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Preview: Short and Sweet Movie Reviews

Short and Sweet Movie Reviews

Quick, concise, sometimes entertaining critiques for the short-attention-span mind.

Updated: 2018-03-05T11:08:39.588-06:00



The Counselor  (IMDB)

Cormac McCarthy as screenwriter. Ridley Scott as director. Michael Fassbinder, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt as actors. What could go wrong?

Well, for most reviewers, a lot. This is McCarthy's first screenplay, and he doesn't always follow the rules. There's not much plot, a lot of dialogue and a fair amount of Matrix-esque philosophizing. So I get it, it's a bit of work to keep up.

Which I don't mind, not one bit. Every actor brings his or her A-game, for the material and for each other. And the material is dense, fatalistic and unremitting. When the scheme goes bad, everybody involved is screwed, no matter that they've been betrayed by a third party. How they deal with their pending fate makes up the second part of the movie, and why you stay involved.

So, roll with it. And be rewarded.


No Country for Old Men (IMDB) (Netflix)
The blog is back, maybe. The latest Coen brothers' effort is worth at least a temporary resurrection, with first-rate source material (Cormac McCarthy's book) and ruthless execution by brothers Ethan and Joel, house cinematographer Roger Deakins, and and a terrific cast quartet of Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones.

It's a West Texas crime drama set in the 1970's. Brolin's character comes across a business transaction that has gone spectacularly awry, and finds the quid for someone else's quo. Bad idea, and soon a hit man (Javier Bardem) sporting a pageboy haircut and a unique weapon is on him with Terminator-like determination. Because it's the Coen brothers, it's bloody, gripping and sometimes funny, often all at the same time. If you've seen Fargo, Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn't There, you know what I mean.

Safety tips--pay attention to Jones's discussion of his dreams well into the movie. It may seem like the movie is taking a breather, but it's not. And if a guy walks up to you with a compressed gas cylinder attached to with a hose, put the car back in Drive and floor it.


Good Night, and Good Luck (IMDB) (Netflix)
Before Brokaw, there was Cronkite, and before him was Edward R. Murrow, trenchcoat and constant cigarette, but reeking of gravitas. When Senator Joseph McCarthy started accusing everyone of being a Communist through his hearings, Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed) had to decide whether to be "fair and balanced" or expose his abuses.

By combining black-and-white photography, old footage and lots of cigarette smoke, Clooney creates a confined, atmosphere-laden little gem—there's not an exterior shot to be seen, with almost all the action taking place in the CBS offices, and no score other than a few well-placed bumpers from a CBS studio torch singer. Strathairn does the iconic Murrow proud, but Clooney deliberately undersells Friendly, who later became the strongest proponent of TV journalism ever seen in the business, and created the gripping, enlightening format that bears his name and is occasionally seen on PBS. Through archival footage, Joe McCarthy plays himself (and was accused of over-acting by the test audiences). The repartee between Murrow and Friendly keeps this well away from becoming a diatribe, and the (true) scene where Murrow has to ask Liberace about his marriage plans is priceless.

Ultimately, "Good Night" is an compelling indictment of the past four years, where fear-mongering and gutless journalism combined to lethal effect. There's also gold in this movie's future, in the form of Golden Globes from the foreign press and Oscars from the lefties in Hollywood nursing homes. I think I just talked myself into seeing this movie again.


The Great Raid (IMDB) (Netflix)
Based closely on the true story of a WWII raid to free over 500 U.S. prisoners of war in the Philippines. Benjamin Bratt is the crusty Colonel leading the Rangers, James Franco is the young Captain who hatched the plan, Joseph Fiennes is the sickly ranking officer of the prisoners, and Connie Nielsen is, yes indeed, the woman who loves him.

It's a truly great story, but unfortunately not writer-, director- or actor-proof. As with so many of these films, the desire to honor the characters' heroism overwhelms any other consideration, like depth, pace or interesting dialogue. The under-rated "A Bridge Too Far" was criticized because some parts (the huge number of mistakes, the daylight river crossing, the flip British response to the Germans' demands for surrender) were so outrageous that no one believed them, but they were in fact all true. Here, however, the truth is turned into cliche, and soon, to boredom.


