‘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.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ Challenges Our Views on Love and Romance

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

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

Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is easily the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a long time. There is no shaky camera work to induce nausea here, and the story is never boring for one second. There is also none of those Woody Allen-isms we are all so tired of, probably because Allen himself chose not to act in this movie. Instead, he gives us a great cast of actors to bring his material to life, and he sets his story in the beautiful country of Spain. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, he makes the different areas of Spain so inviting to where you just want to jump on a plane and fly over there right now. If only plane tickets weren’t so damn expensive. Oh yeah, I have a job too. Damn!

The movie starts off by introducing us to Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a graduate student who is engaged to be married, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a woman who just filmed a short feature and recently broke up with her boyfriend. They are best friends who take a vacation to Spain, and they agree on just about everything except when it comes to love. Whereas Vicky is reserved in the ways of love, Cristina is impulsive and spontaneous. While Vicky seems sure of what she wants, Cristina is unsure of what she wants from a lover or from life. The ways of these two women are put to test when they meet Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Juan casually comes up to them while at a restaurant and offers to take the two to Oviedo in the next hour where he says they will have great fun, drink fine wine and eventually make love. Cristina is all for going, but Vicky wants nothing of it due to her impending marriage. But of course, she goes to keep Cristina company. What happens from there will or will not change the way they feel about love in general.

Into this mix comes Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who wishes she knew how to quit her ex-husband. Maria comes back into Juan’s life after Cristina has moved in with him, and she is unstable to say the least. From there, who knows what will happen. This is what I really liked about the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona;” It was very absorbing, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I can’t say this about most movies I see these days.

Like I said, the cast is superb. I wish I had the power over women Bardem has over the female characters here. This is quite a switch from his Academy Award winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” and this movie affords him a better haircut as well. Bardem succeeds in showing you how passionate his character is, and how unfulfilled his passion is.

Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse at the moment judging from the number of movies they have done together so far, is excellent as usual. Johansson plays an adventurous person who throws caution to the wind, but the actress also allows us to see the vulnerable side of Cristina which reveals her to be insecure as she has no idea of what she really wants out of life.

The most underrated performance of this movie, however, belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose dalliance with Juan Antonio creates conflicted feelings within her character which come across so clearly without her saying a word. Hall’s face does a lot of the acting for her while her words betray what Vicky thinks about what her heart truly desires. She has a loving fiancée, but he is nowhere as romantic as Juan. Of course, who would be? One important lesson for prospective husbands to be; make sure your fiancés don’t meet up with any Spanish men because you will never be able to compete with them. This will especially be the case if you are a banker.

But leave it to the Spanish actors to steal this movie away from everyone else. We already talked about how great Bardem is, but let’s talk about the passionate fireball that is Penelope Cruz. For years, she was stuck in American movies which dealt more with her looks more than her talent. Plus, she was constantly being accused of messing up relationships with married movie stars which was unfair to say the least. Ever since abandoning those movies, her talent has shined brightly in acclaimed films like “Volver.” Cruz is an uncontainable force in this movie, and she takes her characters from highs and lows which feel very believable and never overdone. The relationship between her and Bardem in this movie is easily the most complicated and most infuriating for them both. As Juan correctly points out, “We are meant for each other, and we are not meant for each other.”

The theme of the movie is love and what it does to us when we go after it, and of what it does to us after we think we have it. The one thing these characters have in common is the search for true love feels like a never-ending journey for them, and that’s even if you are with the person you love. It’s a beast which seems far more likely to hurt people instead of making them happy. There are a lot of thoughts here on love which makes “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” one of the more thought-provoking movies I have seen so far in 2008. There is a lot of comedy to be found here, but the movie is mostly a sad story of how love seems to be just out of our grasp. Even if you have the love you need in life, there is always something missing.

What I really loved about the comedy here is how none of the actors ever try to play the joke or attempt to be funny. The humor comes out of the absurd way the characters interact with each other. There is a brilliant moment where Maria tells Cristina how she had to go through her suitcase because she didn’t trust Cristina and that she wanted to know more about who is making out with her ex-husband. The scene is played in all seriousness, even when Cruz talks about how she has thoughts of killing Johansson, and it is hysterical.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a very unusual Woody Allen movie. While it deals with themes which are very familiar to ones he has dealt with in the past, it does not feel like your typical Woody Allen movie. That is a major plus because most of his movies have an overwhelming feeling of familiarity which threatens to take away from the proceedings. But by putting his thematic material in another country with a terrific cast, this is one of those movies which reminds you Allen can still pull off a great movie worth seeing. For once, I am eager to see what he will do next. He’ll probably go through the regular ups and downs, but he has clearly learned some hard lessons from the movies he did back in the 1990’s.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Reader’ Features a Brilliant and Galvanizing Performance from Kate Winslet

