Slumdog Millionaire

Where do I begin? This movie is involving, exciting, funny, horrific, unpredictable, and utterly captivating. It won a "Peoples Choice" award for Best Director for Danny Boyle ("Sunshine" and "Millions") at the Toronto Film Festival, and it will open in the U.S. in time to qualify for a Best Film Oscar. The official opening date originally was early 2009. The wonderful script was written by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty," "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" and "Blow Dry"). Considering my fondness for those films, I'm not surprised I liked it.

We follow orphaned Jamal as he and his brother struggle to survive the Dickensian squalor and poverty of Indian slums. They are Muslim, so are attacked by Hindus. (Yes, religious zealotry rears its ugly head all over the world!) They are energetic and fearless, as evidenced by their many clever ploys and schemes. At one point, one of the little guys poses as a tour guide at the Taj Mahal while the other steals shoes that must be left outside the edifice. As time goes by, they are joined by Latika, a desperate little girl about their age who would like to be their "Third Musketeer."

Eventually they taken in by what seems to be a kindly man, but who intends to maim Jamal to increase his value as a street beggar. Rescued by his brother, they try to save the girl too, but she loses her grip while trying to escape on a moving train (this movie is action PACKED!). By the time Jamal becomes a contestant in the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?," the three of them have been separated for a few years, so he hopes the resulting visibility will help him reconnect with the other two.

This is a wonderful illustration of how a street urchin learns the trivia he needs for such a contest. Brace yourself for some interspersed scenes of torture, as the host of the show is sure Jamal is being fed the answers and he wants the police to get a confession before the big payoff.

The adult versions of Jamal and the girl are appealing in every way. Freida Pinto, the lovely actress who plays the adult Latika, is one of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace the silver screen. She and Dev Patel, who plays the adult Jamal, make attractive survivors of the savage slums of Mumbai: Their characters are wary, observant, street smart and have earned a happy ending. I always want someone to root for and this movie delivers!

By the way, of the five movies in bold face in the first paragraph, I heartily recommend all but "Sunshine," and that's simply because I haven't seen it. Go to your NetFlix or Blockbuster reservations list RIGHT NOW.

Be sure to watch through the credits, as they toss in a Bollywood musical number as a bonus...
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Here is what it looks like:
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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

This is far and away the most involving "Holocaust Film" I have ever seen. As I watched it, I could see that from a skeptical point of view, some of the details didn't add up, but the main character was so genuine and the story evolved in such a convincing way, that it really didn't matter! I KNOW when I'm watching a movie...smile...

Our story begins in wartime Germany as we observe four eight-year-old boys exuberantly racing down a busy city street, arms outstretched; they are emulating airplanes, laughing and dodging pedestrians. They are well dressed, well fed and oblivious to anything but their friendship and their joy at being alive.

Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield ("Son of Rambow") dashes into his own home where he can see preparations for an elaborate party are under way. It turns out that his father, a Gestapo officer played by David Thewlis (the "Harry Potter" series), has been promoted, and everyone will be celebrating this auspicious event. His mother, played by Vera Farmiga ("The Departed"), is a supportive wife, a loving mother, a glamorous hostess and a loyal German citizen, even though her own mother seems a bit skeptical and faintly disapproving. On the other hand, her father is enormously proud of his ambitious son-in-law.

Along with the promotion goes a move for the entire family. Because we are familiar with the history of WWII, we recognize their destination as the site of a notorious concentration camp. The Commandant's house is separated from the camp by a sylvan area, and our little hero is forbidden to play on that side of the property. Without his former companions, our little boy quickly becomes bored and unhappy. He spies on his older sister as she develops a crush on a handsome Nazi officer, played by Rupert Friend ("Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont"). He peeks over a transom and watches a movie his father screens for his superiors. We immediately recognize a "Potemkin Village" take on the Jewish incarceration, complete with happy well-fed children playing and well-dressed adults smiling and waving. He peers out an upper-story window and sees some distant farm buildings beyond the trees.

Naturally our little hero sneaks out into the woods so he can see for himself these unusual "farmers" who wear striped pajamas. He encounters a little boy on the other side of an electrified barbed wire barrier, and over the next few weeks they form a tentative friendship: our hero because he is terribly lonely and bored, the little prisoner because his new friend brings him food and is willing to talk with him. "Shmuel" is utterly baffled by his situation; he only knows his mother "went away" and doesn't know when she will return.