War of the Worlds (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Steven Spielberg movie of the Orson Welles radio play of the H.G. Wells book—a content reuse trifecta. Or just think of this as "Close Encounters: This Time They're Quite Upset." Tom Cruise is the slightly irresponsible (but oh-so charming) divorced father of two, including the kid actor who makes Shirley Temple look like a dullard, Dakota Fanning (see Man on Fire with Denzel Washington for her breakthrough performance). The death rays hit the fan in Tom's New Jersey, and apparently salvation is to be found in Boston, where Mom lives, so off we go, encountering the entire range of humanity and inhumanity along the way. The movie is really about how people respond to extreme stress—some folks, like tennis hustler Bobby Riggs, just got better as the stress grew (until Billie Jean King), and many lose it.

The tension builds pretty continuously for the first two thirds of the movie--just as you think the nightmare is ending, something else happens to raise the tension. The aliens are nicely menacing (no ET here) and there's no time wasted on their motivation. The family dynamics get a little wearisome, but in all, a great summer entertainment.


Million Dollar Baby (IMDB) (Netflix)
Clint Eastwood produces, directs, scores and co-stars in this tale of an aging boxing trainer who reluctantly takes on female wannabe Hillary Swank. Morgan Freeman is the long-retired contender that Eastwood's character managed back in the day. Both men have baggage that would require a team of porters, and Swank unknowingly brings it all to the surface—she just sees boxing as her way out of waiting tables and to helping her (undeserving) family.

The recent accolades, however, are deserved. This is Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven", Freeman is Mr. Automatic and Swank gets it completely right—persistant, desperate, naive, ruthless in the ring. The going gets a little tough toward the end, with some of the audience's sniffles not cold- and flue-related, but they're well-earned, and there are plenty of up-beats throughout to sustain the momentum.

Highly recommended.


Finding Neverland (IMDB) (Netflix)
The story, more or less, of how J.M. Barrie was inspired to create "Peter Pan," starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslett and Julie Christie (the years have been kind to her, but still, them's a lot of years). Barrie was a struggling playwright who befriended the widow Sylvia Davies and her four boys in a Platonic-but-still scandalous manner (he was married), but the relationship bore fruit of another kind — the classic play.

This is the most gentle of melodramas (if it can be called that); despite the many conflicts created by Barrie's unusual relationship, the only shouting comes from the children. Barrie's imagination is integrated nicely into scenes, and Depp is naturalistic and affectation-free, which is almost a pity, since his affectations are usually pretty entertaining. And while I respect the restraint employed, I could have used a bit more edge — everyone's so terribly British, except for Barrie, who was a Scot, and he's pretty British, too.

Because of the subject matter and noble tone, this has "Oscar Nominee!" oozing from its pores.


Ocean's Twelve (IMDB) (Netflix)

The Ocean's Eleven follow-on, with Catherine Zeta-Jones rounding out the dozen. Casino magnate Andy Garcia has found George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest of the boys, and wants his money back—with interest. OK, the States are still too hot, lets try Europe.

Where Eleven had a casual tautness, Twelve is looser and self-referencing. While Eleven was about competence, Twelve is about fallibility. Where Eleven was—OK, enough of that. Give credit to writer George Nolfi and director Steven Soderbergh for taking some different paths here, although one of them feels like a farcical detour (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Also, there's too much hidden from the viewer and the lesser characters get fairly short thrift (Bernie Mac's car-buying scene in Eleven is a classic). It even stood up to a second viewing (the first was marred by a poorly focused image), with a very pleased audience. Great score—I'm off to get the CD.

Comfortable, old-sneaker movie-going.


National Treasure (IMDB) (Netflix)
A nephew pick, and a secular rip-off of the Da Vinci Code (am I telegraphing my judgment here?) Nicholas Cage is the youngest in a line of eccentric believers in a Free Masons + American Revolution = Buried Treasure story. To find it, he needs a trusty sidekick, a newfound nemesis (the only partially phonetic Sean Bean) and the best-looking archivist (Diane Kruger, straight from her Helen of Troy role) since they began wearing skirts.

Using the "one for show, one for dough" approach used by actors suffering both pretensions and a serious mortgage (and perfected by Michael Caine), Cage is clearly going for the money on this one. It's so formulaic that you can almost see the template on the screen ("initial sequence where the hero is humiliated — check ... girl initially hates him — check ... sympathetic detective—check" and grinds through the plot points with verveless precision. The nephew liked it, though so there’s a market for this movie—boys 10-13.


The Machinist (IMDB) (Netflix)
If you've heard of this movie, you know that actor Christian Bale lost sixty-three pounds for his role, and it's not like he had many of them to spare. He is beyond gaunt, completely unable to sleep, and yes, it's getting to him. As life becomes all-the-more bewildering, he finds partial solace in two women, a waitress with a heart of gold (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) a similarly equipped hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh, for at least the third time in her career). Even without the private detective, this could not be noir-er.

