2009 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

These movie review articles appeared in the Columbia River Reader and are copyrighted by Bob Blackwood

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Crabby Racist into Crabby Friend: Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”

In 2004, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” had a limited release to a few theaters in December, a film about an offbeat subject, a woman boxer.  It received good reviews, good word-of-mouth, and it had a wide release on January 28, 2005 .  Eventually, the Academy gave it four Oscars, two for Best Picture and Best Director.  I suspect a similar release strategy is being used for Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” the tale of a Korean War veteran, a retired former Ford assembly-line worker, in a gang-ridden Detroit neighborhood. 

 Walter Kowalski is a racist, but he eventually discovers he has more in common with the upwardly striving Hmong family next door—and their teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), and their daughter Sue (Ahney Her)—than he does with the families of his two upper middle class sons in the suburbs.  Thao botches an attempt to steal Kowalski’s classic Gran Torino (prompted by his gangster cousin). Shortly afterwards, Kowalski saves Thao from his cousin’s gang and, then, the Hmong community lavishes their approval upon Kowalski.

 Kowalski is not used to acceptance, let alone approval, except from a few of his old friends, like his Italian barber (John Carroll Lynch).  Like every war veteran I know (he even received the Silver Star), Kowalski very rarely talks in any detail about his war experiences.  Also, like many war veterans, he has never forgotten them.  His wartime memories don’t make him a pathetic figure.  They make him a man to be respected, even if you don’t admire him.  Kowalski’s Catholic pastor (Christopher Carly) goes the extra mile when he learns what Kowalski has done for his neighbors.

 Kowalski, who opened the film chewing out his pastor at his wife’s funeral mass, finally talks turkey with him.  You see that, if you go half-way with Kowalski, he’ll go half-way with you.  That’s about as good as it gets on the mean streets of anywhere in the U.S.  

 Lest you think this film is a just another grim tale of the city, however, there are many moments of genuine comedy, the friction between Americans and Asians, between seniors and teenagers.  Lynch and Ahney Her, in particular, shows a gift for comedy that is matched only by Eastwood, an actor that we associate more with gunplay than wordplay. 

 The ending packs a punch, but the audience is expecting it.  Keep it up, Clint.  Don’t stop now; you’re only 78.                

If you are in the mood for a classic romance with a touch of fantasy, try David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.  Fincher takes a theme—the passing of time and the different ways people in love respond to it—and develops it like a Beethoven symphony.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story that started it all.


The Wonderful Country

I saw the last half of Robert Parrish’s “The Wonderful Country” (1959) with Robert Mitchum and Julie London last night.  Regrettably, I’ve never seen the beginning of this interesting film.  

The very powerful sequences I saw were Martin Brady (Mitchum) being interviewed by General Marcos Castro (Victor Manuel Mendoza), a brutal man, and two sequences with Governor Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz), a more calculating man.  The cinematography showed the Mexican countryside as being as beautiful as it is in places; this was mostly shot in Durango , I believe. 

Julie London probably gave her best performance in this film; too bad that the writing did not develop her character more fully.  She had some memorable lines in a sequence with Mitchum: “What a pity then that life is what we do, and not just what we feel.”

 It plays on the cable channel that bills itself as the “Western” channel—Gene Autry, old black and white cowboy films, and the occasional big budget color Westerns.

“The Wrestler”: Mickey Rourke Struts His Stuff Again

 When I was a college student in a working class bar in Indiana (an environment also reflected in the tired New Jersey settings of Darren Aronofsky’s  “The Wrestler”), I saw three wrestlers who had just finished a match unwind.  They were subdued; the banging around in the ring had worn them out.

 Mickey Rourke as former wrestling hero Randy “The Ram” Robinson is pretty worn out too.  His glory days were 20 years ago.  Now, his closest relationship is his lap dancer (Marisa Tomei).  She looks better than ever, particularly in a scene where a group of “men” in their early twenties twit her for being “old.”  Tomei maintains her distance, yet she also reveals her vulnerability—a great performance.

