Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End Of 2008 wrap-up Part III - Worst Accomplishments Of The Year

As we wind down 2008, we will take a moment to mention two films that began and ended the year, that managed separate but wholly fantastical feats never before seen in the film world thus far. Let us take a moment to reward this special brand of excellence.

Distinguished Awfulness - One Missed Call.
It wasn't any worse than the usual 'bad Asian remake/knock off of bad Asian horror' genre picture (as opposed to good Asian remakes like Dark Water). But this first major release of 2008 (1/4/08) did manage the astounding feat of securing a ZERO (0%) positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Zero out of seventy-two reviews. Ladies and gentlemen, in my ten years or so of following Rotten Tomatoes, I have never, ever seen such a monument to mediocrity. And that's really what it is. If the film had been spectacularly awful, surely someone would have enjoyed the gonzo stupidity and given it a pity B-/C+. If it had been noteworthy in any way, surely some critic would have given it a positive review just to increase exposure for their website. But, no, it was just there, lifeless and pointless and completely unworthy of merit or notice.

Distinguished Emptiness - Delgo
Budgeted at $40 million and starring such vocal talents as Burt Reynolds, Anne Bancroft, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Freddie Prinze Jr, this animated film was distributed by Freestyle Releasing. If you've never heard of them, you will now never forget them. For whatever reason, Freestyle Releasing decided to launch Delgo on 2160 screens, but they decided not to do that thing... that thing were you tell people that your movie is coming out... oh, yeah, advertising! So, without advertising and with no built-in awareness, Delgo was unleashed into theaters on December 12th, 2008, to the deafening sounds of... nothing. Silence would be too kind a term. The opening weekend tally- $511,920.00. By far the worst opening for a wide (1000+ screens) in the history of modern box office.

Let's do the math. Per screen average - $237 per screen/theater (not that anyone was showing this on multiple screens). Per screen per day average - $79.00. Toss in five showings a day (it's a short film): $15.80 per showing. National average movie ticket price: $6.88 per ticket. So, using those numbers, we can surmise that each showing of Delgo over that opening weekend had 2.3 people in the theater. Fine, let's acknowledge cheaper matinee and kids prices and round it up to three. On the opening weekend of Delgo, the average screening was attending by three people. Wow.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, December 29, 2008

End Of 2008 wrap-up Part II - Trailers and Posters

Best teaser: (tie) Star Trek and Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
One was a subtle and chilling teaser, one that featured almost no footage of the lead and absolutely no shots of the young supporting cast. It was the kind that could only have worked with an established brand that audiences trusted. The other was a barn-burning hail Mary pass, a chest-thumping call for respect. Ironically both were for titles that were supposed to open this holiday season but ended up moving to the summer.

Best Trailer: Quantum Of Solace

The second preview, the full trailer, was a rock-solid action piece that emphasized human drama amidst the carnage. Call it false advertising, but the trailer gave pretty much every emotional beat that the film had to offer. It accomplished two things - it hid the fact that the movie was pretty much non-stop action and it's emphasis on drama allowed many of the action beats to be left unspoiled in the film itself. A classy, emotionally compelling trailer for a movie that fell short in both areas.

Worst teaser: The Spirit (B)

This would qualify as a trailer, except that it tells you nothing about the plot or the characters. It's just two minutes of hot women making moves on our hero, complete with 'come-hither' lines that were cheesy before high school. Proof-positive that Frank Miller apparently got laid less in high school and college than the average nerd.

Worst trailer:
Watchmen (B)
The initial teaser, released with The Dark Knight back in July, was a silent, visual splendor, ironically set to music that originated from Batman & Robin. This second trailer, however, had dialogue. Lots of dialogue, most of it on-the nose and not a little cheesy. With it's ample plot spoilers, its 'here's the storyline in the simplest possible terms', and its healthy sampling of Rorschach's goofy vocals (which sounded worse than Christian Bale's McGruff The Crime Bat voice), this had the odd effect of making a very smart story look very dumb.

Best Poster: Terminator: Salvation
Released rather recently, this is a rather nifty video poster. But, even taken as a pure visual, the final image is striking and would still be the best poster of 2008. Click on the poster for a taste of the future of marketing. Everything released from this film thus far indicates that this is not a cheap cash-in, but a real attempt to restart the franchise.

Worst Poster: The Dark Knight
Sorry sports fans, the copious Batman-centric posters from this Batman sequel failed to produce a single keeper (the single flaw in an otherwise perfect advertising campaign). But the worst offender ironically became the main posters. With its visual center of attention being a giant wheel, and Batman stuck in a silly stretched out pose, this pales even in comparison to the Batman Begins artwork (specifically the Batman plummeting downward shot).

Even goofier was the second main poster, which had Batman triumphantly standing outside an apparently bombed building that has a flaming bat-signal in the middle. Bad enough that the poster needed to have cheese ball writing on the top ("Welcome to a world without rules"), but the image by itself seems to indicate that Batman is responsible for the destruction in the background (burning bat insignia = gang tagging sign). The Joker-centric posters were deliciously disturbing, but no one was able to get an artistic handle on the main character.

Scott Mendelson

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Box Office thus far...

First of all, the top three movies that opened on Christmas day all broke the record for the biggest Christmas Day opening of all time. The previous high was Ali, which snagged $10.2 million in 2001 on its opening day (and proved to be severely front loaded, natch). Marley & Me opened with a whopping $14.5 million. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button opened in second with a surprising $11.5 million. It took in $10.2 million on Friday and if it doesn't peter out by the New Year, it retakes the front runner position from Slumdog Millionaire for the Best Picture race (it may just make back its $150 million budget... I was doubtful).

Look for lots of gossip columns/blog entries on Monday detailing how Jennifer Aniston (with the help of Owen Wilson) defeated her ex-husband Brad Pitt at the box office, never mind that one was (falsely?) advertised as an upbeat family-friendly, PG-rated dog comedy and the other was a nearly three-hour sobering drama about aging and dying (the latter opening in 600 fewer theaters). I'll say they're both winners, they both performed well above relative expectations. and leave it at that (from what I've heard, both movies are actually about many of the same themes).

