Sunday, October 30, 2011


Contagion had every thing going for it. A deadly mutating virus that could out-horror any horror film. And a dramatic cast to die for: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, and a cast of thousands. Mostly dying thousands.

We first learn there's a disease running rampant when Gwyneth Paltrow's character gets sick, infects a few hundreds of people, and dies. Don't get to learn her name: she's not on scene very long.

We follow administrators at the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) as they try to trace contact, identify the virus, then try to fight the disease in a administrative system that demands at least several months of trials, etc.

It's a smart thriller, but the denouement is really too horrible to contemplate for those of us who don't live on the other side of a stethoscope or microscope. And there's no emotional heart in the movie. Paltrow could be that person, but she's gone too quickly. Matt Damon has very little to do with the plot at all -- he's just an ordinary citizen who watches his wife die suddenly, and tries to protect his family from a disease that is spreading much too quickly. In many ways, Fishburne is that heart, but we don't get but a quick glimpse into his personal life. After all, it's hard to fall in like with an administrator.

There is, in the end, just too much going on, too many frustrating red herrings (like Jude Law's character), and the frightening realization that, in the end, societal health structure and our own fears won't lend much of a hand to solve this mystery.

Thumb's down.

Real Steel

Reel Steel looks a lot like The Champ, both the Wallace Beery and Jon Voight versions about a fighter who struggles in a relationship with his son. Both versions had the power to manipulate your feelings, make you care about the father and his kid. You knew what was going to happen, you knew you were being manipulated. Still you cared. Which is what made both movies work.

Reel Steel works, too. I knew what every fight was going to look like. There were some surprises, but not many, in this modern version of the fighter story, where robots take the place, and punishment, of human fighters. But in the end, I knew pretty much every punch, every fight's end. But still it didn't matter. I felt every emotional blow. And that's because every scene, every actor, gets every note just right.

The movie is set in the near future when we meet Charlie, a struggling promoter who owes up to his elbows in past-due loans just to stay in business. Suddenly he finds out his ex-wife has died and left him an 11-year-old son whom he wants nothing to do with. His wife's sister wants the kid, but the rich husband wants to pay Charlie to take Max just for the summer so that they can take one last expensive vacation in Europe. To Charlie's surprise, Max has quite a bit of knowledge about the fighting robots, and the two team up with their boxing bot in the ring.

I have no idea where they found young Dakota Goyo, who plays Max as a bitter but curious pre-teen with everything to gain and lose, all in a fight with his father, but he's absolutely brilliant. And this is the most vulnerable I've seen Hugh Jackman since Wolverine. The two together are a great team.

I highly recommend Real Steel for its emotional impact, its stunning effects with the robots, and some really thrilling fight scenes. Real Steel is the real deal.

Thumb's up.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon

This is the part of the movie review I don't like, at least for an action movie like this. Oh, well, here it is: The Autobots and the Decepticons compete for the secrets revealed by an alien spaceship on the dark side of the moon.

Our loveable young hero, Sam Witwicky, is shown in a heartbeat away from the second Transformers film. He has now received a medal from the president, but can't seem to find a job, a situation that will resonate with young viewers. He has lost his last girlfriend (seemingly because she cost too much, actress-wise), but picked up a beautiful model as the current squeeze by the name of Carly. Sam's lack of self-esteem plays into everything in his life, however, from being jealous about those around Carly to the fact that those in the government have forgotten how vital Sam's role has been in the handling of the Autobots.

As usual, this Transformers film is full of action, at least during those parts that we aren't following Sam around. There are also many moments, however, when the movie's screenplay has inserted one star cameo or another, so that the film is top-heavy with roles that mean nothing to the theme of the Autobots vs. the Decepticons, or to Sam's life. John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malcovich: most of these actors are inserted badly, and in most cases, could easily be excised from the story.

