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The Merry Gentleman

Patience is a virtue and this film has virtues aplenty
I have a confession: I adore Kelly Macdonald's Scottish accent. It makes me go all weak in the knees, sends my heart aflutter.

She is the reason I went to see "The Merry Gentleman." I like Michael Keaton, too, and thought his performance in "Game 6" (2005) was exceptionally good. I wasn't too sure how good a director he would be, but after watching "The Merry Gentleman," I can safely say that Keaton is a very good filmmaker.

The story of "The Merry Gentleman" could very well point to all the trappings of a formula: An abused woman inadvertently sees a hit man and then he befriends her with obvious intent.

Given filmmakers' penchant these days to turn this sort of subject matter into yet another Tarantino or Guy Ritchie clone, the calmness with which "The Merry Gentleman" unfolds comes as a wonderful surprise.

I realize that film-goers who want to see every hit man movie turned into another fast-talking Tarantino imitation might be sorely disappointed or even bored by "The Merry Gentleman." This film takes its time. It's in no hurry to get where it's going and it doesn't pander to its audience with needless bloodshed, non sequitur riffs or slam-bang car chases. This film might be about a hit man and the witness, but it is not an action film. This really is a splendid character study, paced deliberately so that we would get to know, understand, appreciate and grow to love these people.

This film relies on its two main characters, Frank (Keaton) and Kate (Macdonald), to carry the film. And these two fine actors do not disappoint. Their scenes together are strikingly powerful, even when they say little. And there are many such moments in this film. Even their meet-cute, which could very well have turned into a typically corny moment, is handled with grace, charm and just enough humor to make you smile.

This is a drama about human connections, more than anything else. An unconventional love story as Frank and Kate, a depressed professional killer and the mousy abused woman, slowly work their way through each other lives, through the uncomfortable moments, trying to steal moments they can share.

Keaton could very easily have played Frank for a chuckle or two, given him a frenetic edge, as he often has in films. Instead, he plays him low-key. Perhaps too low-key, some could argue, but that is what I loved about his character. He really is more than a man struggling with the morality of what he does; he's a man struggling with life and all its vagaries. What he does for a living seems almost inconsequential to his struggles. Keaton finds the fine edges to his character and realizes there's more to reveal in what Frank doesn't say than in what he does. There's nothing false about Frank's weariness or sadness. This is truly a finely-tuned and subtle performance by Keaton - one of his very best.

Macdonald is completely charming as Kate. Her glorious accent aside, she brings a delightful sweetness to her role. This is a real woman with genuine problems and we understand Frank's desire - and even need - to take care of her. She has suffered much and it all seems so unfair that such a creature would be in such pain. Macdonald is marvelous. She has always been a remarkably astute actress capable of immediately drawing the audience to her. Just watch her in "The Girl in the Cafe" (2005) and you will promptly fall in love with her. She also gave the severely under-praised performance in "No Country For Old Men" (2007). This is yet another wonderful performance from a terribly under-appreciated actress. Macdonald never disappoints.

There are two fine supporting performances - from Bobby Cannavale as Kate's husband, and Tom Bastounes, as a cop investigating Frank's killings and also harboring a crush on Kate. Cannavale's outburst seems a bit noisy for a film this solemn, but he makes it work. And Bastounes, as a not-too-tidy cop, is just priceless. His dinner scenes with Kate contain terrific bits of acting.

At a time when "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Terminator Salvation," "Public Enemies" and other Hollywood films gain all the attention, it is too bad that a film such as "The Merry Gentleman" seemingly just gets lost in the shuffle.

This is a gem of a film. It is not for anyone seeking an adrenaline rush. But is for those seeking a tender, sweet, deeply moving, at times startling film about deeply damaged people and their attempts to find some sort of solace, happiness and meaning in this life. "The Merry Gentleman" is a richly rewarding experience for those who appreciate good movies.

The Hurt Locker

Taut, exciting, thrilling - one of the year's best
I can now forgive Kathryn Bigelow for making "Strange Days" (1995). Legions love that sci-fi film, but I found it to be an unpleasant experience.

She certainly has redeemed herself with "The Hurt Locker," a taut, thrilling, at times suspenseful film about a group of soldiers who risk their lives trying to defuse Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq. This is a thinking man's action film.

I believe the reason "The Hurt Locker" will do better than the other Iraq War films - 2006's "Home of the Brave" and 2007's "Redacted," "In the Valley of Elah," "The Situation," "Grace Is Gone," "Lions for Lambs" and "Battle for Haditha" - is because you can't quite pinpoint the film's politics. And that tends to go over better with American audiences, who apparently cared not that their government leaders lied to them or didn't wish to be reminded that they were lied to or felt there was too much war saturation on cable news. Also, many of the films so far about the Iraq War haven't been very good, though I do believe "Battle for Haditha" is superb. It's just that next to no one saw Nick Broomfield's wonderful film.

The thing about Bigelow's terrific film is that it really doesn't need to display its politics. I don't have the foggiest idea whether Bigelow supported or disagreed with George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, but the filmmaker's take on the war is not needed here. Because this is a film about soldiers who like to stop things from going "Boom!" and you get the feeling that Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) would be just as happy defusing these things in Los Angeles, Des Moines or anywhere else. It just so happens that Iraq is where action is, where he gets his adrenaline rush.

"The Hurt Locker" is a nerve-wracking thriller, held together by a brilliant performance by Renner - he truly deserves a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for this - and some sensationally choreographed sequences. Mark Boal's tight and lean script - he also wrote "In the Valley of Elah," which was a bit more on the preachy side - helps immensely, but Bigelow and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski know exactly how to wring the most suspense out of small moments. (Of course, Innis and Murawski had plenty of footage to choose from given that Bigelow chose to shoot four hand-held cameras simultaneously, a strategy that certainly helps actors and works perfectly for this film.)

The best of these moments is a lengthy sequence in the desert involving snipers. I had problems with some moments in this sequence - the gun jamming, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) being unable to hit a stationary target, but then nails the target when the Iraqi is running - but Bigelow turns the screws so slowly that you being feeling as antsy as the soldiers as we see flies land on James and Sanborn as they wait patiently. What makes this scene work is that Bigelow refrains from using any overblown musical score to heighten the tension. Instead, she is smart enough to know - and I wish other action and suspense directors will take a cue from her - that the situation is tense enough and that she can draw the viewer in by calmly prolonging the sequence and preying on our anxiousness to ratchet up the suspense. There's another moment involving an impetuous taxi driver and, here again, Bigelow squeezes every drop of suspense.

Renner's James is at the core of this film. He's cocky, brash and even arrogant, though not in the same way that made some of John Wayne's characters unbelievable. Renner's James has the same sort of bravado Wayne's characters sometimes did, but there's something beautifully authentic about Renner's performance.

He's a terrific actor - thank you ABC for proving you know nothing about good TV and canceling the series, "The Unusuals," in which Renner was awfully good - and you can sense the wheels turning in his head as he balances James' action junkie with the cool precision of a fine craftsman disassembling bombs. There is something creepy about Renner's coolness here. He gets fine supporting performances from Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both of whom try to make sense of this man James as the film is told through their eyes.

The film is not without its flaws. A vigilante moment in a subplot involving a young Iraqi boy who befriends James seemed a superfluous attempt to make him seem more heroic, and there were times I seriously questioned the bombers' motivations or rationale for why they did or didn't do certain things.

"The Hurt Locker" could be viewed by some as a paean to America's derring do spirit. I am not entirely sure that is Bigelow's aim. She and Boal do raise some interesting questions: Yes, these chaps are courageous, but at what price? What is this addiction to this action and what are its consequences?

If you are expecting a wham-bam action film, you will be disappointed. "The Hurt Locker" is essentially a character study set in a war zone. It just happens to be a damn fine character study of obsessive people.

The film opens with Chris Hedges' assertion that war is a drug, an addiction, and then Bigelow goes to prove that point with James. This is his job. Then again, for James, it's not just a job, it is an adventure and watching Renner bring James to life makes you understand his character, though you might not quite appreciate some of the decisions he makes.

Shades of Ray

A pleasant romantic-comedy with lots of charm
It's truly a shame that a charming little romantic-comedy such as "Shades of Ray" does not get a distribution deal, but rubbish rom-coms - "Made of Honor" (2008), "What Happens in Vegas" (2008), "My Best Friend's Girl" (2008) and "My Life In Ruins" (2009) - do.

Writer-director Jaffar Mahmood is playing well within the conventions of the genre. But what makes his film work is that he doesn't rely on stock characters. Even when he has a stock character or two - such as the protagonist's controlling father, Javaid Rehman (Brian George), or the wacky roommate, Sal Garfinkle (Fran Kranz) - Mahmood tweaks their personalities just enough that they seem fresher than they otherwise might be.

I realize there are no Renée Zellwegers, Ashton Kutchers or Cameron Diazes in this film to make it sell to a wider audience. But the lack of such actors is what makes this film all the more appealing.

Films about southeast Asian families and the vagaries of growing up in one are terribly rare and Mahmood should be commended for taking a whack at the subject matter.