Third place went to Bedtime Stories, which had $10.3 million. Most, including me, thought it would win the derby, but its third place finish is more a sign of the other films' strength than any weakness of this Adam Sandler vehicle. It did another $10 million on Friday, so it'll still post Night At The Museum numbers - a touch over $30 million. Fourth place went to Valkyrie, which pulled in $8.5 million. With its Friday numbers already at an additional $8 million, the three-day number looks to be right in the $25 million range where Tom Cruise vehicles usually reside (The Last Samurai, Vanilla Sky, Collateral). So, looks like all the hub-bub about Tom Cruise's fallen status was for naught. People just didn't want to see Lions For Lambs no matter who was in it (it was an interesting, thoughtful movie, but not something that needed to be seen in theaters).

The only real flop of the season was the allegedly atrocious The Spirit. Only $6.4 million worth of moviegoers have so far paid to see Frank Miller's cinematic defecation on Will Eisner's grave. Alas, from what I've been told, at no point does the title character exclaim: "What are you, retarded? I'm the goddamn Spirit!". This superhero entry is the final film in Lionsgate's aggressive and somewhat innovative 12-film blitz that started at the very end of August (twelve films in sixteen weeks, all in different genres and what not). Ironically, it appears that they saved the worst for both best and last, opening and closing this experiment with Disaster Movie and The Spirit, respectively.

The holdovers all more or less copied their prior weekend business (as is usually the case for the last two weekends of the year). Yes Man and Seven Pounds will close out the first holiday weekend with about $50 million and $40 million respectively. Both will try their darnedest to squeak past the $100 million mark by mid-January. Obviously, the happy Jim Carrey comedy has a better shot than the downer Will Smith drama, but these are so far fine totals for both films, respectively (especially as their opening weekends were tempered by last week's brutal snow storms).

So, everything looks to be absolute gangbusters for the end of the year. We may have a $200 million 3-day number by Sunday and we'll see what happens after that. Mazel tov to Aniston (her second biggest opening after Bruce Almighty), Cruise (Valkyrie has outside shot at being Cruise's biggest non-M:I and non-Spielberg opening ever), and Pitt (who will have his third biggest opening ever for a stand-alone star vehicle, after Mr. And Mrs. Smith and Troy). And mazel tov to Frank Miller, who got exactly what he deserved this holiday season.

Scott Mendelson

Friday, December 26, 2008

End of 2008 wrap-up Part I - The Moments That Mattered

I put off my top-ten of the year list for as long as possible (so that I might see the few Oscar bait movies that I have missed). In the interim, this piece was about certain scenes, moments, character beats, and what not that worked in 2008, regardless of the quality of the films that contained them. Here are my ten favorite 'moments' in 2008.

Best unheralded performance: Gary Oldman - The Dark Knight
Much has been said about Health Ledger's almost certain-to-be Oscar winning performance as The Joker. So let me be one to give credit to my favorite performance in the film, that of Gary Oldman as the weathered and beaten down representative of decency and honor known as Jim Gordon. His most touching moment comes about 90 minutes in, when he shares a brief, quiet moment with his son. Having faked his death so that The Joker wouldn't go after his family, Gordon returns home to an angry but relieved wife and kids. Quietly sneaking into his son's bedroom, his idolizing child asks him: "Did Batman save you daddy?" Oldman smiles, kisses his son on the forehead and (truthfully) replies: "Actually, this time I saved him." The son smiles and the moment is heartbreaking (in a relentlessly bleak story, it's the rare and very last moment of happiness in the picture). Moments later, Jim gets a call that Harvey Dent is missing. And it all goes downhill from there.

Best Action Scene: Role-Playing Smack Down - Role Models
Better edited than the police van chase in The Dark Knight. More real-world plausible than the jungle chase in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. More emotionally rousing than the 'rock-sock-em robots' climax of Iron Man. More comprehensible than any mish-mash fight scene in Quantum of Solace. The funniest film of the year contains the funniest scene of the year, which is also best action scene of the year. Set at a giant Renaissance Faire-type battle royale, this sword/axe/mace face-off is both hilarious and completely credible as an action spectacle. Even though everyone knows its a fake fight with fake weapons, the film has earned our emotional investment in these misfits, so we actually care about the outcome. Ironically, this was allegedly staged by some of the action-choreographers from the last two Bourne films... so THIS is what an action scene looks like when Paul Greengrass isn't cutting it within an inch of its soul. This was the most rousing action scene of the year.

Most heartwarming coda: Hancock's gift to Ray - Hancock
This mega-hit Will Smith superhero deconstruction was one of the more divisive movies of the year. I'm in the 'loved it' camp (it plays even better on a smaller screen). Point being, if the movie is working for you up till the end, you may just water up just a little during the incredibly potent coda. No spoilers, but it ends the movie on a lovely note of earned goodwill.

Most emotionally potent line of dialogue: "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." - Jim Broadbent - Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Whatever the flaws of the fourth Indiana Jones picture, it does work as a coda to the life of our favorite whip-wielding archaeologist. The film starts from a place where Indy is beaten down by life, abandoned by his country, too old to start over and faced with the very real prospect of dying alone and in exile. Indiana Jones then gets one last opportunity at happiness, in the guise of the opportunity that he turned away from so many years earlier. Ironically, the absence of Sean Connery and the death of Denholm Elliott give the film a poignancy that it otherwise would have lacked. The mourning of friends and family and the rediscovery of new family prevents the film from simply being an exercise in nostalgia.

Best verbal spar: Angela Bassett and Lance Gross - Meet The Browns
Attempted union-busting issues aside, Tyler Perry gets this year's 'most improved player' award. Meet The Browns was a lower-key (and better acted) distillation of his usual farcical family in crisis story lines, The Family The Preys was a genuinely fine film, something resembling a 1950s family melodrama that added new flavors to the Perry palette (mixed-race plots, morally gray characters, partially unhappy endings), and House Of Payne toned the farce down just enough to be watchable. The emotional highlight of this year's Perry products was the brutal screaming match between Bassett and her high-school aged son. After Gross is caught selling drugs to provide for his unemployed mother, Bassett attempts to kick him out of the house. Gross refuses to leave, unleashing a brief monologue that is stunning in its tear-stained rawness. It's actually far more 'real' than the 'for your consideration' shouting matches in Revolutionary Road, and is easily one of the best-acted scenes in any film this year.

Best scene in a bad movie: 'Cough Syrup' - The Happening
While Mark Wahlberg gives a uniquely terrible performance in The Happening, he does have one good moment towards the end of the film. After his wife (Zooey Deshanel) confesses to meeting an attractive friend for lunch (the thing that has been troubling her all movie), Wahlberg launches into a brief monologue about how he had a mild crush on a pharmacist at a local drug store, a crush which led him to getting a bottle of cough syrup that he didn't need. His wife asks if he's joking. It doesn't matter if he is, she instantly gets the point and simply smiles with relief and says 'thank you'. In a movie where many of the characters seem oddly inhuman, this one moment reminds us that M. Night Shyamalan usually has a subtle grasp of relationships between friends, families, and lovers.