But all of this is worth wading through just to get to the denouement. The final battle scene, which goes on for more than 20 minutes, is full of transforming robots, death-defying feats, cool shot angles, and just exhilarating fight scenes. And finally, a Transformers movie where I have no problem at all figuring out which robot is which. Yay Autobots!

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Hanna is a thrilling tale about a German man who trained his teenage daughter to fend off all enemies. Throughout her young life, he teaches her self defense, attack methods, languages, even made-up facts about her home. She has no home, except in the forest. And she has no life, except that which her father (Eric Bana) has created for her.

She will need all of these skills to survive when she turns on the signal that allows Marissa, a US government agent, to find her. Marissa is played by a fierce but rather stoic Cate Blanchett, who must be evil because she uses a slow Southern accent (which comes and goes).

It's a new idea, it's a fascinating one. We don't know everything there is to know about Hanna. But neither does she. We learn as she does. Her one weakness, it seems, is something that isolation has brought her.

Young actress Saoirse Ronan is a tour-de-force here. We expect to see her for a long time.

Thumb's up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Green Lantern

I had such high hopes for the dramatization of one of my favorite comic books, Green Lantern. Alas, there are so many things wrong with the movie that fanboys have, for the most part, turned away.

This is an origin story, and, as such, has the usual origin story problems: it takes a long time to get started, characters are introduced that you might not see immediately thereafter, etc. The opening sequence of this movie is much too long. Still, you need to know that Hal Jordan's father died as a test pilot and that event would profoundly influence his life. But we get to live a long sequence of the event, and get to revisit it in flashbacks. For a test pilot, Hal Jordan is uniquely wimpy. You'd think they'd have psychological counseling of their pilots before they let them loose with billion dollar planes, wouldn't you?

There are also character developments that disappear, transition points that are never made. In many ways, this movie is a movie pieced together, a mess.

When Abin Sur, one of the most valiant of the Green Lantern corps, who are the peacekeepers of our part of the universe, crash lands on Earth, his ring seeks out a person with no fear: Hal Jordan. Only Jordan has plenty of fears. But as sometime-boss, sometime-girlfriend Carol Ferris points out, the courageous person is the person who can confront their fears and overcome them.

Strangely enough, the most compelling parts of the film take place on OA, the home planet of the Green Lanterns and the Guardians, who for millenia have told them what to do. That's where Hal as GL is taken for his training and indoctrination into the corps. It's great fun watching the drill sergeant of the Lanterns teach Hal how to fight. In fact, the characters in this film who are the most compelling to watch are the alien Lanterns, characters like Sinestro (played by a powerful Mark Strong), Toma-Re, a fish-like chicken biped (voiced wonderfully by Geoffrey Rush). And the purple but majestic Abin Sur (played in a lot of makeup by Temuera Morrison) , the dying Lantern who bequests his ring to a human weakling. When the camera is on any of these terrifically-drawn characters (well, only Toma-Re is animated), the movie comes to life. When it settles back down to Hal Jordan himself, it -- actually, we -- go to sleep.

I know there will be changes in the transition from comic book to live action. I can live with a different suit -- which actually was magnificently brought together by veteran costume designer Ngila Dickson -- and I can live with the loss of the white gloves. It was great to see the supporting characters from the sixties' comic book come to life, but terribly disappointing to see Green Lantern himself -- Hal Jordan -- as such a weakling, so fearful. This is NOT the GL I grew up with.

Thumb's down.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


I laughed when I saw Moneyball. I cried when I got to relive some of the moments from the glorious 20-game streak. But I ended up angry at the end.

Moneyball isn't so much of a baseball movie as a look at what happens when you go against 100 years of tradition in a sport, as Billy Beane actually did in the 2002 season. What the movie explores is how people reacted to him when Beane found a way to compete in a sport where money actually talks and he had none. What the movie doesn't tell you is that the Moneyball treatise -- that is, the use of sabremetrics, or on-base statistics, to determine which players to play -- stopped working for the Athletics within a year after they employed it. Bigger baseball teams with more payroll caught on right away, and used money and stats to improve their game.

