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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Best and Worst Films of 2010

Before the year ends I better throw out my picks for the best and worst films of 2010.

Everyone's a critic, including myself and I don't pretend to be the expert of all experts when it comes to movies, but after having seen almost 200 movies this year, these are the best (and worst) that I've seen in 2010.

2010 wasn't the best year we've had in film, but latter part of the year came some great films (I don't have a single film before June on my list, sorry). Drum roll please...

Best Films of 2010 - My Top 10
(in no particular order)

The King's Speech
This fact-based story on King George VI is a complete, utter winner, with an unforgettably stunning and Oscar-worthy performance by Colin Firth as the stuttering king. Keep plenty of tissues for the ending.

The Fighter
Sure, boxing stories have some of the same, predictable themes: people get beat up inside and outside the ring. But the stellar, affecting performances from all in the cast made this gritty true story of Boston fighter Mickey Ward a must-see. Christian Bale is a shoo-in for the Supporting Actor Oscar.

Black Swan
This behind-the-scenes psychological ballerina tale from Darren Aronofsky is bizarre, twisted and sublimely performed by Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. You won't easily forget the stunning ending, either. Portman is a strong front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

127 Hours
Yes, the scene in this true story based on stranded hiker Aron Ralston where he chops his arm off is difficult to watch. But director Danny Boyle and actor James Franco succeed in making the year's most affecting, wrenching tale with grace, humor and charm.

The year's most original, mesmerizing movie is also the year's most difficult to understand. However, Christopher Nolan and his actor look-alike, Leonardo DiCaprio, have you hooked from the first scene to the most-provocative cinematic ending of the year. Worth multiple viewings.

The Town
I would have never thought I'd have a film made by and starring Ben Affleck in my Top 10 list, but Affleck has become a smart, astute filmmaker, and this tense, taut and believable heist flick works only because of Affleck's stellar direction (who delivers a decent performance here too).

The Social Network
Maybe a smidgen overrated by now, you can't deny the influence that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have had on our society. With smart, zippy dialogue and superbly acted by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, put this on your must-see list if you haven't yet.

The Kids Are All Right
A wonderful, touching story about a lesbian couple and their family, delivered sublimely by an A-list cast that included Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and especially by Annette Bening, who delivers another layered award-worthy performance. Note to the Academy: please give Bening the Oscar already.

Toy Story 3
2010 was a great year for animated films, with "How To Train Your Dragon," "Tangled" and "Despicable Me," but Buzz, Woody and the gang were back for their most touching adventure yet. After the three-hanky ending, you'll need time to yourself.

Winter's Bone
Sure, this story about a back-woods teenage girl searching for her father was on the depressing side, but the unforgettable, mature (and likely Oscar-nominated) performance from newcomer Jennifer Lawrence was one of the year's breakthrough turns.

Honorable Mentions:
How to Train Your Dragon, True Grit, Despicable Me, Ghost Writer, Get Him to the Greek, Iron Man 2, Nowhere Boy.

Worst Films of 2010
(in no particular order)

Gulliver's Travels
Sure, it's easy to list this one since it just came out on Christmas Day, but this is not only an awful travesty, it's just plain awful. A 3D, all-star kids version of Jonathan Swift's classic story starring Jack Black seemed playful on paper, but on screen it's a painfully unfunny embarrassment to all involved.

Little Fockers
Another star-studded miserable year-end experience. This woefully unfunny, unecessary and expensive sequel in the "Meet the Parents" franchise was its worst. Even the presence of DeNiro, Stiller, Owen Wilson, Streisand and Hoffman couldn't make this watchable.

Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher are two of cinema's most handsome actors. Put them together and what do you get? One annoying, boring, lousy mess of a rom com about spies in the suburbs that's what. Brad and Angelina they're not.

Furry Vengeance
Pair a hyper Brendan Fraser and some vengeful animals and you get what you might expect: a terrible, cheap, unfunny kids movie that even kids hated. After actually paying for this movie, you might want revenge too.

Grown Ups
This offensive, sloppy comedy was the only time that Adam Sandler and all his comedian pals were on-screen together. With that in mind, you'd think there would be something actually funny to watch. Inexplicably, one of Sandler's biggest hits was one of his worst, which says a lot. Proves that all you have to do is grab a camera, some friends, act stupid and call it a movie.

Somewhere - B-

Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language, 97 minutes

Pensive but engaging celebrity tale "Somewhere"

The real question may be "Where are you?" The answer doesn't necessarily lie in Sofia Coppola's pensive, low-key new drama "Somewhere," and while the independently-made, superbly acted tale about celebrity status isn't always the most approachable film, it further reveals that Coppola remains one of cinema's more unconventional filmmakers.

Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), nested in the luxurious L.A. hotel Chateau Marmont, is a stimulated man. Drinking, parties and women keep a creeping boredom under wraps in between jobs. He is the occasional father of a bright girl, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who may be spoiled but doesn't act it. When Cleo unexpectedly shows up for an extended stay, Johnny brings her along for the ride, but he may be forced to make changes to his privileged lifestyle.

Coppola's alluring, glossy tale of celebrity, "Somewhere" treads familiar Coppola territory; however, the slow-moving character study shows that fame doesn't necessarily bring relationships of substance. Some scenes are supposedly semi-autobiographical and based on Coppola's own famous upbringing, but it all has a familiar pensive air to it from other Coppola films, particularly "Lost in Translation," which examined similar issues. Still, Coppola is an interesting director who uses her elements well, while dwelling on the silence of a lonely road or the trinkling water in a swimming pool.

Most important, Coppola uses her actors well in what is essentially a two-character play, and it helps that both Dorff and Fanning give subtle but charming performances that carry the film. The Hollywood lifestyle is portrayed realistically but not sympathetically; it seems to be a lonely road filled with people who want to be around you for your celebrity. There are also some tunes from the folk rock group Phoenix that are integrated well into the film.

