Writer/Director Alexander Payne was the creative force behind one of my favorite films from the past couple of years with About Schmidt. With Sideways he proves his insight into human nature was no fluke, but instead, an amazing gift. He captures many Hollywood stereotypes such as mid-life crisis, groom-to-be cold feet, post-divorce confidence crunch and the overall desire to be loved, or at least liked. What makes Payne’s work so unique is his ability to deliver multiple messages, with brilliant comic twists, using little more than unlikeable lead characters and sizzling dialogue!
Moral bankruptcy is at a peak in the film as one of our leads (the magnificent Paul Giamatti from American Splendor and Man on the Moon) steals cash from his mother, and the other (Thomas Haden Church from TV’s “Wings”) is on a mission to have his bachelor party last an entire week while claiming we just don’t understand his plight. Also delivering a wonderful touch to the film is Sandra Oh (Diane Lane‘s pregnant buddy in Under the Tuscan Sun). Oh has very unique looks and mannerisms, but is terrific as one of Church’s conquests.
The soul and spirit of this film belongs to the drastically underrated Virginia Madsen (if you have never seen The Hot Spot, make it priority viewing). Madsen (sister to cult favorite Michael Madsen of Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs fame) literally jumps off the screen with her eyes and smile. Her character wants so much for a better life, but is strong enough to avoid repeating her past mistakes. She is the one we root for. This is an excellent film and nice character study with a snappy jazz score.
2. KILL BILL Vol. 2
The most descriptive word I can come up with for Vol. 2 is DELICIOUS! Although I am a big fan of Vol. 1, this one is far superior, stands on its own, and is mad creativity onscreen. Vol. 2 provides us with much of the background and history of our key players, including their acceptance (or not) of spirituality.
What a pleasure to see David Carradine given such a wonderful role … an evil role that reminds of his “Kung Fu” days (with flute) – only this is Caine’s gleefully monstrous twin brother! Michael Madsen and Darryl Hannah offer nice supporting work and some very welcome humor. The fight scene with Hannah and Uma in the trailer is incredible, given the limited space with which to work. I would like to say that this scene proved the most claustrophobic for me, but it is not even close (hint: coffin)!
Despite the wonderful cast of characters, this is Uma’s film all the way. She delivers like no other female action star ever has: humble, personal, beautiful and vicious. Her physicality is remarkable and enthralling to watch. Tarantino delivers again. His creativity and love of film is beyond question. He is the master at interjecting humor just when the audience needs it. The use of music is pure genius and helps create this terrific masterpiece. Nothing else to say but tremendous filmmaking and a joy to watch.
3. MILLION DOLLAR BABY
What a pleasant surprise this gem of a film is! I had to force myself to go after the nominations because the trailer was SO BAD. Hilary Swank is totally believable as the trailer park trash dreamer who wants so much to be a professional boxer. The great Morgan Freeman brings elegance to his role as a former boxer / now wise janitor at Clint’s gym. Freeman again proves he is the best movie voice over working today (see Shawshank Redemption).
As wonderful as Hilary and Morgan are, there is no doubt that this is Clint’s (multi) million dollar baby. He directs and stars and writes the music. At almost 75 years old, he can still carry a picture, while not stealing scenes. Yes, the twist in this one smells like a Hollywood chick-flick, but the talented director (Eastwood) never lets it sink to that level. This is a terrific film by a top-notch filmmaker. The story is interesting, funny, dramatic and heart-warming and the acting is truly first rate.
4. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has a frightening brain and loves to share it. According to this wild ride from Mr. Kaufman, the only things that life in general and relationships specifically, offer are the memories and experiences. Results matter little.
Jim Carrey bashers will surely crucify his dramatic turn, but most will see the depth he brings to the role. He can act … it is just difficult for many to get past the Carrey icon. Kirsten Dunst again proves she is so much more than a pretty face. She emotes pain and joy and eagerness. Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson provide steady supporting roles, but the biggest disappointment is Kate Winslet. Think knock-off of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. She does not yet have the edge necessary to pull off this role.
Many will liken the film to Total Recall, but thanks to the writing, it will take you much deeper into your feelings than Arnold ever has! So enjoy the story (even if it a bit far-fetched) and the wonderful visuals, and be thankful there are filmmakers willing to take risks.
5. THE SEA INSIDE (Mar adentro)
Director Alejandro Amenabar creates life against all odds in this based on a true story version of one man’s struggle to control his destiny. The great Javier Bardem is fascinating to watch in his role as Ramon. His eyes and head movements leave little doubt what is going on in his mind. The dream and fantasy sequences are not overused so prove very effective in explaining why he wants what he wants.
