Reviews for 2010

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The Ghost Writer

Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams.
Directed by Roman Polanski.
Rating: 7/10

I'm guessing most of the political concerns expressed in The Ghost Writer are more attributable to its writer, Robert Harris, than to its director, Roman Polanski. Harris wrote the novel, The Ghost, on which the movie is based, and co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. The story of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) assigned to the life story of a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), gives ample opportunity to riff on the career of real-life former B.P.M. Tony Blair and his willingness to share the bed with the United States in matters of unsavory foreign policy in regards to the Middle East. The movie's criticism implies that the U.S. may have had a little too much control, and that Blair was too willing to follow along.

Whether or not this reflects the view of Polanski is arguable, since he seems to have stepped into what I sometimes call "exercise mode." The Ghost Writer is a polished mystery thriller, where the title character (whose name is never given) discovers there may be political intrigue behind the career of his subject, then suddenly believes his life may be threatened due to his getting too close to the truth -- after all, his predecessor was found dead on the beach. Polanski grinds the gears to entertaining effect, never losing pace from beginning to end, while not necessarily offering anything new. I would have expected a swipe at the U.S., given his legal history with the country, but the closest the movie gets is the idea that the U.S. would harbor Lang, who has been accused of war crimes in his own country, and that might seem, well, hypocritical. The only other interesting nugget for thought may be the device of placing great importance on a typed manuscript -- literally, a big pile of paper -- in a world where computers, GPS navigators, and the ability to Google prove all too useful. The reason the manuscript is typed is to protect its privacy -- it can't be easily copied and stolen that way -- which figures to give analog methods in general a significance, proving to be more secure and valuable, almost sacred, than their technologically-advanced counterparts. At the very least, this opens the path to an amusing observation -- The Ghost Writer is an old-fashioned thriller, after all, and weren't stories like these much easier to write in the old days when documents had to be physically shuttled around and no one could just use a cell phone to easily call for help? (added 8/17/2010)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Ingvar Hirdwall, Björn Granath, Ewa Fröling, Marika Lagercrantz.
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev.
Rating: 7/10

The Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was met with much success throughout the world, and one must wonder if its rather old-fashioned mystery feel had something to do with it, for despite its occasional extreme touches -- evidence of cruel murders, an unabashed sex scene, and one particularly discomforting rape scene -- what one might take away is the coziness of watching the investigation of an old unsolved crime. The story involves a falsely disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), being asked by an old island-dwelling mogul (Sven-Bertil Taube) to give a final stab at solving the '60's disappearance and apparent murder of his favorite niece. It sounds old-fashioned already, but an injection of modernity is given by the presence of a young punk/hacker girl named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who is at first observing Blomkvist but then later joins him in his case. Her inclusion provides some extra intrigue, since she seems to be hiding a troubled past, which only adds to the inherent enjoyment one gets from watching smart, observant, and resourceful people figuring out clues and possibly uncovering a killer amongst several given suspects. All that was missing was a scene where people are gathered in a drawing room while the detective points a finger and reveals the truth.

However, the story does have a little more on its mind, as evidenced by a concern for the plight of victimized women. The original title of the film and the Stieg Larsson novel it's based on is Män som hatar kvinnor, translated as "Men Who Hate Women," and indeed there seem to be many of them here. The central mystery is based on the possibility of a young woman's murder; the investigation leads to the revelation that there have been a series of murders of other young women in the area; and Salander is seen early on as a sexual victim of a lascivious probation guardian. And that isn't the end of it when you also include the third act revelations. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't take an exploitative tone with this subject, as most of the dreadful acts are discovered after the fact; rather, it spotlights how pervasive this blight of society is -- how easy it is for men not only to possess the desires to harm women, but also to be able to act upon them and get away with it. The movie makes the case that, for as prevalent as the crimes and the attitudes that spawn them are, expressed in the film from beginning to end, they somehow remain invisible, and, by extension, passively acceptable to even the modern-day civilized world, and that is lamentable. (added 9/8/2010)

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Annika Hallin, Per Oscarsson, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson.
Directed by Daniel Alfredson.
Rating: 6/10

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and instead of following intrepid mystery solvers Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) as they work on an old missing persons case, this time the story is specifically about Salander. Somehow, this makes everything a little less interesting -- it's not that Salander isn't an interesting character, just that watching her and Blomkvist work on something together last time allowed us to see their characters unfold and their relationship develop naturally. This time, Salander's been framed for three murders, and as she and Blomkvist work on separate tracks to figure out the truth, conventions start to take over the story. Not only are secrets revealed about her past and her family, but much of the menace is driven this time by underworld criminals and their typical habits of kidnapping or offing people who interfere with their smooth operations. The story even resorts to throwing in the James Bond-style henchman who does all of the boss's dirty work.

The former movie's themes of society's enduring cruelty to women is only touched upon this time, as the ball gets rolling due to Blomkvist's colleague working on an exposé on the Swedish sex trade. But once the focus hones in on Lisbeth, it remains there; even Blomkvist's role feels downplayed, as he barely interacts with his tattooed friend this time around. The saving grace in all this, perhaps, is how the character of Salander continues to feel like a unique alternative to a typical movie heroine. She can't escape feeling like a character strictly of fiction because her qualities feel written/composed, but we can at least appreciate the attempt at something creative and different. How many other movie series can claim to have as their protagonist an independent, extremely tech-smart, pierced-and-tattooed lesbian hacker with photographic memory? Someone in the movie cracks that she is "invincible," and the movie goes on to assert this both literally and figuratively, as the character continues to impel herself to indelibility. (added 11/2/2010)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Annika Hallin, Lena Endre, Anders Ahlbom Rosendahl, Hans Alfredson, Jacob Ericksson, Sofia Ledarp, Mikael Spreitz, Niklas Hjulström, Lennart Hjulström, Georgi Staykov.
Directed by Daniel Alfredson.
Rating: 5/10

Film adaptations of late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium series" seem to be working backwards -- they start by pairing a potent protagonist couple, then proceed to separate them on individual tracks in the next story. By the time we get to the third and final entry, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the more fascinating of the two, the guarded, talented, and versatile Lisbeth Salander, played by Noomi Rapace, spends most of the story constrained -- first in the hospital, then in prison. What fun is that?

