I have a confession to make. Since I wrote my last movie review on December 19, I have seen 7 movies and written no reviews. I have many excuses, Christmas, work, sickness, laziness. But, here we are with the Oscar nominations already out. So, I am getting desperate. Several of the films that I have yet to review are worthy of Oscar nominations. These include, Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, A Very Long Engagement, Finding Neverland, The Machinist and The Woodsman. The only movie in the list that wasn't an Oscar hopeful is The Flight of the Phoenix. So there’is nothing for it but to review these movies all together. Unfortunately, there are still a few important films that I haven't seen. They include, The Hotel Rwanda, The Sea Inside, The House of the Flying Daggers and Bad Education. Sometimes it's hard when you aren't living in a select city. Anyway, here goes. Let me briefly describe each of the seven movies in beer-bottle order:
Million Dollar Baby :
After directing Mystic River last year, Clint Eastwood comes right back with another amazing film which is my pick for the Oscar. Million Dollar Baby tells the story of a female boxer wannabe (Hilary Swank), who just won't give up and eventually convinces two tough old guys with hearts of gold (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman) who run a boxing gym, to help her train and box professionally. I didn't quite know what to expect from this movie. Michelle Rodriguez already did a great job in Girl Fight, a film about a young woman who, despite the opposition of her family, becomes a successful boxer. I shouldn't have worried. Girl Fight was a good movie but Million Dollar Baby is on a whole different level. I won't say much about the plot. You have to see it for yourself. And you should see it. This film is unpredictable. When it changes course completely in the middle, it's a total shock. And Eastwood and Freeman are the best twosome since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Calling them old pros does them a disservice. These guys are gods. Their scenes together are just a joy to watch. And Swank doesn't shy away from acting with these guys. She goes right at them. The result, directed, of course, by Eastwood is the best film of the year hands down. And forget Rocky, Million Dollar Baby has the best fight scenes I've ever seen. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman have all been nominated for Oscars before and they are nominated again this year. Eastwood won best Director for Unforgiven but has never won for acting. Swank won an Oscar in her first try for Boy's Don't Cry. Freeman has been nominated three times (Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption) but never won. They should all win this time.
A Very Long Engagement :
This is a film made in France in french with subtitles that the French have disowned because it was financed with American money. It won't seem very American to you, except that one small part is played by Jodie Foster. Even she is speaking french with subtitles. But I am straying from the point. This may be the second best film of the year. It is great. A Very Long Engagement tells the story of a young woman (Audrey Tatou) who falls in love with her best friend from childhood. Before they can be married, he leaves to fight in the trenches in World War I. He never returns. However, Tatou refuses to believe that he is dead and sets out to find out what happened to him. It turns out that he was one of five men, who shot themselves to try and get sent home, but were court martialled instead. The five were sent into no-man's land between the trenches to be killed but what really happened to them is a mystery. A Very Long Engagement is both a romance and a whodunit, and Tatou plays both lover and detective with panache. If you saw her in Amelie, you will know that she has that something that we call "it." She really has "it" in A Very Long Engagement. The film was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet who also directed Amelie. A Very Long Engagement is a much more ambitious film. The story is told mostly in flashbacks as Tatou tracks down the clues to what happened to the five condemned men. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking film. Maybe it was the subtitles, but the Academy more or less snubbed this movie giving it only nominations for Art Direction and Cinematography. It definitely deserved those and more. It's a film that is great to see on the big screen.
The Woodsman :
The Woodsman is a hard sell. I'm not sure that many people want to see a movie about a child molester. And I understand that it was pretty hard for the producers to find the money to make this movie. But, make it they did and they got Kevin Bacon to play the protagonist. He is one of the best actors around and damned if he doesn't make this a pretty good film. The Woodsman tells the story of a child molester (Bacon) who is released after 12 years in prison. Bacon's character wants to live a "normal" life, despite the fact that he is still the person he was, and despite the view of most people that he doesn't deserve a second chance. His family, with the exception of his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), won't have anything to do with him. He gets a job but a co-worker "outs" him after finding his picture on the internet. But he meets and falls for an age-appropriate woman (Kyra Sedgewick) and begins to try and form a normal emotional relationship with another person. But the deck is stacked against him. His apartment looks out over a schoolyard causing continuing temptation and a policeman (Mos Def) is harassing him. But the real battle is taking place inside his head. Kevin Bacon does an amazing job of playing this out. He makes his character not exactly sympathetic but very real. Since this is the kind of film that it is, Bacon's character enters a predictable death spiral but the end of the movie has some hope to it. The rest of the cast are good. Brat and Def are very good in their small bits. Sedgewick is OK but she works just a little too hard on her character's many tics and quirks. Maybe I just couldn't forget that she is Bacon's wife in real life. You may not want to but you should see The Woodsman just to see Kevin Bacon in action.