The main thing to remember is that we see things develop through the eyes of a naive eight-year-old boy, who has limitless energy and curiosity, but is handicapped by a very limited worldview. In fact, even his own mother is slow to awaken to her husband's real duties, but when she does, her formerly complacent world is shattered.

This movie is beautifully photographed, flawlessly acted (by an all-British cast, so everyone speaks with an English accent, NOT German - Whew!), and features involving secondary story lines that never intrude between us and our main character.

Please send me feedback when you see this movie, okay?


Henry Poole is Here

This is one I've pondered for a few days before writing my review. Here is a movie that might have been made in the 1940s when it wasn't considered hokey to express religious faith. These days, anti-Church forces are usually so vocal, I've been waiting to hear a groundswell of criticism, but...nothing... Maybe later?

Henry Poole is played by Luke Wilson ("You Kill Me," "Home Fries" and "The Royal Tenenbaums"), but in my opinion, the heart and soul of this movie rest on the sturdy shoulders of Oscar-nominated character actress Adriana Barraza ("Amores Perros" and "Babel"). Her character is aptly named "Esperanza," which means "Hope," the dominant theme of this unusual little movie.

Our story opens with Wilson being shown a nondescript California tract house by a diligent real estate agent. He is not only unimpressed, he obviously doesn't give a rip. He says "It won't matter, I won't be here very long." Because this is a movie and all plot lines are painted with broad strokes, it's clear that he expects to die. The when and the how will soon be revealed. I was surprised to see the role of his doctor portrayed by Richard Benjamin ("Portnoy's Complaint"). I was unaware that he was still working so I looked him up. Lo and behold, he has been slogging along all these years!

Wilson has no more than moved in and closed all the curtains and shades when there is a knock at the door. He is NOT sociable, but reluctantly opens it (his character is always polite). There stands a smiling woman holding a plate of still-warm tamales, welcoming him to the neighborhood. Over his objections, she barges in, looks around, and offers a brief history of the house and its former occupant. She sails into his back yard, chattering all the while, with him following after in bewildered protest. To his surprise, she is stopped short, transfixed by a stucco wall. She is convinced that he too, should be able to see the face of God in a water stain that has seeped through a recent paint job.

His life goes downhill from there. The plot is enriched by a darling little mute girl who lives next door, an indomitably cheerful checker in Coke-bottle eye-glasses at his local grocery/liquor store and the priest from Esperanza's church, portrayed by George Lopez ("Real Women Have Curves"). To Poole's chagrin, miracles seem to occur; despite his reluctance, he becomes acquainted with the people in his neighborhood; against his better judgement, he starts to care again.

Hope can be such a nuisance....


Pride and Glory

No, no, no!

Run...don't walk...away from this gore fest!

How can such capable actors, experienced directors and popular writers turn out such dreck? I refuse to name names because I don't want to take up your time.
  • Good cop/Bad cop
  • Corruption in the NYPD
  • Drug money
  • Family intrigue
  • Several hundred iterations of the "F word"
  • Brutal torture (including threatening a squalling infant with a hot iron)
  • Cold-blooded murders
  • Betrayals
  • Absurd fistfights
  • "Mean Streets"
  • Riots
  • "Manly men" beating the tar out of one another.

That's enough about this mess....



This is my fault -- and probably yours, too: When Clint Eastwood tried his hand at comedy ("Paint Your Wagon," "Bronco Billy" and "Any Which Way But Loose"), I didn't buy ONE ticket, did you? As he drifted into darker waters ("Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby" and "Letters from Iwo Jima"), he was identified as a brilliant filmmaker and thus encouraged (by Oscar) to continue his efforts along that line. For this, his latest outing (based on a true story), he stays darker, believe me!

Once again we are pulled into a different time and place: this time it is 1920s Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie ("A Mighty Heart" and "Wanted") is a single mother of a nine-year-old boy, played by Gattlin Griffith. She works as a supervisor for Pacific Telephone, at a time when the switchboard rooms were so long the supervisors had to wear roller skates. As a former phone company employee, I love that authentic little touch. She and her boy ride the electric streetcar to school and to work (ah, the good old days!) and she wears a hat and gloves whenever she goes out! I should emphasize that the production design, e.g., the clothing, vehicles and street scenes, is masterful.