"Somewhere" may be in a lonely, sad place, and the provocative ending may leave you wondering if the characters ended up in the place they wanted to be. Coppola, a director of remarkable strength and intelligence, keeps you guessing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Casino Jack - C

Rated R for pervasive language, some violence and brief nudity, 108 minutes

Smooth Spacey performance in uneven Abramoff film "Casino Jack"

There's no doubting that infamous Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff was a colorful character, given that he was the center of a corruption scandal for which he just completed a prison sentence. Abramoff's dealings are detailed in the new dramedy "Casino Jack," a choppy, redundant film that's in need of a better editing job. What is certain is that Kevin Spacy gives another of his brilliantly self-assured performances as Abramoff, and he's the chief reason to see the film.

Abramoff's Washington D.C. lobbyist and secondary business career is the focus of the film, which included some gross excesses, mismanagement and corruption that brought him and many of his colleagues, including Michael Scanlon ("True Grit's" Barry Pepper) and his political connections, down. One of his main clients that he defrauded was the Saginaw Chippewas tribe of Michigan, from whom he took over $20 million to pay for his excesses. A federal investigation finds Abramoff guilty for taking bribes in exchange for political favors.

"Casino Jack" is a well-acted but uneven film that details a fascinating, colorful life with a bland annoyance and redundancy given that most probably already know the outcome of Abramoff's story. George Hicklenlooper, director of the Oscar-winning documentary "Hearts of Darkness," can't get a great handle on the material, and it lacks a certain emotional payoff that something like this should have.

Spacey's affecting turn as Abramoff is the most memorable about the choppy film, which is evident from his recent Golden Globe nomination for the film. The film's narrative jumps between different events (including Texas's own Tom DeLay) before it reaches a climax that most are aware of if they've read the news.

"Casino Jack" shouldn't be confused with the actual Abramoff documentary released earlier this year, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," which is far more effective in detailing Abramoff's career than this film, which fictionalizes certain aspects of the story. Abramoff's less than stellar legacy could've been given a more interesting treatment than what "Casino Jack" gives it, though Spacey gives it his all.

Made in Dagenham - B

Rated R for language and brief sexuality, 113 minutes

Likable, charming true story of "Made in Dagenham"

If you think you aren't paid enough at what you do, you should see the new British film "Made in Dagenham," a charming look at how some British ladies stood up and made a difference. It's predictable and unrevealing as a whole, but these ladies are so darn likable that you will be rooting for them the whole way.

It's the summer of 1968, and Rita O' Grady (Sally Hawkins) and her pals are enjoying the swinging '60s in Dagenham, England. They all work as sewing machinists for the Ford plant, sewing the material onto the car seats. But they are notified by their supervisor (Bob Hoskins) that have been categorized as unskilled workers and worst of all, are paid considerably less than their male counterparts. Rita stands up to the local Ford management for equal pay for the women, something that garners the attention of the British government and agressive Labor Department minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), who pledges to help the ladies.

"Made in Dagenham" is a pleasantly inspiring but bland look at how a few lower-class British dames changed history and made things better for women workers. If you know anything about the story, you already know how it turns out, but it's fun getting there. There are a few unnecessary episodes that give a padded, choppy feel at times, but it's still fun getting to the end. Hawkins is affecting as O'Grady, Hoskins is a sympathetic company man, and British character actress Richardson delivers one of her stronger, more memorable turns as the opinated Castle, who not only helped the ladies but also provided legislation later than led to the groundbreaking Equal Pay Act.

Director Nigel Fox, who helmed another true British ladies effort "Calendar Girls" a few years ago, handles the material well, though it likely would've benefited from a stronger, female director who didn't underestimate the power of the material. Good thing he has a strong true story and cast on his side to make the film better than it really should be, and it's also quite nice to see the actual (and now much older) ladies talk about their experiences over the film's credits at the end.

"Made in Dagenham" is an agreeable, if somewhat forgettable look at some graceful, plucky ladies who made a difference. You may not remember all of the movie, but you certainly won't forget the difference they made.

All Good Things - C

Rated R for drug use, violence, language and some sexuality, 100 minutes

Well-acted, chilling but baffling “All Good Things”

“All Good Things” is a fascinating, well-acted but confusing thriller based-on-a-true crime story, which works in its favor but is also its biggest flaw. Based on the chillingly bizarre experiences of rich real estate investor Robert Durst, for some reason the story is given a fictional slant, an odd choice from the filmmakers given their stance in essentially implicating Durst of the crimes.

Ryan Gosling is David Marks, the son of wealthy New York City real estate investor Sanford Marks (Frank Langella). He meets the girl of his dreams, a pretty, smart blond named Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst). When they get married, David leaves the family business as he and Katie buy a health food store named “All Good Things.” But David is lured back to the business, the two begin leading separate lives and Katie applies to medical school. However, David begins acting strangely and violently toward Katie and others, and Katie disappears. Through a strange series of events over the years, the now 20-year old case of Katie’s disappearance is re-opened.

“All Good Things” is an intriguingly murky, well-acted dramatic thriller whose real-life story seems to cast a pall on its effectiveness. It’s well-acted and “Capturing the Friedman’s” director Andrew Jarecki, directs “All Good Things” with an astute attention to detail, but it’s baffling as to why Jarecki and his screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling didn’t just use Durst’s story outright instead of changing the names and a few minor details (even Durst himself - strangely enough - has approved the film).

