Monday, December 29, 2008



I compare "Valkyrie" to "Apollo 13" - we all know how it turns out, but in the telling of the story, we're mesmerized in it's unfolding, anxious for all the maybes and could-have-beens.

Cruise is excellent in this role - Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg - a professional soldier - a Prussian - dedicated to his work and utterly devoted to his Fatherland. But that's the rub - whose Germany is it? Is it Hitler's Germany to which he's loyal, or something larger, something better?

Several TV reviews last night (December 28) took Cruise to task - one said, "too bad he's in every scene."

In my take on things, not even close to the truth - he's perfect for the role. A devoted man, good looking and utterly clear - so Prussian!

A Wikipedia picture of Stauffenberg with Hitler bears a striking resemblance in profile and carriage to Cruise in the film - standing erect on the far left.

But this film, unlike "The Wrestler," is story-driven, not actor-driven. It's a big story with dozens of characters - large and small (had the feel of "The Longest Day" now and then); I was pleased with the casting - everyone seems just right for their respective roles - from the pompous and self-important, to the cautious and reluctant, and those in the middle - utterly clear about ultimate loyalties and the price to be paid, for both success and failure.

It's a story we rarely hear, often believing that the whole of Germany stood with Hitler, but the facts are otherwise. There were a number of plots to remove Hitler, beginning in the late 1930s (see excellent article about German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Many a German disliked Hitler and Nazism, but the little madman held all the cards, having gathered around him thousands of small-minded men and bureaucratic sycophants devoted to a dream of world-domination.

I was utterly taken by the music - I try to pay attention to such things - whether they work or not - and it all works - the music got to my guts again and again.

Visually, a beautiful film - beginning in North Africa and then on to Berlin and the German High Command. Rich in color and simple camera angles - it all works as the drama unfolds.

The film ends as we know it will - but what a story for us all.

Ever since Vietnam and Reagan, we've seen a false patriotism rear it's ugly head, the kind of patriotism that drove the German nation to ruin, and the kind of patriotism seen as false by Stauffenberg.

Historical accuracy is high - as far as I can tell from what reading I've done - including the discarding of the second plastique bomb as Stauffenberg and his adjutant drive away from the Wolf's Lair after the explosion, convinced Hitler is dead, on their way to Berlin to continue the coup.

That the plot unfolded as it did ... that a man like Stauffenberg could carry a brief-case-hidden bomb into the room wouldn't happen today, what with hyper-surveillance and searches.

The irony is that nine months later Hitler commits suicide, and tragically, those not already executed for the bomb plot were all executed just days before the end.

Stauffenberg's wife lived until April, 2006 - as noted in a few historical notes tagged on at the end. That little note jolted me - it was the connection between the film and its story to the reality of it all - these were real people living in extraordinary times - making fateful and dangerous decisions - to stay the course and see what happens, or take up the cause and actively plot to remove Hitler.

A chilling tale well told. Hats off to the directory, Bryan Singer, and the whole crew.

Marley and Me


Not only a film for dog-lovers, but a film for just about anybody who wants to see a young couple work their way through marriage, family, love and loss.

Having lived through much of this myself, I appreciated the thoughtful and realistic manner in which the story was told. Marriage and family are all about love, but challenges lie along the way - like just being dead-tired with babies and a crazy dog.

Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson are a great movie couple; hope they do another. Both gave hints of their growing ability as actors, and conveyed the various stages of their unfolding relationship which spans Marley's life-time.

Marley ... or, Marleys - in all of his permutations. Hats off to the trainers - this dog is hoot. Some wonderfully hilarious moments (without being slapstick), and a lot of chuckles along the way - never a down-time, but well-paced with a lot of story being told.

With an ending we all know, and dread ... without being a tear-jerker.

It's well-done; a great Holiday movie for the entire family.

You'll be glad you went.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A film the size of “Forest Gump,” the granddaddy of all “big-story movies,” and “Big Fish" – both incredible tales of adventure and love – folks looking for who they are, trying to figure it all out. Set in New Orleans - why do so many great tales have their locale in the South?

Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born a shriveled old man – his mother dying at his birth; his distraught father grabs the infant and flees into the night, ready to toss this ugly creature into the river, but an eagle-eyed police officer forces the father to run and finally leave the child, wrapped in a blanket, on the steps of a nursing home.

Reared with the elderly, Benjamin button begins his life in a wheelchair, afflicted with all the infirmities of age. He likes the nursing home; it’s quiet and peaceful – a place where folks can sit and think about the world.