The movie picks up right where the last one, The Girl Who Played with Fire, left off, and now the organization associated with the evil Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov) is out to silence Salander because she knows too much and to deter our other hero, "Millenium" magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) from publishing the story about Salander's past as it involves them and Zalachenko. Eventually, this involves getting Salander convicted for the attempted murder of her father; therefore, while she's either in the hospital recovering or sitting behind bars awaiting the trial, she can only text her friends and hope for the best. Blomkvist gets to do most of the footwork, but his journey is quite straightforward here, and it all leads to a very tidy conclusion that leaves behind no loose ends.

By the time we finish up Hornets' Nest, the major themes of cruelty to women and decades-strong hidden corruption in Sweden feel diluted; within the narrative, they take on trite functionality and defer to genre conventions (the secret organization of old men and their threats; the lasciviously wicked and condescending psychologist; the heroic journalists and hackers; the unfazed somewhat superhuman murderous silent henchman). The movie is determined to let its story play out, however mundanely, and as far as wrap-ups go, it's serviceable, although one's level of satisfaction completely depends on what one has invested in the characters from having been through the previous entries. It's a pity Larsson passed away before he completed his next story -- by the end of Hornets' Nest, the series is ripe for a rebound. (added 2/23/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Green Zone

Starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Rating: 5/10

Green Zone is the latest entry in the genre of movies that seeks to educate the public about an issue while still delivering as a cinematic entertainment. Success in one goal or the other might mark a success in general for one of these movie, but in the case of this Paul Greengrass-directed Iraq War thriller, its primary weakness contributes to crippling both goals. Matt Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who, during the 2003 taking of Baghdad, leads teams in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's) only to come up empty time and time again. Leading his own personal rogue investigation, he finds the intelligence on the WMD's may be suspect, and, worse yet, may have been allowed to give the U.S. a pretext for invasion. Frankly, for anyone who had been paying attention, this is either old news, an overly simplistic rendition of events, or both. Green Zone seems to be directed at an audience who has avoided news of the war, and yet if they had to watch a movie to get informed they would still be better off viewing Charles Ferguson's documentary No End in Sight.

Meanwhile, Green Zone wraps its information within a plot that has Miller ultimately seeking to apprehend an Iraqi general whose knowledge can expose the U.S. government in its willfulness to run with false information in order to justify an invasion. However, since the general is a military target for death, Miller must get to him before the U.S. special forces do. But again, because we're aware of what has transpired regarding WMD's since that time, it's easy for us to realize that the story is generating a cardboard suspense, and thus the stakes feel rather low. If we view the movie more in terms of action thrills, it's competent, but we know Greengrass has done better, as with his Bourne movies.

The film tries to pique our outrage, but then does so by painting with broad strtokes, to the point where the CIA members Miller allies with might as well be wearing white hats and the hold-the-line Pentagon official played by Greg Kinnear might as well be wearing a black hat. It's an angry, critical movie, but in the name of accessibility it foregoes complexity and depth in a subject that requires it -- a compromise that ends up yielding very little, and might actually be doing a disservice to the truth it alleges to expose. (added 7/31/2010)


Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Rating: 7/10

Director Noah Baumbach finds yet another way to explore his favorite topic -- human monsters, what makes them tick, and the damage they do to others -- with Greenberg. This time Ben Stiller plays the "monster," Roger Greenberg, a recent nervous breakdown survivor from New York who stays at his brother's Los Angeles home for some downtime while the brother is away on vacation. Like the corresponding characters from The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, Roger is intelligent and creative, but also self-absorbed and extremely defensive -- and, as we get to know him, we see that his horrible behaviors stem not from a sense of snobby superiority but from personal psychological wounds and a badly cross-wired defense mechanism which uses ego as a shield and belittlement as a sword. Baumbach's movie once again walks a fine line between being off-putting and being fascinating in its character study, and for me the positives win out, with help from Stiller in a strong, controlled performance outside his usual schtick, and Greta Gerwig as a kind but passive love interest who gives the film's key line, "Hurt people hurt people." It's interesting to see how Baumbach can extract so many shades of his favored particular character type, but I'm starting to wonder how long he can keep this up and hold our attention, because we now know fairly well what to expect (also, in the arc of characters from his three last films, each successive character gets closer to a subtle sense of redemption -- actual redemption would be the arc's logical and least informative endpoint). I, for one, would be curious to see what he could do with a different kind of realistic, damaged personality. We all know there's plenty to choose from. (added 8/17/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Julie Walters.
Directed by David Yates.
Rating: 9/10

Of all the movies to review, the final two "Harry Potter" movies feel the most pointless to cover. Let's face it -- if you have any reason to watch the seventh and penultimate movie in this series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, aside from happenstance curiosity, it will be because you've been following the story all along from the beginning. And if that's been the case, then you already know what to expect, especially since this film and the previous two films were directed by the same man: David Yates. He's gotten quite comfortable with his dark, gloomy style, and, if you're a fan, it's likely you've gotten quite comfortable too.

Also, since this is the first story which doesn't take place at the Hogwarts school, it's less self-contained than the previous stories. It also relies heavily on the assumption that if you're watching this movie, you should know what's been established already, because it explains very little in terms of how the magical world works -- and, frankly, since it's the seventh movie, it's more than earned this luxury. And I will go as far as to say this: if you've liked the other Harry Potter films, you'll like this one. I'm a fan of both the books and the films, and I thought it was pretty terrific.