Her son goes missing and is gone for many long, grief-stricken months; then a boy who claims to be him is delivered to her by a Los Angeles police captain, played by Jeffrey Donovan ("Burn Notice" and "Come Early Morning"). She immediately insists that the child isn't hers, but he asks her not to make a scene in front of the mob of reporters and photographers who have convened, so she docilely allows her picture to be taken with the boy. As she continues to claim the boy isn't hers, they explain that a child can change a lot in a short period of time and insist that she take him home with her. She reluctantly obeys, but begs them to continue searching for her son, just the same. The police start to view her as a hysteric and an unfit mother because she appears to reject her own son, who, in reality, is three or four inches shorter than her boy, and is circumcised!

She is approached by an activist minister, portrayed by John Malkovich ("Burn After Reading" and "Being John Malkovich"), who is determined to uncover rampant corruption and incompetence in the LAPD, so she feels empowered enough that she tries again. This time, the frustrated captain has her thrown into a mental ward and things go downhill from there...

In my opinion, Jolie is almost grotesque, her lips don't look real and the makeup folks persist in using scarlet lipstick on them, which only emphasizes how unnatural they look. We are subjected to grueling scenes of profound grief and rage, a few horrific situations and a poignant ending. If you have ANY trouble hearing dialogue in theatres, do yourself a favor and wait for the DVD. The movie is excellent (but NOT enjoyable), and deucedly difficult to hear. I would put this down to my hearing impairment, but I have been treated to several movies lately in which I heard every single word, so it is NOT my hearing!

While you are waiting for the DVD to come out, you might want to sample a couple of Eastwood's comedies...


The Secret Life of Bees

The great piney woods of South Carolina have never been so lovingly photographed...at least I assume that's where it was filmed. If you have read the best seller by Sue Monk Kidd, you already know that is where the story takes place.

Dakota Fanning ("Man on Fire" and "Charlotte's Web") plays the 14-year-old daughter of Paul Bettany ("A Beautiful Mind," "Wimbledon" and "A Knight's Tale" - remember his nude Chaucer?), a hard-drinking lout who makes her kneel in uncooked grits when she disobeys. I would have scoffed at this, but I recalled one of my friends whose stepfather forced her to kneel in pie tins of uncooked pinto beans, so I guess this must be acceptable. Our young heroine is troubled by memories surrounding the loss of her deceased mother and after a traumatic event triggered by some racist good ole boys, she runs away, along with the family's hired girl, played by Jennifer Hudson ("Sex and the City" and an Academy Award for "Dreamgirls").

They end up at the home of the Boatwright sisters, who make their living harvesting honey from their many bee hives. The three sisters are effectively played by Queen Latifah ("Chicago," "Bringing Down the House" and "Mad Money"), Alicia Keys ("Drumline," "Ugly Betty" and "Quantum of Solace") and the amazing Sophie Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda," "Martian Child" and "Skin"), who dazzled me with her convincing turn as the sister who "isn't quite right."

If you've read the book you probably wonder if their house really IS Pepto-Bismol pink....yes, it IS!

Once again I feel compelled to comment on the versatility of some of the actors:
  • Paul Bettany, an Englishman, this time with an authentic Southern cracker twang.
  • Sophie Okonedo, London born and bred who had a Ugandan accent the first time I saw her!
  • Queen Latifah, never more beatific -- but with NO irony this time. In this role she really IS saintly.

This movie is lovely to see and has a satisfying conclusion. The 60s are evoked by the clothing, the cars, the politics and the street scenes of the semi-rural south. In my opinion, they have brought the book to life.


Lakeview Terrace

Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty," "Possession" and "The Wicker Man") seems to understand the inner workings of men's brains: what motivates them and what frightens them. Or at least that's how it looks to me.

We start our story in an idyllic upscale L.A. cul-de-sac. Samuel L. Jackson ("Snakes on a Plane," "Star Wars" and "Coach Carter") is quietly tending his greenery as a U-Haul trailer and a car pull into the driveway next door. He makes no bones about spying on his new neighbor and quickly ascertains that they are a mixed-race couple; Patrick Wilson ("Little Children" and "Phantom of the Opera") is the husband and Kerry Washington ("The Last King of Scotland" and "Miracle at St. Anna") is his wife. They are both excited and apprehensive at the prospect of being first-time home owners.

Minor annoyances quickly escalate to major aggravations. It becomes increasingly clear that Jackson's character, a widowed Los Angeles policeman, does NOT approve of the relationship, nor of having a couple like them live next door to his two growing children. He feels it sends a bad message to his own youngsters in their formative years. There is an ever-present foreshadowing of an out-of-control brush fire in the nearby hills encroaching on that part of the city.