 Ram’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) has a great amount of distrust for the father who abandoned her. She keeps rejecting the physical wreck who promises to change but keeps slipping back into old habits—drinking buddies, steroids, and not-so-cheap thrills—but she wants a father.

 You certainly see the underside of the wrestling business—a stapler match where men are stapled and bloodied.  Yet, you keep hoping that Ram will pull it off and triumph in his comeback match.  He is like more than a few old jocks.  They never really grew up. You can’t hate them, unless you were counting on them to be responsible.  As moviegoers, we’re along for the ride. 

 The fact that Rourke’s career in acting (he is up for a Best Actor Oscar) parallels Ram’s career in wrestling adds some show biz glitter to the film. 


Best Actress Oscar to Kate Winslet in “The Reader”                                   

MPAA: “R” Rating

 Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” is a complex blend of emotions.  You expect any film that opens in the gray Germany of the 1950s to deal with guilt and secrets.  What you do not expect is that the guilt and the secrets will have so many nuances. 

 This sophistication is due to Bernhard Schlink’s novel, David Hare’s screenplay and Daldry’s direction.  Daldry’s other films include “Billy Elliott” (2000), a delightful comedy, and “The Hours” (2002)—three separate stories starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep—what a cast!  Kate Winslet, however, is certainly up to the competition of the cast from “The Hours” in her role as ex-SS concentration camp guard Hannah Schmitz.  Hannah seduces a 15-year-old boy (David Kross) who grows up to become a lawyer with relationship problems (Ralph Fiennes).

 We learn to cringe at Hanna Schmitz’s guilt in her role as a guard; we come to forgive her for her sexual liaison.  We eventually learn that she, too, is a victim of the German system.  As for the boy who became a lawyer, we feel that his personal guilt for his relationship is minimal, but his continued secretiveness as an adult on a legal matter in Hanna’s trial is unforgivable.  Yet, the lawyer does what he can to help Hanna, but is it enough? 

 Lena Olin has a cameo as a Holocaust survivor.  Her striking role keeps the film free of any sentimental overtones.  This is not a pleasant film, but it is very human and unforgettable.

Best Actor Oscar to Sean Penn in “Milk”

MPAA Rating: R

 Whether he is Willie Stark in Steven Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men” (2006), a jazz musician in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), or the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in the U.S. in Gus Van Sant’s docudrama “Milk,” Sean Penn becomes absorbed in his role.  The character is in Penn’s every movement, every curl of his lip. 

 In 1977, Harvey Milk had been defeated in three prior runs for office in San Francisco .  When they redrew the district lines, he became the spokesmen for the gays of the Castro and the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury .  Milk had been a Goldwater Republican insurance executive in New York City seven years before with his lover Scott Smith, superbly played by James Franco.  They were a functional and loving couple until Milk wanted one more run for office. Scott said he couldn’t handle it and, regrettably, left. 

 Josh Brolin brilliantly plays Dan White, the supervisor from a socially conservative district who eventually kills not only Milk but also San Francisco ’s Mayor George Moscone.  White is a complex character in the film. The reasons for his hatred of homosexuals seem similar to racial hatred; they both have deep and varied roots in our society.

 In any case, the film is very close to the reality of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984) as well as to the issues of acceptance of homosexual people as just the folks next door. 

“Knowing”: A Science Fiction Film, Not a Horror Show?


 Alex Proyas, who deserved the critical acclaim he received for “ Dark City ” (1998), has offered us an intriguing story with a fair plot in “Knowing.”  Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), a young girl in 1959, put a page of numbers into a time capsule to be opened in 50 years, indicating when a number of massive fatal accidents would occur, once you broke the code. 

A vulnerable astrophysicist professor (Nicolas Cage) figures out the meaning of the page when his son (Chandler Canterbury) brings it home from school.  The prof has little else to do at night except drink, as his wife passed away in an accident (yes, this links up to the plot). 