Yates continues to shape Harry Potter's wizarding world as one of outright terror, thus continuing the idea that children use the warmth of family and friends to help prepare themselves for impending entry into a very hostile real world. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has it worse than most because there's a particular evil being out there who actively wants him dead, but for this outing Harry has some knowledge about how to weaken his opponent. Forsaking their last year of formal education, Harry and his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set out to locate and destroy the magical items that give his enemy, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the key to his immortality.

But the real adventure here is in seeing these three fast friends focused upon as they stumble through the dark with barely any clues as to how to proceed. Their relationships to each other are strained, tested, and strengthened. They've entered blindly into a world where they are now legally considered adults (in this world, this means they can perform magic outside school grounds without supervision), and they only have their wits and each other to rely upon. Watching the trio work without a net is in itself thrilling; it's no wonder the most memorable parts of the movie come from their interactions and the exercising of their trust, from battling enemies in a cafe to Ron's personal test to eliminate himself of jealousies. One of the loveliest scenes comes when Harry and Hermione are alone and downtrodden -- with a plaintive song playing on the radio, he invites her to dance as a momentary shielding from their predicament.

Yates's vision of this universe succeeds because its perspective is on the money -- the world at large is out to destroy the confused youth, and the youth fight back with a very localized comraderie. That comraderie, though, emanates an enormous strength, perhaps dim from an external view, but incredibly powerful (yet fragile) from an internal one. And that's really all that they -- and pretty much all others -- have. What Yates does right is make the outer world as scary as possible -- another director might've pulled punches, thrown in more humor, diminished the atmosphere of dread, since this is supposed to be a fantasy directed towards younger audiences. But Yates has been building his version of this world for two movies now, and he rightfully doesn't let up. Of course, if you're a fan of the Harry Potter films, you already expected this. (added 12/2/2010)


Starring Matt Damon, Cécile De France.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Rating: 7/10

Movies about the existence of an afterlife are almost always inherently hokey, and no doubt this danger threatens to torpedo director Clint Eastwood's somber and serious Hereafter for all of its running time. But I honestly believe Eastwood expects us to get over that -- that if we know we're being told a story where the living can possibly know of the world beyond, we should just run with it. And once we do, Hereafter emerges as a soft, sad story about loneliness and its natural proximity to the subject of death and the feelings surrounding it. The movie serves as a tangible illustration of that relationship, showing three people who have direct but different interests in the afterlife, and how this naturally creates a discontented solitude for each of them. One of them knows for certain that there is an afterlife, one has only just learned that its existence is realistically possible, and one greatly hopes that it does exist.

The movie addresses the idea that death is, and perhaps always will be, the "final frontier," and that the afterlife is a universal mystery that almost everyone wants badly to believe in. It's successful in communicating an identifiable state of desolation, both physical, as in the wake of a terrifying tsunami scene, and spiritual. Where it falters is in its ultimately leading up to a "life is for living" conclusion, which always seems to be the obvious message in stories about people obsessed with death. But along the way, Eastwood effectively taps into a well of our common feelings -- fear of death, the numbing shock of being aware of our mortality, and, most largely, the desperate need for closure, which feeds our hope for an afterlife. When all is said and done, no matter who we are, these might be the last things on our minds. (added 12/17/2010)

How Do You Know

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn.
Directed by James L. Brooks.
Rating: 6/10

Director James L. Brooks isn't doing much stretching with How Do You Know, a romantic comedy that begins with some intriguing concepts which aren't developed to their potential, settling instead for romantic triangle conventions. It starts with a veteran softball player, Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), at a crossroads and currently dating a pro baseball player, Matty (Owen Wilson). Somehow, George (Paul Rudd), a young corporate executive who's being investigated in a criminal case, gets involved. This is an odd group of players to spend time with, representing an odd combination of subjects, but the idea has some potential, for the characters are unconventional in terms of lifestyles and concerns. The film may have been a chance to make ostensibly unrelatable people relatable by showing that despite affluence, uncommon careers, and unusually enormous legal crises, we could see universal emotions when it comes to matters of the heart.

Well, the movie isn't quite like that. Much of this scenario's uniqueness isn't explored, and the triangle becomes something mundanely common -- a woman who finds herself naturally attracted to a man who may have natural charm but lacks both smarts and sensitivity while being pursued by someone more attentive and neurotic. After a while, it doesn't really matter what their backgrounds are, as the triangle goes through the motions. That said, much of what makes any of these kinds of movies run involves the appeal of the main actors, and all three, stalwart in their screen likabilities, smooth the proceedings. Perhaps most refreshing is Witherspoon's character not being obsessed with having to have a relationship; she just works through being in the relationship she's in along with simply trying to straighten out her thoughts and her life. It's a relief to see her in a non-gimmicky role. Rudd's part is unfortunately less thoughtful, reflecting the story's overall lightness in substance -- he's the guy who falls too hard in love with a woman he really barely knows -- but the actor, so deft with comedy, knows how to make this character fit into his surroundings. How Do You Know gives its players just enough room to remind us how important it is to have the right company guiding us through an evening's romantic trifle. (added 5/3/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

How to Train Your Dragon

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera.
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois.
Rating: 9/10

How to Train Your Dragon begins with only modest promise, as it's based on that old creaky template too often used in American animated family films -- the "misfit makes good" story. It's yet another tale about a kid who's an outsider -- in this case, he's Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the brainy son of a brawny chief Viking. They live in a Viking village that is constantly attacked by flying dragons, so badges of honor come from slaying one of the beasts; however, Hiccup, lacking in physical ability, tries to do it through his inventions. He comes from a line of animated protagonists that would include Flik from A Bug's Life and Flint from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the latter having come out only the previous year. It would be almost fair to say that Dragon is this year's Cloudy, since they share a story base.

