‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ Goes Down in a, You Know, Pleasurable Way

Zack and Miri Make a Porno movie poster

Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is the first movie he made which takes place outside of New Jersey. Instead, he takes us to Pittsburgh where we follow the exploits of the title characters who share an apartment and have been the best of friends since they were kids. When we first meet them, their lives are hanging by a thread as they are behind on all their bills, and soon after they lose their water and electricity. Both work at a Starbucks-like shop called Bean n’ Gone where they waste their lives away like those two guys from “Clerks. “Sound like anyone you know?

These two end up going to their high school reunion where Miri ends up connecting with her biggest crush, football hero Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), in the hopes of having a nice little fling. She has yet to find Bobby doesn’t “swing that way.” This soon becomes clear as we see Zack talking with Bobby’s boyfriend, Brandon (Justin Long, who is frackin’ hilarious), who reveals to Zack he is in fact an actor in gay porno films, the stuff Zack doesn’t quite fit the demographic for.

Later on, when both Zack and Miri are in very dire straits, Zack comes up with the idea of the two of them doing a porno. Miri is not quite up to the idea, but the way Zack sees it, porno is now so mainstream that even Paris Hilton (albeit unintentionally) did one and now hawks her own line of perfume to “tweens.” They end up committing to it despite one thing; they have never had sex with each other before. The way they saw it beforehand was they get along so great that they both believe sex will just get in the way of the friendship they have a la “When Harry Met Sally.” Of course, you can’t help but get the feeling Zack would love an opportunity to get up close and personal with Miri, you know?

There’s this line from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones” which keeps floating around in my head of when Anakin meets up with Padme again and tells her how she has grown more beautiful since the last time they were together. To this, Padme replies, “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I remember from Tatooine.” I totally remember the audiences groaning after she said this, and the line kind of sums up the relationship between Zack and Miri, and we feel we have a pretty good idea of where their relationship will end up.

Zack is played Seth Rogen who, for a moment, appeared to be Smith’s new man crush since Ben Affleck was far too busy with his acting career at the time. Rogen is perfect as he handles the raunchy and profane material of the movie with the confidence of a pro, and at the same time he projects a sweet side to his character which really wins the audience over. Elizabeth Banks (“W.“) plays Miri who stays close to Zack throughout their hardships and spends nights with him in front of a trash can in which all their unpaid bills are burned to a crisp. The chemistry between these two is very good, and they play off of each other really well.

In addition, Smith has rounded out a great cast to keep the laughs going throughout this ode to porn. Some of his regulars show up here like Jason Mewes who plays Lester, a hopelessly dense individual who also yearns to be a porn star. Another is Jeff Anderson (the immortal Randal Graves from “Clerks”) who plays Deacon the cameraman. How he manages to get a movie out of all this insanity is beyond me.

Smith even goes out of his way to even cast actual porno stars as well. The most noticeable one is Katie Morgan who has been featured on some documentaries on HBO about her career (how I know this, I refuse to reveal). She is as perky here as she is in those interviews, and her cheerful presence here is kind of a surprise compared to other actresses in her line of work. Traci Lords co-stars as well, and she shows us an amazing new way to blow bubbles. A former porn actress herself, Lords has long since escaped adult entertainment and has dived into the bad taste escapades of John Waters to a delightful effect. Both of the actresses being in this movie should show just how mainstream porn is getting and of how much this scares conservative politicians to death.

But one of the truly scene stealing performances in this movie belongs to Craig Robinson who plays the producer of the porno, Delaney. Robinson is a big kick to watch here as he delivers his lines in a terrifically deadpan manner. At once disgusted at what he has been hired to do, Delaney suddenly becomes incredibly enthusiastic when he realizes he gets to do. He also has a pretty hilarious response to when he is asked to work “Black Friday,” and it serves as a reminder of how some people take things a little too literally.

Smith also has loads of fun skewering the porn films we know from our past but never really admit to ever having watched. Zack and Miri end up coming up with the title “Star Whores” for their porno, and this in reference to how so many of these pornos are typically named after Hollywood blockbusters. See if any of these remind you of anything (some of these I made up):

“Pulp Friction”

“Robocock”

“The Hard Knight”

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Boner” (Justin Long’s character could easily be cast in this one.)

