From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Revolutionary Road - A-

Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity, 119 minutes

This "Road" is a tragic but memorable one

"Revolutionary Road" is a sad but powerful film that makes relevant statements on suburban life, lost dreams and truly living your life. Based on the classic novel of the same name by Richard Yates, it's a contemporary tragedy albeit one that many can still relate to today. "Revolutionary Road" is also superbly made and sublimely acted by two of today's great young actors, and it's worth a look for that alone.

Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) Wheeler are a young, successful couple living in the Connecticut suburbs on Revolutionary Road with their two young children. Unfortunately, their confident exterior hides the real truth. Frank is woefully frustrated at his boring corporate job, and April is equally unhappy as a housewife longing to be a successful actress. Determine to rise above the mediocrity they call suburbia, they desire to make a change for their lives to achieve true happiness and self-fullfillment.

In a move initiated by April, this involves a move to Paris, a place she's always longed to see. April will get a job to support the family while Frank determines what he wants to do. Some unexpected changes in their lives propel them to reconsider, though it could in fact destroy their relationship and their lives, leading them to lead lives they in fact despise.

"Revolutionary Road" is an expertly drawn portrait of what our lives can be depending on the choices we make. It's not an uplifting look but is indeed a faithful adaptation of Yates tragic novel. "Road" is superbly directed by Sam Mendes, who's channeled some of these themes before in his own Oscar-winning "American Beauty." Though set in the 1950's, some of the ideas are still fresh and hit home in many ways as many of us grow older and accept how life will be. We go to work, make money, have families and settle.

Mendes elicits sublime performances from his cast, including his wife Winslet, who reunites with "Titanic" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. It's amazing in the 11 years since that film how both have become accomplished actors, particularly Winslet, who gives a fine, subdued and very nuanced portrait of an unhappy housewife. It's one of her best roles, and Winslet has unique abilities to convey sadness with her face and body movements.

Yet, Winslet couldn't do this without the fine chemistry she has with DiCaprio, who also gives a remarkable performance as a man who often settles for less when he knows the right thing to do. Their exchanges throughout "Road" highlight the film; unlike many husbands and wives, their characters seem reversed - DiCaprio plays a chatterbox who wants to talk about everything while Winslet just wants to be left alone.

Though "Road" is clearly Winslet and DiCaprio's film, they receive ample and solid support, from Kathy Bates (their "Titanic" co-star, how we forget) as nosy real-estate agent Helen Givings, and especially from character actor Michael Shannon, who delivers a funny, memorable turn as Givings son, a mentally unbalanced man who can see the real truth (or the "hopelessness" as he calls it) in the Wheelers. The scene in the last act at the dinner table with Shannon, Bates, Winslet and DiCaprio is one of the best scenes in the film.

The final act of "Revolutionary Road" is a haunting, tragic one and the fates of the characters become clearer near the end. Maybe there's more hope in real life than what is presented here, at least we'd like to think so. "Revolutionary Road" is a great film, just know it's also a downbeat and depressing one. My true hope is that Winslet will finally win a much deserved Oscar for one of her films this year, and between this and her other great performance in "The Reader," her chances are looking good.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Reader - B+

Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity, 120 minutes

Controversial but powerful and superbly acted, "The Reader" again shows Winslet is one of the best

"The Reader" is certainly a controversial film. There are not one, but two central themes that will leave people talking. First, it features an explicit love affair between an underage boy and an older woman, and second it deals with some aspects of the Holocaust, a theme that comes with its own controversy.

Yet after seeing "The Reader" there will be no controversy about it: Kate Winslet is one of this generation's finest actresses, and this along with her upcoming drama "Revolutionary Road" gives her a chance at two Oscar nominations this year. "The Reader" is superbly acted, sadly compelling and poignant.

"The Reader" is told in flashback by an late thirtysomething German Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). The story opens in 1958 when Michael is just 15 (played by David Kross) and he becomes ill on his way home from school. He is assisted by stranger 36-year old Hannah Schmitz (Winslet). After he recovers from his illness he goes back to thank Hannah and realizes he's attracted to her. They begin a very passionate but illicit love affair that lasts the summer. The intelligent Michael begins reading to her before their lovemaking, mainly because Hannah is also secretly illiterate. Their affair ends when Hannah is suddenly transferred to another location.

Michael goes on to law school in Berlin and as part of their coursework go to observe an actual war crimes trial. Little does Michael know that one of the defendants on trial is Hannah, who served as a guard at Auschwitz years earlier, and years before their relationship. Hannah is sent to prison for her crimes and over the years the two begin reconnecting, as Michael is the only contact Hannah has with the outside world, and the two don't realize the impact they've had on each other over the years.

"The Reader" is a superb but depressing film based on the fictional novel by German attorney Bernhard Schlink. Director Stephen Daldry and David Hare, who directed and wrote "The Hours," adapts Schlink's book into a poignant and powerful film that has a few flaws, including a slightly uneven tone and a very sad ending. Excellent performances from Winslet and Fiennes in a small, supporting role as the morose, elder Michael carry an otherwise dour film.

The film's most controversial scenes come in the first act, when the younger Michael (played by Kross, an actual teenager) and Hannah engage in their affair. Daldry seemingly holds nothing back and while the scenes are handled with a nice romantic edge, they're also still explicit. But the scenes of Kross reading to Winslet are the most memorable scenes in the film, and lay some poignant groundwork for later scenes.

While "The Reader" may evoke romantic memories "Sophie's Choice" in its initial chapters, later scenes may evoke memories of "Judgment at Nuremburg." These scenes, while less compelling than the romantic sections, are still well-handled and in particular show Winslet's skill as an actress, especially her ability to invoke sympathy with her eyes and to speak with her facial expressions.

Allowing the audience to the angle from the perpretator's eyes and not the victim's is indeed something different, and much like the book, "The Reader" largely keeps its distance from the details of the camps and the crimes themselves. The person nor the crimes are condoned but it does give the audience the ability to connect with a largely sympathetic figure, and Winslet makes it work.

As the younger Michael, Kross captures his character's innocence well, while Fiennes is suitably dour as the older Michael in a fine, low-key performance that could very well see him nominated. One thing is for certain, though - Winslet will almost certainly be nominated for her restrained, pitch-perfect performance that allows her to age from her 30s to early 60's.

"The Reader" provides important messages about the impact - good or bad - we have on others and the secrets we often keep even those closest around us. It's also a powerful reminder that criminal acts also have consequences, regardless of who commits them. "The Reader" is well worth a look and is memorable for its strong acting and story.

Marley & Me - B

Rated PG for thematic material, some suggestive content and language, 120 minutes

Familiar, heartwarming formula in the touching, pleasant "Marley & Me"

I become weary of films with cute animals or cute kids, especially those with both cute animals and cute kids. I was very weary of seeing the new movie "Marley & Me," based on the popular semi-autobiographical novel by John Grogan, which tells the story of a neurotic, hyper Labrador Retriever who just might be the worst dog in the world. When you've seen one cute animal or kid in a movie, you've seen them all, but I have to say that Marley and his family had me hooked from the first time I saw him as a pup. "Marley & Me," while relying on familiar sentimental formulas, is heartwarming, touching and funny. Yes, you've seen this before in everything from "Old Yeller" to "My Dog Skip," but go anyway and enjoy a pleasant, crowd-pleasing holiday family movie - just take plenty of tissue with you.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jen (Jennifer Aniston) are a newlywed couple transplanted to Florida in search of a warmer climate and a steady job. Both are journalists and both are able to find work as reporters, though John eventually becomes a daily columnist at the urging of his editor (Alan Arkin). They long to start a family, but before they do, they get a lab puppy and John names him Marley after hearing Bob Marley on the radio on the way home from picking him up. Little do they realize what they're in for as Marley howles, screams and chews up just about everything in sight. He hates storms and must eat three meals a day. John advances in his career and they start a family, while the hyper Marley grows old and becomes a part of their daily lives.

"Marley & Me" is an entertaining, enjoyable holiday film that most of the whole family will enjoy. It's well-acted by its pretty, engaging stars in Wilson and Aniston, both of whom do a believable, above-average job of playing normal, middle-class people with the usual struggles of starting, raising and keeping a family together. It's told against the backdrop of having Marley, who provides most of the fodder for John's columns, which became the basis for his popular book.

David Frankel, who directed "The Devil Wears Prada," helms "Marley & Me" well as it tells the story of the Grogans. However, "Marley & Me" is often too predictable and is overlong, with its last act in particular teetering on the maudlin, when you know what will happen as Marley seems to quickly age. Get your tissues out and ready, you'll need them in abundance, especially as as the family says their goodbyes to their family friend.

Besides "Marley" leads Wilson and Aniston, Kathleen Turner has a nice bit as a dog obedience trainer, and Arkin has some good lines as Wilson's boss, but the real star are all the dogs (22 of them) who play Marley from pup to old man.

"Marley & Me" will especially resonate with those who have or have had beloved pets who became or are still family members. You'll become quickly attached to "Marley & Me" and it will entertain you and your family this holiday season.

The Spirit - D

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity, 100 minutes

"The Spirit" is a highly stylized, visual mess

"The Spirit" has a good pedigree going for it. Highly stylized visuals based on a popular comic book. A seemingly visionary director with a handsome cast. You'd think with all that "The Spirit" would've come out a better movie. Wrong. Though dripping with style and intriguing visuals, "The Spirit" is spirit-less, wasting a pretty, talented cast and ending up with an incoherent, shallow story. And by the way, it's a crashing bore.

When a Rookie cop named Denny Colt returns from the beyond as The Spirit (both played by Gabriel Macht), a hero whose mission is to fight against the bad forces from the shadows of Central City. The Octopus (Samuel L Jackson) who kills anyone unfortunate enough to see his face who has other plans. He's going to wipe out the entire city. The Spirit tracks this cold hearted killer from the city's rundown warehouses, to the damp catacombs, to the windswept waterfront all the while facing a bevy of beautiful women (including Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson and Scarlett Johansson) who either want to seduce, love or kill the masked crusader.

Frank Miller, who wrote and directed the similarily-styled "Sin City" and penned the hit "300," wrote and directed "The Spirit" based on Will Eisner's comic book series, though what ends up on screen is likely different than what Eisner himself had imagined. Miller strives to mix the comic book sensibilities with an old 40's movie style and contemporary special effects, ending up with a bizarre, odd and often uneven movie.

"The Spirit," much like "Sin City," is largely filmed next to a blue screen with much of visuals added later, and while some of it is cool to look at it, it tends to overwhelm the story, acting and characterization, which are sorely lacking here. In particular, Miller seems lacking at a script, with stilted dialogue, bad acting and contrived interplay that makes the movie worse; his inexperience at lighting or setting up a scene becomes all too painfully obvious when you have a hard time seeing the action onscreen.

Macht is a handsome but odd hero, and in his own typical style, Jackson all but chews up the screen as Octopus. The leading ladies are given little to do but look pretty in their stylish outfits, particularly Mendes, who comes across much like the movie itself - very shallow with little depth.

Worst of all, outside of the visuals, "The Spirit" is a bore, with little to offer comic book or movie fans for that matter. By the time it reaches its finale, most will leave scratching their heads or just plain uninterested. I don't recommend it for anyone wanting a good time this holiday season.

Bedtime Stories - C-

Rated PG for some mild rude humor and mild language, 95 minutes

"Bedtime Stories:" Sandler by Disney is still not that funny

I know that in any given year, if Adam Sandler or Dane Cook make a movie, there'll be at least a couple of movies that I dislike that year. At least Sandler has a some talent as a comedian, though it doesn't mean his movies are that great. Generally, his movies offer pretty much the same - Sandler playing a variation of some loser, uh, I mean underachiever, striving for better times.

"Bedtime Stories" offers the same type of Sandler, except this time it's made by Walt Disney and offers more splashy special effects geared toward families. "Bedtime Stories" is still a lame, unfunny Sandler movie, with a largely unoriginal story with a few splashy special effects and some humor that's slightly less offensive.

Sandler is Skeeter Bronson, a handyman at a fancy hotel started by his father. It's now run by a snotty old British guy named Nottingham (Richard Griffiths), a weird germaphobe with a Paris Hilton-like daughter (Teresa Palmer). Nottingham is starting a new hotel and wants to promote the equally snotty Kendall (Guy Pearce, slumming it here), though in fact Skeeter has some good ideas. In the meantime, Skeeter has to keep his niece and nephew while their single mom (Courtney Cox) is off interviewing for a job. Skeeter makes up some wild stories like his dad used to, except they have a weird way of coming to life.

