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I hated this movie
I can see how "Kick-Ass" is gonna be popular...but, then, I can see how "Transformers 2" could be popular, too. Now that that's out of the way...

If you're someone who thinks it might be a lark to watch an 11-year-old corner a defenceless woman and stab her twice through the chest, this movie might be for you. There's also a scene where she puts a guy in a trash compactor and we watch for a couple minutes as he's squished to death. The guy wasn't a character before this scene (and I don't remember what relevance he has to the movie), so we're not watching the payoff to a joke, we're just watching...a guy getting squished by a trash compactor. The brutality of the scene is immediately undercut with the 11-year-old employing some nasty profanity, an easy joke that'll get an immediate reaction, doing away with the conflict I imagine (hope?) a lot of the audience will be feeling after the scene that preceded it.

The premise is: real people trying to be super-heroes (not a bad idea - I liked it in "The Dark Knight"). Dave is a comic book geek modelled, I assume, on most of the movie's target audience. He actually bears a closer resemblance to a Michael Cera hero, but, I'll get to that later. Anyway, he likes comic books, he decides to start "fighting crime" (which is always just around the corner in these movies) so he orders a suit and goes at it. He's not very good, and his friends make fun of him for the idea.

Meanwhile, an ex-cop (Nicolas Cage - very good) is turning his young daughter (the 11-year-old) into a cold-blooded killer, for our benefit. They're playing out a revenge scheme against the movie's chief villain, a mob boss played by Mark Strong. The plot in this movie sometimes feels like math: setup + action = payoff. Actually, that's exactly what it feels like. It's supposed satire is constantly undercut by its rigid obedience to its own formula. Since we can already guess, roughly, how everything will play out, I don't know why "Kick-Ass" spends so much time explaining itself.

When you hear the premise - real people trying to be superheroes - it sounds good, but watching this movie makes you think there are really only a few ways to handle it. There's "The Dark Knight" or "Iron Man" way, which is, more or less, taking it seriously. Or you could go for a satirical/darkly comic tone, which this movie tries for. If you were to do that, the best way to handle the violence would be to make it convincing, wouldn't it? Since, as the movie opens, it seems to make itself very clear that it doesn't take place in some phony superhero world? Instead, people get shot, they fall dead and CGI blood squirts out. You've seen one guy squirt CGI blood, you've seen 'em all - and it happens over and over again. The violence in this movie packs no punch, it's thoughtless and, supposedly, fun!, which makes it all the more disheartening when it's directed at the defenceless woman.

So it wasn't a very pleasant experience for me. Shift it an inch one way and you could've had a nice dark comedy (something by the Coens). An inch the other way you could've had a clever action movie (Crank & Crank 2). "Kick-Ass" is like a cautious kid, skirting the deep end without having the nerve to stick his toes in the water. It's not ballsy enough to take the father/daughter relationship to the logical, risky conclusion that it demands. It's not smart enough to question the motives of its boring protagonist - he's, basically, good (and he gets the girl). It's not original enough to offer us any "evil" that's not the cartoon kind we've already been tired of seeing in thousands of others movies. It's sense of humour is on the level of a disturbed child who likes to use swear words - which is one of its favourite jokes.

I said the movie's about real people trying to be superheroes. Not quite. It's about the "real people" you see in Hollywood movies, becoming superheroes. The "real people" played by Michael Cera or Shia LaBoef or Miley Cyrus. The ones who live in a glossy, safe world where they get what they want in the end. In this case, it's to have sex and kill a bunch of people. That could make for a great joke, except that, like those glossy Hollywood movies, it doesn't have the confidence to get you to actually think about it.

4/10 (Three points Nicolas Cage, one point Clark Duke. Otherwise, zilch.)

The Messenger

G-g-g-grief porn
Thank God for the war in Iraq so that we can have movies as important as "The Messenger."

That's how it feels.

In the "The Messenger," Montgomery (Ben Foster) is returning home from the war only to be put on casualty notification work with Stone (Woody Harrelson). That's the setup. In the same way that Avatar's plot is the setup for special effects, The Messenger's is the setup for tears - tears bought, not earned. It promises to give us the real deal on grieving families and soldiers returning home, but in it's overwritten, overstylized way, it's really only about one thing: the audience member's susceptibility to shameless emotional manipulation.

Foster is a shell-shocked vet and Harrelson is a career soldier who's never seen action. Harrelson deals with his work through denial, Foster - the hero of the story - through a certain brand of, what I would call, "righteous nihilism." Foster had a girl he left home, played by Jena Malone, who shows up in the beginning for some nude scenes - shot from behind, with the nudity obscured just enough to keep this arty and tasteful. Malone and Foster have a conversation about marriage that turns out (in a clever gotchya! moment) to refer to Malone and her new fiancée, not Foster.

Foster was injured in the war. His left eye is dried out and he must give it constant eye-drops, providing a nice visual metaphor for a man who's been hardened and has to force himself to cry. Charlie Kaufman already used this image for laughs in "Synecdoche, NY," and I think he had the right idea. Foster apparently has another injury in his leg, but it doesn't seem to effect his walking and indeed it's rarely brought up.

The casualty notification scenes each come with their own gimmick. A dead soldier's pregnant girlfriend Foster and Harrelson have to awkwardly wait with while the soldier's mother comes home from the convenience store. A man who's surprised to find out his daughter didn't tell him she married the dead soldier before he left. A man who requires a translator. They accidentally run into a parent in a gas station, right before they were supposed to call on him, which in this movie is like the equivalent of a mad killer jumping out from the side of the screen in a horror movie.

They only have two standard runs that I recall, both with celebrities. The first is Steve Buscemi, as a father, who responds to news of his son's death by gazing tearfully off-screen and speechifying: "Look at that tree..." The second is Samantha Morton, as a widow. She handles it as politely as she can, and Morton handles the scene like a professional. A romance starts brewing between her and the Foster character. But it's forbidden, forbidden!

I knew I was in trouble about ten minutes into this dreck when Foster argues he can't do the work because he's not religious and Harrelson responds somberly, "You're not there for God. You're not there for heaven." Morton, later on, talks about finding her husband's shirt in the closet. This is what she says: "It smelled of rage and fear. It smelled of the man he had become." It's the kind of script that, if you had no taste, you'd think it deserved an Oscar nomination.

This mannered quality isn't only in the way it's written, but in the way it's shot. For the most part it's filmed with a stable, occasionally moving camera - except for the casualty notification scenes, which are straight-up hand-held shaky-cam. This is to communicate the...shakiness of the emotions, I guess. There's a long (and I mean long) conversation between Foster and Morton that's shot in one take, but it feels like the director was thinking, "I wanna try out one of those cool long take things like Mike Leigh does."

It's not all bad. The performances by Harrelson, Morton, Malone and Buscemi are effective (I'm still not sold on Foster, with his attitude, who comes off more like the lead singer of a really "dark" rock band than like a soldier who's seen action). The last half hour, when it leaves the casualty notification stuff behind and focuses on the main characters, works pretty well. There's a final monologue that illustrates what it's trying to illustrate without getting too poetic about it.

But by that point I was already too angry. I hated...most of this movie.



Neveldine and Taylor succeed on the strength of their images
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's "Gamer" had a near-mystical effect on me that I'd liken to Bigelow's "Strange Days," Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," Fellini's post-8½ stuff and most of the work by David Cronenberg. What I mean is I was disturbed – in the most viscerally enjoyable way.

The plot's your run-of-the-mill dose of futurism/cynicism. In America, in the future, death row inmates are controlled via nanobots in their brains by "gamers" for the purposes of a Pay-Per-View combat game called "Slayers." The inmates are hauled to these deserted cities or warehouses and basically act as avatars – these settings bear a close resemblance in design to popular first person shooter games like "Halo." None of the obstacles exist for any reason other than ducking behind to avoid the shrapnel/splatter of exploding bodies.

In the "real world" the gamers game and millions of viewers tune in to watch the latest match. Kable (Gerard Butler) – played by Simon (Logan Lerman) – is the undefeated champion. A few more victorious rounds and he'll be set free. He'd be the first. So there you have the basic plot – it's not wholly unique. What differentiates the movie from garbage like "Death Race" is the style and wit that's put into the images (and their implications). The sequences that take place in "Slayers" are brilliant in how they depict existing video games – yes, in the movie these are real people getting blown apart, but it all looks the same to the viewer, so what's the difference?

These are the sort of questions Neveldine and Taylor are asking, as they did with their equally brilliant "Crank 2." They don't have any answers. Indeed, they tell their satiric/violent stories with an unbridled joy some would mistake for hypocrisy. It's not. Neveldine and Taylor are the voice of their generation, evaluating their detached, sadistic tastes while exploiting them to the enth degree. They're not making excuses for themselves, they're just being honest. It's to their credit their movies can be pulpy, exciting action yarns while sending themselves up so cleverly.

Even more interesting and visually brilliant than the "Slayers" sequences are those set in "Society," a Sims-like game where players utilize the same technology to control human beings in ultra-exaggerated social settings. The players are seen in dark rooms, getting their throws while their far more beautiful avatars engage in endless sex and partying in the "Society" universe. I can't properly describe in words how disturbing this is, you have to see it for yourself.

What the film satirizes most efficiently is our mindless mass servitude to the latest technologies. We don't think about implications, or slippery slopes, we just slide down them – and faster and faster, the movie surmises. This leads to interesting anomalies, like Hackman (Terry Crews), a roid-raged maniac who joins "Slayers" "with no strings," simply, because he wants to. Also, there's a monstrous fat man who seems to sit in his apartment endlessly playing "Society," with Kable's wife (Amber Valetta) as his avatar. These two characters' first meeting provides the film's most repugnant moment. None of this comes off as particularly outlandish.

It's the Valetta character that provides the suspense of the film, which has a pretty standard story. It won't spoil too much to say that Butler escapes, hooks up with some revolutionaries (the "Humanz," who don't escape the film's satire either) and fights his way to the top: "Slayers" and "Society" creator Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). Hey, it's an action movie. But at the same time, it's not.