The Reader movie poster

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

The Reader” has been getting mixed reviews, and I can’t understand why. I was expecting a good movie with great performances when I went in to see it, but I ended up getting a lot more than that. My father was with me when I saw the movie, and he confirmed it was astonishingly faithful to the book it was based on. Indeed, “The Reader” is an emotionally devastating journey through the beginning of an affair between a young student and an older woman, and of the aftermath it lays on both of them. Every single performance here is extraordinary, particularly the one given by Kate Winslet. If she does indeed get nominated for this movie or “Revolutionary Road,” she will certainly deserve the Oscar this time around.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz who works as a ticket taker for the local trains going in and out of the town, and she encounters young Michael Berg (David Kross) who is sick and depressed. She takes care of him and even walks him home. Michael later returns to where she lives to thank her for what she did, and from there the two have a secret affair which involves both sex and reading. Hanna asks Michael to read to her before they make love, and he does so with tremendous enthusiasm to say the least. This deepens their relationship even while it remains a secret between the two of them, and it lasts for several months.

Part of the movie’s success in affecting you may depend on how much of yourself you see in the character of Michael Berg. Many of us would not like to remember ourselves as ever being weak, but something deep in our subconscious would certainly have entertained the idea of having an affair with an older woman, let alone Kate Winslet. As a teenager, your hormones are jumping up and down on an ever-expanding trampoline in the realm of puberty, so thinking about something other than girls will be a bit challenging. All the same, common sense might kick in somewhere which can, and should, stop us from being involved in such a relationship.

In many ways, “The Reader” is an argument against this kind of a relationship as this one elicits even more heartache, confusion, and emotional scars which can last a lifetime. They say the first love is always the hardest because of the eventual break up which hurts like a son of a bitch. Clearly, there are not many break ups or separations which can hurt as much as the one experienced by Michael and Hanna.

2008 may be remembered as the year of Batman, the late Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr. and many other things. I do hope it is also known as the year of Winslet. On top of “The Reader,” she also has “Revolutionary Road” coming up which is directed by her husband Sam Mendes. She needn’t have been nominated for an Oscar five times already to convince us of what a superb actress she is. Winslet manages to do many things I cannot see another actress doing as effectively, and she superbly handles the aging of her character without overdoing it or falling into some caricature of an elderly person we may have preconceptions of. Winslet immerses herself into this role ever so fearlessly, and she gives us one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating performances of the year.

Winslet also does something which at first would seem unthinkable and horrifying; she gives a human face to the SS officers who were later prosecuted for their role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. From a distance, we would simply shout down at these people because of the horrible things they have done. Winslet wisely does not make us sympathize with what her character has been through, but she makes us see Hanna’s pain throughout the trial as she is caught up in a situation she does not entirely understand. This later leads to a revelation about her which I will not reveal as it will destroy the mystery of her character for the audience this movie deserves. But this secret is something Hanna feels much more ashamed of than her role as an SS officer.

It also brings up an interesting point worth dwelling on. These officers are being prosecuted for their role in the worst kind of atrocity, and probably rightly so. I say probably because in the end, these are just soldiers who were ordered to do their jobs by a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler. As history shows, the hierarchy of an evil or highly immoral regime seems to get off somewhat easier than the soldiers whom, whether we agree with their actions or not, were simply doing the job they were commanded to do. For them to simply not do their duties would have led to their deaths by a simple bullet in the head. Obviously, the atrocity of the Holocaust brought on a strong need for revenge in its aftermath, and prosecutors went after perhaps the only ones who could be easily prosecuted as Hitler killed himself before he could ever be captured. While I watched the movie, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Just remember this when they prosecute those soldiers from Abu Ghraib and not Donald Rumsfeld.”

As much as “The Reader” may seem like the Kate Winslet show, there are many other performances to admire other than hers. The one performance which might come across as the most underrated is the one given by David Kross as the young Michael Berg. Throughout all the scenes he has with Kate, he more than holds his own with her as he conveys the hell of an emotional turmoil he goes through both as a teenager, and later as an adult. In retrospect, Kross has the hardest role in the movie as he has to convey many things about his character without saying a word. We know why Michael is going through so many conflicting emotions, but the characters around him don’t know this. Furthermore, they cannot know as this would implicate Michael in a situation he will not ever be able to escape from. I have not heard of Kross before this movie, and I am interested to see how he got the role as his performance is nothing short of astonishing.

And of course, we have the great Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael Berg, and he conveys how the character never moved on fully from the affair he had so many years ago. Fiennes portrays him as a man who knows he is more emotionally distant from people than anyone should be, and he is aided by Kross’ performance as we see why this is the case.

Director Stephen Daldry previously directed the film adaptation of “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Along with “The Reader,” he seems to be working with a recurring theme of women caught up in a world they are desperate to escape from. Even if such an escape lasts only a brief moment, they are caught up in a world not necessarily of their own making, and it threatens to kill their soul completely. Daldry certainly isn’t afraid to venture into emotionally charged material, or of material many will simply view as depressing.

