2010 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

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

Back to film year index page

The Road and The Book of Eli    

The Road photo credit: Javier Aguirresarobe/The Weinstein Company                                                                    The Book of Eli photo credit:Warner Brothers Pictures

Last year at DragonCon (a science fiction-fantasy conference in Atlanta , GA , with about 30,000 guests), I was in panels discussing post-apocalyptic films; all were filled with zombie-addicts or would-be zombie shooters.  As I was a schoolboy in the 1950s with a dread of possible Russian bombers and missiles, I viewed the Apocalypse as a living nuclear war possibility—e.g. “On the Beach” (1959). 

 The serious post-apocalyptic films I can recommend—which excludes Roland Emmerich’s “2012,” an excuse for special effects—are John Hillcoat’s “The Road” with Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee and the Hughes Brothers’ “The Book of Eli” with Denzel Washington.

 “The Road” is based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, whose novels have worked as good sources for “All the Pretty Horses” (2000) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007).  McCarthy’s novel is grim and sparse with words.  In the film, I felt the love of Mortensen’s father for the Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son much more vividly than in the novel.  As both their society and their family falls apart (mother leaves), it comes alive with precious warmth on a screen almost black and white in its starkness.  The pair searched for food together after the society collapsed, and fear was constant.  It is a frightening book and a heart-stopping film, probably not for most young children.

 Albert and Allen Hughes have not made many films, but they have made good ones—e.g. “From Hell” (2001) with Johnny Depp.  Like “The Road,” the central character in “The Book of Eli,” played by Denzel Washington, walks through a devastated United States , but this time about 30 years after the disaster. Eli has a Christian message, but he is more intent on preserving his mission than on preaching the good news.

After all, he is up against Gary Oldman as a mayor of a little town that has working gasoline vehicles and a motorcycle gang.  That is a challenge for a fellow on foot, but boy can Denzel wield a short sword!  It’s not Mel Gibson’s Gurkha fighting knife from “Mad Max 2” (1981), but Denzel’s curved blade-work is slick. And again, thanks to cinematic lighting and burned-out rubble, some of the sequences seem like black and white and grab ahold of your memory.  I only wish Mila Kunis’ Solara character did not have a Hollywood facial veneer; the Hughes Brothers should have spotted that. Still, they have done well again.



10 “Best Picture” Nominations for Oscars?  Why 10?

“Why 10 ‘Best Picture’ nominations; I thought we always had five?” you ask.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to enhance the wealth of publicity that the Oscars receive and insure a big ratings bonanza on Sunday night, March 7.  It is show business, folks.  In 2008, the high quality but relatively unknown “Best Picture” contenders, Coen Brothers’ “No Country for old Men” and Anderson ’s “There Will Be Blood,” cut down the ratings and the chatter about the Oscars.

 Which films have the best performances by the finest directors?  I notice in the “Best Director” category, we have:

  1. Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,”
  2. James Cameron for “Avatar,”
  3. Lee Daniels for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,”
  4. Jason Reitman for “Up in the Air” and
  5. Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds” (Tarantino’s “artistic” spelling).

These are the films people were talking about before and after The Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards shows; I reviewed 1, 2 & 4.

 The other five films are:

·         John Lee Hancock’s “The Blind Side” with Sandra Bullock;

·         Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9,” the South African SF satire that I reviewed;

·         Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” a British film about a teenage woman and an aging playboy;

·         the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” (I reviewed it unfavorably despite the talent of the brothers); and

·         Pete Docter & Bob Peterson’s “Up,” a delightful animated comedy with Ed Asner. 

 Which film will get “Best Picture”?  The 800 pound gorilla at the Oscars will be Cameron’s “Avatar.”  It has already made more money in ticket sales than any other film, eclipsing Cameron’s previous film, “Titanic,” which had a screenplay reminiscent of a 19th century Romantic potboiler.  “Titanic” made well over a billion, and who knows how many billions “Avatar” will make? 