Smith directs this movie to those who are more familiar with pornos than they would ever admit during a sales pitch. It’s also an ode to when he started as a filmmaker all those years ago with “Clerks.” Using a hockey stick as a boom mike holder? You can believe he utilized things like these to get his first movie done.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is not as consistently funny as some of Smith’s other movies like “Clerks” or “Dogma” among others. Like “Jersey Girl,” it follows a certain formula to where we pretty much know where the story is going to end up. At the same time, he gleefully skewers the formula by adding his own brand of raunchy humor. There was one moment I laughed so hard that I almost passed out, something which does not always happen if at all. I fell over, the color went out of my eyes for a second, and things got fuzzy. Yes, that’s how hard I was laughing. I refuse to spoil this particular moment for you, but I will say I will never look at cake frosting in the same way ever again.

Smith also makes clear the difference between having sex and making love, and this difference is made clear at a pivotal moment in the movie which changes everything for the characters. There’s the one nighter, and then there’s the sex which reveals true feelings and which proves to be more than extraordinary. I may not be an expert on the subject for reasons I will plead the fifth on, but I do know this much. Smith, after all these years, still gives us down to earth characters which shows how he has not come even close to forgetting where he came from.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” may not be the best movie of Kevin Smith’s career, but it definitely has its moments of utter hilarity. It also shows there is more to him than making movies in New Jersey. By making a break from his usual comic territory, we can and should expect him to go beyond his comfort zone for a good dose of naughty laughs filled with heart from here on out.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Rambo’ (2008) Brings Back an 80’s Action Hero, and Leaves a Ton of Blood in its Wake

Rambo 2008 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008 back when this film was released.

With Sylvester Stallone having revived one of his most iconic characters with “Rocky Balboa,” it was only a matter of time before he brought back John Rambo. From “First Blood” to “Rambo III,” the ex-Green Beret was forced to deal with hostile elements which kept him from putting his violent past behind him, and now he is back after a two decade hiatus during which I am guessing this character finally found a way to silence his demons for longer than a couple of years. But when he starts wielding his knife or bow and arrow, the blood starts to flow like a river, and it’s a fast-moving river to be sure!

We catch up with Rambo in “Rambo” as he is living a life of solitude in Thailand where he catches poisonous snakes and sells them, and also drives his boat up and down the river. He has completely divorced himself from the world and its major concerns and, no surprise, he would rather not go back into combat again. To so will have him be reminded of who he really is and of what he cannot escape from. Then along comes a group of missionaries who try to hire Rambo to take them upriver where they can help those who are living in terror of the Burmese army which has no remorse for their suffering. Before you know it, the army descends on the village they are working in, and they wipe out just everybody including babies. Those who survive the onslaught are taken hostage by the army which is led by a vicious general who seems to be devoid of just about every emotion other than hate.

After all these years in development hell, I kept wondering who John Rambo was going to fight this time around. There were rumors he would take on the Taliban or some cult in America. Stallone’s inclusion of the Burmese army is an interesting choice as I am not sure how aware people are of the atrocities they have inflicted. “Rambo” starts off with some documentary footage of the army and the decaying corpses they leave in their wake. While it may seem exploitive to some that Stallone would use this footage here, it effectively sets up how dangerous and cold-hearted these villains are and will be throughout. It succeeds also in anchoring these antagonists in a believable way, and it makes them all the more threatening. Stallone is smart not give us a bunch of cartoonish 1980’s villains here as it would simply take away from the story and turn it into the kind of action flick which has not aged well.

Stallone directs here again as he did with “Rocky Balboa,” and this is the first Rambo movie which has him in front of and behind. It is hard to think of another individual who could have directed it as he knows the character so damn well and so much more than just about anyone else. It is also important to note that, along with “Rocky Balboa,” this is the first time Stallone has directed any movie in about 20 years. Some get rusty when they are away from the director’s chair for too long (we are looking at you George Lucas), but Stallone looks to have stepped back into this position without having missed a beat.

