Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This morning I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #65, so tune in on January 12 for our review.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Yesterday I saw Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

It's a drama (with a hint of comedy) about a Catholic school in the Bronx, in 1964. Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the stereotypical "mean nun" who administers wicked punishments to the children and is quick to judge her colleagues. Father Flynn (Hoffman) is a kind, warm-spirited priest who pays special attention to Donald (Joseph Foster), who is the first black student admitted to the school.

After witnessing a few normal situations at the school (kids misbehaving in class, nuns breaking bread together in silence, etc.), the writer wastes no time in letting us know that suspicion looms over Father Flynn regarding his relationship with Donald.

Amy Adams, in a role tailor made for her expertise in playing innocence, is Sister James, a naive teacher who notices a behavioral change in Donald after he returns from a private visit with the father. She soon tells Sister Aloysius, who is immediately anxious to expose and expunge the certainly guilty priest.

From there the movie places its title into your reactions as an audience member. Is this miserable woman just making life difficult for a man because he is a man? Is this kind-hearted priest who has a natural rapport with his congregation and students capable of such unspeakable harm? Is Sister James too inexperienced to correctly read the signs of abuse in one of her students?

All of the doubts they weave into your mind will have you taking sides with yourself, or perhaps the person sitting next to you. But they won't definitely answer the questions, which is what makes the film good.

What also makes the film good are the performances. It's not shocking that Streep's accent is dead-on 60s New Yorker, and it's no surprise that Hoffman can be equally endearing and creepy, but the unexpected thrill is seeing the two battle it out on screen as if they were performing live theater. It's hard to take your eyes off of them.

Also great are supporting players Amy Adams as the sugar-sweet Sister James, and Viola Davis as the pained mother of young Donald. Both infuse their characters with mannerisms, expressions and speech patterns that perfectly illustrate their plight.

What makes the film bad is the ending. It betrays one of the characters they've crafted so brilliantly and makes no sense in the context of the resolution.

Shame it had to end that way.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seven Pounds

Today I saw Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith and Rosario Dawson.

Why didn't someone tell me to take a box of Kleenex?

The story begins as Smith's character (though I won't mention his name in the film here; you'll understand why when you see it) is screaming at a blind meat salesman—a stranger, played by Woody Harrelson, for no apparent reason. His home is lavish, his clothing is expensive and he seems to "have it all."

Next, we watch him criticize a man who is somehow in charge of a nursing home and then fight with a childhood friend (played by Barry Pepper, who I'd like to have seen more of).

The first sign of 'nice guy' exhibited by our main character comes when he tracks down Emily (Dawson) who is suffering from congenital heart failure. He poses as an IRS agent and after meeting with her (and instantly liking her), promises to freeze all of the collections on her overdue taxes.

The big question: why is he doing all of this?

We learn in (somewhat predictable) flashbacks why, and the how is revealed much later in the film (impatient folks like me will think too much later).

The main themes I took away from this story were guilt, compassion and redemption.

Though you'll cheer Will's character along in his finer moments, one must realize they're all being contrived based upon a whole lot of judgment.

But that's not to say it wasn't good.

Smith and Dawson make a wonderful match, sparking with chemistry throughout (the makeup team should also be heralded for making Dawson so sick-looking—it exhausted me just watching her), and the supporting players in Pepper, Harrelson, etc. are also perfect in their unfortunately tiny roles.

The final act draws everything together nicely and leaves you wondering if it takes a monumental mistake to provoke such altruism. Or can we even call it that, if redemption is the ultimate goal?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Duchess

Today I saw The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

Note: this review does contain spoilers.

Based on British history, the film tells the story of the former 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana (Knightley), who is coincidentally an ancestor to our modern-day Princess Diana of Wales.

Unfortunately, their blood was not the only thing these two women had in common.

They both had spunky, outspoken personalities; they both married young into the British Monarchy with every sincerity and hope for a loving union; and they both were cheated on, controlled, lied to and forced to remain in situations that made them miserable—the only difference is that Diana eventually got out.

The Duchess is a well-done exploration of Georgiana's sad life from the time she was married until the time of her eventual complacency to the husband (Fiennes) who was never good to her.

An excitable teenager when first joined together, Georgiana's biggest problems were that her husband didn't "talk" to her and intercourse was mere sex; not the lovemaking she craved.

After two daughters and two stillborn sons, the Duke was growing impatient waiting for an heir and had taken a lover in Georgiana's best (and only) friend Bess (Hayley Atwell). Although "G" (as they called her), had looked away at the Duke's countless other affairs, this one pained her greatly and she expressed her anger at the betrayal, only to be met with indifference on his part. After taking G by force, the Duke finally got his wish and produced a male heir.

The mistress, genuinely caring for her former friend, arranged for the real object of G's affection, politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), to reunite with her—and reunite they did. They also produced a child, daughter Eliza, which the Duke forced the Duchess to surrender to Grey's family.

Throughout this film, the performances are delivered expertly by all actors, not least of whom is Knightley herself—this is a role that feels as if it was tailor made for her, and after watching her, it's hard to picture anyone else pulling it off quite as well. Fiennes, as always is brilliant and Atwell as the conflicted Lady Elizabeth, is pitch perfect, commanding both sympathy and rage at her actions.

The real problems are plenty and scandalous, but at the end of it all, the Duke and the Duchess faced something that millions of people throughout time have faced: a loveless marriage. As the mother of the Duchess says at the beginning of the film, true love is identified instantly—it's a feeling you get that you can't escape.

The sad thing is that when you deny this magic, and gamble your own fate by doing what society (or merely your partner) feels is "right," you're most certainly going to lose. And lose Georgiana did.

It almost makes you feel guilty enjoying the film so much.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Last night I saw Milk, starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #64, which is available for download here.

I also recommend checking out this brilliant documentary about Harvey Milk's life: