On the eve of his first novel's publication San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is called back to the Middle East for a chance to make childhood wrongs right. An extended flashback set in late-'70s Kabul Afghanistan introduces young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) the bookish son of a forceful respected businessman (Homayoun Ershadi) who despairs over his son's tendency to let his loyal friend/servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) fight his battles for him. On the fateful day of the citywide kite-fighting tournament Amir's inability to stand up to bullies has heartbreaking consequences for both him and Hassan. Soon after Amir and his father flee the invading communists eventually ending up in California. Time passes but Amir's guilt doesn't fade--so when a long-lost family friend offers him the chance to redeem himself he returns to the city of his birth to face many difficult truths. One of the best things The Kite Runner has going for it is its cast of virtual unknowns; since none of them are familiar faces to American audiences it's much easier to become wholly absorbed in their story. Abdalla is earnest and solemn as grown-up Amir. Both haunted by and determined to forget about his terrible betrayal he's often hesitant and unsure of himself (except when he meets the woman who will become his wife and courts her in a series of charming scenes). More charismatic is Ershadi who imbues Amir's father with the perfect mix of honor ferocity and sentiment. And top honors go to the boys who play young Amir and Hassan. Making their screen debut (along with co-star Elham Ehsas who's coldly menacing as bully Assef) Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada are natural genuine performers who make their characters' complicated friendship both believable and heart-wrenching. With a resume that includes the tragic (Monster's Ball) the sentimental (Finding Neverland) and the surreal (Stranger Than Fiction) it's clear that Marc Forster isn't wedded to any particular style or genre. Which is fitting since The Kite Runner is so many things at once: a coming-of-age story a sweet romance a gripping war drama. Forster does a good job of balancing the story's many needs staying faithful to Khaled Hosseini's novel while also streamlining it to keep things moving. As in the book the movie's glimpses of a (relatively) liberal prosperous '70s Afghanistan are particularly compelling; audiences who only think of the country in the context of the ultra-conservative Taliban rule (and subsequent U.S. occupation) will be entranced. Later when Amir returns home to find fear despair and dusty emptiness it's impossible not to mourn right along with him.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
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.
Top Story: Jewish Leader Wants Vatican Response on Gibson Film
A prominent Jewish leader has asked that the Vatican respond to Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, Reuters reports. Abraham Foxman, the U.S. director of independent Jewish pressure group the Anti-Defamation League, met with several Vatican officials and urged them to instruct Catholic bishops around the world to issue statements locally telling their congregations that the film, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life and has been deemed anti-Semitic, is an artistic work and not a pure portrayal of gospel accounts. "It's Mel Gibson's version of the gospel, it's Mel's gospel. He's entitled but he's promoting it as the gospel truth," Foxman told Reuters. "He's promoting it as biblical, historical truth and I believe the Church has a responsibility to its teachings, its interpretation, and this is at variance with what the Church is all about." Foxman added, "I would hope that the Vatican and the Catholic Church would stand up to defend its teachings because in fact what the film is an interpretation that challenges what the Church has been teaching for the past 40 years." Foxman also challenged Gibson to appear in an on-screen postscript to tell viewers not to blame Jews for the death of Jesus Christ or else his "passion of love would turn into a passion of hate."
Jackson Honored for Charity Work
Making her first public appearance since Nipplegate, Janet Jackson received an award Friday for her humanitarian and charitable contributions from Behind the Bench, an association of NBA players's wives that has raised nearly $1 million for charities in Los Angeles. "She has done a wonderful job giving back to communities across America. That fact has not changed," Behind the Bench spokesman Vince McCaskill told The Associated Press. "She was on board with this seven months ago. We never even considered her not being here."
Canadians Decry Conan
Canadian politicians are up in arms over comments made about French Canadians on The Late Show with Conan O'Brien, AP reports. The NBC show, paid for partially by the Canadian government, was taped in Toronto last week in an effort to boost the city's tourist industry, still reverberating from the SARS outbreak last year. During a pre-taped skit, sock puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog hurled his usual repertoire of insults at visitors attending Quebec City's Winter Carnival, particularly at French Canadian separatists. Alexa McDonough, a member of Parliament for the New Democratic Party, said the sketch was "vile and vicious" and amounted to hate-mongering, AP reports. NBC has declined comment, and O'Brien mentioned the topic only in passing in his monologue during the taping of the final Toronto show on Friday afternoon.
Rings Picks Up Another Award
Along with winning the top prize at the BAFTA Awards over the weekend, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was also named the best period or fantasy film at the 8th annual Art Directors Guild Awards Saturday, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Mystic River was awarded best art direction in a contemporary film.