"Bedtime Stories" has some fun, colorful moments, but otherwise rips off "Night at the Museum" (the trailers for the sequel to that film are shown during this film) by having things come to life. Adam Shankman, who directed the fun musical "Hairspray," directs with less vibrancy here and is somehow able to largely waste a talented cast, especially the talented Pearce, along with Cox and Keri Russell in small roles. Comedian Russell Brand has a few good quips as a sleep challenged waiter, though "Bedtime" is really stolen by a guinea pig named Bugsy with excessively large eyes.

Given that it's Disney, "Bedtime" waters down Sandler a bit, though don't think you'll get through this film without the obligatory Rob Schneider cameo. Some bits are OK (one with a dwarf is mildly funny) though others are just plain weird (no matter what it seemed like on paper, a dark red horse named Ferrari just looks silly and odd). The hotel backstory is lame and predictable from the first frame, so there are no surprises down to its downright silly climax and finish.

"Bedtime Stories" will likely be another big hit for Sandler, who seemingly makes movies with no regard for critics (his most recent "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" was on my worst list for this year). Admittedly, I give Sandler a hard time, after all he can be a talented comedian when he wants to be, but also lazy and often unoriginal, which is how I could describe "Bedtime Stories."

Valkyrie - C-

Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language, 115 minutes

“Valkyrie” fails to thrill, lacks in action, power and intensity

"Valkyrie," much like its real life plot to assassinate Hitler, isn’t a success though some aspects of the film are indeed fascinating. It strives to be a character-driven action thriller though it’s sorely lacking in action or thrills and boasts a key miscasting (more on that later) that hurts the film. Valkryie is an uninvolving and uninspiring drama that lacks power and resonance and is far less interesting than the real plot itself.

Based on actual events, Valkyrie tells the story of a plot (one of many) to assassinate Hitler and overtake the Nazi regime by Nazi officers and others in the government. The plot is led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), government official Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) and Major-General von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), among many others. With a code name Valkyrie, it ensures success by takeover of the German Nazi government within 3 hours, as opposed to 6 hours for Hitler’s own contingency plan. On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg places a briefcase with a bomb in it under the table in a strategy meeting with Hitler and it goes off. Stauffenberg flees the scene with his aide and becomes the chief architect of taking over Berlin, though they’re unsure of Hitler’s death.

Valykrie’s plot was one of the more successful conspiracies to overthrow Hitler, yet it turned out as unsuccessful as the others, and was eventually squashed, with Stauffenberg and the rest of these co-conspirators executed or put to death. Ironically, within 9 months of this conspiracy, Hitler himself along with his Nazi regime would be dead as the Allies conquered Europe.

Bryan Singer, a skilled director of the “X Men” movies and “The Usual Suspects” (along with another Nazi-themed drama, the frightening “Apt Pupil”), fails to ignite much interest here, mainly due to the dull first hour that outlines the plot and its details. “Valkyrie” has been a troubled production from nearly the beginning, as they faced challenges in location shoots, pushing around release dates, to lawsuits filed by extras against Cruise himself. “Valkyrie,” as of late, has wisely been marketed as an action-thriller that happens to star Cruise, not a Tom Cruise movie per se.

Speaking of which, the miscast Cruise does bear an uncanny resemblance to the real Stauffenburg, but he never attempts any sort of accent (it would've been laughable anyway) and he's out of place here and the central reason why the film doesn't work well. Cruise seems to be playing yet another action-adventure version of himself and it's simply hard buying into his notion of playing an anti-Nazi hero. As for the plot itself, a few minor details have been changed, but Singer is too detailed in explaining the plot when he should've been building tension around it. The final act in particular lacks the power and intensity something like this should have.

There are some sturdy supporting players in "Valkyrie," including Nighy, Branagh, Stamp, and especially Tom Wilkinson as the slimy General Fromm. However, the most memorable impression comes very briefly from foreign actress Carice van Houten as Stauffenberg’s wife (who actually survived the war and died just a couple of years ago), who with minimal dialogue and sad eyes reveals more than Cruise or the rest of the cast.

“Valkyrie” is not a bad film, just not the great one it strives to be, which is unfortunate for a talented director like Singer and particularly for Cruise, whose film company UA is distributing it and who definitely needs a hit film he's largely responsible for. The best thing about “Valkyrie” is that it sheds light on and is dedicated to those like the real Stauffenberg who fought for freedom in Nazi Germany.

Gran Torino - B+

Rated R for language throughout, and some violence, 116 minutes

The entertaining "Gran Torino" channels an older, crustier Dirty Harry

"Gran Torino" is Clint Eastwood's most accessible film in years, and provides with a look at what Dirty Harry would be like if he was older and funnier. Directed by and starring Eastwood, it provides Eastwood with his first acting role since 2004's ultra-heavy "Million Dollar Baby" and what could be his last onscreen role. "Gran Torino" is well-acted and still tackles some serious themes, but it's a dramatic film that's far more enjoyable and more humorous than you might think.

Eastwood is Walt Kowlaski, a retired Korean War Veteran who is recently widowed and still residing in the same neighborhood for the last 50 years, though its changed in recent years with Hmong (Chinese origin) immigrants, including his next door neighborhood Thao and Sue (non-actors Bee Vang and Ahney Her, respectively). Walt is somewhat of a crusty, racist bigot and dislikes most people, including his own family and especially the young fresh faced priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt's wife he'd look after him.

Thao is unsuccessfully drawn into a local gang and after a failed attempt to steal Walt's prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, Thao wants to better himself. Walt eventually becomes friends with Thao, Sue and their family and helps to protect them after the gang roughs them up. But Walt puts everything on the line in order for Thao and Sue to have a better life.

"Gran Torino" is an entertaining, enjoyable film that's far more conventional and lighter in tone than some of Eastwood's recent efforts. That's not to say that Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Mystic River" or "Million Dollar Baby" weren't great films - they were all in fact excellent films - but "Gran Torino" harkens back to some of Eastwood's lighter films of the '70's and '80's, after all, this is the same guy that made the "Every Which Way But Loose" films.

All those serious films made us forget that Eastwood still has a sense of humor, and as Walt, he's grouchy, growling and just plain grumpy, seemingly bigoted though his actions in the end prove otherwise. Eastwood's solid direction and engaging performance highlight the film, though the script has too many predictable touches - his newfound friends softening him up, though that is
part of the Eastwood appeal. Vang and Her, both newcomers and non-actors, do a serviceable job in "Torino" though more skilled actors would've probably made more of an impact.