Despite tackling issues such as parental control, tradition, familial obligations and love, Mahmood makes his film work because his characters seem new and rather unconventional, even though many of them are just that.

The film is helped immensely by terrific performances all around. I have not seen the TV series, "Chuck," so I was unfamiliar with Zachary Levi as an actor. He makes Ray Rehman an entirely believable person, even managing to bring a sense pathos to a rather funny audition scene.

Kathy Baker and George are terrific as Ray's parents. Baker, especially, gives her role such substance that she takes a minor bit and makes it much more than that. And, finally, it's wonderful to see the lovely Sarah Shahi given a role with some meat and bones on it. I have seen two other films recently in which she was never used to her full potential - "AmericanEast" (2007), in which she has a superfluous role, and "Crossing Over" (2009), in which she was purely window-dressing. In "Shades of Ray," Shahi gets a juicy role that allows her to be alluring, lovable and provocative. She has a sensational scene in a bar where she turns into a playful vixen that is thoroughly enticing.

One character who feels short-changed is Noel Wilson (Bonnie Somerville). In fairness to Mahmood, he resists the temptation to turn her into a bad person, though, given the trappings of the genre, in one scene, he gives her dialogue that seems completely out of character.

"Shades of Ray" does not turn the romantic-comedy genre on its head or anything of that ilk. It's a pleasant diversion and explores a side of American society rarely seen in Hollywood movies. It's most definitely a far cry better and more enjoyable than the romantic comedies Hollywood studios chuck out by the dozen.

Public Enemies

A muddled mess
Why is it that anyone who is critical of Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" is promptly branded as a "hater" on this Web site? I don't hate this film or the filmmaker, I just believe it's not a very good film.

I've enjoyed some of Mann's films in the past. I am a fan of "Thief" (1981), "Manhunter" (1986) and "Heat" (1995) and thought "The Insider" (1999) and "Ali" (2001) were interesting. But, as far as I am concerned, "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) was over-blown - it is not, as one poster claimed, one of the five best films ever made; it's not even one of the 5,000 best films ever made - "Collateral" (2004) started off intriguingly before turning into an utterly conventional thriller, and "Miami Vice" (2006) was rubbish.

But I went into "Public Enemies" with much optimism, given that it stars Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard. And the subject seemed thoroughly suited for Mann.

What a tremendous disappointment "Public Enemies" turned out to be.

There is absolutely nothing special about this film. The best it can be called is middling. It is hum-drum, run-of-the-mill and certainly not something I expected from someone of Mann's caliber.

For starters, this film is not about public enemies; it's about a public enemy. Blink and you will miss Pretty Boy Floyd. And you have no idea who Baby Face Nelson is until someone in the film points him out.

The film began promisingly with the exciting breakout from an Indiana penitentiary. The cinematography looked terrific in that opening shot and there was something delightfully visceral about that sequence.

But then came the rest of the film.

The story moved from one tedious set piece to another. Roger Ebert, whose criticism I respect, lauded Mann for his "meticulous" research for this film. I wonder if Mann's meticulousness included killing off Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Homer Van Meter *before* Dillinger when, in real life, they all outlived Dillinger. And Van Meter was *not* gunned down along with Baby Face Nelson.

I realize Mann's fans claim this is a movie and Mann was taking artistic license to enhance his story, as is his wont. But I wonder whether these fans would have echoed similar sentiments if Mann, say, had Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier in the Rumble in the Jungle in "Ali" or had Ali lose the fight to Foreman in that film.

Historical inaccuracies aside, "Public Enemies" is just dull. Mann wants us to believe that Dillinger and Billie Frechette were soul mates. But the only word to described their relationship - as Mann shows it - is bland. Which is a shame considering he had two fine actors in Depp and Cotillard and completely wastes them. They are given very little to work with and their dialogue is, at times, downright embarrassing.

Depp has oodles of charm and charisma, but he plays Dillinger solely as cool. There's nothing more to his persona, and when Depp has to be mean on a few occasions, it just doesn't work. Christian Bale, on the other hand, is entirely forgettable as Purvis. It's a nothing character and Bale plays him exactly as he has all his other recent roles. This is a somnambulist Batman and John Connor playing Purvis, mumbling his lines and showing next to no emotion. You learn nothing about Purvis throughout the entire film.

I felt sorry for the wonderful Cotillard because her relatively minor role is made even more minute because her character has no depth and she gets little help from a wanting script. In fact, none of the characters has much depth, if any, and so Mann wastes a talented cast of supporting players that includes Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Matt Craven, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Clarke, Leelee Sobieski and James Russo.

Then there's the cinematography and I really don't know if one can blame Dante Spinotti for this. I realize Mann is in love with digital technology and while that might have worked on "Collateral" and "Miami Vice," it does not here. With the exception of a few lovely shots, the rest of the film looks like it was shot on someone's cheap holiday camera. I have seen home movies that looked crisper, brighter. The night-time scenes look thoroughly washed out and sans any contrast and the infamous shoot-out in Little Bohemia - which is terribly choreographed - looks like a lousy video game.

I am not averse to shooting in digital. There are countless films that look terrific shot on high-definition digital. Take a peek at "The Lookout" (2007), for instance. It looks spectacular shot on high-def. I personally believe that period pieces should be shot on film, but even granting Mann's decision to shoot digital, why on earth didn't he use, say, Panavision's Genesis or the Red One cameras? He certainly wasn't constrained by the budget.

I realize Mann could take a crap at Hollywood and Vine and his fans would consider it a masterpiece. But it's still crap and just because it came from Mann doesn't turn it into gold.

"Public Enemies" is simply a disappointing movie. It lacks any depth, the characters are boring at best, insipid at worst. The film ambles along without any sense of how to tell a story or put that story into the context of American history and, after a while, all I could think of was how much better Arthur Penn fared with "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), how much more I wanted to see that film instead and could we please get to The Biograph already.

But Mann even managed to screw up the grand finale by adding an unnecessarily hokey and sentimental coda.

The Proposal

It ain't great, but I liked it more than I thought I would
Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They hate each other. They are forced to spend time with each other. Despite a few obstacles, boy and girl realize the other isn't as bad as they initially thought. Boy and girl grow to like each other in an unrealistically short amount of time. Just when they are about to be together, another obstacle is tossed in their way. Boy and girl overcome obstacle and kiss. The end.

That is essentially the formula for pretty much any Hollywood studio romantic-comedy and "The Proposal" is about as Hollywood studio as it gets.

The trouble with romantic comedies is that even before the screenwriter can type "Fade In" on his script, he knows the audience already knows the ending to his story. So he has to make the journey enjoyable and, more often than not, the journey doesn't quite work or fails miserably, as is the case in "My Life in Ruins," for instance. True, "The Proposal" is not nearly as disastrous or dull as the Nia Vardalos film, but that isn't saying much now, is it?

The journey in "The Proposal" is awfully clichéd and unwinds almost exactly how and when one of those hackneyed screen writing gurus would want the plot to unfold. However, what eventually saves "The Proposal" are its two stars - Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Together, they don't have much chemistry - you wanna see real on-screen chemistry in romantic comedies, watch Carole Lombard and William Powell in "My Man Godfrey" (1936) or Lombard and Fredric March in "Nothing Sacred" (1937) or Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) or Grant and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" (1940) - but, individually, Reynolds and Bullock have charm, charisma and an innate ability to keep us interested.

This material is beneath Bullock. She can play these roles in her sleep and, I suppose, the lack of success of her more dramatic films - some have been utter duds and "Crash" (2004) does not count because she was just part of a huge ensemble and not the lead - forces her to continue seeking romantic comedies. After all, she is the woman who turned down "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) so she could star in "Miss Congeniality 2" (2005).

Bullock has a nice knack for comedy and does admirably here, given the limitations of the script. It's nothing we haven't seen from her before and perhaps it's that familiarity that brings about a semblance of charm to this picture. Reynolds tends to be a bit of a one-note player but, here again, it's an engaging little note. In his defense, he does have a fine sense of comedic timing and can turn an otherwise conventional line into something funny. Malin Akerman shows up in a throw-away role that she tries valiantly to make bigger.

You are not going to see anything in "The Proposal" that is unpredictable or you haven't seen in countless romantic comedies before. But Reynolds and Bullock bring an energy to the film that made me like it much more than I thought I would. It made me cringe in some places, when I saw screenwriter Pete Chiarelli trying so desperately to eke out laughs because he couldn't drum up anything original.

There's plenty of terrific comedic stuff to be mined here - immigration, older woman-younger man, workaholic bosses and much more - but Chiarelli is thoroughly content on sticking strictly to convention. And, given the lack of sizzle between Bullock and Reynolds together, he entrenches his script in formula. So we are treated to forced-funny moments - a "remedy" screenwriters seek in romantic comedies that rarely works - of seeing the wonderful Betty White doing some sort of American Indian tribal dance in the woods and Bullock hamming it up, and the over-use of Ramone (Oscar Nunez), making him the film's most annoying and unfunny character. We also get needless subplots, including a father-son conflict. I told you: It's as if Chiarelli kept referring to some screen writing handbook.