An action movie is about choreography, stunts. This movie has that, but the engine that drives it is the cinematography – the same could be said for the "Crank" films. It's the camera work and editing (a lot of it) that gives the movie its forward energy. You get caught up in it. There's probably a few hundred shots, and they're all – all – thought-out. They're connected with what came before and pull you into what comes next. This sort of visual dynamism in a B-movie is like taking a breath of fresh air after a decade of "Saws" and "Saw" cousins.

What can I say? Like the best movies, it wraps you up, wrings you out, and you're better off for it.


Das weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte

A great movie, but for who?
When I say that "The White Ribbon" is a great movie, I mean, only, that it's a movie made by a great director. And when I refer to Michael Haneke as a great director, all I'm really saying is, the man knows what he's doing. He's no hack.

My problem – or, I should say, my issue – is with exactly that: what he's doing. If I seem ambivalent or undecided about this review, it's only because that's how I felt about the movie. It's a mystery/drama about a town on the Austrian countryside right before WWI. It has the appearance of a regular, idyllic town, but, some really bad things start happening. People start getting hurt, when no one else is around. It's clearly more than one person perpetrating these crimes, which start to resemble ritual punishment.

So it's a mystery. But since this is a Haneke film, we know the "mystery" is unimportant. It's about what the mystery reveals about the town. This is the same storytelling technique he used for "Cache," a movie that a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out. I can't imagine why – the movie, like this one, offers no concrete solutions, only ambiguity, and since any definitive conclusions (about the plot) would draw too much from the viewers' imagination, and not enough from the film itself, such conclusions are rendered completely irrelevant to the film. It's sort of like the Philip Seymour Hoffman/Meryl Streep movie "Doubt."

Now, thematic conclusions – those are abounding. And since Haneke pushes the plot so far to the side they can come off a little heavy-handed. This is my primary issue (problem?) with the craft of "The White Ribbon." Whereas "Cache" focused mainly on two wonderful performances (from Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) that lent the film a certain precision, "The White Ribbon" is about an entire town's worth of characters. Each is allotted less time, and therefore, fewer dimensions – and therefore, less precision, and more…predetermination. They come off as numbers in a thematic equation Haneke is calculating, or trying to.

The "trying to" is the part I'm back and forth on. I haven't mentioned how starkly beautiful the film is, thanks to the black and white cinematography and compositions of Christian Berger. It'll remind you of Bergmans like "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light" or "Hour of the Wolf." The film is so visually arresting, if it was Silent, I might call it a triumph. Even so, there are ways Berger (or Haneke) use their camera that disturb me, and not, I don't think, in the way they mean to.

I'm sort of dancing around – I know. Let me talk about one thing that really struck me about Haneke's film: the way he depicts his "good" characters. There are a few of them. The story is narrated by the town's resident teacher, much older, trying to make sense of the events that shaped his personal history. The younger version is played by Christian Friedel, and he's seen as ugly, weak and completely ineffectual. It's not quite his fault (it's society's!), but there is some intended frustration caused us by the character's complete inability to alter the course of his life or his town's. Another character, a farmer, is perhaps the only one in the film with a rigid code of honor he apparently lives his life by. He's got a lazy eye. There's an extended close up on his face where the focal point is the bridge of his nose, and his left eye points to the left and his right eye points to the right and he comes off as practically inhuman. Is Haneke saying to live righteously in an authoritarian society you must be a freak, or abnormal? I don't know – all I know is, if I was the actor with the lazy eye, I might be insulted.

To call the film misanthropic would be overstating the point, I guess. It's about bad people. I haven't said much about what the movie's actually trying to say, because, after saying it, it seems almost pointless. "Religious suppression and societal demand for perfection are the seeds of fascism." There it is, more or less (read Ebert's review if you want a really meaningful dissection of the film's themes). It's the kind of thing you can sort of nod your head to, I mean; it makes enough sense within the confines of the movie. Is it an important statement on German/Austrian history or the beginnings of Nazism? I don't know enough about the history to really say.

No one loves a movie, or returns to it, for what it's saying. "Avatar" didn't gross two billion worldwide because of its metaphorical criticism of outsourced American capitalism (well, maybe in some places…). It's because of the way it looked, and "The White Ribbon" will be embraced by cineastes for the same reason, I think. It's well-made. Like I said earlier, it looks beautiful. Is it a great movie? It looks like one.

So…I don't know. 7/10. I don't regret seeing it. It held my interest for the most part, if not rewarding it completely. How could it have, you ask me? I don't know. It's the right movie; it's the movie Haneke was trying to make. But I don't think I'd watch it again.

An Education

Lone Scherfig's "An Education" is an ugly movie that hides its misanthropy under the pretty face of its bright new star, Carey Mulligan. She very well could be the next Audrey Hepburn, but this is most certainly not her "Roman Holiday," no, not on storytelling or film-making levels. About a young girl who stumbles naively into a relationship with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard), it forgives her of everything while condemning the man, her parents and a handful of other characters. Like most big-screen products attached to Mr. Nick Hornby ("About a Boy," "High Fidelity"), it's almost proudly myopic.

So Mulligan is Jenny, a bright teenage girl in the 60's nearing the end of high school. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are dead-set on her going to Oxford, and she plays along, not without her own private yearnings. There's an early dinner-table scene between the three of them that highlights, in perfect clarity, the film's pro's and con's. On the one hand, Molina is likable as always, the timing is right and the dialogue makes you laugh. On the other, you're already looking at these people through the incredibly narrow vision of Scherfig and Hornby. Molina is an unsentimental taskmaster and Seymour is the typically dutifully silent wife. Mulligan is Beautiful and Charming and Smart and deserving of much better circumstances – emotionally, intellectually and financially – than her parents have provided her. I know it's Mulligan's story, and that is how her character might feel, but the movie – in its condescending treatment of the Molina character – seems to be one hundred percent on her side.

We see Mulligan at school and with a shy boy her age, who the movie mocks, like the Molina character, only to idealize in the end. On her way home, walking in the rain, Mulligan is picked up by David (Sarsgaard), a well-to-do bachelor with a sports car and an apparent knowledge – which he makes immediately obvious – of the "finer things." Mulligan sees the opportunity to quench her thirst for sophistication and takes it. David's intentions are perfectly clear from the outset and, though it is the early 60s, I can't imagine a girl like Jenny is so naïve that she completely misses them. She knows what he wants – but she knows what she wants, too, and how she can get it.

What follows is not so much an "education" as it is a length of time we spend waiting for the Mulligan character to stop deceiving herself. This type of self-destructive behaviour is certainly not uncommon of teenage girls, and although the movie is moralizing by the end, I've still never seen it so romanticized as it is here. The music, the dresses, the cigarettes, the dancing, the alcohol, and, certainly, the sex (Mulligan sells her body for a trip to Paris) are definitely the point, despite all the reversals and lessons that come out in the last act.

And what lessons they are! Mulligan has a couple awkwardly-written scenes with Emma Thompson as a conservative schoolmaster who's views on female chastity are supposed to be seen as outdated as her (quite random) anti-semitism. Mulligan's mistakes are turned into some victory for progressive feminists. Hey, I'm all for making the best of your misdeeds, but, that usually includes actually learning from them. Instead, the movie blames Molina's character for not being onto Sarsgaard's operator from the start.

But since we didn't believe the scene where Molina allows Sarsgaard to "chaperone" Mulligan's trip to Paris – it's played way too casually – his apology comes off as nothing more than a shallow transitional scene in a badly-plotted film. Another strange thing: Sarsgaard's friends and partners in crime (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) seem to dodge all the condemnation the film doles out at the end – why? Because they're a little more honest about themselves, I guess?

I think it's something else: they're Beautiful and Charming, like Mulligan – they belong to the same club. Sarsgaard is awkward and creepy looking – sorta like the boy Mulligan ditches in the first act. Molina is fat and ignorant, and Cara Seymour as his wife just comes off as cowardly and pathetic. Olivia Williams, as a frumpy schoolteacher, provides the moral centre of the film – but as a plot device, not a character.

I know these weren't Scherfig or Hornby's intentions. Judging from the movie itself, I don't think they know what their intentions are. It's their principles I question.

Let me turn your attention to a shot in the second half: Mulligan, returning from Paris, plops a box of Chanel down on Williams' desk, as a gift. The shot is from behind Mulligan, eye-level with Williams, who tears up because she can't accept it. Now, honestly, watching the film, who would you rather be: the person who can hand out boxes of Chanel like turkeys on thanksgiving to her ugly friends, or the ugly duckling teacher who has to stifle tears because she's just too Morally Right to accept such a beautiful present?

But never mind. Do whatever you want to get whatever you want, and if you screw up, the people who care about you will bite the bullet. And you'll probably still get into Oxford, anyway. This movie made me feel icky.



Worth it for the actors
"Nine" isn't a bad movie. You might even like it - if you haven't seen Fellini's "8 1/2" in some time and don't remember too much of the story. If the original film is still fresh in your mind a lot of the passages in "Nine" will seem dull and lacking. If you're a big-time Fellini fan, or even know enough about the man's career, there's the possibility you'll leave the theater feeling insulted.

The story: famous Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis of all people) is struggling to find some inspiration to write the screenplay for his next movie. The problem is he already has a producer, a star (Nicole Kidman) and a host of technicians on board, waiting for him. He's hounded by the press, his mistress (Penelope Cruz) is always showing up at the wrong times and he forgets his wife's (Marion Cotillard) birthday. Memories of his saintly mother (Sophia Loren) discourage him because he hasn't been much of a Catholic lately – as is obvious considering the above synopsis.

The film doesn't do Fellini or his fictional avatar any justice. It pretends to be about an artist's inner battle of love versus lust, but in reality it's far more interested in the bodies of the many female stars. On that level it works quite well. Penelope Cruz has a musical number so sexy it's likely to win over any straight male who gets dragged to see this. Kidman, Cotillard and Kate Hudson (as a promiscuous reporter) light up the screen simply by stepping into it. Cotillard is unequaled here, conjuring emotions where there are none while selling the sex just as well.

