Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taken / **½ (PG-13)

Bryan Mills: Liam Neeson
Kim: Maggie Grace
Jean-Claude: Olivier Rabourdin
St-Clair: Gérard Watkins
Stuart: Xander Berkley
Lenore: Famke Janssen

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language).

The casting of a movie is such an interesting point if you really look at it. With most movies it’s not really something we question much. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. Matt Damon is Jason Bourne. But can you really imagine Christopher Walken as Han Solo? It almost happened, according to the Hollywood casting rumors. The thing with most casting decisions in action movies and thrillers is that they are casting the personality, not the character.

When I saw that Liam Neeson would be staring as an ex-black ops specialist who goes after his daughter’s kidnappers with a vengeance in the new thriller “Taken”, I thought he was an odd choice for an action star. He doesn’t seem to have the personality for it. As it turns out, Neeson (“Kinsey”) is the best thing about “Taken”. He doesn’t really have much of a personality in the film, and for a man that has done what his character has done for a living, that’s the way it should be.

Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a man who functions well in only one capacity. He is an expert in deception and manipulation, and in the intellectual and physical perfection that make him one of the best operatives the CIA ever lost to early retirement. As such he never had the time to develop the personality traits we’ve come to expect from the typical action hero.

He never developed any real relationships in his life. This is why he retired from the CIA. His wife has long since left him for a “perfect” man, and he is afraid his daughter is going to grow up never knowing him. So he retired from his life as a “preventer” to be closer to his daughter.

The opening passages of the movie are rather tedious in their insistence of establishing Bryan’s broken family. Lenore (Famke Janssen, “The Wackness”) imposes ridiculous rules on their daughter’s 17th birthday party. Maggie Grace (“Lost”) admirably and accurately under plays her own age as their daughter Kim, a naive, overly sheltered, rich kid. Xander Berkley (“Fracture”) is under utilized as her loving stepdad. This family broken by a father’s devotion to his secretive job has been played inside and out before and comes off here as whiny and unnecessary to set up the kidnapping that will obviously take place once Bryan allows Kim to go on an un-chaperoned Paris vacation with her 19-year-old girlfriend.

The movie finds its purpose during the kidnapping scene when Bryan overhears the kidnapping while in the middle of a phone conversation with Kim. He asks her to remain calm because “they’re going to take you,” but he is already working on rescuing her. Now, it becomes obvious why Neeson is perfectly cast for this film. He is so meticulous and matter of fact about what he must do to get his daughter back, how it must be done, and how to let her kidnappers know he means business.

“Taken” is all method with very little emotion behind it. Although Bryan is a father willing to do anything and hurt anybody—which he demonstrates mercilessly in one scene—to get his daughter back, emotions would make what he has to do impossible. Neeson is ruthless in his pursuit of his daughter’s kidnappers, running into resistance from even his former colleagues in the Parisian government. But there’s never any question that he’s capable of what he does here, which helps to explain why he’s so feared by even his friend Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin, “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”). If this Neeson had been Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Director Pierre Morel may be new to American audiences, but he comes from a solid action background. Having directed the French thriller “District B-13” and acted as cinematographer on a number of other action films, Morel steers Luc Besson’s and Robert Mark Kamen’s script straight for the action angle. There is a car chase that proves, after however many years there have been car chases, that they can still be reinvented. The tension never drops from the point of the kidnapping because Morel never stops the action for the mundane details, like showing the audience when Bryan rents a car and hires an interpreter. Instead he gives us this information as the French authorities are literally trying keep up with him.

The film’s failing comes in the form of its emotional impact. While Neeson is exactly what he needs to be as an agent of relentless pursuit, the emotional connection with his goals is lacking. This is mostly a setup mistake. Instead of giving the audience a broken family, the screenwriters would have served their story better by having Bryan already accepted back into his family life after retirement. This would have given greater weight to his and his ex-wife’s loss and reunion with their daughter. But, for eighty percent of this movie, none of that really matters.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans / **½ (R)

Lucian: Michael Sheen
Viktor: Bill Nighy
Sonja: Rhona Mitra
Tannis: Steven Mackintosh
Raze: Kevin Grevioux

Screen Gems presents a film directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Written by Danny McBride and Dirk Blackman & Howard McCain and Len Wiseman & Robert Orr. Based on characters created by Kevin Grevioux, Wiseman & McBride. Running time: 92 min. Rated R (for bloody violence and some sexuality).

Most movies inspire a definitive opinion. It’s good. It’s bad. There are varying degrees of each, but what it really comes down to is the question, “Did I enjoy watching this movie?” But, should a critic take the intended audience’s opinion into consideration? Certainly there is a degree to which it is important to consider what a film is trying to accomplish. The fact is, a movie like “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”—which is about how the eternal battle between vampires and werewolves began—is only going to appeal to a very small percentage of film going audiences. The truth is I did enjoy watching this movie, after I got over a few indiscretions within its premise, that is.

This is the third film in the “Underworld” series, of which I have not been an avid fan. The first movie was fun enough, although it left much of the mythology of vampires and lycanthropes feeling a bit empty. The second movie was an absolute mess, trying to come off as cool and profound while miring itself in sloppy special effects and silly plot resolutions. This third entry, in its own way, goes back to the basics of this particular mythology, if still missing the overall point of the vampire and werewolf metaphors. It tells the fairly simple origins of the series’ conflict between vampires and werewolves based on just a few lines of dialogue taken from the first film.

The heroine of the first film is said to be the favorite of the vampire leader Viktor because she reminds him so much of his daughter Sonja. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” tells the story of Sonja’s fate and the werewolf uprising that lead to it and the ages-long war that has raged between these two supernatural species. Taking place in some long ago dark age, vampires appear to be the ruling race in a world where normal humans seem only to exist as fodder for the vampires. Rich humans offer monetary compensation to the vampires for protection. Their slaves and other wanderers act as vessels to feed and grow the vampires’ werewolf army. Oddly no human ever seems to be fed on by any vampire.