Best use of old music: "It Only Takes A Moment" - Wall-E
And that is all
That love's about
And we'll recall... when time runs out
That it only took a moment
To be loved a whole life long!

This Hello Dolly ballad is one of a few reoccurring songs in this terrific cartoon, and its the one that most pulls the heartstrings. I have never heard the song in its original context, but it is achingly sad here, a constant reminder of the fragility of emotional connections. It also serves as drumbeat reminder of the (literal) tragedy of the trashing of an entire planet and the finite nature of life itself. Wall-E is a movie that gets better each time, and I'll probably get slightly emotional each and every time I hear that refrain for, well, for my whole life long.

Best end credits bonus - "Thank You For The Music" - Mama Mia!
Next time you watch Mama Mia!, do stay for the whole end credits. The reward is a gorgeous cover of ABBA's "Thank You For The Music", a song that was cut out of the film. As good as Amanda Seyfried is during the actual movie, she absolutely kills on this (if I recall) nearly 'A Capella' version of one of ABBA's better songs. It is one of a few good songs that didn't belong in the narrative (along with "What's The Name Of The Game"), but it's a shame that this terrific rendition won't get a wider audience. So if you're one of the many, many people who bought Mama Mia! on DVD or Blu Ray, please skip to the end of the end.

Smartest moment in a horror film - Scott Patterson saves himself - Saw V
Of all the many people caught in various traps by Jigsaw or one of his apprentices, only one victim had the quick-thinking and intelligence to save his own sorry butt. Trapped with his head stuck in a cube that was rapidly filling with water, FBI agent Strahm does the only thing he can think of. He grabs his pen and stabs himself in the throat, giving himself an instant tracheotomy and saving his own life. It is the kind of intelligent behavior that is so rarely seen in even good horror films, that you almost want to stand up and cheer. If only the rest of the film was as smart.

Best Bruised-Forearm moment - Kenneth Branagh picks up his wine - Valkyrie
Branagh and Bill Nighy plot to kill Hitler by putting a bomb inside a case of wine. When it fails to detonate, Branagh then has to go back and collect said wine bottle to prevent discovery. It's kind of awkward.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: Yes Man (2008)

Yes Man
106 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

There is a scene about halfway through the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man where Zooey Deschanel shows up to a costume party dressed as Heroine Granger from the Harry Potter series. The rest of the film is also more or less worth the price of admission.

There is something to be said for simply spending a couple hours with good company, simply watching good things happening to relatively good people. Especially in the Oscar season, where everything else involves miserable, self-loathing people dying just before or just after they figure out what went wrong, a movie like Yes Man is a perfect counter programming. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s good, but it is fun. Jim Carrey is relatively restrained (his over mugging marred the otherwise witty, ahead-of-its time Fun With Dick And Jane), and it corrects a serious flaw that has infected some of Jim Carrey’s other comedies: this time, the supporting cast is allowed to be funny too.

A token amount of plot: Carl Allen has been shell-shocked since the dissolution of his marriage three years prior. He spends his days as a near-zombie, drifting through his job (he’s a loan officer at a bank), barely maintaining contact with his few remaining friends, and basically refusing to make any attempt at actually living. All that changes when an acquaintance talks him into attending a self-help seminar where the overriding principle is to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity that comes your way. Life changes and would-be hilarity ensue as Carl says yes to various odd opportunities (flying lessons, penis enlargers, etc). Oh, and his first ‘yes’ activity (giving a ride to a homeless man) allows him to accidentally bump into quirky musician/photographer Allison (Deschanel), an event that blossoms into a promising new romantic entanglement.

There isn’t much that occurs in Yes Man that defies predictability, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t relatively effective. As mentioned above, the supporting cast is allowed to shine more so than usual in Jim Carrey comedies (yes Cameron Diaz looked great in The Mask, but did she make a single joke?). Terence Stamp is surprisingly hilarious as the self-help guru that sets the plot in motion (basically, he wins laughs by being ‘Terence Stamp as the self-help guru’). Bradley Cooper is put to better use here than in The Wedding Crashers as Peter, Carl’s best friend. They actually seem like old friends and when Peter needs to tell Carl some uncomfortable truths, it actually feels authentic. Deschanel scores solid laughs with a shockingly terrible piece of performance art that the film can’t decide whether to mock or applaud.

In fact, for much of the film, Jim Carrey comes off as the proverbial straight man, reacting to the various goofy situations or pleasant developments. Jim Carrey is far more restrained than he usually is in his comedy vehicles. Mugging is kept to a minimum, and he even underplays the loneliness and sullenness in the opening act. And much of Carrey’s humor in the film comes not from pratfalls and rubber-band facial expressions, but from the fact that Carl is a good natured and funny fellow.

I always took Bruce Almighty, with its arc of Bruce ditching his ‘serious anchor’ gig for the wacky newsman routine at which he excelled, as a metaphor for Jim Carrey’s acceptance of the fact that audiences prefer him to be zany and make them laugh (and that its just as important to be a great comedian as a ‘serious actor’). By that token, Yes Man can be construed as a final acknowledgement that the drive for acceptance, which has haunted Carrey since his traumatic childhood, has finally been quashed. He now realizes that, to paraphrase Minnesota’s next senator, he is ‘good enough, smart enough, and gosh-darn it, people DO like him’. It’s certainly possible that winning the self-esteem war may result in less edgy, less challenging projects (think Eddie Murphy), but the man deserves a little happiness. If the slightly generic Yes Man is symbolic of the new, happier Jim Carrey, then it is a small price to pay for his peace of mind.

Grade: B

Review: Milk (2008)

128 minutes

Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Gus Van Sant’s Milk is a fine character study and a solid look at a specific political movement and a certain time and place. It is marred only by the bitter aftertaste of reality, the tragic knowledge that not all that much has changed. It is perhaps unfair to look at a movie through the prism of events that happened after its story, but it is also impossible not to do so. To paraphrase a song from Hairspray (another film which was released on the eve of the nullification of part of its message), while we may have come so far, we truly have so far to go.

The story of Milk is the story of the last eight years in the life of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn with a certain gusto that just avoids overacting). In short, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to political office (he was elected to the San Francisco board of Supervisors in 1977). The film chronicles his political career and, as it befits his campaigns and issues, his personal life as well. It’s a pretty straightforward biography and never tries to be anything flashier.