Anne Fletcher's direction is an uninspired as her previous effort, "27 Dresses" (2008). On the other hand, "The Proposal" is a more enjoyable film than "27 Dresses."

What's ultimately disappointing about "The Proposal" is that despite having essentially smart characters, it gives them nothing smart to do. What a pity. It was, however, refreshing to see an older woman-younger man relationship on film. After sitting through Catherine Zeta-Jones falling for Sean Connery or Nicolas Cage in bed with Jessica Biel or Harrison Ford romancing Anne Heche or Clint Eastwood hooking up with Rene Russo, it's about time we saw the flip side. And as for the well-choreographed - and much talked about - nude scene in "The Proposal," there's one thing you can certainly say: Bullock: has one heck of a body.

Mang lung

I've seen Chinese take-out menus that were more exciting
At the end of "Dragon Heat," all I could think of was why I bothered sitting through the whole thing.

The film's premise is interesting and that - as well as Maggie Q - is what attracted me to the film in the first place. But was I ever disappointed. Writer-director Daniel Lee can't hold a candle to the likes of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Corey Yuen.

This has to be one of the most annoyingly-directed films I have ever seen. Lee is so wrapped up in his visual style - and I use that phrase incredibly loosely - that he fills the film with completely needless black-and-white stills, freeze frames, slow-motion, fast-motion and other visual nonsense. I suppose he did all that to make up for the lack of a good story or dialogue.

The action scenes are nothing special and play out like some hopped-up music video more than anything else. There is little to care about any of the characters - including two supposedly professional snipers who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from the inside! - who are then laden with some of the cheesiest dialogue I have seen in one of these Hong Kong actioners.

The plot is devoid of any twists and turns - from the initial set-up, everything unfolds in predictable fashion - and Lee feels the need to keep reminding us of the characters' back stories in case we didn't get it the first several times. This is awfully amateurish writing and film-making and wastes the talents of Sammo Hung, Michael Biehn and Maggie Q. Though, to be frank, I am hard-pressed to remember Biehn being in any good film that was not directed by James Cameron.

If you really are in the mood for a great Hong Kong actioner, you are much better off sticking to some of the staples - John Woo's "The Killer" (1989) and "Hard-Boiled" (1992), Ringo Lam's "City on Fire" (1987) - which Quentin Tarantino stole for "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) - or his "Point Blank" (1967) remake, "Full Contact" (1992). Or, even check out Yuen's "So Close" (2002), a supremely entertaining, yet preposterous, popcorn flick. And there's always the terrific French police actioner, "The Nest" (2002).

True, most, if not all, are a bit over-the-top, but they were films that remain exciting, thrilling and even suspenseful. They have characters we care about and mind-blowing action sequences.

"Dragon Heat," on the other hand, is just terribly mediocre. The trouble is that Lee has not made a bad action film, he has made a dull one.

The Hangover

A genuinely funny movie
"The Hangover" is boorish. Vulgar. Brash. Crude. Offensive. Twisted. Politically incorrect. And it is unexpectedly and, often, side-splittingly funny, and one of the best comedies to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

Here's the thing about Todd Phillips' movie: It has no pretensions about what it is. Phillips' directorial credits include "Road Trip" (2000), "Old School" (2003), "Starsky & Hutch" (2004) and "School For Scoundrels" (2006). But this is clearly his best and most consistently funny movie.

Who gets the credit for this film working? Phillips or screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who, let's face it, didn't exactly hit home runs with "Four Christmases" (2008) or "Ghost of Girlfriends Past" (2009)? What are the chances they happened to strike gold with this one? And much has been written about how Phillips rewrote the script for "The Hangover." How much of that is apocryphal is unknown.

What makes "The Hangover" work - other than a welcome change of not seeing Will Ferrell - is the cast of "relative unknowns." We've seen them in movies before, but they tend to fall more into the category of "that guy" than anything else. It's unlikely they remain unknown, given how hugely successful this film is.

But no one in this cast - at least among the main leads - is hamming for the camera or acting as if they know what they are doing is funny. The trick here is that Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis play much of it dead pan, taking the situation they find themselves in very seriously. There is a reason why we find Frank Drebin of "The Naked Gun" films so funny: Because Leslie Nielsen plays all his lines straight.

That's exactly what Cooper, Helms and Galiafianakis do. (Compare what they do to what Ferrell did in, say, "Old School," and you'll see what I mean.) Just watch how Galifianakis treats a line about the Holocaust or what condiments Tigers like. They are both good lines, but what makes them very funny is that he says them so matter-of-factly.

I have been a fan of Galifianakis for years. His stand-up routines are awfully funny and, most recently, I have discovered his "Between Two Ferns" online talk show that is funnier in two minutes than most 30-minute TV sitcoms. (If you haven't seen "Between Two Ferns," do yourself a favor and seek it out online.) In fact, that show is a fine example of how to do comedy well. Talk about playing it straight!

"The Hangover" should rightfully make Galifianakis a sought-out figure, as popular as Seth Rogen, except he's a better actor and more tolerable than Rogen. Galifianakis deserves all the success this film should bring him. He brings a certain naiveté to his role of Alan Garner, the bride's brother. He isn't shy, but there's a sweet charm to him that makes him awfully endearing.

When "The Hangover" stumbles, it is because supporting actors Ken Jeong and Rob Riggle play their roles for laughs, over-acting and trying too hard to sell their jokes. The story bogs down when it gets too wrapped up in exposition: A needless sequence involving Jeong's Mr. Chow. Too bad, because his introduction is absolutely hysterical and the writer(s) could have included the expositionary stuff right there when we first meet Mr. Chow. The bit with Riggle seems unnecessary and too forced. His shtick works in sketches on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," but, here, it falls flat.

Frankly, I was (pleasantly) surprised that I so enjoyed "The Hangover." The concept of bachelors heading off to Vegas for a bachelor party replete with strippers is so tired that I thoroughly expected another routine boys-will-be-boys movie. But Phillips wisely never shows us the revelry the boys got into. Instead, what we see is the aftermath as the guys try to reconstruct the previous night's events.

Much is left to our imagination as the guys try to solve a mystery. They find clues, some more enticing than the other, some more revelatory than the others. Along the way, they meet a physician, Mike Tyson and a hooker (Heather Graham), who is more than a mere hooker with a good heart - she wants to meet Mr. Right. It's lovely to see Graham in a movie like this, though she isn't given much to do. She deserves to be in a hit film, considering some of the junk she has done for the past few years. Truly, clunkers, such as "Cake" (2005), "Gray Matters" (2006) and "Miss Conception" (2008), do not do this woman justice. Give her good material and she shines. Her too-brief appearance on the TV show, "Scrubs," proves that. I hope she shows up more in "The Hangover 2."

The humor is often rude, coarse and can be offensive. But the thing about Phillips' movie is the humor - visual and verbal - is grounded in character. We care about Alan, Stu and Phil and what happens to them as they try to find their buddy, Doug. We root for them, because, despite their boorishness, their characters have heart.

"The Hangover" is funny from the very beginning. It stumbles occasionally, especially in the third act, when some of the lesser characters try too hard. But those are forgivable sins, considering how hilarious the rest of the movie is.

However, if you are one of those people who frowns at low-brow humor - and some of "The Hangover" stoops low - or is easily offended by myriad foul jokes, then might I suggest you skip this film and go see, say, "My Life in Ruins," a wholly insipid movie brimming with thoroughly inoffensive milquetoast characters?

But if you enjoy genuinely funny movies that earn their R rating because they go for broke with their jokes, then I heartily recommend "The Hangover." I might be hard-pressed to see a funnier film this year.

The Taking of Pelham 123

The noise, oh, the noise!
Is there a prerequisite somewhere in Tony Scott's contract that his films all have to be terribly, terribly noisy for no particular reason? I suppose if there was one filmmaker who could take a delicious cat-and-mouse thriller - that was made into a superb 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Jerry Stiller and Martin Balsam - and turn it into a cacophonous mess, it would be Tony Scott.

Scott has replaced the wit, nuance and subtlety in the original film with yelling, bombast, some pointless action and noise.

After the screeching title credits, I actually thought Scott's remake showed promise when it settled into telling the story of the hijacking of Pelham 123. I liked the initial interaction between Denzel Washington's Walter Garber - a tribute to Matthau, perhaps? - and John Travolta's Ryder. There were the seeds being grown for a thrilling cat-and-mouse game.

But then Scott's needless wizardry comes to the forefront. The dazzling camera work, the fast edits, the obnoxious music that simply overpowers scenes.

Honestly, one cannot blame screenwriter Brian Helgeland for this. I am sure had Scott eschewed some of the technical razzmatazz for the story, going for substance over style, there might actually be an entertaining picture here.

Then again, Helgeland shares some blame for the story. Ryder is the only hijacker we get to know. The others, including one played by Luis Guzman, are completely forgettable. We only see them shooting guns or walking around the train carriage. They are cyphers and of little use to the plot. Watch this and then consider the 1974 original, where we got to know the other hijackers - they had some depth, they were fleshed-out - because director Joseph Sargent actually cared about delving into his characters.