The werewolves are the vampires’ slaves. Well, no wait… There are two different kinds of werewolves. Ones that live wild and don’t have the ability to change back into men and those bred by the vampires as their protectors, who can change form at will. The vampires need protection from the wild werewolves when they sleep during the day, yet the werewolves only seem to come out at night. Huh?! The set up is just exhausting. It serves only to set up a simple class uprising tale, rather than as a dissection of the sins of man’s lust and savagery that these two mythological creatures were created for.

Anyway, the shape-shifters are all descended from Lucian, a slave spared at birth by Viktor because he didn’t retain his wolf shape. Lucian is a skilled blacksmith and warrior, who helps keep the other slaves under control; but he seems troubled by his shackles. Meanwhile, Sonja recklessly risks her life nightly to keep the wild werewolves out of the vampire sanctuary. We soon learn there is a reason Lucian is not so willing to break his bonds and rise up against his vampire oppressors.

The movie finally starts to come together once it is revealed that Lucian and Sonja are lovers. Lucian is determined to lead his fellow werewolves in a mutiny but desires to continue his affair with Sonja. Sonja is not yet willing to betray her father and her race, although she agrees the inequality between the races is unfair. Viktor’s relationship with his daughter and his slave becomes unhinged when Lucian frees himself to save Sonja during a particularly savage attack by the wild werewolves. Not only does Lucian reveal a newfound disposition to disobey, but he also reveals an ability to communicate with the wild lycanthropes. Viktor’s none to happy about the prospect of a werewolf son-in-law either.

For the most part, every detail of the plot exists to create darkened action sequences where many beasts are beheaded and limbs are severed. Once the plot turns into a forbidden love story, there seems to be a great weight lifted off the material, and the three leads get a chance to reign in some of the wayward plot. Rhona Mitra (“Doomsday”) as Sonja looks remarkably like Kate Backinsale, who played the heroine of the first two movies. Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) brings a quite dignity that suggests a remarkable performance could have been found had he been allowed to develop a more traditional werewolf role. And Bill Nighy (“Valkyrie”) continues to chew up the screen returning as Viktor for the third time. Nighy is even allowed a chance to bring just a little humanity to the character.

“Rise of the Lycans” still suffers from much of the typical ailments as most of these pop cult phenomenon do. The overly complex setup requires more thought than has been put into it. Some shoddy special effects are covered up with dim lighting and quick edits, but still a few sloppy CGI effects come glaring through. However, the action is intense, and the performances pull the story together. For those invested in the “Underworld” series and the current trend of supernatural monsters as superheroes, “Rise of the Lycans” will be a welcome escape from boredom and inadequacy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bolt / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Bolt: John Travolta
Penny: Miley Cyrus
Mittens: Susie Essman
Rhino: Mark Walton
Dr. Calico: Malcolm McDowell
The Director: James Lipton
The Agent: Greg Germann

Walt Disney Animation Studios present a film directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Written by Dan Fogelman and Williams. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG (for some mild action and peril).

For a little over a year, I’ve been trying to see a movie in the new digital 3D format. I finally found my opportunity in the strangest of locations, a Disney Cruise ship. Since the company that owned the cruise ship also owns many movies, they needed no special permissions to play any of their movies they wished. And, of course, they had the top technology projectors to screen the movies as they were meant to be. In the case of “Bolt”, that was in digital 3D.

While the format was fascinating (I will be writing about my feelings on the 3D format in a future article), the movie was like a breath of fresh air and a blast from the past all at once. “Bolt” is a loving film, filled with adventure and friendship. It takes the form of a road movie with a lot of heart. It contains great humor, loveable characters, and a touching message about friendship and family.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta, “Hairspray”) is a Hollywood dog who stars in his own action/adventure television series in which he possesses amazing superpowers—superstrength, superspeed, and laser beam eyesight. In the show, the evil Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell, NBC’s “Heroes”) is after Bolt’s master, Penny (Miley Cyrus, “Hannah Montana”). Penny’s father is the brilliant scientist who is being held prisoner by Calico, but Calico needs Penny to get her father to spill his secrets. Bolt is her protector.

The action sequences of the television series are spectacular. They have a lot of fun with action standards, like the expendability of henchmen and the sheer destruction that such action sequences bring to their surroundings. The 3D plays an exciting role in these sections, placing you right in the middle of the action, but it doesn’t seem to be a necessity to portray the kinetic cinematic power of these scenes.

In real life… well, that’s just the thing. As far as Bolt is concerned, the show is real life. He thinks he really possesses his superpowers, and since the actress who plays Penny in the series is really his owner, his duty to protect her remains even when the cameras have stopped rolling. Penny wants Bolt to have a normal dog life, but her slippery agent (Greg Germann, “Quarantine”) and overly intense director (James Lipton, “Inside the Actor’s Studio”) are determined not to allow any elements that might destroy the illusion of the show for Bolt.

This makes Bolt entirely unprepared to deal with the real world when he’s accidentally shipped overnight to New York. The New York sequence is one of the funniest in the movie, depicting Bolt discovering that his powers don’t seem to be working—a malady that he becomes convinced is due to his weakness to styrofoam. He also meets some wiseguy pigeons who just can’t figure out where they know him from, even when a city bus with a giant “Bolt” advertisement on its side rolls up next to them.

The pigeons lead Bolt to a cat, Mittens (Susie Essman, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), to get information on the whereabouts of Penny. Mittens starts out as Bolt’s prisoner, baffled by the insight that Bolt thinks his show is real. Soon she realizes Bolt is just another lost pet, like herself, looking for the love and companionship that have been denied her. Soon they gain another traveling companion on their way across the country to L.A.—a hamster in a ball named Rhino (Mark Walton, “Chicken Little”) who is Bolt’s “biggest fan!”