One thing about losing sixty-three pounds, the skeleton does all the acting for you. But Bale's specialty is the intense character study (American Psycho), which will serve him well as he becomes the next Batman, so it's a double treat. Yet the pacing calls for dragline buckets of patience as Bale tries to make sense of what's happening to him and why. Some similarities to Memento, but with less inventiveness and verve. Go for the performance, not the story.


After the Sunset (IMDB) (Netflix)
Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayak are two retired jewel thieves learning to enjoy the good life on a Caribbean island (Hayak is doing a better job of it than Brosnan), and Woody Harrelson is the FBI agent they humiliated on their last job. Lo and behold, the third of a series of mega-diamonds arrives on a cruise ship, and so does Harrelson, taunting Brosnan to try for it so that Harrelson can catch him. It's touted as a caper/romance/buddy flick.

Maybe so, but the pieces don't quite blend together, so the sum is less than the parts, which aren't so great in the first place. It's not hard to guess what's going on pretty quickly (my idea turned out to be more sophisticated than the script's), and the journey to the finish feels like, well, a journey. A nice bit part from Don Cheadle as the hyper-rationalizing gangster isn't enough to raise this one above stale popcorn level.


Ray (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Ray Charles bio-pic, starring Jamie Foxx as the entertainer who once got banned from playing the state of Georgia, then was later honored by having "Georgia on My Mind" selected as its anthem. Although this project had the full cooperation of the recently late Mr. Charles, it doesn't gloss over the drugs, the women and the paranoia that were a big part of his life.

And picking Jamie Foxx to play him was a coup—this guy studied piano at Julliard and is a gifted mimic—you realize that his talent has been under-exploited through most of his acting career. Many biographies do a poor job of explaining why people are they way they are, but here we bounce back and forth between the adult Charles and the little boy growing up with a sharecropper mother, which makes the connections very clear (almost too clear). The themes mentioned above get a little repetitive and tip more to the cliche than the archetype, but then again, this was one of those people who created those cliches.


Sideways (IMDB) (Netflix)
Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) is Miles, an Everyschlub wine snob still binding his wounds after a divorce and dying a slow creative death as he tries to get his novel published, and Thomas Haden Church (yes, Lowell Mather from Wings) is his bad-boy actor buddy about to get married for the first time. They head up to the Santa Barbara wine country for a last bachelor go-around of wine-tasting and golf. Comedic and transformational situations ensue.

And they're extremely enjoyable situations—I can't remember an audience having a better time at the movies. There's something about the bi-play between these two incompatible guys that's irresistable, with juicy, funny dialog ("if the girls want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot") giving two natural comedic actors ample, high-quality material. Along the way, they meet Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, and Madsen in particular gives the movie some essential grounding, and a fine performance in the bargain.

"Sideways" will be on many, many top 10 lists this year.


Team America: World Police (IMDB) (Netflix)
Imagine a Jerry Bruckheimer movie (Pearl Harbor, Flashdance, Con Air, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) where the characters are all puppets, like the old Thunderbirds TV show. Then throw the subversive creators of the South Park comedy ("They killed Kenny!"). I like the possibilities.

Most of which are realized. Besides over-produced mini-epics, targets include Islamic terrorists, Kim Jong Il and Hollywood peaceniks, giving everyone something to laugh at or be offended by. There's even a hilarious puppet love scene that originally got an NC-17 rating, which is pretty funny in itself. And for you foreign policy buffs, it offers a, um, biology-based model that could replace the Monroe Doctrine. A puppet show that's absolutely not for the kids.


I (heart) Huckabees (IMDB) (Netflix)
During the production of Three Kings, George Clooney punched out director David O. Russell, ostensibly for mis-treating the extras. Now that I've seen "Huckabees", I'm not sure Clooney needed that excuse—this guy is annoying in the extreme. On the other hand, Three Kings was a pretty good movie.

Here, Jason Schwartzman hires two "existential detectives" in the form of Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman to understand a series of coincidences. He's also befriended—then betrayed—by Jude Law, an ambitious executive with Huckabees, a department store whose ad campaigns feature an under-dressed Naomi Watts.

It's a manic, screwball-comedy-on-nitrous mess with redeeming qualities. There's enough fast-paced conflict-laden dialogue for three movies, and I think I pulled an ear muscle trying to keep up. There's a larger message inside this New Age ratatouille, but I was too exhausted to retain it.


