2011 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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Do-It-Yourself Oscar Picks with Wildman Handicapping

By Bob Blackwood

The 83rd Annual Academy Awards, the most-watched TV show throughout the world, will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011.  Usually, I would give you my picks for certain categories; I won’t this year.  Why not? Because of an early deadline, I can’t see the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, Jan. 30, but you can. 

So, if you are making your picks in the office/school/church and/or local bar Oscar pool, here is what you should do.  Check out the Golden Globes for the major categories: Best Drama: “The Social Network.”  The comedies rarely walk away with an Oscar for Best Picture. Best Actress, Drama: Natalie Portman-“Black Swan.” Best Actor, Drama: Colin Firth-“The King’s Speech.”  Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo-“The Fighter.” Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale-“The Fighter.”  Best Director: David Fincher-“The Social Network.”  Good luck with picking screenplays.  Then, check out all of the films in your local theaters.

After the Golden Globes, watch the SAG Awards for the choices of actresses and the actors, in particular, or get the results the next day on the internet or in your local newspaper. 

Then, check out the Academy Award nominations: Best Film: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “Inception,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours,” “Toy Story 3,” “Winter’s Bone,” & “True Grit.”  Wildman Handicapping: Bet on “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” or “Winter’s Bone” (black horse, everyone’s second choice).

Best Actress: Annette Benning (KAAR), Jennifer Lawrence (WB), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine), Natalie Portman (BS), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole).  Bet on Natalie Portman or Jennifer Lawrence (black horse).

Best Actor: Colin Firth (KS), James Franco (127 Hours), Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (TG) & Jesse Eisenberg (SN).  Bet on Firth.


Cedar Rapids” Is Heart-Warming; “Unknown” Is Thrilling

By Bob Blackwood

Miguel Arteta’s “Cedar Rapids” (MPAA: R) starring Ed Helms (the tooth-missing dude from “The Hangover” and TV’s “The Office”), John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and a slick Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (TV’s “The Wire”) was a lovable comedy.  True, Helms’ Tim Lippe seems barely adult often (never left his small town to climb into an airplane before), dates his 7th grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) (OK, I might too), and believes insurance agents can be quite noble people.  When he represents his insurance firm at an insurance convention in the metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he gets the chance to see them as they are: some a bit sleazy, some a bit repressed, some OK when the chips are down, some trying for cheap thrills, some just trying. 

No, it’s not one of those sentimental films where everyone turns out to have Mother Theresa-like human concerns—certainly not with Anne Heche as one of the actors.  But let us say that when Tim Lippe leaves Cedar Rapids, he has lost his illusions but gained a mature perspective on life and love.  Plus, the audience loves to laugh at him and, ultimately, with him.  That is as good as it gets; and “As Good As It Gets” was too.  Will it win two Oscars? Not without Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, but it has a good cast and a good script.

Jaume Collet-Sera’s “Unknown” (MPAA: PG-13) with Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, January Jones and Diane Kruger is a thriller with a twist (no, you have to untwist it yourself).  Set in Berlin, the heartland of espionage since the 1910s, Neeson is a scientist with attractive wife (Jones from TV’s “Mad Men”) in hand, who is ready to give a report on a significant discovery at an international conference filled with biggies of all varieties. Thanks to a Berlin taxicab, driven by another hottie (Kruger), which goes into a river, Neeson loses his memory, his i.d. and most of his money.  When he finds out who-he-is, his wife claims he isn’t who-he-is.  She even has a husband with i.d. (Quinn). 

How does Neeson resolve this matter?  With a visit to a shrink and some pills—not on your life!  How about hooking up with a retired Stasi (East German security) officer, played by Bruno Gans?  How about some frantic running around, assorted violence and startling revelations?  I really wanted to see what happened next. 

Afterword on the Academy Awards: Next year, if our publication schedule permits me to see both The Golden Globes & The Screen Actors Guild award shows, I will give you specific picks on The Oscars.  Still, I was in the ballpark on the six categories that I did give to you:  Colin Firth for Best Actor and Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor were right on the money.  Natalie Portman for Best Actress (identified as the favorite and a shudderingly memorable performance) and Melissa Leo (identified as the black horse pick) were close.  Best Director Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech” was one of two, and for Best Film “The King’s Speech” was right on too.


SF Films—Hard to Miss This Year!