Certain aspects of the story seemed predictable, and yet as a whole, it didn't go where I expected. To me, this is a plus, even though I found some of those directions to be unsettling. I was pleased to see Ron Glass ("Firefly" and "Serenity") as Kerry Washington's wealthy and disapproving father. It's clear that he too, is NOT happy with his daughter's mixed-race marriage.

The violence that we see is not out of reason and the gunfire is predictable. No blowie uppie stuff...

What Just Happened?

That's what WE wanted to know.... Watching this movie was like reading the fiction feature in The New Yorker magazine: Lots of erudite elements but it never jells...and then it just dribbles away and stops... Truth in advertising would dictate that this movie be at least as funny as the trailers, but no such luck.

The making of movies is a lot like the making of sausages: We would like them better if we didn't know what went into them! We watch Robert De Niro's Hollywood-based movie director endlessly driving around the Los Angeles area, always late, rushing from one meeting to another, talking (and lying!) on his Bluetooth headset, picking up his children from various marriages and delivering them to their various schools. He can't seem to keep his projects under control as he dashes from one disaster to another, nor can he control his ex-wives, consequently his personal life unravels as well. He doesn't seem like a BAD person, but he certainly isn't a GOOD one.

These are the people we watch:
  • Robert De Niro ("Stardust" and "The Good Shepherd") - over-stressed movie producer faced with launching an artsy catastrophe.
  • Catherine Keener ("Capote" and "Friends With Money") - icy studio head with a deceptively calm demeanor.
  • Bruce Willis ("Fast Food Nation" and "Grindhouse") - playing a bearded actor named Bruce Willis who contracted for a new action movie but, in a highly profane manner, refuses to shave his newly grown facial hair.
  • John Turturro ("Transformers" and "Margot at the Wedding") - nervous talent agent with a nasty case of acid reflux.
  • Sean Penn ("Milk" and "The Interpreter") - playing confident actor Sean Penn who stars in a brutal, bloody film that will debut at Cannes (they shoot the dog!).
  • Robin Penn Wright ("Message in a Bottle," "Forrest Gump," and of course the classic, "Princess Bride") - Robert De Niro's second or third wife. I lost track...
  • Stanley Tucci ("Swing Vote" and "The Devil Wears Prada") - scriptwriter dating De Niro's ex. (But he's signed Brad Pitt for his new project, so De Niro probably will collaborate anyway.)

In this movie's defense, we are treated to a lengthy scene (one long take) between the always excellent Robin Penn Wright and Robert De Niro at the Divorce Counselor's office ("You'll come out of this therapy so happy you'll never want to be married again!"). We never see the counselor's face, but we know from the trailer that it's Jane Lynch ("Another Cinderella Story" and Christopher Guest's repertory company, e.g., "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind")!

Other than that, there were too f**kin' many four-letter words!



In a word: B-O-R-I-N-G....

Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men" and "American Gangster") is excellent as George W. Bush, but the script is lame and the sound is horrible. It was very difficult to discern the political strategizing and the sly humor. I hasten to add that I wasn't the only one who wasn't laughing. The (mostly) liberal crowd found very little to laugh about, even though everyone came in primed and ready to laugh. Case in point: when Bush made a speech in Congress, we were treated to news clips of the Clintons, Lieberman, Pelosi, and Kennedy listening to him with varying degrees of attention and the audience responded with a respectful hush. When John McCain's face flashed briefly on the screen, the crowd burst into laughter. This tells me they were eager to be amused.

This movie lacks focus. The first-rate cast is mostly wasted despite some spot-on impressions:
  • Thandie Newton ("The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Run, Fatboy, Run") is a wonder as Condoleezza Rice.
  • Elizabeth Banks ("Comanche Moon" and "Definitely, Maybe") is a convincing Laura Bush.
  • Ellen Burstyn ("The Fountain" and "Lovely, Still") makes a refreshingly forthright Barbara Bush.
  • Jeffrey Wright ("The Invasion" and the upcoming James Bond movie "Quantum of Silence") is a thoughtful and honorable General Colin Powell.

It seemed to me that director Oliver Stone ("JFK" and "Any Given Sunday") shot a much longer film and tried to edit it down to pivotal moments, e.g., Bush's frustration about the search for weapons of mass destruction and whether or not he should use the term "Axis of Evil" in a major speech. Consequently, for these actors, their best scenes were probably cut:

  • Colin Hanks ("The House Bunny" and "Untraceable") is one of President Bush's speechwriters.
  • James Cromwell ("The Queen" and "Becoming Jane") is George H.W. Bush, shown here by Stone as a distant father, first frustrated, next mystified, and ultimately apologetic for his eldest son.
  • Richard Dreyfuss ("Poseidon") as Dick Cheney. In 2001 he played Alexander Haig in television's "The Day Reagan Was Shot."
  • Scott Glenn ("Nights in Rodanthe" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") as Donald Rumsfield.
  • Ioan Gruffudd ("Amazing Grace" and "The TV Set") is sadly wasted as Tony Blair. Where, oh where, is Michael Sheen when you need him?