Manchurian Candidate (IMDB) (Netflix)

A remake of the John Frankenheimer classic that starred Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey and Angela Landsbury (long before her Murder, She Wrote turned her into America’s sweetheart). Here the story’s been re-structured, highlighting Denzel Washington (in the Sinatra role) as he tries to understand what’s been done to him and the new vice-presidential candidate, played by Liev Schreiber, with the ultimate stage mother, Meryl Streep as a U.S. Senator. Directed by Jonathan Demme, of Silence of the Lambs fame.

While the original was chilling in its matter-of-factness, this version’s emotion comes from Washington’s discovery process—is he nuts, or is he just part of a crazy scheme to manipulate the election—and here Washington is less the leading man than guy trying to find his sanity. Streep is as always terrific as the hyper-ambitious politician, but the character and performance that impresses is that of Schreiber, who is by turn convivial and cold-hearted, articulate and vulnerable, as he also begins to see what’s happening to him. Being a political thriller, Manchurian Candidate doesn’t have the sheer horror factor of Lambs, but there are some great moments of tension that will remind you of the earlier film.


Collateral (IMDB) (Netflix)

Two actors playing against type—Jamie Foxx as a meticulous taxi driver leading a life of un-enacted ambition and Tom Cruise as a professional assassin, in LA for an evening’s work. Cruise sees Foxx as a brother craftsman, and hires him for the night to help him make his appointed rounds. From the producer and director who gave us Manhunter, Miami Vice, Crime Story, Heat, Last of the Mohicans and Ali, Michael Mann.

His films are known for their masculine grit and style, and “Collateral” has that Michael Mann feeling in spades. Cruise is as cold-blooded and charming as they come, knowing how to keep Foxx cooperating once his secret is out, while Foxx tries equally hard to get inside Cruise’s head. The dialogue, soundtrack and pacing are first-rate, and though the ending might not be the most imaginative, it’s realized with such care that it makes the sale. An enterprise of high quality.


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (IMDB) (Netflix)
A unique blend of live action and computer-generated effects that's either a stroke of genius or a maddening compromise. Maybe both are true. It's inspired by the serials of the late 30s, where there was little confusion on gender roles and good vs. evil—evil in the form of giant robots and birdlike flying machines created by a mad scientist with an apocalyptic view of the world. Gwyneth Paltrow is the plucky reporter/photographer and Jude Law is Sky Captain, with trusty gum-chewing sidekick Giovanni Ribisi as his ur-Q.

The patter is fairly snappy, the story reasonably engaging if thin, and the artistic vision was certainly vast, but I'm not sure it will make anyone forget the Indian Jones series or Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The integration of the live actors with the digital, well, almost everything else, is achieved by by coloring them and fuzzing them up to look slightly digital themselves. It works and is oh-so arty, but the net effect is that whole movie seems shot through fine cheesecloth, and the urge to cry out to the projectionist—"Focus!" was at times overwhelming. A yes-but recommendation.


Cellular (IMDB) (Netflix)
Cell phone technology is the bane of an action movie screenwriter's existence—communication solves too many problems too easily. So somehow they have to be written out of the script through a variety of devices—breakage and weak signals being the favorites. Here, the phone is a central character—a not particularly reliable character, but that just makes it more interesting. With Kim Basinger as the lady in distress, Chris Evans (nope, never heard of him either) getting his big break as the guy who answers his phone once too often and William H. Macy as the ready-to-retire cop.

Evans's character starts out a callow, irresponsible youth, and will probably be an instant recidivist once this is all over, but during the movie he eventually and fairly entertainingly rises to the challenge. Basinger pulls off that tricky balance between victim and resourceful woman (apparently it pays to be a biology teacher in these situations), and Macy is his usual hang-dog charmer self. One of those B movies that knows it's a B movie, and the better for it.


Riding Giants (IMDB) (Netflix)
A history of big-wave surfing, beginning with a brief nod to King Kamehameha and culminating with current stud Laird Hamilton, by Stacy Peralta, who also documented the birth of professional skateboarding in Dogtown and Z-Boys. Like Dogtown, this is a mix of old photos and film, plus current footage and interviews with past and current greats, from the big board era to today's tow-in techniques that are needed to catch the truly big ones.

And it's a successful combination--the old guys realizing how foolhardy they once were, and the younger crop seeming like mature, sober professionals (which many of them are). With apologies to Tony Hawk, surfing has far more of an epic quality than skateboarding ever will, and makes for truly awe-inspiring images.