Every year, Diane and I go off to DragonCon in Atlanta, GA, over the Labor Day Weekend.  I walk in the parade down Peachtree Street dressed as Gandalf the Grey or the pirate Bartholomew Roberts.  But my favorite occupation, other than going to Trader Vic’s and scoping out vampires, is to speak on panels dealing with Science Fiction or Fantasy films.

Recently, we have had a flood of them.  I’ll touch on a few.

I feared Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles” (MPAA PG-13) would be another “Independence Day,” a rip-off of Wells “War of the Worlds.”  I know some special effects mavens were hoping for that.

How surprised they were when they viewed a study of a returning combat sergeant (Aaron Eckhart), who has trouble dealing with the action he has survived abroad in the Middle East.  The focus is on Aaron Eckhart’s hard-bitten sergeant, almost retired, and now in the fight of his life.  The value of this film rests solely in Eckhart’s performance and the soldiers of his company.  You see their concern for each other and for the civilians around them.  These actors make the major contribution to this film.  If you want glossy special effects, go elsewhere.

George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” (MPAA PG-13) based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” had Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, a wonderful expanded script by Nolfi and an upbeat theme.  You can have a fine work of art focused on self-destruction, such as Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”  It seems to be rather harder, today, to create one with a strong note of hope. 

The script is helped by Damon’s right-on performance as a young politician with a self-deprecating sense of humor, who bats one out of the park for love—an attraction to a beautiful dancer (Blunt), which both actors make us feel is for real even though their times together are few.  The plot—at times seeming to be both science fiction and fantasy—explains the attraction, and the fight of the two to overcome an almost godlike control of their lives by an unseen organization.   Some individuals will see the film as a religious commentary.  No, it’s just Dick’s worlds-within-worlds’ view of life, and done beautifully here.

Lastly, a beautifully cast film—Jake Gyllenhaal as the military hero, Michelle Monaghan as his love interest, Vera Farmiga as his superior officer, and Jeffrey Wright as the nutty doctor who is experimenting with Gyllenhaal—has problems in Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” (MPAA PG-13).  Unfortunately, the plot relies on a version of the old time-travel routine that Harold Ramis did so much better as a comedy in “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray.  The plot has become rather tired, thanks to scripts like this one.

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator”: Historically Accurate & Timely


As an actor, Robert Redford’s range is awesome.  When his somber older spy mentors Brad Pitt as the younger spy in “Spy Game” (2001), Redford advised the younger Pitt to prepare to “Find a warm place to die,” when the younger man’s CIA career was over.  Redford breathed concern into the phrase rather than a threat.  Redford’s characters always seem to have a core of vulnerability, like Marlon Brando’s, like Paul Newman’s.

Some people prefer Redford’s comic roles, where the emphasis is on timing, the way the lines are delivered, and the physical expression of the actor.  He was certainly successful with them.

As a director, most of Redford’s films—such as “Ordinary People” (1980), “A River Runs Through It” (1992), “The Horse Whisperer” (1998)—tend to be a bit thin on the comedy index.  His latest film, “The Conspirator,” doesn’t have a smile in it.  Nevertheless, I could not take my eyes nor my concentration away from every image in “The Conspirator,” a commentary on the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the woman who was hanged for allegedly being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

The choice of actors was gifted: James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”) as Surratt’s Union officer/defense attorney, Wright (“State of Play”), and Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) as the Southern senator/lawyer and Washington insider who arranges Surratt’s defense.  Kevin Kline plays the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who insists upon the conviction of all suspects and the maximum penalty of law by any means. 

If this were a sloppy sentimental film, Wright’s Mary Surratt would have been making noble speeches about the due process of law in private to her attorney or to her daughter, but this film follows the facts closely.  Mary Surratt did not say much, because she feared her son, John (Johnny Simmons), had been involved in the conspiracy and was being sought as one of the assassins. 

When her son was captured and tried in 1867, two years after the assassination, the federal government dismissed all charges after a two-month trial resulted in a hung jury.  Though Mary Surratt had a clever young attorney who did all that could be done for her, the untutored mother knew what her 28-year-old attorney did not.  When due process of law is ignored in periods of great stress, there is no justice, only the demands of those in power.  We are all learning variations on that lesson now. 

“Dreams” from the Past; Flick from the Present

By Bob Blackwood

Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

You should give a film critic the chance to plug a film, at least once a year, which you may not get a very good chance to see in the near future.  One such film is Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), which opened at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has somewhat limited distribution.  It is a work from the award-winning director’s heart and head, not from any desire to pay the rent.