Angel Gets the Axe
The WB has canceled the supernatural drama Angel, a spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, AP reports. "We did not want to contemplate this being the last year of Angel without giving the show the option of crafting their own destiny for this character and for this series," WB co-chairman Jordan Levin told AP. Angel has struggled in the ratings, but maintains a loyal cult-fan base and has had strong reissue sales on DVD.
View's Jones To Wed
TV correspondent Star Jones, co-host of ABC's daytime talk show The View, was surprised Sunday at the NBA's All-Star game when boyfriend Al Reynolds presented her with a ring and asked her to marry him, AP reports. Audience member Denzel Washington led the cheers as Jones covered her face in amazement.
LeBlanc, Wife Welcome First Child
Matt LeBlanc and his wife, Melissa, had their first child, a girl, Feb. 8, according to People.com. The couple married in May. Melissa has two children from a previous marriage.
Grunge Rocker Turned Politician?
Not quite. Former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic will not be running for lieutenant governor in his home state of Washington as previously planned, but he does plan to remain active in politics, AP reports. Novoselic, who contemplated running for office in November, said he would keep working with Music for America to boost voter participation among young people and continue his efforts for election reform but concluded, "the whole thing about running a campaign and being a public servant isn't the way to do it."
Role Call: Tina Turner Goes Indian, Madonna Goes To Jail
Pop singer Tina Turner has signed on to play an Indian goddess in the new Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film The Goddess, AP reports. Details about the film are sketchy, other than that it will include classic Indian songs. "I think Ismail (Merchant) chose me because of my shakti (strength) within," said Turner, who is a Buddhist. "I'm special in that I've had a long run and I'm still here."…Meanwhile, Madonna and her production company, Maverick Films, are developing a movie based on the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the project follows the infamous experiment conducted by professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University to explore the psychology of evil by recruiting 12 college students to role-play prison guards and inmates. Zimbardo's experiment was discontinued when the participants began taking on their roles with harrowing results. No director or stars are attached as yet.
Loosely based on the (rather lame) 1960 Rat Pack film dashing understated-but-cool thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) orchestrates the most sophisticated elaborate casino heist in history less than 24 hours after being released from jail. In one night Danny's handpicked 11-man crew of specialists--including an ace card sharp (Brad Pitt) a young-but-masterful pickpocket (Matt Damon) and a demolition genius (Don Cheadle)--will attempt to steal over $150 million from three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) the elegant ruthless entrepreneur who just happens to be dating Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). To score the cash Danny will have to risk his life and risk his chance of ever reconciling with Tess. But if all goes according to his intricate nearly impossible plan Danny won't have to choose between his stake in the heist and his high-stakes reunion with Tess. Or will he?
The star wattage in this movie could solve all of California's electricity problems in one fell swoop. George Clooney easily passes himself off as suave mastermind Danny Ocean playing the role with understated class and elegance. Brad Pitt takes a similar arc as Rusty though he's slightly more dispassionate and professional than Clooney's visionary Ocean. Matt Damon is convincing as the inexperienced-but-talented pickpocket who's essential to getting in the vault. And Julia is simply Julia--glamorous and charming a smart cookie who is being wooed by the evil ruthless (and anal-retentive) casino mogul so elegantly portrayed by Andy Garcia. Affecting a Cockney accent and attitude Don Cheadle's portrayal of the demolition expert is a tour de force. Carl Reiner is absolutely hilarious as Saul Bloom an aging old-timer who comes out of retirement to infiltrate the casino as a debonair arms dealer. Elliott Gould Bernie Mac Scott Caan and Casey Affleck round out the cast nicely with inspired performances especially Gould's and Mac's.
Soderbergh cemented his reputation last year as a director of serious weight when both Traffic and Erin Brockovich were nominated for the Best Film Academy Award and garnered him two Best Director nominations---an unprecedented feat. Ocean's Eleven marks Soderbergh's departure from the serious to the seriously fun. This is one of the most stylish most elegantly filmed movies I have ever seen. Not only are all the actors beautiful but so are the locations clothes and shot selections. The speed and pacing of the flick belie the movie's length; Soderbergh clearly had fun making this movie. He shot this film very intimately often allowing the camera to stay close on the actors a tad longer than expected which lets their personas shine through--thus their personalities draw you into the movie as much as the caper itself. It's not often you see a movie where the direction has as much wit and cleverness as the plot itself. Ocean's Eleven makes no pretense to be something other than a jaunty cheeky exhilarating heist movie. So while the plot's not too deep all is forgiven considering the level of acting and direction.