There's a lot of style here, good cinematography, but it's marred by countless disappointments. The songs are instantly forgettable, despite all the energy obviously put into them. There's just not enough there to work with. The choreography of the dancers is pretty bland. None of the principles are even halfway convincing as Italians, making all the film's talk about Italian culture and cinema seem pretty hypocritical. Daniel Day-Lewis is…why is he in this movie?

Did he want to pay homage to Fellini? Did he want to get to dance and sing in a gaudy musical? Was he just having a particularly generous day when he was offered the part? He should've seen he had no part in this story. He's far too focused, not nearly as preoccupied as he should be. Marcello Mastroianni, who played Guido in the original, always seemed out to sea, lost in his head. Day-Lewis is constantly holding his cards in our face, I'd almost say, "phoning it in."

But the women – oh, the women. And I haven't even mentioned Judi Dench, who has a musical number of her own. It's not any good, but she is, and that goes for just about everyone in this film. Cotillard could get an Oscar nomination, and she'd deserve it. Cruz is wonderful as usual (check her out in "Broken Embraces," also this year). Kate Hudson is surprisingly good; she hasn't been allowed to appear in a movie of any quality in how many years? I knew she was a star, I forgot she was an actress.

So if you like musicals as a genre and you're a fan of two or more of the women in this one, I guess "Nine" is worth seeing. If you're a Fellini acolyte, tread at your own risk. If you're expecting much from Day-Lewis…forget it. No passion. The film could've taken advice from one of its biggest songs: "Be Italian." 6/10


Looks great, I just wish I cared what happened in it
"Avatar" is not the next "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings." It might be the next "Matrix," though. Or, perhaps more accurate, the next "Matrix Revolutions." It's technically groundbreaking craftmanship put to work on a story that was played out after "Return of the King." There are a lot of bad guys, a lot of good guys, and sooner or later they're all gonna meet on the battlefield. The little details are not-so-shockingly unimportant, since nothing could stop, change or even, really, comment on the unstoppable trajectory of this film's story.

It's the future. An Evil Corporation is parked on distant planet Pandora, mining the planet of all its precious minerals. The native population, big blue humanoids called the "Na'vi," aren't too happy about this. The corporation has hired scientists to create avatars of Na'vi bodies to be controlled by human brains, in order to communicate to the Na'vi that...they better move, lest be bulldozed by the evil Col. Qautrich (Stephen Lang).

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is flown in to Pandora because his twin brother, who had an Avatar made specifically for him, is dead. The coincidence is an obvious plot device so that we can have a newcomer to Pandora to share in our amazement. Oh, and he's paralyzed, so running around in his new alien body is rather freeing for him.

I don't feel as if I need to continue with the plot description. You know what'll happen. You've seen "Dances with Wolves" and "The Last Samurai." Heck, even "Dead Man." The Na'vi represent nature, the (all-American) corporation represents destructive technology. Quatrich has a Southern accent and says things like, "we have to fight terror with terror." The Na'vi are clones of Native Americans - filtered through the imagination of a white liberal. It's all very obvious.

The question, of course, is whether or not it's entertaining. Well...sometimes. It certainly looks good. Some sequences - especially those with the winged beasts - are eye-popping. Lang makes a fun villain. Pandora is more derivative than original, it reminded me most of Skull Island in Peter Jackson's King Kong. All the monsters have a plastic-y look to them that make them feel too well-done. The 3D is distracting at times and I had a headache before the movie was over.

But there are scenes and individual shots that pop with ethereal beauty. It's worth seeing for that reason, but I don't think it'll be as fun after multiple viewings. The great thing about "Star Wars" was the characters: Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and so on. They embodied the other-worldliness of the story, taking the weight off the effects.

In thirty-two years, I don't think anyone will remember "Jake Sully." 6/10


Interesting, but not entertaining
"Shadowboxer" is a strange movie, perhaps one of the strangest I've seen, and although it doesn't quite work it's still worth watching if you want to see a filmmaker take huge risks, fail, but still succeed at making something...unique. It's the kind of movie that's best to watch late at night, falling asleep. In that dreary state its numerous quirks and idiosyncrasies may make more sense, may seem connected, while enriched by your imagination.

Like many Lynch or Jarmusch films it's a genre piece with a hand-made feel, which adds a certain surreal quality to it. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as slave/lover to his stepmom, played by Helen Mirren. She's a super assassin, and so is he. They get hired by lunatic crime boss Stephen Dorff to knock off his wife for him, but when Mirren (who's dying of Movie Cancer) sees that the wife (Vanessa Ferlito) is pregnant, she takes mercy. Her, Gooding and Ferlito run off together, forming a strange family unit, while Dorff goes on for years believing the job's been done.

The bulk of the movie takes place in the house shared by Mirren, Gooding, Ferlito and eventually her newborn son. Fuelled primarily by Mirren's desire for some sort of redemption they're forced to bond, and bond they do, although the characters are so underwritten the movie is forced to rely on the personalities of its actors to make up for it. This works to various degrees...Gooding ultimately comes off the best, he's far too good-natured to play a badass, but that's sort of the point.

Mostly the movie is about people constrained by their own horrifying natures. Greed, lust and hatred are the overwhelming emotions, although as the family unit progresses they're slowly joined by loyalty, tenderness and even, sort of, love. Gooding finds an unexpected companion in Ferlito's son and Mirren squeezes some real feeling into the tail end of a life that seems bereft of it. Dorff is his own worst victim, as is made clear when he meets his son for the first time.

And everything - even the deepest recesses of Gooding's quiet character - is made clear by the end, but to very little effect. The movie is not convincing enough for us to believe wholeheartedly in this new family, but occasionally an idea or a feeling will seep through and find us. Director Lee Daniels, who's said his heroes are Jon Waters and Pedro Almodovor, should direct more to his tastes rather than the hip hop/martial arts implications of the movie's title. As a thriller, this film is limp.

But as a drama, it could've worked.


Assassination of a High School President

Hilariously serious high school noir
"Assassination of a High School President" is a pleasant surprise: a high school noir comedy where the joke is how seriously it takes itself. It never leaves the classroom - nothing that happens in it is too ridiculous - but it maintains a consistent sense of epic importance that successfully subverts, and is subverted by, its own fairly mundane story. On that level it's sort of brilliant; we understand how important the events of the story are to the characters while never losing track of how comically meager they are to us, the seasoned moviegoers. Now, just reading that, I can't imagine a more effective way of representing secondary school.

The story is this: (wannabe) star reporter of the school newspaper Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson) gets a puff piece on student body president Paul More (Patrick Taylor) at the same time a stack of SATs are stolen right out of Principal Kirpatrick's (Bruce Willis) office. Kirpatrick appoints Bobby as his head investigator and it turns out the two stories are deeply connected. More than that I will not say, although keep in mind this film is closer to Wes Anderson than James M. Cain.

And another thing it isn't is Rian Johnson's "Brick." Its 2005 genre predecessor and "Miller's Crossing" rip-off, that was the film where Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a down-and-out student playing two high school gangs against each other. It's the movie this one has been most compared to, unfavourably, although the two are nothing alike. "Brick" was a film of dead weight, a leaden "drama" with aged and dreary characters and a story meant to confuse and depress you. It was a gangly, nearly incomprehensible movie that's gained cult status mainly, I think, because most of its fans don't understand it. It was a movie with a story and setting that never came together, and with a sensibility and technique more heavy-handed than the worst Hollywood message movie.

"Assassination" just wants to make you laugh, and, in the process, laugh off the petty issues that plague high school life (I can see it being almost therapeutic for kids facing those problems today). It sparkles with an understated wit and has a real atmosphere to it; with stylish, brooding cinematography and dialogue that's one third noirspeak and two thirds teenage dirty-mindedness. It never plays above or below its own maturity level, at once broadly funny and fiendishly clever.

It's also a showcase for a host of young actors who are likely to become the Steve Buscemis and Robert Downey Jr.'s of their generation. Reece Thompson is note-perfect as Bobby, a classically straightlaced gumshoe-in-training who can't seem to catch a break. He holds the movie on his back and shows some real star power. Taylor is hilarious as the air-headed president, and Bobby's three stoner friends - Tanya Fischer, Luke Grimes and Vincent Piazza - inject their scenes with a put-upon camaraderie. Mischa Barton, Adam Pally and Melonie Diaz also shine.

The old pro's have a lot of fun with the material: Willis, Kathryn Morris and Michael Rapaport. Willis is particularly strong as the scene-stealing principal. He's a deadly serious, tough-as-nails man who can't stop talking about his tour of duty in the Gulf War - perhaps not the most appropriate coaching technique for a group of adolescents. His dialogue is spotless, timing perfect and intensity - palpable. Every scene he appears in elevates the material to a heightened level of pulp/pop culture craziness; you almost can't believe that's actually Bruce Willis standing there, having so much fun, almost impersonating himself. I'd go so far as to say Willis deserves a Supporting Actor nomination for his work here.

It's an effective comedy and an interesting mystery. It has a lot of fun with its premise instead of sticking to it with an almost dutiful monogamy like "Brick" did. It's well-made enough to make its director, Brent Simon, someone to watch out for. It's not perfect, the conclusion lacks some umph, but that only makes sense considering the film's last line: "Forget it Bobby, it's High School." 8/10

Whatever Works

Well-made and funny; Allen's smartest movie
Woody Allen's best comedy since "Manhattan Murder Mystery," maybe even since the seventies. Maybe his best comedy, period. It's precise, broad, subtle and totally endearing, with over-the-top characterizations with honest (and very personal) feelings bubbling underneath. It's a comic triumph and an emotional one, and apart from all that, it's visually perfect. That means, every colour is right, every shot is on point and even the choreography and blocking of the characters work toward a certain purpose. And it's got the right soundtrack. The title is "Whatever Works," and it seems Allen's finally figured that out for himself in creating what's got to be his most assured and artistically confident film to date.