“Cave” is a documentary depicting the drawings on cave walls found in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.  Some drawings are 32,000 years old; some are a few millennia younger.  They were preserved when falling rocks sealed off the cave about 25,000 years ago.  Herzog was the first to shoot inside the cave, but only with small 3-D cameras (a useful cinematic technique when drawings are on irregular surfaces) and small light sources that would not damage the drawings.

The commentary on the drawings is sometimes a bit overstressed (German Romanticism, really?), but it is obvious that the few who have seen the drawings are moved by them.  You could compare the cave to a temple, a cathedral, or even a place where people shared stories and hopes and dreams—a good bar with an intelligent clientele. This film will give you something to think about, “the stuff that dreams are made of” does not change over 32,000 years—though belief systems, life styles, and peoples’ preoccupations do.

Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids”

The funniest film I’ve seen this year to date is Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” which was co-scripted and stars Kristen Wiig of “Saturday Night Live” and also stars SNL’s Maya Rudolph plus Melissa McCarthy as a ball of fun, and I do mean a big round ball.  As my local rock radio critic “The Regular Guy” said, “This is not a chick flick.”  No, it is a funny film with lots of over-the-top physical skits as well as some meaningful dramatic moments.  It is the sort of thing that Kristen Wiig never gets a chance to do on SNL, where she continues to be limited to a number of egocentric flakes that annoy me, rather than cause me to laugh.  Wiig has a lot of talent; I think you’ll laugh a lot.

Mike Mills’ “Beginners”: A Comedy, A Documentary, A History of Sadness

A graphic designer’s mother (Mary Page Keller) dies.  The designer’s 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum curator, comes out of the closet, starts living an active gay life with a much younger man (Goran Visnjic), and dies of cancer.  His sad 38-year-old son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), goes to a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud and meets a woman, Anna (Mélanie Laurent) with laryngitis.  They go to her hotel room and just sleep—no sex.  She turns out to be a French actress, who is also emotionally bankrupt.  A relationship develops.

Part of the film’s structure is the quasi-documentary approach owing to director Mike Mills’ life and his late father’s coming out.  It is a refreshing mixture of genres.  I would have liked to have seen more of his life with his mother, for Oliver seems to have been the primary male in her personal life. 

Yet, the film is basically a comedy.  We see Oliver and Anna go through the dance of love—attraction, rejection, attraction….  We see him developing drawings into a “History of Sadness” project which has no commercial potential, but which the relatively young lovers can appreciate through their lived experience.  At the same time, we see a genuine concern between his father and his lover, Andy.  Though dying, Hal maintains an upbeat laidback manner with a reserve that his younger lover cannot show. 

Where are the laughs in this flick, you ask?  Well, if you have ever had a bad relationship in your life, you tend to develop a sense of irony—even a lot of laughter of recognition.  If you don’t take a chance, you can never be happy.  If you do take a chance, you just might get emotionally satisfied or slammed again.  When you see Oliver and Anna emotionally fencing with Oliver’s dog chiming in too, it is funny.  No, it is not big laughs out of “The Hangover,” but it is funny. 

You mean this is one of those comedies made for adults, people who have lived with the result of the death of a loved one?  Yes.  Is this what other people would call a melancholic soap opera?  They might, if they don’t have a sense of irony.  Let’s just call it a comedy for adults, even if someone breaks into tears in your row at the theater.

What if I want a comedy for adults with some outright laughs, for Heaven’s sake?  In that case, try Tom Hanks’ film “Larry Crowne,” about a middle-aged Navy veteran (Tom Hanks) who goes back to college and meets a great teacher (Julia Roberts) and some younger students who become his friends.  You’ll probably like that one.  I did.


Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens”: 

A Good Old-Fashioned Western with Hostile Extraterrestrials

I can hear some of the other critics wailing even as I type: “Oh, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ isn’t an ‘adult’ Western.  This is just another action flick with hostile aliens too.”  Well, I’m ready for an old-fashioned Western.  I sat through Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” recently.  I thought it would work for a 10-year-old who loved special effects.  Of course, if he or she were a precocious 12-year-old, “Boredom, dad.”

“Cowboys & Aliens” (MPAA PG-13) is an action flick set in the West of 1873.  It has two great action heroes: Daniel Craig, as the Man Without a Memory but wearing an ET bracelet, and Harrison Ford, as the burnout Union colonel (now a cattle baron) with a no-count rich kid son.  As the film develops, we expect a shootout between these two and their cronies, but, then, here comes the aliens.