Some of the scenes were delicious: The perspiring little cluster of over-the-hill desk jockeys trying to keep up a tactical conversation with Bush while trudging down a dirt track on his Crawford, Texas ranch; any scene with Toby Jones ("Infamous" and "City of Ember") as Karl Rove; Brolin's ability to talk with his mouth full -- I was dazzled! However, despite these gems, the crowd left in a remarkably constrained mood.

In my opinion, Stone has misunderestimated his audience....smile...


Rachel Getting Married

Well, Disney's Princess Anne isn't in Genovia anymore... Anne Hathaway ("Princess Diaries," "Becoming Jane" and "Get Smart") is Kym, who getting a temporary pass from her current stint in rehab so she can attend her sister Rachel's wedding. She is a self-centered, emotionally starved whack job with little or no regard for the rest of her dysfunctional family.

Her long-suffering sister, the eponymous Rachel, is played by Rosemarie DeWitt ("Off the Black" and "Cinderella Man"). In my opinion, it will be the quality of DeWitt's performance that will elevate Hathaway's to possible Oscar contention, in much the same way that Daniel Day Lewis owes his statue to Paul Dano who collaborated with him in those extended, Oscar-worthy scenes in "There Will Be Blood."

The brilliant Bill Irwin ("Across the Universe," lots of "Sesame Street" on television and a 2005 Tony for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") plays their divorced and happily remarried father, limited by the script to being concerned, perplexed and consistently loving.

Anna Deavere Smith ("The Manchurian Candidate" - 2004, and "Rent" but better known to me as a playwright) has a largely non-verbal role as the girls' stepmother.

Debra Winger, a Hollywood favorite, primarily because she is so reclusive and eccentric, makes a quiet but ultimately explosive appearance as the sisters' mother. We all remember her from those early classics "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment," but she has been working steadily ("Big Bad Love" and "Radio").

This is NOT a fun movie. The extra-long scenes that hammered home their point about multi-generational and multi-cultural harmony, ultimately became wearisome. In my opinion, our unhappy Kym had some legitimate gripes and may never see the end of her misery. Her parents will go on living their separate lives and never "get" the overwrought relationship between their two daughters.

An American Carol

My WORD! A movie that doesn't echo the prevailing politics of Hollywood or network television. I went out of curiosity and ended up laughing out loud a number of times.

First of all let me extend my personal salute to the actors who had the courage to appear in this goofy thing:
  • Leslie Nielsen ("Airplane" and "Naked Gun") is obviously a favorite of Writer/Director David Zucker. Neilsen plays himself, a grandfather and backyard barbecue specialist who tells the story for the kidlets. They are willing to hear his story just so they don't have to eat his terrible cooking!
  • Kevin Farley ("LA Blues" and "Dog Gone") who is a terrific doppelganger for notorious real-life political gadfly Michael Moore. Farley's character is named Michael Malone, and he makes anti-American documentaries, but can't sell enough tickets to justify making any more, so now he is now trying to outlaw the Fourth of July in order to generate enough publicity for a new project.
  • James Woods ("Endgame" and "Northfork") is Malone's frustrated agent. He knows the next movie has to be a feature film or Malone's box office track record will doom his career.
  • Kelsey Grammer ("X-Men: The Last Stand" and "A Christmas Carol" in which he played Ebenezer himself!) is General George S. Patton, serving in this picture as Malone's escort to the Ghosts of America's Past, Present and Future. I laughed out loud the first time Patton slapped Malone, as that has become one of Patton's signature moves these days.
  • Jon Voigt ("Glory Road" and "Transformers") is George Washington, discussing the need for war when the situation warrants.
  • Chriss Anglin ("The Hitman Chronicles" and "The Parallel") is JFK. The physical resemblance is slight but his voice work is noteworthy.
  • Trace Adkins ("Trailer Park of Terror") is The Angel of Death. He is the country singer who is featured at Madison Square Garden, the site for the climactic scenes of the movie.
  • Dennis Hopper ("Sleepwalking" and "Swing Vote") is a judge who wearies of ACLU lawyers.
  • Bill O'Reilly is himself.