Gosling and especially Dunst, in an understated, low-key role, are quite good as the couple with some problems, but the unrevealing, confusing script doesn’t provide insight into the notorious real-life case and explaining some of Durst's bizarre behavior, especially in the film’s last act. The title of the film, "All Good Things" itself is an odd choice; ironically it's the only thing about the actual Durst case not fictionalized in the film, the name of the health food store Durst and his wife had, but it's such a fleeting, minor part of the movie it seems an ill-fitting name. Sure, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for Durst’s life, though in reality it would apply to just one part of his life and not the case as a whole.

“All Good Things” ends up a vacuous, hazy tale of rich people acting badly, rather than intimately profiling an intriguing, somewhat appalling character as Durst, who as an adult was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which isn’t even mentioned here. The unresolved missing person case of Kathleen McCormack, Durst’s missing wife since 1982, deserves a more fulfilling, powerful examination than “All Good Things” gives it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gulliver's Travels - D-

Rated PG for brief rude humor, mild language and action, 85 minutes

“Gulliver’s Travels”: How Jack Black ruined a classic story

“Gulliver’s Travels” is a big lump of coal of a movie this holiday season. A waste of talent, time, and big studio dollars, it’s a giant, painful and inexcusable embarrassment. A very, very loose contemporary remake of the Jonathan Swift classic (i.e. it has very little, if anything to do with that story), this is a trip full of the tired Black schtick he’s been getting away with in movies since “School of Rock.”

Black is Lemuel Gulliver, a mailroom employee of a large New York newspaper. He has a crush on the publication’s travel writer (Amanda Peet) so he pretends to be a travel writer himself. She gives himself an assignment to cover the Bermuda Triangle, only to become entangled in a big storm that catapults him to Lilliput, where he is a giant among many small people, including Horatio (Jason Segel), Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), her father the King of Lilliput (Billy Connolly) and the evil general (Chris O’Dowd). Gulliver becomes a huge hero among the little people who don’t know who he really is.

A lame 3-D attempt at updating the timeless Swift story, it's a huge mess and Swift would likely turn over in his grave if he knew what Hollywood did with the latest adaptation of his classic satire. “Gulliver’s Travels” is one of the worst films of 2010 and easily the worst film of Black’s career, which is saying a lot given some of the bad films he’s made of late, and only underscores what an annoying performer he can be. Much like his lower-brow counterpart Adam Sandler, he essentially plays the same slacker character in every film, a version of himself that ends up riffing some rock song by the end of the film.

It’s easy to pinpoint the failure of this awful “Gulliver’s Travels” on the likable Black given his star status, but then he’s in every frame of the film, he also co-produced the film and it seems to have been written with Black’s (lack of) talents in mind (we can only guess whose idea it was to have Black unzipping and pissing on a fire). To its credit, a few scenes are goofy fun and the first half of the film is mildly tolerable, but it falls apart midway through in a huge, bizarre way, with the cringe-worthy arrival of a “Transformers”-like character that throws the film way off course. It reminds of the utter failure of another film re-make, “Wild Wild West,” except on a much larger scale.

In the wake of this failure, Black takes down the director, Rob Letterman, who serviceably helmed the animated hits “Monsters and Aliens” and “Shark Tale” but seems to let Black run amok here among the many fake, tiny model sets, along with wasting an A-list cast including Peet, Blunt, Segel and Connolly. Nicholas Stoller, director and writer of the recent, sharp “Get Him to the Greek” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” gets credit for the screenplay, but how much of his original script actually ended up on screen is debatable.

Detractors may say that this is all just silly fun geared toward kids, but even kids movies should be enjoyable. Inexplicably, the climax has Black and company singing the classic rock song “War” yet ironically the lyrics of that song could essentially describe this movie. What is “Gulliver’s Travels” good for? Absolutely nothing. A big, terrible misfire that isn’t worth the trip.

Little Fockers - D

Rated PG-13 for mature sexual humor throughout, language and some drug content, 91 minutes

Don't bother with dreadfully unfunny sequel "Little Fockers"

Hollywood has a way of taking ideas and running them into the ground, and this has never been more annoyingly apparent with the dreadful new sequel "Little Fockers," the third (and by far worst) movie in the tired "Meet the Parents" franchise. There's not anything remotely funny about "Fockers," which throws out the same mean-spirited gags as the other films; if you've seen the trailers for the film, then you've seen the best parts of the film.

Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and his wife Pam (Teri Polo) are now living in Chicago with twin children. Greg helps run one of the floors of the urban hospital he works at and while he seems successful, he has high hopes for his family. His in-laws, Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Dina Byrnes (Blythe Danner) come to visit and things get worse when Jack pushes Greg into taking more control of his family. Misunderstandings and other problems threathen to tear the once-happy family apart for good.

"Little Fockers" is an unnecessary sequel and a big waste: waste of time, talent and celluloid. Much of it falls remarkably flat this time out, given that the DeNiro-Stiller awkward in-law set up, was moderately funny the first time out, not so much since. Silly and contrived, this is a low-point for both talented actors and likely won't be included in any career retrospectives. This one was obviously done for money on both sides of the camera, with both actors giving seemingly disinterested performances.

It also wastes the other big-name talent attached to it, namely Owen Wilson (annoying as ever) and Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand, the latter two of whom make little more than cameos as Greg's unorthodox parents. Even the addition of Jessica Alba, Laura Dern and Harvey Keitel can't save this mess from crashing and burning early on. This time it just doesn't work: you'd think by now the DeNiro and Stiller characters would have things worked out given all they've been through. Also, whoever was the casting director on this thing should've been fired early on, the fact that the actors playing Greg's twins are obviously different ages makes it all the more unbelieveable.

"Little Fockers" is like a big family reunion where you're surrounded by people you don't like or don't know and you want it to end as soon as possible (and in case you wonder what you saw in them in the first place). Like any unpleasant experiences, you hopefully won't remember much of it, either. Put this awful and awfully forgettable film out of its misery and skip it all together.