Rather than force us to answer the euthanasia question, the real question posed is, “What is Love?”. At every turn we see people in love, looking for love or dying to be loved. The script is tight and keeps the film moving despite being filmed mostly in one room. The supporting cast is wonderful and we truly feel their pain and how each family member deals with Ramon’s decision. This is a gem and deserves to be seen.
6. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE
Director and writer Jared Hess has created one … scratch that, three of the most bizarre screen characters of all time, and in the process has an instant cult classic. There aren’t very many movies where Uncle Rico would not easily qualify as the strangest character, but here he has big time competition.
Jon Heder as Napolean is simply spectacular. Whether giving time travel a shot, firing an orange at a van, caging a chicken or slow-dancing, he is mesmerizing to watch. His dance solo is priceless (and pretty good!). His brother Kip finds love on the internet. His best fried Pedro is the shyest class president in history and his girl-crush takes “glamour” shots in her garage. By the way, Deb is played by Tina Majorina who was the little girl with the map tattoo in Waterworld.
This movie is such a wonderful commentary on high school, nerds, small town America, broken families, the need to connect with someone, chat rooms and “glory days” that never were.
7. FINDING NEVERLAND
This one caught me a bit off guard. Not exactly sure how it is being marketed, but this is an adult story presented in dramatic fashion by director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball). Johnny Depp continues his stellar run of spellbinding performances as Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, who penned the fantastical Peter Pan.
Although the film glosses over many of the details of the enigmatic Barrie’s life, it does a wonderful job of capturing his fascination with Andrew and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’ kids and their hunger for playtime and childhood. Freddie Highmore as Peter had more than a few moms in the audience reaching for Kleenex. He will next be seen (again alongside Johnny Depp) in Tim Burton’s Charlie and Chocolate Factory (a reinterpretation by Burton of Willy Wonka). A slimmed down Kate Winslet and still striking Julie Christie play well against Depp and the kids. Dustin Hoffman (miles from his lead in Spielberg’s Hook) offers up another nice turn in a supporting role as the theatre owner. My only concern is that this film will fail to find an audience. It is not a remake of Peter Pan and most kids will probably be bored, while adults will be enthralled.
Having seen the great Ray Charles perform live many times, I was slightly apprehensive about how his early years would be treated on film. When I heard Taylor Hackford (Against All Odds, An Officer and a Gentleman) would direct, I became less than thrilled. Although the film does not capture the true meanness of the times (racial inequities, music biz sleaze), it does a wonderful job of bringing to life the spirit of Mr. Charles’ music genius.
Terrifically acted throughout by Regina King (Will Smith’s wife in Enemy of the State), Bokeem Woodbine (The Rock), Curtis Armstrong (Booger in Revenge of the Nerds) as the visionary, Ahmet Ertegen and newcomer Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson – Ray’s tough, hard working mother, this film is carried with dazzling brilliance by Jamie Foxx. Foxx IS Ray Charles. The head movement, smile and walk are all spot on. Foxx and the live Charles cuts make the movie work.
A few Hackford things that I could have done without were the numerous close-ups and the whole drug rehab section. I would have liked more attention given to Charles’ business savvy and his impact on musicians’ dealings with record companies. Numerous flashbacks are utilized to connect his childhood to growth as an adult. The drug abuse is dealt with head-on, as is his infidelity. The music will give you chills and take in the closing credits and the absolute best version of “Georgia on my Mind” that you will ever hear.
9. THE INCREDIBLES
OK, so I felt a little foolish walking into an animated feature without any kids. The embarrassment turned into fascination as soon as Boundin“ started. Nothing like a nice little short film parable to start the day! The Incredibles is the latest offering from Pixar (and the director of The Iron Giant) and is bit like Toy Story on steroids. Everyone from age 5 and up will enjoy this and some will be shocked at the action sequences and drama of the story.
Craig T. Nelson (TV’s “Coach” and the Poltergeist dad) and Holly Hunter (Thirteen and The Piano) are the lead voices as Mr. Incredible and his wife, ElastiGirl. They are Superheroes forced into hiding and feeble attempts at normalcy with their kids, who were of course also blessed with superhero traits. The action sequences are nothing short of breathtaking and the mix of parental struggles, teen angst, sibling rivalry and hero worship make for a story strong enough to keep one’s interest for 2 hours. Pixar continues to flirt with reality in their animation and we get the feeling that at anytime they will trick us with the blurred line between reality and fantasy.
Samuel L Jackson and Jason Lee turn in nice voice acting, but little Dash pretty much steals every scene he is in. The closing credits are a delight with the visuals and the score … which blends James Bond, The Avengers, The Pink Panther and Looney Toons all into one sound!