I say "almost" because How to Train Your Dragon is better -- tighter, visually wondrous, and with a timelier theme. As luck would have it, Hiccup's latest try at wrangling a dragon succeeds, and he hits the jackpot in downing one that is extremely rare and dangerous. But he can't bring himself to kill it; rather, he finds it trapped in a valley enclave and takes it upon himself to study it, perhaps even tame it. It gives a strong message of favoring tolerance and knowledge over conflict and superstition. Through his actions, Hiccup displaces what his society has long taken as the norm -- solving problems with violence, allowing fear to dictate their actions, favoring feats of strength over feats of the mind, harboring an "us against them" mentality. His approach clearly illustrates the value in having a humane, intelligent approach to matters of the unknown. It's a worthy lesson for our children in the face of our culture of increasing knee-jerk anti-intellectualism and phobias.

The movie is also beautiful to look at, a credit to the Lilo & Stitch helming team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. In their previous movie, they doused the scenery in watercolors; this time, they have full capacity of computer-generated technology at their disposal and use it to create distinct charcterizations. As has been noted by others, the primary dragon, named "Toothless," is very much like Stitch, and carries much of the same appeal. And like the Disney film they put together, their latest project is fused together with humor, charm, and pathos.

I noted a couple of personal gripes with the movie -- it falls back a bit on modernized American tones and attitudes for the younger characters (while their elders are all stuck with strong comic Scandinavian accents); and it's a bit of a shame that the movie's climax must resort to defending one's self against an even greater monster, which is antithetical to what has been learned up to that point. But it also deserves some credit for a particularly brave development in its ending, and it's all enough to allow me to say Sanders and DeBlois have given DreamWorks Animation their best entry to date. (added 10/27/2010)

I Am Love

Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, Maria Paiato, Diane Fleri, Waris Ahluwalia, Gabriele Ferzetti, Marisa Berenson.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino.
Rating: 5/10

I'm not usually one to react poorly to over-the-top or showy presentations, but sometimes, as with I Am Love, this approach doesn't work for me. Director Luca Guadagnino uses ravishing photography to tell the story of Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian-born wife to the husband of a rich Italian family in Milan. As she discovers herself drawn to a new passion -- Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef friend of her eldest son -- her experiences are underlined with quick cuts to momentary memory flashbacks or shots of nature, and a swelling score by John Adams. At other moments, the camera swoops, shoots from odd angles, takes in various bits of scenery. It's very busy -- I might call it "fussy."

This is a tricky stylistic decision to employ because it has so much potential for backfiring, but when it's clicking it can express the highs and lows of emotions like nothing else. And I have no doubt that Guadagnino's film will work exactly that way for many viewers, yet for me the obvious attempts at enhancing lushness, rapture, and emotional swings were not connecting. I couldn't help noticing it was trying too hard.

The difference, for me, must simply be coming from the subject matter. This is a movie about a woman trapped in a privileged world -- hardly terrible, but understandably stifling -- who finds herself on the path to infidelity when she falls hard for a handsome young man. To be honest, I don't respond well to stories where people can't control themselves when they fall seriously in love on surface instincts. Although this undeniably happens in life, it's maddening and inexplicable, and thus its expression in storytelling often feels arbitrary. Such is the case here, in I Am Love -- Emma is struck after a trivial introduction to Antonio, simply, plainly, utterly. And I just can't care.

Dressing up the story with conscientiously beautiful shots of art, architecture, and nature just exacerbates the experience for me. We don't get to know the characters any better in the meantime, and then the movie, already glossily melodramatic, takes a silly plunge with an overblown ending. And yet I don't think I Am Love is a bad film -- it exhibits visual skill, it boasts a strong performance from Swinton, and it should have a place with romantics who aren't as picky as I am about where one's heart wanders to and why. (added 2/2/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Illusionist

Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet.
Rating: 8/10

The Illusionist comes from an unrealized script written by Jacques Tati, the comedic French filmmaker whose bumbling alter ego Monsieur Hulot could be found stumbling through classic films such as Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Playtime. The script fell into the hands of Sylvain Chomet, whose first feature was the animated delight The Triplets of Belleville. In what might be considered a stroke of genius, Chomet decided to adapt The Illusionist as a traditional animated film with its main character drawn in the likeness of Tati. Thus, the film plays as if it's one last film by Tati.

However, The Illusionist is clearly not a Tati film; it's a Chomet film. I had to wrestle with this for a bit. Going into the movie, I naturally thought I would be seeing something in the spirit of a Tati film, and my expectations were mostly met. Chomet and Tati's sensibilities match wonderfully, really -- they both have preferences for mime-like humor, i.e., their comedy is mostly visual and physical. Dialogue doesn't really exist; most of the time, fake words are mumbled, or conversations are muddled in the background. Deft use of sound effects, however, are intact. Chomet therefore conveys Tati's mode effectively; meanwhile, the animated Tati, a magician who, in his poster, calls himself "Tatischeff" (Tati's real family name), is rendered quite well, mimicking Tati's expressions and body language.

The tone of the movie, though, departs from the usual bemused playfulness of Tati's works. It's decidedly melancholy -- the story, set around the late '50's, is about this magician (sparsely voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) who is having more and more difficulty booking gigs and finding an appreciative audience. One gig in Scotland lands him an admirer, a teenage girl named Alice (sparsely voiced by Eilidh Rankin), who believes his magic is real. He does a nice turn for her -- buying her new shoes to replace her worn ones, and presenting them to her in the form of a magic trick. She then follows him to Edinburgh, where she continues to believe he can bring her gifts out of thin air; unwilling to tell her the truth, he obliges, but at the cost of his own dwindling cash supply, for which he is forced to take demeaning extra jobs.

The nature of the relationship between the two main characters is not made entirely clear, and we can only assume the illusionist continues his charade both because he doesn't want to let the girl down, and because he's happy to have a genuine young admirer whom his tricks can still charm. Much of the movie makes a large point of the transition in public preference from old school entertainment, such as magicians, mimes, and ventroloquists (the latter two are represented by their own characters who also fall on hard times) to more crass fare such as rock bands. The film's chosen medium, hand-drawn animation, also lends itself to this theme. As it happens, this also falls in conjunction with one of Tati's classic concerns -- the rise and confusion of modernization and technology. All stars ought to feel perfectly aligned here.