 The men in black who prowl about Cage’s home are not members of the Supreme Court, and you will have a fair chance to figure out who they are.  Of course, I still don’t know why Embry planted that page 50 years ago rather than doing something more public at a later date. 

 Several critics are assaulting Cage’s acting in this film; I think his acting is appropriate.  I have spent my life among college professors. Sometimes they ride off the deep end on a hobby horse.  Occasionally, they achieve something memorable.  Rose Byrne as Diana Wayland, Embry’s daughter, is fine as are Canterbury and Robinson.

I do appreciate the tension in the film which is fairly consistent and the atmosphere.  I don’t like it when Proyas takes a normal sound, hikes it up about 10 or 20 decibels above what it should be, and makes me grab the arms of my seat—a cheap shot.


Bon Bons!

 Andy Fickman’s “Race to Witch Mountain 

 Dwayne Johnson, as a manic Las Vegas cab driver, helps two E.T.s go home vs. suffer dissection by a White House flunky. 


Pierre Morel’s “Taken” with Liam Neeson

 Any action film written and produced by Luc Besson (“Transporter,” “The Fifth Element”) will be a treat to the eye, ear and the pounding of your heart.

Photo from www.jodhaaakbar.com

You Want a Romantic Epic?  Try “Jodhaa Akbar.”

 Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Jodhaa Akbar” (2008) is a romantic epic set in 16th Century India .  The beautiful Aishwarya Rai plays Jodhaa, a proud Hindi Rajput princess, whose family makes a political marriage with Jalalulddin Mohammad Akbar, the Islamic Moghul emperor of northern India , played by the athletic Hrithik Roshan.  The history of the event is simplified to one difficult marriage (in reality, Jodhaa was Akbar’s third wife and at least his second Rajput wife), but, historically, Jodhaa emerged as the most politically powerful of his wives, despite her religious differences with her husband.

 The love story is constantly enhanced by songs and, occasionally, dances.  In particular, the Sufi chorus at their wedding is elegant in both song and dance.  The settings are gorgeous, often shot in historical buildings that have survived several centuries.  The color is reminiscent of the vivid color of Hollywood ’s original Technicolor (e.g. “Gone with the Wind,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood”).  The battle scenes employ thousands of extras, all appropriately garbed and armed.  The large dance numbers, so beloved of Bollywood productions, are first rate. 

 The acting is quite good, though the length of the picture at 3 hours 33 minutes will limit its access to the American audience.  If some unscrupulous individual were to cut the film to 2 hours 15 minutes, it would have a chance of making some serious money in the American market.  Frankly, the length of the film dilutes the intensity of the romance.

 The romantic couple does appear just a bit too noble at times, but that is not unusual in many Indian romantic films.  Also, the emperor’s constant and immediate active enforcement of religious tolerance is a bit surprising, though, in fact, the historical Akbar was open to varied religious beliefs while maintaining his Islamic perspective.

 If you have historical, political and romantic interests, you should enjoy “Jodhaa Akbar.”

Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s “Earth” (2007): Families Struggling to Survive


 Disney’s new Disneynature Films has released “Earth,” most of which was shot for the BBC’s “Planet Earth” (2007), an 11-hour TV series.  Yet, the stories of three animal families—a humpback whale and her calf swimming 4,000 miles to find food and safety, a polar bear father and mother with two cubs trying to survive in a warming Arctic Circle, and a herd of elephants trying to survive in the Kalahari Desert of Africa—grab our attention and keep it.  The cinematography is incredible.

 There is less sex than in many films about humans, such as in my favorite “The Reader.”  There certainly is violence, but no extreme bloodshed is depicted, unlike many gangster or Western films.  I’m sure some viewers would have hoped for more of both, but, obviously, Disney is hoping to tell a story of animals trying to survive in a hostile environment rather than going for “nature red in tooth and claw” in detail. 

 In this case, I applaud Disney’s efforts, despite my personal taste for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” We are all animals, but animals never have to apologize for being what they are.  We humans do, or, at least, often should.