Rabbit Hole - B

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use and language, 91 minutes

Finely drawn drama about grieving, loss in “Rabbit Hole”

If someone close to you has died, you often need ways to channel your grief and deal with the loss. “Rabbit Hole” examines the impact that death, loss and grieving have upon a family and the different ways that people deal with it. This low-key drama based on a play is finely drawn, superbly acted and often painful to watch, but is great viewing for the acting alone, particularly Nicole Kidman. Not all of it works perfectly, but the director and actors make it worth seeing.

Upscale middle class couple Becca and Howie Corbett (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) lose their child Danny when he is hit by a car. Months after his death they’re both struggling to deal with the loss in their own way. Becca chooses to remember him by developing a platonic relationship with the teenage driver who hit their son (Miles Teller) while Howie chooses a support group that Becca loathes. As Becca distances herself from Danny, Howie lives in the past by seeking refuge in outsiders. The Corbett’s find themselves adrift that will force them to make some choices about their future.

Slow-moving but understated with a nice, emotional pull, the compelling performances from leads Kidman and Eckhart highlight the film. The strong direction from John Cameron Mitchell also helps; Mitchell, director of such offbeat independent fare as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus” makes for an unlikely directorial choice for a drama like this but it’s a pleasant surprise.

David Lindsey-Abaire adapts his Pulitzer Award-winning play for the film and while much of it works well, the play loses a shade of its intimacy and complexity on screen, though the layered performances from Kidman and Eckhart make it work. They share some powerful moments together and Kidman is particularly effective as the grieving mom letting go of her son in her own way. There are some stellar supporting performances too, particularly Dianne Weist as Becca’s concerned mother and Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s unstable younger sister.

“Rabbit Hole” may have limited appeal but is worth a look for an excellent Kidman turn and a great drama about grief.

True Grit - B+

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images, 110 minutes

Affecting, understated “True Grit” the real deal

If you’re one of those who think it’s downright heresy to remake a John Wayne film should take a gander at the superb Coen Brothers remake of “True Grit,” which sticks closer to Charles Portis’ gritty novel and is in many ways better than the 1969 film that won Wayne an Oscar and created an iconic character that he’s best known for. This “True Grit” is a slow-moving, well-acted and tense Old Western drama that shoots and ends up a winner.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a determined 14-year old girl, out to avenge the cold-blooded murder of her father Frank Ross by low-level thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who’s been riding with a gang of bad guys led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie manages to rustle up the cash to hire a crusty, alcoholic U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. Along for the ride is Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who has his own reasons for tracking down Chaney.

“True Grit” is more authentic Western than the original film from the Coen Brothers, who direct and write as if they’ve been making Westerns for years (“No Country For Old Men” was sort a contemporary Western, sort of). This version is less remake than just another version of the novel, which the film adapts more faithfully. As in the novel, the film is told mainly from the viewpoint of Mattie, the young girl and central protagonist. She hires Cogburn for his “true grit” though in fact she’s the one who possesses the character needed to pull off something like this.

Because of the change in focus, the highlight of “True Grit” isn’t the hammy performance from Bridges, who literally has big boots to fill (more on that later), but the determined, confident performance from young newcomer Steinfeld, who is the real heart of the film and miles ahead of the annoying Kim Darby in the 1969 film. She takes the film from veterans Bridges and Damon and stands her ground in one of the year’s breakthrough performances (the scene in which she smooth talks a businessman is one of the film’s highlights). Fortunately, Bridges, in another stellar but flashy performance, doesn’t impersonate Wayne and gives the character more levity than Wayne’s didn’t have. Damon is also good in a low-key part and who’ll make you easily forget Glen Campbell, playing well off of Bridges’ larger-than-life presence.

The film drags some in the later going and misses a few beats here and there (Brolin is misused in a tiny part, a couple of small, bizarre Coen touches don’t fit and the climax is a bit anti-climactic given the premise), but overall this “True Grit” works better than the original, though it’s still not as rough and violent as it could’ve been. The Coen’s certainly don’t channel Eastwood’s reverent, elegiac “Unforgiven” in tone, but they still deliver an affecting, understated dramatic film that seems more drama than Western but works due in large part to Steinfeld’s layered performance that’s sure to garner accolades and attention.

The entertaining “True Grit” is a few notches better than the original film and is worth seeing this holiday season.

The Fighter - A-

Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality, 115 minutes

Gritty, layered boxing drama "The Fighter" is a winner

The new gritty boxing drama "The Fighter" comes up a winner and is the most memorable real-life boxing story since the Oscar-winning "Raging Bull." Starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, the excellent performances, realistic fight scenes and stellar production elements lift it above what could've been another typical "Rocky"-like rags-to-riches story.

It's the mid-1980s in Lowell, Massachusetts, and boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg) has been a moderately-successful boxer, trained by his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), a former boxer himself with drug problems, and managed by his bouffant-haired, loving mom Alice (Melissa Leo). After a series of setbacks causes him to quit the ring, the determined Micky attempts a comeback with new management and a new girlfirend (Amy Adams), which comes at a price both inside and outside the ring.

Realistic, believable and entertaining, "The Fighter" is a winner and a must-see for those who enjoy a "warts-and-all" drama and an uplifting, hard-knocks story. The believable, stellar turns from all in the cast lift the otherwise typical story into watchable entertainment. You'll most remember Bale's affecting, intense turn as the troubled, drug-addicted brother; his striking transformation (including the weight-loss) will change your perceptions of the British actor best-known for playing Batman.

Wahlberg continues to develop as an actor, and while his understated turn as Micky won't garner as much attention as Bale's showy turn, he's still the heart of the film, and you'll be cheering him every step of the way. Oscar-nominee Leo is also memorable as the controlling but loving big-haired mother, who only wants the best for her family, as is Adams, in a tough, different change of pace for the normally perky actress. Director David O. Russell ("Three Kings") is in fine, gritty Scorsese-like form, and his realistic recreation of the intense fight scenes should be lauded.