But Tati always made much merriment in his stories. His unfortunate Mr. Hulot may have been confounded by all the new gadgets and cityscapes, but he always kept his chin up and marched forth to the next brave new world undaunted. By contrast, by the time The Illusionist starts to wind down, it feels like it's accepting defeat. Although the movie lightens things up with several Tati-inspired comedy bits, the overarching tone is a dour one.

How much of this is Chomet and how much of this was straight from Tati's script is up for speculation. The script came with its own rather sordid external tale, involving a debate on which of Tati's daughters -- an illegitimate vs. an acknowledged -- it was really dedicated to. Either way, one concurrence might be that Tati wrote the story as a way of expressing regret that he could not be there enough for that daughter, and that his profession somehow alienated him from her. So it may quite be that The Illusionist's sadness reflects Tati's own feelings at the time. It may also be telling that Tati never filmed this script, opting instead to continue the light adventures of Mr. Hulot. To give Tati his posthumous chance to express a very sad story may have been Chomet's only true course, and, to be honest, the film is beautifully, thoughtfully realized. But there's a part of me that prefers to think that were Tati given the chance to knowingly produce his own swan song, he would not go out as the illusionist does here, but rather in a manner more reminiscent of the exit of Charlie Chaprlin's Little Tramp in Modern Times -- scuffed up but hopeful, walking towards the sun. (added 3/16/2011)


Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine.
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Rating: 9/10

Previous to Inception, Christopher Nolan has directed six films, none of which I dislike, and three of which I outright love, including his last two, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. His movies are often puzzle-like and require great cerebral attention, which is part of what makes his works so rewarding to watch. But one might hesitate to call them "entertaining" in the common sense of the word. Nolan's films often reach into the dark recesses of men's minds, and the view there is so pessimistic and gloomy that it wouldn't be a stretch to say his movies are missing a "feel-good" quality. They're cool, even slick, but could they be called fun?

With Inception, Nolan finally lets loose that fun side. Let's not be mistaken -- the seriousness of tone still remains, and the main character, Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio; the character's name refers back to Nolan's first film, Following), is haunted throughout by the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) -- but the draw of this movie involves its realization of concept. Simply put, the world of Inception is one where people have found ways to visit and infiltrate other people's dreams; thus, much of the movie takes place in dreamscapes, and, as we know, inside the mind anything goes.

Nolan thus takes the opportunity to give us his version of dream worlds, and it's actually quite unique. He resists random disorientation, preferring to place his dreamers in fabricated, but mostly grounded, worlds. Once inside such a space, everything that happens appears relatively believable, but shifts in reality can occur, and it's the shock of those shifts that provide the impact to the dreamer -- and the audience. Inception's dream worlds are tightly wound, and when shifts happen, they are intriguing, anticipatory. They can lead to bursts, which are cathartic, thrilling. And just getting to play around with such a set up provides a lot of, yes, fun.

The movie features many moments of build-up which find their payoffs in some wonderfully playful visuals. Most of the time, the dream worlds are destroyed through spontaneous bursting, as objects and buildings around the characters pop, crumble, and explode. There are moments of controlled surrealism, such as when the populace in a dream all at once decide to look at the dreamer, or when the landscape visually defies normal physics. I think the most entertaining set piece involves gravity changes in a hotel corridor. Watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt battle an opponent hand-to-hand while walking up walls, falling on the ceiling, and being hurtled towards the elevator might easily be one of the coolest movie scenes of the year.

If Inception feels slightly lacking in anything, Nolan would have no one to blame but himself. His previous movies appealed greatly to me because they were about men making choices, breaking moral codes, and dealing with mostly internal consequences. In comparison to his past works, Inception's main story is pretty straightforward. The external story involves Cobb and his team of dream infiltrators working on a job to get inside the head of the heir of a powerful businessman, but the internal story is about Cobb's dealing with the loss of his wife. The danger here? His unresolved feelings have a way of intruding in the dreams he visits, manifesting themselves as antagonistic entities. Although this part of the story falls in line with some of Nolan's usual themes of men willfully deluding themselves, and of the relativity of guilt, it was better explored in Memento and here seems more casually employed as an emotional anchor for the main character (on a side note, poor DiCaprio -- that's two movies this year in which he plays someone crushed by the tragedy of losing his wife).

However, I think we can forgive Nolan for being more interested in exploring cool effects and inventive visuals this time. It's the first of his films that I would call flat-out fun, from the tricky opening to the coolness of the cast (a great group of actors including Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy) right down to the smile-inducing teaser ending. The movies have a proud line of dream explorations and unreal worlds, from Spellbound to Dreamscape, Dark City and The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to almost anything by Luis Buñuel, David Lynch and Satoshi Kon. Now Inception can be proudly added to this list of places we might never have been able to go to, but are now privileged to be able to revisit again and again, thanks to the dream-like imaginations of intelligent, creative directors like Nolan. (added 7/16/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Inside Job

Directed by Charles Ferguson.
Rating: 10/10

By now, I've watched a good share of issues-oriented documentaries. The best ones are those that leave you justifiably angry at whatever injustice it's discussing, whether the subject be Enron, electric cars, dolphin killings, or the Iraq War. I expected Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's examination of the 2008 financial crisis and the events leading up to it, to leave me in a similar, perhaps even more intense, fit of anger and indignation. What I didn't expect was my actual reaction -- one of dismay at our utter, complete helplessness.

Ferguson's documentary is a straight-faced sobering account of how the U.S. steadily and surely brought itself to the recent financial collapse that has had global implications. Not really intended for those who are already steeped in knowledge about it, the film works extremely effectively as a summary course of events, allowing those who can't tell a CDO from a CDS to understand, piece by piece, how the house of cards was built. Narrated with great poise by Matt Damon, it's thorough, filled with interviews (and when an interview request was turned down, it gladly tells us), and points to numerous targets, from the bankers to politicians (both Republican and Democrat) to higher level educational institutions.

