Monday, February 16, 2009

Pre-Oscar Movie Reviews

OK movie lovers, here are my reviews for a number of Oscar-nominated films, as well as a few others we recently watched. Get the knowledge and see one or more of these flicks before the awards Sunday. Enjoy...

Oscar Nominated Movies

Slumdog Millionaire - The word is out on this movie, so you probably already know all you need to about it.

All I'll say then's really clever in revealing the realities of India while also telling the tale of brotherly rivalry, aching love and what people are willing to do to rise above their own limitations as well as those of the society they live in. Oscar-nominated for best picture. That's a lot for one movie, but this crew pulls it off beautifully.

Recommendation: See this movie now!

The Wrestler - Two words for you - "Staple. Gun." More on that in a minute, but in the meantime, two more words for you - "Micky. Rourke."

That's right, Mickey f-ing Rourke is back! Sure, his once perfect face has been pummeled and scared from years of boxing, hard living and some botched surgery...but that works FOR him in his role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler. It's the story of a once famous pro wrestler from the 1980s who in the 21st Century is eking out an end-of-career
existence in the bleak world of minor league pro wrestling in the nether regions of New Jersey.

What is he willing to do to get back on top of the wrestling world? How is he trying to repair years of neglect to his family? Does a guy with a lot of baggage have it in him to find someone to share his life with? Will he make rent? How bloody will he get during his match in which staple guns - among other implements - are used? And, will he live through all these trials? These are the questions of this movie. Some of them are answered, some not.

Make no mistake, this isn't a cheap wrestler movie. This is a real-deal, Oscar worthy picture with spectacular, gritty and (this is key) believable performances by everyone in the movie - especially Rourke who is Oscar nominated for best actor. Marisa Tomei is also excellent as The Ram's aging stripper/single mom love interest.

Recommendation: See this move now!

The Reader - An excellent movie because it entertains while also making you think.
As the story of a young boy and his dalliance with an older woman in 1950s Germany progresses, new layers of detail and controversy are revealed about both the boy (and later as he grows into a man), the woman, her history and their relationship...all leading to an unexpected mid-movie twist that sets the agenda for the rest of the picture. And yes, there's a reason the movie is title "The Reader." But, to say more about that or other details of the story might spoil it. I won't reveal the major plot twist for those of you who haven't seen this one, but suffice it say that the buzz around Kate Winslet's Oscar nominated performance in this one is warranted.

Recommendation: See it in the theater before the Oscars if you can. If not, rent it when it's out on DVD.

Milk - see my review of this movie here. Oscar-nominated for best picture.

Revolutionary Road - Hollywood REALLY wanted the re-pairing of Leo and Kate for this movie or any other. They got it, and while it's a pretty good movie with what I would describe as decent performances, this picture really pales in comparison to other movies you could spend your time and money on. L&K are a couple who want to see the world and soak up life moment by moment who get derailed into a 1950s suburban life of a house, kids, a 9-5 job and thinly veneered happiness.

At it's best, this movie makes you examine the myth of "the American dream," and ask yourself if you've settled into a comfortably numb, dead-end existence. More likely though, you'll conclude like I did...which is, uhhh, yeah! What do you think you're going to get if you settle for so little in life?! Finally, if you see the Reader first, you'll already know one thing that movie and Reservation Road have in common. Nominated for three minor Oscars.

Recommendation: See it, but for sure wait for DVD.

Doubt - Meryl Streep plays a head nun at a Catholic school in early 1960s Boston. Phillip

Seymore Hoffmann plays the head priest at the church and school who the nun believes may have molested one of the boys he is supposed to be teaching.

Did he do it? How far away from the tenets of Christianity will the nun go in trying to prove her suspicions? What impact will all this have on the boy in question? By the end of the movie, you have answers to most these questions, but perhaps not the one's you thought you'd get. Nominated for four acting and one screenplay Oscar. Despite all that, save a powerful scene in which actress Viola Davis delivers an unforgettable performance explaining her boy's predicament to Streep's nun, this movie is predictable and guess what? Organized religion ain't all it's cracked up to be. Surprise.

Recommendation: Despite the hype, not a must-see. Skip it.

Tropic of Thunder - A lot of people I have talked to who saw this movie liked it. Not me.