I noticed one of the executive producers was Pixar guru/VP John Lasseter, and it seems as if he brought in Pixar’s incredible knack for inserting the minutest of details in every scene of this cartoon. Observe how the pigeons (a recurring theme in the movie, with pigeons of different accents and mannerisms showing up in every major stop on the journey) move their heads as they talk. The animators obviously studied the body and head movements of pigeons very carefully to make these guys something more than your average cartoon animals.

“Bolt” plays out like a classic buddy road picture, but with the energetic adventure of the best Disney animation. The 3D format is very successful at inserting the audience right into the action of the movie, but I think I would have been carried away by this movie based on its exuberance alone. This is the type of animation that I remember getting excited to see when I was a kid, an enjoyable ride in the line of “The Rescuers”. It’s such a relief to experience such an adventure in the midst of all the dark themes that dominate most of the best movies made today.

“Bolt” will be released on Disney Blu-Ray and DVD on Mar. 24.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oscar Nomination Predictions

OK. I’ve never done this before because I’ve always found a great deal of fun by being surprised about what is nominated. But I’ve had a couple requests, and most categories seem pretty cut and dried this year, so I’ll have my try at predicting the nominees. Understand that these are not my picks, those are in my “Best of 2008” list. These are the movies and filmmakers I think will be nominated.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“The Dark Knight”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”
Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road”
Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”

Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Colin Farrell, “In Bruges” (this may be a supporting actor nod)
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”
Cate Blanchet, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”

Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt” (this may be an actor nod)
Josh Brolin, “Milk”
James Franco, “Milk”
Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, “Doubt”
Viola Davis, “Doubt”
Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Christina Barcelona”
Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”

Adapted Screenplay
Eric Roth, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Christopher & Jonathan Nolan, “The Dark Knight”, based on the comic book
John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt”, based on his play
Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon”, based on his play
Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup

Original Screenplay
Joel & Ethan Coen, “Burn After Reading”
Michael McDonagh, “In Bruges”
Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon & Pete Doctor, “Wall-E”
Robert D. Siegel, “The Wrestler”

Animated Feature
“Kung Fu Panda”

“Encounters at the End of the World”
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”
“Standard Operating Procedure”
“Waltz with Bashir”

Possible upsets.
Even in the most solid of years there are always some snubs and upsets and some surprise nods. I don’t think there will be as much of those this year as in most, but certainly there will be one or two. Here’s where I think they might happen.

Picture—I think this is one of the most solid categories. Everyone seems pretty sure that “The Dark Knight” will get an unprecedented comic book inspired nod here, but it is the weak link. Other possibilities are…

“The Wrestler”
“Revolutionary Road”

Director—“The Wrestler” gained a good deal of momentum after the Golden Globes and on its wave Aronofsky could steal the “Dark Knight” swing spot from Mendes.

Darren Aronofsky, “The Wrestler”

Actor—This category has the widest field of candidates this year, and one of these three could squeak in there. Eastwood because he just gets better with age, Jenkins because he’s worked without recognition along side many of the voters for so many years, and DiCaprio because he’s Leo. Farrell would pay the price despite his Globes win.

Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Revolutionary Road”
Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”

Actress—The most likely surprise because she took home the Globe for a film unseen by most but highly praised by those who did see it. If she gets in, it would be at either Hathaway’s or Jolie’s expense.

Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Supporting Actor—This is an unlikely surprise, but Hollywood does love to see itself ridiculed. Franco would be the loser here.

Tom Cruise, “Tropic Thunder”

Supporting Actress—This one isn’t much more likely than Cruise getting in, but they do love McDormand, and they may not wish to see Winslet lose it by competing against herself in the Actress category.

Frances McDormand, “Burn After Reading”

Adapted Screenplay—This category is almost as wide as Actor, and the Academy so loves a good Holocaust picture or a period drama. But again there isn’t much wiggle room with what I’ve already listed.

David Hare, “The Reader”, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink
Justin Haythe, “Revolutionary Road”, based on the novel by Richard Yates

Original Screenplay—This is the least likely surprise but would fall under the same reasoning as Cruise. The loser could be any of them except for “Milk”.

Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, “Tropic Thunder”

The Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday, Jan. 22.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Best of 2008

Ah, the ever-popular “Top Ten List” that critics put out every year. Our own little way to push our opinions on our readers one last time before a new batch of theatrical pleasures and heartaches come our way in a new year. One last attempt to get people to rent or screen theatrically those films we personally loved during a given theatrical release year.

I don’t think I’m alone among critics in thinking this is one of my favorite and most loathsome essays to write each year. It is my favorite for the very reasons I mentioned in the first paragraph. I loathe it because it is cause for defense about something that is incalculable, something that cannot be described about a particular movie, an innermost feeling that this or that was the best movie I saw this year. And to claim one movie as the best is ignoring one of the primary ingredients of a great film, a sense that there is no other experience exactly like this particular film. As such it is incomparable with any other film, and therefore none of the great films can be the best.

But I digress. As a critic, it seems even if no one demands it, I must divulge a list of what I feel were the best movies of the year. This year I awarded 11 four-star reviews to individual movies (actually, 13 including documentaries, which I have separated from fictional films for the first time this year). But much as I did a couple of years ago, I found it very difficult to order them into a numbered list from the worst of the best to the best of the best. They are all great movies, and should be observed as such rather than say this one was the very best and that one not so much. So instead of a numbered list, I have chosen to list my top ten alphabetically and added a special jury prize for the most unique of those eleven top-rated films.

I have also included four documentaries that are as entertaining as any of those eleven. And included a list of ten other films that, while not being the best movies of the year, should be considered as great entertainments. I have also included a list of the worst movies of the year. There were eleven of those as well; but since “The Onion Movie” was not released theatrically, I cut that list back to the standard ten entries.