Of course barely anyone's noticed, since by all accounts and purposes it's "just another Woody Allen movie." People toss a phrase like that around casually, not like they would say, "just another Hitchcock," or "just another Bergman." Woody Allen's been one of the most prolific and consistently adventurous American directors for more than forty years and he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. Maybe critics are so familiar with him, year after year, that a new Woody Allen movie doesn't seem like much of a discovery. I don't know. He's made a strange run this decade, starting off with light, old-school comedies and then descending into dark waters with "Match Point," "Scoop," "Cassandra's Dream," and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." "Match Point" might be the best movie he's ever made, but apart from that, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" gets most of the praise out of his 00 releases.

But "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was a flat, mechanical sex comedy, tired and disinterested in its characters. Not a bad movie, and the performance of Penelop Cruz makes it especially worthwhile, but it seemed more of an intellectual exercise than a real artistic statement. Perhaps he was just warming up… Because "Whatever Works" is a sex comedy that, well, works. It's less about the physical charm of its characters and far more interested in their feelings, opinions, beliefs and self-deceptions. Nobody is posing here, or interested in it. The protagonist is Boris Yelnikoff, played by Seinfeld-creator, comedian and non-actor Larry David. He's a cold, condescending, intellectual brute – talking down to everyone, his friends, enemies, even you, in the audience. An ex-physicist, ex-husband, he now inhabits a shabby apartment he makes his fortress of solitude, keeping himself safe from the outside world, which he deems as not intelligent enough to deserve him. He's your typical over-thinking, depressed cynic, grown to full potential in his own age.

In walks Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a young Southern runaway about one-half as "smart" as Boris thinks he is and a hundred times more in touch with her emotions. If you think you see where it's going – well, of course you do. Is it a male fantasy? Yes, but not for Woody Allen – it's more of a reality. He's writing about what he knows, and Wood's performance, along with the writing, make it impossible to see her as any sort of victim. She might not be keen enough to see David's "intellectual" as the cynic that he is, but she's sharp enough, emotionally, to sense another wounded soul, a man insecure and abandoned, and when she responds to him emotionally, she recognizes and understands that response.

So they get married. The septuagenarian and the twentysomething. And it's happy, for a time, before Melody's zealous fundamentalist parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) come knocking at Boris' door. These two, and the paths they take, are where Allen demonstrates the titular theme to its logical destination. It's not a very profound or complicated message – "whatever makes you happy" – but like many movies, it takes something we already know and shows us, in a new way, exactly what that means. It may be frightening, to some. Christians may be offended by its treatment of their beliefs, but they should ask themselves if the type of Christianity Clarkson and Begley's characters are practising in this movie is particularly healthy for them – and, by extension, people like them that exist in real life. And there's a bit of homosexuality that comes as a surprise late in the film, that might make some straight males in the audience a little uncomfortable, but I say – good! Let them face it, rather than ignore it.

Where the movie is most subversive is in its treatment of Boris Yelnikoff, the narrator. You know people like him. The movie starts with a four-minute monologue delivered by him into the camera. He's mean, and smart enough to know when and how to be mean to inflict the most hurt, while always keeping himself the logical centre of any argument. Unfortunately, in his old age, that's all he knows, despite his constant assertions that he's the smartest and everyone else is an "inchworm" or a "mental midget." David's delivery is hammering, but always with traces of a smile, he's a fairly insecure fellow. Really, he just wants to be liked, and his brains are clearly the only way he thinks he can make that happen. Allen and David never allow him to show a trace of vulnerability, but that is their strategy, and one extended close-up is particularly shattering (you'll know the one I mean).

In the end Boris must face - and accept - something that renders all his brains and beliefs totally useless. It's the only way he can be happy. His change is handled off-screen, casually, but you'll sense a big difference in the final scene. He's been humbled. And Allen's taken us there in a movie that's funny, occasionally mean (but to an honourable purpose) and visually intricate. There are tiny touches that evoke Bergman, particularly "Persona," "Saraband," and especially "Fanny and Alexander," of which this movie is practically a remake of. See it.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

A joke, but a good one
Here's a movie that deserved every criticism it got, and is still pretty good. Yes, the script is horrible, and the story worse. Yes, the characters do things that make no sense just to push the movie along. No, it's certainly not a movie that does any justice to its titular character. But it's still kind of fun.

Let me explain. You take three issues of any comic book, read them in order, a lot of the time, it's not gonna make much sense. But the word bubbles are so small, the pictures are so big, you don't really care. The characters do some crazy things, and it looks good. That's this movie all over. It starts with Wolverine, hero of the "X-Men" trilogy, as a child in pre-Canada Canada. He and his older brother go through some incomprehensible family trouble; Wolverine sprouts his bone claws, shouts "NO!" up into the air and the opening credits montage starts. That's what kind of movie this is.

Wolvie and his brother grow up, his brother becomes Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), and they fight through every major American war together, simply to do it I guess. Maybe the film's director, the artistically higher-minded Gavin Hood, wanted to portray Wolvie and his brother as salt of the Earth, regular Men-type characters. It works good enough I guess, but all we get is a couple neutered fight scenes and a lot of snarling for the camera. They come off more like figures in the opening sequence of a video game, where you're waiting for the game to start.

So Wolvie and Creed join this covert group of mutant spies/soldiers, one of them is Ryan Reynolds, one of them is, they each have powers, and so on. They go to another country and we get some impossible (but still aesthetically-pleasing) action scenes where some of them get to demonstrate their powers. Something happens, they get split up. Wolvie ends up living with a schoolteacher who is strangely good at "persuasion" (a bizarre attempt at subtle foreshadowing in a movie about people with superhuman powers).

The woman, her character, is the glue that ties the whole movie together and the underlying joke beneath everything. She's given a couple lines in the beginning to create some sort of totally misguided Native American mystical past for her, but all we're thinking is, "Who is she, and why is she in the movie?" Wolvie's in love with her, or at least acts like he is, which is to say Hugh Jackman tries his best to act like he is, but there's absolutely nothing there and everyone seems to know it. She's a shameless, walking Plot Device, and the final bit of fate dealt to her character, and Jackman's final moment with her, is like a hilarious punchline to the idiocy of the whole story.

Everything else has Wolvie running around, sprouting his claws, meeting some semi-to-actually-kinda-interesting characters like Blob and Gambit, and running in slow motion to do battle with his brother, Creed. Schreiber plays this role with real commitment and gusto, and an apparent lack of interest in how he looks. He comes off so crazy and ruthless he achieves that insane cartoon level of acting you see sometimes from Johnny Depp or, say, Danny DeVito in "Batman Returns." This movie really made me like Schreiber; I want him to take more roles like this one in the future.

Listen, it's not great. But it is funny – be that intentionally or not – and it has some beautiful action scenes, particularly one atop a giant smoke stack at the end. They're not beautiful in concept or execution, just in the childish innocence of it all. See it once, or a couple times, for a few laughs.


The Brothers Bloom

Tragically close to being good
"The Brothers Bloom" is a movie stock full of great ideas that it executes without any apparent knowledge of what makes a movie work. It's filmed in some of the most beautiful places in the world and captures them blandly. It's step-by-step full of great con-games that we don't care about. It's got one of the most interesting heroines in years that it ultimately leaves to the side, unaware of how to use her. It's constantly suggesting great artists (Melville, Dostoevsky) and it's opening act - a Ricky Jay-narrated history of the Brothers Bloom's humble beginnings - promises greatness. But the movie doesn't deliver.

The story: Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody started conning as children, and never stopped, and now, as adults, they're locked together like the siblings in "Les Enfants Terribles," only capable of inhabiting their own world of deception and whimsy. Ruffalo's the head and likes it that way and Brody's the heart and wants out, wants to find happiness somewhere else, in the "unwritten life." Ruffalo sets up One Last Job for the two of them, and the mark is Rachel Weisz (the heroine), a reclusive millionaire and collector of hobbies. As this is a con-movie, any further explanation is unnecessary.

Rian Johnson, the film's director and director of "Brick," has fine taste, as he flaunts constantly, but his movies are an argument that good taste does not a great artist make. Like the lowliest imitator, he wants to do something like his favorites, but he hasn't put much thought into why those movies worked on him. "The Big Sleep" has the period dialogue, the shadows and all that, but it's great because of the chemistry, the mood, what's happening under the surface. "Brick" has no mood, it's all surface, all words and cinematography, a truly empty film. With "The Brothers Bloom," Johnson is trying to make "The Sting" by way of Wes Anderson, the French New Wave (and a little David Mamet), but mostly misses the comedy of Anderson, the style of the New Wave and doesn't even come close to the metaphysical suspense of a Mamet film.

For instance: Ruffalo has a sidekick/girlfriend played by Rinko Kikuchi. Her name is "Bang Bang" because she likes explosives, and she doesn't speak a single line of dialogue. This alone is gimmicky enough, an easy way of forging a Character without thinking for a second who she might be. The movie explains she just up and appeared to the Brothers one day, and will disappear, one day, in the same fashion. So she's an almost supernatural character, I guess, but to what purpose? Quirkiness? Kikuchi eats up the attention in any scene she's in, simply because we want to know more about her, but Johnson insults her and the audience by keeping her a prop, like the hamburger phone in "Juno." In one Emotional Montage at the end, she sings, which would be a great moment in a better movie but here is handled so off-the-cuff and casually we just sort of shrug it off. A couple short scenes later she disappears into thin air in front of Brody, so we think, that was it? And then she pops up again, to do nothing, and disappears again. Johnson doesn't seem to be thinking at all.

But he might fool you. The dialogue is finely-honed, but too much so, it becomes awkward, clunky, speaking to ideas Johnson hasn't completed rather than ones the characters are having spontaneously. The movie really, really wants to be as dialogue-driven as a Mamet movie but falls short in its excess of artifice and complete lack of wit. That said, Brody, Weisz and Ruffalo create likable characters simply by appearing on screen; they're all such great actors we're almost happy enough just to watch them have some fun. Weisz especially, her eccentric is so convincing at times it makes the movie's shortchanging her so much more troubling. Her character is built up to have a mystery about her, something intriguing seems to lie beneath the surface, but as it goes on we sadly realize that's more to do with Weisz's skill and less to do with Johnson's writing.

