2012 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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Oscar Picks, Oscar Complaints, and a Fun Film

Ladies and gentlemen, every year Oscar time comes.  Every year I wonder how some films are nominated while others with marvelous performances and well-written screenplays are ignored.  I have learned to write it off as simply “show business.”  It is a business with the rules constantly changing, sort of like the rules for the number of credit card points you need to get a free ride on an airplane.

Therefore, with my wide-brim hat and sunglasses, dressed as I will be for the races at Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Kentucky, here are my Oscar picks:

Best Actor: George Clooney for “The Descendants.”  Starring in the weakest film on our list, Clooney is a very well-liked actor for many good reasons.  His main opponent: Jean Dujardin for the almost silent film “The Artist,” who won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award.

Best Actress: Viola Davis in “The Help,” who did win the SAG award.

Best Supporting Actor: “Christopher Plummer,” who won the SAG award for “Beginners,” with competition from Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

Best Supporting Actress: “Octavia Spencer” for “The Help,” who won just about every award in the business.

Best Director: My heart says Martin Scorsese for “Hugo,” but my itchy finger underlines Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist.”

Best Picture: I am hoping it will be “Hugo,” with 11 Oscar nominations, but “The Artist,” with 10 Oscar nominations, is coming on strong.

That’s the best I can do this year.  The Academy will make the decisions as only the Academy members can.  And the decisions will be split between business and pleasure.

Quick comment on fun in January:

My fun film for January was Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein’s “Underworld: Awakening” (MPAA: R). Kate Beckinsale returns as Selene, the vampire warrior, who leads the responsible members of her fantasy race in a fight against the irresponsible werewolves, who would just wipe us humans out in an orgy of gluttony worse than Thanksgiving in the U.S. 

Yes, Beckinsale is really attractive in that black leather suit, but I think the film owes a bit of a debt to the lonesome girl gunslinger first portrayed by Milla Jovovich in the “Resident Evil” films. We used to have Gary Cooper on a lonely sun-baked street standing for the righteous in “High Noon.”  Now, we have stunningly beautiful women using martial arts and high caliber pistols protecting us from various degenerate hordes.  Men, we will just have to cope with it.

Woody Harrelson Scores Big in Hate-filled “Rampart”

February and March are not usually the months of the year to be releasing a good film.  Prior to the Oscar ceremony, the nominees for the Oscars fill the theaters; afterwards, the winners glut the screens through mid-March.  Why did the distributor release Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” (MPAA: R) late in February?

“Rampart” has a fine script co-written by Overman and James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential. Its distinguished cast includes Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Robin Wright, Ice Cube and Steve Buscemi.  Well, maybe there is just not enough teen appeal in this film to stampede the younger audience into the theaters.

Woody Harrelson stars as a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division in 1999, a period when various brutality allegations led to payouts of $100 million for inappropriate behavior to suspects from L. A.’s Rampart Division alone.  And let me qualify my position on policemen.  My father served for a time as a police officer during the Depression. He said it was the hardest job he ever had. This comment, from a man who spearheaded the bullet-sealing fuel tanks project for American fighters and bombers in World War II, was probably not an overstatement.

Harrelson’s Dave Brown is an ex-Vietnam Vet, a failed law student of some intelligence, a bigot and a dirty cop.  He uses his position to shake down people to provide for his family situation, his legal bills, and his drinking.  He lives with two sisters whom he had wed and divorced serially and had a daughter by each.  The daughters feel remote from him, until he starts to come apart.

Someone videotapes Brown as he brutally beats up a man who smashed into Brown’s police cruiser and then tried to run away.  Brown is in the news for brutality again; he has been there before and beaten the rap.  This time, it doesn’t look good for Brown.  Yet, we see his concern for his daughters, and, eventually, their concern for him.  If he has a saving grace, it is in these relationships, but he really cannot help the girls.  He is too far gone in self-pity, booze and macho posturing.

Harrelson has played a variety of roles—a comic bartender on “Cheers,” an upper class homosexual with integrity in Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” (2007), a macho tough guy in Ruben Fleischer’s spoof “Zombieland” (2009), and his share of sensitive men with problems.  This time, he shows how he can suffer.  An interview in The Hollywood Reporter indicated it was a difficult yet worthwhile film for him.  You may find it a painful film for you too, but it is also significant.

If You’re Still Hungry After “Games,” Try “Salmon Fishing”

Why not give a different response to two films, as opposed to the same response as most of the other critics?

Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games” (PG-13) is going to pick up where the “Twilight” films left off in attracting adolescent females.  True, romance is not the primary motivation in “The Hunger Games.” There is a triangle, however. Jennifer Lawrence’s heroic Katniss is desired by her sometime partner/enemy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and her “politically incorrect” old boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Actually, watching the young stooges of the central government—who enjoy killing each other for the amusement of a jaded populace on a television show—and defending herself seem to be Katniss’ main goals. 

But Katniss is angry.  Her younger sister, who lacked her survival skills, would have died in the first round.  Note Lawrence’s Katniss resembles her character in “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was set in a similar rural environment.  There, too, she survived the threats of those with the power.  Lawrence is a fine actress.

The film was very well cast. Woody Harrelson played a wastrel, but still a keen survivor of the “Games.” Elizabeth Banks did her best as the garish quasi-panderer Effie Trinket. Stanley Tucci, as the sleazy but clever TV “Games” host, was perfect. Lenny Kravitz, as a master of how to motivate the audience, was a slick dude. Wes Bentley was a real “reality” show producer-director, and, finally, Donald Sutherland as President Snow was sort of a reserved Dick Cheney.

If only it hadn’t been 142 minutes long, cursed with an uneven tempo and threatening two or three more films to come.

In contrast to the billion dollar blockbuster of “Hunger Games,” I offer a problematic film, Lasse Hallström’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (PG-13).  To those wiseacres who insist that I would see any film with “salmon fishing” in the title, I say, “nuts.”  If it didn’t have Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ewan McGregor in it, I would have stayed home. 

An oil-rich sheikh (Amr Waked) decides to bring salmon into the desert via modern technology.  Emily Blunt is the rainmaker who convinces Ewan McGregor, the unhappily married salmon expert, to make the desert bloom and herself, too.  Kristin Scott Thomas is the prime minister’s agent to make it all happen; she also generates most of the laughs in this romantic comedy. 

So what’s wrong with this British romance? The plot is too forced with a “surprise” conclusion that isn’t. But, after over two hours of menace and mayhem from “Hunger Games” the day before, I enjoyed the quiet and sexy relief. Give it a look, not a shot.


Wes Anderson: Love Him or Don’t Enter the 

“Moonrise Kingdom”

There is so much media attention around Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (MPAA: PG-13) that I suspect critics will love it or hate it.  Since it opened the Cannes Film Festival, it is hitting the American market with a lot of buzz.  Frankly, it does have a lot going for it—more so than Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001).

Anderson, who likes to be part of the writing process as well as to direct his films, has been gathering a small stock company—Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman among others—and a reputation as an “actor’s director,” much like Martin Scorsese, who allegedly also is cheering Anderson on. 

What makes this film special?  It is a film set in a summer camp in 1965 about two 12-year-olds—Sam (Jared Gilman), a brainy Khaki Scout, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a gifted townie of good literary and musical taste. The couple met on the set of a production of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” (Noah’s Flood).  Their ignorance is not apparent, though it becomes obvious in an inconsequential sort of way.  Their innocence and intelligence is always quite evident. 

What about the adults in the film?  Their arrogance is quite apparent.  Their innocence is long gone, and their intelligence is a matter of question, particularly the parents of Suzy.  Bill Murray and Frances McDormand take the fall for those roles, and they generate laughs too. Bruce Willis, though a bit of a rounder, turns out to be quite a decent fellow instead of the usual not-so-bright small town police chief that we find in so many comedies, though I haven’t had that experience, myself. 

Edward Norton, as the Scout Master, has both moments of clarity and positive action as well as the usual would-be martinet lines of a man who wears a uniform that is also worn by children.  No adult walks away from this film without at least a snicker or two from the audience, such as Tilda Swinton as simply “Social Services,” but, to be fair, some of the other scouts and kids also merit scorn.

In other words, this is an “actor’s film.”  I think many of you will enjoy it.  Some of the adolescents will want more rock and roll.  There is some in the film, some blues, and more than a taste of Benjamin Britten.  Did you know that Wes Anderson was in a version of “Noye’s Fludde” when he was 12?  You know it now.  Did he run off with a young girl?  No, he was too embarrassed to speak to her.  But now, he is a director.  Good going, Wes!

A “Spider-man” for the Discerning Viewer and an

“Abraham Lincoln” Lost in Vampireland

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” (MPAA PG-13) is a successful take on the comic book, in a series that, thanks to Sam Raimi’s 2002 film on the web-slinger, had a good start.  You might remember Webb’s film “500 Days of Summer” (2009).  What might you like about this “Spider-Man”?  Well, it has a better script.