Eastwood can still hold a gun with the best of them, reminding of an older, crustier and much grouchier retired Dirty Harry (or Josey Wales, take your pick). Eastwood's performance isn't the strongest of the year, but is certainly one of the more entertaining and don't be surprised if he's Oscar-nominated for it. Many will also find "Gran Torino's" climax as being too anti-climactic, maybe even contrived, but it's still watchable.

"Gran Torino" is a powerful reminder of the bridges that still exist between different societies, not to mention of an older generation that's often forgotten. Entertainining and touching, "Gran Torino" is Eastwood in memorable form and is recommended holiday viewing. And yes, that's Eastwood singing over the end credits - a song he wrote and composed (he's also an accomplished musician) for the film - and Golden Globe nominated for it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - A-

Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking, 160 minutes

“Benjamin Button” is an overlong but fascinating and intriguingly sad epic

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a curiously interesting movie. A fascinating, intriguing and epic portrait of a strange man who ages backward, it’s both ponderous and engaging. It’s overlong yet at the same time you won’t be able to look away. Adapted from a 1920’s F. Scott Fitzgerald story, “Benjamin Button” is well-written and superbly acted and directed. One of the most anticipated films of 2008, expect it to heavily play into awards consideration this year.

As Hurricane Katrina comes raging into New Orleans, Caroline (Julia Ormond) is sitting with her mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett in heavy makeup) on her hospital deathbed. Caroline finds her mother’s diary and Daisy begins telling the story of her relationship with Benjamin Button.

Benjamin Button (
Brad Pitt) is born in New Orleans in 1918 with the physical appearance and limitations of an 80-year old man. His mother dies in childbirth and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home. He’s cared for and raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and the others in the nursing home.

During this time, meets the granddaughter of one of the residents, Daisy (played by Blanchett as an adult) and the two immediately form a bond and fall in love over the years. Both Benjamin and Daisy lead vastly different lives, with Benjamin taking a job on a tugboat, sees action in the Second World War and has an affair with an older woman (Tilda Swinton) while Daisy becomes a successful ballerina in the big city. Though they’re soul mates, they find the challenges of forging a relationship and having a family as Benjamin grows younger and younger each day.

“Benjamin Button” is a superb, well-done film hampered only by a leisurely pace that could lose some, especially in its slower mid-section. It has some haunting, sad moments that will stay with you long after the lights come up, and that’s a testament to both its skilled cast and director in creating some of the most fascinatingly memorable moments in cinema this year. “Button” is filled with some striking visuals and handsome photography as it tells its epic story.

David Fincher (“Zodiac,” “Panic Room”) is the right director for the material. The film could easily succumb to gimmicks and special effects, but those are seemingly downplayed and used minimally to complement the story. Written by Eric Roth (“The Insider”), the script is one of the film’s few flaws as it takes too much time to tell Benjamin’s story, especially in its early chapters, then seems to skim the later sections. The script also spends far too much time detailing Benjamin’s work on the tugboat in the middle of the film, as it introduces us to too many characters that have little impact on the story.

Most that interested in “Benjamin Button” will want to know of the performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Pitt delivers a solid, skilled performance as Button, under heavy makeup for 2/3 of the film. He’s an odd but sympathetic character, especially in the early parts of the film; interestingly enough, it’s not a wholly revealing performance as Pitt plays it exactly as written. The best performance in the film actually comes from Blanchett, who is the heart of the film and essentially carries it in the last act. She gives a moving and haunting performance of someone who’s getting older as her soul mate ages backward. It’s a real mystery and curiosity that Blanchett was overlooked in the recent Golden Globe nominations as hers is one of the finest performances of the year. Her best scene: watch her face tear apart as she sees a much younger Benjamin enter the room after years apart.

Other memorable impressions in the large cast come from the exquisite, intelligent Swinton, as one of Benjamin’s first loves, and especially from the vibrant Henson as Button’s adopted and loving mother. Even more so, there are many poignant images and scenes, most of which involve Blanchett and Pitt. The film’s production is handsome and is beautifully shot, much of which was filmed on location in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Benjamin Button” is particularly sad in its final chapters, as we see Benjamin regressing backward to a young boy (but the film never provides a full explanation of his condition). The movie’s leisurely, meandering pace makes it feel even longer, and while the film is indeed overlong, it will stay with you long after you leave the theatre, and for that reason, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is one of the best of 2008.

Seven Pounds - C+

See Wes's full review of "Seven Pounds" at:

Slumdog Millionaire - A

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language, 120 minutes

Poignant, powerful and superbly acted, "Slumdog Millionaire" shouldn't be missed

"Slumdog Millionaire" has a downbeat story, an unknown cast and a low budget ($15 million) that's vastly smaller than most of Hollywood movies today, all things that work against it. "Slumdog" surpasses those odds and more to become one of the best films of the year, a rich, winning story that's superbly acted, written and directed. Poigant, powerful and richly layered, it tells a fictional story of a Muslim man who defies odds to become far more successful than he'd ever dreamed.

"Slumdog" tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, India who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees (about $2 million U.S. dollars) on India's version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much?

Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together both fun and dangerous, and of Latika (Frieda Pinto), the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of Jamal's complex story reveals how he learned the answers to the game show questions. But one question remains a mystery: why is Jamal on the show when he has no interest in the money? When the new day dawns and Jamal returns to answer the final question, the Inspector and sixty million viewers are about to find out.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is a multi-faceted and complex story that unravels with each question to reveal Jamal's true motive for being on the show. A poignant, powerful tale of love, family, honor and loyalty, some may find it too depressing while many others will find much to enjoy in the film's love story. Directed with skill by Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later"), this is his best film yet as he elicits excellent, moving performances from his unknown cast, especially Patel, the heart and soul of the film (he's already been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award), and Pinto, an Indian model who had no prior acting experience prior to this film.

"Slumdog's" script by Simon Beaufoy is also richly involving and rewarding, fills the film with many memorable, haunting and moving scenes and will draw you in quickly. The final, searing scene that reunites two characters is among the best of the year. "Slumdog" also one of the most memorable scores of any recent film, from composer A.R. Rahman, who expertly mixes contemporary Indian music with traditional. Shot on location in actual slums in Mumbai, the film perfectly captures both the desperation and happiness of those communities.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is rightfully already garnering much critical and award reception, as its one of the finest films this year. "Slumdog" comes highly recommended and is a must-see for those that enjoy great moviemaking.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Yes Man - C

Rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor, language and brief nudity, 104 minutes

No to Carrey's "Yes Man," and please get fresher material

Jim Carrey has already made "Yes Man" once, back in 1997 when he made "Liar, Liar," another similiarly themed, gimmicky movie whereby Carrey's character is unable to tell a lie, regardless of the cost. In "Yes Man" he's unable to say no to anyone or anything, regardless of the cost. This type of thing wore out its welcome 11 years ago and isn't much funnier in 2008. Stale, flat with a few crude but comically inspired scenes, I'd have to break from the theme here and say no, Carrey's comedy isn't funny.

