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"Marley and Me" *** (119 minutes)

Thursday December 18, 2008

"Marley" is a dog whose owner is John Grogan-the "me", played affectionately by Owen Wilson. Judging by the trailers you'd think this is your typical goofy Hollywood dog/pet film. However, the screenplay by talented writers Scott Frank ("The Lookout" , "Out of Sight", & "Minority Report") & Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") have taken Grogan's memoirs/novel and fashioned a tale that is much much more. Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") has nicely packaged the first 15 years of Grogan's marriage around Marley's chaotic behavior. More a statement on commitment and marriage than a running commentary on owning an out of control animal, the humor tends to be more controlled the further on the film goes, and, no surprise, the tears will well up as you realize that nothing last forever-no matter how light hearted things are presented in the beginning. However, don't think that your emotions will be in total shambles at the end. This isn't an independent film, folks. The real star in this one is Wilson who gives a wonderful performance and the chemistry is just right with Jennifer Aniston throughout. Add in nice supporting roles by veteran actor, Alan Arkin as Wilson's boss, and Eric Dane as Wilson's philandering friend and co-worker and you have a very pleasing mix of good acting, script, and bad-dog. I might mention an interesting cameo by Kathleen Turner who hasn't done a significant live screen role since 1999's "The Virgin Suicides". There is a point in her single scene as a dog trainer that reminded me of her sexy scene with William Hurt in 1981's brilliant "Body Heat"-but in a perversely different way. (I won't spoil it for you here-but keep this in mind after you see it. Times have certainly changed for Ms. Turner.) My main beef is the length. Although 15 years might need a couple of hours to cover, a bit of editing might have tightened the story that goes on a tad longer than it should. However, overall, this is a nice holiday movie to take in-especially if you own a canine!

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"- Revisited

Wednesday December 17, 2008

I've been known to take in a film multiple times. Some people I know, don't like to see films more than once saying something like, "I know the plot. What's the point?" I like to answer that, for me, sometimes a film improves immeasurable upon repeated viewings. Actually knowing a plot allows me to focus on subtle nuances I may have initially missed the first time around. It could have been the acting, an image, a sound-something I missed or felt that wasn't present in my mind after the lights came on. And sometimes, how I felt about the film is changed-despite the familiarity of the plot lines. I might have been in a bad mood; something else occupying my mind and thoughts may have clouded my judgment that day (I always said that someday I might revisit "Juno" just for this purpose). I have especially found that there is something new and special to behold when seeing films again that I particularly enjoyed. Case in point: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Fincher's epic tale, initially giving it 3 1/2 stars (see below). However, I am now ready to modify this to a solid 4 stars after screening it again 15 days later. What I missed on the second go-around was how simply the tale was told, how matter of fact was the narrative and, how profound the message was behind the words and pictures. And Brad Pitt, through facial expressions and manner of speech was so beautifully understated as the main character who lived his life in reverse without questioning his fate in the end. It's a bravura performance that didn't hit me the same way the first time. Certainly the best role and acting he has ever done. I was completely overwhelmed and moved the second time around that also allowed me to marvel even more in the set design and technology that created the amazing images on the screen. And I was able to concentrate on the incredible score by Alexandre Desplat which appropriately understated the action. Hitting on universal themes of life and time, everyone will relate to the journey each character takes. That being said, I have placed this on my list of the best films this year. And if you have a chance, see it more than once and let me know if you agree that it gets better and better each time. Nationwide release is in 3 days.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)" ** (103 minutes)

Thursday December 11, 2008

I took in this preview for one reason, and one reason only: strictly as a guilty pleasure. Those familiar with the classic 1951 original sci-fi version by Robert Wise starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (listed on AFI's list of the 200 top classic movies of all time and their top 10 science fiction list) should not come to this one expecting to hear spaceman Klaatu say those immortal words to Gort, his trusty armored robot : "KLAATU BARADA NIKTO!" No, what we have here is your typical watered down Hollywood special effects laden remake of the original thinking man's flick. Rennie has been replaced with that one note monotoned thespian Keanu Reeves (who actually is well suited in the spaceman role), while Jennifer Connelly is in the Neal role as the Harvard scientist recruited by the Government to investigate the sphere that has landed in Central Park (changed from the original D.C. locale). Also changed is the prime motive for all the otherworldly goings on: Klaatu warning our globe that we will be doomed (by him) if we continue our environmental self-destruction of the planet vs. the original film's reason being our incessant violence against each other. Also present is Will Smith's son, Jaden ("The Pursuit of Happyness") who is Jennifer's step-son, and Kathy Bates, who must have needed the money, completely miscast as The Defense Minister acting on behalf of the President who is hidden away during the crisis. Although the special effects are top notch, there is very little else to recommend-especially if the original masterpiece has held a special place in your heart and memory.