 The characters are developed more slowly—e.g. Andrew Garfield’s (“The Social Network” & “Never Let Me Go”) Spider-Man has to painfully learn how to use his enhanced spider-powers.  Some people might complain that Spider-Man is not punching out bad guys and swinging through downtown Manhattan right immediately.  Well, if your key to happiness is someone getting whacked every five minutes, this is probably not the flick for you.

Garfield’s mild-mannered Peter Parker, done with some solid underplaying, develops his relationship with Emma Stone’s (previously in “The Help”) Gwen Stacy in a relatively long period of time.  They are playing high school seniors, although he is 28 and she is 23.  If they started declaring undying love after 20 minutes of running time, we wouldn’t believe it.  The dialog is good, but it’s not the poetry of “Romeo and Juliet.”

One of the obstructions in their romance is Denis Leary as Captain Stacy, the man heading the anti-Spider-Man Task Force of the NYPD and Gwen’s authoritative dad.  Leary shows his solid competence again.  Stone works well with him, with Garfield, and with every other actor on the set.  She is a hot property in Hollywood. 

Rhys Ifans plays the villain, Dr. Curt Connors (aka The Lizard); he played the Earl of Oxford in “Anonymous” (2011).  Ifans makes a formidable opponent and a strangely sympathetic one, as well.  You rarely get complexity in a comic book flick’s villain. 

Alas, Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (MPAA: R) is a film that can only be appreciated by people who can have sympathy for a good actor in a problematic film.

I would expect any director, who has a talented actor playing Abraham Lincoln, which Benjamin Walker is, would at least try to develop a film with the same care with which Walker develops the gravitas of Abraham Lincoln from a youth whose mother was murdered by a vampire, to an inexperienced lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, to a major political force in the USA.  Instead, we received blasts of fast editing, crazy sequences (even Count Dracula would have avoided a stampede of half-broken horses and no one could flip around on those mindless equines), etc.

Benjamin Walker, let’s hope someone in Hollywood gives you another shot at a leading role.  I and Walker’s mother-in-law, Meryl Streep, would appreciate it. 


“Total Recall”: Sometimes, You Just Don’t Want It

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

Last Friday, my charming spouse observed, after the trailers for the “new” films ran, that four of them are re-makes and the other two are sequels. I have noticed in the last few years almost all big budget Hollywood films must be either a remake or a sequel (unless Steven Spielberg is helming).  It is the international market, you see.  The marketing expenses for a new big film—e.g. “John Carter”—is incredibly high.  If the new vehicle flops, it flops big!  But you know what?  In time, they all make money--even “Howard the Duck” (1986) did—just not fast enough to quickly cover the money borrowed for production.  Ouch!

I was looking forward to Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” (MPAA: PG-13) with Colin Farrell--so talented in “In Bruges” with Brendan Gleeson—and Kate Beckinsale—the sleek  vampire action-heroine in Wiseman’s “Underworld” and “Underworld: Evolution.”  The actors, including the relative newcomer Jessica Biel (“The A-Team), were fine, but the script needed work.  Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version had humor—the automated cab driver’s downfall, Schwarzenegger showing fear, his image seen in a giant X-ray, Arnold dressed as a woman to fool security at the transit station, etc.  No laughs are evident in Wiseman’s film.

Well, maybe it develops characters?  No. Well, what does it do?  It has a lot of action.  Wiseman knows how to showcase Kate Beckinsale.  Much like Milla Jovovich in her “Resident Evil” films, Beckinsale’s every moment is like a prima donna on the Moscow stage doing “Swan Lake,” but Beckinsale does it with automatic weapons too.  Jessica Biel shows some talent there as well, though Beckinsale has the edge. Farrell is no slouch in rough and tumble sequences; he spends most of the film surviving them.

I like action films, but, to be memorable, they really require a character(s) that the audience members can admire or, perhaps, can love to hate.  Farrell’s Douglas Quaid is supposed to be sympathetic with the poor, overworked folks of The Colony of planet Earth, but we never get time to see them as having the hard life which Verhoeven displayed so vividly in his Martian colony.  Verhoeven’s workers were even deprived of air.  We did not see that kind of oppression.  But, to be fair, it is an election year, and maybe that would be controversial; well, at least that would be different.