In this remake, Garber is a civil servant, as opposed to a cop, with a shady past. Washington is up to the task of playing this Everyman character. There's a nice calmness to him, even though Helgeland has deprived Garber of any humor or spunk. Though, in a van attempt to give Garber depth, we have to sit through superfluous scenes involving Garber's wife.

Then, there's Travolta. Is it possible that Travola, like Al Pacino, is fast-becoming a caricature of himself? That was certainly the impression I got from watching this version of "The Taking of Pelham 123." Travolta's performance is so over-the-top that it simply is tough to take seriously. This is over-acting of "Battlefield Earth" (2000) proportions.

The trouble with Helgeland's screenplay is that it is riddled with giant plot holes. It really doesn't take a genius to figure out Ryder's background. But just in case we are too daft to get it, we are given hints as subtle as thunderous gunshots. But if Ryder is supposed to be as smart a person as he is, just consider his getaway plan. It borders on ridiculous. I can see why the other characters might want to abscond with the money, but why on earth would Ryder, given what we know about him? And given what we know about him, why would he want anyone to know what he looks like?

The action sequences are completely over-blown. Some even don't make any sense. One involving a parked car and a cop is utterly pointless. Action scenes have to make sense, there has to be a reason for them. It might look cool to blow things up and have vehicles crashing into each other, but if they don't have any meaning, they make no sense. That is the case in Scott's film.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is the kind of film that gives Hollywood a bad name. Not that there are not style-over-substance movies that aren't enjoyable. Take Hong Kong actioners such as "So Close" (2002) or "The Killer" (1989), for instance: Despite their style, they still succeeded in being movies that one could get engrossed in. They are thrillers that thrill.

Scott uses slam-bang in a failed attempt to drum up thrills. He and Helgeland had a great chance to update the story and make a thoroughly exciting and captivating thriller with two strong, intelligent men matching wits. Instead, what we have is a boisterous, needlessly noisy, mindless action film that ignores an enticing premise because it is far more fascinated with car crashes than with nail-biting suspense.

A Dream in Doubt

An important, moving documentary about ignorance and the need for national dialogue
I watched "A Dream in Doubt" online and was absolutely riveted.

Here is a documentary - runs about an hour - about the first casualty in post-9/11 America. An innocent Sikh businessman, Balbir Singh Sodhi, from Mesa, Ariz., was gunned down outside his gas station by an ignorant drunk four days after the 9/11 attacks. And why was Mr. Sodhi killed? Because he wore a turban and a beard, and the shooter, Frank Roque, promptly thought Mr. Sodhi was a Muslim and responsible for the attacks.

Director Tami Yeager's marvelous documentary chronicles not only the events surrounding the shooting, but also a family's immense pain as they try to comprehend what happened and put their lives back together again, if possible.

What is startling about what happened in Mesa is that it was not an isolated incident. Across the United States there were attacks against Arabs, Muslims or anyone who looked like one.

Yeager noted that the U.S. Justice Department found that there were more than 750 hate crimes in the years soon after 9/11. But the Bureau of Statistic estimates the number was likely 15 times higher than that! I remember when Mr. Sodhi was killed and thinking to myself that someone could not be that ignorant or stupid as to not know the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim.

But then I saw a CNN interview with a Sikh gentleman in New York after he had been assaulted by teenage thugs and watched with incredulity as some kids on bikes rode by during the interview and yelled, "bin Laden," at the man.

It would be easy to blame such comments and the murder of Mr. Sodhi on ignorance. But it is much more than that. True, 9/11 was a catastrophic event that shook the national psyche. But, in the aftermath, it brought about this false sense of patriotism that made people, at least some people, to feel honor-bound to take matters into their own hands. We needed an enemy and we found one in Muslims and Arabs - or any brown-skinned person with a beard, for that matter - regardless of whether or not they had anything to do with the attacks on that awful day. Having a government eager to shred the Constitution and a frightened public willing to allow the government to do that didn't help matters, either.

Yeager's film is not an easy one to watch because you have a family that believes in the ideals of this great country fighting for survival amidst repeated threats.

There are moments in Yeager's film that are heartbreaking and will stay with you for a long time. Not because she milks them with needless emotion, but because of their simplicity and honesty.

You realize that these immigrants, who lost another member of the family when he was gunned down in San Francisco, still have faith in America.

Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) begins with the line, "I believe in America." But there are times when it is hard to believe in America, when there are cases such as what happened to the Sodhi family or other immigrants, when you see the likes of Lou Dobbs and other TV hosts constantly bashing immigrants.

But then you also realize not everyone is like that. Your faith is restored when you see friends and neighbors of the Sodhis come out to support the family and speak out against what happened. Or, when you see a U.S. military lawyer fight for the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Or, when you see a man who lost two brothers to senseless gun violence tell Yeager that he still believes in America.

Please see "A Dream in Doubt." It is (legally) available free on many Web sites. Instead of going to a theater to see more rubbish that Hollywood churns out, sit back in your living room or office and spend less than an hour watching this remarkable, moving documentary that, among other things, emphasizes the desperate need for national dialogue on our differences.


Tries to cram in a lot, but still worth seeing
"AmericanEast" is a bold attempt by writers Sayed Badreya - who also plays the lead role - and Hesham Issawi - who directed the film - to show a side of contemporary society that is rarely seen in movies: Post-9/11 America through the eyes of Arabs, Muslims or anyone who looks like one.

This is a noble undertaking, considering that American audiences (unfortunately) seem reluctant to support movies that deal with post-9/11 America. Even though many of these films have nothing to do with the specific attacks that horrible, horrible day.

Perhaps it's our reluctance to accept or see our prejudices on the screen. Or, perhaps it's the belief that anything that deals with post-9/11 America inevitably reminds us of that day and we'd rather not have that. Or, perhaps we just don't want to be told what our government did in our name to "protect" us.

Whatever it is, films such as "AmericanEast" have a tough time trying to find an audience and an even tougher time trying to get released theatrically.

Which is a shame. Because this is a film that really ought to be seen.

It is awfully easy for us to demonize Arabs, Muslims and anyone who looks like one and it was a task made even easier by the previous administration. What Badreya and Issawi venture to do is show us another, rarely seen side, to put human faces on their characters and to make them something more than Hollywood caricatures.

The film works when it concentrates on Mustafa and his store/cafe. The few characters who pepper his establishment are interesting and I loved the idea of Habibi's serving as a meeting place for discussions. It's reminiscent of Sal's pizza parlor in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (1989), but it still works in "AmericanEast."

That is not to say that "AmericanEast" is a perfect film. Far from it. Issawi and Badreya want so desperately to make a statement with their film that they cram it with way too much stuff. There are plots and subplots here enough for at least another movie.

As attractive as Sarah Shahi is, her character Salwah's subplot is completely superfluous. Salwah is not fleshed out enough and she does things that are never fully explained or thought out. I don't wish to be spoon-fed, but there were moments that seemed utterly incongruous to her nature.

I found Mustafa's young son Mohammed's cross-cultural dilemma and his father's angst over it much more interesting than Salwah's predicament. Even Mustafa's pot-smoking daughter was a more intriguing character, who is barely explored.

Another peeve: The writers' need to be constantly didactic. Characters pause to give speeches about tolerance and humanity. We get it. This is a message film, undoubtedly, but there is no need to be preachy so often.

That having been said, and despite its flaws, I would rather watch this film again than sit through "New in Town" (2009), "What Happens in Vegas" (2008), "Made of Honor" (2008), "My Best Friend's Girl" (2008), "Righteous Kill" (2008) and "Terminator Salvation" (2009), all of which had wide theatrical releases, unlike "AmericanEast."

I am thrilled there are courageous screenwriters and directors, such as the guys behind this film, out there making movies like this, determined to show another very important side of immigrants. Hollywood could sure use more storytellers like Issawi and Badreya.

My Life in Ruins

What did the Greeks do to deserve this?
While watching "My Life in Ruins," I kept envisioning how screenwriter Mike Reiss might have pitched this to the studio execs.

EXEC: So what have you written before?

REISS: I've worked on "The Simpsons Movie," and on the TV shows, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," "The Critic" and "The Simpsons."

EXEC: Those were original. Original makes me uncomfortable. What's this script about?

REISS: It's about an American tour guide in Greece --

EXEC: It's set in Greece? Brilliant! "Mamma Mia!" did boffo box office and it was set in Greece.

REISS: This tour guide is at the end of her tether --

EXEC: Tether?

REISS: How about rope?

EXEC: That's better.

REISS: Anyway, on her tour, she meets a bunch of wacky tourists and finds love in an "unexpected" place.

EXEC: These tourists. Do they do wacky stuff that is original?

REISS: We got boozy Australians, obnoxious Americans, the stereotypical American college student, the stuck-up, quarreling British couple and their moody daughter, sex-crazed Spanish divorcees, the workaholic American businessman, the lonely widower --

EXEC: Clichés. Brilliant, I love it! We can get Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz to play the Spanish women.

REISS: The roles aren't that big.

EXEC: Hmm. What about the love interest? You said the tour guide finds love in an unexpected place.

REISS: He's the Greek driver of the tour bus.

EXEC: I didn't expect that.

REISS: And, get this: She doesn't like him at first and believes he doesn't speak English.