"The Fighter" was filmed on location in Lowell in some of the areas where the real Micky Ward (who along with Dicky is shown at the end) trained and lived, and it's filled with many great scenes inside and outside of the ring. "The Fighter" is one of the year's best films, and Micky and his story will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

The King's Speech - A

Rated R for some language, 118 minutes

Without hesitation, "The King's Speech" is one of the year's best

"The King's Speech" sheds new light on the Royal Family, and it's an inspiring one. Based on the true story of how King George VI (the current Queen Elizabeth's father) and how he overcame a stammer to lead England with courage during World War II. It's one of the year's most poignant, enjoyably uplifting and well-acted films, and expect it to earn some well-deserved accolades this awards season.

King George V (Michael Gambon) has successfully led England for years, but he becomes aged and ill and unable to lead his country. His oldest son Edward (Guy Pearce) is expected to succeed him on the throne, but he abdicates it due to his affair with a divorced woman. His next son, George VI (Colin Firth), then takes the throne, but his stammer and shyness make him an unusual choice. With the prodding of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he goes to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist known for his unorthodox methods, for assistance. With Logue's help, George is able to lead the country during World War II.

Vastly entertaining, superbly acted and crafted, "The King's Speech" is sublime, uplifting entertainment and one of the year's best films. The highlight of the film is Firth's amazing, touching performance as the royal who was known as Bertie and who received help from a regular man. Firth's transformation is credible, wholly believable and quite affecting; he's all but a shoo-in for this year's Best Actor Oscar, but his performance alone makes the film required viewing even for non-history buffs. Oscar-winner Rush is also quite good as Logue, who helped George overcome his stammer, and Carter, for once playing a normal human being, is poignant as the future Queen Mother.

The first-rate production ably recreates late 1930's England along with all the royal red tape that went along with being in this family. Gambon is a great, crusty old King George V, while "Harry Potter" alum Timothy Spall shines in a small but crucial part as Winston Churchill. Tom Hooper, who also successfully handled another historical figure in the miniseries "John Adams," directs David Seidler's with skill and keeps it from going the mauldin-illness-of-the-week route.

"The King's Speech" is an enjoyable, well-crafted and engaging film that comes highly recommended.

The Tempest - C+

Rated PG-13 for some nudity, suggestive content and scary images, 110 minutes

Taymor's uneven version of "The Tempest" a mixed bag

Leave it to good 'ol Bill Shakespeare to cause controversy at the movie box-office. The latest adaptation of his play "The Tempest" will no doubt cause some waves due to some major changes with the characters, though those changes are in fact welcome ones. Directed and adapted by renowned Broadway and film director Julie Taymor (best known for Broadway's "The Lion King"), the is superbly acted by most of the cast, though it suffers from some awkwardly staged scenes and uneven pacing.

Prospera (Helen Mirren), the duchess of Milan, is usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) and is cast off on a raft to die with her young daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). They survive, finding themselves stranded on an island where the beast Caliban is the sole inhabitant. Prospera enslaves Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and claims the island. After 12 years, Alonso, the king of Naples (David Straithairn), sails back to his kingdom from the marriage of his daughter to the prince of Tunisia, accompanied by his son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) and Antonio. Prospera, apprehending her chance for revenge, causes a tempest, wrecking the ship and stranding those on board on her island.

Those familiar with Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" will notice the crucial casting change from the play of Prospero to Prospera, now a woman played with agility and intelligence by one of our greatest actresses, Mirren. Taymor has succeeded in adapting the play with a woman at the helm and keeps much of the power from Shakespeare's play. Though is its most provocative change it's a welcome one and one she handles well; unfortunately, Taymor overdirects much of the film, and its suffers from plodding pacing, a few badly staged scenes and a couple of miscasting cues.

Mirren, Jones, Hounsou along with Alfred Molina and Alan Cumming are the highlights from the large, all-star cast. Cooper is a great, Oscar-winning actor who's miscast as Antonio; Cooper's contemporary sensibilities don't fit in here and he sticks out like a sore thumb. Ditto for Russell Brand, who's an inspired choice but one that throws the film off considerably; he's a major distraction in a film that may have trouble keeping those of us outside the English Lit set engaged.

Good for Taymor (who needs some good news, she's at the helm of the new "Spider-Man" Broadway musical, which is proving to be disasterous) she has Mirren, who ably carries the film and sizzles whenever she's on screen and is the highlight of an otherwise pallid, boring effort. The sets and the costumes are first-rate and I appreciate Taymor's willingness to change things up a bit, just too bad it will have a rather limited appeal.

Yogi Bear - D

Rated PG for some mild rude humor, 80 minutes

"Yogi Bear" - you're kidding, right?

Well, it's official. Another classic animated cartoon ruined by Hollywood CG, as if that comes as a big surprise regarding the unfortunate new children's movie "Yogi Bear." Dumber than the average children's movie, it recreates it with a mixture live-action and CGI ala "Scooby Doo" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" not to mention an all-star cast that must have been paid a pretty penny for their take-the-money-and-run performances. "Yogi Bear" is to put it simply, just terrible, and painfully so. With no plot to speak of, there's simply nothing funny about flying picnic baskets.

Jellystone Park is celebrating its 100 anniversary, however it may be for the last time, because attendance is down and Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) wants to close the park and sell the land. If the park is closed, Yogi Bear (voice of Dan Aykroyd) and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake) will lose their home. They join forces with Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanaugh) and his girl Rachel (Anna Faris) to save Jellystone from closing forever. Yogi must really prove that he is "smarter than the average bear".