Where the film stands out is how it defines Harvey Milk as an individual politician, rather than as a
blot for the gay population in San Francisco at the time. Milk’s politics were pretty cut-and-dried social and economic liberalism (supporting expanded medical services for kids, supporting mass transit, etc). As far as gay issues, he was a strong proponent of closeted gays coming out (or, if need be, being forced out) and he strongly believed that gays should be represented by other gays, rather than by ‘sympathetic liberals’. These are not worldviews held by everyone who happens to be homosexual, and the film does a solid job in dealing with the conflicts he faced even in his own community.

The most fascinating relationship is the one he develops with embittered fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, in an Oscar-worthy turn). Although they are often in opposition to each other, there were agreements here and there and there is a grudging respect at least at the beginning of their political partnership.

The key conflict of the second half of the film involves the attempted passage of ‘Proposition 6’, which would have allowed the firing of gay teachers (as well as anyone who ‘supported gay people’). The parallels to the successful passage of ‘Proposition 8’ (which removes the previously given right for gay people to marry in California) just two months ago are striking, and cast a sad pall over the picture. Quite frankly, it is very difficult to be inspired by this groundbreaking man, when a big part of his legacy has just been spat on in the very state that he served (further irony in the fact that it was partially the heavy minority turn out for another ground breaking man that helped insure passage).

As we see Anita Bryant and John Briggs (the always welcome Dennis O’Hare) spewing the usual anti-gay slander (Briggs didn’t even care about the issue, it was just a means to an end for him), we realize that the language (and the often successful results of said language) hasn’t changed one bit over the last thirty years. Regardless of what strides have been made, intolerance of gay people is still one of the last vestiges of acceptable bigotry (do you think Rick Warren would have been invited to Obama’s inauguration if he had been an anti-Semite or openly racist?).

But, if I may step off the soapbox, if we are to judge Milk purely by the film and not by the current context, it still works well as a well-acted and well-paced biopic that effectively captures the times in which it is set. As a time capsule, the film is a success, and it is consistently entertaining (especially for political junkies like myself). It is a genuinely political picture, a film that cries out for activism and/or knowledgeable political engagement. Purely as a biopic of an important man in the ongoing struggle for gay rights, Milk is a worthy biopic and a solid motion picture.

Grade: B

* SPOILERS!!! I have always found it fascinating that Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay politician/activist, was eventually murdered for reasons that had nothing to do with being gay. Dan White’s motives were purely financial and political. He wanted his recently resigned supervisor seat back, but the mayor bowed to pressure to keep Milk in his current position, and he was targeting high-ranking city politicians in general. Aside from Milk and Mayor Moscone, he allegedly also intended to kill Willie Brown and Carol Ruth Silver. There is a great scene in the first season of
24 when Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer expresses a certain satisfaction that the assassination plot against him has nothing to do with him wanting to be the first black president (it’s payback for a botched black-ops mission that he oversaw as a senator). I wonder if Harvey Milk would have taken any solace from the fact that he didn’t die for being gay.

Review: Dragon Hunters (2008)

Dragon Hunters
82 minutes
Not Rated
by Scott Mendelson

Dragon Hunters delivers something that is all too rare in cinema today. It has the imagination to show images that we have never seen before. It is a visually rich and emotionally satisfying adventure movie that deserves to get noticed. It may not have the social/political subtext and potent sorrow of Wall-E. It may not have the crackerjack action scenes of Kung Fu Panda. But it does have a visual vocabulary all its own and there are moments in this film that deserve to be framed and hung on a wall.

A token amount of plot: Every thirty seasons, a mythical dragon ‘the world-gobbler’ returns to wreak death upon the lands of Lord Arnold. All of his subjects have fled in terror, leaving him alone with his orphaned niece, Zoe, who someday wishes to be a dragon hunter. Meanwhile, penny-ante monster-slayer Lian Chu (Forest Whitaker, doing his very best impression of John Goodman) and his scheming sidekick Gwizdo (voice over veteran Rob Paulsen) accidentally find themselves hired to slay said ‘world gobbler’. So, completely unprepared for the task but bound by honor (and the promise of gold), Lian Chu and Gwizdo set out to do the impossible, little knowing that Zoe has snuck along to live out her dreams of dragon-slaying.

So the plot isn’t anything out of the ordinary. But the tone makes a difference, as the stench of death and failure pervade their journey. While there is much comic relief from Gwizdo (he’s the usual tiny, fast-talking sidekick), the mood is one of hopelessness and inevitability. When Gwizdo acts out in a cowardly fashion, it is not because he is cowardly, merely because he doesn’t want to watch his best friend die in battle. The animation is more than good enough, but it should be noted how much of the character development is rendered in near silence, with subtle facial animation rather than over the top monologues or zany expressions. I’m also fond of a mid-film battle between our heroes and a wonderfully creative monster that is made entirely out of hundreds of red bats.

But what really stands out in this film is the world in which this battle takes place. The entire world is one of floating islands and various floating landmasses, where characters literally hop from one city to the next. This provides for countless gorgeous shots of our heroes standing in the clouds as the entire world literally revolves around them. And when they do get to the land of the World Gobbler… well, that would be telling, but it is a breathtaking image that I have never seen before. And when we do finally meet the World Gobbler, the film does not cop out. He is gigantic and terrifying, truly a creature of nightmares (there is a climactic moment of the dragon standing in front of fire that made me laugh out loud at its sheer visual perfection).

Dragon Hunters is France’s official submission for ‘Best Animated Film’ at this year’s Oscars. For what it’s worth, it is easily one of the three best cartoons I have seen this year. Regardless of its awards-chasing, it is a visual treasure and a solid adventure fantasy for all ages. It is well worth hunting down.

Grade: B+

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thudercats: The Movie - a terrific fake trailer mash up that qualifies as satirical art

This fake trailer for Thundercats: The Movie is one of the better, more technically accomplished fake trailers I've seen in awhile. The editing and special effects are terrific and, unlike most mash ups, this actually has the rhythm and flow of a real preview. Starring, among others, Brad Pitt, Vin Diesel, Hugh Jackman, and Alexa Vega, this is a very on-point deconstruction of summer tent-pole trailers. It also scores as a biting take on the whole 'same-shit, different costumes' feel of many fantasy films and/or live-action updates of comics and cartoons (cough-Wolverine-cough). Whether they intended to or not, the gang at Wormy T have made a true piece of satirical art.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, December 18, 2008

And so the day was saved thanks to... Wolverine?

