Saturday, March 28, 2009

Film Round-Up for February

Again, sorry for how late these reviews are, but think of it this way: If I were reviewing DVDs, all of this would be breaking news. It's all about spin, people.

In this edition of the Round-Up: The answer to why I loathe Benjamin Button (though Cate Blanchett is delightful!), how Clint saves Gran Torino, the shrieking theatrics of Revolutionary Road, and why The Reader shouldn't be judged so harshly. Hear me, O'Connell and Miarmi!

These reviews previously appeared in the February edition of ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dir: David Fincher). Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond. Decades-spanning tale examines the life of a man, born at the end of World War I, who ages in reverse and his remarkable experiences--ranging from serving on a tugboat in World War II and traveling the world to the harsh reality of falling in love and becoming a father. Pitt is solid in the title role and Blanchett, as the love of Button's life, is enchanting, but their performances can't support a sluggishly paced film that has no idea where its lead character stands. Sometimes Button is a god-like figure handing out syrupy observations; other times he's a world traveler burdened with an existential crisis. Mostly, he encounters memorable folks on his Forrest Gump-like adventures. All this award-baiting decoration gives the film no identity, while needlessly delaying the story between doomed lovers Pitt and Blanchett, the only time the movie hits a true note. It's hard to remember a movie that tried so hard to be important that has gotten away unscathed by the public. PG-13 *

The Reader (Dir: Stephen Daldry). Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin. Growing up in 1950s Berlin, a now successful lawyer (Fiennes) had a passionate, secret affair with an older woman (Winslet), who consequently broke his heart and disappeared. Years later, the young man (Kross) enters law school and discovers that the woman to whom he read Lawrence and Ibsen in bed was a Nazi guard who contributed to the deaths of countless Jews. The jilted lover then spends the next 20 years coming to grips with his past and his affection for a woman with a moral code all her own. Winslet, no big surprise, is fantastic playing the character from sexual tutor to elderly inmate. However, David Hare's script (based on Bernhard Schlink's novel) goes a long way, smartly examining how doing the right thing and making good with the past can directly oppose each other. Intelligent, understated, and sexy, The Reader is a treat for even the most discriminating movie fans. R ****

Revolutionary Road (Dir: Sam Mendes). Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour. Mendes, who helmed 1999's classic American Beauty, returns to the suburbs in his adaptation of Richard Yates' novel. In 1955, NYC transplants April and Frank Wheeler (Winslet, DiCaprio) are coming undone--their dreams and youth squashed by responsibility, children, and wasted time. The fact that they're the admired couple on their suburban block gives them no solace. The couple decides to change their fate, but a series of events threaten to knock their plans, and their sanity, off track. Winslet and DiCaprio, 11 years removed from Titanic, are excellent. It's too bad the movie goes around in circles of passionate arguing, while Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe offer no insights into suburbia that haven't been offered before, except they're muttered by the Wheelers' psychotic acquaintance (Shannon). For Revolutionary Road to work there needs to be a shred of insight into this couple's misery, something that cannot be accomplished in scene after scene of bickering. Regardless of how good the acting or how juicy the dialogue is, after a while, bickering ceases to be a valid method of filmmaking. It just becomes exasperating. R *

Gran Torino (Dir: Clint Eastwood). Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vahng, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch. Doua Moua. Retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) greets the changing world with a scowl on his face and audible racial epithets. He drives Ford, drinks American beer, and is perfectly happy living in his beautiful house in a crumbling Detroit suburb. When a skirmish involving his Hmong neighbors and a gang spills over to his lawn, Walt grabs a rifle and takes action. This makes Walt a hero to the neighbors, forcing the old coot to expand his horizons, as he becomes a much needed role model to his two young neighbors, Thao and Sue (Vahng and Her, respectively). But Walt's heroism and expanding heart put everyone in harm's way. The movie is far from perfect. As Walt gets friendly, his rapport with the teens borders on parody, especially when he teaches Tao how to talk like a guy or admonishes him to talk to girls. And Eastwood the director still abhors subtlety, which this movie desperately needs. Still, Eastwood the actor's nuanced intensity lifts Gran Torino to a level it doesn't deserve. R **

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