The plot keeps going and going and going, the movie feels twice as long as "The Dark Knight" and about a quarter as interesting. There's a con, and then there's another con, and then another, and they're all pretty well thought-out except that the outcomes don't mean anything to us because Johnson hasn't spent enough time figuring out who his characters are, and what we want for them. Brody is frustratingly ineffectual, and Ruffalo convinces us he knows all the answers, he just never tells us what they are. Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell pop up, Schell with an eye-patch and a drama-class-level costume, and do nothing.

And then there's the last revelation, and the ending, which could've been beautiful and poignant, if only Johnson had any idea how to take us there. He doesn't. His head's in the right place, he just needs to use it more, and – most importantly – discover his heart. Not a bad movie, just not one worth seeing.


The Dark Knight

This one's gonna be around a long time
On my list of favourite movies I try to strike a balance between art and entertainment. Both forms are equally important to film and its existence today. That said, I would also put forth that the criteria for a great movie is a balance within itself between the two. A lot of movies try this, but few get it right. The films of Akira Kurosawa or Billy Wilder are good examples of ones that succeed, and I think The Dark Knight is too.

Let me start with entertainment. Well, this movie is always engaging, scene for scene, and you never feel like you're waiting for it to hurry along. It's two and a half hours, but it feels shorter than "Iron Man" or "Indiana Jones" (both still pretty good). Nolan's direction as well as Wally Pfister's cinematography (you've heard about the IMAX scenes) lend a sense of grandeur to the action scenes that make you feel like something is actually happening, right in front of you – and better, that it matters. The movie is very sad, but also very, very fun. It's to his credit that Nolan understands Batman can be a dark, complex loner and still spout cool lines before he punches people.

The story is epic, tragic, and speaks to your soul in a way that creates an emotional reaction in you. Can you say that about The Incredible Hulk? Can you say that about most movies? People might complain that Batman seems like a supporting character in his own story, but I think that's a flawed analysis. Batman, like The Joker, is complete – unchanging. We're never in doubt, even if he is, about Bruce Wayne's selflessness or the morality of his decisions. Even at one point when he has to make a pretty tough choice between two people, one couldn't possibly blame him for his answer. For this reason Batman works best as a sort of unstoppable force of nature, swooping down on his enemies and humiliating them for thinking they can enact the anarchy they represent – until The Joker swoops in and humiliates Batman for thinking the opposite.

I could talk about The Joker, but everyone knows already – and if you don't, go see the movie. What I wanna talk about is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. In a way, he and Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon are putting themselves at greater risk than Batman, because they don't have the mask to hide behind. They're placing themselves and their loved ones in between the enemies' cross hairs, just because they really, truly believe in the justice they're defending. But one of the questions the movie seems to be asking is is it worth it? The film is ambiguous in its answer. Obviously it's clear who the good guys and bad guys are, but the battle to illuminate one instinct and suppress the other has such a psychological toll on one character that he starts to see justice and anarchy as two arbitrary sides of the same coin. If there is none of the order he's trying to uphold in his own life, then how can he be sure it exists at all? So he insanely lashes out at both sides in the only way that makes sense to him.

Who wins, in the fight between justice and anarchy? Well by the end of the movie there seem to be no signs of the battle coming to a close any time soon. The movie only provides us with a slight glimmer of hope during the climax, which I won't ruin. But, in The Joker's words, maybe we're destined to be doing this for a very long time.

Fantastic Four

Not believable in any way, but fun, and not boring
Remember the old 30s Marx Bros. comedies? The ones with Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo? Classics, right? Anyone remember the plots of those movies? Probably not...because the plots weren't important. The movies were about showcasing the abilities of the leads, while leaving the plot and conflict in the background.

That's sort of like what the genre of super-hero movies is like, only the main characters' abilities aren't comedic or musical, they are, well, super. The plot doesn't matter, because you have three or four characters on screen all the time with so much energy that they upstage everything else that would be important in another movie. It is only the director and writer's task to make them interesting, and in "Fantastic Four", Tim Story mostly succeeds at that.

This film's super-heroes are Mr. Fantastic, who can stretch at enormous lengths (Iaon Gruffud); The Human Torch, who can burn at the heat of the sun (Chris Evans), The Thing, who is very strong and made of rock (Michael Chiklis); and The Invisible Woman, who is self-explanatory (Jessica Alba).

They are transformed after being bombarded with a cosmic radiation storm while in a mission in space. With them is greedy billionaire Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose transformation is slower and more mysterious than theirs' (possibly because he is the villain).

When they return to Earth their powers are revealed, and they shack up in Mr. Fantastic's apartment/office to study them. These scenes - the bulk of the movie - play as a sort of super-hero sitcom, which isn't as bad as it sounds, though a better approach would've been welcomed from me.

Since there are so many powers and special effects on display at all times, the scenes never get boring, and the parts are well-played. Chris Evans and Julian McMahon are especially good, they know they're in a comic book movie and I think that brings a sort of irony to their parts.

I could list the movie's flaws, and there are a lot of them...why aren't the four quarantined by the government when their powers surface? Why do they become so used to their powers so quickly? Why is the media's reaction akin to that of a new extreme sport? I mean, one of these characters can burn at the temperature of the Sun...this is a little grand-scale.

But like I said, the plot isn't all-important, and the movie is much more enjoyable if you don't think of these questions. I do have a problem with the structure of the film, though. Doom establishes himself as a major villain far too late in the film, the conflict is underwhelming and his motives are unclear. There is also very, very little action. I mean, you go to a super-hero movie to see the powers, yeah, but you also want to see the powers playing off each other.

But the action near the end is sensational, and the villainous Doom is so deliciously campy when he comes around that it was worth the wait. The movie is enjoyable, if flawed. But enjoyable.


Wedding Crashers

Watchable, if over-hyped
One of the most unnerving things about "Wedding Crashers" is that the two leads are just as sleazy and despicable as the film's villain, but we're suddenly supposed to sympathize with them because they've found girls they like. What these two need is comeuppance...but leave that to a darker comedy, I guess. So try to forget about that while you're watching it.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) crash weddings to meet, seduce and dump girls. They've got it worked out to a system, which is humorous because it's believable. But John is having second thoughts about their irresponsible, even hurtful lifestyle. Then at a wedding they meet the Cleary sisters (Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher) and fall for them. The two sisters are immediately accepting of them, and invite them out to their rich father's summer cottage.

The father is played by Christopher Walken, and it's probably the first time in this guy's career that he's been underused. Who the hell under-uses Christopher Walken? He's there to be overused! The strange thing is that it's clear the filmmakers know how to be funny...there are many funny moments, and Vince Vaughn is hilarious. But there are so many gaps between the really good jokes, and the writer gets lazy when he resorts to the phoned-in gay and T&A jokes. And lots of great comedic opportunities are missed, as when Walken walks in on Vaughn after he's been tied to the bed by Walken's horny daughter. This could've been the funniest scene in the movie, but instead, nothing happens.

Vince Vaughn is probably the movie's biggest success. He manages to do what Jack Lemmon did in "Some Like it Hot": to create a believable, funny character and also establish a personality for himself for movies to come. The performance is not as memorable as Lemmon's, because the movie isn't as memorable (not by a mile), but Lemmon's got an Oscar nod, and I do think Vaughn deserves some consideration.

The movie's lack of morals hurt it as well. John and Jeremy never feel even slightly sorry for their deeds, and hypocritically exploit the wrongs of Claire's silly evil fiancé Sack. Characters as dark as these are only really funny in movies with some sort of moral message or point, the message here seems to be "do what you want, worry only about yourself". But I guess it seems to be the general agreement these days that a movie with morals can't be funny.

The movie's sleazy, terribly uneven, and almost like a collection of missed opportunities, with a great performance from Vaughn and funny parts here and there.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A Burton film
Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is, like all of Burton's films, so visually delightful that the plot almost doesn't matter. This can make and break a film; sometimes Burton can undermine the importance of his story with the quirkiness of how it looks, like with "Edward Scissorhands". But his best films ("Sleepy Hollow" and "Big Fish") marry the visuals and the plot, so that the two work together to create an even flow for the movie.

I'd say "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" almost succeeds at that, but there are times when it feels like we're looking at post cards from the infamous factory. The film, like the original "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", is about a poor boy (Freddie Highmore) who wins a contest and travels with four other kids into the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory, run by the even-more-mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp). From there on in, it's an adventure through the many bizarre - and sometimes surreal - departments of the factory.

In the original, Willy Wonka was played by Gene Wilder in a mostly straight performance that channeled the witty, cane-twirling comedians of the thirties. Here Depp does carry a cane, but he does no twirling, and the performance is far from straight. His Willy Wonka is a mix of Michael Jackson and a Barbie doll, and grows more unnecessarily confusing as the movie goes on. It's not exactly a bad performance, but it does feel like Depp's parading his versatility. I think he should have toned it down a little, and gone for the innocence of his Sam character from "Benny & Joon".

The movie is not a misfire, as it has many good aspects. Freddie Highmore is excellent as Charlie, he is believably earnest. In fact, all of the child actors are pretty good. Most of the adult ones seem a little understated, impressive that they let the children take the foreground. David Kelly shines as Charlie's Grandpa Joe, giving probably the best and funniest performance in the movie - why hasn't this guy been a star for the past few decades? The Oompa Loompas are all played by Deep Roy, who manages to be creepier than those in the seventies version, who were orange with green hair. When you think about it, Roy's performance is tremendously complicated, as he had to move in synchronization with himself thousands of times.

Occasionally the movie gets lost in itself, raising questions that are never answered. Near the beginning Grandpa Joe tells an anecdote about Wonka's building a chocolate castle for an Indian prince. I was interested in seeing how this fitted into the story later on, but that's just it: it didn't. It seems to be just a comment on the film's own special effects. What Burton needs to learn is that it's mostly dangerous to remind his viewer's that they're watching a movie.