Last year, due to a hard drive crash that limited the amount of time I had to compile my list, I left out best of lists for specific film achievements in acting, direction and writing. Those lists are back this year in a slightly altered form. There is a list of ten directors of note over the last year. There is also a list of ten writing assignments of note from original and adapted works combined. And I have included all 20 of my performance nods in one category instead of separating them into leading and supporting roles and genders. And finally, I have included eight noteworthy voice performances from the 2008 release year.

But enough of how, it’s time for the what and why.

The Best.

Chop Shop. This ultra indie by director Ramin Bahrami is an intimate study in survival for a kid who lives and works in the streets. Finding both job and home in a back alley chop shop, the young Ale lives by his wits in a world that requires him to be as strong and resourceful as the greatest of citizens while living in a forgotten and mostly unseen community of our urban poverty. Bahrami presents a revealing portrait of a way of life invisible to most Americans, yet one that exists as a right of passage for many underprivileged urban dwellers.

The Dark Knight. While possibly not the greatest superhero movie ever made, “The Dark Knight” is perhaps the greatest movie ever made based on characters created for a comic book. This movie takes the hero out of superhero and provides a study on the relationship of good guys and bad guys. Suggesting that heroes and villains are drawn out by each other, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan use the Batman mythology to argue that no matter what, the hero is necessary because evil exists in the world whether we like it or not. Someone has to face that responsibility, and it is one that must have its consequences.

Doubt. John Patrick Shanley’s 1960’s based Catholic school drama about a priest who may or may not have sexually abused the school’s first black student is near perfection in dramatic structure and cinematic style. “Doubt” looks at the clashing personalities of the two nuns who bring suspicion on the priest and the priest himself. It also looks at the fragility of social change, with four of the year’s best performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

Gran Torino. Continuing a streak of Eastwood’s best films, “Gran Torino” proves that some directors and actors just get better with age. In his latest, Eastwood plays and old codger living after his wife’s death in the same neighborhood he has his whole adult life. But the neighborhood around him has changed, becoming a community of the Chinese Hmong people. Despite his racism, the old man takes a Hmong boy under his wing after the boy tries to steal his vintage ’72 Gran Torino. Through his acceptance of others, the man goes on a personal journey discovering truth through his staunch stance of right above wrong.

Paranoid Park. While Gus Van Sant’s late year entry “Milk” (still unseen by me) has reaped in awards for the longtime indie favorite director, his early year release “Paranoid Park” has been fairly well forgotten by most critics. Taking on a very different subject matter, “Paranoid Park” concerns itself with a high school skateboarder who finds himself involved in a murder mystery after visiting a skateboard park. Unlike the star-studded “Milk”, Van Sant made “Paranoid Park” in much the same manner as his powerful “Elephant”, using non-actors in all the primary roles. He mixes in the elements of a structured mystery into a keenly observed portrayal of teenage life.

Quantum of Solace. The reinvention of James Bond continues in his latest adventure “Quantum of Solace”. In this first-ever direct sequel in the franchise, Director Marc Forster picks up the action right where the incredibly successful “Casino Royale” left off, and he ups the action ante. The action in this movie is so non-stop that it plays like the ultimate action movie, but it also provides a great deal of motivation for just why James Bond is the womanizing secret agent that will do anything for king and country with no thought for his own welfare or image.

Redbelt. David Mamet continues his quiet film writing and direction mastery with yet another fascinating and complex confidence game in the martial arts-themed “Redbelt”. Like his underrated “Spartan”, the movie itself is a confidence game—seeming to be about a jujitsu teacher struggling to get by teaching a pure form of the discipline out of a modest dojo, but soon there are Hollywood movie producers and Vegas mobsters involved in this man’s fate. But the keys to the teacher’s survival are the very ideals supported by his jujitsu philosophy.

Shotgun Stories. In the tradition of David Gordon Green’s contemplative dramas of the Southern American experience, Jeff Nichols makes his auspicious writing and directorial debut with this harrowing and funny drama about two families from the same father that can’t seem to break their destructive hatred of each other. Yes, I said it was funny too. Along with the beautiful cinematography by Adam Stone, Nichols provides a witty observation of the unique way one set of siblings knows and understands each other in the way only family can. There is no doubt Nichols will be an important filmmaker and no surprise that Green produced this little known film commodity. (Green released a couple of his own films this year to be discussed later in this list.)

The Signal. Three writer/directors combine their efforts to tell three separate chapters of a horror story where a television signal turns people into mindless killers. This rather standard horror story is told in one of the most original horror film in years. Framing this horror premise is a lover’s triangle with each chapter depicting the events from a different person’s perspective. The middle section adds the surprising element of humor to the horrific events by following the jilted boyfriend’s search for his girlfriend and her lover after he has already been affected by the signal.

WALL•E. That loveable janitor robot that stole everyone’s heart this year stole mine as well. Pixar once again proves their dominance over the animation genres by providing intelligent family entertainment that appeals to all ages. In this story of a lonesome robot that suddenly finds he is not alone in the universe, we get adventure, romance, and even social and environmental commentary about how we can all be better to each other and our planet. I dare you not to find something to appreciate about this movie.

Special Jury Prize.

Sukiyaki Western Django. In perhaps the strangest movie of the year, we get to see the marriage of two genres from two different cultures that have been fascinated with each other ever since their individual film industries developed. Japanese genreist director Takashi Miike takes us on a wild ride based on what might happen if the samurai films of the Eastern culture were to exist in the world of the Spaghetti Western. In it we see the similar themes and situations of those once popular genres set against a highly stylized production where warring samurai clans fight each other with swords, Gatling guns, and dynamite, all in the search of a mythical treasure. In the middle is a man with no name who plays both clans against each other to protect the innocent lives of the civilians caught in the middle.


