Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Ten Films Of 2010!

Two years ago when making my list of the best films of the year I wrote "what a pathetic, mindless, worthless year 2008 proved to be for cinema". Last year when trying to make my list, I wrote I simply couldn't do it. The year had been so bad I was unable to comprise a list of ten films which I liked. The last two years sucked the joy of cinema right out of me that I even stopped writing on here for a couple of months.

However, I am very happy to say, that is not the case this year. In fact it has been the complete opposite. I had difficulty limiting myself to only ten films, so I am going to have to do something I normally don't do; create a runner's up list. Funny enough though, the majority of movie critics have been complaining that it hasn't been a good year for movies. Why is it that I am always dancing outside of public opinion? I honestly didn't see as many films this year as I had the last two years but because of my extreme selectivity I made plenty of good choices and saw a lot of entertaining films.

Whenever making my list I like to concentrate on a shared common theme and how that theme relates to our society. How do my choices fit into the larger social picture? This year it seems that common theme was "connecting". All of the films on this list are about people trying to connect to one another or their environment. I suppose I could play Freud for a second and say my pleasure from these films comes from my own personal desires to connect with people, maybe. But now is not the time or place for that.

One of the most acclaimed movies of the year, "The Social Network" (2010), is about people "connecting". The highest grossing film of the year "Toy Story 3" (2010) is about the relationship between a boy and his toys and the desire which his toys have to connect to other children so they can be played with. "Inception" (2010) boggled the mind with its special effect and alternate world of dreams, but underneath all of that was a story about a young man trying to get his father to accept him. To connect. The Woody Allen comedy "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010) was about a group of people so desperate they turn to the stars to find love, to find acceptance, to connect with someone. George Clooney in "The American" (2010) is a hit-man of sorts on one last job who wants to call it quits because of love. He has found someone to connect with.

We can take this theme of connecting and apply it to where our society is. Think in terms of politics and the last election. Voters sent Washington a message; listen to us. People decided they couldn't connect with the Democrats or President Obama. So they sent people to Washington whom they felt they connected with. Politicians whom they felt would listen to them and shared their concerns.

In the end this theme of "connecting" I suppose I can be applied to any year of movies but this year, in these economic times, it was the most prevalent issue. People are hurting. They have lost their jobs, unsure of when they will find their next job. It may cause a strain on a relationship, a marriage or one's single life. In that context we are all looking for someone to connect to. To listen to our problems, to share our dreams with.

My feeling has always been movies don't exist on their own. They are a product of their environment. Movies are a reflection of our society. The year 2010 is the year we tried to come together and solve our problems.

Here are my choices for the best films of the year as well as a runner's up list!

1. METROPOLIS (Dir. Fritz Lang; Germany, 1927) - The ultimate movie about connecting and the major movie event of the year!

Some readers may think I'm cheating by putting this Fritz Lang masterpiece, made in 1927, on my list. My reason for including it though is simple. Two years ago, in Buenos Aires, 25 additional minutes of this film was found. They were believed to be lost. Now the film is in its most complete form since its debut in Germany back in '27. Only 5 minutes of the film remain missing.

Kino, which has distributed the film, premiered this version at festivals and gave it a theatrical run in several major cities. Seeing this "complete version" was like seeing the film for the first time. Everything made sense to me. Character motivations and situations had become clear to me.

"Metropolis" takes place in a futuristic world where people are divided into the "workers" and the "wealthy". The workers only purpose in life is to work. They live under the city, out of sight of the wealthy people, who do not have a care in the world. Eventually one man, the son of the creator of Metropolis, discovers the underground world of the workers. He takes pity on them and their harsh life and falls in love with their leader, who tells them one day a mediator will come along to bring these two worlds together. And thus our theme of connecting.

The film has strong Communist rhetoric and religious undertones. Prior to seeing this "complete version" my feelings were "Metropolis" was a very good film. Now my thoughts have changed. "Metropolis" is a masterpiece. One of the greatest films ever made.

It is also a perfect example of how classic films overpower modern cinema. Compare "Metropolis" to any film released this year. To make it a fair fight, lets compare it to the acclaimed movies of the year; "The Social Network", "The King's Speech" (2010) or "The Fighter" (2010). "Metropolis" has images which have lingered in my mind since I saw it in theatres. This is epic filmmaking. It is bold and even to this day feels fresh and relevant. This is cinema.

Read my review here:

2. A WOMAN, A GUN & A NOODLE SHOP (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China) - Several American critics bashed master filmmaker Zhang Yimou's adaptation of the Coen Brothers film "Blood Simple" (1984). My guess is because the Coen Brothers are considered a national treasure and "Blood Simple" is considered one of their best films. Naturally American critics would get a little defensive if a Chinese filmmaker comes along and changes it. But that kind of logic doesn't go over well with me. "A Woman, A Gun & A Noodle Shop" is a tightly constructed movie and has wonderful visuals. I was engaged from beginning to end.

3. ANOTHER YEAR (Dir. Mike Leigh; U.K.) - Director Mike Leigh usually makes the kind of films about people we know. In "Another Year", which I think is the best film he's ever made, Leigh makes a movie about a woman looking for love. Someone with whom she can connect with and make her feel special. Leigh is a kind of genius with these semi-improv films. No filmmaker makes "these" type of movies better!

4. HEREAFTER (Dir. Clint Eastwood; U.S.) - Here is a movie about people trying to figure out what happens after we die. This is a movie about people who are alone and search for life's impossible answers in the wrong places. A little more sentimental than I'm use to from Eastwood. But the film won me over.

Read my review here:

5. YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - It is nothing new to say audiences and critics turned their back on Woody Allen, but, I'm not one to follow the crowd. Here is a movie about people searching for love. Allen is having a little cosmic fun with us. The film is also about how we choose to interpret what life throws our way. Happiness is in the eyes of the beholder.

Read my review here:

6. INCEPTION (Dir. Christopher Nolan; U.S.) - One of the biggest brain teasers of the year. Left lots of audience members scratching their heads in confusion but I was able to follow it pretty closely. What is so great about this film is I bought everything the film was selling. The film takes us into its world and makes us believe this all seems possible. It follows its own logic.

7. WILD GRASS (Dir. Alain Resnais; France) - French master filmmaker Alain Resnais gave us this charming little film about a man finding a woman's wallet in a parking garage, finding the woman attractive and hoping by returning the wallet to her they can connect on some level.

8. TANGLED (Dir. Nathan Greno, Byron Howard; U.S.) - It was a pretty good year for animated films but Disney's 50th feature film, a modern retelling of Rapunzel, was my favorite. Of course it is a story of a young girl who dreams of experiencing the world around her, which she has been denied, in other words she wants to connect with her environment. Good songs, lots of humor, and a story good enough to hold an adult's attention and silly enough to entertain the younger audiences.

Read my review here:

9. SHUTTER ISLAND (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - How strange that when a Martin Scorsese film comes out, no one pays attention. The film seems to have been forgotten by the critics and audiences. Very, very few critics (less than 10) have placed this film on their "top ten" list according to

The film was Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio's fourth collaboration together and in my opinion their weakest but it is still a strong film and more then mere genre storytelling. Scorsese is having some fun with this one.

It also is a story, much like "Inception" of a man longing for the woman that got away. A story of two souls trying to connect

10. THE SUN (Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov; Russia) - Actually made in 2005 it has taken five years for this film to finally reach us in America. It is the story of Emperor Hirohito, who was regarded as a God to the Japanese, and the last days of WW2. The Emperor soon admits that he is not a God, only a man, and a man with flaws.

The film had amazing cinematography which put us in a claustrophobic, chilling mood. In some ways it reminded me of "The Shining" (1980).


1. BLACK SWAN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky; U.S.) read my review here:

2. THE KING'S SPEECH (Dir. Tom Hooper; U.K.)

3. MEGAMIND (Dir. Tom McGrath; U.S.) read my review here:

4. YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (Dir. Barry Levinson; U.S.)


6. RED RIDING TRILOGY (Dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker; U.K.)

7. WHITE MATERIAL (Dir. Claire Denis; France)

8. MORNING GLORY (Dir. Roger Michell; U.S.) read my review here:

9. RABBIT HOLE (Dir. John Cameron Mitchell; U.S.) read my review here:

10. SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD (Dir. Edgar Wright; U.S.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review: Rabbit Hole

"Rabbit Hole" *** (out of ****)

So much has been made of the fact that Nicole Kidman hasn't starred in a box-office success since 2001 when she appeared in "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Others". Since that time she has done some interesting work but the films have not had a mainstream appeal, including "Dogville" (2004), "Margot at the Wedding" (2007) and the critical acclaimed "The Hours" (2002). A few films were expected to be hits like "Austrilla" (2008) and "Nine" (2009) but they managed to be disappointments both critically and commercially.