 However, Cameron already has an Oscar as well as enough money to give a solid gold statuette to every person seated at the Oscar ceremony as well as one to his or her mother too. (Don’t you like seeing actors or actresses who bring their mom instead of some hunk or sex goddess to the ceremony?)  And, undoubtedly, the cinematography staff and special effects folks of “Avatar” will walk away with a lot of gold.  At the Golden Globes ceremony where he received a “Best Picture,” Cameron said he thought: “Kathryn would take it.”

 Kathryn Bigelow, an ex-wife of Cameron, has made a series of fine films about groups of people under great pressure, whether they were Civil War era vampires and others in the contemporary USA in “Near Dark” (1987), undercover FBI agents in “Point Break” (1991) or American troops defusing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq as in “The Hurt Locker” (2009).  Her other films were gems. 

 I think “The Hurt Locker” will get the “Best Picture” Oscar for its realism about what our troops face in the Middle East , its fine performances and its great editing—the tension never ceases.

 What kind of record do I have for crystal ball gazing? I remember in my film class at Wright College (where Paul “Man-in-the-Kitchen” Thompson and I used to teach), I predicted Burt Reynolds would get a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997).  One of my students disagreed.  She alleged that Reynolds was over-served at a Hollywood party and cussed out everyone who hadn’t voted him an Oscar for his previous roles.  The student was right.  To get the gold, Reynolds will have to play a burnout performer a la Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” or Jeff Bridges’ popular “Crazy Heart.”  

My Best Guesses:

 Best Actor: Jeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart” won Screen Actors Guild (SAG) & Golden Globe awards, though George Clooney was superb in a more challenging role.

 Best Actress: Sandra Bullock for “The Blind Side” won SAG & Golden Globe awards, is well-liked and Oscarless.

 Best Supporting Actress: Mo’nique for “Precious” (won SAG & Golden Globe) is a fresh face, though Penelope Cruz in “Nine” is unforgettable.

 Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds” (won SAG & Golden Globe) is another fresh face with great promise.

 Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (neither SAG nor Golden Globe) finally deserves a big pat on the back.  I figure the Academy will think her ex doesn’t need one.  Don’t disregard a sentimental favorite.

 Best Picture: “The Hurt Locker”

 Best Animated Feature: “Up” picked up a Golden Globe in this category.



Frightening Films: Johnston ’s “The Wolfman” & Scorsese’s Shutter Island

 Martin Scorsese’s “ Shutter Island ” and Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” have one major point in common—a central character in torment.  Both films could be classed as horror films, but that label properly belongs to “The Wolfman,” a remake of the 1941 film which starred Lon Chaney, Jr., and Maria Ouspenskaya, a graduate of the Moscow Art Theater, as Maleva, the Gypsy witch. 

 No one can forget Maleva’s line: “Even a man, who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.”  Too bad Geraldine Chaplin couldn’t deliver her role with as much force, but it helps to have an Eastern European accent in your bag of tricks.

  Johnston ’s film is faithful to the spirit of the original film, set in late 19th English countryside with the Wolfman having a delightful sort of “Jekyll and Hyde” romp through London at one point.  Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) swings from doing Shakespeare in London to terrorizing the countryside as a wolf; only Del Toro, and perhaps Johnny Depp, could do it so well.  If you don’t like his werewolf, you don’t like old fashioned horror films.  Johnston has an excellent cast: Anthony Hopkins is Talbot’s sinner/father.  Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) is credibly pure.  Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard detective moves things along well.  Frightening!

 When U. S. Marshal Leonardo DiCaprio (Teddy) is tossing his cookies in a toilet on a ferry boat to Shutter Island and, then, has a discussion with his new partner, Mark Ruffalo (Chuck), it sure seems like film noir time.  When the two marshals in their snap brim hats touch on their service experience, it is reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in “Dead Reckoning” (1947).  They are coming to a federal mental institution to investigate the disappearance of a woman patient.