"Yogi Bear" will be remembered, but only for being one of the worst films of 2010. The film is just as bad as the trailers make it look, but that likely won't stop it from being a big hit at the box-office. The film is another bizarre mixture of CG and live-action (any reason no other animals or humans are CG?) with some outdated, painfully unfunny gags that even the littlest of ones could see through. Even more unfortunate is the fact that Aykroyd, one of the sharpest comedians to emerge from the original "Saturday Night Live," voices the big brown bear himself, and while he does a decent imitation, he is wasted with the lack of sharp gags and script.

The only thing of value is it is suitable, silly humor, even if it isn't a bit funny. It's good, clean fun on that level and will provide a good escape for parents who can drop off their kids and get some holiday shopping done, like buying them a copy of a real gem, "Toy Story 3." A forgettable waste of time and should end up on many (including mine) Top 10 Worst lists for this year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do You Know - C+

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language, 120 minutes

Sweet but talky, overlong "How Do You Know"

I'll let you in on a couple of things before you go to the new romantic comedy "How Do You Know." First, the sweet, leisurely film is too talky for its own good and goes on too long, but its heart in the right place. Second, of all the high-caliber cast in the film, you will enjoy Paul Rudd the most. Yes, you heard that right. Rudd has never been more charming in this very expensive rom com ($120 million, with nearly half of that attributed to salaries of the major players) that has a lot riding on it.

Reese Witherspoon is professional women's softball player Lisa Jorgensen, who finds herself cut from the team and forced to find a new life. She soon finds herself in a love triangle with a self-absorbed professional baseball player Manny (Owen Wilson), a player on and off the field, and George (Rudd), a schlub from the financial sector who finds himself in legal trouble with his business partner and father (Jack Nicholson).

"How Do You Know" is a warm but overlong, heartfelt rom com that's heavy on the dialogue, unsurprising given the writer and director is noted director James L. Brooks, who over the years has channeled relationships to Oscars ("Terms of Endearment,") to TV cultural icons ("The Simpsons"). "How Do You Know" isn't one of his stronger efforts, but then it isn't a terrible one, either; it's a pleasant but unrevealing piece of puffery with a high-powered, expensive cast and production.

If "How Do You Know" is a failure (which, given its $120 million price tag, is a strong possibility), the one most to lose will unfortunately be the likable Witherspoon, very pretty here but then it's not a strong women's role, again a surprise from the guy who got an Oscar for keeping peace between Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Brooks' uneven script is one of his most flawed; it spends too much time on the Witherspoon-Wilson relationship (who display little chemistry here) and then Witherspoon's character goes on and on trying to make a decision the audience knows she'll make anyway by the end.

Thankfully, the other guy here is charming comic actor Rudd, who's the heart of the film and by far the film's most sympathetic character. Rudd's comic reactions and timings are perfect, and he continues to reveal a versatility that comprable actors would desire (namely Wilson, in another one-note variation of most of the roles he plays). Jack is, well, Jack; fortunately, nearly all of his scenes are with Rudd, and their warmth is the film's most palpable highlight. Nicholson, who's worked with Brooks several times before, also scores the film's biggest laugh (no explanation needed, you will know when that is).

"How Do You Know" is a pleasantly sweet, enjoyable, if not chatty, film. People talk on and on about doing things instead of just doing it and going with the flow. Brooks and company have their heart in the right place, but it tends to stay there too long deciding what to do. Let's hope audiences (and lots of them given its cost) will stay with it too.

Tron Legacy: C+

Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language, 127 minutes

Muddled story aside, “Tron: Legacy” is a visual feast

Upfront, I’ll say that the new action-film sequel “Tron: Legacy” is visually stunning, captivating and at times mesmerizing, and is a shoo-in for many technical awards at this year’s Oscars. On the flip side, everything in between is a mixed bag. The muddled, emotionless story and bland acting come in striking contrast to the captivating visuals, which should make this sci-fi film a big hit. The original “Tron” was a flawed film with too little story and memorable special effects; the sequel is a better but still-flawed film, with memorable special-effects and too much story.

For twenty years, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has been haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges), an innovative software programmer and former CEO of ENCOM International. One night, an executive consultant for ENCOM and friend of Kevin, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), sends Sam to investigate a mysterious page originating from the long abandoned Flynn's Arcade.

While searching for clues, Sam is suddenly transported to the digital world of The Grid. Aided by the digital warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Sam is reunited with his father and together set out on a journey to return home. Encountering vehicles, weapons, and landscapes that have become far more advanced than before, father and son must evade CLU 2, an updated version of Flynn's original hacking program (and really a younger version of Bridges), which will stop at nothing to prevent their escape.

“Tron: Legacy” is an entertaining sci-fi action film highlighted by some of the year’s most exciting, colorful special-effects. The memorable (and expensive) visuals are the main reason to see the film, you won’t remember much of the slow, baffling story and bland acting. Disney has gone to great lengths to ensure audiences will be entertained and they’ve succeeded; the film should be a big hit though it doesn’t advance the sci-fi genre much.

The cast is headlined by a hammy Jeff Bridges, who returns from the original film, and who plays both the protagonist and antagonist; his older hippy version is the heart of the film (and The Dude comes out a few times, watch closely) while his younger, leaner CG version is the villain. Hedlund is the blandest of the young actors and literally disappears under all the visuals while Wilde, the loveliest of the new wave of British actresses, is somewhat wasted as a young pretty program. Michael Sheen nearly walks off with the movie midway through in campy David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust-like form (at first you really think it may actually be Bowie himself); it’s also nice seeing Boxleitner, though he isn’t given much to do (and hardly recognizable in the digital world).