Encounters at the End of the World. A nature documentary is the last thing in the world anyone would expect from eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog—himself included. But Discovery Docs financed him on a trip to Antarctica where he vowed not to make “a movie about penguins.” But it is in a sequence where he does document penguins that it becomes evident how Herzog can turn any subject into a Herzog film. The amazing thing about this doc is that you can just enjoy it as a beautiful nature documentary, or you can look at it as one of Herzog’s scrutinies of the loneliness of man as a self-destructive force.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Fans of the great Gonzo journalist are already aware of the insane life of the man whose pinnacle books include “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72”. Perhaps this mostly talking head documentary isn’t insane enough to truly reflect the man whose life it depicts, but it fills in the gaps of the life of this truly original American institution.

Surfwise. “Surfwise” is the fascinating documentary of a family that lived life off the grid due to their father’s unique philosophy of life. With a family of eight children Dr. Dorian Paskowitz and his wife raised their family amazingly in a Winnebago. Paskowitz’s strange beliefs would eventually tear the family apart, but through it all they had one binding force beyond mere relation—the need to catch a great wave.

Young@Heart. Now, I’m not going to pretend not to be a sucker for a good old fashioned feel good movie experience. A sucker I am, but no movie will make you feel better about life than this documentary about a chorus of elderly retirees that sing everything from Gershwin to Sonic Youth. There are smiles and tears to be found here, but mostly there is the joy of the music that gives these old folks a purpose in their golden years and will have you tapping your feet until the last of the credits roll.

Near Best Noteables.

The Bank Job. Roger Donaldson’s historical heist picture is one of the best in recent years, bringing 1970’s filmmaking ideals back along with the same period’s wardrobes and politics.

The Happening. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”. His best movie since 2000’s “Unbreakable” suffered from a marketing campaign that suggested an R-rated horror gorefest. Instead it is a wonderfully Hitchcockian thriller with the impact and import of H.G. Wells’s cautionary “War of the Worlds”.

In Bruges. A shout out to the Golden Globes for bringing more attention to this wonderful dark comedy about two hitmen who are sent to the beautiful but dull Belgium town of Bruges to lie low after a botched hit.

Iron Man. Proving that a successful superhero franchise doesn’t have to be as dark and brooding as “The Dark Knight” to be great, “Iron Man” put the fun back into superheroes and summer blockbusters with a sparkling cast and an intelligent script to boot.

Marley & Me. The surprise of the year was that Hollywood didn’t turn this story about a man and his dog and their family into a cutesy gosh-darn-it comedy, but instead took a serious look at just what goes into raising a family in the realities of everyday life.

Pineapple Express. Director David Gordon Green turns away from his serious indie dramas in this hilarious romp of a movie that supposes what an action thriller with two potheads as the heroes would look like.

Snow Angels. Earlier in the year Green also helmed this more personal drama of love, loneliness and a missing little girl. In it, Kate Beckinsale proves she is more than just a pretty face with the best performance of her career.

Stuck. The director of the cult classic “Re-Animator” Stuart Gordon helmed this unique thriller based on the true story of a woman who ran down a man with her car and left him stuck in her window alive in her garage over the weekend before being discovered.

Tropic Thunder. Ben Stiller and company define comedic genius in this zany spoof of Hollywood blockbusters that depicts the production of Vietnam War film that goes terribly wrong when the cast finds themselves in the middle of a real war. Filled with incredible supporting performances by Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Cruise, Danny McBride, and Nick Nolte.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe. X-philes were disappointed not to see the “X-Files” signatures they had come to love from the television series. Others just stayed away. What nobody seemed to notice was a skillfully made, if moody, FBI procedural in the vein of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Cell”.


27 Dresses. Just what we needed, another romantic comedy about a woman who isn’t the bride but wants to be, all the while not seeing the man of her dreams right in front of her face.

American Teen. If teenagers really are this stupid, then there ain’t nothin’ Barack Obama can do to save this country.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Really?!

Drillbit Taylor. The writers of “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” should have left this one inside the Trapper Keeper in which it was composed.

The Love Guru. Oh, how the mighty will fall.

Mamma Mia! Loved the music. Hated everything else.

Max Payne. Will anyone ever make a movie based on a video game that is actually worth watching?

Meet the Spartans. The absolute worst movie of the year. Possibly the worst spoof of all time.

Mirrors. Perhaps someone should have looked in this mirror before they sent it out of the house.

One Missed Call. I wish I hadn’t screened this call.


Alejandro Polanco as Ale in “Chop Shop”—Never has a child performance looked this genuine.

Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”—I never saw the seams in this performance, and that cannot be done with CGI and makeup alone.

Cate Blanchett as Daisy in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”—As seamless as Pitt’s work with less scenery to hide behind.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”—I can add no more insight into this bold performance that hasn’t already been said better by others.

Amy Adams as Sister James in “Doubt”—As the audience’s eyes, Adams allows us to have the doubts that the other characters in this film deny themselves.

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in “Doubt”—Unquestionably the best actor of her generation.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn in “Doubt”—If he did it, Hoffman is the perfect slime for the part; but with surprising charm, Hoffman forces doubt on his character’s guilt.

Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in “Doubt”—In the course of one scene Davis lets us realize the fears of an entire generation.

Russell Brand as Aldous Snow in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”—Brand steals the show with surprising witless charm.

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino”—They call them the golden years because of the grace Eastwood has attained throughout his years.

Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”—Has anyone ever parodied themselves with quite the same success as this former child M.D.?

Colin Farrell as Ray in “In Bruges”—With the most difficult role in this complex comedy, Farrell’s Golden Globe win was well deserved.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams in “John Adams”—Watching Giamatti gives one the impression that Hollywood would be missing something vital were he never discovered.

Laura Linney as Abigail Adams in “John Adams”—Linney’s strength as Abilgail makes you believe such strength was the only course of survival in such times.

Laura Dern as Katherine Harris in “Recount”—Dern lets you believe that buffoonery is a necessary element in modern politics.