EXEC: That does sound a bit like "original" to me. Just kidding - it's utterly conventional. Great! But he has to speak English. I don't like subtitles.

REISS: Oh, he speaks English, all right. Which she finds out accidentally at an "inopportune" moment.

EXEC: This is getting even better.

REISS: One more thing: His character's name is pronounced Poopi.

EXEC: Fun-ny!

REISS: And he has a cousin named Doodi.

EXEC: You are a comic genius! When can I sign the check for you? Who do you have in mind for the lead role - Salma Hayek or Penelope Cruz?

REISS: I was thinking Nia Vardalos from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

EXEC: That might hurt the box office. Unless, we sell the film as "The star of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' finally goes to Greece." Speaking of Vardalos, did you ever see her film, "Connie and Carla?" I loved it! I was thinking of remaking it. With a twist. You know how in that film the two women running from the mob are singers who have to pretend to be men? I was thinking, how about if the two are male musicians who witness a mob hit and are forced to dress up as women and play in an all women's band to hide from the gangsters.

REISS: You mean a remake of "Some Like It Hot?"

EXEC: Some like it what?

I don't know who to blame for the utterly bland "My Life in Ruins." Reiss, director Donald Petrie, actress Nia Vardalos or producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.

Clearly, some of the same people involved in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002) - Vardalos, Wilson and Hanks - are back for this one. But, whereas, that film, despite its obvious plot twists and turns, had a certain charm to it, this one is devoid of anything even remotely resembling charm, humor or originality.

There's a moment about 20 minutes into "My Life in Ruins," when Dr. Tullen (Caroline Goodall - what is she doing in this awful picture?) tells Georgia (Vardalos), "You are not funny."

She might as well have been saying that to Petrie and Reiss. Because this film just lumbers from bad, unfunny and entirely predictable situation to the next, simply playing on conventional characters who just appear to be doing what they are doing without an ounce of emotion or genuine feeling. They merely go through the motions, hoping the gorgeous scenery will hoodwink the audience into believing they are watching something special and funny.

There isn't a single moment in this film that is honestly funny or isn't telegraphed. The only barely fleshed-out character is Richard Dreyfuss as Irv, a loud-mouthed widower who thinks he's funny. He gets one nice moment: A brief scene with Rita Wilson.

That moment begs the question as to why Wilson does not appear in more movies. I realize her husband's making all the big movies and is the box-office name, but she is a terrific actress and, frankly, "My Life in Ruins" would have been substantially and substantively more enjoyable had the film been about Irv and Elinor.

Vardalos might be looking to regain some of the "magic" of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." But she failed miserably with "Connie and Carla" (2004), a "Some Like It Hot" (1959) ripoff, and now comes this "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" (1969) ripoff. 'Nuff already. She has to quit making duds and try something else - a drama or a thriller or, better yet, a supporting role, anything other than these crappy cookie-cutter movies in which she plays cardboard characters with a plastered smile.

True, "My Life in Ruins" is inoffensive. You can take your grandparents to it, so long as they are not discerning moviegoers or have no taste. But if this is what passes for family fare these days, then that's a pathetic statement on Hollywood. And families. And if this and "New in Town" (2009) are what pass for female-oriented fare, then women everywhere should feel insulted to have their intelligence questioned in such manner.

At one point, Irv reminds us, "This is comedy - the Greeks invented it."


But what did the Greeks ever do to be repaid with this sort of cloying, hackneyed tripe?

The Wrestler

Terrific performances, but the story is pretty formulaic
There is no denying that Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler features two tremendous performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. But there's also no denying that former The Onion editor Robert Siegel's screenplay is rather conventional, plot-wise. And that does hamper this film.

Which is perhaps why Academy Award voters decided not to nominate "The Wrestler" for Best Picture or Siegel's screenplay. If you look at the other original screenplay nominees - Courtney Hunt for "Frozen River," Mike Leigh for "Happy-Go-Lucky," Martin McDonagh for "In Bruges," Dustin Lance Black for "Milk" and Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon for "Wall-E" - conventional or formulaic they certainly are not.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy "The Wrestler." It is great to see Rourke back and acting to his fullest potential. Not only is this a juicy, meaty role - though some might argue he really isn't acting but simply being himself - but it is such a far cry that some of the crappy movies he came to be known for.

Perhaps it is because Rourke finds such a personal connection to Randy "The Ram" Robinson in "The Wrestler" that he is able to truly tap into the character's deepest fears and insecurities. Rourke is completely convincing as the once-famous, now washed-up wrestler peddling his talents at dingy venues and trying to eke out a living at mediocre autograph sessions. There's genuine angst in Rourke's performance and it is one that certainly propels the film forward.

Tomei, too, turns in a stunning performance as Cassidy, a stripper more by circumstance than by choice. It is a bravura turn by this one romantic-comedy lead. She has matured brilliantly as an actress and there really isn't a false note in her performance.

But then there's Siegel's screenplay. I realize there are tons of people who absolutely adore this film and my reaction to the movie isn't by any means meant to demean their adoration.

"The Wrestler" starts out well and, for the first 30 minutes or so, kept me wondering where it was heading. It had a few genuinely nice surprises. But then comes the scene in the dressing room after a match. When that happened, I immediately knew how a conventional writer would unwind the plot. I hoped this film wouldn't, but it did. Everything I expected would happen happened. The twists, the turns, the character revelations - nothing that came after surprised me and that was a huge disappointment.

I would have expected something novel from Aronofsky, but he clings to Siegel's formulaic script and provides us with nothing that we couldn't have anticipated. I kept waiting for something to change my mind, but nothing did.

So what we're left to marvel at are Rourke's and Tomei's remarkably honest and, at times, brutally so, performances. And what I was left wondering was how much better, more trenchant, this film could have been with a more original screenplay.


Good filmmakers don't need a feature to make powerful movies
"Toyland" is a film that works so brilliantly that it managed to be powerful, thought-provoking and even gut-wrenching than most Hollywood films that are 8 to 10 times longer. With sparse dialogue, director Jochen Alexander Freydank keeps us hooked throughout this superb short film.

Set during the Holocaust, a German woman frantically searches for her son, who might have decided to accompany his Jewish neighbors to a Nazi concentration camp because the Jewish family's young son and her son are best friends.

The film is elegantly shot and wonderfully acted. There is more poignancy and true emotion in this film than I have seen in most Hollywood films in recent times.

Director Freydank moves his story along, with us always wondering not only what comes next but how this is going to end. And then comes the denouement: A truly remarkable twist that says much about the human spirit. It is a moment that will break your heart while simultaneously make you smile.

If you have the chance to see this, and the other Oscar-nominated live action shorts, do yourself a favor and watch them. Believe me, it will be time much better spent than, say, on "New In Town" or most any other mainstream Hollywood film.

Auf der Strecke

Tremendous short film
It is amazing that there are good, bordering on great, filmmakers out there making short films that are infinitely more entertaining than many feature films Hollywood puts out.

"On the Line" is one such short film.

Deliberately paced and well-acted, "On the Line" is one of those rare films that not only trusts the audience to put together the pieces, but also knows you don't need flashy camera work or jump-cuts to keep an audience hooked.

The film also never judges its characters. We understand why they do what they do, the repercussions with which they have to live and the things humans are capable of doing when faced with idiotic emotions, such as jealously.

I got more joy out of this film's 30 minutes than I have watching many Hollywood films recently.

What is surprising is that all the Academy Award-nominated live action films are from foreign countries. Is it that American filmmakers are not making interesting shorts or that there just isn't financing available for them?

Slumdog Millionaire

A stunning achievement: The best film of the year and one of the most exhilarating film-going experiences
I won't see a better, more exhilarating movie this year than Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." If Academy voters have any sense, they will nominate this for Best Picture and Best Director and then vote overwhelmingly for it for both awards.

Boyle has taken what is essentially a story about a young man on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and transformed it into a gritty, realistic, powerful and, at times, gut-wrenching fairy tale. It's a Dickensian picture about a world rarely, if ever, seen in mainstream movies, a film that grabs us from the opening frame and doesn't let go until the credits roll at the end.

This is why I love movies. Films like "Slumdog Millionaire" are rare. They are things of beauty, works of art that make me fall in love with movies all over again. Boyle has done it twice. First with "Millions" (2004), which also, coincidentally, was about a young boy and money; and now with "Slumdog Millionaire."

This is Boyle's masterpiece - a stunningly original piece of film-making.

Every once in a while there is a sleeper film, usually an independent movie, that comes along, takes everyone by surprise, then gets terrific word of mouth and becomes a huge success. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002), "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) - though I did not care much for it - and "Juno" (2007) are such films. But, frankly, those films can't hold a candle to "Slumdog Millionaire."

What might surprise many viewers is that a third of the dialogue is in Hindi. (And Boyle's placement of subtitles on the screen makes such good sense!) Please do not let that dissuade you from seeing this marvelous film. Do not let the R rating prevent you, either. What was the MPAA thinking? Honestly! There are far more offensive, vulgar and violent movies that are rated PG-13. "Slumdog Millionaire" should never have received an R rating. (This film should be mandatory viewing for young people, especially those in industrialized nations.)