Unfortunately I doubt "Rabbit Hole" (2010) is going to change her box-office appeal. But whether or not the film does well at the box-office is quite frankly besides the point. The real question which should be asked is whether or not the film is any good. The answer to that question is yes. And Nicole Kidman demonstrates why she is one of the best actresses we have working today.

"Rabbit Hole" is to put simply about two damaged souls and the grieving process. Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are a married couple whose 4 year old son died in an accident 8 months ago. The boy was chasing after his pet dog when a car rode down the street, swirled out of the way to avoid the dog and killed their son instead.

What exactly is the "correct" way to deal with such a traumatic event? Can one ever recover from such an ordeal? Is there even a "correct" way to deal with that type of grief? Becca and Howie try going to group therapy where they meet other couples who have also lost a child. For Becca it is not working. One couple in particular annoys her because they have turned to God in their hour of need. In Becca's mind God was the problem. Why did He take their son away. Becca takes their son's old clothes and give it to Goodwill. She removes old drawings off the refrigerator. Gives the pet dog to her mother. She is trying to remove all the things which remind her of her son.

Howie on the other hand is a different story. We find out every night Howie watches video clips of their time together with their son on his cell phone. Howie is upset that Becca has removed everything. In his mind she is trying to act like their son never existed. Howie continues to go to the group therapy.

Here we have two different approaches to deal with the same problem. In my mind, Becca's choices are correct. She is trying to move on. Having objects around which reminds her of her son only makes the process more difficult. If you are unable to get over the past you can never move forward. That is Howie's problem. He needs more time. Of course each person has to deal with their problems in their own way and at their own pace.

The movie actually has the same problem I wrote about as "The Fighter" (2010). It is monotone. There is no fluctuation in tone. The emotions in the film are somber. We don't get the big emotional payoff we are expecting. The emotional breakdown scene isn't as powerful as it could have been.

Still there are moments of very good acting by Kidman and Eckhart. We believe they are a married couple. We can relate to their situation and their grieving process feels sincere. There are a few choice moments when the two do engage in highly charged arguments concerning what steps to take in order to move forward.

Yet there are times when I felt the movie could have done more. The film doesn't examine these two people in the same intense way Ingmar Bergman studied his characters in "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974). Of course the issues each couple faces is different but Bergman kept his characters under a microscope. "Rabbit Hole", in the third act, feels a little too contrived. It reaches it conclusions a little too easily. This goes back to my comments about not getting a strong enough emotional payoff.

But why nit-pick? We should enjoy watching these two performances here by Eckhart and Kidman. Not to mention some fine supporting players like Dianne Wiest as Nat, Becca's mother. And Tammy Blanchard as Izzy, Becca's sister. Miles Teller as Jason and Giancarlo Esposito as Auggie, Izzy's boyfriend.

The film was directed by John Cameron Mitchell. This is only his third film. His two previous films include "Shortbus" (2006) and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001). I haven't seen either of these two movies but Mitchell strikes me as a competent filmmaker. I didn't quite sense a personal style coming from him however.

The script was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his own stage play. The story goes Abaire based the play on his own experiences. He had a brother who died at a young age and according to him it is an incident which his family is continuously dealing with.

So far the film has received some critical attention. Nicole Kidman is nominated for a Golden Globe in the "Best Actress" drama category and she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. The film is also up in three other categories including "Best Director". And I personally hope Kidman wins an Oscar nomination. Even though it seems to be Natalie Portman's year.

"Rabbit Hole" is a strong film with effective performances. Audiences, as of now, don't seem to be paying attention to it, hopefully that will change.

p.s. - what exactly does the title "Rabbit Hole" mean? When I think of a "rabbit hole" I think of "Alice in Wonderland" and the rabbit hole which took Alice to a world where nothing made sense. Becca's rabbit hole leads her to the real world where once again, nothing makes sense.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Here's Nyuck In Your Eyes!

Whether readers are aware of it are not, I am a great fan of classic Hollywood comedy. I love writing about my favorite comedians and comedies. Comedy is my favorite genre. It has had the biggest impact on me. I have tried to discuss many of the great comics and comedy teams of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I have written about Laurel & Hardy (my favorite comedy team of all time), Charlie Chaplin, Abbott & Costello, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But I have also tried to introduce readers to the comics time has forgotten. I have discussed Harry Langdon, the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and Joe E. Brown among others. However, there has been one very popular comedy team I have not written about; the Three Stooges.

There has been a reason for their absence. The Three Stooges are not known for their work in feature films. They are best known among their fans for the 2 reelers they appeared in at Columbia Pictures. Though they did appear in feature films these were made later in their careers and do not feature the most famous line-up of Moe, Larry and Curly (or Curley as he is credited). As a result I have not mentioned them. I don't want to review individual 2 reelers. I prefer to review feature length films.

So now some of you might be asking yourself, if that is my rule, why am I writing about the Three Stooges. The reason is rather straight forward. I recently received some DVDs of the Stooges' work and wanted to discuss them. Not necessarily review individual shorts but their work in general and the impression it has left on me.

Even at a young age I've taken pleasure in watching comedies from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I appreciate many of the great comics; W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Bob Hope...ect. But for some reason I was never a Stooge fan. Their approach to comedy didn't appeal to me. Even as a child I actually found them childish. Not to mention my mother gave me the same warning most mothers gave their sons and told me not to watch the Three Stooges. She felt they were too violent.

I've had friends over the years try to show me what I am missing. They tell me the Stooges were great reactionaries. Pay attention to their facial expressions I was told. But, it didn't matter to me. They just weren't funny. Oh sure, I could handle them in small doses. Maybe watch a short or two at a time. But after a while, their antics; slapping each other in the face, poking one another in the eyes, pounding their fist on each other's head, became boring and predictable. After I've seen Moe poke Curly's eyes once I may in fact laughed at it. But when he does it 6 times in the same 2 reeler I'm no longer laughing.

It was to my surprise someone would buy me a DVD of the Stooges for Christmas. Their logic was since I am an admirer of classic comedy therefore I must like the Stooges. I thanked them for the gift and part of me was anxious to watch them again. It had been years since I done so. Could my memories have been wrong? Maybe there wasn't as much violence as my mother warned me about. I remembered their comedies being a battle royale. Perhaps I was wrong.

An 8 volume DVD collection simply titled "The Three Stooges Collection" was released in 2007. It features all 190 plus 2 reelers the boys appeared in while at Columbia Pictures. I was given volume one, which showcases their first 19 shorts and volume eight, which features the last 32 they appeared in and includes the 16 shorts Joe Besser appeared in. Those 16 shorts are actually a matter of controversy to Stooge fans which I will discuss later.

Volume one has the most famous line-up; Moe, Larry and Curly. Here we see the team working out the rough edges and establishing what each man's role would be in the team. Moe is the leader, Curly is the "second" stooge, the one who takes most of Moe's hits. Curly is the most adversarial. Meanwhile, Larry is their to take up space and say "it was an accident Moe" when accidentally hitting Moe.

What really surprised me was how many gifted people worked with the Stooges. A good number of their shorts were written by Felix Adler. I've actually discussed him on here before. He was a very good gag writer who worked with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Vernon Dent also appeared in several shorts with the boys. He would play "heavy" to Harry Langdon in his 2 reelers. And Raymond McCarey (Leo's brother) directed a few of these shorts. Raymond, at one time, worked for Hal Roach and did some behind the scenes work for Laurel & Hardy. His brother Leo, is credited as being the man who paired them together.

There are also a lot of famous shorts in this first volume which also surprised me. It would appear right from the beginning the Three Stooges were making memorable comedies. Their second short at Columbia, "Punch Drunks" (1934) is quite famous, even I had seen it before. This is the one where Moe is a boxing manager, Larry is an out of work fiddle player and Curly is a timid man who goes berserk whenever he hears the tune "pop goes the weasel". Their third short, "Men in Black" (1934) is equally famous. It was their only short to be nominated for an Oscar, "Best Short Subject". This is the one where they are doctors as a loudspeaker repeatedly says "calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard". Next there is "Three Little Pigskins" (1934) which features a very young Lucille Ball (!). I honestly didn't know Lucille Ball worked with the Stooges. I knew she had worked with the Marx Brothers, but was extremely surprised to see her here.