Then he meet Daisy (Elle Fanning), a red-haired girl full of life – she’s a 7-year old child, and so is he, but he looks like Methuselah. She says, “I think you’re odd,” and he is.

The acting is so very good, and the combination of prosthetics and CG wizardry make for an incredible feast for the eyes. If nothing else, an Academy Award for this.

For me, one of the great images - Benjamin on a 50s motorcycle ... jeans and t-shirt - an homage to two iconic figures: James Dean ("Rebel without a Cause") and Marlon Brando (The Wild One").

“Nothing stays the same,” is a constant refrain in this love story, and that’s what it is finally – love in many different forms: the love of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) for the ugly little baby left on the steps of the nursing home she manages … the love of Daisy … the love of his father, driven as it is by guilt and loneliness – the love of Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton) a married woman eager to have an affair, in search of her own destiny, intrigued by the man/boy Benjamin, who's now a tugboat man in Russia. But this kind of love can only be for a moment; she leaves Benjamin a note under his door and with that, she's gone, only to be seen years later in TV news - she finally did it (and you'll have to see the movie to discover her accomplishment).

The theme is time … beginning with a blind New Orleans clockmaker who loses his son in WW1, and when commissioned to build a clock for a railway station, he carefully crafts a masterpiece, but when unveiled and started, everyone is shocked to see the secondhand running backward, trying to undo time and its horrors and sadness. That’s when Benjamin is born, and while he grows younger, the rest of the world can only grow older.

Ultimately, he and Daisy meet somewhere in the middle (she, now a talented dancer in Europe – done so well by Cate Blanchett) – their love for one another, not quite in sync, but as the story unfolds from a hospital bed in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina bearing down, a love that finally connected, but with the strangest of results.

The story unfolds with a Daisy’s daughter (Julie Ormond) reading Benjamin’s diary – reading aloud to her mother in the hospital … her voice blending with Benjamin’s, and the scene shifting from now to then.

In one of the most remarkable moments in film, a car accident is analyzed backward … if so-and-so had left but a moment later, if the driver had looked this way rather than that way, and if … ah, the vagaries of time.

I suppose we all learn, sooner or later, that love can be had only on its own terms – that love and all of its desires will have its own way with us, but Benjamin is no mere victim, and neither are we. Decisions can and must be made on behalf of things greater than ourselves.

Across the broad horizon of this remarkable story – nobility in love and loss. A simple reminder to each of us that our humanity is quite extraordinary, that we’re capable of great love and sacrifice.

In the end, to have loved and be loved. Isn’t this the sum of it all?

Rarely as we hope, but if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it will be just fine.

A film extraordinary in breadth of story and depth of meaning. I loved it, and will see it again, and likely again and again.

This is a must-see film.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Wrestler

What an amazing film, poignant story, actor-driven ... mesmerizing ... sort of like watch a train wreck in slow motion, and unexpectedly seeing survivors.

Mickey Rourke is at the top of his form, and so is Marisa Tomei.

Both are at the end of the road, so to speak, for their respective "careers" - he, a wrestler, and she, a stripper.

Both struggle alone - she has a young son for whom she's working hard and hopes to go to school soon, and he, a broken relationship with an adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) for whom he's missed too many birthdays. She doesn't want to see him any more.

His effort to reach out is poignant, to say the least. And for a few moments, it works. In one of the most touching scenes I've ever seen, the two of them are walking through an abandoned amusement park on the boardwalk. He's walking toward the camera, she following behind, and then, with quickened pace, she catches up and loops her arm through her father's arm and leans her head on his shoulder.

His daughter's heart is reachable, but she knows the terrain of her father's heart, too.

At the end of the career road, he doesn't want to be alone; she says, "You just want someone to take care of you." In the end, he blows it again - did we expect anything else? Perhaps in a fairy tale, but a tiger doesn't change it stripes, and neither does Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

A heart attack finishes him. No more wrestling, so he ups his hours at the local grocery store, taking a weekend job in the deli. If there's ever been a better portrait of the humiliation of the worker, I've yet to see it. He gives it his best shot, but in the end, he can't take the humiliation, so he quits, and quits with style - his pride intact. I'm not gonna take this any more.

Meanwhile, at a local strip club, he's formed a "relationship" with an aging stripper. For her, he's a customer, but he'd like it to be more, and, as we discover, so would she.

In one of the best plot devices I've seen, they're like two ships passing in the night - needing love and companionship, but unable to connect, unable to be anything else then what they're doing. Are they trapped? Sort of! But they are who and what they are - a combination of choice and circumstance.