“The Reader” is pretty certain at this point to have a place on my list of the best movies of 2008, and not just for the brilliant performance given by Kate Winslet.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Doubt’ Examines The Crippling Power of Uncertainty

Doubt movie poster

Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.

The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.

To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.

Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!

Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.

Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.

There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.

With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

‘The Incredible Hulk’ Proves to Be a Decent Marvel Reboot

The Incredible Hulk poster

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

Well, it’s not incredible, but it’s still pretty good. “The Incredible Hulk” is not so much a sequel as it is a reboot. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was not the movie Marvel Comics fans were waiting for, and the backlash against it was pretty severe. This was a shame because Lee’s movie was not at all bad, but I came of it knowing it would get a lukewarm response from audiences because it was more of a character driven piece which the summer movie season typically relegates to arthouse cinemas. But with this action-packed blockbuster, fans will likely get more of what they were looking for the first time around.

“The Incredible Hulk” thankfully sprints past this particular superhero’s origins by doing a quick recap of Dr. Bruce Banner’s accident which turned him into the ferociously mad and enormous beast who tears through all of his clothing with the exception of his underwear (very convenient for a PG-13 rating). We catch up with Dr. Banner, now played by Edward Norton, in Brazil where he has successfully managed to control his anger for over 130 days. While working a menial job at a bottling plant, he continues to look for a cure which will keep him from turning green and becoming super pissed. As a result, Banner is one of the few people on this planet determined not to go green in order to save the environment. But despite all the breathing exercises he does to control his anger, we all know he will soon find it’s not easy to keep from being green.

This Hulk movie is a lot more action packed than the previous one as it starts up quickly and never lets the pace go slack. Directing this superhero reboot is Louis Leterrier who directed “The Transporter 2” and “Unleashed.” He clearly likes the hyperkinetic style of filmmaking and it shows throughout. The direction is not necessarily outstanding and Leterrier doesn’t seem to quite have a style of his own yet, but he gets the job done and he keeps the film entertaining from start to finish.

The cast is different as well, with nobody but Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, doing their mandatory cameos, returning from Lee’s film. Norton is in some ways a better fit for Bruce Banner than Eric Bana was, and a lot more animated too. He may not physically look like someone who could become the Hulk, but that’s the point. Norton also did an uncredited rewrite of the script, but the Writer’s Guild of America denied him credit (Zak Penn gets story and screenplay credit). As always, Norton reminds us why he is one of the best actors of his generation, and he comes across as an ordinary joe thrust into circumstances beyond his control.

Liv Tyler takes over the role of Dr. Betty Ross from Jennifer Connelly, and while she doesn’t have much of an acting range, she is always a nice presence to have in any film (not just as eye candy mind you). She holds up well next to Norton as they both work to find a way to stop him from becoming the Hulk again. William Hurt plays her father, Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, and he is always an interesting actor to watch. All the same, I have to admit that I liked Sam Elliott better in this role when he played it in Lee’s version. Elliott comes across better as an army general than Hurt does, and he was one of the best things about the previous film.

But the best addition to “The Incredible Hulk” is Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, chief nemesis to Dr. Banner and his angry alter-ego. After playing a wuss of a man in the highly disturbing remake of “Funny Games,” Roth is in bad ass mode as a soldier who wants to take the Hulk down, but soon finds himself wanting his power. In the film, Emil ends up getting injected, by choice mind you, with the same stuff Banner got injected with. It’s enough to give him the power to overcome the most serious of injuries, but he soon finds that he wants more of that power which leads him to become the Abomination. Roth’s character is actually one of the more complex and most realized characters in the movie.

Roth’s performance here is a reminder of what a strong presence he is and watching him here should help ease the memories of the torture he endured in “Funny Games.” How refreshing it would have been to see he Abomination take out those two young cads who tortured that family. Of course, Michael Haneke would just rewind back from Abomination’s victory to intentionally frustrate the audience.

If there is anything lacking in “The Incredible Hulk,” it is not as strong on character development. One of the strengths of “Hulk” was the attention it paid to its characters and how they really drove the movie. I know Marvel Studios didn’t want to get too caught up with this in this reboot, but it would have been nice to see more character work here to keep this from being just an average action movie. In the end, this was a movie made to please the fans who felt let down by what they saw in 2003.

I wish I could say that I loved this incarnation of the Hulk, but it didn’t quite reach the heights I wanted it to. But it still was a lot of fun and kept me entertained from start to finish. It is a flawed film, but we do get to see Hulk smash in a way we didn’t get to see as much of previously. That was probably the best thing about this film, seeing Hulk smash stuff up. Using two halves of a police car to take out stupid humans makes for great action. All the same, it could have been better.

* * * out of * * * *