I predict this film will make its money fairly quickly.   Action flicks are hot in the Asian markets, but I also predict that everyone, who has seen the original film, will wonder why anyone would prefer Wiseman’s version. 



Three for the Road: “Sparkle,”

 “The Expendables 2” & “We Have a Pope”

     I needed a musical when I saw Salim Akil’s “Sparkle” (MPAA: PG).  If I saw another action film, I was going to buy an automatic weapon and take out a roomful of Hollywood producers.  “Sparkle” is a remake of the 1976 film with Irene Cara.

     “Sparkle” was Whitney Houston’s last film.  She played the staid, church-going mother (with a show biz past she wasn’t proud of) of a three-girl singing group: Jordin Sparks (the talented sister), Carmen Ejogo (the sexy sister) and Tike Sumpter (the bright, hot-tempered sister).  Houston was a good actor and a good singer.  We’ll miss her.  This film, however, needed better songs.  I remember the sexy outfits that Ejogo was wearing more than the music that they were singing—though the singing, costuming and acting were totally professional.  But, it’s not “Dreamgirls” (2006). 

     And then came Simon West’s “The Expendables 2” (MPAA: R).   West’s pacing was better than the first “Expendables.”  The crowd of big action hero names—such as Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, and Schwarzenegger—was joined by Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme (a perfect psychopathic villain), and Bruce Willis.  So much talent, so little time, eh?  Well, not really.  Schwarzenegger and Norris spent half of their time plugging past hits, repeating memorable lines and, in general, reminding the audience of their glory days. The rest of their time, they were firing automatic weapons.

     To be fair, I enjoyed the individual sequences and the set-ups to them.  Stallone, who worked on the script and spark-plugged the film, showed he can still make a film happen.  I only wish he were doing fresher material, and I’m sure he will.

     Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope” (MPAA: Not Rated) is an amusing comedy about the election of a pope.  It stars French actor Michel Piccoli, a man in his eighties, as a cantankerous cardinal who is elected pope.  The cardinals chose him as a “caretaker.” They hoped he wouldn’t do much.  Pope John XXIII, then 77, was supposed to be a caretaker in 1958.  However, John surprised everyone by internationalizing the College of Cardinals and calling the Second Vatican Council.

     Piccoli’s pope, while accepting the will of the majority, refuses to go through with what a pope must do to be officially recognized as “the pope.”  He has a wonderful scene in front of the cardinals where he talks with a psychiatrist (who was played perfectly by the director).  Then, the “pope” runs away from the closed consistory (a big no-no) and wanders through Rome in disguise.  It is funny; it is not satirical.  No one used automatic weapons, either, though some of the Swiss Guards had some sharp halberds. 



Two in Praise of Actors, One for the Director

The acting in two films appealed to me: David Ayer’s police procedural film “End of Watch” (MPAA: R) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s alleged comment on Dianetics “The Master” (MPAA: R). 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are LAPD partners, who patrol a neighborhood filled with Mexican cartel gangsters.  We see them not only as cops who enjoy the action; we also see them as men with families.  Gyllenhaal’s Taylor is doing a personal project on-the-job with the aid of a mini-video cameras peeping out of his shirt pocket.  He is not the usual hard-boiled copper, though he is tough.  Peña’s Zavala has a loving wife and children.  Taylor, during the film, courts and marries.  We get to see many different sides of these characters, which is unusual in a police procedural.  Good work!

Ayer, their director, directed a workmanlike police procedural, “Street Kings” (2008) with Keanu Reeves, and wrote both “Training Day” (2001) with Denzel Washington and “End of Watch.”  Clearly, Ayer knows the territory.

Anderson has created two wonderful characters in “The Master”: Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a guru, a childlike scene-stealer, a stern master, and a compassionate man (yes, there is some contradiction here) and Joaquin Phoenix as a WWII veteran who has a number of problems, which continue to haunt him as the years go by.  Phoenix’s Freddie can be likeable and loyal to the Master and his disciples, and, the next day, is a violent person when his trigger is pulled.  Amy Adams, as the Master’s wife, is totally dedicated to her charismatic husband and unforgiving to all others. It may be her most demanding role.

How do you evaluate a film like this one?  I learned long ago, after reading a number of American Naturalistic novels—Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, etc.—that one person’s beauty can be another person’s horror, that only art that reflects reality, or some meaningful distortion of it, is of value.  This film is definitely art and of value, but I never want to see it again.  And I don’t want to re-read Studs Lonigan either. 