Both end up rebuffing one another - she at her work when he asks her for something more, and he, when he decides against doctor's orders, to enter the ring once again - she left work early to stop him before he wrestles, prepared to tell him, "Yes," but he enters the ring instead.

This story is about redemption - not the kind we'd like to see, what with a "they lived happily ever after" - but something simpler, and more profound at the same time - grace within the boundaries of our life; mostly a life accidental, a life of mistakes and short-sighted decisions, but it's the only life we've got.

Theologically, I ask, Where's God?

The film suggests (in a purely secular fashion) that God is found where we are, not where we're supposed to be, and likely, there is no "supposed to be" - there is only, Where we are! And that's the hope we see at the end - God with Randy "The Ram" in the ring, and with Cassidy in the stip club.

This is terrific film in all regards ... sad, but not a tear-jerker. A bit violent, that's for sure, as we get a picture of the professional wrestler playing all the American legion halls - wherever they can, for the love of the game, and whatever money they can make. Some of the scenes are "rather graphic," but don't let that deter you. This is a story worth knowing and a film worth seeing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gran Torino

Gran Torino,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and a host of unknowns (we will be seeing more of them) portraying the Hmong family next door and the members of a Hmong gang, is a remarkable story and a very good film.

It’s a story about redemption!

Filmed in the Detroit area, it was fun for me (having lived there 16 years) to see the homes and streets so typical of this workingman’s city, and a few remarks about the cold weather uttered by Walt (Eastwood) – weather that ought to keep the foreigners out.

Which brings me to the heart of the story: Walt is a retired autoworker who put the steering column into his pride and joy, a mint-condition, 1972 Gran Torino. His is the story of Detroit – the auto industry waning, the population flux overwhelming, and the world Walt knew is no more – he’s a stranger in a strange land, right in his own neighborhood.

His wife of many years died, his children don’t understand him, and he sits on his porch, guns ready, drinking gallons of beer and smoking, grumbling and mumbling to himself about the “slopes” next door and the general condition of the world he no longer understands.

The story is really very funny much of the time as the script unloads virtually ever racial and ethnic slur in the American vocabulary (with the exception of the “n” word, for which I was grateful). Walt doesn’t know how to talk about anyone different than him other than in crude ways. Even his barber who’s been cutting his hair for years is greeted with a string of ethnic epithets and curses, and gladly returned by the barber. As Eastwood delivers these lines, the audience is heartily laughing, though guardedly, I noticed.

As Eastwood grudgingly gets to know the family next door, and grumpily befriends the young man, they both go to the barber shop where Eastwood is going to school him in the fine art of man-talk. It’s comedic energy reminded me of the scene in “The Bird Cage,” when Robin Williams tries to teach Nathan Lane how to walk like a man. Enough said. It’s great and full of belly laughs.

But Eastwood is doing more than an Archie Bunker routine; Eastwood captures the alienation of an American workingman who sees his world fading away. It’s a lonely, angry, time.

The Hmong family next door and their traditions is a highlight of the film – there are other cultures and other worlds, and these days, the borders between are growing thin. What will we do?

Religion plays an interesting role here. Fr. Janovich (Cristopher Carley) is young and “just-outta-priest-school” befriended by Walt’s wife in her dying days. She made the young priest promise to get Walt to confession, and he works at it with considerable pastoral skill. Though collared and liturgically garbed some of the time, much of time the young priest is dressed casually. Does this young priest represent a new world as well?

Being a pastor myself, I’m sensitive to the stereotypes that mostly show up on the tube and the silver screen – no stereotypes here – a well-done job by the writers and Eastood.

The most striking feature of the story is the ending, and I won’t give it away, other than to say it’s a real surprise – a moment of redemption and love, and as every religion knows, redemption and love are costly! But the price is worth it!

An entertaining film with a very good story – the price of seeing this film is worth it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


No doubt about “Doubt.”

A remarkable film – actor-driven … great story … a parable about doubt – the doubt we have about others, and the doubt of our doubt.

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as Fr. Brendan Flynn) and Meryl Streep (as Sister Aloysius Beauvier), the film adaptation of the drama (click HERE for a March, 2005 review of the Broadway play) by John Patrick Shanley is filmed during a dreary Bronx winter – as is the story, so the setting: cold, damp, without much light … and a few blown light bulbs along the way.