Brad Pitt is very engaging in this role, the most I've ever witnessed. but he's no Billy Beane. Beane isn't as flippant, is rather studious, not like the buffoon Pitt often imagined. Art Howe's portrayal by Phillip Seymour Hoffman is just wrong. Howe has never been a curmudgeonly old man, and was a communicative coach. Some of the scouts have argued that the script played loose with their characters, but still kept their names. Why couldn't they have just changed a name or two? Jonah Hill, for instance, was really Paul DePodesta, or actually an amalgam of several analysts; they changed his character's name.

While I realize it was a fictionalization of the story, they changed history quite a bit to suit the story. I enjoyed the story -- laughing, crying -- until I got to the character assassination part.

Thumb's up with reservations.


The title of this film is misleading: there is no abduction here in the movie, anywhere. But the word sets up the expectation that there could be one, something as nefarious as the idea is imminent, and we'd better pay close attention to figure it all out. If only it were that complicated.

Teenager Jake (Taylor Lautner of werewolf Twilight fame), while doing a homework assignment, discovers that he's listed as a missing person at age four. When he attempts to find the truth, all hell breaks loose.

There's a lot of action, all right, which means that Jake and his girlfriend spend almost the entire time running from.... somebody. This is after a terminally long scene setting Jake's home life situation, including a really long sequence where he fights his dad on the front lawn. That latter was meant to show that Jake could survive in the wild with people chasing him, if need be, but also pounds home the point that, like any teenager, he has an ambivalent relationship with his dad. Unfortunately, it's all rather boring.

The dialogue is simple, the plot is simpler, some of the situations are just ridiculous -- like, when did you ever see the Pirates stadium full of fans? -- but a reading of the cast leads you to believe there is something more here. Award winners Alfred Molina and Sigourney Weaver as well as Maria Bello? Oh, yeah! But, I'm sorry: Oh, no.

I felt guilty for dragging my friend to this movie. It's on the level of a pre-teen, except for the snogging scenes between the two teens. But I would think anyone over 15 would be moving on to a better movie, despite Lautner's built-up appearance. I realize Lautner is trying to build a movie career, but at what price? His muscles get a workout in this one, but the audience's collective brains and emotions do not.

Thumb's down.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Conspirator

This latest film produced and directed by Robert Redford is a historical drama that replays the military trials of those suspected of coordinating and carrying out the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, as well as coordinated attempts on the lives of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

The film follows the specific trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow whose boarding house was a meeting place for the conspirators. Set to defend her is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who was recently a captain in the Union Army who has just returned to law practice at the age of 27. He is rather forced into taking Surratt's case even though he believes her to be guilty from the onset.

I found the movie rather slow to start but, after awhile, the film was quick to gain interest, mostly because of the way the deck of justice is stacked against Mary and her lawyer. At every turn in this military tribunal, Aiken's thrusts and parries are thwarted, mostly by the rather nasty tribunal head (Colm Meaney) and the prosecuting lawyer Joseph Holt (Danny Huston). However, as the layers are pealed away, we discover those powers working behind the scenes, like Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who are convinced that the nation needs convicted bodies and may not survive if it doesn't get them. The movie became fairly riveting when, during the proceeding, I made the rather obvious connection between this hundred-year-old military trial of civilians and our country's current and recent administration's position of selecting those involved in the 9/11 attacks for the same military judgment without benefit of jury.

We would love to have lawyer James McAvoy on our side in any judicial process, as his portrayal of Surratt's lawyer dugdeeper than was politically prudent. And McAvoy's Aiken is, of course, the lens through which we watch this trial. Is Mary innocent? Did she or her daughter know more about the brewing conspiracy involving her son? That may be of interest to us but really isn't important. The relevance is whether justice was served, and whether those suspected of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable within our borders are deserving of the rights the Constitution demands. One year after Surratt was hanged, the Supreme Court said yes.

Thumb's up.