I enjoyed the time-travelling tale of Rian Johnson’s “Looper” (MPAA: R) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young Joe, Bruce Willis as the older Joe, and Emily Blunt as Sara, who loves the younger one.  There is a lot of action here in a world in which the gangsters of the future have sent back victims to be killed and destroyed by people like young Joe.  Otherwise, the bodies would leave traces for the detectives to find in the future world.  The paradoxes are pretty much eliminated by the end of the film.  It is fun too.



“Cloud Atlas” Is Cloudy; “Bless Me, Ultima” Is a Blessing

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

I know the Wachowski Siblings’ “The Matrix” is a cult film.  It was rated among the Top 10 Science Fiction Films of the Twentieth Century by attendees at three World Science Fiction Conventions. I surveyed the attendees with the help of my wife, Diane, the sociologist.  The Wachowski’s new film, “Cloud Atlas,” (MPAA: R)—with the co-direction of Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”)—will become a cult film as well. 

“Cloud Atlas” has wonderful performances by Tom Hanks (a number of varied characters), Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving (a wonderful villain/villainess) and Susan Sarandon.  But there is a bit of a problem with “Cloud Atlas.”

There are six subplots from six different eras—from the 19th century to somewhere in the distant future.  All of them are on this planet, except for one episode in the last subplot.  You see, the basic structure of all six plots is identical. There is an attractive person who has a problem dealing with authoritative personalities, overly structured societies, oppressive governments, etc.  As the film progresses, we switch back, occasionally, to each of these individual subplots, see how the beautiful person is doing, and we follow the path to a resolution.

So, what’s the problem?  The problem in this almost three-hour film is that the constant switching back and forth detracts from the progression of the basic plot and steals the show from the fine acting that is taking place.

If you can’t imagine the difficulty of processing this film, let me point out a film from an older generation that was regarded as difficult.  Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” was quite challenging.  It was a semiautobiographical fiction about a motion picture director.  Characters and sequences from the past and the present would appear, but they were all focused upon one character—Guido, a great director, a lover of women, a man of many failings and of many graces—one country, one life.  If you were alert, it wasn’t a problem.  Even if you are alert during “Cloud Atlas,” well…, let’s just plan on re-evaluating it in 10 years.

Keep your eyes open for a dark horse in the Oscar race, Carl Franklin’s “Bless Me, Ultima” (MPAA: PG-13). Franklin—director of “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Out of Time,” both starring Denzel Washington—has taken a fine novel about a New Mexican rural family in the post-World War II era.  The family invites a medicine woman (“curandera”), played by Miriam Colon, who helps people with natural cures and white magic.  She relates best to their seven-year-old Antonio (Luke Ganalon).  Their relationship grows as does the insight into the family members and their challenging, even diabolical, social environment.  I only hope the film’s distribution increases greatly.


Spielberg’s “Lincoln” Is a Stunner; Steven Will Be Carrying an Armful of Gold Statues

The best film about Lincoln that I had seen was John Ford’s “Young Mister Lincoln” (1939), starring Henry Fonda.  It was a fictional piece that showed Lincoln’s defense of an innocent man.  That film, along with Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1940) also starring Fonda, did a lot to make Henry Fonda a political force in Hollywood.

In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (MPAA: PG-13), Daniel Day-Lewis shows us Lincoln in many modes of behavior—even though the struggle over the 13th Amendment is the focus of the film. 

We see Lincoln as:

A film critic I respect, John Flynn, complained that the focus of the film was too narrow.  I think the focus was quite wide.  Lincoln was up against it, even more than in 1862 when the Union Army had a list of losses that was almost unbelievable.  People in the North were tired of war, ready to give in at almost any cost. If we were to see a film about “Lincoln: The War Years” it could be eight hours long plus an hour for lunch.  I believe one researcher noted that the film basically covered only about 1 ½ pages of the book on which the film was based.  But what a story it told.

David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward, the man who had the foresight to buy Alaska from the Russians, shows how master politicians work to push a bill through a rambunctious legislature.  His performance is flawless, as is Tommy Lee Jones as Senator Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist but also a political leader who knows when to give so that he can get what he needs.  There are so many excellent performances in this film that the struggle for supporting actors’ and actresses’ Oscar nominations will be hot. 

As I look over the month of November, Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a real-life tale, and Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall,” the latest and best Bond film in years, are worth mention.  Also, Ang Lee’s 3-D cinematography in “Life of Pi” was a wonder to behold, though the script had its problems.  For December, checkout Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” with Brad Pitt.