Hoffman is his usual best – he always surprises me with how effectively his lines are delivered – always the emotion, tuned so finely to convey the power and despair of the moment.

Streep is equally good, but not as consistent. They were times I knew she was acting, and that was getting in the way of her character. At the risk of being a bit too critical, I’ve always felt this was her burden in an otherwise brilliant career (her work in “Out of Africa” remains her high water mark for me; and who could beat her in "Mama Mia").

At the risk of giving the story away, Sr. Aloysius has her doubts about Fr. Flynn. Has he or has he not. As the story unfolds, we see her determination grow stronger, convincing herself, and others, of the Fr.’s guilt, slowly building a case against him in her own mind, involving others in her effort to snare the priest and compel him to confession.

We learn along the way that she herself has suffered serious loss. A WW2 widow who then, for whatever reason, became a nun, fierce in her determination to run the school and destroy this bad priest.

Set at St. Nicholas church and school, 1964, it’s a story about changing times and the clash of cultures. The priest represents change; Sr. is tradition, and never the two shall meet.

Sr. James (brilliantly played by Amy Adams), a sweet and innocent nun caught right in the middle –  wavers constantly between her trust of the priest and her grudging admiration for Sr., trying to be as tough as Sr., at one point in a difficult classroom, but failing miserably and disgusted with herself, she apologizes to the student.

The film ends dramatically, leaving one with all the questions, and none of the answers, as a good parable often does.

When seeing it, don’t be sidetracked with the wrong questions – one of the first lessons learned when reading and interpreting parables. This is NOT a film about religion, although religion is the context. It's not about gender issues, although they flavor the story. It's not about race, though race has a major role to play. It's about the darker side of the soul, obsession, and the power we have to assassinate someone's character.

The film reminded me of a David Mamet play, "Oleanna," wherein a student accuses a professor of impropriety and destroys his chances for tenure. At the end of the play, as here with "Doubt," we're left wondering just what it was the priest did, if anything, and if something was done earlier in his career, was it related to Sr.'s suspicion, or something not even connected.

Be focused on the central issue, not sidebar questions that cannot be answered, or, if answered, will only lead to further misleading questions.

This is a fine film, but not one for holiday jollies. If you want to think, try “Doubt.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

De-Lovely - 2004

Kevin Klein is just one of the best, and his portrayal of Cole Porter is amazing.

A gentle-souled man, hugely talented, looking for love - Porter says: I wanted every kind of love that was available; I could never find it in the same person, or the same sex.”

The film’s clever story-line: an aging Cole Porter, sitting in a empty theater with Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), a director, watching himself on stage, rehearsing a three-act show – his life story, told through his music.

The central feature is his meeting with and marrying Linda - as he sits in the theater, watching rehearsal, the actors gather on stage to rehearse "Anything Goes" - and then, emerging from the dancers, Linda (Ashley Judd).

Judd is terrific - portraying a woman deeply in love, but profoundly realistic about Porter: “You don’t have to love me the way I love you Cole. Just love me.” Judd demonstrates a great deal of maturity in this challenging role.

In three acts: (1) Porter and Linda meet in Paris, and they marry, in spite of her knowledge that he’s gay. (2) On to New York and Hollywood, and fame, with all the attendant joys and sorrows, including a good many young men who capture Porter’s attention. (3) A brutal horse-riding accident leaves Porter seriously injured, and in months of therapy and surgeries, Cole and Linda are drawn ever closer together.

The film is all about music, but it’s also a love story – messy, chaotic and ultimately beautiful. As one of Porter's songs asks, "What is this thing called love?"

Yet as Gabe says to Linda during rehearsal, “Have you eve seen a musical without a happy ending?” 

When it comes to love, the pathway is often tortured, but love endures, as the Bible says. And here’s a love that endures every test and emerges the winner. So, "let's fall in love ...

The most refined lady bu-u-ugs do it 
When a gentleman calls 
Moths in your rugs do it 
What's the use of moth balls 

locusts in trees do it
bees do it
even over-educated fleas do it
let's do it, let's fall in love!

let's do it le-e-et's fall in love
let's do it, let's fall in love!

I absolutely love this film – the music and dancing, of course, are great, and happy, and profound, as is Porter’s music. The script is brilliant, loaded with marvelous throwaway lines that entertain and surprise with both wit and profundity.

Looking for something to do on a cold wintry night? Rent “De-Lovely. It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious … it IS de-lovely!