 We see sequences with madmen and madwomen who are terrifying; they alternate with Teddy’s flashbacks to his liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Scorsese is a very versatile director.  Those who think he can only do straight Hollywood narratives, which he does superbly, should remember “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Kundun” (1997), where he pushes the envelope.  This character study uses the straight narrative development as well as the surreal.  Scorsese, you and I all walk in both the real and the dream world, just like Buñuel and Fellini did.



  “The Ghost Writer”: Eerie, But Adult

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall ghost photograph, Captain Hubert C. Provand. First published in Countrylife magazine, 1936

    MPAA : PG13

 The reason for the flood of horror films in the American market is that horror is a genre that appeals to every ethnic group, as well as teens and those in their twenties.  If your film doesn’t appeal to the younger market, don’t expect to borrow multi-millions to produce a blockbuster.  Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is certainly a thriller, definitely smacks of espionage, but is a very adult film without being an “adult movie.” If you are over 21 or are a precocious teenager, you will enjoy this film—unless you don’t enjoy a murder mystery, a political suspense tale with parallels to recent history, or the sex life of some attractive adults, though the people are over 40 (fine with me).

 A former prime minister of England , Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who was very supportive of the war in Iraq and other American initiatives (shades of Tony Blair?), has just lost the ghost writer for his multi-million dollar memoirs.  Was it murder? A regrettable suicide?    

 Well, the memoirs are done, but the manuscript is rather scrambled.  So the American publishing powers, played by Jim Belushi and Timothy Hutton, hire the best British Ghost available who can work fast (Ewan McGregor).  Eventually, the Ghost comes to suspect the worst about the demise of his predecessor and follows up on his hunches.  And the Ghost does so at a time when the temporary American residence of the former prime minister is surrounded by protestors for his allegedly aiding in the tortures of Iraqi prisoners. 

 What makes it such a good film?  The tension continues to build throughout the film.  The rainy, overcast seaside setting seems neither white, nor black, nor Technicolor, but various shades of gray with shadows throughout.  The people he meets seem to subtly, or not so subtly, threaten the Ghost constantly. 

 His efforts to hit it off with the politician’s secretary (“Sex in the City’s” Kim Cattrall) is a fencing match of sarcasm rather than wit, though there are other attractive mature women about (Olivia Williams, etc.).  There is a mystery man (Tom Wilkinson).  There are plots to unravel, messages to interpret, action at night.  The cast delivers the goods. An eerie score by Alexandre Desplat helps. Like Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) with Jack Nicholson and “The Ninth Gate” (1999) with Johnny Depp, the Ghost finds out what he wants to know and then has to learn to live with it, or not.


Photo Credit: EPK/Sundance Films

  MPAA : R

 Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” Rocks Hard

 It was a rockin’ 1975.  The Sex Pistols were starting their attack on the Establishment in England . A hard rock band with five girls, The Runaways, also launched its attack in California on the male-only bastion of rock bands. 

 A Svengali named Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon—the weird guy at dinner in Mendes’ “ Revolutionary Road ” (2008)—scored an Oscar nomination for that role) was guiding their career and manipulating the band members’ performances. He had young boys throw garbage and dog feces at the girls when they were rehearsing.  When the girls threw the stuff back, they were ready for the road. 

 Rock-and-roll for a start-up, very young, all-girl band in 1975 was no arena rock scene.  Whatever Fowley did, it worked.  As Fowley said, “Jailf...inbait; jackf…inpot!”  He was right. Tough girls were selling that year.

 Kristen Stewart (who sighs a lot in the “Twilight” films) proves she can handle a demanding role as Joan Jett, a nervy rocker who made it to the top of the rock world after The Runaways burned out.  Jett stayed there thanks to her talent and her attitude. Stewart plays that guitar like ringing a bell, walks the walk, talks the talk, and sells that role.  We will be seeing more of Stewart.