There are three stooges...oops, I mean three terrorists... who intend to blow up Madison Square Garden during a Fourth of July celebration. Two have been honored to be next in line for all those virgins, but they are understandably reluctant.

I looked this up on IMDb and here is what it said: WARNING! This movie may be offensive to children, young people, old people, in-the-middle people, some people on the right, all people on the left, terrorists, pacifists, war-mongers, fish mongers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics (though you'd have to prove it to them), the ACLU, liberals, conservatives, neo-cons, ex-cons, future cons, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, people of color, people of no color, English speakers, English-as-a-second language speakers, non-speakers, men, women, more women, & Ivy League professors. Native Americans should be okay.
Any questions?


City of Ember

This is a post-apocalyptic world-view for kids. "City of Ember" is based on the first book in a popular series of juvenile novels by Jeanne Duprau. According to a friend, if this first one does well at the box office, there will probably be a series of films based on the books. In this one, we follow a pair of teenagers who have been assigned their first adult jobs in a 200-year-old underground city. It is obvious that things are in an advanced state of decay; for example, the generator that provides the light, air and power for this mini-civilization is starting to falter, consequently the citizens are plagued by an accelerating incidence of brownouts and blackouts.

Our girl Lina, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement" and the upcoming "The Lovely Bones"), is eager to perform her first "grown-up" task, that of being a messenger in the city... a task she takes very, very seriously. The boy Doon, portrayed by Harry Treadaway ("Control" and "The Disappeared"), will work with the ever-leakier pipes in the drippy labyrinth that serves the city. His overly cautious father is played by Tim Robbins ("The Lucky Ones" and "Noise"), while his narcoleptic co-worker/boss is played by Martin Landau ("The Majestic" and "Love Made Easy").

The plot has to do with The Builders, who prepared this underground city as a retreat for mankind in the wake of some cataclysmic event that made the surface of the earth uninhabitable. According to their calculations, in 200 years things will return to normal, humans may emerge from their shelter and mankind's regular life can resume.

The current mayor of the city, played by Bill Murray ("Groundhog Day," "Lost in Translation" and "The Royal Tenenbaums"), is vaguely aware that an important metal box had been misplaced a couple of mayors ago. As a result, no one knows that it contains detailed instructions for exiting the underground. Instead, the people blithely worship "The Builders" to whom they look for a safe return to "The Outside." The mayor's loyal sidekick is ably played by the always dependable Toby Jones ("Infamous" and "The Painted Veil").

For awhile I thought we were going to do Plato's allegory of "The Cave," but things brightened up after we left those rusty, leaky corridors and jumped into a hi-tech carnival ride. This movie was probably originally intended for 3D, but it wasn't screened that way. Nevertheless, it is exciting for the kids and has just a couple of scary moments that center around a mole, of all things! ...and that smarmy politician, the mayor...


The Express

The name Ernie Davis aka "The Express" is ALMOST a household word. I knew it sounded vaguely familiar but couldn't say why. This poignant movie explains it.

Ernie Davis was a legendary halfback for Syracuse University during his college years in the late '50s, early '60s; a two-time All-American; a member of the College Football Hall of Fame; the first African-American to win the coveted Heisman Trophy. This movie showed me why he didn't become a household word like professional football legends Jim Brown, Joe Namath or Terry Bradshaw.

As portrayed by the ever-appealing Rob Brown ("Finding Forrester" and "Coach Carter"), Davis comes across as a polite, lovingly raised youngster who found his forte in high school sports -- football in particular. During his senior year -- in which he was known as the "Elmira Express" -- he was aggressively recruited by numerous colleges, so Syracuse University coach Ben Schwartzwalder, played by Dennis Quaid ("American Dreamz," "Smart People" and "Vantage Point"), uses an irresistible ploy, he brings along one of his former stars, Jim Brown, to help convince Davis to sign with Syracuse. Darren Dewitt Henson ("The Hustle" and "April Fools") is Jim Brown, one of Ernie Davis' role models. The scene where this star-struck high school boy meets his idol is very funny and sweet.

As we all know, in those days the Civil Rights Movement was just getting started, so Jim Crow was alive and well in college football. The episode in the first Syracuse-vs.-West Virginia game starkly illustrates how dangerous it was for a non-white to excel. In fact, Coach Schwarzwalder deliberately takes Davis out of the game just prior to a sure-fire touchdown because of the effect it would have on the spectators if a black player actually scored. It took courageous pioneers like Brown and Davis to breach that seemingly impregnable wall.