I think I’ve figured out what’s bugging me about the Wolverine movie and its respective trailer

The whole films seems, at a glance, to have the same problem that The Powerpuff Girls Movie had back in summer, 2002. That movie was an origin story through and through, except we already knew the origins of both the Powerpuff Girls and nemesis Mojo Jojo (from the opening title sequence, and from a single Mojo-centered episode, respectively). So basically they spent 72 minutes explaining in extra longhand something that had been adequately dealt with.

We already have a pretty good idea, thanks to X2: X-Men United, about how Wolverine became Wolverine, and I don’t think we need to see every little detail anymore than we need to see yet another ‘here’s how Jigsaw found that pen from two movies ago′ scene that occurs in every Saw sequel.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Royal Rumble - The top four movie stars square off over Christmas

How odd is this? In literally seven days, we'll have four films starring the four biggest stars on the planet, four of the very last true movie stars who still do star vehicles. This weekend we have the biggest star on earth, Will Smith, with the dark, depressing Oscar-bait vehicle Seven Pounds. We also have Yes Man, the first true comedic star vehicle for comedy icon Jim Carrey since Bruce Almighty back in 2003 (Fun With Dick And Jane was a tag-team picture with Tea Leoni). Both films probably have ceilings of $125 million and both should be considered major successes if they get anywhere close to that.

The next weekend we have the former king of the mountain, Tom Cruise, trying to reassert his box office credibility (and save his fledgling United Artists) with Valkyrie. It's a darn good movie, but box office may be limited as there aren't any set pieces that merit repeat viewing (again, $125 million seems to be the best case scenario here, which would be right in line with The Last Samurai and Minority Report).

Next we have Bedtime Stories, this year's attempt at Night At The Museum, another kid-friendly fx-filled fantasy yarn starring a popular comedian. This time, the automatic 'advance straight to Go, collect $200 million' award goes to fellow comedy giant Adam Sandler (in his follow up to You Don't Mess With The Zohan, which this non-Sandler fan is placing on his best of 2008 list). We'll see if the Adam Sandler quality to box office pattern holds true again (that''s 'good movie = underwhelming grosses'), but I'm pretty sure this one is so well positioned and high-concept that it would make $150 million even if Michael Madsen were in the lead.

While all four of these films have the potential to do well with the long Christmas break season, I have to note two oddities. First of all, we have four films from four of the biggest true movie stars all going head-to-head with each other. They all have their reasons though. Will Smith scored huge with this weekend the last two years in a row, with fellow Oscar bait The Pursuit Of Happyness and I Am Legend. Jim Carry scored the prior two years on the pre-Christmas jaunt as well (Lemony Snicket and Fun With Dick And Jane both crossed $100 million). Bedtime Stories is trying so hard to be Night At The Museum that it's choosing the same release date. As for Valkyrie, well, apparently MGM wants to make sure it's out by 2008 for tax-related reasons, make of that what you will.

The truly funny part is that the two drama divas and the kings of comedy are not opening against each other. Sure, it would be foolish for two zany comedies and two dark dramas to open directly against each other, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. In comic book terms. 'what would happen if Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler fought each other?' and 'who would win in a smack down between Tom Cruise and Will Smith?'. As it is, it feels like a super-hero/super villain team up where they end up fighting the other guy's nemesis at the climax.

Random thoughts as the night dwindles on. Any takers on who will emerge victorious and who will crash in defeat? Place your bets, folks, this is going to be an epic confrontation (complete with collectible cover).

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

X-Men Origins: Wolverine trailer

First of all, do you know anyone who is going to refer to this film by its full title? I know Fox wants a franchise of origin stories (Magneto is next), but just calling it Wolverine would have sufficed.

As for the trailer, I'm relatively unimpressed. The action looks big, but for some reason the whole movie feels small, especially when compared to the immediate competition (Star Trek, Terminator Salvation). It's a good thing this is the first film of the summer, because that's the only trump card it has (it's Paramount's job to now convince moviegoers that Star Trek is the real first film of summer). That 'Logan hangs onto a helicopter' shot is fine, but it's not what you end a trailer on.

On the plus side, I'll see Liev Schreiber in most anything. And while it's nice that they got a real actor to play Sabertooth, but where art thou, continuity? I don't think Gambit looks as bland as others do, but then I'm not a die-hard fan either. The other fan cameos are too inside-baseball for this casual fan, so I won't comment on them (I guess Ryan Reynolds was tired of doing quirky, mind-spinning comedies that no one saw). Frankly, assuming any of them survive, Fox has enough new mutants in this film to start a whole new series (the "Weapon X" franchise?).

Oh, and regarding that shot of Logan in the Civil War: Over 50,000 Canadian citizens fought for the North, and 10,000 fought for the South in the American Civil War.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Valkyrie (2008)

120 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Films that are based on true stories of failure and/or disaster can often make superior suspense yarns then those whose outcome is theoretically unknown. If the film can trick the audience into forgetting that they know the story already, it is a sure sign that all is well. Furthermore, tension can be explicitly built into the foreknowledge of doom, where the suspense comes not from ‘will it all go wrong?’ but rather ‘how will it all go wrong?’.

A bit of plot: Bryan Singer’s period suspense tale Valkyrie concerns the last of over a dozen separate plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler during the reign of the Third Reich. The plot that is presented here is unique because it was the only one that specifically dealt with what to do after Der Führer had been killed. Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) has just been seriously wounded on the battlefield in Africa near the end of the war. Fed up with Hitler’s various tyrannical misdeeds, at the expense of Germany’s honor, Stauffenberg soon finds himself aligned with an elite inner circle of trusted Nazi officers who seek a common goal and a common ideology. Together, they hatch a scheme to not only kill Adolph Hitler, but to use an existing contingency plan (‘project Valkyrie’) to take complete political power in Germany and negotiate an end to the war.

Singer takes this little known piece of history and turns it into a tense, ensemble caper picture. As the plan unfolds, the picture begins to resemble a 1940s version of Mission: Impossible. Like the feature film variation, Tom Cruise plays the ‘point man’ of sorts, while the supporting cast nervously does their part to ensure the successful treason at work. Since the failure of said plot is a historical given, writers Nathan Alexander and Christopher McQuarrie (the latter teaming with Bryan Singer for the first time since The Usual Suspects) smartly concentrate as much on the aftermath of said plot as the build-up.