Also on Volume one is "Three Little Beers" (1935) which is only famous to me because this is where the boys try to learn how to golf and wear their famous golf costumes. And lastly, "Disorder in the Court" (1936) is here, perhaps their most famous short. I know of many people who regard it as a comedy masterpiece.

As I watched these shorts my opinion of the Stooges changed very little. None of these shorts really made me laugh. However, I do have a favorite from the set. One called "Movie Maniacs" (1936) which has the boys trying to break into Hollywood. There is one gag as the boys try to direct a movie and show the actors how to make the proper gestures which really did have me laughing out loud. But notice, it had nothing to do with hitting. Just non-violent physical comedy. The things I came away laughing at watching these shorts were a lot of the verbal gags. I liked one moment in "Men in Black" when the boys are about to perform surgery (for the first time) as a nurse is whispering to them. So the boys start to whisper to until finally one of them ask why are they whispering, to which the nurse replies, she doesn't know why they are but she is because she lost her voice asking for a raise. Some my think it is a corny joke, but, I've always been one to appreciate a good corny joke. I also like a moment in "Disorder in the Court" as Curly is about to be sworn in before he testifies.

The biggest problem with all of these shorts is they lack a strong structure. There really is no beginning, middle and end. A lot of the stories don't resolve anything. The shorts are merely a collection of jokes. Depending on the comedians I may not mind that very much if I'm laughing. But, with the Stooges I notice the plot holes.

At first the idea with the Stooges seemed to be the same approach taken with most comics. Try to put in comedians in the most outrageous situation and let the sparks fly. So in one short they are doctors, in another football players and yet another soldiers in the army. Put them in the past as knights defending a queen or put them in outer space. It is suppose to be funny to see these characters played in environments out of the normal and see what would happen.

Now I said volume 8 of the collection has been a matter of debate. A great many Stooge fans hate Joe Besser. Some go as far as to say the man really wasn't a Stooge. In a sign of just how bloody minded Stooge fans are, their main compliment is Joe didn't get hit enough. Stooge fans go as far as to say Joe was a wuss and make insinuations that the man was a closeted homosexual. Not just the character he played but Joe Besser himself! They insist the man wasn't even funny. I simply cannot go along with these extreme comments.

First of all Joe Besser was not a homosexual. Neither him or his character. And even if the man was, so what! That is no one's business. What Stooge fans don't realize is the character Joe Besser played while with the Stooges was the character he played all his life. An overgrown man child. For those unware who Joe Besser was. He is best known for the catchphrase "not so haaarrrdddd". He worked with Abbott & Costello, Joey Bishop and even Jack Benny. He was a very funny man and if put in the right situation his character could be humorous. As far as not taking a hit, Joe did take a hit, though I will admit not as often as Curly, Shemp or Larry. And I should point out Joe did have it in his contract he didn't want to take too many hits in the face.

Remarks regarding Joe Besser didn't fit in as a Stooge I feel are correct. I can nod in agreement with that. But once Stooge fans start going overboard with all those other criticisms I have to start drawing the line. And to further irritate Stooge fans I must say I don't mind the Besser shorts. In some ways I prefer them because now the hitting doesn't take up as much screen time as before, Though I must also admit, the stories weren't very good. That wasn't Joe's fault though. You have to remember the Stooges had been working at Columbia since 1934. Joe Besser became part of the act in 1957 making his debut in "Hoofs and Goofs". They were simply starting to run out of steam. Many of the shorts made during Besser's years were actually remakes. Though the Stooges also did remakes when Shemp was part of the act too.

My favorite Joe Besser short is "Pies and Guys" (1958) which is a remake of "Hoi Polloi" (1934) which was one of the Curly shorts (found one volume one of the collection). Here the boys are part of a bet to see if they are able to learn manners. The short "Triple Crossed" reminds me of a Laurel & Hardy movie "Our Relations" (1936). In fact a great many of the gags the Stooges were doing remind me of Laurel & Hardy gags. You have to remember as far as screen comedy goes Laurel & Hardy precedes the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello and Jack Benny. Laurel & Hardy were around in the silent era. Comics stole from other comics all the time, so I'm not suggesting the Stooges started something. I realize it is a reality. But, as a Laurel & Hardy man myself, I kept thinking about them as I watched the Stooges and how I prefer Stan & Ollie over Moe, Larry and Curly.

Still my opinion isn't as harsh as it once was concerning the Three Stooges. I'm somewhere in the middle regarding them. However, this DVD collection is a must have for Stooge fans. The shorts look great, very crisp sharp image.

Film Review: The Fighter

"The Fighter" *** (out of ****)

Walking into "The Fighter" (2010) I admit my expectations may have been too high. Given all the critical acclaim which has been thrown at the movie (which honestly should have been my first signal something was up) I was anticipating a masterpiece. A film which I would consider one of the best of the year. Unfortunately, for me at least, "The Fighter" isn't the knockout I wanted it to be.

"The Fighter" is suppose to be one of those heartwarming, sympathetic, inspiration stories of an underdog beating all the odds. A story of perseverance. How we can all achieve great things if we put our mind to it. It just so happens to be a boxing melodrama, so there will be those who will want to compare it the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) or "Rocky" (1977), also a "Best Picture" Oscar winner. But "The Fighter" isn't as emotional as "Million Dollar Baby" and didn't strike me as inspirational as "Rocky".

The problem for me is with the story's structure. All the ingredients are here quite frankly to make a memorable film. However the screenplay doesn't go about introducing us to these characters in the right way and doesn't build up enough emotion.

The story starts off with Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) as a local boxing legend. Though, now he is a crack addict. He only has his memories to get by on and repeatedly tells the story of how he beat Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring. Dicky now is the corner man for his half-brother Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg). But Dicky isn't reliable. He shows up late for training. He is always at the crack house. Mickey's mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) serves as his manager and lately hasn't been getting him the fights Mickey deserves. Mickey needs to tell his family to back off, but, with this clang, it is hard. The family motto is never trust anyone that isn't family.

In these early moments we can see neither Dicky or Alice really believes in Mickey. Dicky only thinks about himself. Whether it is doing drugs or his memories of the past. He is even under the delusion he is going to stage a comeback and believes HBO is following him around to cover his story. An HBO crew is following him but not for the reasons Dicky think. Alice on the other hand, still puts great pride in Dicky never giving Mickey enough attention or credit.

Naturally things soon change for Mickey after he meets Charlene (Amy Adams). A bartender with a lot of sass who speaks her mind. They seem to instantly hit it off. It is Charlene who tells Mickey the uncomfortable truth, he needs to leave his family behind if he wants to make it as a boxer.

The script's dialogue is actually very good. I found it very colorful and alive. The people speak in a realistic manner. It is just that the film never really has a shift in tone. The tension never really rises. Everything is fairly conventional. No major surprises with this story.

What I think would have made this film better was if we see Dicky as the great fighter he once was and then slowly see his fall, while little brother Mickey looks on. Dicky would then be his inspiration to succeed. I actually find Dicky to be the more interesting character, not Mickey. Dicky has more of a background story. He seems to have lead the more difficult life. More struggles. More to overcome.

I also thought the film's ending, a big boxing match, wasn't as powerful as it could have been. This should have been a very uplifting moment in the film. By this point in the movie the audience should have been overcome with emotion. We should be feeling every punch in that ring. But this is such a somber, monotone, it just doesn't come off. There is no real emotional reward.

If I sound like "The Fighter" isn't worth seeing, that is not my intention. The movie has good performances, I especially like Christian Bale, and as I said, the dialogue is very good.

The film was directed by David O. Russell, the man behind "I Heart Huckabees" (2004), a film which I liked more than most, and "Three Kings" (1999), a film which I disliked more than most, which also starred Mark Wahlberg. Russell does a good job getting strong performances out of his actors and gives the movie a nice look.

The film has won 6 Golden Globe nominations including "Best Picture" and "Best Director" and Christian Bale has already won the National Board of Review award for "Best Supporting Actor". Don't be surprised if Bale gets an Oscar nomination either.