Without the striking, first-rate visuals, which energize the film, “Tron: Legacy” wouldn’t amount to much. The 1982 original film was somewhat of a cheesy bore; this one is more fun to watch but the story, written by a couple of “Lost” writers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, is baffling, peppered with overly symbolic Biblical references (“he’s the son” and “go toward the light”) and assumes audiences will remember the original film (they won’t). Video and commercial director Joseph Kosinski helms the visuals well but he lets everything else go on too long.

“Tron: Legacy” could’ve benefited from a leaner, more efficient story and better acting, which may not mean much given all the exciting visuals; it improves upon the original film but only to show the advances that Hollywood has made with computers and special-effects. Enjoyable but forgettable Disney entertainment.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris - C

Rated R for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language, 102 minutes

You won't love the odd comedy "I Love You Phillip Morris"

The new comedy "I Love You Phillip Morris" is one of the most unusual films seen in recent memory. Not the fact that two mainstream straight actors, Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, are playing gay men but the fact that the often bizarre low-budget farce is a true story, based on the exploits of real-life con artist and prison escapee Steven Russell, who's still serving time in Texas as this is written. Carrey's performance is the best thing about the odd, uneven movie.

The story begins with Russell (Jim Carrey), apparently on his deathbed, recalling the events of his life. He begins with his early adult years in Virginia Beach as a happily married police officer. He plays the organ at church, has enthusiastic sex with his wife (Leslie Mann), is a doting father, and spends his off hours searching for his biological mother, who gave him up as a child.

After a violent car crash, Russell leaves previous life behind, and goes out into the world as his true self, which is as a gay man that he has secretly lived for years. He moves to Miami, finds a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and begins living a very expensive lifestyle. The need for money causes him to turn to a life as a conman. When his con work finally starts to catch up with him, Russell is sent to prison, where he sees and immediately falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). From there on, it becomes the story of a forlorn lover who cannot bear to be separated from his soul-mate and will go to any lengths to be with Phillip.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" is an uneven, odd dramedy about Russell's exploits that's far more interesting on paper than played out here. It's had distribution problems and has been sitting on the shelf the last two years and was re-edited during that to make it more mainstream. Unfortunately, the newly re-edited film has lost a certain edge in the process and falters between dark, dark comedy and over-the-top farce with a little drama thrown in for good measure, with so much thrown at the screen to see what sticks.

The film's dark tone is unsurprising given that it's directed and written by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, responsible for a much better dark comedy, "Bad Santa." The highlight of the film is a great Carrey performance, who unsurprisingly carries the film on his back with his stellar comic timing and presence, though it's really nothing different than he's done before.

As good as Carrey makes the film, it makes you wonder how differently the film would've been shaded with a less comic actor and a more dramatic one. Carrey's schtick overtakes the film (as for poor Ewan McGregor, he's wasted in a much smaller part than Carrey's) and what could've been an inspired film turns into another Carrey comedy. Leslie Mann ("Knocked Up") has a few good moments as Russell's confused but loving ex-wife.

Surprisingly, "I Love You Phillip Morris" isn't as shocking or as graphic as it could've been, and it falters in delivering an emotional connection. "I Love You Phillip Morris," given the comic presence of Carrey and an intriguing real-life story, is unfortunately just a big disappointment.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tourist - C+

Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language, 105 minutes

Glitzy but forgettable "Tourist"

You remember those T-shirts that used to say "I went to __________ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."? The new movie "The Tourist" is kinda like that. It takes you to a far off land, weaves a complex story and then leaves you empty-handed. Slick, pretty but uneven and a little slow at times, some of it works, some of it doesn't and the twist at the end is a tad baffling. What's for sure, "The Tourist" has some great scenery, particularly two handsome, huge movie stars in Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both of whom play it smart and low-key.

Depp is an American tourist in Italy named Frank trying to get over a lost love. He runs into Jolie, a lovely British woman named Elise who is in Venice searching for a former but mysterious love named Alexander Pearce, who stole some money from some very bad guys and is now on the run. He's being pursued all the while by an agent (Paul Bettany) for Scotland Yard who has connections to them both.

Uneven but glitzy, muddled but somehow crowd-pleasing, "The Tourist" is a weak effort given the talent involved, Jolie, Depp and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the Oscar-winning German film "The Lives of Others." The film wavers too much between thriller and dark comedy but comes up rather empty-handed on both, and given the twist at the end, much of it's unnecessary and contrived.

Jolie and Depp play it well in roles they've played much better in other movies, especially Jolie, who did this thing much better in "Wanted" and earlier this year in "Salt." She's slowly becoming typecast playing women like this, and "The Tourist" reveals her self-effacing traits too much; her English accent wavers in and out too much. Depp is a little better in a woefully underwritten, unrevealing role that's one of his weakest. Bettany is solid, as is Steven Berkoff as the slimy villain; cinemaphiles will enjoy the fact that Berkoff played the equally slimy Victor Maitland in the first "Beverly Hills Cop" 27 years ago.

The silly, contrived script is especially a disappointment considering it was worked on my von Donnersmarck and Oscar-winning screenwriters Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") and Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects"). The "Usual Suspects"-type twist at the end is especially disappointing and out-of-place with the rest of the film. Venice is beautifully filmed as are Depp and Jolie, but the movie comes up short in delivering a strong story and sympathetic characters you really care about. You'll pay $10 for a forgettable movie like "The Tourist" and all you'll end up with is a silly ending and greasy popcorn hands.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Warrior's Way - D

Rated R for strong bloody violence, 100 minutes

Ridiculous, silly "Warrior's Way"

Within the first few minutes of the new kung-fu action "The Warrior's Way" the 'greatest swordsmen ever' is brought down, a baby is rescued, ninjas are killed in a bamboo forest and the main character ends up in an Old West town. This has the makings for a cool movie or quite possibly a disaster and one of the worst things seen on screens this year. A few nifty special-effects and fight scenes aren't near enough to make this the most ridiculous, worst-acted film of the year.