While this is certainly a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, the supporting cast of elders gets their moments to shine as well. Kenneth Branagh’s initial scene, involving Bill Nighy and a duplicitous case of wine, is a true armrest grabber. Tom Wilkinson shines as a power-hungry commander whose loyalties shift per the given occasion. Terence Stamp has a weary, beaten down sense of foreboding defeat, almost cursing himself for resorting to treason and murder. Carice van Houten appears briefly as Stauffenberg’s wife; apparently because Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer liked Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book as much as I did. It should be noted that each actor is permitted to speak in his or her natural accent, but it works surprisingly well as you stop noticing after the first five minutes (ala- The Hunt For Red October, Tom Cruise speaks his first several lines in German and then slowly segues into English).

Whether this will be ‘Tom Cruise’s comeback vehicle’ is irrelevant. It is every bit as good as most commercially-minded Tom Cruise pictures (think The Last Samurai or Minority Report) and reminds viewers that, personal issues aside, Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars of the last fifty years for a reason. He is a solid actor, has uncommonly good taste in material, and continues to work with the very best directors possible. It’s cool to do so now, but the young Cruise using his star power to work with challenging filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone was a new or reemerging idea in the 1980s. That he surrounds himself with veteran actors like Stamp and Branagh shows respect for the film as a whole, rather than merely his own screen image (just as casting Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villain in Mission: Impossible 3, knowing full well that Hoffman would easily steal the movie and the critical huzzahs, shows a certain courage).

Valkyrie just misses out on being a great film (it’s no Black Book), but it easily merits mention as a good one. The third act has far too many scenes of nameless troops racing around to apprehend other nameless troops, and the scenes with Cruise and van Houten drag the pace of what should be a tight procedural thriller (more emotional impact is gained from fleeting glimpse of family photos than from any family bonding scenes). But the set pieces are tense and logical, and the story allows Singer to literally use the ‘bomb under the table’ bit that Hitchcock discussed as an archetypical suspense scenario. Singer and Cruise have made a fine historical pulse racer that is surprisingly satisfying and tense. Before Cruise’s 2005 couch-jumping antics, it was taken for granted that a Tom Cruise thriller would be at least this good. Valkyrie is every bit as good as you remember a Tom Cruise movie being, back when you still liked Tom Cruise.

Grade: B

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review: Gran Torino (2008)

Gran Torino
116 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Clint Eastwood is the rare actor who has had two ‘final acts’ in his career. The first came in 1992, when the revisionist western Unforgiven accidentally revitalized his career after a full decade of relative irrelevance (the only good films Eastwood made in the 1980s were Tightrope, Bird, and The Dead Pool, none of which were terribly successful). Unforgiven seemed to represent one final western, a final action film that attempted to reinterpret or deconstruct the various mythical gunslingers of his heyday. But, of course, it received rapturous reviews, became Eastwood’s first $100 million grossing picture and won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mr. Eastwood himself. So this final curtain instead paved the way for ‘Clint Eastwood – critically admired director’ (never mind that he had been directing solid films since Play Misty For Me in 1971).

Unforgiven was followed by fifteen-years of critically acclaimed films, and another Best Picture/Best Director Oscar combo for Million Dollar Baby in 2004. For this last leg of his career, Eastwood has been known as a director first, and an actor second. Since 1992, he acted in only one picture not of his making, Wolfgang Peterson’s masterpiece 1993 thriller: In The Line Of Fire.

Gran Torino will allegedly be Clint Eastwood’s final acting role. If this is the case, then the 78 year old icon has chosen a perfectly pleasant offshoot as his acting swan song. That it is not a film worthy of multiple Oscars is not a slight against the picture. It is a fun, witty, and poignant last dance that ends up being a modern day take on the classic western archetype that Eastwood knows so well. Whether Eastwood deserves or receives an Oscar nomination for his lead performance is irrelevant. It is every bit as appropriate an acting finale as John Wayne’s The Shootist.

A token amount of plot – Walt Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who has stayed in his old neighborhood as the economic conditions deteriorated and his neighbors began to less resemble himself and begin to resemble the very Koreans he went to war with in his youth. This unrepentant racist himself lost and without purpose following the death of his wife. However, circumstances change when a young
Hmong neighbor attempts to steal Walt’s prized auto mobile, his 1973 Gran Torino. After the youth’s family forces him to work off his moral debt by helping Walt with various chores, the grumpy old man forms a surprising bond with his neighbors and with this young man. However, tensions from nearby gangs threaten to destroy Walt’s new found peace.

The film is first and foremost a showcase for crusty old Clint. While the broadly comic performance skirts with camp from time to time (he actually says ‘Get off my lawn!’ in two separate scenes), the usual Eastwood subtlety and low-key film making keeps the drama rooted in plausibility. And while the bond between Frank and Thao isn’t terribly deep (arguably less so than, for example, the friendship between Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in the first Karate Kid), it is entertaining and their interactions with Walt’s few friends provide solid laughs (the always welcome John Carroll Lynch cameos as a barber shop owner). And Clint Eastwood once again presents one of the most realistic, three-dimensional priests seen in film today (Christopher Carley is terrific here, as was Brian F. O'Byrne in Million Dollar Baby).

The film does have some worthwhile commentary on ethnicity. Walt’s Hmong neighbors are generally hard-working, never expect a hand out folks, the same kind of people whose values are supposed to embody ‘real Americans’ in the eyes of so many who oppose immigration and decry the melting pot of America. The film also dances with the idea that the very people who most strongly oppose ethnic integration (conservative, lower-income suburbanites) are the ones who often live in a multi-cultural Petri dish. And, despite being stand-ins for ‘friendly minorities who mend Walt’s racist heart’, Thao and his sister Sue are intelligent, funny, and relatively three-dimensional characters in their own right. Something that the film gets just right is the idea that friendships between different races actually allow for more overtly humorous racism, since there is no longer any malicious intent (Sue laughs when Walt jokingly calls her a ‘dragon lady’, knowing that he’s comfortable enough around her to be tossing out such ribald jabs).

The last fourth of the film delves into Walt’s struggle with the local gang element, and the film threatens to turn into Grumpy Old Dirty Harry. Without going into spoilers, I can say that it doesn’t quite go to that extreme, and the finale has a surprising poignancy for those who know the classic western myths (one could argue that it has similar ideas to No Country For Old Men, but I’ll say no more than that).