Simon Beaufoy's script was originally entirely in English, but Boyle's decision to have the Indian kids speak in Hindi, instead, is the right call. Having the children speaking in their native tongue makes perfect sense, especially because Boyle and Beaufoy depicts the realism of the kids' lives.

That's what incredible about this film. Boyle and Beaufoy do not shy away from showing the squalor of Bombay. These kids live in deplorable conditions amid the grime, sewers and trash dumps of the slums. And, yet, thanks of Boyle true ingenuity, he creates uplifting and even humorous moments in the slums. There is one moment - and I shan't spoil it for anyone, but you will know it when you see it - that very well might be my favorite film moment in the last five years.

Boyle doesn't do a thing wrong here. From his choice of actors to the music to his choice of colors, Boyle works his magic.

The performances are uniformly good. Irrfan Khan finds the right balance between a tormentor and a quasi-father figure as the police officer. There's young Dev Patel as Jamal, playing with confidence, bringing a wonderful swagger to his role, as well as a sense of fear that we completely understand. Freida Pinto as the love interest is superb. And, of course, there are the three young 'uns. Perfectly cast, they actually make the film work. Their performances as Jamal, Salim and Latika are so utterly convincing that they completely draw us into the picture and make the jobs of the older actors playing them much easier.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is, I suppose, a dramatic comedy at heart. But it is also much more. It is a film about friendship, gratitude, love, betrayal, poverty and hope. It makes you laugh, weep and cheer as you can't help but marvel at Boyle's sheer genius.

The film moves along at a breakneck pace, yet none of the cinematic flair - and there is plenty - seems superfluous. Everything Boyle does, including the Bollywood touches, makes sense. There's such a brilliantly kinetic energy to this film that it is impossible not to be enthralled by it.

What Boyle has done is truly miraculous. He has turned a film about street life in Bombay into a visceral, genuine crowd-pleaser. And you will walk out of the movie theater feeling inspired and hopeful, knowing you've just seen something very special.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is not to be missed. It is the best movie of the year. And it is, without any doubt, one of the ten best films of the decade.

The Visitor

One of the very best films of the year
With "The Visitor," writer-director Tom McCarthy proves that "The Station Agent" (2003) was not beginner's luck, a fluke or anything of that ilk. McCarthy is an incredibly talented writer and filmmaker and with "The Visitor," he handles an important social issue with understatement, grace and honesty that make the story all the more compelling and trenchant.

There's nothing preachy about McCarthy's tale - a widowed professor (Richard Jenkins) befriending two illegal immigrants in his New York apartment and slowly finding his quiet, rather uneventful life having a purpose.

There are countless immigration stories to be told in this country. And there are countless ones post-9/11, when this government, aided by a complacent and terrified citizenry, decided to single out Muslims, Arabs or anyone who looked like one. We threw people in jail for the flimsiest reasons or no reason at all, deported hundreds, again for very little reason, and then insisted it had nothing to do with racial or ethnic profiling. It was to keep us safe. Poppycock!

Just as McCarthy made Peter Dinklage a star in "The Station Agent," he has found the ideal role for veteran character actor Richard Jenkins. I have always been a fan of Jenkins' work. Take a look at him in "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), "North Country" (2007) or even the execrable comedy, "Rumor Has It..." (2005), and you'll realize this guy's a treasure.

As Walter Vale, Jenkins grabs us from the initial moments of this film right to the very end. We understand his melancholy and appreciate and enjoy his transformation. You never, for even an instant, see Jenkins acting. McCarthy wrote the role for Jenkins and the actor completely becomes Walter without the slightest hint of a performance. It was what makes Jenkins' performance one of the most memorable of the year. It would be a real shame if he is not nominated for an Academy Award for this role.

McCarthy clearly loves minimalist film-making and storytelling, The story is simple here, but it's packed with such immense emotion. There are wonderful touches peppered throughout the film. (Just watch how the wallpaper on Walter's computer changes.)

The film really takes off when Walter meets Mouna (Hiam Abbass) and the man realizes he has yet another reason to live. Their moments together are so beautifully performed; there isn't a forced or false moment between the two. They can turn a mundane dinner into something rich and incredibly rewarding.

"The Visitor" could easily have been a preachy film riddled with sentimentality. But McCarthy avoids all those trappings. Every emotion in this movie is earned. He manages to indict our system without overtly showing how blatantly xenophobic this nation has become, thanks to a ridiculously ignorant and arrogant government.

McCarthy's film raises a lot of questions and offers no easy answers. McCarthy also has the courage not to wrap everything up nicely in a red-white-and-blue ribbon. His film shows that people walk in and out of others' lives, sometimes making little difference, sometimes altering them completely. We may think we know where this film is headed, but McCarthy has a few surprises. And although there are some predictable moments (what film doesn't have them?), there is something immensely satisfying about watching this beautiful humanist drama unfold.

"The Visitor" is the kind of joyous movie-going experience that gives me faith in American independent cinema. Soon after World War II, there was Italian neo-realism. I know McCarthy's made just two movies, but I really wouldn't be surprised if, years from now, he is considered one of the pioneers of an American neo-realism movement, if you will.

Mamma Mia!

Take a chance ... just for the sheer fun of it
As gratifying as it is for me to see, say, a deeply meaningful foreign-language or independent film about the nature of man or the fundamental questions of life, there is something to be said about seeing a movie that makes absolutely no pretensions about what it is.

"Mamma Mia!" is made for the sheer fun of it all. True, it is banking on the immense popularity of the stage musical, which I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed. (For the sake of full disclosure, I grew up an ABBA fan. You couldn't turn on the radio from the mid-1970s to the very early '80s without hearing one of their songs.)

I am giving away no secrets here - the plot of "Mamma Mia! is flimsy at best. If you can call it a plot, that is. The basic premise - a young girl trying to find out who her real dad is on the eve of her wedding - is merely an excuse to string along a whole number of ABBA songs. It was so in the stage musical and it is the same in the movie.

The film relies on the charm of the songs - let's face it, ABBA was a genius at linking simple lyrics to catchy tunes. And once their songs get into your head, it's awfully difficult to get rid of them. Try listening to "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me," "Waterloo" or "Mamma Mia!" on the radio without finding yourself humming the tune or singing the song just minutes later.

The film takes a bit to get going. But it does settle down after the initial screech-fests when Sophie's two friends and Donna's two friends are introduced. The film's thin plot unwinds and all the actors gamely throw themselves lustily into the musical.

What surprised me about the movie was the filmmakers managed to find some pathos, some real emotion, if you will, in the midst of this disco nostalgia. Much of the credit goes to Meryl Streep, who carries this film. She brings such exuberance to her role that it's downright impossible not to be utterly charmed by her Donna. She is a marvel here and her rendition of "The Winner Takes It All" had some women in the audience reaching for their tissues at the screening I attended. Streep knows how to belt it and her take on the song is as emotionally potent as it was when Agnetha first sang the number in the waning days of the musical group.

The rest of the cast is good, too, though with their shortfalls. Pierce Brosnan singing "S.O.S." might be the cringe-inducing moment of the year. But I suppose it's forgivable to look beyond his vocal shortfall because the others make up for it and the music takes you along for a wonderful ride. Stellan Skarsgard clearly is having fun and if you ever had any questions about his talent, watch his reaction when he speaks to Sophie during "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme." That alone might be worth the price of admission. Though his vocal talents might be on par with Mr. Brosnan.

Christine Baranski is a fine comedic actress - and the role is tailor-made for her - and a sensationally good singer. She brings so much sass to her role, I couldn't really envision anyone else in it - okay, Bebe Neuwirth perhaps - and winds up having the best musical scene in the movie. If her number on the beach doesn't get you toe-tapping, I suppose nothing will.

Christine Johnson's screenplay doesn't exactly sizzle; her dialogue serves as mere transitions to the next song. But you aren't really going to see this movie for its crackling dialogue, are you? The film also would have benefited from more inventive choreography, especially during the initial moments of Streep's rendition of "Mamma Mia!"

While watching "Mamma Mia!" it occurred to me that I was actually having fun. That's one of the wonders of movies and certainly is one of the film's many charms. Sometimes it's refreshing to sit in a darkened theatre and just have fun watching a movie.

I have no doubt ABBA fans will love this film. But others should enjoy it as well because it actually is a surprisingly engaging piece of entertainment. True, it's silly popcorn entertainment. But given how much mediocre stuff Hollywood puts out yearly, it is nice to have some truly entertaining, goofy fluff. Frankly, the last time I had this much fun watching a movie was Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (2005).

The Bourne Ultimatum

Redefining edge-of-your-seat
How refreshing it is to sit in a theater and be thoroughly engrossed and excited by an intelligent, brave, adult thriller that actually makes the audience think. Forget "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" or even the over-hyped "The Lord of the Rings" trilogies, the "Bourne" films might very well be the most entertaining and thrilling trilogy made.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" begins a few minutes after "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004) ended. And from the opening foot chase through the streets of Moscow (with the former East Berlin substituting for Moscow), "The Bourne Ultimatum" turns into a relentless and smart thrill ride as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) tries to figure out what happened to him.