Yang (Korean film star Jang Dong-gun) is a warrior with a mission: to kill the last living member of an enemy clan. The only thing is, the last living member is a cute baby girl who Yang cannot kill, so he leaves his country to go to the American West, where a friend of his supposedly living. His friend is no longer there, but in the town he finds talky black small person (Tony Cox), the town drunk (Geoffrey Rush) and a young girl (Kate Bosworth) who Yang becomes attracted to and helps exact revenge on the man (Danny Huston) who killed her family years earlier.

"The Warrior's Way" is preposterously bad action-adventure flick that tries (very badly) to combine a Sergio Leone spaghetti-western with Korean kung-fu. Much like combining Italian food with Korean food, this is an absolute mess. It takes itself far too seriously to work even moderately well, and while the fight scenes and a few special-effects are decent, everything else about it is just plain terrible, from the acting, the story, to the fake sets, all of which make it look like a cheap soundstage. It all comes together in a way-over-the-top, stupid finale that makes little sense for even something like this.

Korean film director and screenwriter Sngmoo Lee and Korean action-star Jang Dong-gun are largely responsible for this mess, which was shot in early 2008 but has been sitting on the shelf for nearly 3 years. It certainly won't help the careers of anyone else involved, including Rush (whose awful, unnecessary narration is heard throughout the film), the once-it girl Bosworth in what could likely be a career-killer; her performance is the film's worst - even Dong-gun has the wisdom to keep his mouth shut most of the time - to Huston, who chews on scenery in his brief role as the slimeball villain.

This disaster is credited with being co-produced by one of "The Lord of the Rings" producers, Barrie M. Osborne, but he may not want much to do with "The Warrior's Way" after most people see how bad it is. This could be one of those "so-bad-it's good" cult-classics in years to come, but for now I'd take the high road away from "The Warrior's Way."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - B

Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action, 105 minutes

Affecting and action-packed "Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

"The Chronicles of Narnia" gets a boost with the latest in the series based on the C.S. Lewis novels of the same name. "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is thrilling, action-packed and quite affecting in the last act (i.e. bring plenty of tissues), and may remind some as a "Lord of the Rings" for the junior set. Though suitable for the whole family, some of it is a little intense for very young children and while many prefer the first film, I think overall this is the best of the series so far.

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) where they meet up with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.

Magical, colorful and energetic, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" makes for exciting entertainment, even if it starts treading "The Lord of the Rings" territory, particularly with its breathless, dragon-filled climax. It is a faithful adaptation of Lewis' novel (technically the fifth written but the third released), is the most poignant and best-acted of the lot by the three young children, who are growing up quickly. The new addition, U.K. actor Poulter as cousin Eustace, is the most memorable; his transformation from unlikable brat to hero will have you cheering the most.

Listen closely for the voices of character actor Simon Pegg ("Star Trek") as the heroic mouse Reepicheep and stalwart Liam Neeson as the head lion Aslan. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" has the most emotional ending of the three, as the two younger children bid farewell to Narnia, so be sure to keep plenty of tissues on hand. Suitable for the whole family, but I'd be careful with anyone younger than 10 or so, as some of the creatures are a tad frightening.

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is enjoyable, action-packed fun and a good night for the family for the holidays, and sometimes that's a good deal.

Black Swan - A

Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use, 107 minutes

This is a brilliantly dark, twisted "Black Swan"

You will either love it or hate it. “Black Swan” is one of those divisive films. A disturbing, twisted very dark psychological thriller from “The Wrestler’s” Darren Aronofsky, Natalie Portman gives one of the year’s most sublimely intense performances that’s sure to be Oscar-nominated. Complex but mesmerizing, you won’t understand it all but you certainly won’t be able to look away.

“Black Swan” is about a New York City ballet company producing a version of “Swan Lake.” The company’s director (Vincent Cassel) replaces his long-standing prima donna ballerina (Winona Ryder) with a new, talented ballerina named Nina (Portman). Nina has issues of her own, living with an overbearing, controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. Nina has the skill and grace to perfectly play the White Swan, but lacks the passion to play the sensual Black Swan, something a rival ballerina named Lilly (Mila Kunis) possesses. Nina begins exploring her dark side, something that could help her performance or destroy her personally.

Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is one of the year’s most provocative, complex and entertaining films. Disturbing, intense and supremely dark “Black Swan” is a must see for Portman’s layered, powerful performance. Aronofksy’s moody script and direction, originally conceived as a companion piece to his 2008 film “The Wrestler,” is bizarre and downright strange at times, but much of it works brilliantly. The mesmerizing on-stage finale is brilliantly staged and executed by Aronofsky and highlights the film.

It’s also universally, superbly acted by the entire cast, with solid turns by Cassel, Kunis and in a brief but fiesty, serious turn, Ryder as a washed-up ballerina. Especially memorable is Hershey as Portman’s overbearing but loving mother, who has issues of her own. Hershey’s strong, searing deliverance should bring the veteran character actress another Oscar nomination for supporting actress.

“Black Swan,” however, gives Portman center stage and she delivers an amazing, complex performance as the uptight ballerina that will propel her to accolades and more A-list roles; she embodies the role of a ballerina to near-perfection, her intense ballet training for the film is evident with every turn. The movie’s most provocative scene has her in a lesbian drug-fueled dream sequence with Kunis that should please those that enjoy that type of thing. Aronofsky also peppers the film with some twisty, nifty special effects that help give life to some of Nina’s mental issues (paintings and tattoos come to life, along with different versions of herself).

“Black Swan” is a disturbing psychological drama that is a must-see, but also know the downbeat, heavy film isn’t necessarily for everyone (and you will not leave this movie happy). Textured, dark and serious, you won't understand it all, but in a bizarre, twisted way, "Black Swan" is one of the year's best films.