The level of greed and unethical behavior exposed is staggering, of course. But what's worse is the realization that, in this world, money, power, and influence build upon each other in an upward spiral to the point where most of these people who were involved in these financial shenanigans are now practically untouchable. More pointedly, they're the ones in control -- of the economy, of our government, and of the system that keeps their few numbers ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. Hope for any kind of justice feels fruitless because, in the span of a few short decades, these figures have rigged a system to chip away at regulations while entirely dodging the remaining ones, and to pull the strings of the authorities who might have the moral interest in persecuting them. When the heat gets turned up, they have convenient back doors through which to escape. The word "accountability" must be a joke to them.

Inside Job also touches upon the possible reasons why these Wall Street moguls act the way they do. The simple reality that it must all be simply a big ego contest to them is both disgusting and utterly believable. When competitive men find a way to succeed more and more at what they're doing, while getting away with dishonest and compassionless behavior, why would they stop? Why wouldn't they do everything to protect their personal domain? Why would they even find it questionable to sell a loan to someone as safe, then turn around and make money by betting on its failure? Once again, here are examples of what happens when normal human survival behaviors get stretched and honed to a point far away from ground level -- the relative concerns of morality dwindle miserably in the face of self-justifications. (Just listen to some of the guilty interviewees stuttering when Ferguson asks an ethical question -- it's both comical and terribly depressing.)

Normally, in a story such as the one we're being told here, a downfall is forthcoming. The characters we follow make a fortune but then have no more soul to claim -- they sit in their big houses with a feeling of emptiness, perhaps pining for their childhood sled. Inside Job's biggest impact to me was to show me just how romanticized that ending is. These bankers, these heads of financial institutions and government financial bodies have found ways to bilk every working class man and woman out there, then look the other way as they golden parachute into their mansions in the Hamptons. And we want them to go to jail and realize the horror of what they've done? Is that too much to hope for? The answer may be too hard to face. (added 3/13/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Ip Man (2008; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Fan Siu-wong, Lynn Hung, Lam Ka-tung, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.
Directed by Wilson Yip.
Rating: 8/10

My immediate impression of Wilson Yip's Ip Man was that it felt very similar to Ronny Yu's Fearless. It occurs to me that martial arts movies all feel of a certain piece these days -- they used to feel "dirty" and low budget, even when the fighters were enhanced by wires. Now they feel quite slick, polished, very produced. The fighting scenes are very conscientiously set up and then shot in a way to really show off the main character, and I suppose this makes sense in the case of both Fearless and Ip Man, since both movies are about rather legendary real-life figures. They lived in times close to each other and their stories follow similar paths, featuring a set-up which introduces us to their skills, a middle section presenting an introspective conflict, crises of foreign nation origins, and then a final battle showcase. And both men are renowned primarily for boosting the morale of their fellow countrymen, showcasing the strength of the Chinese people.

In the case of Ip Man, the titular hero, played by Donnie Yen, may be best known to Western audiences as the man who trained Bruce Lee. The movie tells the story of his life through the 1930s in the city of Foshan, where he is a local celebrity due to his unparalleled skill in martial arts. He's very wealthy and self-sufficient, taking on no students (unlike his friends and peers in the city), preferring to spend his days training. When the Japanese invade in 1937, he comes to realize that, despite all his skill, he is powerless to help his fellow countrymen while they are under the grip of their occupiers. Opportunity arrives and forces his hand when the stationed Japanese colonel shows great interest in martial arts, pitting the local Chinese fighters against his own Japanese martial artists for his personal interests.

The movie is clearly hagiographic, but this aspect and its general function as a martial arts movie are supported greatly by Yen. I still wonder how Yen hasn't managed to become as internationally recognized as Jet Li -- he's a pleasure to watch, and his fighting comes off as smooth, expert, efficient, and crisp. Ip Man has become perhaps his most prominent showcase after a career that mostly saw him playing martial arts antagonists; and yet the movie hasn't seen a U.S. theatrical release, instead making its stateside debut on video. In any case, his Ip Man is revealed to be something of a fresh change after all because unlike many movies about a fighter, his challenge doesn't lie in realizing maturity (this was indeed the route taken by Fearless); instead, it's one of self-realization and honor. When the movie begins, no one is more accomplished and more mature than Ip; but when the greater forces of war come crashing, he evaluates himself to find his proper place in the national destiny. The calm and affable Yen makes Ip Man easy to root for, both as a fighter and as a man with an adult dilemma that tests his ideals. This combination of personal journey, some eye-popping fight sequences, and the right star to deliver them allows Ip Man to rise to a satisfying height. (added 8/9/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Iron Man 2

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Rating: 6/10

In 2008, Iron Man, about one of the lesser-known Marvel superheroes, surprised many by becoming a smash hit. The secret to its success could be found in its bright atmosphere and its adult yet humorous tone, given full life by its star, Robert Downey Jr. It struck a delicate balance by being just serious enough -- it was about an irresponsible man coming to terms with the consequences of his behavior -- but always making sure it was at a level of pop fun.

Now its sequel, Iron Man 2, tries to maintain this same atmosphere and tone, and for the most part it succeeds. But here the main difference is there isn't much compelling that's driving the story. The first movie dealt with a man, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), who had the means to compose his own redemption; in the second movie he finds that he is dying due to a flaw in the technology that is actually keeping him alive, and since he can't seem to find a solution he pretty much just gives up. In other words, there's a reversal of the personal journey this time -- where before he was the complete master of his fate, now he is completely helpless, and while he responds to his situation with some erratic behavior, the movie doesn't explore much beyond that. Frankly, there's too much other stuff going on, not the least of which is the arrival of a new adversary, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who is determined to destroy Stark's life one way or the other.