The plot is also a little too similar to the first's, it never really throws any new curves at us, we know exactly what to expect (though, curiously, the magical floating bubbles scene from the original is missing).

In short, it relies a little too much on Depp's performance and the set design - it seems Charlie and Grandpa Joe are almost forgotten when they enter the factory. But it's not boring, if predictable, and it's interesting to look at, and Depp's performance is intriguing, if not fitting.

Come on, it's a Burton film.


Coffee and Cigarettes

Slow, but each segment is terribly interesting
Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes" is like a good painting: it's interesting to look at, subtle, simple, and strangely enigmatic in that you think the point is hiding just under the surface. It is also funny, and "cool" in the Tom Waits/Michael Madsen sort of way.

It's about nothing in particular, a collection of short films all involving two or three people, sitting in a diner somewhere at lunch time, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and conversing over banalities. Each segment lasts about ten minutes or so, and is so interesting because they grab us with some really intriguing characters, people, and performances - and sometimes all three.

It's got one of the most diverse casts I've ever seen (Steve Coogan, Steve Buscemi, Bill Murray, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Meg White, Jack White, RZA, GZA, Tom Waits, Roberto Begnini and others still) but it's not uneven; we don't feel like we're jumping from one genre to the next, maybe because it feels a little like Jarmusch has sucked the life out of these genres. Each segment is very laid back, the characters either nonchalant or trying to appear that way, with some exceptions.

The opening segment has Steven Wright and Roberto Begnini, both equally incomprehensible. Then Steve Buscemi explaining conspiracy theories to Cinque and Joie Lee (the guy can play anyone). Then Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, who seem to only be visiting each other to have a contest in condescending (Waits wins). And so on and so forth.

Some astounding performances can be spotted, astounding because they're so understated. Cate Blanchett plays both herself and her jealous cousin, and deserved an Oscar nomination. Steve Coogan plays himself with Alfred Molina, and it's fun to see how Coogan tries to control the conversation, then gets thrown for a loop. Bill Murray is, naturally, gut-busting funny.

Behind it all we sense the artist's hand, lathering on layer after enigmatic layer. Cheers to Jarmusch, who managed to pull together such a diverse cast and extract perfection from all of them.

It's not a great movie, it's not important, but it is fun, and cool, and interesting to watch around lunch time, with some coffee.


Batman Begins

The best...
The first super-hero movie was released twenty-seven years ago, and it's taken twenty-six years to get the formula exactly right. That was last year, with "Spider-Man 2", which was a lot of fun. And now we have Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins", and the formula is perfected. I guess it took a more serious character like Batman to do so, and it does so.

Christian Bale plays the Dark Knight, and his counterpart Bruce Wayne. This is a Bruce unlike that of Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney; a Bruce Wayne far less glamorous…a man who is most of the time consumed with only one thought: justice. This is the Bruce Wayne of the comics, and finally. The other Batman films focused more on the villains than Bruce or Batman, this one has more villains than any of those movies, and yet it manages to be foremost a character study of our hero.

The film begins where the first thoughts of Batman started circulating in Bruce's mind: when he accidentally falls into a large cave and is attacked by a swarm of frightening bats.

He then develops a phobia of them, and when he is reminded of this fear at an opera with his parents, he asks to leave. His father Thomas (Linus Roache), a kind, earnest man, with his wife, takes his son out into the alley to comfort him. Here they are assaulted by a thief, and in a moment both Bruce's parents have been murdered.

This event, along with the bat attack, changes Bruce forever. He loses interest in his multi-billion dollar company, and in the family heritage that his keeper Alfred (Michael Caine) tries so hard to polish. When he has reached his twenties, Bruce disappears to a small Asian country to learn about the nature of evil.

It is in a prison there that he is picked up by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who takes Bruce to a mountainside temple to train in the ways of the ninja with him and the mysterious Rha's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The two run the League of Shadows, an organization that has worked for centuries to bring justice to the Earth.

When Bruce has completed his training he returns to Gotham City, which was in even worse shape than when he left. It seems that Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are the only ones willing to fight against the powerful underworld, headed by crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a surprising accent) and the corrupt Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy).

It is at this point that Batman begins. How he changes his mind his body and his assets into those of the Dark Knight is a delight that I will let you behold on your own. The movie is strangely philosophical, delving deep into the nature of fear and evil that reminds me of Lord of the Flies. A bizarre comparison, I know, but isn't it refreshing when a comic book movie is smart, and not afraid to ask questions about morality? I'd prefer that to any boyish "Daredevil" or "Hulk" any day.

As with all super-hero movies there are enemies, and those enemies have a menacing plot, but who those enemies are and what that plot is are all pieces in the puzzle that is this movie's thrilling plot, so I will not spoil it for you. But I will say that it is few things: exciting, intelligent, dark, humorous, deep, and lots of fun.

What's astonishing is how the movie is full of incredibly talented (and famed) actors – Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer and Ken Watanabe – and yet it is entirely about Bruce Wayne, and still we have enough allotted time for the other actors to make an impression. It's a feat in balance, Nolan and writer David S. Goyer should be proud. There is also not a bad performance in the movie – well, Katie Holmes could've brushed up a little, but she doesn't take away from the films greatness. There are some surprises; too, with Linus Roache for example, great as a man with a heart of gold, and Cillian Murphy, who is very creepy – especially for a psychiatrist.

One performance in particular I feel I should mention is Liam Neeson's, who is always a joy to watch, and shines here in a role not too unlike ones he's played before. But his Henri Ducard is unlike his Qui-Gon Jinn, Priest Vallon or Godfrey of Ibalin in that he is more fascistic, and like all movie fascists, he finds philosophies that he uses to justify himself, that are credible, and make us think. It is an impressive performance; I could see him getting some recognition for it.

Same goes for Christian Bale, who is more human than any of the super-hero protagonists before him – except Tobey Maguire, I guess. But hey, Bale is cooler too. And we never once see him as an actor trying to emulate that comic book gusto. He is Bruce Wayne…the Bruce Wayne we've been waiting for, the one done right. His Batman is a convincing menace, too.

I mentioned that the movie is dark. Yes, quite. Not particularly violent, like "Batman Returns", but creepy and even frightening at times. Gotham is almost a character in itself, filmed perfectly, with all the layers of grime and corruption. The action that takes place there is quick and loud, unlike the highly choreographed bouts we see in "Daredevil" or "X-Men", the action scenes are instead a fury of fists and fog, and they are brilliant, in particular a chase scene with the Batmobile and the police.

This is one of the movies of the year, which might be denied because it's a comic book, but those who get rid of their inhibitions will be pleasantly surprised.



Brilliant in every, single way
Well, isn't this quite the movie. Uh-huh…every year, in my opinion, a movie is released that is made just perfectly. Made perfectly…meaning all of the acting, all of the writing, all of the directing, the music, the cinematography, the editing, the plot, story, all that, is just perfect. Last year that movie was "Collateral". The year before that it was "In America". This year, it is Paul Haggis' "Crash".

The film tells the stories of ten or so different people whose lives intersect over a forty-eight hour period, between two car accidents in LA. There's Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner-girlfriend Ria (Jennifer Esposito) investigating the seemingly accidental shooting of a black cop, DA Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his neurotic wife Jean (Sandra Bullock), a TV director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton), two cops – one racist (Matt Dillon), one gallant (Ryan Phillippe); an Iranian convenience store owner (Shaun Toub); two college-aged black men (Ludicrous and Larenz Tate) and the innocent, victimized locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena).

Some of them have connections with others when the movie begins, but by the end they'll all more or less be connected by the prejudices and judgments that they store in their hearts over years of ignored ignorance. As the most interesting character in the movie puts it: "You think you know who you are? You have no idea"…by the end of the film, all of the main characters are at least starting to learn who they are.

How? Well, to give away even the smallest detail may spoil the experience, but let's just say that a lot of the characters meet through accidents, crashes if you will. A lot depends on coincidence, a lot on behavior, and a lot on prejudice. But everyone learns.

Ensemble movies like this are done a lot, I guess, but it always feels fresh and new when they're done so well, like with 1999's "Magnolia". This movie is clearer and more bearable than "Magnolia", which was a masterpiece in itself. It just so perfectly captures human nature – none of the characters are completely innocent, and none are one hundred percent guilty, either. This is shown perfectly in the characters of the two cops, through developments that I will not give away, but I will say that they are both brilliantly emotional and suspenseful.

And yes, the movie is suspenseful. It shouldn't be one of those "boring dramas" that action-and-stupid-comedy buffs seem to avoid. This is a movie that could draw anyone in, because everybody can find a piece of their soul somewhere in it.

Its qualities stretch far beyond theme…this is an ensemble piece, an ensemble of talent. Writer director Paul Haggis has been around since the early nineties I guess, but with this so soon after his Oscar-nominated script for "Million Dollar Baby", I'm seeing him as a new talent. And he's good. If he plays his cards right he'll be able to ride the Hollywood horse in the way Spielberg and Tarantino are doing it right now.

And the acting – oh, the acting! It's superb, it's marvelous, every actor knows the soul of their character, and plays it excellently (even Ludicrous, who might just have an acting career ahead of him, unlike a lot of his rapper peers). Now everyone was good, make no mistake, but let me point out a few who were just…extraordinary. Matt Dillon ranks in at number one, as the fierce, racist cop, who we hate from the start, but come to understand by the end. Sure, when he explains the roots of his prejudices, we roll our eyes, but imagine walking in his shoes? And he has a scene that will be remembered. And there's Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton as the black married couple, who each face prejudice on their own and together, and seeing them interact we think…yes, this is a marriage. I knew Newton was great, but Howard is a bit of a surprise here…a good surprise, he's more talented than I might've thought at first, and this is his performance. An Oscar, I say! Don Cheadle, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Pena, Shaun Toub, Brendan Fraser, William Fitchner, Keith David, Tony Danza and Sandra Bullock all pop up in a few scenes or more, and they each leave a great impression. People like Tony Danza and Sandra Bullock seemed like a lost cause, but they do have talent…they've just been hiding it for a while. It's expertly displayed here.