Carrey is Carl Allen, a lonely divorced loan officer stuck in a rut, in spite of some fun friends in Peter (Bradley Cooper) and Rooney (Danny Masterson), who try to get him out of his apartment. He dislikes most things and says no to just about everything. He runs into former work colleague Nick (John Michael Higgins) who encourages to go to some new age self-help seminar run by Terrence (Terence Stamp), who encourages his followers to say yes to everything, at least that's the way Carl interprets it. Carl does everything from taking Korean lesson, flying lessons, guitar lessons to even, uhm, helping out the elderly. He meets and falls in love with Allison (Zooey Deschanel), who along with his newfound philosophy changes his life, that is until the truth really comes out.

I will say it is nice to see Carrey doing comedy again after being so serious with the dismal drama "Number 23." Though largely a physical comedian, Carrey can throw out spry dialogue with the best of them, and when he attempts to talk at the same as someone else, you can't help but snicker. But the whole concept of "Yes Man" is wholly unoriginal, as it essentially remakes (or rips offs, however you look at it), his own movie, "Liar Liar," which had a similar formula.

Things have changed in comedy since the late '90's, and now crudeness and dirty humor play an important part in comedy films, and you'll find it in "Yes Man" too, but the only thing is - it isn't as funny as say, Judd Apatow. Director Peyton Reed ("The Break Up") surrounds Carrey with actors less funny -Coooper and Masterson (Hyde from "That '70s Show") - are not Paul Rudd or Seth Rogan. The one truly funny supporting actor is Rhys Darby from "The Flight of the Conchords" as Carrey's even lonelier boss Norman, who enjoys having costume parties based on movies.

"Yes Man" belongs to Carrey, and he and Deschanel have a few sweet moments, and the few comically inspired scenes unsurprisingly also belong to Carrey - playing a guitar in trying to talk a suicidal man down, and a Red Bull-fueled run and crash down a mountain. Others don't work as well (having sex with senior citizens is uncomfortable and unfunny - Adam Sandler tried this already and it didn't work then, either).

"Yes Man" will likely be another big hit for Carrey, as this type of comedy is what people come to expect from him. Just wish it'd be more fresh and original next time.

The Tale of Despereaux - B+

Wes's full review of The Tale of Despereaux can be found at:

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still - C-

Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence, 110 minutes

Bloated, overdone “Day” is a needless remake of a timeless classic

The 1951 classic sci-fi film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is timeless, relevant and was ahead of its time, not to mention very modestly budgeted. The idea of remaking it is actually not a bad idea, but remaking it into a big-budgeted, bloated disaster flick with an all-star cast, loads of special effects and heavy-handed environmental messages is a bad idea. The remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is exactly all that and more, a huge disappointment and a waste considering the gazillions of dollars thrown at the silver screen. The most entertaining parts of the new film involve the big, indestructible robot who becomes the star of the film.

The plot concerns an alien named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) who is sent to Earth. He lands in Central Park in New York City (where else?) but it shot by a soldier as he is approaching a group of scientists led by Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). He eventually morphs into human form but has brought with him a huge robot-like creature named Gort who can be extremely dangerous and indestructible.

The U.S. government, led by Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense, believes the Earth may be up for destruction, but after globe-like sphere’s are placed all over the world, it seems the aliens are collecting specimens after humans, not the Earth is destroyed. It’s up to Helen to communicate with Klaatu to stop Gort from destroying the human race and give us all a second chance, that is before the U.S. Government steps in to mess things up (now that part is realistic).

The premise of the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is an intriguing one and starts out well, but within 20 minutes of the film the special effects take over and things go awry. The plot, updated slightly from the original, has the Earth being destroyed. The original 1951 film went delved more of the miscommunication between man and alien life form - here there is little of that, which is unsurprising given Reeves’ inability to communicate as an actor.

Insert loads of talented cast members, including Reeves, Connelly, Bates (chewing up the scenery as fast the robot can destroy it), John Cleese (merely a cameo), Jaden Smith (yes, Will Smith’s son) and “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm, utterly wasted in a small supporting role. Insert loads of special effects, some of which are entertaining. What ends up on screen is a mess, helmed by Scott Derrickson (“The Haunting of Emily Rose”) who is clearly the wrong (and an inexperienced) director to handle something like this, not to mention a script that gets heavy-handed, disaster-laden, and lost amidst its own spectactle.

The most entertaining scenes of the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” involve the big robot Gort, one thing about the film that stays closest to the original. This time he’s more biological and indestructible, and clearly has the most fun fending off whatever the military can throw his way. It’s obvious that much more time was spent on Gort than the acting or the confusing, muddled story (Klaatu is here to destroy humans but then ends up saving some people-huh?).

Speaking of which, the final act of the new film is utterly ridiculous (“Just give us one more chance!” begs Connelly) with Reeves, Connelly and Smith running in various directions. After “The Matrix,” you’d think that casting Reeves as the alien would be an inspired choice, but it’s more of an insipid one (“your planet?” he tells Bates).

The lack of a relevant, poignant message gives way to video-game style special effects, which should no doubt please those going for the entertainment value this holiday season. The messy, bloated and overdone remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” should be a big hit, but for a truly more thoughtful and better movie (and especially if you’re a sci-fi fan), you’re far better off watching the original.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nothing Like the Holidays - C

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue, and brief drug references, 99 minutes

"Holidays": Pleasant, average Puerto Rican family - pleasant, average movie

"Nothing Like the Holidays" invites you home to a Latina Christmas but you'll be looking for more spice. This is about your average, pleasant and nice Puerto Rican family, and it comes out as an average, pleasant and unmemorable movie. There are a few good, funny moments, but it lacks poignancy and inspiration to set it apart from any other movie about families during the holidays.

The Rodriguez family in Chicago is gathering for Christmas to welcome home their family. Edy (Alfred Molina) runs the family grocery store, while Anna (Elizabeth Pena) tends to their spacious home. Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and Sarah (Debra Messing) are a successful New York couple who've yet to have children; budding actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) is hoping to land an important acting gig, and youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez of "Six Feet Under") is coming home from Iraq after seeing some action. Family friends Johnny (Luis Guzman) and Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) are around to ensure there's never a dull moment. Family problems ensue when Edy is suspected of cheating, though he's really hiding much more.