10. HOTEL RWANDA
Don Cheadle’s Academy Award nomination for Hotel Rwanda is a well deserved and a wonderful thing. Hopefully it will encourage even more to see director Terry George’s incredibly moving tale of the 1994 Rwanda crisis between the Tutsis and the Hutu. As with Schindler’s List, nothing is more powerful than a real life hero.
Paul Rusesabagina is a real life hero. With the slaughter of nearly a million right outside his front gate, Paul R gave refuge to nearly 1000 who surely would have died. The tour de force by Cheadle is with his divergent performance from the elegant Hotel manager to the smooth negotiator to the passionate husband, parent and humanist. This man cares about people and what is right. Although, Nick Nolte’s performance was slightly askew, the movie is well paced and heartfelt and should be seen by many. Very powerful.
11. THE AVIATOR
Having read quite a bit about Howard Hughes and having some of my most memorable movie experiences come from the eye of Martin Scorcese, I was most anxious for the release of the film. This may however be one of the few times when Mr. Scorcese actually underplays the importance and legend of a character. The movie is wonderful (typically breath-taking Scorcese visuals), but falls short of being great, in part because Leonardo DiCaprio is not quite able to capture the presence of Hughes the man. The look and mannerisms are fine, but we never experience that feeling of greatness that so many talk about when discussing what it was like to be around the man.
Some artistic license was taken with Hughes’ withdrawal after the near fatal plane crash. Scorcese draws on what he became later to show that the head injury was the beginning of the fall for this very brilliant, tormented man. As usual, Scorcese provides a stellar supporting cast including Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Jude Law and Gwen Stefani. Baldwin’s “meeting” with Hughes, held with a door between them, is a riveting Baldwin performance similar to Glengarry Glen Ross. John C. Reilly perfectly captures the puppy dog loyalty of Noah Dietrich, but the performance that jumps off the screen is Blanchett as Kate Hepburn. I truly believe these two were soul mates who understood each other, but were misunderstood by most everyone else. Hepburn’s independent boldness was way ahead of her time. Overall, the movie captures Hughes at the most creative point in his life.
12. BEING JULIA
Annette Bening’s performance is wonderful and goes through a wide range of emotions – from self pity, to child-like happiness, to revengeful diva. This had to be pure fun for her. Veteran Michael Gambon adds grace and humor in his role as Bening’s theatre role model and coach. Jeremy Irons plays his role in a self-mocking manner, given his history of playing stuffy Brits. Shaun Evans as T-O-M is well cast as the Chris O’Donnell-type who thinks he is smarter than everyone else … and is for awhile.
Although I have only seen one other film by Hungarian director, Istvan Szabo, his touch is very clear and I enjoy how he paces his pictures. Bening is the real story here, however, as she dominates the movie and is over-the-top when she needs to be and tender and quiet when it serves the purpose. She appears to have bought into Gambon’s directive that Theatre is reality … real citizens are living a fantasy.
13. MARIA FULL OF GRACE
14. I AM DAVID
A very touching, heartfelt film without the Hollywood gloss, I Am David takes us on a journey of hope and discovery. We get to experience the world through the eyes of a first timer. Ben Tibber (a child actor well-schooled at the Tiny Tim role) follows the advice he is given, prior to his escape from concentration camp, as his journey takes him throughout Europe.
While in the camp, David befriends Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ). Caviezil’s courageous death sets in motion the plan to allow for David’s escape. Tibber’s expressive eyes and the breathtaking countryside scenery carry the film until Joan Plowright explodes on the screen.
The movie really gains spirit at this point, but regrettably, this is also where it appears the producers ran out of money. The last 10 minutes of the film are harried and rushed with little dialogue. The result is a wonderful ending spoiled. Still, the film is a delight to watch and will tug at your heartstrings as you admire and pull for David to complete his journey.
15. SUPER SIZE ME
My daughter and I have been anxiously awaiting the release of this film since first reading about it months ago. Director (and lab rat) Morgan Spurlock takes on a fast food exclusive diet for 30 days and fills us in on the painful steps and sickening conclusion.
For the most part, Spurlock does an excellent job proving that we eat too much fast food, that it is very harmful to our bodies, and that there is evil at work conditioning kids that fast food is real food. The most frightening part of the story was the school cafeteria segment showing how kids eat when parents are not around and when school administrators pay no attention. This is the crux of the problem.
I did not agree too much with the doctor’s comparison of Spurlock to Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Cage’s character was trying to commit suicide, while Spurlock was running an experiment and even considered quitting when the doctors were begging him to stop. I believe this should be required viewing for all junior high and high school students, as well as all expecting parents. This could be an educational tool to convince people to put a little more effort into their health.