And speaking of action, “Rambo” is overwhelmed with it If you thought the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” was exceedingly violent, wait till you get a load of this film. Rambo does not just blow away his enemies, he eviscerates them in such gory detail to where Dario Argento would be in awe of what Stallone has pulled off here. The ex-Green Beret also slices and dices better than Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or even Michael Meyers ever could. He eviscerates, decapitates, disembowels, and hits his targets with absolute precision and without hesitation. Many have called this the most violent movie ever made, and this may very well be true.

My guess is since this is the first Rambo movie made in two decades, Rambo has been laying low and not causing any trouble. As a result, he has had all this tension building up inside of him for a long, long time. Now had this movie came out a few years after “Rambo III,” then maybe he would not have battled his enemies in such an immensely gory fashion. But since he has been out of action for so long, it somehow makes sense he is slightly angrier than usual when he gets stuck in situations like this. In other words, do not piss him off after a long stretch of time where he has not done any hunting.

Many of the characters we see here do come across as one-dimensional, and this quickly reminded of Stallone’s limitations as a writer. There is a group of mercenaries who are led by one loud mouth Australian who would happily be anywhere else had he not been paid so much for this one job. These characters, however, are redeemed by the end of the movie as they fight for something as opposed to just the dollar. Also, some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but thank goodness there is not too much of it here.

Among the actors teamed up with Stallone is Julie Benz who plays Sarah, the woman who wins over Rambo by meeting him at his level of morality. There is no sex here as Rambo looks to have become too much of a monk to where one wonders if he will ever be sexually active again (“no time for love Dr. Jones!”). But in the end, romance really has no place in a movie like this.

“Rambo” is also helped by a stupendous music score by Brian Tyler who more than honors the themes the late Jerry Goldsmith first brought to this franchise during its humble beginnings. It more than matches the furious pace of the action unleashed on us here, and gets at the deeper feelings of all the characters, especially Rambo himself. Tyler’s score here adds tremendously to the experience of watching this movie.

“Rambo” is not as good as “Rocky Balboa,” but it does deliver as an action movie. In fact, it has set the action bar so high in terms of onscreen deaths to where it will be a complete surprise if any other film in 2008 comes even close to topping its carnage. Anything is possible, but still.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘WALL-E’ Remains one of Pixar’s Greatest Masterpieces

Wall E poster

WALL-E” was directed by Andrew Stanton who directed one of the very best Pixar movies, “Finding Nemo.” It takes place in the very distant future when Earth is no longer inhabitable due to uncontrollable pollution, and everyone lives in spaceships. In the midst of all this pollution and garbage is WALL-E whose name is an acronym which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class. There are many like him, but this particular load lifter has long since developed a quirky personality. While he compacts waste into squares, he also collects things like Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cubes, and parts from similar models which he can use as replacement parts on his body if anything falls apart. He lives a very lonely life with no one to converse with except a cockroach whom he lets wander around his home aboard a broken-down construction vehicle, and he is always watching scenes from the movie musical “Hello Dolly.”

Then one day, he is visited by a large spaceship which a makes a very loud landing on the barren planet. Released from it is a probe named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and after some dangerous close encounters, WALL-E earns her trust and friendship. Things between them, however, gets tested when EVE’s mothership comes back, and WALL-E hangs on for dear life as the ship heads into space and towards a ship where what is left of humanity inhabits. What happens when these two board the ship will eventually change the course of everyone’s lives and the way they live.

Just when I thought Pixar couldn’t top itself, it succeeds in doing so yet again. The animation in “WALL-E” is predictably brilliant, but now it’s getting to where I can’t tell what’s animated and what’s real. The Rubik’s cube WALL-E and EVE play with looks very much like the real thing, and the attention to detail in these is almost frightening in its precision.

But the one thing that really makes Pixar movies so damn good is the stories filmmakers come up with, and the characters they create are ever so memorable. WALL-E’s design does remind me of Number 5, a.k.a. Johnny 5, from “Short Circuit,” as he is every bit as quirky as this character from the 1980’s. Pixar also takes a lot of risks by having this movie be devoid of dialogue for the first half hour. I imagine this would freak out other studios, but not Pixar. The fact there is no dialogue shows how good Stanton is in showing things without spelling them out to us.

“What are words for when no one listens anymore?”

“Do you hear me? Do you care?”