For all that goes on in "Nothing Like the Holidays," not much really happens that's interesting. You've seen family dyfunction channeled much better on an episode of the TV drama "Brothers and Sisters," which this could be a Latin version of. Every twist and turn is predictable and plays itself out in TV episode-like fashion.

There are a few charming moments, mainly coming from character actor Guzman, who steals and chomps every scene he's in, and taking with him the movie's funniest moments. The drama lacks punch, which is due to the pedestrian script, in spite of a gallery of talented, mostly Hispanic actors. Pena is always fun to watch, but Molina is too mellow and Hernandez is stuck in a one-note role. Too bad the fresh-faced, pretty Melonie Diaz (of the recent "Hamlet 2") isn't given more to do.

The writing, the direction, the acting, all could've been done much better and tends to fall back on too many cliches and stereotypes that makes it all the none too unrevealing. "Nothing Like the Holidays" isn't a bad film per se and is a pleasant enough cream puff for the holidays, but once its gone, you won't remember a bit of it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frost/Nixon - A-

Rated R for some language, 120 minutes

Articulate, compelling and absorbing make "Frost/Nixon" a must-see

"Frost/Nixon" arrives at the end of the year, just in time for awards consideration. Seemingly made for those types of things, "F/N" is one of the most absorbing, articulate and compelling drama's for 2008 and will likely make my Top 10 list. The film features great performances and one truly astonishing one, not to mention superb direction and writing. "Frost/Nixon" is based on actual events and a Tony-award winning play of the same name, about the TV news interviews between British TV talk show host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Nixon, that eventually ended with Nixon admitting some sort of guilt in the Watergate scandal.

"Frost/Nixon" opens in 1977, 3 years after the Watergate scandal that resulted in Nixon's resignation from the U.S. Presidency. We all know the story of the scandal, and how Nixon never formally admitted wrong doing and was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in the process. In the 3 years since Watergate, Nixon (played by Frank Langella) has been relatively quiet until his Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) begins talks of some TV interviews for a subtantial amount of money.

David Frost (Michael Sheen), a laid-back British and Australian TV talk show host, becomes interested and eventually offers Nixon $650,000 for a series of four 90-minute interviews on Foreign Policy, Domestic Policy, a biographical piece and the final centerpiece interview on Watergate. Frost secures a coup with the interview, but financial issues, including advertising and finding a network to actually sponsor the piece, becomes a challenge. Frost's wealthy friends help him out in the process but if the interviews fail, it could sink him and his career.

Frost hires a couple of anti-Nixon investigators, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to help him become more familiar with Nixon and the issues, and they dig up a lot of information dealing with Watergate. What emerges is a tit-for-tat, a battle of wits that reveals each man's insecurities, ego and reserves of dignity--ultimately setting aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth.

"Frost/Nixon" is an excellent, literate drama superbly directed by Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") and well-written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play the movie's based on. Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in "The Queen") gives a strong (though largely reactionary)performance as Frost, reprising his stage role, but the highlight of the film is the astonishing performance by Langella as Nixon. Langella, who rightfully won a Tony Award for the play, perfectly embodies and shades a complex character more than anyone's done before, including Anthony Hopkins' Nixon. Langella captures his voice, his look, his movements in a near perfect, pitch-perfect performance that's a wonder and without a doubt will be Oscar-nominated.

"Frost/Nixon" wouldn't have worked as well without Langella and Sheen, and the interviews themselves are a treat to watch and unfold, becoming more absorbing until the effective Watergate piece in which Nixon finally, in his own way, admits guilt. There are a host of other real-life characters, including Nixon's Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Frost's girlfiend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall, also an original member of the play), and Frost's producer Jack Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), all of whom give effective supporting performances.

"Frost/Nixon" isn't all that revealing with its story. After all, anyone familiar with the facts knows what happened - the interviews would become among the most watched in American TV news history; this would be what Frost would essentially always be remembered for. The Watergate rehash also becomes a bit tiresome at times, especially with all the bantering between Zelnick and Ruston, essentially secondary Woodward-Bernstein reporters. But the performances make it all highly engaging and watchable, even if you know the outcome.

"Frost/Nixon" should be seen for its strong performances, especially Langella's and a compelling story that ranks among the year's best.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Doubt - B+

Read Wes's full review of "Doubt" on the Pop Syndicate website at:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa: B

Read the Wes's review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa at:

Role Models - B-

Role Models
Rated R for crude and sexual content, strong language and nudity, 99 minutes
Wes's Grade: B-

"Role Models" won't win any awards, but it is crude fun & a guilty pleasure

I'll say upfront that "Role Models" is not a serious contender for any Oscars, but it is good, crude fun and guilty pleasure viewing. "Role Models" is a predictably but humorously staged buddy comedy that's made better by a game cast, two supporting players in particular nearly walk off with the film. I laughed far more than I should, and many might find themselves going more than once to listen to some of the funny lines quoted in the movie.

Paul Rudd is Danny, Seann William Scott is Wheeler, co-workers at an energy drink company who go out to schools with an anti-drug and pro-energy drink message. Mid-thirtysomething Danny wants more from life, including possible marriage with his attorney girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) while the free-spirited Wheeler seems to be having the time of his life. The two go on a energy-drink binge and trash the company truck. They face jail time until Beth gets them off with 150 hours of community service at a Big Brothers-type of organization run by an energetic ex-con (Jane Lynch).

Danny and Wheeler are now faced with the biggest challenges of their lives: Danny is paired with the teenage Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a geek obsessed with medieval role play ala Dungeons and Dragons, while Wheeler is paired with Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a fast-talking, profane little kid who knows way more than he should. Directed and written by TV actor and writer David Wain (and co-written along with Rudd), the film's material might be offputting and offensive to some, but taken in the right spirit, it's quite hilarious.

Rudd and Scott make a good team, but they're completely upstaged by two supporting players who spout some of the film's best lines. Jane Lynch, a Christopher Guest movie alum and a sharp comic actress, is the ex-con center director who refuses to be outsmarted by anyone. At the movie's end she has what is probably the best line, of which can only be repeated here, "I don't mean to be crude, but..."

Thompson, as the profane Ronnie, also steals scenes (not to mention a jeep) with a quick very adult wit. Seeing him dressed up as a member of the rock group KISS is a fun sight to behold. The film's material is otherwise slight and unoriginal, and the last act in particular, an extended medieval forest role play, goes on far too long. Mintz-Plasse, by the way (otherwise known as McLovin from last year's "Superbad") is also funny though he runs the risk of being typecast.