Another subplot has to do with the U.S. government adamantly trying to get Stark to surrender the technology of the Iron Man suit to them for the purposes of military superiority. There's the potential for an interesting theme here about how once an idea is out there, it's out there, as Stark is convinced no one can duplicate his technology, only to find that this may not be entirely true. But the movie settles for something more plain, as one of Stark's competitors, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), somehow successfully gains the technology and simply wants to sell it to the bidder Stark is unwilling to entertain. It's corporate war dynamics viewed at face value as opposed to exploring the ethics behind the dangers of new inventions being brought into the world.

But at the center of it all is Downey Jr. once again in the role he was born to play, making this fluffier movie watchable. His character's intelligence and irreverence join with the movie's technophilia to create a sexy combination. The movie shows the appeal of bright lights and shiny metal, delivered without much irony, and worn by a guy who's credibly yet vulnerably cool. It's pretty much James Bond without the sheen of invincibility -- we even have Bond girls (Stark girls?) in Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson.

To reiterate, Iron Man 2 does maintain its pop fun and is reasonably entertaining, even though, in terms of story, it's mostly just treading water. It doesn't dive deep into its human concerns, only touching upon its plateful of potential interesting dilemmas, and frankly it spends a little too much time in setting up the imminent arrivals of other movies (the upcoming Avengers movie and, in the post-credits stinger, the Thor movie). Bent on escapism and content to stay on the surface of the issues it presents, it at least does its best to give that surface a pleasing, gleaming polish. (added 5/11/2010)

Just Wright

Starring Queen Latifah, Common, Paula Patton.
Directed by Sanaa Hamri.
Rating: 6/10

The utterly predictable story for Just Wright is, frankly, beneath Queen Latifah, but I suppose she didn't think so. Latifah is coasting through her acting career, and when she takes leading roles it's usually in lightweight romances or comedies -- and it's really not the "romances or comedies" part that bothers me. It's much more that, creatively, they're not very interesting.

However, Latifah usually makes up for this with her charming screen persona. Just Wright is another example of this -- the story concerns physical therapist Leslie Wright (Latifah) who ends up with the job of helping to rehabilitate an NBA superstar named Scott McKnight (Common). Brought to the situation by Leslie's golddigging best friend Morgan (Paula Patton), the grounded Leslie and the gentle, soft-spoken Scott eventually bond. No points for guessing what happens.

And yet what often buoys a romantic film starring Latifah is the subtext about a woman of size being sexy and having every bit an equal chance to land a man of her dreams. It's the encouraging tonic that makes her movies so pleasing, and in Just Wright it's made sharper by her character's direct competition with her skinny and very attractive friend for a prize catch -- no less than a millionaire gentleman basketball player. In a way, this movie flips the over-expressed male fantasy of the socially awkward guy who somehow ends up with the hottest girl. There's nothing wrong in saying the dreams of a regular girl should receive an equal kind of indulgence.

Director Sanaa Hamri, as she has with her past movies, give this one warmth, tastefulness, and an absense of over-dramatic conflicts. The whole movie sails smoothly, but it would've been smoother if Common were a better actor and generated more real chemistry with Latifah. Latifah, though, knows once again it's her movie to carry, and she's already quite accustomed to doing this job well. (added 10/16/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)


Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
Rating: 6/10

Kick-Ass is odd in that it starts out by appearing to aspire to be one story, only to give up about halfway through to fully adopt a subplot that would contradict its original aspiration. To detail it briefly, it begins by positing the possibility and general real-world improbability that the popularity of comic book characters might inspire someone to don a costume in real life to go and fight crime. It proceeds to show how foolish this idea would be, given that no one has superpowers, especially not the main protagonist Dave (Aaron Johnson), a teen who decides for no real good reason to become the costumed "Kick-Ass" -- but then goes on to give us a couple of very well-trained characters who also fight in costume. If the movie began as satire, it ends up negating itself; some might call this a simultaneous satire and love letter to the comic book genre, but I don't quite buy it -- this isn't like Adaptation, where the movie "giving up" is part of the joke. Kick-Ass gives up because it loves to indulge in what it's satirizing more than it cares to satirize it.

My question then becomes: why approach it this way in the first place? Why set out to demythify something when you clearly prefer to add to the myths? Kick-Ass, in effect, feels like two parallel movies -- the story about Dave and his learning the hard way why normal schmoes can't just become superheroes; and the story of Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz), aka "Big Daddy" and "Hit Girl," seeking vengeance against the city's powerful mob boss. One might observe that the second story is quite effective, mainly because director Matthew Vaughn overplays Hit Girl -- she's an instant shortcut to ironic humor in that she's not even a teenager, yet can murder mobsters in mere seconds, and often with a profane quip on her lips. Moretz deserves credit for creating instant rooting interest by being both sweet and jaw-droppingly deadly, a real kick-ass fantasy if there ever was one, and one that entirely contradicts the groundedness established in Dave's world. The movie pops so much when Moretz is on screen that you might realize there's no need for that original first storyline. By the time Dave learns his personal lessons (and the whole bit about YouTube fads is played out), you don't have much reason to care for him anymore; his further involvement happens against his will, and his life is endangered, but by that point the movie is no longer really about him.

Kick-Ass could've functioned perfectly well if it was called "Hit Girl"; I would go as far as to say the praise it has received would be identical if it had fully focused on Moretz's pint-sized assassin, effectively becoming a junior version of "The Bride" from Kill Bill. As it is, to say the movie is a high-concept analytical exploration (of why comic book characters don't inspire real-life costumed vigilantism) in an already over-analyzed genre would be totally insincere -- it's no such thing. It's really just another superhero movie, with no real commentary, ironic, meta, or otherwise; it's actual selling points are intensified injections of violence and profanity in an otherwise PG-13 genre. It's a bait-and-switch movie that lucks out because its switch is so much more appealing than its bait. (added 8/13/2010)

The Kids Are All Right

Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.
Rating: 5/10

The Kids Are All Right ought to be playing directly to my opinions, for the film's goal seems to involve depicting a gay marriage with kids as something normal, every bit as functional and dysfunctional as your typical straight marriage. Add in quirks that bring out the situation's uniqueness, plus make their troubles identifiable, and everything should go smoothly. But the movie actually takes this route too far down into trite territory. When the drama that's manufactured turns out to be as mundane as the drama we see regularly in the mainstream, the whole enterprise turns out to be tedious.

