It's been a long time since I posted any movie reviews. I'll start with movies I've seen in the theater this year and then backtrack to DVDs I've seen at home.
In the Theater
The Simpsons Movie - The adventures of Homer and his friendly neighborhood Spiderpig didn't save the world (though they did save Springfield), but they've been on my mind every time I've seen a promo for the "real thing" (Spiderman, that is). Overall, the writers did a decent job of expanding a 20-minute TV show to a 75-minute feature film, thought at times the pace wasn't quite as frenetic as I'm used to. Green Day's ill-fated concert on Lake Springfield made us all laugh. The staying power of the Simpsons franchise is amazing. I used to think that the movie would mark its end, but now with a new season started, who knows how long Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and the good (and not so good) people of Springfield can go on? Four stars (out of five).
The Bourne Ultimatum - This was a movie that all three of us (Dad, Mom and teenage daughter) were willing to see, though it wouldn't have been anyone's first choice. Director Paul Greengrass (United 73) contributed his jarring hand-held camera style. Matt Damon contributed his stoic good looks and action-hero agility. Robert Ludlum and current-day screenwriters contributed the story. My daughter enjoyed Damon (who looks a lot like the quarterback on the hometown LSU football team), but disliked the director's style, which kept the movie from being just another thriller to me. I read Ludlum's books at least 20 years ago, and therefore can't attest to the faithfulness of the films. Still they've all been worthy contributors to the book/film franchise. Three-and-a-half stars.
Hairspray - My exposure to this story started with the Broadway musical, which as a big fan of musicals, I just loved, even at $110 per ticket. When we got home, we watched the '80s Hairspray movie on DVD. It would have been better to see these two versions in the other order, as the original film was an offbeat, low budget comedy--much less boisterous and joyful than the show. The current movie musical follows the path of the Broadway musical, keeping most of the songs and adding a couple others. The young actress who plays the indomitable Tracy Turnblad is terrific, but the rest of the cast suffers from star-studdedness, primarily in the Latex-laden form of John Travolta as Tracy's mom, Edna Turnblad. The use of a male actor is the role isn't unprecedented. Actually, it's the standard, as transvestite actress Divine played the role in the '80s movie, and a variety of overweight male actors have played the role on Broadway. Still, HD-clarity on made-up pores in Travolta face and petrochemical molecules in his fat suit distracted me from enjoying Hairspray as much as I could. (He did do a good job researching and trying to maintain a Baltimore accent.)
Supporting roles were filled with non-singing stars as well--particularly Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle; Christopher Walken as jokester father Wilbur Turnblad. The romantic song and dance featuring Travolta and Walken is pretty hard to watch. Still, a ticket to Hairspray the movie musical cost only about $6, and you get to hear the incomparable opening number, Good Morning, Baltimore, and the rousing closing number You Can't Stop The Beat, along with some energetic singing and dancing from younger and less famous members of the cast, which is more entertainment than a lot of movies offer. This one might even be better on the small screen, where Travolta's Edna won't be quite so enormously alarming. Three stars.
Across the Universe - My 14-year old daughter is not much of a Beatles fan, but her best friend is. The friend, who lives out of state, thought that Across the Universe, a movie musical built around the music of the Fab Four, was terrific, so off we went to a matinee showing. Not too unexpectedly, the music was the highlight. Most of the arrangements stayed close to the original versions, an unfortunate exception being the psychedelic Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, which suffered from a hambone performance by stand-up comic Eddie Izzard. The other mostly unknown performers were all good singers and it was a treat to see Joe Cocker show up in three small roles. Otherwise the movie was a mishmash of Beatles references (the major character names all come from Beatle songs--Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Max, Sadie, JoJo), social consciousness, history lesson, love story, and head trip that I never quite connected with, despite having grown up in the '60s (sort of like my reaction to Forrest Gump). My daughter, neither a child nor student of the '60s or a Beatles fan, loved it. As I mentioned, I liked the music. Three stars (includes one-half from my daughter).
Kundun - This was Martin Scorsese's fascinating biopic about the Dalai Lama. A little slow paced at times, the film still opens a window to the exotic world of Tibet and its ongoing dispute with the People's Republic of China, and on the life of the current day spiritual icon. Philip Glass contributed a ethereal score. A cast of unrecognizable actors allow you to concentrate on story. The film compares favorably to the more celebrated The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci. Recommended for fans of historical and religious themed pictures. Four stars for fans of this genre.
Little Children - Kate Winslet, one of my favorite actresses, provided the hook to this strange suburban drama. She does her usual fine job, this time playing a bored housewife with a young daughter who befriends a stay-at-home husband and his young son at their small town's public pool. Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly are excellent as the husband and his high-achieving wife. Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant and bizarre as misfit Ronnie McGorvey, who is trying to deal with a history of child molestation. Reminiscent in style and tone to the Best Picture-winning "American Beauty", "Little Children" is a solid, if somewhat creepy movie for adult audiences. Four stars and a bit for adult audiences.