Kate Beckinsale as Annie Marchand in “Snow Angels”—As a lonely woman who can’t find the right man to love, Beckinsale is despair in this movie.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Burgess in “Stop-Loss”—In a movie that steps way out of line in its final moments, Gordon-Levitt is shiftless as an Iraq War vet who first turns to alcohol then staunch patriotism as his way to deal with the horrors of war.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder”—Even though his line “I’m the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude,” really makes no sense, neither does anything this character does. That’s why Downey is so great here.

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder”—Who cares if he jumps up on your couch when he’s this funny doing it?

Richard Jenkins as Walter in “The Visitor”—The longtime under-noticed character actor gets his shot at a leading role and nails it.


Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg in “Chicago 10”—The one vocal performance in the film that represents the real people he’s depicting rather than the actor chosen to play that person.

John Travolta as Bolt in “Bolt”—If only for the way his voice cracks when a wiener dog sniffs him and he asks, “What are you doing?!”

Susie Essman as Mittens in “Bolt”—The accent sells the character, the inflection sells the performance.

Werner Herzog as Narrator in “Encounters as the End of the World”—I could listen to Herzog pontificate on the images he finds until my dying day.

Will Arnet as Vlad in “Horton Hears a Who!”—Both the cancelation of “Arrested Development” and the existence of “The Brothers Solomon” are a shame for this man who has one of the best vocal instruments in the industry.

Randall Duk Kim as Oogway in “Kung Fu Panda”—Were this a live action film, people would be calling for a repeat of Pat Morita’s Oscar nod.

James Arnold Taylor as Obi Wan Kenobi/4-A7/Medical Droid in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”—If I didn’t know it wasn’t Ewan McGregor revisiting his live action role in this vocal performance, I most certainly would think it was.

Ben Burtt as WALL-E in “WALL-E”—He gave us the blurps and beeps of R2-D2, now he makes us love them.


Roger Donaldson “The Bank Job”
Ramin Bahrami “Chop Shop”
John Patrick Shanley “Doubt”
Clint Eastwood “Gran Torino”
Werner Herzog “Encounters at the End of the World”
Gus Van Sant “Paranoid Park”
David Mamet “Redbelt”
Jeff Nichols “Shotgun Stories”
David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry “The Signal”
Takashi Miike “Sukiyaki Western Django”


Bahara Azimi and Ramin Bahrami “Chop Shop”
Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer “The Dark Knight” based on characters created by Bob Kane
John Patrick Shaley “Doubt” based on his play
Martin McDonagh “In Bruges”
Gus Van Sant “Paranoid Park” based on the novel by Blake Nelson
David Mamet “Redbelt”
Jeff Nichols “Shotgun Stories”
David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush “The Signal”
Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen “Tropic Thunder”
Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon & Pete Doctor “WALL-E”

As usual there are many films I didn’t get a chance to see this year that could’ve made this list, most notably Oliver Stone’s “W.”, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, and Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”. And I will likely see many of them in the next few months as they get wider theatrical releases and are released on DVD. This is a problem I face by living where I do, but it allows the search for movie greatness to continue into my own living room. I hope this list bring some into yours.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gran Torino / **** (R)

Walt Kowalski: Clint Eastwood
Thao Van Lor: Bee Vang
Sue Lor: Ahney Her
Father Janovich: Christopher Carley
Barber Martin: John Carroll Lynch

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson. Running time: 116 min. Rated R (for language throughout, and some violence).

There is a scene late in Clint Eastwood’s new movie “Gran Torino” where Eastwood’s character offers his priest a beer. The two men haven’t seen eye to eye but have come together after a tragedy, both upset about what has happened. Not only does the priest say that he would very much like a beer, but there is something in the priest’s gesture to grab two beers for each of them out of the cooler that speaks to the deep connections people can make with the most unlikely of companions when it is necessary in life.

Eastwood himself has played a priest in one of his own movies before, but the characters in his later films are nothing like the fantasy savior/devil roles that occupied Eastwood’s westerns “Pale Rider” and “High Plains Drifter”. In his movies, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”, and now “Gran Torino”, his protagonists quietly consider their lives as if they are searching for some truth, something missed by most, some form of happiness that eludes them. They aren’t so far from those western archetypes. They are all driven by the need to do what is right, no matter the cost.

Walt—played by Eastwood—is a man with a lot of wrong in his life. His wife from a lifelong marriage has just passed away. His children neither understand him, nor appreciate him. He does little to earn any love from them. He is a bigot who pushes everyone in his life away, including his wife’s priest who is determined to fulfill a promise to the deceased to get Walt to confess his sins.

Walt is the last remaining white person in his neighborhood, which has become a Hmong community. He grumbles to himself about how it’s gone downhill as he observes the house of his next-door neighbor, the home of a boy named Thao (Bee Vang). Thao seems to be a bit of a pansy, living in a house populated by women, doing the “women’s work” of planting flowers and washing dishes. His sister Sue (Ahney Her) is tougher and more outgoing, and reaches out to Walt on his level.

Thao is being pressured by one of his cousins to join his gang. He isn’t interested but is eventually forced into an initiation. The initiation is to steal Walt’s mint condition ’72 Gran Torino. Eastwood does a wonderful job of creating tension through confrontations between the gang members and Walt. Using an assault rifle from his days in the Korean War, Walt forces the gang away from Thao on his front lawn one evening. Earlier when Thao attempts to steal the car, Eastwood has you wondering whether he might actually pull the trigger on the troubled boy.

Instead, he takes the youth under his arm—albeit reluctantly—and teaches him to respect himself through laborious work. First, by having the boy clean up the house across the street, then by getting him a real job. Of course, that makes it sound like some cliché story where the elder teaches the younger how to live life and the kid teaches the man to lighten up; but these people are looking for something deeper than simply understanding each other and getting past their prejudices. There is a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, and the sacrifices and compromises necessary to live a good life. Nothing is so simple as just getting along. There are more barriers in life than the ones that are obvious.