Basically, I can't think of a single reason for anyone of a mature age not to see this movie. It's great…one of the year's best.


Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Well, it's good....
"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" is possibly the most anticipated movie of the year. And by possibly I mean definitely.

I'm not sure why, though. Episodes I and II were okay, but nothing even approaching "special". I suppose the appeal of the Star Wars movies is that it makes one - anyone - feel like a little child again. It brings you back to the days when you weren't embarrassed to care about what happens to your favorite super-hero, or have long conversations about whether Gandalf would win, or Obi-Wan, in a fight.

These are movies that are just lots of fun.

And Episode III is much, much more fun than I and II, and even a little touching, at times (but just a little). The action seems endless, which is good, because it is like nothing we've ever seen before. The dialogue scenes in I and II that were...for lack of a better word, "harsh", are still harsh, but much shorter, fewer and far between. Thankfully.

The problem with Lucas' writing is that the characters speak in subtext, in feelings. The characters never use any form of wit or subtlety in speaking, they are as blunt as a fist. Though, Ian McDiarmid as the evil Sen. Palpatine has his moments.

The Galaxy is at war. The seemingly "peaceful" Republic with its opponent, the Separatist droid army, led by droid General Grievous, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his master, Darth Sidious, whose identity is sort of concealed, even though we all know who he is. The film starts with Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) rescuing Palpatine from the clutches of Grievous, a half-droid, half-alien soldier whose part in this film is somewhere between window dressing and completely pointless.

So they save Palpatine (or did they?), and Anakin and him grow closer, which is bad, because Palpatine has a few dangerously dark secrets. The rest is too complicated to explain, but the key players are Anakin, Obi-Wan, Anakin's secret pregnant wife Padme (Natalie Portman), Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz) and Palpatine.

When I say that the rest is too complicated to explain, I don't mean that it is hard to understand, or anything like that, just that the movie is more about thrills, special effects, battles, and a character study of young Anakin that is surprisingly well-done (Lucas wrote something good! Wow!).

I have one qualm about the special effects, though. The prequel episodes were made a quarter of a century after the originals, so they are far more advanced technically, but does that make sense, to the chronology of the series? Wouldn't the technology in Episodes IV, V and VI be more advanced, because they take place after? I suspect that kids watching these movies a decade from now will be confused.

Anyway, it's not that important. Just lose yourself in the movie, and ignore the dialogue. There are some sequences of pure grandeur, intensity, and excitement, like Palpatine's sickly transformation into the Emperor we all know, a duel on an unstable lava planet, and a duel between two characters who we've all wanted to see in battle for a long time. That we know that neither of these characters dies until three movies later lessens the suspense a little, but it is still exciting.

Others are a little more contrived, like the character of Grievous, and the appearance of everyone's favorite Wookie, Chewbacca. The sole reason for his three seconds of film is so that we can say, "Look, there's everyone's favorite Wookie, Chewbacca!" Oh, and Samuel L. Jackson is completely wasted.

But yeah, the movie is fun. Good, even. Worth seeing once or twice. But nothing to get really worked up over. Just a movie.


Kingdom of Heaven

Exciting, epic and thoughtful
Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" will no doubt be compared to "Troy", "Alexander", "King Arthur" and "Gladiator", but "Gladiator" is the only movie that it is on level with. "Kingdom of Heaven" is more concerned with characters and themes than it is with fight scenes (although those are superb) or attractive faces. It is like "Gladiator" (also directed by Ridley Scott) in that it is a character study of warriors, examining not only their actions, but what beliefs and idealisms lead to them.

The film starts with young Balian (Orlando Bloom), a poor blacksmith in a tiny French hamlet, silently mourning the death of his wife and child. Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a crusading English knight, arrives with his band of soldiers and meets Balian. He claims to be Balian's father, and asks that he come with him.

Balian accepts, but only after he vengefully kills a priest and is on the run from Vatican officials. This leads to a fight scene in a snowy forest that is perfectly paced, filmed, and choreographed, stunning us in the audience.

Tragedy strikes and eventually Balian travels to Jerusalem, where he meets a slew of new characters, some bad, some conflicted, most good. Among these characters are Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), the gravel-voiced marshal of Jerusalem; Hopsitaler (David Thewlis), Godfrey's friend and wise adviser; Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and Reynard (Brendan Gleeson), trouble making Templar knights; King Baldwin (Edward Norton), a leper with a weak body but a strong mind and heart; and Sibylla (Eva Green), Baldwin's sister and Guy's wife, a dreamer, a romantic.

In Jerusalem there is an uneasy truce between the Muslims and the Christians. Uneasy not because either side hates the other, but because of the small band of Arab-hating Templar Knights and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the Muslim Sultan, who has a massive army just waiting to strike if the Muslims of Jerusalem are wronged.

Guy and Reynard are the only characters in the movie who want to break this truce. Everyone else – the King, Hospitaler, Tiberius – believe that killing infidels is not the way to heaven. This creates a divide, and with the death of the King impending, anything could happen.

I won't spoil what does happen; only that most of the characters are forced to ask themselves some moral and spiritual questions, the outcomes of which will affect Jerusalem (and maybe the world entire) on a grand scale. One of the most important themes raised asks us if a little sin is excusable if it prevents terrible things from happening.

The movie doesn't answer all of its questions, but it ends with a massive battle between two armies, neither bad nor good, both reluctant, pulled into the war because the circumstances of the politics, and the brash actions of the extremists around them.

The movie is both a technical and artistic achievement. The location sets, cinematography and choreography work together to make the movie visually compelling, so much so that one watched it and disliked the acting and writing, one could still enjoy the movie. But how one can dislike the acting and writing, I don't know. Great performances comes from Bloom, Neeson, Norton (whose face is never seen, and yet he leaves a lasting impression), Irons, Green, Massoud and Thewlis. We get to know each of these characters pretty well as the movie goes along. We see what they believe, what they think is worth fighting and dieing for, and what they think is not, and how they will compromise these idealisms through politics and loyalty.

Hospitaler is the most intriguing of these characters. Thewlis steals every scene he's in from Bloom, or Neeson or Irons, and we listen intently as he explains his outlook on religion and the world. It's the best performance in the movie, deserving an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It teaches and inspires. When Thewlis is marching off to war for a cause the completely opposite from his beliefs and Balian says to him, "You march to certain death," he replies, smiling: "All death is certain," and rides away, waving.

The movie should be seen for its questions, answers, and political statements, but also for its romance and sense of adventure, its lusty heroes and thoughtful dialogue. It's an adventure that pleases the eye, the heart, and the mind, which is hard to find these days.


Sin City

Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock made a film-noir in the nineteen forties, with access to the same movie making technology that we have today. Then imagine that Quentin Tarantino co-directed. What you have imagined is "Sin City", the new movie directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, from Miller's comic books.

The movie is, in a way, an astonishment, because Rodriguez has given us no prior evidence that he is capable of directing anything better than standard stylish action shlock. Oh man, is he ever.

The film takes place in Basin "Sin" City, a Gotham-New York hybrid that probably jumped straight out of Frank Miller's nightmares. When the sky is not grey, it is red, it is always raining, and the population all seems to follow only one convention: they have a considerable amount of dirty laundry. It is as if Rodriguez reached into "The Maltese Falcon", grabbed the city, and threw it into a vat of Gatorade - which is a compliment, of course.

After a short scene at the beginning - which plays like a teaser, hinting at Sin City's nature - we are launched into three short stories, all intersecting briefly in one place: at a cheap strip joint outside the city.

We start with Marv (Mickey Rourke), a massive, rough sadist whose mug looks like a cross between Mr. Incredible's and a brick. We don't know much about his past, but we know it's dirty, and that he'd probably deserve a lethal injection over a good woman. But he gets a good woman, which seems like a miracle to him, and they spend a night together. Possibly the best night of his life. When he wakes up, she's dead. He wants to find out why, who, how, and how to kill those guilty. He says his quest is "Worth dying for, worth killing for, worth going to hell for." Then we take a leap into Dwight's world. Dwight (Clive Owen) is running from the law, and has just hooked up with Shellie (Brittany Murphy), the girl who's loved him all her life. But Shellie's ex boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) won't have it, and he barges into their apartment with some heavies. After a brief quibble, Jackie Boy makes his exit, violently drunk. Dwight suspects he's on his way to Old Town to inflict hell on the prostitutes who act as law there, the prostitutes who saved Dwight's life, his friends. He races off to help them.

And last but not least is the story of Det. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), one of the rare hero cops of Sin City. He saves a little girl from Junior, a pedophile (Nick Stahl). But Junior has an important dad, and Hartigan goes to prison for nearly a decade, framed for the crime. When he gets out, he races to find Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), the little girl who's now all grown up and still targeted by Junior. But Junior's gone through some disturbing changes since his last bout with Hartigan...

The many characters are wide-ranging archetypes: heroes (Owen, Willis), anti-heroes (Rourke), villains (Rutger Hauer, Michael Clarke Duncan), psychos (Stahl, Del Toro, Elijah Wood), good girls (Alba, Murphy, Carla Gugino), considerably more interesting bad girls (Rosario Dawson, Devoan Aoki), and some mysterious figures (Josh Hartnett).

Most of the actors are perfectly cast, some of them deliver performances worth remembering, particularly Rourke, Owen, Willis and Del Toro. They are great at taking these characters and becoming them, while still maintaining their star presence. Bruce Willis reminds us of Bruce Willis, but we remember him as John Hartigan. Del Toro, Wood and Stahl are the only actors who've been cast against type.

The style of the film is what connects the three stories, as well as the strip joint, and similar themes about camaraderie, love, hate, torture and redemption. The movie is like a comic book, as we've all said, but you can only understand it if you've seen it. Then you'll agree, it feels like it was inked.

Rodriguez will be remembered for this movie, and this movie will be remembered because of Frank Miller's genius and imagination. It's bloody, yeah, and it's got quite a bit of nudity, but you can't imagine the movie without it. I should hope no one would complain, because what do they expect, seeing a movie "guest-directed" by Tarantino, the man himself. Tarantino's scene is one of the best and strangest of the movie, it involves Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, a car, some flashing lights and a "PEZ dispenser".