Other sports movies have had better editing (see "Glory Road") and other sports movies have enjoyed a happier ending (see "Blades of Glory" ...just kidding...), but Ernie Davis deserves to be immortalized, so I'm glad I went.

As an afterthought, maybe it was just me, but near the end of the movie, one of the play-by-play radio announcers was starting to sound a LOT like Howard Cosell. Hmmm...


Body of Lies

It is clear that Russell Crowe ("3:30 to Yuma", "L.A. Confidential" and "The Insider") trusts Ridley Scott implicitly! They have collaborated a number of times ("Gladiator," "American Gangster" and "A Good Year"), to great acclaim. Crowe has gained a LOT of weight to play this role. I know this is expected of actors these days, but it can become dangerous; I hope he doesn't jeopardize his health.

In this current outing, Crowe is a pudgy, fully domesticated CIA official, in constant contact with his operatives via a Bluetooth headset while raking his yard, barbequing, taking pictures of his daughter's soccer game, delivering his son to school and otherwise living the very settled life of a suburban husband and father. In fact, during a rare trip to the Mideast, he says he has to get back home because he is "taking the kids to 'Lion King'...again."

Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Aviator" and "Catch Me if You Can") is his operative who goes from one high-risk encounter with terrorists to another. I never tire of the fascinating locations: Afghanistan and Jordan are the most-often seen.

The head of Jordanian security is played by an extremely handsome Mark Strong, who looks so much like Andy Garcia during his "Godfather III" days, it's spooky! In looking up Strong, however, it would seem that his Jordanian accent is simply one of his skills; his body of work is international ("Oliver Twist," "Stardust" and "Syriana").

The plot is pretty standard spy-vs.-spy boilerplate but DiCaprio gets beaten up, tortured, bitten by a dog, etc., on a regular basis, so things never lag. He and Crowe cobble together a clever ploy that is easily understood. In fact, I was impressed by the soundtrack; I had no trouble hearing the dialog. This tells me that it IS possible, so why in the world do other movie makers choose to make things so difficult?

Both Crowe and DiCaprio use mild Virginia accents which are typical of the folks from D.C. Crowe's dialog is very funny so he kept injecting some relief from DiCaprio's intensity. Of course the CIA makes some heavy-handed bungles, but the Arabs' hands aren't clean, either.

If you like hi-tech action, suspense and lots of blowie uppie stuff, this should be right down your alley!


Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

When you see the "2" you KNOW this is a sequel, but I didn't see the first one, either... and of course, "Madagascar 3" is already on the drawing board. These movie franchises do nothing but PRINT money!

DreamWorks Animation is no Disney, but this animated fantasy is clever enough to captivate the target audience, i.e., kiddies whose parents allow them to attend "PG" rated movies. (There is a mild flirtation and our awkward Melman the giraffe has it BAD for Gloria the hippo.)

The four main characters are:
  • Alex the young lion, still voiced by Ben Stiller ("Tropic Thunder" and "Madagascar")
  • Marty the zebra, voiced once more by Chris Rock ("The Longest Yard" and "Madagascar")
  • Melman the giraffe, voiced by David Schwimmer ("Big Nothing" and "Madagascar")
  • Gloria the hippo, voiced again by Jada Pinkett Smith ("The Women" and "Madagascar")

These dauntless friends are still trying to get back to their home (see the first "Madagascar"), which, in this case is the New York City Zoo, where they enjoyed security, popularity and shelter. Instead, they end up in Africa where Alex encounters the family he had forgotten since he was captured as a baby. By the way, Zachary Gordon, who voices the baby Alex, has the sweetest, most authentic sound!

We are treated to culture gaps, generation gaps, contests for dominance in the pride, and of course, it all works out for the best. I had already suspended disbelief and Boy! Was I ever glad I did!

This is one of the last engagements for the late Bernie Mac, who died unexpectedly in August of this year (2008). He supplies the voice for Zuba, the alpha hippo.

The voice work is commendable and the art is par for the course. I could nit pick, but I think children will be charmed; for that reason, I'll let you decide...

Flash of Genius

Has Greg Kinnear ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Anyone But You," "Baby Mama," "You've Got Mail" and "Dear God") finally found a role that might earn him a long-overdue Oscar nomination?