Rudd and Scott have a good time and also throw out a few good, sarcastic lines ("Venti is not large," he says of his coffee), while Banks is barely there as Rudd's girlfriend. I liked "Role Models" more than I should given that it's not a superb film, but guilty pleasure entertainment like this may provide much-needed laughs and an escape from the real world, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Quantum of Solace: B

Quantum of Solace
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content, 106 minutes
Wes's Grade: B

Plenty of action, efficiency make "Quantum" a solid 007 entry

"Quantum of Solace" is the latest James Bond/007 feature, and for those keeping record, the 25th overall film in the series, and also is released in 2008, the 100th birthday of 007's literary creator Ian Fleming. "Quantum" isn't the best Bond and isn't as good as 2006's riveting "Casino Royale," but it's action-packed and efficiently made, enough to make it a solid entry in the series, even though its story is a bit muddled and overplotted at times. Daniel Craig returns in his second outing as Bond and certainly channels the agent's dark side, but it's a nice turn nonetheless.

"Solace" is more of a sequel of sorts to "Casino Royale," picking up where that film left off, and Bond seeking revenge for the death of his love Vesper, even though she had betrayed him and stole his casino winnings. As he and "M" (Judi Dench, in her sixth outing) seek to uncover the truth behind her death, he is led to a mysterious criminal organization known as Quantum, led by a fake but powerful environmentalist named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) who wants to control the water supplies the world over, including Haiti and Bolivia. One of Greene's assistants is the beautiful Camille (Olga Kurylenko), actually a Bolivian intelligence agent who's infiltrated Greene's organization seeking revenge of her own. As he seeks to uncover the truth behind Vesper's betrayal, he must stay a step ahead of everyone from the CIA to M herself before Greene gets his way of controlling the world's water supply.

Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") takes the helm of "Solace" along with "Casino Royale" writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis. They pack the film with loads of nifty, breathtaking action sequences, including the opening car chase, the first for the opening of a Bond film. In between, though, the plot becomes a little muddled and difficult to follow, changing locales numerous times. There's enough action sequences and the handsome Craig as Bond to watch to keep you engaged, but don't bother trying too hard to make sense of the plot itself.

By the way, the new rock tune featured in the film, "Another Way to Die," from White Stripes singer Jack White and R&B singer, Alicia Keys, isn't near as memorable as other Bond tunes (my personal favorite is still Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die"). Craig, for what it's worth, continues to do a decent job as Bond, though it seems to be the most physical and gadgetless seen in recent memory; he nicely channels Bond's dark side, but it would be nice to see him break a smile every now and then to lighten it up a bit. Dench is always a treat, though Amalric makes for too bland a villian.

Of the Bond girls, Kurulenko, just seen in the recent "Max Payne," is pretty, though Gemma Arterton is much more fun as special agent Strawberry Fields (her demise in the film is a direct nod to the classic Bond film "Goldfinger").

"Solace" will please most Bond fans and it's worth a look, but for a real trip down memory lane, it may be worth it check out some classic Bonds such as "Dr. No," "Goldfinger" and "Live and Let Die."

Bolt: B

You'll find Wes's full review of Bolt at:

Twilight: C

Rated PG-13 for some violence and a scene of sensuality, 115 minutes
Wes's Grade: C

Twilight: Teen love, high school angst and vampires

"Twilight" is the new movie based on the phenomenally popular series of books written by Stephanie Meyer. "Twilight" is the first in the series, and the movie is a mixed blessing. While we don't get a chance to see teenage vampires that much, that is essentially the premise of "Twilight," with heavy themes of forbidden love and desire. Unfortunately, we also get heavy, heavy doses of teenage angst and high school life, which mires the story in banality until the film's final act. "Twilight" should please most of its literary fans and many young girls, but otherwise it's a painfully slow affair, lacking the passion and energy something like this should have.

Bella (Kristen Stewart, well cast) moves to small town upstate Washington from Phoenix to live with her father Charlie (Billy Burke) so her mother and step-father, an aspiring semi-pro baseball player, can travel the road. Somewhat of a sullen, sarcastic outcast at her previous school, she fits in too well at her new school, with several suitors and a good mix of friends. However, she becomes attracted to Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the son of a local doctor, Dr. Cullen (Peter Facinelli). The only thing is, Edward is the mysterious sexy loner boy, pale-faced with a special diet. The two fall in love and she quickly realizes Edward is of the vampire sort, with a strange family that includes Rosalee (Nikki Reed), who hates Bella of course. Edward has to keep her protected from the very dangerous, flesh-eating vampire James (Cam Gigandet), who enjoys humans for snacks and who wants nothing more than to put Bella on a cracker and have her for lunch.

"Twilight" is a prime example of a popular literary series turned film adaptation with the wrong director. Director Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen") is a gifted director, but this seems to be the wrong material for her, and much of it falls prey to the teenage banality, and her direction lacks coherence to a story that needed, not to mention much more spark, especially in the angsty, heavy exposition-filled first act that all but drags the film down. It's certainly unrevealing for a talented director and some of it could've been trimmed down. Even the younger set, who this is clearly geared for, may be bored by it, especially in the first hour.

The leads are well-cast, especially Stewart, who makes for a fine Bella, though Pattinson, as the mysterious Edward, is luminous enough but still lacks charm enough to put enough sizzle on the screen, and the two lack a certain energy. The real breakout star here is Gigandet ("Never Back Down") as bad-guy James, who seems to be the real stud here, in a smallish role (he's hardly seen in the first half at all) that all but eats up the screen. His role seems minimalized for the British Pattinson's sake, who in my opinion is something of a shallow mystery.

For a vampire movie, even teenage ones, "Twilight" lacks, well, vampires. It needs more of them and more passionate energy to work, and the best scenes in the handsomely filmed movie are when it focuses on Edward's abilities as a vampire. The predictable ending leaves it wide open for more of these things, as we get the "will she or won't she" plot device of Bella's fate as a vampire.

The blood-letting here, what we see of it, is of the PG-13 sort (nothing too graphic) and is suitable for teenagers and up. "Twilight" has some good individual scenes, but overall it's a disappointment considering the hype surrounding the movie.

