Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
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.