-Missing Persons

“WALL-E” is undeniably cute without having to become incredibly manipulative, and this is quite an accomplishment considering how many movies for kids can easily fall into such a trap. Pixar is the equivalent these days of what the Muppets were to me in 1980’s. Their movies appeal to both kids and adults, and it is great to see anyone in Hollywood making motion pictures which succeed in doing just that.

When “WALL-E” moves to the spaceship hovering just outside of the Milky Way galaxy, the movie becomes even more amazing on a visual level. The moment where we see WALL-E hanging on for dear life outside of the spaceship and touching the rings of Saturn is a beautiful moment in a movie full of them. The spaceship he and EVE end up on is called the Axiom, and all its passengers are obese people who sit and move all day long in chairs because being in space for so long has robbed them of their bone density. Now this is a movie which doesn’t hide from the horrors of being a coach potato.

WALL-E and EVE are machines, but you end up caring for them regardless of this fact. They make the perfect couple even if one is more advanced than the other. The heart of the movie is how they come together and of the changes they inadvertently make in the realm of humanity.

WALL-E is voiced by Ben Burtt, and he is responsible for some of the most well-known sound effects in movie history like the lightsabers from “Star Wars” as well as the sound of that gigantic boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Burtt can now add this character to his great volume of work with pride. The character itself manages to convey so much through the use of sound and gestures. Whenever WALL-E tilts his mechanical eyes, he can easily go from emotion to emotion, and his voice adds to this as well.

EVE is the perfect match for WALL-E as they are an example of how the old and the more advanced can make the saying of opposites attract all the more valid. Beautiful in her sleekness and with two blue eyes to make her emotions all the more real, EVE is a brilliantly thought out character (and a little too trigger happy for her own good). The moments when these two machines connect are beautiful, and it gets you right in the heart in a way which does not feel the least bit manipulative (thank god for that).

When “WALL-E” gets on board the Axiom, it is a wonderful jab at how we humans have allowed ourselves to let technology overwhelm us to where it does all the work we should be doing ourselves. Laziness and complacency are far too easy to achieve when you have someone or something else doing everything for you. As a result, everyone on the Axiom is always in a chair. Exercise is not a priority, and being in outer space for so long has resulted in their bones almost disappearing. This is something NASA has to think about before they even think about sending astronauts to Mars. When the people of the ship rise against the technology holding them back, it’s a fantastic moment which cannot be easily forgotten.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “WALL-E” other than it’s another home run for the folks at Pixar. I look forward to whatever they do next year and the year after that. It is far and away one of the best movies of 2008, and it is now the one to beat in the summer movie season. For those attempting to do so, I wish you the best of luck because you are going to need it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Frost/Nixon’ is Ron Howard’s Best Film Since ‘Apollo 13’

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Frost/Nixon” started off as a play which was incredibly well received and went on to have a very successful run on Broadway. It has now been brought to the screen by director Ron Howard, and he ends up giving us one of his best movies to date. Like “Apollo 13,” he takes the outcome of an event which we all know about and he turns it into riveting cinema. Also, unlike John Patrick Shanley who cast different actors in his movie version of “Doubt,” Howard retains the two actors from the original stage production, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. This is one of the very best movies to come out in 2008, and it makes sense it is coming out at the end of the year instead of the middle of it.

“Frost/Nixon” starts at the point where Nixon has resigned as the President of the United States. David Frost, just coming off of one of his talk shows, sees the image of Nixon waving goodbye before entering the helicopter which took him away from political life forever. When it is gauged as to how many witnessed Nixon’s resignation on television, Frost sees a golden opportunity in attempting to get an interview with Nixon, something which must have seemed incredibly unlikely at the time. Along with his producer John Brit (Matthew Macfadyen), he travels to America to set up the interview with a major network, but they all turn him down. As a result, he decides to fund the whole thing himself at great personal risk, and he and John hire Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to prep him for interview and research all the available facts on Nixon.

I liked how “Frost/Nixon” really got into the specifics of how the interviewed was prepped and researched. You might think prepping any interview wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, let alone the interview of a former President of the United States, but it is never as easy as it looks. They prep for months in advance, but Frost’s producer, as well as Bob and James, do most of the grunt work while Frost goes to parties promoting a movie he has worked on. When they finally get around to filming the interview, Frost suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation he has put himself in as the interview may very well destroy his credibility forever.