I don't know if the movie will survive like "Pulp Fiction" has, but I hope it does, because it's almost as good at combining pop culture references, homages, action, harsh violence and deep character insights into one, even narrative.

The movie is a joy, a dark, neo-noir, violent, sometimes disgusting joy.


A Cinderella Story

Charming -- more so than I'd expected
Okay, so I watched "A Cinderella Story". Why? Well, it's hard to argue when you're hanging out with a beautiful girl. I didn't necessarily want to watch it, but I did, and I had fun.

The movie is a little cute, and a little charming, and the scenes with leads Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray really work, they have good chemistry.

The scenes without them are a bit labored, though. We have the usual teen movie characters, and the movie is not funny, sometimes it is painfully unfunny.

But it's more about Duff and Murray, and how they look when they smile. Duff is believable in her role, though I still think she should look for better work, and Murray is likable as the popular jock who thinks a little more deeply than his peers.

The evil step mother is played by Jennifer Coolidge, who is funny, but not here, or in movies like "Legally Blonde". She could be doing better, too. Regina King is wasted, and a young actor plays Duff's best friend, and he has energy, but has to grow into his abilities a bit more.

"A Cinderella Story" is a movie made to keep the careers of Duff, Murray, Coolidge and King up and running (see King at her best in "Ray" or "Jerry Maguire"), and it works. There just could've been a little more care put into the script.


The Aviator

Brilliant, sad
Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is the tragic story of how a man's grand genius practically destroys his mind. It's also a glorious homage to the golden years of Hollywood, and to a man's strength in expanding upon his empire, defeating his criticizers and, most of the time, winning.

The man is Howard Hughes, infamous movie and airplane mogul who got his start directing "Hell's Angels" in the late twenties. The movie opens here, with Hughes begging for just two more cameras, so that he can have twenty-six instead of a mere twenty-four to make the big climactic dogfight scene. Once he succeeds and the movie is nearly done, but then "The Jazz Singer" is released and Hughes decides to re-shoot the entire movie in sound. His assistant Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) is skeptical. Everyone is skeptical. Hughes ignores them and does it anyway.

These beginning scenes have a breakneck pace and involve Hugh emptying his pockets over and over again. To everyone else this seems like a plan to go broke, but Hughes sees things in the long run, knowing that if "Hell's Angels" is made with sound, more people will see it, more times. He is wise, and knows his plans will pull through in the end; it's his high-strung, nervous demeanor that puts everyone else off.

After "Hell's Angels" Hughes switches from making movies to making airplanes…fast, revolutionary airplanes. He makes his planes the same way he makes his movies: dozens of last minute improvements, mind-changing, and lots and lots of money loss. He remains confident; it is his stubbornness and ego that drive him to his accomplishments.

But he has a problem, one few know about. It is severe OCD, though I don't think the phrase had been coined yet. Because of some scarring episodes with his mother when he was a child Howard goes through the rest of his life worrying a lot about germs. Since he is an inherited millionaire he is able to feed his worries: people accept it when he asks for one steak and exactly six peas.

Meanwhile he manages to balance this with a life of womanizing. Hughes was famous for dating many successful actresses, of which Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) are seen most in the film.

Cate Blanchett does not significantly resemble Hepburn – she probably wouldn't be the first to come to mind for the part – but after seeing her in it I can't imagine anyone else in the part. She is perfect…this girl can act. For anyone else it would be an impersonation but for Blanchett it's a performance. Her scenes are wonderful…the presence of Hepburn in the movie is not used as a gimmick or a cameo, but as an actual part of the film, a significant part of Hughes' life. She has some very heartwarming and heartbreaking scenes, her performance is a delight, richly deserving her Oscar nomination (and maybe a win too).

Indeed, since most of the cast are playing celebrities, it opens it up for them to overact or impersonate their characters, but all of the actors hit just the right note, like Kate Beckinsale as the proud Gardner or Jude Law showing up as the gaudy, obnoxious Errol Flynn. Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda play Hughes foremost enemies: scheming Panam head Juan Trippe and Brewster, the senator that Trippe has bought.

Both Baldwin and Alda have excellent scenes where they try to play off of Hughes' OCD to throw him off during negotiations: one where Trippe speaks to Hughes through an office room door and blows his pipe smoke through the keyhole into the room and another where during a dinner Brewster places a fingertip on Hughes' glass while serving him nearly raw fish. Hughes reacts to both these situations in a different way, but he is always desperately trying to maneuver himself out from under the schemes of those plotting against him.

Hughes does a different kind of maneuvering, in the scenes where his money pays off (or doesn't) when he flies his planes. One scene in particular, is stunning, when Hughes takes his newest plane for a ride, breaks a speed record, but loses control over Beverly Hills. It would be a sin for me to spoil what happens, but I can say that it is an exciting, scary thrill of a scene.

Martin Scorsese directs excellently, this is one of his best films. Many of his films take place over a span of many decades, but this is the first one I've seen that captures these periods so beautifully. The cinematography is wonderful, filming each decade the way movies were filmed then (just, with colour), not a gimmick but a smart way of creating a flow. Most films are either all style or all substance, but Scorsese is one of the few who can meld them both into an emotionally and visually intriguing film.

Oh, and Howard Hughes is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, not the first actor you'd think of (like, say, Jason Robards). He doesn't look like the man, no, but why should that be an issue with acting? DiCaprio masters the mannerisms, the glory and the madness. It is a magnificent performance, one that takes a person who was a potential genius and follows him through his life. The film ends on the perfect note, which pretty much sums up the remainder of Hughes life. It is a film to see.



One of the year's best, a must-see, entertaining and harrowing
"Closer" is a character study looking closely – like through a magnifying glass – at the dishonesty of human nature. Its only four characters are real. These are people. Adjectives like "convincing" or "believable" aren't applicable here because they are irrelevant...whether these are actors or not, "Closer" is a look at a few years in the lives of four very real people. They are four fierce, empathy-less, angry, sad, charming, and sometimes even sick people, but they are still people, and not mere characters in a movie. When the film ends their problems are not solved, their lives will still continue the way it does through the film, because it is a film on life, and life doesn't end until death, and this isn't about the people's deaths.

Dan (Jude Law) is a pretty bad-boy wannabe English writer who goes through his days pretending to have a dark side. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a classy photographer who takes seemingly artistic photos of strangers that look personal but only hide the fact that they are, indeed, strangers. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a dark free spirit who is both cynical and naive. Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist who fuses an innocent boyish charm with fierce anger and hatred for other human beings. All four can be nasty, or lovable. They have traits. People.

Dan meets Alice on the street. They engage in a flirtation, speaking about themselves, attracted. They become partners, live together for a year or so, Dan writes a book based on her. They appear to be in love, but really it is about how they each meet the other's required needs.

Then Dan finds someone who will meet his needs more sufficiently. Anna, the photographer, taking his picture for the jacket of his book. Anna likes him, but doesn't want to be a "thief". Still, she gives in and can't help but kiss him. She thinks to remain strong, though, and rejects him.

Retaliating to the rejection, Dan signs onto a dirty internet chat room, posing as Anna, and sets up a meeting with Larry. Larry comes to the London aquarium Anna so often visits, and finds the real Anna there. He sits down beside her and immediately sets off a bunch of piggish, chauvinistic sexual comments. She's put off by him, but not as much as she should be, and when they both realize his dilemma she instantly forgives him. They go for a walk. Larry's gears switch instantly from obnoxious pervert to boyish charmer, and we, along with Anna, start to like him.

And so the movie is set up, and things happen from here on in, not as predictable as you might think. The four characters interact, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in threesomes, never all four at once. The movie has that 'play feel'. Sometimes that feel doesn't work ("Mister Roberts" for example) but sometimes it works perfectly. The latter applies here. We feel like we have stepped into the peoples' lives, the same feeling we usually get from a good play.

The screenplay was adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, and it is directed by Mike Nichols. These two really know how to set up a movie. An Oscar for both of them would be an understatement. All of the aspects – mostly acting and writing – piece together to make the perfect tone for the film. Everything just…fits. The film editing is commendable too, like a scene where both couples are breaking up, and it inter-cuts between them. Another brilliant move was to save Jude Law and Clive Owen's meeting until a climactic later scene, because these two are the driving chauvinist males of the movie, and anything less significant wouldn't do them justice.

This is an ensemble piece. Not in the usual "ensemble piece" way – meaning that there are many famous faces jammed in the same shot – but meaning that all of the cast (which here is only four) play off each other perfectly. There is romantic, angry, sexual, sad, charming and sympathetic chemistry firing between them at all times; the actors have developed an actual relationship with each other that sort of resonates in the film.

Natalie Portman is magical in this movie. She delivers one of the best female performances of the year, playing a beautiful, spunky character that ambiguously has the odds on her side. We don't often her side of things, but when we do, it's a shocker. She deserved the Golden Globe she won and would deserve the Oscar (I place only Virginia Madsen before her).

Clive Owen proves his talent here, and proves that he is one of the most intriguing actors working today. He is stunningly able to shift from nasty to charming to perverted without seeming to be over (or under) acting, out of character or incapable. He is very capable. He grabs a hold of the audience in his scenes and doesn't let go until he's off-screen.

It is because of the amazing talent and presence of Portman and Owen that we sort of lose focus on Jude Law and Julia Roberts, who both do terrific jobs. Jude Law raises the specter on versatility here; I suggest you watch this with "Cold Mountain" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" to drink in what this guy can do. Roberts is movie-star, and being one, subtlety is usually not present in her performances, but here it blooms. She uses it to suggest that her character is giving way to her desires, letting go of any morals or ethics. It's a touching, tragic performance. Possibly her best.

Now, the unabashed sexual dialogue may put off a few, but this is not a movie that glorifies sex, not by far. So watch it, no matter if you're a conservative or liberal, and study the values of empathy, honesty and the wisdom to not make the same mistakes twice.


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