find the Holy Grail (so to speak) and Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina and Jean Reno, among others, play the bad guys dedicated to keeping them from their goal.
While the acting is uniformly solid, and the direction crisp, the film takes a good deal of suspension of disbelief for it to work, not in accepting the premise, but in making peace with the rich collection of murderous bad guys menacing the hero and heroine. Of particular note is Paul Bettany as an albino monk turned hit man who, when he is not trying to murder people, engages in naked self flagellation, apparently to atone for sins past, present, and presumably future. He was probably not intended to exactly provide comic relief for this story, but he is always just one step away from pure parody. In fact, in some ways he would have fit in better in a Mel Brooks movie and you can almost count on his being roasted on Saturday Night Live.
I have never been much of a Tom Hanks fan and he did little in this film to up my opinion of his work. Although saddled with an under written part, he failed to do much with what he was given and I never had any real reason to become emotionally involved with him. Over the years, many actors, from Jimmy Stewart to Gregory Peck to Joseph Cotton have played Americans caught up in intrigue in a foreign land and made us feel much more for them. Hanks went nowhere in my view. Audrey Tautou, not my favorite French actress by a long way, was also a little wooden.
Finally, there is the controversial content of this film, which does deserve being addressed. You would have to have just emerged from a time capsule if you didn't already know the "secret" before you watched this movie. So this was a film about process --how the mystery unfolds and how the protagonists go about solving it. And the only part of that mystery we didn't know in advance was the role Audrey Tautou played in it and I guessed her hidden significance almost immediately.
Which leads us to the theology. There was little in this particular theory of Christianity that I had not heard before, even though I have not read the book.
Yet I can understand how Christians would be offended by this one, since the basic premise implies Jesus was NOT god after all. But why his "marrying" or even just having dated Mary Magdalene would prove he was not god is never really explained. If you believe in the concept of god, then god could probably marry anyone he wanted. He could probably set the rules, too. ( "No, I am not helping with the dishes or taking out the garbage and if I want to go out one night a week with my buddies...." Well, you get it.) Also of concern to me is the number of murders churchmen are seemingly willing to commit here and who is behind them. The film seems to say they are the work of a "rogue" group of clerics within the church. Oh, yeah, we've heard about those Black Ops groups before. And I assume their role is to give the Vatican plausible deniability
Lastly, and this is the part that bothers me the most,is the sort of feel good ending dreamed up here, an ending that takes great pains not to come down on either side of the theological argument. Was Christ god or not? Tom Hanks' character tells us it doesn't matter, because he was a great profit no matter what. Hello? Try telling a couple of billion Christians it doesn't matter. Hell, tell Pat Robertson, Jerry Farwell, Doctor James Dobson and the rest of the Looney tunes who populate the airwaves that Christ was actually NOT god after all. Oops, our bad, they will say. All you guys we condemned to hell. You can come back up now.
Overall this one makes for some good moments, but it is not a movie you want to examine too closely, when unfortunately, its premise requires, no virtually commands close scrutiny.
A marginal thumbs up, but more for the direction than any other element.
The Sentinel (2006)
Well done thriller
While no masterpiece of suspense, this is a well made, well produced and uniformly well acted thriller, despite its somewhat hard to believe plot.
Basically, it centers around a plan to assassinate the President of the United States, a relatively bland man whose stands on almost anything are never revealed until the very end of the movie. That was probably done deliberately, to keep from politicizing the movie at a time when the current guy in the White House is a man many people want to see impeached.
The twist in this particular case is that the assassination plan comes to light before any attempt on the President's life is made and the information indicates a mole in the Secret Service is going to help carry out the scheme.
From that point on, it becomes a kind of secret service procedural, as investigators in the service look for clues while trying to keep the president safe during his every day public appearances. Keifer Sutherland and Eva Longoria, two TV stars jumping to the big screen, are the leads here, but the film quickly shifts focus to veteran agent Michael Douglas, who turns into the film's central character and protagonist. Although depicted as a man who once took a bullet for Ronald Reagan, he turns out to be the prime suspect as the mole and his efforts to clear himself wind up taking over the screen for a time.
The film almost gets sidetracked here, but doesn't and it all leads up to a almost mandatory shoot out between the Secret Service agents and the assassins. No lone gunman here, its a deeper plot involving seemingly lots of people.
The film has lots of action from start to finish, and enough twists and turns from start to finish to pretty much make you forget that there are a few great big plot holes in this story, including the major one --what is the motivation for this assassination scheme.
The acting, as noted earlier, is pretty good, especially from Douglas and Sutherland. Whether either would qualify as a leading man, though, remains something of a problem for me. Also good is Kim Bassinger in the role of the First Lady, a woman with a secret. But she is not the top billed female, TV "Desperate Housewife" Eva Longoria is and some obviously don't think much of her performance.
My answer is, she probably accomplished her task in what is largely a thankless, underwritten role. Her character is largely immaterial to the overall story line. Although introduced as a rookie agent who may have a lot to learn, or maybe is capable of teaching her superiors a thing or two, nothing ever comes from that angle or any other in which she is involved. She is largely window dressing for this movie, obviously brought in because she is HOT right now.
For her, the best you can say is, she has appeared in a decent big screen film and did not embarrass herself, so it goes down as a plus on her resume. Which makes me think about one of the first times I ever saw Denise Richards on the big screen, playing an "Atomic scientist" in that James Bond film. The audience erupted in laughter and nobody ever took her seriously again.
Overall, this picture is a nice piece of work. Not Hitchcock or even John Frankenheimer by any means, but good enough movie making to make for an enjoyable film going experience.