I think Eastwood’s understanding of this is why he does such a good job providing strong, well-rounded religious representation in his movies. Like “Million Dollar Baby”, “Gran Torino” is one of the rare modern movies that depicts the church in a positive light with the character of Father Janovich (Christopher Carley, “Lions for Lambs”). The priest is always reasonable and approaches Walt with respect, even though Walt doesn’t always treat him with the same dignity. Janovich never dismisses Walt simply as a non-believer. Janovich truly lives his beliefs of good will toward men. He is deeply concerned about Walt and the Hmong gang kids that he tries with such determination to help. But he never pretends to know all the answers. He’s in the same boat as everyone else.

The inclusion of the priests in both this film and “Million Dollar Baby” is also a clue as to what these movies are really about. In neither case is the protagonist a particularly religious soul, but both men are searching desperately for answers they haven’t been able to find throughout long and eventful lives. Neither film preaches any sort of religious philosophy, but they seem to be asking the same questions that anyone who is serious about religion wants the answers to. Why are we here? How are we supposed to get along in a world filled with so much hate? For what purpose have we all been thrown together in this mess? And how are we supposed to survive it and feel good about ourselves? At the end of “Gran Torino”, Walt seems to have discovered the answers to these questions.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bedtime Stories / ** (PG)

Skeeter Bronson: Adam Sandler
Patrick: Jonathan Morgan Heit
Bobbi: Laura Ann Kesling
Jill: Keri Russell
Kendall: Guy Pearce
Mickey: Russell Brand
Violet Nottingham: Teresa Palmer
Barry Nottingham: Richard Griffiths
Aspen: Lucy Lawless
Wendy: Courteney Cox
Marty Bronson: Jonathan Pryce

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy. Running time: 99 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor and mild language).

I think every time I review an Adam Sandler movie I feel the need to explain that I’m really a fan of the guy. As he matures and grows as a filmmaker I like him even more. Yet, somehow, I continue to find myself steering people away from his work. His early movies suffered from juvenilia that was crude to the point of being cruel. As his filmography has grown he has softened and warmed to the point of producing material that cares and loves, yet his films still suffer from the same problem they always have—he tries too hard to come off as sincere.

In his latest movie, “Bedtime Stories”, Sandler (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”) has softened to the point that he has actually made a family film. His Skeeter Bronson is a loveable looser who works as a handyman for a hotel. Skeeter’s father (Jonathan Pryce, “Pirates of the Caribbean”) had owned the hotel at one time and dreamed of Skeeter taking it over one day, but he was forced to sell the property to hotel mogul Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths, the “Harry Potter” series). Nottingham turned the property into a luxury high rise and forgot his promise to put Skeeter in charge one day, but kept him on staff.

While Skeeter continues to see pompous kiss-ups like Kendall (Guy Pearse, “L.A. Confidential”) get promoted through the hard labor of others, his sister (Courteney Cox, ABC’s “Scrubs”) finds herself looking for a new school administrative position after she learns that the school she principals is being shut down. Sandler and Cox have fun playing off each other’s typical personas—Sandler the cut up and Cox’s uptight controller. However, I’m not sure why they haven’t spoken to each other in four years. They don’t act estranged. It seems like a detail thrown in from a screenplay draft that wasn’t used.

Skeeter’s sister asks him to watch her two children while she is out of state for a job interview. Skeeter is pretty clueless on child matters, but he remembers the bedtime stories his father told him when he was younger. He tells the children a lame story that is a veiled allegory of his own life at the hotel. The children then proceed to change the story so it is better—adding elements that children want to hear, like having the hero get a chance at the job he wants and having it rain gumballs. Skeeter is shocked when Nottingham decides to allow him a chance to challenge Kendall’s theme idea for the new hotel he is building, and then astounded when later that day it rains gumballs. He realizes the story he told the children has something to do with the day’s events and determines to change his fortunes by telling the children a new bedtime story every night.

The bedtime stories act as a point of humor where we get to see Sandler and the rest of the cast placed into fantasy settings—medieval times, a western, and a space opera—and then speculate on how these people would find themselves in these different settings. After the kids go to work on them we see spectacular acts of strangeness that then take place in the reality of Skeeter’s life, sometimes with logical explanations (as when it is revealed that the raining gumballs were the result of an accident on an overpass) sometimes with no explanation (as when Skeeter runs into all of his former girlfriends in a restaurant and they dance the Hokey Pokey).

It wouldn’t be a proper Adam Sandler movie without a love interest that is way out of his league. This time around it’s Keri Russell (“Waitress”) as Jill, a teacher at the same school being shut down on his sister. She takes the kids during the day, but opposing work schedules and babysitting duties don’t get in the way of the two spending a good deal of time together during the course of only a week. Eventually after pretending to be his girlfriend for that restaurant full of exes, Jill begins to fall for Skeeter. Of course, when she finds out the hotel he works at is responsible for shutting down her school, she holds it against him even though he is in no way responsible for this development. That is what is known as an idiot plot.

In fact, there are far too many good actors in this idiot plot to justify its idiocy. Along with the Great Brits, Griffiths and Pryce, Pearse has made a point to pick intelligent projects throughout his career. I’m not sure what attracted them to these rather standard roles. Cox and Russell deserve more than what they’re given here. Lucy Lawless (“Xena: Warrior Princess”) has her comedic talents wasted in an underwritten part as a concierge witch. As Skeeter’s best friend, Russell Brand is never even given the chance to steal the show—as he did in last spring’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. And, although Teresa Palmer (“Wolf Creek”) handles well the potentially plum role as Nottingham’s Paris Hilton-esque daughter, the movie forgets her by its conclusion.

