When Elizabeth (Norah Jones) finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her she doesn't know what to do. Angry and anguished fed up and self-doubting she finds a sympathetic ear in amiable café manager Jeremy (Jude Law) who soothes her ruffled spirits with empathy and fresh-baked blueberry pie. It's a romance waiting to happen but Elizabeth isn't ready. First she must find out who she really is--Elizabeth? Lizzie? Beth?--by hitting the road and experiencing life beyond New York City. Along the way she meets people who help her realize how much possibility her life really has--people like defeated drunk Arnie (David Strathairn); his blowsy estranged wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz); and irrepressible gambler Leslie (Natalie Portman). By the time she completes her journey Elizabeth finds both self knowledge and a peace that transcends even hot pie and cold ice cream. My Blueberry Nights has gotten a lot of attention as Jones' acting debut--the good news is that the popular singer doesn't make a fool of herself. She may not win any awards for her performance but she does a fine job playing a wounded girlfriend; she reacts like a champ in the scenes that pit her against established talents Strathairn Weisz and Portman. The movie's episodic nature allows each of these co-stars to shine; Weisz has some particularly poignant moments as Sue Lynne a woman whose identity is so wrapped up in the husband she has come to despise that she doesn't know who she is without him. Portman's Leslie has a similarly complex push-pull relationship with her unseen father; both women's experiences inform Elizabeth's journey and help her decide how to approach her tentative relationship with Jeremy--who as played by Law is both earthy and impossibly perfect. Even ignoring the movie's central logic flaw--what straight woman in her right mind would risk losing a man who looks like Jude Law and feeds her pie every night?--there's something about My Blueberry Nights that keeps it from really touching the heart. Perhaps it's the fact that Elizabeth maintains a distance between her true self and everyone she meets. Or more likely it's the consequence of Wai's dreamy filming style which manifests itself in slowed-down footage mismatched audio and video and unexpected shots of ice cream melting on fresh-baked pastry. The people that Elizabeth meets are more fully realized than she is; in the end she doesn't seem to have changed so much as just gotten in a better mood. It may be true that the course of true love never did run smooth but it also rarely runs quite as quirkily or languorously as it seems to here.
Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank) doesn’t know how lucky she has it. She’s smart beautiful and married to Gerry (Gerald Butler) a passionate funny and impetuous Irishman who loves her with every breath in his body. But when that breath runs out--Gerry dies unexpectedly from an illness--Holly’s luck runs out. Barely coping her salvation arrives in the form of letters from Gerry that come to Holly in unexpected ways--letters he wrote to her before he died to help her get through the pain and move on with her life and letters that always end with “P.S. I Love You.” A saint huh? Holly’s mother (Kathy Bates) and best friends Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) begin to worry Gerry’s letters are keeping Holly tied to the past but in fact each letter pushes Holly on a journey of rediscovery and to show her how a love so strong can turn the finality of death into new beginning for life. Tissues please! Swank will be damned if she pigeonholes herself into always playing serious women who don’t wear makeup. P.S. I Love You is her stab at romantic dramedy and while the genre may not suit her best the Oscar-winning actress still has fun playing a spirited woman who wears designer clothes cute hats and gets to make out with a strapping Irish hunk. Actually Swank gets to bed TWO strapping Irish hunks in P.S. I Love You: The first is the yummy Butler of course and the other is Gerry’s old bandmate William played by American Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who’ll be seen in the upcoming romantic comedy The Accidental Husband with Uma Thurman). Lucky girl. Butler however is the one the ladies will sigh over the most. Having already given a powerhouse performance this year as the Spartan king in 300 the Scottish actor turns the tables to show his soft underbelly as the adorably romantic and fun-lovin’ Gerry. The abs still rock though. One can easily see why Holly is such a mess after he dies. Gershon and Kudrow add some genuineness as Holly’s friends (someone please find a Kudrow a TV show) as does Bates as Holly’s hardened mother. Harry Connick Jr. however seems out of place as Holly’s would-be suitor. She just needs to stick with the Irish guys. Hilary Swank teams up with her Freedom Writers director Richard LaGravenese once again for P.S. I Love You and it’s clear they have a symbiotic relationship. Swank probably likes the way LaGravenese accentuates her best features turning her into a glam leading lady while LaGravenese obviously enjoys gazing at her through his camera lens. Unfortunately the two really haven’t found the best material. Freedom Writers is the mother of all teacher-gets-students-motivated retreads while P.S. I Love You--based on a novel by Cecelia Ahern and adapted by LaGravenese and Steven Rogers--is just pure fluff with very little substance behind it. Not that the film won't inspire some romantic feelings or work up tears but its only real strengths are: 1) the players who somehow rise about the triteness of it all especially Butler and 2) the gorgeous landscapes of Ireland which should send any woman in her right mind straight to the Emerald Isles to find her perfect man. Seriously ladies book your trips NOW.
Idi Amin was the ruthless dictator of the African nation of Uganda throughout much of the 1970s. He was ultimately blamed for thousands upon thousands of deaths (some estimates place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands) during his tenure. The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized version of Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) reign of terror. Giddy after graduating from med school in Scotland Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) randomly picks Uganda to be his first post-college destination. When he gets there the locals are abuzz after the new leader has been sworn in and vows to right all that is wrong with the country. After a chance encounter with Amin Garrigan bears witness to his dichotomous personalities as the ruler goes from threatening to charming on a whim. Amin is so taken with the young doctor--and vice versa--that he invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. A doctor-patient relationship leads to close friendship and before long Garrigan is the very center of the dictator’s inner circle. And not long thereafter he learns that there is no worse place to be. For over 20 years now we’ve all bore witness to Whitaker’s mastery of acting. His choices have been eclectic and his performances consistently great but it’s always been a case of “And oh Forest Whitaker’s great too.” Until now. Whitaker makes what can only be described as an earthquake of an entrance. It’s clear in the movie when Amin will first appear and yet the actor still manages to catch us off-guard. Amin’s manic personalities are child’s play for Whitaker but he never has fun with it which is where other actors might have gone overboard. He is now leading the race for the Best Actor Oscar too. Not that the supporting players are too shabby though. McAvoy's (The Chronicles of Narnia) Garrigan is actually the heart of the story allowing for more screen time than Whitaker and the Scotsman soaks up every second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film but not only because he’s from the opposite side of the earth; it’s because McAvoy the actor makes sure to react differently to everything. In addition former X-File-r Gillian Anderson turns in a solid if short apperance--and you’ll be surprised how amazingly hot she is! Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as one of Amin’s countless neglected ex-wives is superb as well.
The contrast between Last King's first and second half is as night-and-day as Amin's personalities. In the first half director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) allows the story to simmer to the point of perfection; in the second half he gets sloppy as though in a rush to finish a different movie than the one he started. The ending also a mix of truth and fable (plucked from the highly acclaimed book by Giles Foden) quickly spirals towards its conclusion which is tough to watch for very different reasons. But prior to that--even at some points in the uneven second half--MacDonald paints a beautiful monster out of Amin. Maybe more importantly he paints a beautiful picture of African ambiance an indirect thank you to the Ugandan people that allowed unprecedented access to their country for the sake of Last King. Even with MacDonald's occasional blunders it's hard to deny the power of his film.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.