"The Fighter" is worth seeing for the performances and the dialogue. The story however just isn't all it could have been. Too bad. There was a lot going on here which could have made this a truly great film.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" *** (out of ****)

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010) gives the Narnia series a much needed boast, but, it may not matter in the end, as this may represent the conclusion of the series. However, the film is better than "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (2008). But falls slightly short of the original film, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005).

I've often complained that the Narnia series lacks a certain amount of movie magic. The films aren't told with fascination and joy. The audience isn't "wowed" by the world of Narnia. The film doesn't take delight in introducing us to its characters and make us feel we are witnessing something special. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" however does have moments of splendor and grandeur. A few times I sat in awe of the special effects and took some delight in where this latest Narnia adventure would lead us.

Watching these Narnia films it has been my opinion that Narnia doesn't exist. The world was created by our lead characters' imagination. They created this world in order to deal with the troubled world of WW2 London. The children's father is a solider fighting abroad. Their mother has not been seen since the first film. They are separated from their family. And as our heroes grow older they face the same identity issues all teenagers face. It is during these moments of great emotional stress when the children have found themselves in Narnia in every film.

There is a key line in "Voyage of the Treader" which is spoken by Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) a wise, old talking lion. He tells one of the characters to remember each life has value. Do not wish to be something else. Learn to appreciate who you are and what you have. That ladies and gentlemen has been the theme of these Narnia films, especially this last (?) adventure.

In "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" the characters learn three lessons dealing with beauty, bravery and the power of imagination. Each one of these themes will have a profound effect on these characters. Lessons which will have an ever lasting effect on their lives.

There are a lot of changes in this latest Narnia adventure. As was suggested at the end of "Prince Caspian" two of the Pevensie children are not along for the journey; Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley). They were the two oldest children. In order to explain their disappearance we are told they are in America with their father. But, because of the war the remaining two; Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skander Keynes) cannot travel. It would be far too dangerous. So, they live with their cousin and we are introduced to a new character, Eustice (Will Poulter) their spoiled, all logical cousin, who feels superior to Lucy and Edmund, especially when he hears their fairy tales about Narnia.

Between Lucy and Edmund, it is Edmund which seems to have grown the most. The movie opens with him trying to enlist in the war. He is tired of being treated like a child. He complains in Narnia he is a king, he fought in battles and lead men. Here, in the real world, he feels useless. He wants to prove to others his bravery. He is a man. Lucy however retains a naive innocent child's mentality. During one moment in the film she seems so pure that she doesn't even have fearful thoughts, she doesn't even feel temptation. She will eventually learn that one day we must all grow up.

That aspect of the film reminds me of Peter Pan. Narnia was a vessel for these children to learn about growing up. In the first two films, Peter, must also learn lessons of bravery and leadership. He must take care of his brother and sisters since he is the oldest one. Now with Peter gone, Edmund feels he too must now step up the challenge. The reason Peter and Susan are not in this film is because at the end of "Prince Caspian" Aslan tells them, they have learned all they can from Narnia. Meaning they have become adults and just like in Peter Pan, when you become an adult you lose your imagination.

The introduction of the Eustice character is two-fold. It is Eustice who learns the power of imagination. Eustice is only concerned with facts and the real world. He has no time to read fairy tales. As he goes along with Lucy and Edmund on their adventure he discovers sometimes we need an escape from reality. His character's other importance to the story is if these Narnia adventures continue we will be going on his adventures. He will pick up where the Pevensie children left off.

Other changes to the Narnia world is Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is no longer a prince, now he is a king. And for the first time Narnia is at peace. There are no wars. All the creatures of Narnia live in harmony and without fear.

This time around the adventure revolves around King Caspian and the gang trying to track down the legendary seven swords of the lords as they sail on uncharted waters. They need the swords because of a powerful, deadly mist which slave traders sacrifice human life to. The only way to stop the mist will be to place all seven swords on Aslan's table.

We eventually learn this adventure will take them to a dreaded island where once they land their deepest, darkest fears will come true. This sub-plot actually reminded me of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2005). It is on this island the final sword has been placed.

One of the problems I've had with the Narnia films is the human characters aren't interesting. The Pevensie children aren't really memorable characters. King Caspian is rather dull and boring. The most memorable characters were the non-human ones; Tumnus (James McAvoy), the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), Aslan, Beaver (voice of Ray Winston) and in these last two films a swashbuckler mouse, Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg). The problem is C.S. Lewis killed off a majority of these characters after the first film. This hurts the films because we have no characters which we are emotionally connected to. And the films no longer have an effective villain.

Directing "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is Michael Apted, taking over for Andrew Adamson, who directed the first two films. Apted has directed titles such as "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), the Jennifer Lopez vehicle "Enough" (2002) and the James Bond outing "The World Is Not Enough" (1999). With Apted at the helm, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is actually the shortest of the three films. It has the most action and probably the best special effects. It also has some darker moments. Some of these moments, one including a sea battle with a giant serpent like animal, may turn out to be too scary for younger viewers.

The script was adapted by the same team which adapted the first two films; Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus and a new name was brought in, Michael Petroni, who wrote "Queen of the Damned" (2002).

As I said "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a better film than "Prince Caspian" and is probably the kind of sequel most viewers where expecting from the series. But it may be too late. After the disappointing box-office of "Caspian" even Disney dropped out and decided not to distribute this film, 20th Century Fox did instead. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" seems to suggest this is the end of the line, even though more books do exist. I don't believe though that those novels will be filmed and to be quite honest, I don't think I personally want to go back to Narnia again.

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is an entertaining film with lots to say about beauty, bravery, imagination and growing up. There is more to the film than what is on the surface. And that will give audience members, who are old enough, something to think about.

Film Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" *** (out of ****)

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (2008) was the sequel to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005). And was considered by many people to be a disappointment. I can see their point but, the movie works, in a way, just not in the ways you might expect it to.

When I first saw "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" my main compliant was the first film lacked a certain movie magic. The movie didn't seem to take great joy introducing us to the world of Narnia. It was a rather somber film with a message, which I interpreted as, children using their imagination to mask the terrors of the outside world.

If you recall the first film it took place in London during WW2. The children's father is a solider and their mother has sent them to the countryside for their safety, where they live with Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) and discover an empty wardrobe closet which transports them to the world of Narnia.

In "Prince Caspian" a year in human time has elapsed. The children miss the world of Narnia and have not returned since. When we meet the Pevensie children we find Susan, (Anna Popplewell) the eldest daughter, has become a bit of a loner. The eldest son, Peter (William Moseley) gets into fights in school, where he gets beat up. He still wants to live in Narnia where he is a king and known for his bravery. In the real world he is just another boy who gets picked on. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) still retain their innocence from the first film.

Just as in the first film, I came away with a story of children disappointed with the real world who use their imagination to escape into a fantasy world which they have created. Soon, in Harry Potter style, a subway train speeds by them and somehow opens a portal which takes them in Narnia.

But Narnia is not the same place they (or we) remember. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) no longer rules. Narnia is not a winter wonderland anymore. It now looks like a tropical island. We learn 100 years have passed since the children have been there. Gone are all their friends from the past; Tumnus (James McAvoy), Beaver (voice of Ray Winston) and Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) has not been seen since.

The creatures of Narnia have had to live underground due to a war with the Telmarians (who basically look like humans) who thought they completely killed off every Narnia creature. They are now ruled by Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who has order his men to kill his nephew, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) after Miraz's wife has given birth to a son. Prince Caspian, who has been told stories of what Narnia was once like, finds himself befriending the creatures of Narnia and the Pevensie children to fight the Telmarians and restore order once again.

The reason a lot of people were disappointed by this movie, I think, is because first of all the tone of the film is much different. If "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a children's fantasy picture, "Prince Caspian" is a medieval period piece adventure story, no different than the "Lord of the Rings" stories and the movie I kept thinking about while watching this, "The Two Towers" (2002). Also all of the beloved characters are gone here. Only the White Witch and Aslan make cameo appearances. They were quite frankly the most interesting characters, not the Pevensie children. There is no mention of the children's parents. Is the father even alive? No wardrobe in this movie either. Wasn't that the only way to enter Narnia?