Friday, December 12, 2008


Directed by Ron Howard and starring two first-class actors, Frank Langella (Richard Nixon)  and Michael Sheen (David Frost), this is a remarkable film with a remarkable story. Prior to seeing the film, and having seen only the trailers, I was a tad bit concerned that Nixon would be mocked, his mannerisms lifted up for ridicule, but such was not the case. Langella's performance is worthy of an Academy nomination, if not the award for best actor.

The story itself is riveting!

A brash and somewhat superficial British talk show host suddenly gets a brainstorm - interview Richard Nixon. Putting together the cash to pull it off is a long-shot, but to make a long story short, it's done.

The heart of the story, however, is the interview itself. Nixon, the consummate interviewee, playing Frost like Fritz Chrysler played the violin. Nixon's advisers, skillful in manipulating the truth, help him trump Frost in the first three two-hour taping segments. Frost is visibly slumping under the Nixon onslaught; it looks like all is lost, and the interview nothing more than a puff piece.

But Frost gathers his wits, and relying on his own advisers, especially James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), Frost finally engages Nixon about when Nixon knew about Watergate, and if the timing issue was right, then, in fact, Nixon had engaged in a cover-up.

The moment of confrontation - a Nixon adviser interrupts the taping and calls for a timeout. Nixon returns from the conference room deeply sobered. The interview continues, and Nixon comes as close as one can to an admission and an apology. It's a profound moment in the story.

I couldn't help but make comparisons to our current experience. Five years from now, will someone attempt an interview with Bush, and will we hear from this addled little man any admission about the Iraq war, the bungled economy and the pillaging of the environment?

Having recently seen "W," another terrific film, I measured my reactions: for Bush, a sense of sorrow (not sympathy), a man way over his head, a man of limited intelligence driven by a need to win his father's approval.

Nixon, on the other hand, a tragic figure. A man of considerable intelligence who understood much of the world, whose achievement with China will stand the test of time, but driven by demons. While "W" is much more a study of Bush, "Frost/Nixon" is a moment in time, with only hints at the personalities. Though in one remarkable scene, a drunk Nixon calls Frost in the middle of the night, and in a powerfully delivered monologue, reveals something of his soul - an outsider, perpetually the outsider looked down upon by the privileged wealthy, a man rejected by his father.

I left the theater with an appreciation for Nixon - a consummate politician, a man with a grasp of the world, but driven by fear, willing to do anything to protect his hold on the government.

A Shakespearian tragedy if ever there was - a man doomed to fall, brought down by his own demons.

The last few moments are touching - Frost visits Nixon one last time in San Clemente - Nixon, just off the links, apologizes for his casual dress, "what the retired wear." Frost gives Nixon a pair of "Italian shoes" (without laces) which he mistakenly thinks Nixon admired. Frost takes his leave and Nixon stands on the balcony of his home overlooking the Pacific - alone, with a pair of shoes, and the darkness descending - the end of a career.

A great film to see.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

"Slumdog Millionaire" - an amazing film ... awesome music, great acting ... cinematography ... a jewel of a film.

Incredible scenes - poverty, slums ... that anyone should live like this ...

Congestion unlike anything any American has ever experienced - think rush-hour on the 405 around the clock, every day, world without end.

And the power of love in a little boy who was born with a determination gene - e.g. the moment of decision - trapped in an outhouse suspended over the river by his older brother when a movie star pays a visit to their slum, he holds in his hand a photo of the star, hoping to get his autograph. But what to do - he can't break through the outhouse walls ... looking downward into the shit and refuse, he makes his decision ...

Powerful acting by children - trapped in poverty, orphaned by the death of their mother in vicious inter-religious conflict, victimized by ruthless professionals who organize the children as professional beggars, often disfiguring them to make them a more sympathetic figure - or putting them to work as sex slaves - a hideous, horrible, picture - a world of unimaginable sorrow and violence.

But at the heart of it all, a love story - one of the most unique I've ever seen - beginning in childhood - a time of suffering, fear, loyalty and tragedy - but the love persists, growing deeper. The film juxtaposes the dark and the light, the terrible and the wonderful - a profoundly difficult challenge, but here, brought off with total success.

I found myself cheering them on ... though the odds against it were stupendously high. My heart followed their journey ... the move had me.

By hook and by crook, the young man lands a spot on "You Want to be a Millionaire" - and ...
Do the lovers meet again?
Will she escape her enslavement to a brutal gangster?
Will the young man win the game?

Well, you'll have to see it for yourself.

The film ends with one of the most imaginative ending endings ever ... but I'll not tell.

Go see it!