Gran Torino is not a masterpiece. It’s a fun character drama that features a knowing but winning final performance by Clint Eastwood and just enough commentary to make it worth discussing. In this current deluge of pretentious, overly arty Oscar bait, Gran Torino is a solid, well-oiled machine. It’s just an unpretentiously good yarn.

Grade: B

Review: What Doesn't Kill You (2008)

What Doesn’t Kill You
100 minutes
rated R

By Scott Mendelson

What Doesn’t Kill You is a movie that at times feels like a remake of countless other films. It is yet another biographical story of a lower-class Boston family and the problems with falling into a life of crime. But, as Roger Ebert always says, it’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it. The film overcomes the déjà vu with uncommonly strong acting, and a low-key realism that provides a stronger emotional response by refusing to delve into melodrama.

A bit of plot – This film is the allegedly autobiographical story of writer/director Brian Goodman. Brian and Paulie (Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke) are best friends, having grown up on the south side Boston. As happens to all too many in that area, they eventually turn to a life of petty crime, as a means to scrape by. While Paulie is a wild-eyed and somewhat hardened criminal, Brian is attempting to make a life that includes his wife (Amanda Peet) and their children. However, set backs and unexpected developments threaten to derail Brian’s attempt to leave the life behind and earn the respect of his children.

As is often the case, Mark Ruffalo’s naturalism raises this movie to a higher level, to something outside of cliché. For the last several years, he’s excelled at grounding the various romantic comedies he’s starred in, be they good (13 Going On 30) or bad (Rumor Has It). His general dramatic work has given an extra shot of credibility to otherwise fine pictures (Zodiac, You Can Count On Me). He is one of the few actors that automatically makes a movie better just by appearing in it. This is the closest thing he’s had to star vehicle and he does not waste the opportunity. This is an Oscar worthy performance and one of the very best of the year.

This is not to say that the rest of the cast does not hold up. Ethan Hawke again does solid supporting work. Ironically, this is the second Ethan Hawke movie in a row (after the brutally intense Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) that opens with a seemingly botched robbery and then proceeds to flashback to the beginning). Amanda Peet also has a natural grief that honors the material. She is heartbreaking as she watches her relatively decent husband struggle to be reliable and trust worthy despite the obstacles in his way. Even the kids who play Brian’s children have a few moments worth noting, especially a late scene where Brian asks his older son what he has to do to win back his respect (the answer is devastating in its simplicity and as a study of low expectations).

The other thing that makes this picture stand out is the last third of the film, which deals not with the clichés of crime and thuggery, but with the near impossible task of rebuilding a life after a stint in the pen. Brian and Paulie both end up in prison, and Brian’s daunting attempt to redeem himself, and make a live for his family, is heartbreaking in its blunt bleakness. This is relatively uncharted territory for bottom of the food chain crime dramas, and this portion is genuinely fascinating and compelling. What Doesn’t Kill You doesn’t chart that much new territory in its first two acts, but a relatively original third act makes the film worth seeing as a story.

Story telling aside, the film is still filled with terrific, low-key performances that make the movie, at the very least, an acting treat. Ruffalo is always worth watching, as he’s quickly becoming one of my very favorite actors. Amanda Peet gets meatier material than she’s had in awhile and Ethan Hawke is solid too. Donnie Wahlberg, who co-wrote the film, has a fun cameo as an embittered cop who keeps an eye on Brian post-prison. It's not exactly a stretch for him, but the more talented, less famous Wahlberg brother is always welcome onscreen.

Once again, had this solid, adult drama been released in the spring or the summer, it would have likely stood out instead of being buried in the award derby. But it is certainly worth the time for fans of the genre and the actors. And, for general moviegoers, it is worth seeking out for a brutally honest, achingly realistic, and emotionally compelling look at the other side of petty crime – the slow, painful path to legitimacy.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: 199 Lives- The Travis Pastrana Story (2008)

199 Lives: The Travis Pastrana Story
84 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

To this day, Tin Cup still maintains its place as the sports movie with the most surprising and exciting climax. If you recall, the 1996 Ron Shelton picture ends with Kevin Costner on the 18th hole in first place for the title at the PGA US Open. However, after missing a (literal) long shot and landing in the water, Costner’s Roy McAvoy refuses to simply take the water penalty and move his ball to the other side of the pond that separates his current position from the green. Again and again, the ball goes into the water, but McAvoy would rather make that shot and lose the Open then simply give up and end it with a short putt.

Travis Pastrana, it would seem, has the same mentality. Time and time again, we see him almost sabotage himself on the dirt bike race track where he flourished. Torn between the strict linear race and the freedom and risk of freestyle jumping, Pastrana often blows races that he should have one, for the chance to try a random jump along the track. But then, when you’ve been motorcycle racing since you were four, competing since 14, and you’ve already base-jumped the Grand Canyon several times since your eighteenth birthday, the potential for boredom is certainly plausible. And it becomes quickly apparent that Mr. Pastrana is the sort of person who would rather lose (and lose badly) at something new and challenging than win at something that he’s already exceptional at.
199 Lives is a straight, no-frills documentary concerning the life of Travis Pastrana, currently considered one of the premier talents in the dirt bike motor cross circuit. Frankly, my knowledge of motocross begins and ends with the 1986 Nintendo game, Excite Bike. So while I am not the intended audience for this feature, it is a worthwhile glimpse into a culture that I know oh so little about. The title likely comes from the incredible cornucopia of injuries that Travis has sustained in his life time. He’s broken his wrist seven times. He’s had eight knee surgeries on the right knee and seven surgeries on the left. He’s separated his shoulder three times. He’s had at least twenty-five concussions. I can only wonder how his body and mind will react should he actually survive to old age.

The feature is pretty much a talking-heads affair, with friends and family sharing their memories and thoughts on the X-games superstar. His father is presented as a relatively hard man, not without love, but with the mindset of an army drill instructor. He’s an avowed atheist, while his wife is a true believer, and one of the highlights is a brief back and forth on their respective theological beliefs.
The film never really passes judgment on its person of interest. No one really tries to sell the idea that he is a hero, nor is he condemned for some of the consequences of his constant need for speed (he once nearly killed himself and two friends driving a car into a tree at 135 miles per hour). He is simply a person who excels at the sport which always came naturally to him.
The film comes up short only in the area of context. There is little mention of his fan base and almost no recollections from sports pundits or sports historians. Although I do not expect such a specialized documentary to explain the complete rules and history of motor cross, a little historical and factual background would have been nice. And, curiously, aside from breath taking scenes of Travis literally motor biking into the Grand Canyon and parachuting to safety, there is actually very little footage of him racing and jumping (although the DVD special features more than make up for that deficiency).