True, "The Bourne Ultimatum" is essentially a chase picture. But thanks to director Paul Greengrass - what a brilliant move it was to bring him back for this film - Damon and some crackingly good editing by Christopher Rouse, the film is never dumbed-down. Some of it does seem preposterous, but the filmmakers and the actors - and there are some good ones here, including the always wonderful Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Julia Stiles - we are drawn into Bourne's predicament and find ourselves taken for one delightfully, pulse-pounding ride. The New York chase and the scene at Waterloo Station are two of the most tense, exciting sequences I've seen in a long time.

Damon truly has grown into this role and has quietly turned into a fine actor. Greengrass seems to get the best out of him. So it isn't surprising that the two are teaming up for "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," about our illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. I've always been a huge fan of Strathairn's - see some of his terrific work in John Salyes' movies - and in "The Bourne Ultimatum," he brings such quiet venom to Noah Vosen that you can just imagine the menace lurking under his persona. As for Allen, someday she'll win an Oscar, and it would be a well-deserved award. She is truly one of the best out there. And, this time, Stiles gets a juicier bit, but proves worthy of her expanded role.

As for the cinematography. I realize there are countless complaints about the use of hand-held shots and Greengrass certainly loves dong that. In fact, he seems to specialize in that. I didn't think it caused motion sickness. And I didn't find it distracting in the least. Greengrass' approach actually works very well for the story he's telling. It worked well on "The Bourne Supremacy" and it does even better here.

What's ultimately most satisfying about the "Bourne" movies - and especially "The Bourne Ultimatum" - is that it shows that you can make an adrenaline-rushed action film, but still make it clever, snappy and entertaining. In an age when Hollywood likes to turn pro wrestlers into stars and give them action films with dumb dialogue, films such as the "Bourne" movies are rare and should be appreciated. Here's hoping we get more of this kind and less of, say, "The Condemned" (2007) or "The Rundown" (2003).

Lars and the Real Girl

A sweet, touching, original piece of film-making
"Lars and the Real Girl" is a film that could have gone so completely wrong given its subject matter. It could very easily have wandered into, say, Farrelly Brothers territory and been played for dumb, obvious jokes.

Instead, what screenwriter Nancy Oliver has done is taken a seemingly preposterous idea and made an entirely original, touching and charming little movie. She deserves an Oscar nomination for her screenplay.

Speaking of nominations, I hope Emily Mortimer gets one, too. This is easily this wonderful British actress' finest performance.

What makes "Lars and the Real Girl" so thoroughly enjoyable is that after the initial shock, if not disbelief, of the idea, the actors allow us to buy into the idea. They play everything so straight that we can't help but understand Lars' plight and their willingness to go along with his absurd delusion.

Given the publicity this film received, the arrival of the doll is no surprise. What is delightfully surprising is how Oliver takes that absurdity and then creates characters who are utterly believable and who demand our attention.

I have always been an Emily Mortimer fan. (Though what she's doing in the "Pink Panther" remakes, I don't know.) But having seen her in the horrible "Pink Panther" (2006), it is so refreshing to see her cast in a movie where she's given a juicy role and she turns in a completely captivating performance. From the very first moment we see her when she goes out into the cold, a shawl wrapped around her thin frame, Mortimer draws us in. As terrific as Ryan Gosling is in this film, it is Mortimer who actually holds the thing together. There isn't a false note in her performance. Nothing seems performed.

Gosling, who seems to revel in these slightly off-kilter roles - his performance in "Half-Nelson" was one of the standouts of last year - makes us believe and understand (and even appreciate, if you will) his relationship with the doll. There's nothing dirty or vulgar about any of it.

Occasionally a film comes along that rekindles my faith in movies. And occasionally one comes along that makes me believe American film-making is not entirely an exercise in CGI and dumbing down of the audience. This one did both. Clearly, "Lars and the Real Girl" isn't for all tastes. But if you're a bit open-minded and willing to accept the idea of this film, you will be richly rewarded. This is one of the best films of the year.

Music and Lyrics

It's all about chemistry
Despite it's cheesiness and inevitable predictability, this one's all about chemistry. You really have to be incredibly dense and daft not to know how a romantic comedy's going to end, so you hope the pleasure of the film is going to be the journey the actors take us on.

What makes "Music and Lyrics" work are Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant. The two of have charm and comedic timing to spare, but they also supremely click together as an on-screen couple.

Alex Fletcher seems tailor-made for Grant. There's a certain charming arrogance that Grant exudes as Alex, a man who knows his place in pop culture, if you will.

Barrymore's an absolute darling as Sophie. Though, frankly, she could play these roles in her sleep. She breathes life into Sophie - and the film. She mines wonderful comedy from relatively ordinary moments. The fact that she also has one of cinema's most radiant smiles doesn't hurt, either.

I know why Barrymore takes on these roles. But I would now love to see her in a truly dramatic role.

The film's loose bit of casting is Kristen Johnston as Sophie's sister, Rhonda. Hr character is a cliché of the genre - the sidekick - but wasn't Joan Cusack available? Seriously. Johnston's way too over-the-top. Subtlety has never been her forte and she plays everything so broadly that her shtick gets a bit annoying after a while.

"Music and Lyrics" is a typical romantic comedy. Plot wise, there are no surprises. But it's a pleasant deviation from most of the tripe Hollywood usually churns out. And the reason for that? Grant and Barrymore.

Catch and Release

Plot-wise unsurprising, but buoyed by Garner's charm
I saw "Catch and Release" a couple of months ago, the first screening, writer-director Susannah Grant said, of the final cut. It was a very friendly audience, but watching the movie, I couldn't help but feel Grant could have and should have done better.

The film opens promisingly, teasing us and playing with our expectations as we first see Gray (Jennifer Garner) and the circumstances she finds herself in. However, Grant never quite builds on that initial promise and soon "Catch and Release" meanders into traditional romantic comedy territory, complete with the obligatory playful and lovable sidekick - in this case, Sam (Kevin Smith) - and the friend harboring a romantic secret of his own, Dennis (Sam Jaeger).

The crux of the story is Gray's realization that her life is being turned upside down because of what she finds out about a loved one. And - I'm giving away no secrets here, because it is, after all, a romantic comedy - the blossoming romance between her and Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who at first is seemingly wrong for her. But wanna guess if that will change?

The star of the film is undoubtedly Garner. Just as she did in "13 Going on 30" (2004), she again takes what should be a pedestrian film and boosts it considerably with her undeniable charm. She has a smile that melts the hardest heart and although "Catch and Release" can never shake its conventions, whenever the film entertains, it's mostly because of Garner. She imbues Gray with a vulnerability that's utterly convincing.

Smartly, Grant also gives Smith - essentially playing himself with cleaner language - the film's funniest lines. They're not anything novel, but it's typical Kevin Smith. She also tags on a romantic interest for Sam. It's no surprise, because Grant cannot break the shackles of the genre for something original. You can see the pairing long before it actually happens on screen.

Juliette Lewis seems an oddity in this film. I've not seen her in a film for years and her character tends to grate a bit. Lewis is a good actress, but she seems to get typecast in these off-kilter roles and there's an unmistakable sense we've seen this performance from her before.

Olyphant plays sleazy well - just watch him in the otherwise-forgettable "The Girl Next Door" (2004). In "Catch and Release," his caddish boor actually is a facade. Turns out, this chap's actually a nice guy. He has to be. After all, he has Gray to win over and Grant's doing this by-the-numbers.

And therein lies the film's problem. Despite Grant's admirable attempt to spin the romantic comedy's meet-cute moment, it's hard to believe Gray would fall for a chap who, for the lack of a better phrase, finds carnal comfort at the most unlikely occasions.

Of course, "Catch and Release" has a certain sweetness about it. How can it not when Garner's so adorable. It's polished, looks good; a cut above, say, the odd independent romcoms that tackle the trials and tribulations, the angst and adoration among a group of good friends. But it offers nothing new and relies on a few too many "movie" moments to elicit laughs. Some of those moments are funny, but you get the impression they're not exactly rooted in any realm of reality. Yet, Grant seems to want to lend her story a sense of reality, one that deals with love, loss and forgiveness.

Grant said when she recut her film, she was forced to excise some of Fritz's back story. It doesn't seem warranted, but there seems to be something missing from Fritz. We know the story's moving to get Gray and Fritz together - this is a freakin' Hollywood studio-produced romantic comedy, after all - but it all seems too orchestrated from the beginning.

Is it too much to ask a Hollywood romantic-comedy writer to be even slightly daring? Hollywood-produced romantic comedies, by their very nature, are predictable. You know going in the girl and the guy will wind up together, so it's the journey that is supposed to thrill us. Maybe even surprise us. Grant, however, chooses the safest, and therefore, least surprising, path. She hits all the points a screen writing guru without an ounce of originality would demand be seen in a romcom script. The only novelty here is that Grant got some attractive, appealing and talented actors for her directorial debut. It is they who keep this extremely conventional story from turning unbearable. Though, even Garner's considerable cuteness cannot salvage the film's ending.