"Doubt" *** (104 minutes)

Wednesday December 3, 2008

SHEEE'S BAAAAAAAAACK!!! Meryl Streep, that is, in writer/director John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his Pulitzer/Tony award winning play. Shanley burst onto the scene in 1987 when he wrote "Moonstruck". But his record as a director is not as sparkling, directing the mediocre "Joe Versus the Volcano" in 1990. Eight years later, he's back directing his own award winning play. This 2 1/2 star movie is elevated to a 3 based on Streep's riveting, and sure to be Oscar nominated, portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, who is a Principal at a 1964 Bronx Catholic school. Kind of a cross between Hitler and the Wicked Witch of the East, Meryl sinks her fangs into a role that will have you shaking in your boots even though you are seated far from the action. It seems Sister Beauvier is out to get Father Flynn (the always superb Phillip Seymour Hoffman) when she perceives that there was hanky panky going on with the school's lone African-American student after being informed by naive teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) that the student had alcohol on his breath after his meeting with Father Flynn. But is there anything REALLY going on here-or is it a misinterpretation and/or overreaction? Hence the title and subject of this piece. I never saw the play but knowing its origin leads me to believe that it probably lends itself better by being on the stage instead of the screen as the action tends to be stilted and claustrophobic. The joy in this one comes from the confrontations between Hoffman and Streep, as well as a fantastic supporting role by Viola Davis who is sure to be AA nominated as the student's mother. You may be debating whether or not a moral wrong is at the center of the film. But in the end, will you care?

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" *** 1/2 (167 minutes)

Tuesday December 2, 2008

Screenwriter Eric Roth hit a grand slam right out of the box with his initial outing when he penned 1994's smash fantasy "Forest Gump"-winning an Oscar in the process. He followed this success with 1998's "The Horse Whisperer", 1999's "The Insider" (Oscar nominated), 2001's "Ali", and 2005's "Munich" (also Oscar nominated). He's been in a mini-slump lately with "The Good Shepard" & "Lucky You" but he seems to have come out of this period with flying colors after adapting the general idea behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about the birth of an 80 year old man (Brad Pitt) who actually ages backwards. Director David Fincher ("Seven", "Fight Club", "Panic Room", "Zodiac") has lovingly created this tale bestowing fantastic production values to cover this story that spans the years 1918-2005. Using Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop, we meet a dying woman (an utterly fantastic Cate Blanchett) holed up in a New Orleans hospital while her daughter (Julia Ormand) reads a diary written by her mother's old friend. Here the narrative is told through flashbacks as the ominous storm is approaching. Much of this tale will remind you of Roth's 1994 masterpiece: the fantasy and sentimentality are abundant-as are the incredible effects used to display Pitt as he begins his life as a wrinkled invalid only to "age" backwards into, well, Brad Pitt. In fact, the feat of convincingly showing, at the appropriate point in the film, both Pitt and Blanchett half their real ages is as startling as the ET-like effects or the old woman makeup. Going in, I thought that the CGI would overwhelm the storytelling to such a degree as to be a distraction that would be hard to overcome. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I got caught up in the proceedings and then started to ponder the overall themes of love, life and death, and how fleeting it all is, long after the credits rolled. The supporting cast is nothing short of superb, including a delicious role by the great Tilda Swinton who plays a bored sophisticate with whom Benjamin meets in Murmansk and from whom he learns about love and desire. Also, Taraji Penda Henson (accumulating an impressive body of work, appearing in "Hustle & Flow", "Four Brothers", & "Talk To Me") is wonderful as the black woman who cares for baby Brad after he is left on a nursing home doorstep. The score by Alexander Desplat never intrudes and is always appropriate to the action. Look for multiple Oscar noms for this "curious" tale of Hollywood magic that opens nationwide on Christmas Day.