 Dakota Fanning embodies the band’s sexuality, Cherie Currie, a sort of female David Bowie.  Currie went on to some success, dropped out with an unhealthy habit, recovered as a chainsaw artist and the author of Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story, the prime source for this film.  Fanning was probably 15 when they shot “The Runaways.”  Her performance rings true here, more true than the whining kid she played in Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (2005).  Fanning will be around too.

 Some critics were shocked about a kissing scene in this film between Jett and Currie.  But I wondered what they thought was going on with a mid-teen girl band whose members were all jammed into the same room for months at a time on cheap tours of the U.S. ?  The funniest sequence in the film is Cherie’s grandmother with her cane driving off two sleazy Japanese photographers who were shooting sexy poses of the youngster.

 Floria Sigismondi’s knowledge of rock videos and music talent is solid. I think the old coach said in Avildsen’s “Rocky” (1975), “the worst thing in life is wasted talent.”  That is Cherie’s story; it rocks here.


Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darín in "The Secret in Their Eyes." Photo credit: Maria Antolini/Sony Pictures Classics

Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film:

Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes”

 If subtitles don’t bother you, I recommend the 2010 Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film “The Secret in Their Eyes” by Juan José Campanella.  Campanella has directed a few “House” episodes, some “Law and Order” spin-offs, and some other films and learned how to put a good story together.  “The Secret” has a romance, a murder mystery and an earful of comedy along the way.  Can you imagine all of that in one film?  Campanella is helped also by having talented actors.

 Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), a DA’s investigator in Buenos Aires , Argentina , retires after many years, determined to write a book about an old murder and to solve it.  His comic side-kick, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), wasn’t able to help him that much when they tried to figure it out 25 years before.  But Esposito’s attractive boss, Irene Higgins (Soledad Villamil), is now the D.A. and has the juice to cook someone’s goose. Benjamin’s investigation dead-ended in the Peron era when a political thug (Javier Godino) was involved; that era is over.

 Nothing is easy in Argentina ; there are ghosts everywhere.  Old secrets and images haunt Esposito’s consciousness.  He is a thinking man’s writer, but the violence and sexuality in the film is shocking, as it should be when it’s done well.  If you can imagine one of the early “Law and Order” shows done as a film showcasing the late Jerry Orbach, the wiseguy cop (with an extra shot of sensitivity), you are halfway there. 

The quality of this film, however, is far above the usual TV fare or the Hollywood blockbusters aimed at capturing the 12-21-year-old market.

Twilight: Eclipse

Of the three “Twilight” films, David Slade’s “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” was the most fun for me to watch.  Slade, director of “30 Days of Night” (2007) with Josh Hartnett as a sheriff trying to protect a small Alaskan town from a horde of vampires, makes “Eclipse” an effective action film.  But the romantic plot slows down the film.

 Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard)--the red-headed vampire who hates Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson)--is not-so-secretly raising an army of dangerously strong newborn vampires in Seattle.  The ancient and terrible Volturi vampires, led by Jane (Dakota Fanning), are enjoying the mayhem and probing for weaknesses.  And who may save the day for the Cullen family?  The pack of Indian werewolves inspired by Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the buff hunk who also has a thing for Bella.

 Now I realize that most of the audience goes to see this film to agonize with Bella over her inability to choose between the six-pack abs of Jacob and the slick continental flavor of Edward (though at one point Edward snarls: “Doesn’t he have a shirt?”), but I went to experience a pop phenomenon.  Here we have a 109-year old teenager having “first love” with a contemporary high school senior.  How would you like to spend your entire life as a teenager? 




A Hit and a Miss

“Inception”:  MPAA PG-13

“Winter’s Bone”:  MPAA R

Photo Caption: Jennifer Lawrence stars as Ree Dolly, a brave young woman.

 “Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan—director of “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Memento” (2000)—is an intriguing film.  It is first at the box office. 

I’ve always been attracted to surreal visions and wandering through dreams, whether the dreams of Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini, often with light or dark humor, as needed.  Nolan’s cast is fine: Leonardo DiCaprio; Ellen Page, “Juno” (2007); and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer” (2009) and many other talented performers, e.g. Ken Watanabe.  