Transporter 3: C-

The Transporter 3
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, some sexual content and drug material, 100 minutes
Wes's Grade: C-

Forgettable, trashy "Transporter 3" boasts some cool stunts and martial arts, little else

Jason Statham is a decent martial arts fighter and has rugged, handsome looks. Too bad he can't be given a better movie franchise than the trashy, forgettable "Transporter" films. The first was a modest hit that did well on video, and spawned two largely unnecessary sequels, "Transporter 2" (2005) and now this one. If you've seen the other "Transporter" films you've already seen this one too. Cool, flashy stunts and fighting (and cool cars too) but largely forgettable when it comes to about anything else - directing, acting, writing and the such - you know, things that make like, a good movie, which it is far from.

Statham once again plays Frank Martin, a shady messenger who delivers goods, usually of the human kind, to slimy underworld businessman. This time, he must take Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) across the country of France. En route, he must deal with all sorts of lowlife thugs who want to intercept the delivery to get in the way of his dangerous objective.

Pretty simple stuff, peppered with some very cool stunts (landing a car on a train is the best) not to mention some nice martial arts. Statham also gets to go shirtless if you care about such things (and many, especially ladies, who do).

Luc Besson, who wrote, produced and directed the other "Transporter" films, writes here too, leaving the directing to French director to Olivier Megaton, but all of it, especially the story and acting, are tremendously lackluster, but then most would go to see Statham and/or the stunts.

Instantly forgettable, there's not much else to say about "Transporter 3" except that it'll probably do modestly well at the box-office and probably spawn another sequel.

Four Christmases - C+

Four Christmases
Rated PG-13 for some sexual humor and language, 82 minutes
Wes's Grade: C+

You've already seen the best parts of Four Christmases - all 3 minutes - in the trailers for the movie

Admittedly, holidays can be rough for some folks spending time with family. The movie "Four Christmases" is an endurance test even at a spry 82 minutes, as most of the funniest parts of the film - about 3 minutes worth - can be seen in the trailers for the movie. Largely unfunny, flat and misdirected with a couple of inspired moments, "Four Christmases" is a big disappointment considering you have 5 Oscar winners in its cast, not to mention a cast of talented non-Oscar winners including Vince Vaughn, "IronMan" director Jon Favreau, country music singers turned actors Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw, and "Pushing Daisies" star Kristin Chenoweth. The film also has a mean-spirited bent on it that's too uncharacteristic for a holiday film.

Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vaughn) are an unmarried, upscale San Franscisco couple who take nice, lavish vacations each Christmas to avoid their families. They've lied to them repeatedly over the years about taking mission trips or something to avoid telling them the truth. Except this time they get to the airport to hop on a plane to Fiji and all flights are canceled. The TV news catches them live in the act, and now they must endure four separate Christmases with their families, and after meeting them, they wish they had just stayed home. But the two come to realize the importance of their relationship and how serious it can be, including talk of marriage, children and the like.

It could actually be called "3 1/2 Christmases" (would've been a funnier title) since technically they're not celebrating with a separate family on the fourth christmas. Both Brad and Kate's families are divorced, which is why they must endure the separate Christmases. Only one of the Christmases, with Kate's mom (Mary Steenburgen) and sister (Chenowith), provides the most amusing moments, when they show fat pictures of Kate's childhood, and Brad and Kate are called upon to play Mary & Joseph in a church play.

The rest of it is largely unfunny, especially the moments with Brad's Dad (Robert Duvall) and brothers (Favreau and McGraw) and Brad's mother (Sissy Spacek) and much younger boyfriend (Brian Baumgautner, one of Vaughn's pals in "Swingers"), both of which are either too creepy, uncomfortable or mean-spirited (is it really necessary to beat up on each other). Jon Voight, as Kate's Dad, pops in for a couple of scenes, but actually he's the warmest and most normal of the families, and the nicest one of the bunch.

All of this would've worked far better with a more experienced director than Seth Gordon or newbie writers Caleb Wilson and Matt Allen, all of whom provide too many creepy, mean moments that can be predicted a mile away, including an ending that you'll know well before it ends. Vaughn did this last year with "Fred Claus," an equally unfunny and mean-spirited holiday film. Next time, if he's going to make a holiday film, at least make a little more warm and inviting than the mess that's onscreen here.

Milk: A-

Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence, 128 minutes
Wes's Grade: A-

Superbly acted, entertaining "Milk" makes its statements

Even if you don't agree with Harvey Milk or his politics, you have to agree that "Milk," the film depiction of his political work is powerful, entertaining and superbly acted by lead Sean Penn as Milk and a gallery of other actors. Penn will no doubt garner another Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the real-life political activist who was tragically shot in November 1978 (the release of the film was timed - albeit perfectly - with the 30th anniversary of Milk's death).

Milk (Penn) settles in San Francisco with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) and opens a camera shop in Castro Street. Realizing the lack of civil rights in the gay community, he becomes a leader in the San Francisco gay community and has aspirations for political office, the first for an openly gay person. He runs for office several times, losing each time yet receiving more votes each times he runs. When the district lines are redrawn, a new district is created and Milk runs once again, this time winning the election and becoming a Supervisor (or city councilperson) representing his district. Milk also passes a controversial anti-gay rights bill in San Francisco, attracting the displeasure of fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). White resigns his seat, claiming the position didn't pay enough to support his family; it leads to extreme depression and instability, and he ends up killing both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (played by Victor Garber).

"Milk" is a finely drawn, well-made production, superbly directed by Gus Van Sant (best known for "Good Will Hunting") and written by TV scribe Dustin Lance Black and exuisitely acted by Penn and the supporting players. A gallery of actors appear, including Franco, Garber, Brolin, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill, all superb playing real-life people, but it's all Penn's show, who perfectly captures Milk's persona, his mannerisms, and of course, his activism. Above all, it's a triumph of performance due to Penn's adept ability and skill to give a textured, subtle performance that's certainly Oscar worthy.

Brolin is creepy scary and sad as Milk's murderous colleague Dan White, who shot Milk, and Franco has some good moments in a supporting role as one of Milk's real-life partners."Milk" is based on several sources, including some actual audio tapes that Milk made before his death, in the event something were to happen to him (Milk actually predicts his own death). If you are familiar with Milk's story, the ending is no surprise, ala Titanic, but it's still an affecting, moving story getting there, and really sad given all that's taken place since then.

"Milk" is worth a look not just for its politics, but is a finely textured look at a tragic figure whose life ended way too early. Look for it to play heavy in awards consideration, particularly the Oscars, but there are more award-worthy films still to be released, including "Frost/Nixon," "The Wrestler" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."