 Seeing animals in the wild trying to survive on a huge screen does start you thinking about how we should be trying to protect the environment for our children and their descendents, the human animals who also need some protection.  Yet, the film does not get preachy.  It just shows you how it is, not how it should be.  We should be able to fill in the details.  Art inspires you to do that. 

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s “Crank: High Voltage” (2009)


 Neveldine and Taylor ’s “Crank” (2006) with Jason Statham, the one-time Olympic swimmer who makes a very believable gangster, was a clever chase film moving at 150 mph.  Their “Crank: High Voltage”  or “Crank 2” (2009) was just as fast, if not faster, but there was no real humor, the dialog could not be understood, and the subject matter was trash.  Its only virtues: Statham’s presence and good editing.  


Science Fiction Films: Artistry, or Just Big Box Office? 

"Star Trek" and "Terminator: Salvation"

 I met my wife, Diane, at a meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association, a group of college professors, writers, and publishers in 1994.  Subsequently, Diane and I have toured the U.S. and Canada talking about science fiction films at less staid science fiction conventions.  I heard a lot about J. J. Abrams’ new “Star Trek” film both before and after its premiere.

 My comments are brief.  Kirk (Chris Pine) is a much younger risk-taker, but no genius. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is sexier. Scotty (Simon Pegg from 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead”) is funnier. Sulu (John Cho) is not only a swashbuckler but also has Jackie Chan moves.  Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is prettier and more assertive, but not as beautiful as Nichelle Nichols. The older Spock (yes, it is a time travel flick) is played by Leonard Nimoy, simply the best. And Eric Bana as the Romulan Captain Nero is a villain with the voice of Karloff, who is more insidious than Ricardo Montalban’s wrath of Khan.   

 About two weeks later, another SF blockbuster, McG’s (his mom’s a McGinty) “Terminator Salvation” opened.  The first “Terminator” film was the best, 20th Century America responding to a threat from the future.  “T 4,” for the most part, is set in a 2018 United States much the worse for over 10 years of warfare with the Skynet computer network and its robot terminators.  “T 4” has the most detailed “look” of any of the “Terminator” films—superb special effects, incredible props and wild sets.

Christian Bale makes the most of John Connor, the political heart of the human cause whose messianic message is implied but never really developed at any length.  His character is weary of war.  In contrast, there is a terribly conflicted character, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who attracts the most attractive woman in the film, Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood). Marcus is the first blend of human and robot terminator, which side will he choose?  Hmmm….  In any case, Worthington steals the show.

 “Star Trek” is a film that is character-driven; it works.  “Terminator: Salvation” is driven by the action even more than the plot.  Films that successfully blend character-development with a high action content are few in number—Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” for example. Now “Star Trek” is not in Peckinpah’s lofty universe, but we’ll see what strange new worlds they explore in a couple of years.

"Whatever Works"

Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" is a comedy set in Manhattan with NY Jews vs. two female and one male redneck interlopers.  It works fine. 

How can you tell a good Woody Allen comedy vs. a bad comedy?  In a good comedy, a well-educated Evanston audience laughs a lot.  In a bad comedy, the Evanston audience doesn't laugh a lot, though they may praise it if it is subtitled in English and was shot in France or Italy

Yes, the comedy is contrived; most TV and movie comedy is contrived.  If you are determined not to like this film because it is not Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" with its two three-dimensional characters then just see "Annie Hall" again. 

I must say, much to my surprise, that Larry David did a good job as a cranky aged former college professor.  I speak from a wealth of experience.

Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”: Strong Medicine for Wounded Souls

  MPAA : R

 I’ve enjoyed Kathryn Bigelow’s work since I saw her create a credible community of vampires in contemporary rural America within her third feature, “Near Dark” (1987).  In “Point Break” (1991), it’s a group of outlaw surfers who rob banks.  In “The Hurt Locker” (2008), it’s a squad of American soldiers in 2004 which disable IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Baghdad .  In each of these films, she develops characters within each tiny community while creating an authentic feel for the action.