Now, these aliens are not those aliens who have charming children, or very wise elders who are reaching out to civilize the known universe, but rather the old-time “Invasion from Mars” giants with a bad attitude who also take human prisoners.  Yup, they took some kin from the townsfolk, the colonel’s son who was sitting in jail (thanks, in part, to Craig’s character), and a few others too.  They even took some Chiricahua Apaches, which tells you how really nasty these aliens were. 

The last time we fought Indians who kept running the U.S. Cavalry ragged, it was Geronimo and his Chiricahuas.  Despite their hostility toward all invaders, even the Chiricahuas joined the townsfolk and the Colonel’s cowboys.  Yes, there is another group of humans that were involved too, but I won’t tell all.

Olivia Wilde (Thirteen from “House) is smashing as the mystery woman.  Sam Rockwell makes a good part-time doctor.  I think that was Buck Taylor who gets bumped off early in the film, but, hey, he deserved it.  So if you like an action film, take it in.

On the other hand, if you like films set in Paris, films with a romance, films with some satire, and films where a character travels back in time to hang out with Cole Porter, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dali, Buñuel, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein and other legends, try Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (MPAA PG-13). 

Owen Wilson is the Paris-loving writer and time traveler; Rachel McAdams is the writer’s fiancé and the most hated female character Allen ever created.  Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) is the 1920s woman he comes to love. This is the best Woody Allen film in years.  I saw it a second time; half the people in the popcorn line were seeing it for the second time too.  This is a dark horse pick for the Oscar.

September Brought Us Some Good Films

September has been a month of great expectations, one disappointment, and two sure hits. 

Unfortunately, the disappointment was Gary McKendry’s “Killer Elite” starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro.  However, if you just want an action film, “Killer Elite” will not disappoint you.  Statham’s acrobatics almost eclipse Jackie Chan’s accomplishments.  But, Statham can also give a good dramatic performance; check out “The Bank Job” (2008).  Clive Owen’s way with a leading role in “Children of Men” (2006) would have won him an Oscar if it had not been a science fiction film.  Robert De Niro, of course, can make something out of almost anything—but this script gave none of the actors much space to develop their characters.  It was too close to that parody of action films “Shoot ‘Em Up” (2007) with Clive Owen.  Our loss.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” with Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law was a perfect Soderbergh film—well-edited, with an upbeat tempo, and deep insights into character with jewel-like precision. 

It was a film not just about how an international disease is spread, but rather about how intelligent doctors and scientists deal with the most dreaded diseases that crawl out of some pesthole.   Paltrow, playing the main American contact for the disease, was willing to take a role where she rarely appeared healthy and vibrant—what confidence she must have as an actor.  Matt Damon’s role had him suffering through most of the film, yet he still displayed a certain vitality.  Jude Law did another of his sleazy character turns—just slightly reminiscent of the killer he played in “Road to Perdition” (2002), and, no, this is not a plot spoiler.  Laurence Fishburne’s physician was a very human man who was asked to be superhuman when the heat came down on him as the chief administrator fighting the contagion.

Finally, Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” with Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics’ general manager during their 2002 season, was surprisingly nuanced.  It reminded me of the similar challenge that David Fincher faced with “The Social Network.”  How do you make a picture about the challenge of reducing your evaluation of something to an esoteric system determined by a particularly clever data cruncher (Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”) without putting the audience to sleep? 

Well, Brad Pitt showed how to do it.  You use the bags under your eyes.  You carefully spit your tobacco juice into a cup.  You educate your daughter to not make the same mistakes you made.  At least one critic was surprised that Pitt could do it so well.  I guess Pitt just refuses to be limited to being featured on the covers of supermarket magazines.


Ides of March” Beautifully Done; “Anonymous” Has Its Moments

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” is the best political thriller I’ve seen since Franklin Schaffner’s “The Best Man” (1964) with Henry Fonda.  Clooney has directed three other films: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” (2002), “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), and “Leatherheads” (2008). This film is better.

Set in a Democratic presidential primary in Ohio, the plot is direct, and the tempo is as taut as an over-tightened “E” string. Clooney plays the candidate, but Ryan Gosling is the star of this film, the 30-year-old media guru to the candidate’s experienced campaign manager, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  These two formidable actors are playing against the other candidate’s campaign manager, the talented Paul Giamatti, and, at times, against each other. 