The silliness involved in the plot gimmick of bedtime stories coming true will probably be enough to hold most kids’ interests in this movie, but it seems as if screenwriters Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy had more ideas to explore than they were allowed in a movie with so many characters and a running time of just over 90 minutes. Shankman has made a career of directing bubblegum pop family movies. His “Hairspray” from last year had the bubblegum appearance, but contained a meaty social commentary in the middle. This time around his bubblegum is like those gumballs that rain on Skeeter; it’s hollow in the middle.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Doubt / **** (PG-13)

Sister Aloysius Beauvier: Meryl Streep
Father Brendan Flynn: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Sister James: Amy Adams
Mrs. Miller: Viola Davis

Miramax Films presents a film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. Running time: 104 min Rated PG-13 (for thematic material).

“Doubt” is such an accomplished film I could spend an entire review writing on any one of its many fine attributes. I could write about John Patrick Shanley’s vivid screenplay, based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which gives us a portrait of a 1960’s Catholic school that is something more benevolent than a rigid institution resistant to the change that we are all so reluctant to embrace. I could write about how surprising it is to see a writer such as Shanley show such a keen directorial eye behind his camera. This places his work here on the level of the cinematic greats, such as Scorsese or Ozu or Bergman. I could write about the superb production design and cinematography that so accurately, yet subtly, captures such a specific period in American history and reproduces it in such an unassuming manner. I could write about the themes of the movie and how smart it was to place its events during the civil rights movement when they so clearly apply to the world we live in today. I could write about the movie’s true subject matter, the struggle we all face between faith and doubt in all aspects of life, even outside of religion. I could write about any or all of these things because this movie accomplishes them all with such artistic adeptness while never seeming to reach for anything. Instead, I will concentrate my review on a subject I usually tend to avoid—the acting.

I don’t mention acting much in my movie reviews because I’ve been an actor. I am an actor. I know what a hard discipline acting is, and I know that acting in film is unforgiving. It is a medium in which an audience has to be completely unaware that there is a performance going on. This can only be achieved by not performing. This is why some actors can jump into a film with no acting experience whatsoever; because they don’t know they must perform. For the trained actor, once you have reached the level of experience that you can “not” perform on film, there is very little criticism you deserve. And so, film acting becomes more an exercise in casting because everybody in film is damn good at what they do.

That is not to say that some actors aren’t better than others. There is little doubt that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of her generation. She will surely add her 15th Oscar nomination to her status as the most nominated performer in Academy history with this work. Most actors would take a character like the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and make her into a rigid, heartless, witch of a disciplinarian, who finds no connection with the world in which she has been given a position of authority. This is the principal that the students and most of the faculty of this small private school see. But in Streep’s performance you can always see something underneath, driving her actions and convictions, something warm and pure, something that means more than just strict enforcement of the rules.

When a young nun comes to her with suspicions that the church’s priest might be practicing an inappropriate relationship with the school’s first black student, Streep’s words are of the same cold, rigid nature as those she uses to keep order among the students, but her demeanor is one of careful consideration that speaks volumes of the ramifications such a scandal could have on the school. Her look considers the young nun’s future, her own position, the priest’s, the fact that the boy is black, how the church will look as a tolerant or intolerant institution in the eyes of the community, even the question of the validity of such an accusation. Yet with all that, her words never seem to question the truth of the situation. She knows the priest is guilty.

As Father Brendan Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) never shows his hand on the truth of the matter. Hoffman plays Flynn as a sympathetic man—a man to whom the boys of the school go to feel safe from the wrath of Sister Beauvier. There is a wonderful moment where a boy who has been sent to the principal’s office sits down next to Father Flynn on a bench outside her door. Flynn turns to the boy and asks why he was sent to the principal’s office. The boy says for talking. Flynn nods and faces out again as if he feels he’s been sent there for the same reason.

Streep and Hoffman have two verbal showdowns where their gifts for subtlety add humor and tension. The first is a sort of feeling out of each other. Streep never searches for Hoffman’s guilt—of that she is certain. What she is looking for is just what kind of animal he is. Hoffman plays their first scene so close to his chest that he is either very crafty or innocent of her accusations. In their second meeting, each animal has its claws out. Hoffman is more ferocious, but nothing can shake Streep’s certainty. Streep on the other hand—much like a similar scene of vulnerability found in her turn as a fashion mogul in “The Devil Wears Prada”—shows there is flesh and blood under her shell with her reaction to Hoffman’s questioning of her own righteousness.

Outside the fray, but greatly affected by it, is the character of Sister James. Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) once again captures the heart of the audience, while providing our eyes for the story as a rather naïve nun who first draws Sister Beauvier’s suspicions toward Father Flynn. The role of an audience’s entry point into a story is usually a thankless one, but Adams finds countless opportunities to show off her great range. She provides most of the levity of the film with her childlike innocence, but it is her character that also experiences the most growth. She is the monkey in the middle of Beauvier’s and Flynn’s power struggle, and Adams makes it easy to see why it is so hard to choose sides without concrete proof.

Viola Davis (the “Jesse Stone” TV movies), however, conveys all the emotional range and great power of performance in one single scene. She appears as Mrs. Miller, mother of the boy with whom Flynn is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship. Sister Beauvier approaches the subject of the suspected abuse with great frankness, but Davis’s reaction to the nun’s suspicions might seem unmotherly. Davis’s emotional reaction does more than just deal with the surface subject presented to her. In her face we can see all the unspoken issues of the film—the racial implications, the historical impact such a scandal would have upon the civil rights movement, and the socio-economic realities minorities have to face when confronting such monumental issues of equality. Davis’s performance had me convinced that should her character learn that this great nation has elected a black man to the office of President, a slight smile of relief would pass over her expression.

Perhaps focusing on the performances of “Doubt” is the wrong approach in trying to express what a great movie it is. The performances are sure to draw all attention to this film as awards season comes into full swing. Indeed four of the five Golden Globe nominations “Doubt” has garnered are for the four performances discussed in this review. John Patrick Shanley certainly deserves just as much praise for his script and direction. But, acting is what I know best, and is a subject I consciously avoid in my reviews. It was one I couldn’t ignore in consideration of this movie. This is one of the best films of 2008.