 Her screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a reporter who was imbedded with a bomb unit in Iraq .  His magazine article was the source for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” (2007).  But this is not another service drama; this is a tale of men with dangerous jobs, who each reveal their vulnerability in a different way.

 Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) comes closest to the audience’s perspective; he’s scared of being killed most of the time.  He deals with it by talking too much.  Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the ultimate professional, super cool when the heat comes down, but he knows what the “right” thing to do is supposed to be.  Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) is unique. 

When James is disarming a car full of bombs, he takes off his 120 lb. armored suit.  If he has to die, he wants comfort.  Then, he prepares to find out how the bomb works.  You get the feeling that this underprivileged man could have been building these IEDs if he felt the need. You don’t see any outright hatred for the Iraqi people in James’ heart, just extreme prejudice for those shooting at him.

 This is not a film for the light-hearted viewer or the GI action junkie, though Mackie and Renner work well together, creating tension and revealing their characters through action, as well as words.  Both actors deserve Oscars; we’ll see what happens next year.

 “Hurt Locker” received four awards at the Venice Film Festival and Best Director from the Seattle International Film Festival.

“District 9”: Great Science Fiction, But Not for the Grade-Schoolers


 When Robert Wise directed “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), he created a serious science fiction film that thrilled and disturbed all ages.  Neill Blomkamp, a South African director with Vancouver Film School credentials, has sculpted a truly adult science fiction film—no, not a sexual one—in “District 9.”  His satire of Afrikaner perspectives as well as his spoof of governmental bureaucracy is placed within a fast-paced thriller. 

 Around 1989, a giant spaceship filled with a million hard-shelled aliens, dismissed as “prawns” by the humans, hovers over Johannesburg .  The aliens are forced into a holding zone, District 9, which soon becomes a giant slum.  Twenty years later, the government decides to re-locate the aliens. 

 A shifty bureaucrat’s son-in-law, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is given the job of managing the re-location.  He soon proves to be unable to deal with the reality of the situation, for, as the higher-ups know, the “prawns,” do come from a more advanced civilization, with an emphasis on biology even in their high-tech projectile devices. 

 Will Wikus wise up?  Will the humans save the day?  Or will our race become the buffoons of the Milky Way?  You should find out.  

“Julie & Julia”: A Tribute to Two Fine Actors


 Nora Ephron’s comedy, “Julie & Julia” with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, showcases two fine actors.  If there were such a thing as the First Lady of the American Cinema, it would be Meryl Streep. 

 Whether a great drama—“Out of Africa ” (1985)—or an action potboiler—“The River Wild” (1994)—she makes the most of her roles.  As Julia Child, she plays the younger Child, learning French cooking in postwar France and braving French male chefs and a female French dragon.  Stanley Tucci is a wonderful foil as her worldly-wise husband. The sequences provide both broad and subtle humor.

 For a younger actor to invite comparison to Streep by co-starring in this film (though they share no scenes together) is quite audacious, but Amy Adams is up to the challenge, as she showed in “Doubt” (2009) where she also appeared with Streep. Adams can play a youthful fairy tale princess, “Enchanted” (2007), or a determined NYC housewife/cook/blogger, Julie, the woman who is determined to cook every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.  Chris Messina, her long-suffering husband, has the necessary subtlety for his role.  It is a memorable film.


“Surrogates”: Why Work for a Living When You Can Send in Your Replicant?

  MPAA : PG-13

 Paul Mostow, who directed “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), made an interesting film, “Surrogates,” about people in the not-too-distant-future who more-or-less stay in their residences and direct elegant replicants of themselves at their workplaces, on their vacations and, occasionally, even during the most intimate moments of socializing.   

For awhile, it is a bit confusing, until you recognize that anyone who looks like a Hollywood actor in a 1960s or 1970s melodrama (beautiful hair, perfect skin, utterly clean clothes) is a replicant.  Anyone sitting around in a bathrobe or pajamas, who looks out-of-shape and needing a shower, is the owner of the replicant.  