The problem is there are no real characters, just their dreams.  There is a lot of action, more action than plot—similar to this year’s “Prince of Persia.”  There are plenty of beautiful special effects.  Interviews reveal good intentions and serious efforts on the part of cast and crew. 

As an audience member who pays his money and has taken his chances, however, I would like a little more.  I would like to know just who these characters are.  What values do they have?  DiCaprio’s character loves his kids; so does Tony Soprano.  I need more than two kids playing in sunshine, thank you, to justify continuous mayhem.  Perhaps because of its overt action orientation, I enjoyed Phillip Noyce’s “Salt” better.

Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” could be the best film of the year, and, obviously, not because of big name stars or special effects, though the lead—Jennifer Lawrence—at 19 years of age has done both film and TV roles.  A 17-year-old, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is left in rural Missouri overseeing a pre-school sister, a 12-year-old brother, and a mentally disabled mom when her father disappears, having pledged the family farm to a bondsman after a bust for cooking methamphetamine. 

Ree calls on her extended family for information, all of them dependent on producing and distributing meth to backwoods users of the “hillbilly heroin.”   This 17-year old shows more integrity and courage in facing brutality than anyone in the film, including her vicious gun-toting uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), and the dread meth don and family patriarch, Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall).  Earlier, before her father disappeared, she had considered an army career, a good choice for her.

Films show us the dangers of psychotic killers, international warlords, and secretive government agencies, but our families can be intimately cruel.  “Winter’s Bone” is a simple story, beautifully filmed with good choices in music.  It is a jewel.


Get Low” Is Made for Our Time


Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low” (2009) contains the best performance by Robert Duvall since Duvall’s own film, “The Apostle” (1997).  If you haven’t seen “The Apostle,” give it a try.  The central characters of both films have some similarities.

“Get Low” is set in small-town Tennessee during the Depression.  You know the economy is depressed when the town funeral director (Bill Murray) says, “One thing about Chicago.  They know how to die there.”  His assistant (Lucas Black) looks equally glum, until the town’s crusty hermit for 38 years (Robert Duvall) approaches him.  The hermit wants to have a big party for his wake and to invite anyone who knows a story about him.  No problem, right?  Well, he wants to have the party while he is still alive.  After the flash of a very large roll of bills, as Bill Murray sighs to Black later, “Ooo…hermit money.”  The party will happen.

Into this world comes a lovely widow (Sissy Spacek), someone from our hermit’s past.  To this point, we have seen a recluse whose first love seemed to be a mule and some bottles of home brew.  The former couple takes a walk through the forest surrounding his home, arm-in-arm, decorous but close.

Hundreds arrive from everywhere soon.  An African American minister from out-of-state, for whom the hermit built a chapel, preaches the word.  A radio station broadcasts the event.  A band plays while poor folks dance. And then the hermit speaks and explains why he has done what he has done.  Well, if you pay your money, you’ll find out what happens; you won’t regret it unless you can’t face dying or hard times.  By the way, this is all based on a true story from the Depression.  Most of the best films are rooted in how humans really act; it seems to me there are few exceptions.

Quick Takes:

“The Other Guys”      PG-13

Adam McKay’s “The Other Guys” with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlburg is a parody of tough cop buddy films.  I laughed more at this film than any other this year.

“The Expendables”         R

I thought Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” with Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke with appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis would be just a hack job for older action heroes.  Instead, Stallone put together a pretty tight script, a few laughs and a lot of action. 

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin and Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg. Photo credit: Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures

Fincher’s “The Social Network” Overcomes Challenges to Become a Hit

 David Fincher’s “The Social Network” about the founding of Facebook had to overcome a number of problems. 

·        Computer geeks, hunched over computers, are inherently static, not filmic.

·        The man behind Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, once the youngest billionaire in the world, was uncooperative.

·        Finally, a good bit of the latter part of the film consists of mouthy over-educated college students and old lawyers talking over a conference table in a law office.