For those who already posses a genuine curiosity in Travis and the world of motor cross, this 84 minute documentary is worth a gander. But for those unschooled in the realm of dirt bike racing and dirt bike stunts, it is an unnecessary diversion. It will not make a fan out of you if you aren’t a fan already.

The DVD:
The feature is presented in 1.85, anamorphic widescreen. The picture is certainly not reference material, but the hi-def video is more than watchable. The lone audio option is English 5.1, and there are sadly no subtitles or captions.
The bonus features are actually a nearly 30 minutes longer than the feature itself. Most of it is comprised of various races and stunts that make up the short career of Travis Pastrana. There is a twelve minute video where Travis counts down his ten favorite stunts or racing moments. There is a two-minute clip of general reminiscing, and several minutes of Travis’s X-Games highlights (note – there is a 3-minute Easter egg on the “X” in X Games in the sub menu for this feature). The biggest special feature is a compilation of nine medal-winning X Games moments. This feature runs a whopping 83 minutes. The video quality on all of these bonus features is adequate and the aspect ratios are varying.

Final Note – If you are a fan of the sport or the man, 199 Lives: The Travis Pastrana Story is more than worth your time, if only for the ample collection of highlights in the supplemental section. But it offers little insight or context for non-fans.

The film - B-
The DVD - B+
Total - B

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Watchman Comic Con trailer and Terminator 4 trailer go online...,

This Watchmen piece was apparently shown at this summer's Comic-Con. It's far superior to the second trailer that came out last month. I'm going to assume at this point that the amount of slow motion footage in the trailers is not representative of the film itself (there's your running time solution right there). Maybe it's just a matter of the characters not actually speaking, or the haunting music, or maybe it's the token footage that deals with the mundane (after all, Watchmen is not hip or cool, but a sad and sorrowful tale of opportunities lost and dreams unfulfilled), but this is a far more promising glimpse into 2009's most nail-biting 'Geez, will it be good?' movie.

And here is the full Terminator: Salvation trailer that just went up. This looks like a dark, gritty war picture that just happens to involve giant killer robots, which is just the way to go with this material. Whatever concessions were made for that alleged PG-13 rating, the tone wasn't among them. Ironically, this may end up resembling the underrated 2002 Christian Bale/Matthew McConaughey dragons vs mankind flop, Reign Of Fire, which was itself incredibly bleak for a summer popcorn film. So far, all signs point to a solid winner here.

Between Watchmen, Terminator: Salvation, and Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, Warner Bros is well on its way to leading the pack this summer (of course, Harry Potter 6 will make so much money that Watchmen can flop and they'll still be just fine).

Scott Mendelson

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Nothing But The Truth (2008)

Nothing But The Truth
107 minutes
rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Rod Lurie’s Nothing But The Truth is the very definition of professionalism. It is a rock-solid entertainment, made by adults, starring adults, and intended for adults. In a film industry less dominated by more fantastical genres, it probably would qualify as a B-movie. But, in today’s kid-friendly and fantasy-drenched multiplexes it stands out as that rarest of things – a quality drama for grownups.

The plot is a moderate reworking of the Valerie Plame/Judith Miller story from summer 2005 In very brief, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for a time for refusing to reveal a source on a story (written by others) that revealed the identity of a CIA operative Valerie Plame. Plame’s husband had written an embarrassing editorial debunking on one of the main justifications that the Bush administration used for war with Iraq. The story here is slightly different. In this case, Washington-based reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale, capping a solid year that started with Snow Angels) refuses to reveal the source of leak regarding the identity of a CIA officer (an Oscar worthy Vera Farmiga), whose husband revealed that Venezuela was wrongly blamed for the assassination attempt on the president.

As you can see, this slight change almost qualifies as cheating. In Lurie’s version, the reporter may be reckless in exposing the identity of an undercover operative, but she’s still on the side that wishes to expose the corruption of a sitting (right-wing) president. In the real story, Judith Miller was helping to cover up those who exposed Plame’s identity as an act of right-wing political retribution. It didn’t help that Miller was one of the primary cheerleaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, her work was eventually so utterly debunked that she was allegedly forced out. First-amendment die-hards like myself were torn that summer, but the constitutional martyrs are not always the good guys. It would have been interesting to see Lurie paint a sympathetic picture of a war-monger and lousy reporter, playing the righteous victim as she went to jail to protect the tenants of her profession.

But, that is not the film that Lurie wishes to make. And the film he has made is a very good one. Presented with a bare minimum of melodrama, the film focuses on the plight of Armstrong while also dealing with the aftershock for CIA agent Erica Van Doren. As Van Doren is repeatedly grilled by her superiors (who think that either she is the leak or she sloppily disclosed her identity) and Armstrong is threatened with jail time, we realize that we sympathize with both of these women. Surprisingly for a Rod Lurie picture, the film goes out of its way to avoid painting anyone with a particularly villainous brush. Even the bulldoggish Special Prosecutor (Matt Dillon) is not evil, but simply dedicated to a course of action that the film does not agree with.

The rest of the film is exceptionally cast. Alan Alda has several winning scenes as a once powerful attorney who eventually takes Armstrong’s case (he knows full well that the press no longer has the support of the public it attempts to inform). David Schwimmer does understated work as Armstrong’s embittered husband, and Noah Wyle has fun as the increasingly flustered representative of the newspaper in peril. Only Angela Bassett is underserved, as she’s given too little to do as Armstrong’s sympathetic editor.

There really isn’t much more to say. The story unfolds pretty much as you’d expect it to, with a couple mild twists along the way. That the film stands up for reporters’ rights over national security is kind of a given. Farmiga does some of the best work of her career, even if it’s too understated to attract much attention. Beckinsale has a great moment when she acknowledges the double standard of women/mothers sticking up for principle to the emotional harm of their children (“you can trust reporters, unless they’re mothers, cause then they’ll eventually crack”), and every major character is portrayed as intelligent, principled, and at least partially sympathetic. This is simply a smart film filled with smart actors who play smart characters.

It is a shame that it is likely to be lost in the December awards derby, since surely it would have gotten more attention as adult counter programming in the spring or summer (why oh why can’t the studios release ‘award-worthy’ movies all year round?). But Nothing But The Truth absolutely deserves your attention. It rises to the level of quality that we should not take for granted, even while we wish we could. It’s just a darn good movie.

Grade: B+


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