It's the story of a group of modern day prima donna movie actors sent out to Southeast Asia to film the epic Vietnam War movie. Predictably, they all hate each other and none of them are up to the task - especially when in a bit of desperation the director sends them out into the bush for real to get just the action shots he wants. While there are a couple funny parts - and the picture is filled with people you'd normally expect to deliver such as Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Nike Nolte - my main reaction to this one is that it's boring. Just boring. Downey Jr. (who I normally love) is Oscar-nominated for best supporting actor, but I do not see why. Oddly enough, Tom Cruise has a cameo that might be the best thing he's done in 15 years.

Recommendation: Skip it.

Other Movies

Che: Parts I and II. This is actually a five hour movie split into two two-and-a-half hour movies. Benicio Del Toro plays Guevara in very convincing fashion in both, and both movies are predominately in Spanish with sub-titles in English.

The first one is roughly about the "rise" of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and centers on his meeting up with Fidel Castro in Mexico City and their group's fight to overthrow the U.S.A.-backed Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and the immediate aftermath. Of the two movies, I liked this one best because it approached things from three time frames - meeting up with Fidel, the revolution and after the revolution as Che spoke to the U.N. in NYC - and slips artfully between them. The post-war U.N. scenes are in black-and-white and the rest in color. Beautifully shot, this movie gives you a sense of Che's motivations, his strengths and his weaknesses.

The second movie is roughly about the "fall" of Che and is more of a blow-by-blow account of Che's last revolutionary mission in Bolivia. Skipping over his work in Cuba following the revolution, as well has his adventures in the African Congo, this movie picks up as Che is sneaking into Bolivia to start a revolutionary army to overthrown the government of that impoverished nation. From there, historical events are re-enacted as Che's group grows in size, we learn about their motivations and mistakes, they battle the government and - ultimately - are tracked down and defeated with the help of the U.S. CIA advisers. The movie ends as it inevitably must, with the execution of Guevara by the Bolivian army.

I think a common element that ties these movies together is Che's life and actions force you to ask yourself, what would I literally go to war over? What ideals would I die for? To me, that's the appeal of Che...agree with his politics or not...he saw massive poverty, dictatorship, injustice, corruption, and he decided to do something about it RIGHT NOW. Gotta admire that in my book.

Recommendation: I'd say that this one is only for people interested in the myths and realities of Che, what he was fighting for and maybe those who like historical action/war movies. I liked it and learned new things, but to be honest, I suspect most people would not care for it. If you're in the former camp, wait for DVD or view it.

The Promotion - This movie proved to be a quiet surprise to me. It's the story of two assistant managers at a grocery store who are both vying for the same promotion to manager of a new store in their town.

One of the characters is the incumbent assistant manager, played by
Sean William Scott (of Role Models, Mr. Woodcock and American Pie fame). Recently married and looking to better he and his wife's new lives together, this honest man has toiled in obsurity long enough and wants to move up. The other main character is Richard Welner - played by the one and only John C. Riely. Richard Welner is a guy who has come on down from a sister store in Canada in hopes of scoring the new manager job to help support his wife and new baby. Through the movie, he listens to his self-help audio tape with his own named dubbed into it ("...Richard Welner...will touch the sky today!") as he plots his course of action while seeking affirmative motivation. After some friendly competition, things get pretty heated and hilarity ensues, relationships at home are challenged and who gets the promotion is up in the air.

Recommendation: Rent this movie. If you love John C. Riely in movies like Step Brothers or Walk Hard, you'll also like his more subtle but equally entertaining performance here.

Outsourced - This romantic comedy/drama is about a customer service VP at a Seattle-based company played by actor Josh Hamilton who is assigned to go to India to bring up to speed a customer service office that will replace his team back in the U.S. - literally going to India to train his and his team's replacements.

After some cute enough but expected fish-out-of-water stuff as Hamilton's character adjusts to Indian culture, the story settles in with the business of getting his group of Indian employees to become proficient enough to make the grade with the ball busting corporate big wigs and so he can himself secure his job for a while long...or at least a meaningful severance. There are a few side-story lines involving friendships Hamilton develops and in particular a romance with a girl he meets who he cannot pursue further due to the India tradition of pre-arranged marriage.

All of this ends up in a funny but bitter sweet ending. Along the way you learn a bit about Indian culture, learn to despise the practice of outsourcing by American companies and realize along with the main character that life is far, far more than a job.

Recommendation: Rent it!

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