As I said, the first movie lacked magic, this movie doubles that lack of magic. Instead the movie evokes a sense of nostalgia. We yearn for the first film and its world and cast of characters. There is a great sense of lost hoovering over this film. A desire to return things to the way we remember it. But this also coincides with the children's emotions. They wanted to return to Narnia because of their dissatisfaction with the real world.

I'm still of the belief Narnia doesn't exist and is all in the children's mind. I won't reveal the ending and I haven't seen "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010) yet, but, it seems the movie has the same message as "Peter Pan". Once we grow older we lose our imagination. It is suggested two characters will no longer return to Narnia because they have gotten older and have learned all they can from Narnia. What a mistake from an audience's point of view. Why keep eliminating all the characters we've come to know?

But I'm recommending "Prince Caspian". Why am I doing so if I find fault with the movie? I only find fault with the movie when compared to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and what my expectations were. As an action/adventure story "Prince Caspian" is your typical film with the usual results. In that sense it delivers on what you would expect from this genre. To compare the film to the original, I admit, "Prince Caspian" is the weaker film and an odd continuation of the Narnia saga.

Directing duties were taken on once again by Andrew Adamson and adapted by the same writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. I've never read the Chronicle of Narnia books so I'm at a disadvantage. I don't know how successfully these films have been adapted. But even if the writers followed the book to the letter, this is a bizarre adventure.

"Prince Caspian" was a major letdown for Disney studios, which didn't even release "Dawn Treader". The movie grossed 150 million less than the first film domestically. It didn't even break even. Although I'm of the opinion a movie's box-office is not an indication of a film's quality. The movie is worth seeing just be prepared for something different.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Golden Globe Nominations

Yesterday the 68th annual Golden Globe nominees were announced and it might turn into a night of "royal" entertainment as the British film "The King's Speech" (2010) led with 7 nominations.

Other major nominated films included "The Social Network" (2010), the facebook movie, which won 6 nominations in a tie with the boxing drama "The Fighter" (2010), which also won 6 nominations. Also nominated were the box-office hit, "Inception" (2010), "Black Swan" (2010) and the indie hit "The Kids Are All Right" (2010).

Unfortunately missing were nominations for Leonardo DiCaprio in "Inception" and/or Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010), which was completely shut out. No nominations for Roman Polanski either and his film "The Ghost Writer" (2010), despite both Scorsese's film and Polanski's receiving generally positive reviews.

The Golden Globes, unlike the Academy Awards, separates the nominated films into two categories; drama and comedy/musical. The nominated films for "Best Picture" (drama) are; "Black Swan", "The Fighter", "Inception", "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network". The "Best Picture" nominees in the comedy/musical category are; "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Burlesque" (2010), "The Kids Are All Right", "Red" (2010) and "The Tourist" (2010).

In the acting categories the nominees for "Best Actor" (drama) are; Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network"), Colin Firth ("The King's Speech"), James Franco ("127 Hours", 2010), Ryan Gosling ("Blue Valentine" 2010) and Mark Wahlberg ("The Fighter"). For "Best Actress" (drama) the nominees are; Halle Berry ("Frankie and Alice", 2010), Nicole Kidman ("Rabbit Hole", 2010), Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone", 2010), Natalie Portman ("Black Swan") and Michelle Williams ("Blue Valentine").

In the comedy/musical category the nominees for "Best Actor" are; Johnny Depp for his performances in "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Tourist", Paul Giamatti ("Barney Version", 2010), Jake Gyllenhaal ("Love & Other Drugs", 2010) and Kevin Spacey ("Casino Jack", 2010). For "Best Actress" the nominees are; Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right"), Anne Hathaway ("Love & Other Drugs"), Angelina Jolie ("The Tourist"), Julianne Moore ("The Kids Are All Right") and Emma Stone ("Easy A", 2010).

A lot of people dislike the fact the Hollywood Foreign Press, whom decides on the nominees, separate the two categories but I actually like their decision. So often comedy has to take a backseat to hard hitting dramas. Comedies rarely get their due. At least at the Golden Globes comedies have a chance to be celebrated too. However, in the "Best Director" category the nominees are the same five people who directed the "Best Picture" nominated films in the drama category. I guess none of the comedy nominees were finely directed.

A lot of the nominated films have not opened in Chicago yet; "The Fighter", "The King's Speech", "Frankie and Alice", "Rabbit Hole", "Blue Valentine" and "Barney's Version", so I don't know if the nominations were worthwhile. I also can't predict any winners. But I was surprised "Burlesque" scored a "Best Picture" nomination. The movie was universally panned by critics. Why not nominate the Woody Allen film "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010) instead? Or how about James L. Brooks (usually a critical darling) and his romantic comedy "How Do You Know?" (2010)?

I also can't understand all the hype over "The Kids Are All Right". The movie played like sit-com material in my opinion. I also feel "The Social Network" has been over-hyped as well. Many people are saying that is a front runner for an Oscar. Dear God, what a mistake that would be. The comparisons to "Citizen Kane" (1941) are really over-blown. The children have to stop doing that.

The Golden Globes will air on Sunday, January 16, 2011 and will be hosted by Ricky Gervais. For a complete list of all the nominated films and television shows visit here:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Film Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" *** (out of ****)

In preparation for the release of the latest "The Chronicles of Narnia" adventure, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010) I have decided it is about time I watch the other films in the series so when I see "Dawn Treader" I'll know what is going on.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005) is the most popular book in author C.S. Lewis' series of Narnia stories. Since its release both the book and all of its adaptations were seen as religious allegories. In fact a lot of critics condemned this movie because they felt the film became too much of a religious parable. As one might expect, I disagree with that sentiment.

The first thing which struck me as I watched "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the tone of the film. The movie lacks the magic of say "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001). That movie told its story with fascination and joy. It took great pleasure in introducing us to the world of Hogwarts and its characters. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", which takes us to a world just as spectacular, doesn't tell its story with such fever delight. It is more somber and doesn't seem to be trying to "wow" us.

The movie takes place sometime in the 1940s in London. We open with an air raid. Bombs are dropping everywhere as our four young heroes; Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skander Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) seek shelter. We learn their father is a soldier fighting in the war. They are left with their mother, who is afraid she is unable to take care of them properly. She sends them off to the countryside to live with Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). It is in the professor's home the children discover the world of Narnia as they enter it through a wardrobe closet in an empty bedroom.

Though the movie does have some religious undertones what I came away with most watching the film is a story similar to that of the Spanish film "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006). Both are stories of children who use their imagination to help them escape the grim realities of life. Here it is the war years in Britain. The children worry about their father and are away from their mother. How will this war further affect their lives? So, to help shield them from the real world the children create an escape, where there is an equally high amount of danger, but it helps them take their mind off of the true horrors which are outside their door.

Or at least that's what I think "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is all about. But what if Narnia is a real place? That's what Prof. Kirke thinks when he hears the children speak of a secret world which is hidden in one of his wardrobe closets.

When the children arrive in Narnia they discover a world where it is always winter but never Christmas, to little Lucy's major disappointment (no presents!). It has been this way for 100 years. Narnia is now ruled by the White Queen (Tilda Swinton). But there is a prophecy which speaks of four saviours who will come and restore order to Narnia. Two daughters of Eve and two sons of Adam. In other words, four humans. These children along with the help of a brave and wise lion, Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) will fight the White Queen in an epic battle of good and evil.

Actually the set-up here is no different than any western. An unwelcome stranger rides into town to discover the town is under the rule of some bad bandits and it is up to our unknown stranger to protect the village. The children are our strangers who ride into town (AKA Narnia), the bandit is the White Queen and along with the help of the sheriff (Aslan) the strangers will fight the bad guys.

The world of Narnia is filled with talking animals like a beaver (voice of Ray Winston) and a faun, Tumnus (James McAvoy) and centaurs, not to mention that talking lion.

But as I say, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" doesn't allow us to pause in wonderment and digest this world. The viewer doesn't truly feel they are witnessing something magical. Or at least I didn't. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" seems too preoccupied with its story and religious aspects.

The biggest religious allegory here is the character of Aslan, who is almost a Jesus Christ-like character.


He offers his own life to protect one of the children, who has committed a crime in the world of Narnia. But like a Christ like figure, he rises from the dead.


The religious undertones though I felt were very subtle and didn't overpower the story. And I say this as someone who went to Catholic school for six years.