What a great surprise!
I like horror films, but am not fan of the latest slew that are either remakes of much better films from 20, 30 years ago, or these ultra-violent escapades whose only attraction seems to be endless body counts and coming up with extremely violent and gory ways to slaughter people. I know these films have a following, but I've had no interest in sitting through them.

So it was with tremendous apprehension that I rented "Slither." Two reasons I got it - I vaguely recall reading a critic who said it was funny and I am an Elizabeth Banks fan. Loved her as Betty Brant in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films, "Baxter" (2005) and "Heights" (2004). I even rented "Sexual Life" (2005) because she was in it.

What a refreshing surprise "Slither" turned out to be. Writer-director James Gunn knows he's essentially making "Invasion of the Body Snatchers Meets Night of the Living Dead" and he has tremendous fun with that premise. Thing is, Gunn never treats his film seriously, but all his characters do, which is what makes comedy work. The reason we laugh so heartily at all those "The Naked Gun" movies is because Frank Drebin and Co. take what they're doing completely seriously. No one's laughing at their own jokes.

That's why "Slither" works so well, too. The writing is snappy, funny; at times, it's downright hilarious. The film's constantly lively, hugely entertaining, never boring and surprisingly quick-witted. I watched the film alone and found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. The measure of a good comedy is when you can do that.

"Slither" never hides the fact that it's a low-budget horror. But the actors are all game and, although Gunn is working with archetypes of the genre, he throws in plenty of freshness and originality to keep propelling his movie forward.

Gunn clearly is a big fan of horror movies. More than that, he loves them. It's obvious. And he pours all that love and respect into this film. There's really nothing surprising in this plot, but it's the journey that makes "Slither" worthwhile.

Of course, there are better horror films than "Slither." But occasionally it's good to sit back and enjoy a film for what it is. It's good to be able to laugh at something silly, but not stupid. There are scenes here that are hysterically funny. Starla's (Banks) recounting of her marriage vows in the middle of a field still makes me laugh.

Let me put it this way. After watching "Slither," the first thought that popped to mind was that I needed to add the DVD to my collection. "Slither" is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Stranger Than Fiction

Kaufman-lite, but Forster's best film is charmingly good
I saw "Stranger Than Fiction" because the trailer made the film seem awfully intriguing and, despite Will Ferrell's appearance, it also starred Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

I realize the studio decided to sell this film as a comedy. And it is. But also is much more. It's heartwarming, fantastical and maintains a certain sweetness that, as cynical as I am, I found incredibly appealing.

The story's hook: Renowned author Kay Eiffel (Thompson) is penning her latest book in which her protagonist is a chap named Harold Crick (Ferrell). However, unknown to her, Crick is an IRS auditor in real life and can hear her narration in his head and that drives him bonkers.

What follows is a wonderful film that unwinds unexpectedly and slowly, allowing us to know and appreciate not only Kay and Harold, but also supporting characters, including a literature professor Jules (Dustin Hoffman) and a bakery-story owner Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal), who proves to be Harold's object of desire.

It is inevitable that Zach Helm's screenplay would draw comparisons to Charlie Kaufman's works, "Being John Malkovich" (1999), "Adaptation" (2002) and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), which is one of my favorite films. I suppose it is unfair to compare Helm to the incomparable genius that is Kaufman.

So, though Helm seems like Kaufman-lite, "Stranger Than Fiction" is helped immensely by four superb performances and it's premise: The responsibility of at. How many good films could you say you've seen about that topic? Ferrell - who is best in small doses, which is why I've never really enjoyed his starring roles all that much - is finely subdued as a man slowly becoming unhinged as he realizes his fate. Ferrell never overacts - I know, that's shocking to believe, but true - and his goodness and kindness serves the story very well. I wish he'd take on more roles like this and fewer Ron Burgundys.

Thompson makes a welcome return to the screen - I know she was in "Nanny McPhee" (2005) and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004) - but she's back playing a normal person. Kay's a woman with writer's block, desperately trying to figure out how to end her novel. She knows how it will end, but doesn't know how exactly, if that makes sense.

But the star of the film is Gyllenhaal. She truly is one of the most gifted and talented actresses working today, someone who completely takes over a film with her charm and uncommon beauty. Here, she's Ana who's being audited and turning Harold's love life upside down. She wins us over with a minor role.

The questions Helm raises in his film are intelligent ones about art, love, life, responsibility. If there's a flaw in the film, it is the ending. The ending is a compromise. And I couldn't help but think it felt something handed down by a studio exec. I don't know. Or, perhaps, Helm, realizing that he needed to make his film more appealing to the masses, compromised at the very end. He does seem to make it work, though the other possibility would have been excitingly intriguing, trying to see if the characters could get out of that one.

However, the compromise aside, "Stranger Than Fiction" works beautifully. Despite it's fantastic ideas, it never seems forced or false. We buy the premise and are taken along for a delightful ride. I always thought Forster's other, better known, films, "Monster's Ball" (2001) and "Finding Neverland" (2004), were a tad over-rated. With "Stranger Than Fiction," however, he proved me wrong. He's made one of the best films of the year.

The Queen

Why Helen Mirren is one of the greats
From the opening scene of Queen Elizabeth sitting down for a portrait to the final moments of "The Queen," Helen Mirren completely holds Stephen Frears' film together.

If Mirren is not nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award - in my judgement, she also should win it - the Academy will seriously have to reconsider whether the Oscars honor the year's best.

Making a film about the Royals in the days after Diana's tragic death in 1997 might seem like an odd choice. But Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan - who incidentally teamed up three years ago for "The Deal," which featured Michael Sheen as Tony Blair - have turned what could very easily have been a trashy tabloid story into a compelling, moving and utterly enthralling political drama.

Yes, we know Frears and Morgan are merely supposing what happened behind close doors at Balmoral. But their imagination seems to have concocted an awfully good tale of intrigue and political maneuvering, while raising interesting questions about the British Monarchy and whether such a traditional institution can exist in a society that changes almost daily.

This is a story of Blair vs. ERII. The question is not whether Diana's death should have created the worldwide outpouring of grief that it did or why, but what the British government and QEII were going to do about it. Whether the grief was warranted or not, it happened. It is understandable that the House of Windsor didn't quite understand why it was happening or how to react. After all, they were more familiar with the British stiff upper lip response, which is what they expected.

The conflict between Blair and Elizabeth makes for exciting viewing. Morgan's script is smart, literate and works in small scenes. His characters are all incredibly well developed. He creates intrigue by carefully calculating the give-and-take between the palace and Downing Street. At times, "The Queen" works as an effective political thriller, something I was not expecting and extremely and pleasantly surprised to see.

Frears directs the film expertly. He never over-directs any scene, allowing his film to work in small moments rather than grandiose scenes. He never opts to turn his film into a maudlin and trite story - which could very easily have happened - and many a filmmaker could learn from Fears' use of music. He never lets the score overpower a scene - something American filmmakers should learn how to do - and those moments are more poignant and trenchant because he lets his actors and the situation dictate the emotion.

But the film belongs to Mirren. Frankly, I can't ever recall seeing Mirren give a bad performance. She's been in some films that haven't exactly been brilliant, but Mirren's always shone.

She so completely gets into Elizabeth's persona and - thanks to some terrific make-up, too - there were times I forgot I was watching an actress play Elizabeth. Mirren's performance isn't only regal and elegant, never once betraying her character's stoic or sturdy center, but it also is beautifully understated. She conveys more in just a suggested look on her face than many actresses can with hundreds of lines.

Whether "The Queen" defends the monarchy or repudiates it is up to you. But the film is not really interested in that issue. It attempts to provide a fictionalized glimpse into a guarded institution at a time when the British people seemed desperately in need of a leader to guide them.


Compelling cast aside, this one feels familiar
A cast that features Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. A film directed by one of the producers of "Monster's Ball" (2001) and "The Woodsman" (2004).

So why does "Shadowboxer" feel so familiar?

Screenwriter William Lipz's script tries awfully hard to upend the hit-man-for-hire genre and succeeds to an extent. The trouble with "Shadowboxer" is that despite giving us rather absorbing characters - they may not be likable, but they are interesting and that's what I seek in a film - he doesn't give us a story that's all that unique.

I can understand why Gooding took this role. After winning the Oscar for "Jerry Maguire" (1996), his career seemed to stall. Instead of getting better roles, poor Gooding wound up in truly horrible movies - "Chill Factor" (1996), "Pearl Harbor" (2001), "Snow Dogs" (2002) and "Boat Trip" (2002).

So playing Mikey, the hit-man with a more than slight Oedipal complex, might have seemed like an incredibly juicy role. And it is. Especially when you have the opportunity to play opposite the brilliant Helen Mirren.

Together, Gooding and Mirren create an interesting duo. They provide a good psychological study and add a freshness to what can be a rather tiresome genre.

On the other hand, the plot leaves very little for the imagination. Stephen Dorff is pleasantly smarmy as the villain. But the twists and turns Lipz's story takes never keeps us guessing. We can anticipate what's coming and Lipz never bothers to keep his story tightly-coiled or even vaguely surprising.

In the end, even Vanessa Ferlito baring her breasts can't save this one.

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