Bruce Willis (the replicant has blonde hair; the owner is bald) plays FBI Agent Greer who is trying to learn how a killer can destroy both a replicant and the replicant’s owner with the same weapon.  Since 98% of the human population have replicants (poverty, disease, and crime have been wiped out, courtesy of science fiction), making and maintaining replicants is the major industry in the world.  Canter (James Cromwell) is the head of the giant corporation making most of the replicants, yet he has his problems too. 

 Those few humans who reject replicants have The Prophet, Ving Rhames, as their spokesman.  Willis plays a nuanced role as an effective investigator, but a man carrying a marriage with a troubled wife (Rosamund Pike) who literally can’t face him after the death of their son. Rhames gets to go full-out as the spokesmen for the “Dread” folks.  Both actors give fine performances.

 I feel the film is an effective thriller, if you can accept the premise of the graphic novel that is the film’s source.  If you can, you will go through a few turnarounds and will enjoy a nice ride.  It may cause you to think about those friends of yours who seem to prefer to contact other people via email rather than talk to them face-to-face or even on the phone.


  I certainly preferred “Surrogates” to “Gamer” with Gerard Butler, a film that worked similar themes but was totally devoted to special effects, even to the point of ignoring coherent plot development.   The pyrotechnics overcame character development.  “Gamer” would have benefited from a clearer plot, such as the similar plot of Paul Michael Glaser’s “The Running Man” (1987).  And “Surrogates” did it all in 88 minutes; good job, Mostow and Willis.



The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” 

In Woody Allen’s second film, “Take the Money and Run” (1969), Allen’s comic character, a young man condemned to prison for an incompetent bank robbery, is punished by being sent to “the hole” while being accompanied by a life insurance salesman.  It was a funny short sequence, and we all roared.

 In “A Serious Man” by Ethan and Joel Coen, two of the most creative directors in Hollywood with a solid track record, somehow seemed to have expanded Allen’s one-minute sequence to a 105 minute film.

 It’s the story of a Jewish college professor of physics, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), in Minnesota .  Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coen brothers’ father was a professor of economics in Minnesota .  The professor’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), was preparing for his bar mitzvah. (Joel Coen was 13 in 1967, the year in which the film is set.)  The son is interested in acid rock and pot, allegedly concerns of the Coen brothers and certainly of many teens in the late Sixties.

 Plagued by an unfaithful wife wanting a divorce and trying to hold onto a religious faith which he constantly questions, Gopnik goes to three rabbis.  Two of them are reminiscent of Allen’s life insurance salesmen, filled with anecdotes and patter which do not answer his real needs.  The third and wisest rabbi ignores Gopnik. But on Danny’s bar mitzvah day, the rabbi (Alan Mandell) speaks to Danny and echoes the boy’s thoughts when the lad was in a “heightened” state.

 OK, it is a black comedy, but it seems to be more black than comedy.  I kept hoping for more laughs instead of satire and irony.  Perhaps it was just my mood that day.  Some folks in the Skokie , Illinois , audience laughed.  Laughter of recognition, maybe?

Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”

 Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, has 10 sentences. The drawings are fantastic.  It made a good 8-minute short in 1973.

 Spike Jonze made this feature film about young Max (Max Records), who screams at his caring mother (Catherine Keener), really bites her, and then runs from his home into the night and sails to where the wild things—James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, etc., in great costumes—are.  The child is a brat, who is never admonished for his nastiness.  The film also drags throughout the middle. 

 Inflict it on children at your own risk.



The Twilight Saga: New Moon”

 Vampire Travels to Italy, But We Should Still Avoid Garlic Dishes

  MPAA : PG13

I like all kinds of films from the silent “Thief of Baghdad” with Douglas Fairbanks to Fellini’s “8 ½” to just about any well-written science fiction, fantasy, film noir or almost any genre film.  If there is a flaw in “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” it is not in the direction by Chris Weitz, who did “The Golden Compass.”  Weitz gave this film more on-screen energy than “Twilight” had. 