The film was directed by Andrew Adamson, who directed "Shrek" (2001) and "Shrek 2" (2004). Adamson would also go on to direct the second "Chronicles of Narnia" adventure, "Prince Caspian" (2008). The screenplay was written by an unusual group of writers; Ann Peacock, who wrote the John Booreman film "In My Country" (2004) and the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the men behind "You Kill Me" (2007). Nothing about those films, which are all worth seeing, would suggest these people would be a good choice to adapt Lewis' story. And I'm happy to say I find "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" much more suitable for children when compared to "Shrek", which I've reviewed and find inappropriate for children.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was also nominated for three Academy Awards and won one for its make-up. It was such a box-office success that of course two more sequels have been made. If this latest film does well at the box-office it has been suggested Lewis' entire series will be adapted to screen.

Overall I like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". I'm now looking forward to seeing "Prince Caspian".

Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Review: Young and Innocent

"Young and Innocent" *** (out of ****)

"Young and Innocent" (1937) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's early British films. Though it isn't as well remembered as "The 39 Steps" (1935) or "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), two of Hitchcock's best British films, it is a typical Hitchcock film which shows the seeds of what was to come.

"Young and Innocent" deals with Hitchcock's favorite theme, the innocent man wrongfully accused. This time around the man is Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) whom happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has discovered the body of a well known actress, Christine (Pamela Carme) on a beach. Two witnesses swear they saw him running away from the body. He admits he did but only to go and get help. A belt from his raincoat was used to strangle the woman. Robert however swears his coat was stolen from him. Since the police have no other clues or suspects, Robert is arrested.

Robert manages to escape and finds himself hiding in the car of Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), whose father, (Percy Marmont) works with the police. Robert confides in Erica and pleads his innocence. His plan is to find his raincoat. If he can find who stole it maybe it is the same person who murdered Christine.

With Robert and Erica on the road together naturally Hitchcock has the two fall in love. Erica slowly begins to believe in Robert's innocence and desperately wants to help him clear his name before the police catch him again.

As I have said, Hitchcock has made films with similar story lines. The best example is "The 39 Steps". Other examples include "North By Northwest" (1959) and "Saboteur" (1942). All three are better pictures. If Hitchcock had made "Young and Innocent" in America I think it would have been a better film. "Young and Innocent" suffers from the same short comings most of Hitchcock's British films do. The film was made on a small budget, the acting is a bit raw and the film lacks great suspense.

Although Hitchcock fans may argue forever and a day over which period produced Hitchcock's best films, I prefer his American films. They have greater artistic sensibilities, better acting, better music and more suspense.

"Young and Innocent", like a good number of Hitchcock films, also has room for some dry humor. One entertaining scene involves Erica and Robert visiting Erica's aunt (Mary Clare) not realizing there is a birthday party being thrown for Erica's cousin. The two get stuck helping serve cake and ice-cream. Meanwhile the aunt tries to find out all the information she can about Robert, only she gets different stories when speaking to Erica and Robert alone.

The film was based on a novel written by Josephine Tey entitled "A Shilling For Candles" and was written by Anthony Armstrong, Edwin Greenwood (this was his final script before passing away) and Charles Bennett, who wrote a few of Hitchcock's British films including "Secret Agent" (1936) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). He also wrote one of Hitchcock's first American films, "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), which also happens to be one of his best.

Another downside to the film has to do with the ending. It feels rushed and ends too neatly. Everything just happens so suddenly and right on cue. You get the feeling the writers didn't really known how to satisfyingly resolve this mystery. And in typical Hitchcock fashion the killer's motive isn't very clear. It appears to be a random act of violence.

Also into question is the film's title. Young and innocent can refer to Robert - a young man whom is innocent of murder. It can also be Erica though. She too is young and is innocent herself. Strangely enough the movie is also known by the title "The Girl Was Young". This makes one think the movie is actually her story not Robert's. Can young and innocent refer to their love?

Even though I admire Hitchcock's American films more, I haven't reviewed them. The only one I did review was my favorite, "Rear Window" (1954). I also reviewed "The Lodger" (1927) which I think is his best silent film. Right now though I've been watching his British films. I'm curious to see how it all began. "Young and Innocent" is no masterpiece but it has some great moments. It is a little rough around the edges but is still pretty solid entertainment wise. Those interested in Hitchcock's work should try and find this.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Film Review: Morning Glory

"Morning Glory" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Sometimes people are too hard on good Hollywood entertainment. Film critics like to use these movies to sharpen their chops. To demonstrate they know how to cut a movie apart. They know how to use venomous words. I admit, I'm not really to right guy to sing the praises of mainstream Hollywood films but when a movie is as good as "Morning Glory" (2010) I want to tell people about it.

For some strange reason the film hasn't made much of a dent with the public. Was their too much competition? Did the movie get lost in the shuffle? Was it because of the critics, whom were largely unfair to it? Have audiences simply grown tired of Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton (I hope not!)? Or is because Spider-Man didn't make a cameo? I bet if he did critics would be changing their tune. Those seem to be the only mainstream films critics get behind; comic book adaptations and Pixar animated films. Sadly, "Morning Glory" is neither.

"Morning Glory" is a sharp, perceptive, finely acted, well-written, funny movie. And besides Ford and Keaton the movie gives us Rachel McAdams, in perhaps her best starring vehicle.

A word about McAdams. I love her. Rarely have I seen a modern actress who has as much charm. McAdams, and I would argue Amy Adams, remind me of those great actresses from the 30s and 40s. They have a wonderful old-fashion appeal to them. I mean that as a compliment. To some people if you use the term "old-fashion" they take that as an insult. But remember who is writing this. Coming from me that is quite the compliment. Even when McAdams is in a movie I don't understand, "The Time Traveller's Wife" (2009) or a movie she doesn't belong in, "Red Eye" (2005), I still take pleasure in watching her perform.

"Morning Glory" is really her movie. She is the center of attention. And while that suites me just fine I have to admit they waste a pretty good cast here; Jeff Goldblum, Ford and Keaton. Of the three of them Harrison Ford is given the most to do but poor Diane Keaton wasn't given much of a character in which she could flesh out. Don't get me wrong, it is fun watching her but there just doesn't seem to be much there. The screenplay doesn't explore her personality enough. Goldblum is just a face on-screen. A lot of the movie rest on McAdams' shoulders and exactly how much we will like her. And she's the right woman for the job.

McAdams stars as Becky Fuller, a young, struggling TV news producer working out of New Jersey. She thinks she is in line for a promotion when in fact she is being fired. She is now desperate looking for work. In our current economic times this is a familiar problem. But good fortune strikes on Becky's door (depending how you look at it). Jerry (Goldblum) contacts her and calls her in for an interview. His station is looking for a producer for its morning news program which is in fourth place behind CBS' "Early Show", NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America", which makes you wonder what channel is Becky working for? The show is called Daybreak and currently is being co-anchored by Colleen Peck (Keaton). Despite everything Becky takes the job. A job is a job and she needs money.

Things immediately go wrong when Becky fires the lead male anchor, who makes a strange pass at her. Now Becky needs to find a replacement. Who can she possibly get? How about Mike Pomeroy (Ford)? Who is waiting out his contact, not doing any assignments, and is getting paid. He is a veteran television anchor, think Dan Rather, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw. He deems morning news programs as trash, beneath a man like himself who has won Emmy's and a Peabody award. But Becky reminds him he is still under contract and if he wants those paychecks to keep coming he better accept the offer.

At this point "Morning Glory" starts to play around with an interesting idea. What makes the news? Do news programs concern themselves more with "good television" or presenting us with hard hitting news? What is the line between entertainment and news?

Unfortunately "Morning Glory" gives us a message I disapprove of, but, it is a reflection of our times. "Morning Glory" goes out of its way to tell us, morning news programs are meant to entertain. When Mike tries to present a worthy news story, a governor tax scandal, Becky passes. She tells Mike the battle between entertainment vs news is over. Mike's side lost.

Start watching your local news and I bet we will all begin to notice the same thing. News anchors always have to appear chummy. They laugh and smile and make comments on the headline stories. There is usually a male and female anchor, adding a sort of sexual vibe. And did you ever notice how attractive these people are. Here in Chicago every female weather person we have is, excuse the phrase, hott! No ugly people study weather? They have turned the news into a model shoot.