The movie becomes completely riveting when it focuses on the exchanges between Frost and Nixon in the interview and outside of it as well. Nixon proves to be a smooth operator who takes advantage of Frost as the interviewer appears to be laid back and almost completely oblivious to the seriousness of this interview. We see people from both camps focusing on the interview from other rooms, trying to control what comes out of their guy’s mouth. The intensity immediately increases when Frost starts off the interview with the question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” By that, Frost meant the tapes which all but implicated Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.

The last part of the interview these two men do together represents some of the most riveting and intense scenes in any movie of 2008. The fact there are no guns or explosions here says a lot about Howard and the actors managed to accomplish here. The audience, even if they knew the outcome of these interviews, was so intensely drawn into this part of the movie when I saw it at Arclight Cinemas to where you could hear a pin drop during the last exchange, and the gasps from the audience were very audible. I watched it and hoped at the same time that I had remembered to silence my cell phone so it wouldn’t go off during the movie’s final round. It would have destroyed the moment if Daryl Hall & John Oates had started singing “I Can’t Go for That” (my current ring tone) out of my cell phone.

As Sir David Frost, Sheen is brilliant in making him look like a lot of fun to be around without ever seeming overly smug or easily dismissive. His transition from the casual interviewer to Nixon’s grand inquisitor is very convincing, and he makes you feel the increasing stress Frost is going through. Like his close confidents, we desperately want him to get hard on Nixon and not be so soft. When Frost finally does come around, he caps off his interview by getting in Nixon’s face and never backs down from the overbearing stature Nixon imposes on him. Sheen manages to capture all of Frost’s mannerisms and the way he talks without simply impersonating him. Having previously played Tony Blair in “The Queen,” he is great at giving a different face to people we have come to know so well, and in getting at the heart of who they are outside of the media’s perception of them.

With the role of Richard Nixon, I think it’s safe to say Langella gives the performance of his career here. Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” he never ever tries to impersonate Nixon in this performance. Had he, it would have destroyed his performance and the movie. Langella doesn’t even try to look like Nixon either. What he does instead is dig deep into the heart and soul of Nixon to where he gives the former President a strong sense of empathy. Ever since he came to my attention in Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” Langella has been the king of quiet menace in just about every movie he has appeared in. The menace of Nixon is always below the surface under the guise of a man always reminiscing about a past he can never get back. When Nixon finally caves in during the last interview he has Frost, Langella gives the man a sorrowful dignity as he realizes what he has done will forever haunt him unless he confronts for what it is.

Langella also makes you believe and understand what Nixon meant when he says no one can ever fully understand what it is like to be President. Nixon is never excused for what he did, nor should he be, but there is some leeway we should give him as he has experienced something the majority of us will never get to experience – being President of the United States. The Oscars better not ignore Frank Langella the same way they ignored Howard for “Apollo 13.”

\Howard almost seems like an odd choice to direct “Frost/Nixon,” and he beat out a lot of directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols to get the job. It almost seems unbelievable his career has spanned as many decades as it has, but it’s probably because many of us still have the image of him as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” burned forever into our heads. His last film as a director was “The Da Vinci Code” which proved to be quite sleep inducing, and yet still made tons of money. It almost made you forget what a great director he can be, and “Frost/Nixon” wakes us up from the Da Vinci coma we fell into unexpectedly.

“Frost/Nixon” is better than you would ever expect it to be, and it is one of Howard’s very best movies to date and one of the very best of 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Takes Us on a Journey We Do Not Often Go On

Slumdog Millionaire poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Some of the best movies take us to places we most likely have never been to before. “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of them as it invites us to travel through different parts of India from the poor towns to the set of the country’s own version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.” The movie starts off with our main character, Jamal Malik (played as an adult by Dev Patel), being interrogated by the police because they believe he is guilty of cheating on the infinitely popular game show. No one can believe a slum kid like him could do so well without having the answers in advance. As the police get to the bottom of how Jamal has succeeded up to this point, the movie flashes back to his childhood as we see how his answers represents the journey he has taken so far. We soon discover his motivation to be on the show has nothing to do with money, and this is regardless of how he is on the verge of either winning a fortune or losing it all.