Life is Beautiful - My entire family adored this charming tragicomedy about life in Italy just before and during World War II. Director and star Roberto Benigni has created a fairy tale with an edge. An irrepressible Jewish waiter falls in love with a socialite, winning her away from her Fascist fiance with a mix of humor, coincidence, opportunism and whimsy. They have a son and find themselves in the midst of a Jewish pogrom that transports them to an unnamed concentration camp. Father "Guido" uses the same skill set that he used to win his wife to protect his four-year old son from the brutality that surrounds him, convincing him that the camp is an elaborate holiday and game in which the winner will receive a new tank. Benigni's performance (which won a Best Actor Academy Award--rare for a foreign language film) is a masterwork--manic, touching, hilarious and affecting in about every possible way. The scene where he translates a German soldier's camp instructions for the benefit of his son is priceless ("No lollipops! Don't even think about asking!") His wife Dora is beautiful and bemused in the first act and exists more symbolically, but still powerfully in the second. The very young actor who plays son Joshua is amazing--portraying the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his father combined with a mistrustful wisdom well beyond his years.
Like the recent French film Amelie, "Beautiful" has a whimsical soul. The concentration camp sometimes seems a little too smooth, a feature that Spielberg films on serious subjects are sometimes accused of. Still, the Germans were known for the their organization and order, and the story doesn't really need grisly depictions of much of what went on during the Holocaust to make its point. The production design also fits with the fairy tale feeling of the tale. My wife doesn't much care for foreign films, but said she felt like she'd learned some Italian watching this one. My daughter doesn't like foreign films or period movies. Both loved Life is Beautiful. You will too. Five stars for all viewers!
Volver -The beautiful Penelope Cruz by herself was almost reason enough to watch this Spanish black comedy. The parallel stories about both honoring the dead and protecting the living made Volver both intriguing and fun. The film also provides insight into life in the matriarchal Spanish culture. A gold star to anyone who works out the surprise ending in advance. The supporting cast of actors ranging from age 10 to 80 complements Cruz well.
I didn't feel quite as comfortable with Volver in Spanish as I did with Life is Beautiful in Italian--maybe because I know a little more Spanish than Italian and was trying to follow the dialogue just a little rather than depending entirely on the subtitles. Four stars for a good foreign film, even for American audiences.
Notes on a Scandal - This quiet and creepy film is an acting tour de force for stars Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. The story revolves around veteran teacher Dench's friendship with young teacher Blanchett, for which the two characters have entirely different goals. Dench is particularly devastating as a soul-bared aging lesbian. Blanchett does the best work I've seen her do as the young schoolteacher. For the quality of acting and the power of the interpersonal story, Notes on a Scandal is almost a must-see. But some viewers, probably more than some, will be put off by the lack of likeable characters--kind of a deadly serious version of Sideways. Four stars with that proviso.
Letters from Iwo Jima - This is the second and less publicized half of Clint Eastwood's pair of movies on the battle for Iwo Jima near the end of World War II. Based on some actual letters from the Japanese commander on the island to his family in Tokyo, the film tells the story of the American invasion from the perspective of the Japanese troops dug in to protect part of their homeland (politically, Iwo Jima, though an almost uninhabitable rock located hundreds of miles from the mother islands, was part of the Tokyo district of Japan). The Japanese soldiers were put in the unenviable predicament of serving as a stalling tactic. Japanese high command never supported them with the intent of defeating the American invaders, just slowing them down and causing a lot of casualties, hopefully enough to cause the Americans to sue for peace. On the other side, the Americans needed the island badly as a refueling point for bombers tasked to attack the Japanese mainland.
With a cast of actors obviously unknown to American audiences, Eastwood can focus your attention on the relationship between the commander and his men and of both to their hopeless mission. To me, Eastwood's (and the commander's) message is loud and clear to political leaders--be very careful about starting a war because wars are so difficult, painful and costly to end. Soldiers who are sent into battle to do nothing but kill and die have families and loved ones at home. Every casualty is a personal tragedy that ultimately may be not be justified by the war's outcome. Kudos to Eastwood for making the film. Five stars for fans of serious and thought-provoking cinema. Letters is not light entertainment.
Galaxy Quest -- On the other hand, this surprisingly fun spoof of the Star Trek culture was purely light entertainment. The star-studded, ironic (Tim Allen (voice of Buzz Lightyear) and Sigourney Weaver (from the Alien movies) lead the way) and burnt-out cast of the fictional sci-fi TV show "Galaxy Quest" find themselves on a real-life mission when aliens visit the earth. The hambone acting skills and vague familiarity with a spaceship set that work so well on TV help the crew save the . . . well I'll leave it to you to figure that out. But Star Trek fans won't be offended as there's hardly even a "stun" setting in "Galaxy Quest's" satirical ray gun. Even the seemingly over-obsessed Trekkie-types come off looking good by the end. Four stars as fun family entertainment. A star less if you're looking for anything even remotely deep.
Rabbit Proof Fence
The Painted Veil