Kinnear's portrayal of Bob Kearns -- the Detroit-based engineering college professor who invented what would later be called the Inter- mittent Windshield Wiper -- is a lesson in Acting 101. He plays a family man, a part-time inventor, a father and a friend. In his opening scenes, Kearns discusses ethics with his college class, drawing the parallel between the engineer who invented the valve for the first mechanical heart and the engineer who invented the valve that made the gas chambers so lethal. He explains that engineers have many instances where they are confronted with ethical dilemmas.

When he presents his -- what he calls the "Blinking Eye" -- windshield wiper to Ford Motor Company, they (verbally) offer a partnership, with him as the manufacturer. Once he has provided them with a copy of his prototype, they abruptly terminate the deal, leaving him hanging out for astronomical setup costs, the complete collapse of his business plan and personal humiliation. Despite their rejection, he soon sees his wipers on all the new Ford cars.

When he attempts to sue them, he wades into a lengthy (12-year) legal battle, during which they bury him in rooms-full of paperwork, delay each step of the process, try to avoid a jury trial and wait for his patents to expire. (One reviewer described his labors "Sisyphean." I wish I'd thought of that!) The futility of filing a lawsuit against one of the Goliaths of American industry costs him his marriage (with six children), his friend- ships, and his job at the college. During this trying time, he suffers a well-earned nervous breakdown.

Each step of the way, Ford offers ever-increasing financial settlements, but the money doesn't interest him as much as the need for validation: a public admission from Ford that they lied to him and stole his design. His single-minded stubbornness is maddening...to his wife Phyllis, played by Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls" and "The Pacifier"); to his friend Gil, played by Dermot Mulroney ("Zodiac," "The Wedding Date" and "The Family Stone"); and to his attorney, played by Alan Alda ("The Aviator" and "Resurrecting The Champ").

You will love the long-delayed jury trial during which Kearns appears as his own counsel with his children serving as his legal staff. His use of the Charles Dickens classic, "A Tale of Two Cities," along with a small paperback dictionary, is both creative and a key moment, and Kinnear plays "earnest" like nobody's business!

This satisfying but poignant little film has no blowie uppie stuff, no sweaty love scenes, no car chases, no gun shots, no blood or guts. Instead we watch a man of integrity fight for what's right. We see Kinnear age before our very eyes, we watch his children become teenagers, and he shows us the personal price Kearns paid, when he single-handedly took on a corporation that had deep, deep pockets... and shallow, shallow ethics.

We left the theatre subdued, but happy.



This review presents quite a quandary for me. Personally, I am not religious, but I certainly respect the rights of others to believe as they see fit (unless they want to kill me or mine for disagreeing with them). In this documentary, standup comic Bill Maher seems to think he will dissuade various believers from their convictions by offering puerile arguments: "If your God is so good, why does He allow bad things to happen?" ...points we made on these same topics in our early teens.

I found myself feeling sorry for everyone on the screen, those various believers AND Maher, for his well-documented failure to sway even one person. At least that seemed to be his intent, but it made me uneasy. Logic has absolutely NO weight when it is used against deeply held convictions.

As an audience member, I had to salute the film historians who punctuated the discussions with very funny film clips from old "Sword and Sandal" epics, plus many other, more obscure, sources. They kept the presentation lively and entertaining. In my opinion, Maher is a very funny man, even when I find him coming up short, intellectually.

The editors cleverly wove into the narrative many carefully researched factoids that contradicted the speakers with graphic evidence of their delusions, by illustrating the realities of their beliefs, e.g., the peaceful nature of the Muslim religion juxtaposed with newsreels of violent bombings and worse. (News clips interspersed the discussions.)

There is an interview with a Muslim woman standing on the spot in Amsterdam where, in 2004, movie director Theo van Gogh was murdered (shot, stabbed AND had his throat cut -- a terrific example of zealous overkill, don't you think?). His crime? Creating a 10-minute film that addressed the topic of violence against women in Islamic societies. Blithely dismissing the evidence, the interviewee continues to insist that Islam is a gentle, peaceful religion.

Even though the various branches and sects of the Christian religion are his primary targets, his aim is to debunk ALL religions, much like Christopher Hitchens did in his book, "God is NOT Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." His bit about the Jewish rite of circumcision is very funny, as are his visits to the Vatican, the Mormon Tabernacle and a "Holy Land" theme park somewhere in the American south. It was fun to watch Maher flummoxed by one Jewish rabbi who absolutely would NOT allow himself to be interrupted!

I understand what Maher is trying to say: If we could set aside the divisiveness caused by the world's religions, we might be able to get along.

But here in Seattle last night, he was preaching to the choir.