Evan Rachel Wood, the intern, provides the sexual angle, though for my money the hard-bitten New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei, would be of greater interest—though far more dangerous.  A ticket will show you who winds up on the top of the pile.  “The Ides of March” shows that politics is the game of the winner—a game that has no rules, just advisory guidelines. 

The smell of this campaign is the smell of the real thing. Clooney’s father was a TV newsman; Clooney knows the game well and swims in that pool. Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris and Gosling’s political hustler are liberals, not very religious, and, also, are only human.

Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” is strictly an alternate view of history.  The Earl of Oxford really writes Shakespeare’s plays (I chuckle when I read noble challengers to the authorship of Will Shakespeare, actor and son of a glove-maker).  Here, Queen Elizabeth has bastards including the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton (as her father’s daughter, she’d be more likely to kill them at birth than create rivals for the throne).  And Elizabethan England is the site of many political plots (quite accurate), which works well for the audience.

The Earl of Oxford, played masterfully by Rhys Ifans, has a number of comic turns when the man who accepts the role of public author of his plays, William Shakespeare, (played by Rafe Spall) turns out to be problematic, instead of his first choice, Ben Jonson (played by Sebastian Armesto).  The historic Jonson was a competent poet, playwright and producer/director of his own plays—such as “Volpone.”  In addition, Shakespeare was alleged to have acted in Jonson’s play “Every Man in His Humour” (1598).

 The acting is the best English actors can do, which is marvelous.  Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the older Queen Elizabeth, may have given her best performance in this film.  With a better vehicle, she’d have another Oscar.

Dr. Bob Blackwood, whose dissertation was on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a play written by a former English actor and glover’s son, is a colleague of Paul “Man in the Kitchen” Thompson. Blackwood’s story of fishing on the Bogachiel River near Forks, WA, can be found in this issue. At Forks, Blackwood cited no vampires from “Twilight,” though a mysterious fellow in a cloak at a filling station was a dead ringer for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, or Bela Lugosi.


Hugo,” “Margin Call,” “The Way”­—Out of the Ordinary Films

Martin Scorsese’s 3-D, beautifully-composed film, “Hugo,” (MPAA: PG) is based on a children’s book about a 12-year-old orphan in 1930’s Paris.  As a child, Scorsese was an invalid for a time, trapped in an apartment in New York’s “Little Italy,” watching the world pass below.  Hugo (Asa Butterfield) exists, now that his uncle (Ray Winstone) has disappeared, oiling the many clocks in a Parisian train station and spying on the people around him. 

Hugo keeps an eye out for the bad-tempered station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).  He reveres his departed father (Jude Law) and an automaton (a mechanical man) they couldn’t revive.  He meets a girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who changes things in his life, as they always do, and meets the grouchy toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley) who is raising her.

The shopkeeper is George Melies, French pioneer of inventive filmmaking.  You’ve seen his “Voyage to the Moon” with the rocket shell which winds up in the eye of the Man in the Moon.  He did hundreds of films, which are delightful.  Not only is Melies the original inventor of the automaton, who gives the children the key to the automaton, but also by the end of “Hugo,” Melies’ old films are restored and are respected again.  And they live happily ever after. 

As opposed to the elegance of “Hugo,” J. C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” (MPAA: R) is the portrait of a nightmare.  In 2008, an investment firm headed by a ruthless CEO (Jeremy Irons) decides to peddle worthless product to save itself before the market tanks.  The cast is excellent with Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, and a special performance by Kevin Spacey.  He is the one executive who has more than a momentary twinge about what he is doing, but he is a company man.  This is a beautiful film about a horrid world that is depicted accurately in Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” (2010), an Oscar- nominated film.

A more upbeat film is Emilio Estevez’s “The Way,” (MPAA: PG-13) starring his father, Martin Sheen.  Sheen plays a California doctor whose wayward son (Emilio Estevez) dies on the first march in his 500 mile pilgrimage from France to St. James’ shrine at Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The doctor decides to take his son’s ashes with him and finish the pilgrimage.  He meets three companions on the way—a plump, comic Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a blocked Irish writer (James Nesbitt), and an emotionally upset Canadian woman who smokes incessantly (Deborah Kara Unger).  They have adventures; they learn to know each other.  I laughed, and I shuddered in self-recognition.  This is a spiritual, rather than a religious film, and it is memorable.