As someone who studied journalism in college this goes against everything I was taught in school. At the start of every class our professor would tell us our opinion doesn't matter. People aren't buying a newspaper or watching the news to know our opinions. They want to know the facts. In that sense I was on Mike's side. I personally only watch the first 20 minutes or so of those morning news programs, that's when they discuss politics and hard news.

Because of my journalism background I was able to pick up on how true a lot of things in "Morning Glory" are. Admittedly the movie may exaggerate certain things for comedic effect but the movie has a sense of what it is doing. It knows the ropes.

"Morning Glory" also manages to avoid a few cliches but not all of them. It offers us a brief romance between Becky and another producer, one who worked with Mike previously, Adam (Patrick Wilson). And we get scenes where she has to pick between her romance or career. We get scenes where Mike has to break down a bit and show he has a heart. Though for the most part "Morning Glory" works.

After the first hour of the film I was ready to put it on my "top ten" list but then it becomes a bit too sentimental for my taste. I thought the movie was going to turn into another "Love & Other Drugs" (2010), which starts out great and then after an hour goes downhill. "Morning Glory" seemed to be making that same shift in tone but it manages to find its way back. It doesn't turn into a weeper.

The film was directed by Roger Michell, who has a pretty good track record. He was behind "The Mother" (2004) and "Venus" (2006), which I found slightly creepy, even though Peter O' Toole does have some good moments. He has also directed his share of mainstream titles; "Changing Lanes" (2002) and "Notting Hill" (1999). The script was by Aline Brash McKenna, who wrote "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), which I liked much more than I thought I would. You can compare both of these films if you like. Young ambitious women facing cranky older people. McKenna also wrote "Laws of Attraction" (2004) which I liked more than most people did.

Had this film been made a few years ago I'm sure it would have done more with Ford and Keaton's characters but Rachel McAdams is a delight to watch on-screen. I really hope more people seek this movie out. It is a real charmer.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Film Review: Zoo in Budapest

"Zoo in Budapest" ** (out of ****)

"Zoo in Budapest" (1933) is a movie I had looked forward to seeing for years. Only because the film took place in Budapest (for unaware readers, I'm Hungarian). During the 1930s and 40s a great many films were centered in Budapest. Films like William Wyler's "The Good Fairy" (1935) and "One Heavenly Night" (1931). But sadly "Zoo in Budapest" is not as good as those movies.

The main problem with "Zoo in Budapest" is it wants to be all things at once. It wants to be a romance, an adventure movie, a comedy, and an animal rights movie. In the end it becomes nothing. Just an unsatisfying combination of genres which don't belong together. There is little to care about the characters and practically no chemistry between the two lead actors; Gene Raymond and Loretta Young. And why on earth the movie is suppose to take place in Budapest is beyond me. The Hungarian setting adds absolutely nothing to the film. It could have been the Brooklyn zoo or the Los Angeles zoo. They didn't have to pretend they were in Budapest.

Gene Raymond stars as Zani, one of the many zoo keepers. He is an animal lover and enjoys playing with the "wild" creatures at the zoo while young children watch. Zani feels the animals are harmless and dislikes when he sees people mistreat the animals. He is something of an animal rights activist because he even steals furs from various women at the zoo. Humans should not wear furs in Zani's opinion. I also wondered how on earth did the writers come up with the name Zani? Did they mean Csanyi (pronounced Shawny) which is short for Sandor (which means Alexander)? I've never met a Hungarian with the name Zani.

Loretta Young is Eve (which isn't even a Hungarian name to begin with. Why couldn't they call her Agnes?). She is an orphan. Every Thursday Eve and the other orphans go on a field trip to the zoo to learn about the animals. Eve desperately wants to escape. She has also managed to catch the eye of Zani, who encourages her to run away. One day Eve finally escapes and hides out in the zoo until closing time.

Right now a lot of readers may jump the gun and feel they have the entire movie figured out. It is a romance picture between Zani and Eve, right? I wish! There is also a little boy, Paul Vandor (once again, what the heck kind of name is Vandor? Did they mean Sandor, which is also a Hungarian surname?) who wants to ride the elephants. While his caretaker isn't looking he also hides in the zoo until closing time.

But wait, there's more! The police are soon looking for Eve after it is found out she has escaped. The zoo is their only clue. The police are also after Zani because he has stolen another fur. And the police are looking for Paul after his parents report the incident. So everyone is on the run and soon or later you know they are all going to meet.

The movie plays around with atmosphere almost making it appear as if the zoo has been transformed into a private island, a love nest for Eve and Zani. And there are some romantic moonlight scenes which evaporate quicker than fog as the movie hops, skips and jumps to other plot points.

The zoo is not a romantic location, so for the life of me I can't figure out what director Rowland V. Lee and his writers were hoping to accomplish. If "Zoo in Budapest" was an action movie maybe it would make more sense. But Gene Raymond isn't Tarzan and Loretta Young isn't Jane.

At this point in time Loretta Young wasn't Loretta Young yet, the major Hollywood star of films such as "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and "The Stranger" (1946). She was just a young actor at Fox studios, trying to become a star and Fox gave her a good push. Strangely enough this is the third movie, which I know of, where Loretta Young plays a Hungarian. Shortly after this movie she would appear in "Caravan" (1934) with Charles Boyer, another forgotten Hollywood romance. And she was in "Ladies in Love" (1936) which makes much better use of the Hungarian setting. They even put a real Hungarian in it, Paul Lukas (!).

Gene Raymond wasn't a major star yet either. Though he did appear in "Red Dust" (1932) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, which had some risque scenes (this is the movie where Harlow is naked wearing a barrel). Later that year he appeared in "Flying Down To Rio" (1933, which I have reviewed). That was the first film Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in together.

Unfortunately the romantic aspect of the film is very weak. We never really believe Zani and Eve are on the brink of a great romance or even that they love one another. What a shame since you had two rising stars here and the film doesn't take advantage of them.

The movie ends with a cliffhanger sequence (which I won't reveal) but it just further leaves you scratching your head. What is this all about? What was the point of this scene. To redeem Zani for stealing the fur? To show us he is not a bad guy? It doesn't resolve anything for the Eve character. By the end of the movie it tries too hard to tie everything up. I knew I should expect a happy ending, but, it just felt rushed and underdeveloped.

The cliffhanger sequence though may have foreshadowed things to come for Rowland V. Lee who would go on to direct horror films. One of his best known is probably "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), which served as the basis of the Mel Brooks comedy "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

I'm really sorry I can't recommend this movie. My loyal readers know of my great appreciation for classic Hollywood films. Still I'm sure there are going to be a few old-timers like myself who may want to sneak a peek at the movie because of their love for classic Hollywood movies and/or an interest in some of the stars. The problem is I don't think the movie will inspire a second viewing. Watch "Caravan" instead.

Film Review: Black Swan

"Black Swan" **** (out of ****)

"Black Swan" (2010) is a weirdo masterpiece.

Here is a film about the battle of good and evil within us, the desire to achieve perfection and artistic dedication.

The movie was directed by art-house favorite Darren Aronofsky. I'm usually a fan of Mr. Aronofsky. His films have a way of dividing an audience. But, even on his more experimental films such as "Pi" (1998) and "The Fountain" (2006), I find myself in his corner.

"Black Swan" wants to be a modern adaptation of "Swan Lake", but it becomes a weird, brain teaser that for most of the film's running time had me shaking my head in bewilderment.

The film switches between fact and fiction so often, sometimes without much warning, that I was getting so confused after I while I just said to Hell with it and gave up. To steal a line from Cole Porter, I just decided to let Mr. Aronofsky do that voodoo that you do so well. I was going to stop trying to interpret the movie and throw caution to the wind.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers. A young ballet dancer who wants a starring role in the new production of "Swan Lake". The ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) however feels Nina is too restricted and lacks the ability to loosen up and become sexually uninhibited. He even asks her, as a "homework" assignment to masturbate.

Nina is presented as a child, living with her mother (Barbara Hershey) who is over protective. They seem to have a close relationship on the surface but underneath it all may be some resentment. Nina just might think her mother is envious of her and perhaps mom, who gave up her career to raise a child, really doesn't want her daughter to succeed. Or is it all in Nina's head?

A new dancer enters the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) who might just be after Nina. Does Lily want to kill Nina? Does Lily want to star in "Swan Lake". Is Lily a stalker?

Aronofsky keeps dropping very subtle hints concerning deep, dark secrets within Nina. We see scar marks on her back. She locks herself in her room. And has a tendency to steal from the now retiring principle dancer in the company, Beth (Winona Ryder).