Our two teenage lovers, Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson, OK, he’s really a 109-year-old vampire passing for 17), have a somewhat troubled romance.  She sighs for him; he tries to distance himself to protect her from his thirsty peers, especially those not in his immediate “family.”  Having Juliet emailing letters to her Romeo’s sister—particularly when there is a handsome Native American youth, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), nearby—doesn’t make good film.  A little hot and heavy interaction here would have helped; nuts to the novel.

 OK, so Jacob becomes a werewolf.  No individual is responsible for a genetic anomaly, which is how he becomes a hairy dude of about 300 pounds of deadly dogginess.  Thank God for it.  Soon Jacob and his pals become a small pack of werewolves running through the forest and taking on predatory vampires.  The audience cheers them on, and so did I.  They made the film move.

 Toward the end, Edward flirts with suicide by trying to anger the Volturi, Tuscan vampires, featuring the talented Michael Sheen (who played David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”) and Dakota Fanning.  Werewolves running through the forests of British Columbia work; vampires in clown-white makeup who posture like minor Vatican hangers-on don’t work.

 If there were more lupine sequences, I would give this film four “woofs” and a tail.


“Planet 51”


 If you like animation, you may like Jorge Blanco and Javier Abad’s “Planet 51.”  The children will like it.  An American astronaut (voice by Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock) lands on a strange planet and meets two alien teens (Jessica Biel and Justin Long) and a mean alien general (Gary Oldman).  

The reversal of expectation here is that, of course, the American astronaut is really the monster to these alien folks who are living in a version of 1950s America .

 The adults may appreciate the parody of 1950s science fiction films.  The kids may not get the parody, but the film has a lively script with good pacing.



Rob Marshall's "Nine" is fun.  It is worth seeing.  It is a version of the Broadway musical, however, and can never compete with the subtlety of Fellini's "8 1/2" (1963), but it is quite enjoyable and well-cast. “Nine” is Rob Marshall’s film version of the 1982 Broadway musical based on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film “8 ½” (1963).  Fellini’s film is more challenging in conception, a classic. Marshall ’s adaptation is fun: a great actor (Daniel Day-Lewis as the harried director), two brilliant actors ( Marion Cotillard as the wife & Penélope Cruz as the mistress) and another great actor (Judi Dench as the costumer) sing and dance (some better than others) but they show vitality, some complexity of characterization and life-affirming virtues.  You’ll have a tune to hum on the ride home too.  Bravo & Brava!



James Cameron’s “Avatar”    

“Avatar” fulfills the audience’s military SF expectations after James Cameron made “Aliens” (1986).  In addition, “Avatar” has a theme reminiscent of Delmer Daves’ “ Broken Arrow ” (1950), which praised Apache Chief Cochise as an honorable man for all seasons.  Plus, Cameron added on a strong “Green” theme for the native people and plants of the planet Pandora.  Also, Cameron thoroughly composed the film to be effective in 3-D, rather than the usual sleazy “Here comes a spear into the front row seats” shot as in “ Fort Ti ” (1953) and many 3-D flicks.  Hurrah for actors Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver!

“Sherlock Holmes”     

Guy Ritchie brought life to “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.  It’s the best Holmes’ film since Terence Fisher’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959) with Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee.  It surpasses earlier films because the script adds humor to flesh out the Holmes’ role (instead of Watson’s) and Rachel McAdams to exemplify the spice Arthur Conan Doyle hinted at in Irene Adler, woman of mystery.  The action is hot; the humor is funny.  You won’t be looking at your watch; your eyes will be glued to the screen.  


“Up in the Air”      

Jason Reitman built a satire that will sell: “Up in the Air” with George Clooney vs. Vera Farmiga.  Clooney, as the executive who fires other executives for a living in any time zone, is also quite cool—never gets hung up in airports or in relationships that he can’t shuck quickly.  Well suppose he meets a beautiful woman who is just as cool as himself, in every way?  It is funny, nasty, and filled with topical references which may cause you to shiver between chuckles.