Luckily, David Fincher—the director of “Se7en” (1995), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999), “Zodiac” (2007) and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)—was up to the challenges.  Love him or hate him, Fincher has exhibited the ability to function in a variety of environments and genres, and to create tension between characters in all of them.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—“A Few Good Men” (1992), “The American President” (1995), and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007)—gave Fincher the best script possible with a certain amount of fictionalization to make it palatable. 

We see the underside of Haaarvard student life; the geek creeps meet society’s elite. Jesse Eisenberg portrayed Zuckerberg as a youth who lives in his head, speaks with precision, possesses incredible analytical powers, and yet still is immature in his relationships with women.  Two women give us key glimpses into Fincher’s Zuckerberg—one at the start of the film, one at the conclusion. 

Andrew Garfield plays Zuckerberg’s sidekick and financier, Eduardo Saverin, with a mixture of conventional business acumen and too much trust in his youthful friendship.  Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, is the stage villain, lacking a black mustache but filled with Silicone Valley panache. The actors are marvelous.

Put the characters together with a business that has taken off to include a healthy percentage of our society, who spend more of their time in front of their computer screens rather than in social environments.  Then, exhibit how a lack of social skill, conventional business approaches and maturity has the potential to be devastating to all and sundry, even as the money pours in like a river.  Fincher created a pretty good film, and a lot of young and not-so-young people will pay to see it. 

As “The Social Network” opened the New York Film Festival a week before it opened nationwide, its rave reviews have filled the internet and publications.  Considering what Fincher had to overcome, he deserves them.



“Hereafter”: Eastwood Survives All the Pitfalls

Matt Damon makes a credible psychic who channels the dead. Photo credit: Ken Regan/Warner Brothers Pictures


Our image of Clint Eastwood, the actor, is a young or middle-aged man with a pistol in his hand.  Our image of Clint Eastwood, the director, is of an older man, now 80, who creates well-balanced films that often deal with the myth vs. the actual reality of some facet of human interaction: “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Absolute Power,” and many more.

Now, link this director with Peter Morgan, a screenwriter with a string of successes often based on politics and history: “Frost/Nixon” on Frost’s Richard Nixon interview, “The Queen” on the current British ruler, “The Last King of Scotland” on Idi Amin Dada, the late dictator of Uganda, and many other screenplays. Neither Eastwood nor Morgan acknowledged any belief in a life after death, though Eastwood meditates daily. 

Together, they made this film about a psychic, George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who can genuinely channel the dead and who hates to do it because of the emotional load that he has to carry.  He prefers manual labor to consulting with the bereaved and earning a large income.  His “curse,” not his gift, causes a young lady he meets to destroy their potential relationship. 

Later, Lonegan meets a French TV anchorwoman (Cecile de France) who survived an Asian tsunami and experienced the often-mentioned “white light” with the feeling of many people accepting their fate that is often reported in near-death experiences.  He also meets a 10-year-old twin boy, whose brother has died in a violent accident (George and Frankie McLaren).  The twin must have that final contact with his brother and sets out to get it after experiencing a number of charlatans. 

Eastwood blends these three story lines—George, the American, the French reporter and the London schoolboy—and creates a wide base for his tale of human interest about the afterlife. 

The film has its humor: a satiric look at French TV network news and publishing; a schoolboy who sees through the charlatans who have been duping adults; and a sensible young man who would rather just get on with his life rather than carry the burden of others, even if that burden would enrich his calculating brother (Jay Mohr).

I think Matt Damon had one of the most challenging roles to play of any film actors that I have seen this year.  Bravo Damon! Bravo Eastwood!



“The Next Three Days” & “Faster”: Both Thrillers, Which Is Better?

MPAA: “The Next Three Days”: PG-13

MPAA: “Faster”: R

There are two crime thrillers that both came out around Thanksgiving: Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days” with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks and George Tillman Jr.’s “Faster” with Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) and Billy Bob Thornton.   Both films are doing good business at the box office.  Both films are fast-paced; you won’t need a $5 cola to stay awake. 