At first I was bothered by all of these subtle hints and wish the film had been more open with Nina's secrets. What are the implications of these scars? How does this raise dramatic tension? Where is the conflict? Mr. Aronofsky wouldn't show us these details if they weren't part of a larger picture. Still during most of the film I couldn't help but feel Nina was too much of a secret herself.

But then events explode in the final act. The movie turns itself upside down and we have to start all over again.

Soon we have to rethink Nina. And credit must be given to Ms. Portman. She should get an Oscar nomination but I'm not sure she will. The movie is quite frankly too damn weird. It is probably too weird for a mainstream group like Academy Award voters. And it is going to be too unconventional for a majority of movie-going audiences.

There is vulnerability to Portman's performance. She risks so much in this role. She puts herself out there. It has to be one of her bravest performances to date.

"Black Swan" is a dizzying experience yet it is enthralling and exhilarating. I don't know if it is one of the year's best films but Mr. Aronofsky and company put on one damn good show.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Film Review: Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets

"Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

As Harry Potter's adventures come to an end I have decided to go back and re-watch the Harry Potter series, many of these films I will be watching for the first time. "Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets" (2002) was Harry's second adventure.

After watching the first Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone" (2001), I wrote the film was filmed with a wide-eyed child's fascination. The world presented to us was filled with wonderment and joy. "Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets" is a much different film. This time around the adventure is much darker. The film centers around death and as a result I don't think is for the same audience that watched "The Sorcerer's Stone". This one might scare the youngsters. But as I understand it, this film kind of set the tone for the following films. As Harry and his friends grow older the adventures become more dangerous.

"Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets" makes direct references to the first film and feels like a sequel, a continuation of Harry's first adventure. At the end of the first film Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) battles the ultimate evil, a wizard who must remain nameless. But that evil wizard, Harry is told, will come back to stop him. At the start of "The Chamber Of Secrets", Harry is warned by an elf-slave, Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) he must not return to Hogwarts. It is too dangerous. Someone (or something) wants to kill Harry Potter. But Harry doesn't heed this warning. Hogwarts is the only place Harry is happy and the only place Harry feels he can be himself. Living with the Dursley's, his non-wizard Uncle (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt (Fiona Shaw) and their spoiled son, Dudley (Harry Melling) is too complicated for Harry. They still mistreat him.

Once Harry arrives at Hogwarts trouble begins. Harry keeps hearing a strange voice which talks about blood and killing. But only Harry can hear the voice, which worries his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). It seems even in the wizard world, hearing voices is a bad thing. But this voice is said to be responsible for attacking several of the students at Hogwarts. It seems something called the chamber of secrets has been opened and many believe it is Harry that opened it. Harry must clear his name and find out the secrets of the chambers of secrets.

In Harry's second adventure we hear a lot about muggles, which are non-wizards, and mudbloods, wizards born to non-wizards parents. You see, whatever is attacking these students is out to get mudbloods. This spirit believes that Hogwarts should only be a school for pure bloods. This leads Harry and the gang to suspect their old nemesis Malfoy (Tom Felton), who never liked Harry and his friends. And we learn Hermione is a mudblood.

While a majority of the cast from the first film has returned there are some new additions. The best new character is Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) a celebrity, best-selling novelist wizard, who is a big hit with the ladies. He tells of great adventures he has been on however, we suspect he may be exaggerating or perhaps flat out lying. His scenes supply the movie with a good amount of humor. The other new character is Dobby. One of the film's few wrong steps. Dobby is not a lovable character. He gets Harry into a lot of trouble all in the name of "protecting" Harry. Quite frankly, I was starting to wish Harry would cause some permanent harm to Dobby. He is an extremely annoying character. I hope he is not in any films after this one.

Director Chris Columbus has also returned. This would be the last film in the series which he directed. As I said it is a remarkably different film in tone despite Columbus at the helm. And Steve Kloves adapted J.K. Rowling's novel once again. Kloves has adapted every story in the series except for one. He must have done a very good job with these adaptations because I am unaware of any backlash against the film by fans of the novels.

Part of me likes the first film a little bit more because the film seemed to take more delight in introducing us to these characters and their world. Like Harry we were seeing all of this for the first time. It was more magical (no pun intended). However this time around the story is a little stronger. It is much more suspenseful. The plot caught my attention more this time around. The first film impressed me more with its visuals and good nature.

This darker tone though may have been the reason the film actually grossed less than the first film. This time around "Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets" grossed $261 million, less than the $317 million of the first adventure. And didn't receive any Oscar nominations like the first one did. Though supposedly Daniel Radcliffe has said "The Chamber Of Secrets" was his favorite book in the series.

Still I'm looking forward to finding out what happens to Harry and where the events of "The Chamber Of Secrets" will lead him. From the look of things it seems more danger lurks ahead. Good luck Harry.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Film Review: Tangled

"Tangled" **** (out of ****)

"Tangled" (2010) is Disney's 50th animated film and here they show us why they are the best in the biz when it comes to making family entertainment.

"Tangled" is one of the year's best films.

For the last month or so I've been reviewing a few animated films. In this year alone I've seen Dreamworks' "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), Pixar's "Toy Story 3" (2010), another Dreamworks movie "Megamind" (2010) and now this film. As much as I enjoyed "Megamind" (which I reviewed) I must say "Tangled" is my favorite animated movie of the year.

To be fair, I should say I've mostly enjoyed the films of 2010. I haven't had the same bad reaction I did the two previous years. This year has been a major rebound. But still, "Tangled" is an animated film which managed to convey more human emotions than a good many live action films. Oh, I'm sure there will be those who claim the film, based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale "Rapunzel", is predictable, and I'm not saying it isn't, but it tells its story with so much energy, humor, wonderful music and heart, I couldn't help but become immensely involved in this adventure.

"Tangled" doesn't closely follow the "Rapunzel" story, it makes some subtle changes but overall I approve of what Disney has done. In some ways they've improved upon the story and have given it that classic Disney touch. Disney (and Pixar too) have that great ability to tell stories in a way which are entertaining to children and can hold the attention of adults as well. I saw this movie with my six year old niece and we both enjoyed it. In fact, I'm not all at embarrassed to admit this, but, I suspect I liked this movie more than her. The sentimental scenes probably touched me more than my niece.

Here young Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has been kidnapped from her parents since birth and has been taken care of by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), the same woman who kidnapped her. You see Gothel discovered a secret gold plant which had the power to keep her young but one day Rapunzel's mother became very ill during her pregnancy. Her husband, the King, had his men search for the mythical golden flower which Gothel had kept hidden for her own selfish needs. The men find the flower and save the queen. When Rapunzel was born the magic from the flower was transported to her in her hair. That is why Gothel has kidnapped her. And has refused to let her cut her hair. Once that happens her hair will lose its power.

Because of her terrible act Gothel has locked the girl in a tower. When Rapunzel turns 18 however she wants to escape the tower and see what life is like in the real world. Instead of a prince though Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) accidentally becomes her rescuer. And thus begins their adventure.

"Tangled" has all the elements which makes a great Disney animated film. We have the heartfelt scenes, the moral, the interesting villains and a terrific musical score done by Alan Menken, the man behind "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Aladdin" (1992) and "Beauty & the Beast" (1991). Each one of those movies had memorable songs. I don't know if any of the songs here will become family favorites but I had a good time listening to them. And Mandy Moore (whom I think is a much better vocalist than Britney Spears) and Donna Murphy have wonderful voices. It is a real pleasure to hear them sing, especially Moore.

Now while "Tangled" does have the expected "message" scenes I do have to say I found myself really caught in the action scenes. They are extremely well done and I was with these characters every hop, skip and leap. I was actually caught in the suspense of the moment.

The animation here is very well done. It looks just as good as any Pixar movie. And like I said, this is my favorite animated movie of the year, including "Toy Story 3".

The movie was directed by Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard who directed Disney's "Bolt" (2008). The script was by Dan Fogelman who wrote "Cars" (2006), "Bolt" and the live action comedy "Fred Claus" (2007).

With "Tangled" Disney proves they are still a major force in the animation game. Pixar and Dreamworks aren't the only two players in town. "Tangled" is a wonderful, heartfelt, humorous, exciting movie. It is sure to please children and adults. One of the year's best.