The story starts out with an interesting concept: Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), the two teenage children of Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), a lesbian couple, are curious to know the identity of their common biological father, the sperm donor. After they secretly find out he's a local man named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), they meet him and bring him into their family's life. This creates strain, as the controlling Nic not only thinks having him around is a bad idea, she doesn't take to him personally. On the other hand, Jules, who's usually dominated by Nic, is intrigued enough by Paul to have him become the first client in her new landscaping business. Meanwhile, the kids get to know him and become happy in spending time with him.

Such a premise appears fertile grounds for good, subtle drama, as everyone could be working out their push-and-pull feelings in a new and relatively complex sutiation. But subtle doesn't seem to be what The Kids Are All Right is going for. Although I'm about to spoil the key act in the middle of the movie, it's important to mention because it strongly affects the dynamics and direction of the film. So stop reading here if you're planning to watch the movie first. SPOILER: Jules ends up having an affair with Paul.

And right at this point the movie loses me. Throwing in an affair is the loudest, most obvious way to rock the boat in any story about testing the strains of marriage, and when it's used to become the dramatic fulcrum for the rest of the following events, the movie stops being about anything else. That's exactly what happens here, as the movie spirals into a hackneyed drain, complete with confrontations, emotional breakdowns, and character scapegoating. It's also fair to say that the affair feels entirely out of character and somewhat unfair to the characters themselves -- up to that point, Paul was interesting because we were being asked to make up our minds about him on our own.

As for Jules -- she's a lesbian, so why is she having an affair with a man? I'm not saying this isn't a possibility, but unfortunately it feeds into the false beliefs of many homophobes who think that homosexuality is a choice or a "sickness" that can be cured (especially if the right member of the opposite sex came along, right?). This development might have been more acceptable for a more daring movie, but the flow of The Kids Are All Right indicates it wants to play to the middle by depicting a lesbian but otherwise "normal" marriage that mainstream viewers could empathize with. If that's to be done, why offer prejudiced segments of the mainstream ammunition to further arm themselves with?

While my statements may indicate that I have little faith in the audience, if you've been even the slightest bit aware of the current battle for equality for homosexuals, you'd understand my concern. That the director, Lisa Cholodenko, is an open lesbian makes the telling of this story even more baffling. My concern also extends to the premise in the first place -- that the children not only have a curiosity for who their biological father is, but also actually enjoy spending time with him, effectively gaining and benefiting from the father figure they've never had. I know there are people who might feel comfortable with gay marriage but would draw the line on letting them rear children -- and once again the movie ends up proving their point more than the other way around.

In a perfect society, the story in The Kids Are All Right would work decently, only retaining the weaknesses of forcing it onto the track about having an affair. That the movie gets by as well as it does is due to the good acting on display, especially by the three adult leads. Ruffalo does the best job because his charms belie the petty flaws his character was supposed to display (and as a result, his initially likeable character ends up getting the worst treatment by the end of the film). Bening is very convincing, though her character feels like a stereotype otherwise. The combined troupe do a good enough job to make the movie get by, but not enough to mask the huge gears running the story, nor the accidental and ironic anti-progressiveness the movie has the potential to convey. (added 12/10/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The King's Speech

Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timonthy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Rating: 7/10

The King's Speech is a traditional, formulaic movie, but it works quite well. I believe this is due to two main factors: the acting is A-level and the story is quite peculiar. It follows the reluctant ascension of Britain's King George VI (played by Colin Firth), who ruled during his country's entry into World War II. Before becoming king, he was Prince Albert, the Duke of York, and his problem was a deep insecurity that manifested itself as a stammer, rendering him ineffective anytime he was required to publicly speak. To help him, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) hired one speech therapist after another until they finally settled on Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who demanded that, when he and the prince were in session together, they would treat each other as equals. Naturally, their relationship develops into one of friendship and trust. Centering a movie around the treatment of a speech impediment is an odd and interesting idea, and here it's used to create an unusual underdog story about a person who's last problem ought to be his ability to speak. It successfully opens up the character of King George VI, who is portrayed marvelously by Firth, and who is matched in presence by Rush. However, The King's Speech is also all too embracing of regular manipulative conventions, from its depiction of the arc of the central relationship to its general narrative arc, which culminates in, yes, a big speech. I'll admit it all went down smoothly during viewing, but then afterwards the aftertaste of familiarity dampened the glow. Entertaining yet a little too neat and tidy, The King's Speech gains its mileage from likable characters being played by fine actors, and ends up as another example of formula polished to a bright shine. (added 12/29/2010)

Knight and Day

Starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Jordi Mollà, Paul Dano.
Directed by James Mangold.
Rating: 5/10

Knight and Day is an action-comedy in the mold of True Lies, but without the wit or the urge to satirically comment on any particular subject. It exists for the sake of simple escapism -- an incidental romance punctuated with out-of-one's-element humor and computer-assisted chase sequences, wholly weightless. It finds Cameron Diaz playing a woman who is unwillingly caught up in the flight of a rogue CIA agent, played by Tom Cruise; the comedy comes from his not wanting her involved, but because she keeps making the wrong moves, he keeps her around so she won't get killed. Eventually, Diaz's character finds she's hooked on both the adrenaline and her savior, even though she's unsure about the truth of his stories. At some point, the movie just feels like an excuse to globetrot -- the plot places them in pretty location after pretty location, and the reasons why start to seem purely incidental. The movie's flimsiness hits home in the end via rushed climax, by which point the comic elements have taken over the action so much that suspense can no longer be generated. The most positive word I could use for Knight and Day is "breezy," and Cruise and Diaz feel like old pros here, but when its over the only thing that stands out about the movie is that it doesn't. (added 1/7/2011)

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