“The Next Three Days” has the edge on box office appeal with Russell Crowe in a serious film with two well-developed characters: Crowe and Elizabeth Banks, who plays Crowe’s wife.  Crowe is a community college English professor (see your film critic for an example) who decides to bust his wife out of prison.  She was convicted for murder on circumstantial evidence.  The prof has his bad days in trying to get quality false identification from hard core criminals, but he eventually succeeds.  Then, he has to free his spouse, who is suffering a deep depression, and get her to cooperate in the escape to a foreign country without an extradition treaty.  Does he succeed?  Pay your money, and find out.

“Faster” has a competent actor with a history of success in youth-related films, Dwayne Johnson, linked to an accomplished actor, Billy Bob Thornton.  The pace of the film precludes extensive, nuanced character development—Tillman didn’t call it “Faster” for nothin’. But the script (Tony & Joe Gayton) does a fair job in showing us why Johnson’s “Driver” became what he is and how Thornton’s aging detective became what he is.  Frankly, I was amazed.  As the Rock knocks off the people who robbed him of the take from a bank job, who killed his brother, and who insured he served 10 years in prison, we got good portraits of the individuals he set out to kill once he is back on the street.

So, which film is better? For complex characterization, go for “The Next Three Days.”  If you prefer a film that never, not for a moment, slows down, while giving each actor in a minor role a shot at doing something very good for five minutes, go for “Faster.”  I preferred “Faster” because, at the beginning of “The Next Three Days,” there was some confusing information.  Action thrillers require clarity, rather than moments of “huh?”


“The Fighter”: A Contender… in the Oscar Competition


Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund and Mark Wahlberg as his brother, Mickey Ward, after a world championship welterweight win. Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures

David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” is like a good boxer; it’s a hot property.  But it didn’t start out that way.  Allegedly, Mark Wahlberg spent five years trying to get the property produced; he is one of the producers.  Like the film, the real life welterweight, Mickey Ward, was not an overnight phenomenon.  His career had some downs before the big “ups” came along. 

The problem?  Ward’s mother (Melissa Leo) is a dominating woman who controlled seven harpy daughters and served as his agent.   His brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), is his trainer, when his crack habit doesn’t interfere.  Dicky once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (or did Leonard just trip?), and degenerated into a motor-mouth hustler.  Ward is underplayed very well by Mark Wahlberg, as an early 30’s guy who loves his mother, worships his brother, and loses four fights in a row listening to them.

How does he escape this mess?  His girl, Charlene (Amy Adams as you have not seen her nor heard her with a Massachusetts-Irish brogue), picks him up, gets him a good agent, and helps him earn a title shot.  Then, the family wants to get back into the act.  Dicky has kicked his habit and, finally, working hard, shows class by really helping out his brother.

Is this the best boxing film ever made?  No, but it is good.  The script plays the audience well, helped by fine acting.  It doesn’t have the symphonic masterpieces that we saw in the boxing matches in Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” with incredible editing, music and cinematography.  In that film, Robert DeNiro shows the ups and downs in one boxer’s life, and Joe Pesce responds to living and working with a monster brother. 

There are no monsters in “The Fighter,” just a screwed up family and people with serious problems.  It is closer to John Avildsen’s “Rocky” (1976) with Sylvester Stallone’s ham-and-egger trying to make something out of his failed life.  Is “The Fighter” a second-rate film?  No, it isn’t; “The Fighter” is just closer to the boxing picture genre. 

In fact, if Wahlberg had fictionalized his film to give himself more of the spotlight, he would have walked away personally with a shot at every actors’ championship event—the Oscars.  Instead, he let Bale go full out, which Bale does very well.  So, who gets the Best Actor Oscar? Bale could walk off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  But, let’s see what category everyone is slated into by the Academy.  Best Picture?  It’s already a contender.