The movie flashes back to when Jamal was a boy where he and his brother Salim are suddenly orphaned and forced into surviving on the streets by stealing goods to sell and conning naïve tourists (naïve American tourists always turn out to be the best targets) by giving them tours of the Taj Mahal which are anything but factual. During their travels on one homeless night, Jamal sees a young girl all alone in the rain whom he quickly invites to where he and his brother Salim are sleeping. From there, a relationship emerges which becomes Jamal’s one real reason to live.

I have to tell you, Danny Boyle really surprises and amazes me as a filmmaker. Every movie he makes is almost completely different from the one he gave us beforehand. Boyle first gave us “Shallow Grave” which showed us a severe paranoia among a trio of roommates, and then he gave us one of the seminal drug addiction movies with the brilliant “Trainspotting.” From there, he went Hollywood with “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach,” both of which almost made us forget what made him so good in the first place. Then he went the independent route and reinvented the zombie movie genre with “28 Days Later” which he shot in digital and made for dirt cheap. After that, he made a family movie with “Millions” where a couple of young boys come across a big bag of money thrown off of a train and find creative ways of giving the money away. As you can see, Boyle has become an incredibly unpredictable filmmaker, and it shows how determined he is not to repeat himself.

“Slumdog Millionaire” seems to have come out of nowhere, and I didn’t even know Boyle was working on it. He appears to have fallen in love with the lives and culture in India and of everything which has come out of it. While it is portrayed as a place with much squalor many third world countries are forced to deal with, there is a beauty to it as we see different types of people and cultures coming together in ways not easily accomplished. Along with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and India co-director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle gives the town of Mumbai a beauty and vibrancy you don’t see in other places as it goes from a poor town to a city growing bigger by the minute.

The story itself is very familiar to as it is one of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl as we see Jamal never stops thinking about Latika (played as an adult by the lovely Freida Pinto) and yearns to find her wherever he goes. She makes his life worth living, and she gives Jamal something to fight for. But unlike a lot of bland Hollywood romantic comedies, it is not at all manipulative or just about rich white people. It is about people coming up from nothing and supported by a cast which does not have a single weak performance in it as the emotions and actions of its characters never feel less genuine.

The other great thing about “Slumdog Millionaire” is how it becomes even more suspenseful and thrilling as it heads towards its final act. The ending had me on the edge of my seat and quickly reminded me of what an exciting game show “Who Wants to Be Millionaire” can be.  Anil Kapoor plays the Indian host of the show, Prem Kumar, and he is basically the anti-Regis Philbin. Prem playfully insults Jamal as he finds out his job involves serving people tea while everyone works at their cubicles. He taunts Jamal into believing he will win because of the trust he has in him, but Jamal keeps his cool even while he has a hard time breaking a smile on television.

Boyle gives the movie a big advantage by casting unknowns here, and they are all wonderful. If he were forced to cast big name stars, I’m not sure “Slumdog Millionaire” would have had the same effect it does here. This one could have ended up like any other romantic movie ever made which would have been a shame considering the passion which went into the making of it. The movie succeeds in showing specific details of the world these characters inhabit, and it sucks us in almost immediately. The actors in the movie don’t act their roles as much as they inhabit them, and this makes their scavenging adventures all the more interesting.

Dev Patel is perfectly cast as Jamal as he never overplays his part or simply acts out the emotions. The same goes for the rest of the cast including Madhur Mittal who plays the adult Salim whose life has taken a different direction from Jamal’s as he heads into a life of crime to where he is employed by a `big-time drug lord in Mumbai.

Along with a great soundtrack I will most certainly purchase when it comes out on CD, “Slumdog Millionaire” is one of 2008’s most memorably exuberant movies which at its heart is a love story. While many of us come into love stories with a deep cynicism, this one gives you believable characters you root for and never want to see separated. Fox Searchlight plans to make this movie this year’s answer to “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” but don’t let any potential backlash keep you from seeing it as it a big heart and will excite you in a way many movies like this often don’t.

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