I, Robot (IMDB) (Netflix)
Suggested by Isaac Asimov's, classic sci-fi collection. It's Chicago in 2035, and Will Smith is a detective who's not fond of the ever-growing population of robots who—to his mind—are taking over the world. Of course, everyone else thinks he's nuts, even when the premier robotics scientist dies under mysterious circumstances.

Strip away the effects created by the dozen or so special effects houses (I lost count), and you have a pretty basic plot: rugged individualist suspects conspiracy even though everyone doubts him, and enlists the aid of an attractive sidekick (Bridget Moynahan) to fight evil. Even Smith's boss is a skeptical-but-sympathetic beefy black guy. But enjoyment is in the selling, and Will can sell. The reveal of how Smith came to his beliefs is nicely paced and the "am I machine or being" thread is reasonably portrayed. Mix in some inventive action scenes, and you have a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with intellectual aspirations.


Fahrenheit 9/11 (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Fourth of July. A good day to see Michael Moore's controversial documentary dealing with how the Bush administration has responded to the most devasting day in modern U.S. history. Hundreds of others seemed to agree and the art house cineplex, and the shopping mall that housed it, were overrun by fellow travelers waiting in line for the next showing, or maybe the one after that.

While my politics are not so disimilar from Moore's, I've resisted seeing his films ever since the 1989 "Roger and Me", which seemed to take cheap shots and set up the little guy, like security guards just doing their job. I don't even like the way he looks, with a style-free unkemptness that the "Queer Eye" guys would take a pass on. I do know, however, that documentaries aren't objective, and for all the harping on the right about Moore's two-hour diatribe, it can't compare to Rush Limbaugh's or Sean Hannity's three hours of demagoguery every weekday. So why don't we talk about how it works as a film?

Compared to "Roger", this is a much more mature effort, with targets that get paid to be accountable, and lets them do much of their own self-destructing. There are the ambushes of pro-war Congressmen, there are gruesome scenes of civilian casualties in Iraq, and there's a painful moment from a mother who lost her son in Iraq going to the White House. What was most effective, however, were interviews with disillusioned soldiers. There are also enough light moments to relieve the anger and frustration. But reviews won't matter much; liberals will be satisfied seeing their worst opinions of the administration confirmed, and conservatives understandably won't want to subject themselves to this powerful assault on their beliefs.


Shrek 2 (IMDB) (Netflix)
The continuation of the trilogy-in-progress (Shrek 3 is coming in 2006), where Shrek (Mike Myers), Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) meet the parents (Fiona's, voiced by John Cleese and Jule Andrews). Antonio Banderas has been added as a would-be buccaneer-cum-assassin-cat and comic relief pitcher.

I didn't see the first one, so we'll skip the comparative bit, but Shrek 2 fits the classic animated film formula; create a story easy enough for kids to understand and add jokes with the following mixture—two parts low-brow kid comedy, one part adult reference humor ("hey, there's a Starbuck's"), which throws a bone to the parents and gives them the added satisfaction of getting one their kids don't.


The Stepford Wives (IMDB) (Netflix)
A remake of the 1975 drama/thriller that's gotten campier over the years. This time out, director Frank Oz goes straight for the comedy, with Nicole Kidman as hyper-ambitious TV executive of a reality show that goes too far (were that possible), Matthew Broderick as her under-masculated husband and Christoper Walken as the mayor of a town where all the husbands are nerds, wives are blondes in sundresses and gay guys are Republicans. Kidman quickly decides something's terribly wrong here, but Broderick thinks everything is just the way it should be.

After seeing stories of a deeply troubled production and a massive editing effort, my expectations were well-dampened, and worked to the movie's favor. The story was coherent and the humor seemingly intentional, but an odd balance–too broad for satire, underdone for parody. It also tries too hard to be a "message" film about the emasculation of the American male and living with another's imperfections, but it's not—in the words of adolescent sitting behind me—"retarded."


Troy (IMDB) (Netflix)
Brad Pitt is Achilles the warrior, Orlando Bloom is Paris the callow loverboy, and Diane Kruger is Helen, the face that launched a thousand CGI server farms. With Peter O'Toole as King Priam and Eric Bana as his other son Hector, one of the few characters that come off well in this story of beefcake and senseless tragedy.

As with most tragic tales, especially mythic ones, the characters make any number of bad choices, some of which challenge the viewer's credulity and make it difficult to go along with the program, and the one-on-one fight scenes are more compelling than the major battles. As mentioned, most of the characters lose your respect as the film progresses (Achilles is mostly looking out for his own glory), but Bana's Hector is the true mensch, taking the hard road at every turn. He should have had a better publicist.