The Machinist :
This is a weird wacked out movie. Think of Requiem for a Dream crossed with Fight Club. For better or for worse The Machinist will always be best known for the fact that Christian Bale lost 60 pounds to play the title role. Quite a few actors have gained weight for roles but not too many lose weight. Take a look at Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire. He lost a scary 40 pounds for that role. But Bale's weight loss is beyond belief. He is skeletal, like something out of the holocaust. And his role in The Machinist is horrifying. The film tells the story of The Machinist (Bale), whose death spiral has already started before the film does. Bale's life is going to hell and he doesn't know why. Neither do we until the end. I won't give too much away but this is yet another film where we see what the character sees, not necessarily what the rest of the world sees. I usually feel a bit cheated by these kind of stories. I loved Memento but Fight Club and Secret Window drove me nuts. In The Machinist, Bale has a repressed terrible secret which starts bubbling up into his subconscious. It's a pretty depressing movie. Bale is good but scary. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of my all-time favs, is great as Bale's sometime girlfriend. And my favorite bad guy, Michael Ironside, has a nice little part here. The Machinist is interesting in a nightmarish way but I don't really recommend it.
Finding Neverland :
I had a lot of trouble getting into Finding Neverland. I love Johnny Depp, I really do but something didn't click for me here. Finding Neverland tells the story of J.M. Barrie (Depp) and how he came to write Peter Pan. When the film begins, Barrie is in a funk. His last play stunk and he is having problems with his wife (Radha Mitchell). But one day in the park, he meets a widow (Kate Winslet) and her 4 boys. Barrie is suddenly inspired to be a father figure to the boys and eventually uses them as inspiration for his new play, Peter Pan. It's hard to pinpoint my problem with Finding Neverland. Part of it was that I knew the film wasn't sticking very closely to the true facts. Well, most of what happens in the movie actually happened but 13 years of Barrie's life have been collapsed into 1 year. The main difference is that Winslet's husband was not dead but very much alive and on the scene. He and Winslet's character did eventually die and leave Barrie to care for the kids but this was about 13 years later.Depp is good but his performance is so laid back that he put me to sleep. Winslet is great as always. The kids are pretty good but Peter (Freddie Highmore) didn't do much for me. Julie Christie appears in her second major motion picture of 2004 after playing Brad Pitt's mother in Troy. Here, she plays Winslet's mother and gets to be cranky through the whole movie. Dustin Hoffman has a minor role as the guy who puts on Barrie's plays. His role is relegated to tiny scenes where he often utters only one word, such as, "genius." To say the least, he is totally wasted in this role. The main problem I think is that Finding Neverland is pretty boring, at least, until near the end when Peter Pan is being produced. Then, I kind of woke up. Other people liked Finding Neverland a lot more than me. It is nominated for Best Picture!
The Aviator :
I think I mentioned in my review of Ray that I usually have a problem with a biopic if the person's life overlapped with mine. Ray was an exception because Jamie Foxx did such a great job becoming Ray Charles. Unfortunately, Leonardo DiCaprio is not quite so successful in his portrayal of Howard Hughes. I know that he is trying for some gravitas in his recent roles for Martin Scorsese in The Aviator and Gangs of New York. But his best recent , by far, was in Catch Me if You Can. That role was much lighter but also was perfect for DiCaprio, who even though he is now 30 years old, still looks much younger. The role of Howard Hughes just doesn't seem to fit him. When I looked at Jamie Foxx in Ray, I saw Ray Charles. When I looked at Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio. The Aviator follows the life of Howard Hughes from the late 1920's, when he was making the film, Hell's Angels, to the Flight of the Spruce Goose in 1947. It doesn't deal with the later stages of Hughes life when he was totally nuts but the film does chronicle Hughes slow descent into madness, as well as his many achievements in aviation and Hollywood starlets, including Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). Many other recognizable faces come and go very quickly in this movie so don't blink. Some of the more recognizable include, John C. Reilly as Hughes' right-hand man, Alan Alda as a US Senator investigating Hughes, Alec Baldwin as Hughes' main rival, and Jude Law as Errol Flynn. This is a big Hollywood Scorsese film and it has garnered many Oscar nominations. It is meant for the big screen and it's pretty entertaining. The Aviator has one great performance, that by Cate Blanchett who steals every scene, she is in, as Katharine Hepburn. When she departs from Hughes' life and is replaced by Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, the energy level of the movie goes down a couple of notches. DiCaprio isn't bad, he is just miscast. He struggles manfully to do this role but it just doesn't work somehow. It's worth seeing just for Blanchett.
The Flight of the Phoenix :
I really like the original version of The Flight of the Phoenix which came out in 1965 and starred Jimmy Stewart, Hardy Kruger, Richard Attenborough, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine and Peter Finch. It's a great cast and a great plot. A plane carrying our illustrious cast crashes in the desert with no hope of rescue. The plane is in pieces. But one of the passengers (Hardy Kruger), claiming to be an airplane designer, convinces the rest of the crew that they can build a new plane out of the ashes of the old one, hence the title. Later, when the plane is almost finished, they find out that Kruger designs model airplanes. The new version of The Flight of the Phoenix sticks pretty closely to the original plot, with a few extra subplots thrown in. Dennis Quaid plays the Jimmy Stewart role of the pilot and Giovanni Ribisi plays the role of the designer. Bizarrely, Ribisi looks and sounds exactly like Hardy Kruger. Otherwise, the crew is a similar mix of misfits with one female engineer (Miranda Otto) thrown in for good measure. Otto shone as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and she tries hard here but she can't save this movie. Ribisi is also great in a lost cause. But the movie itself is a plodding remake with no redeeming qualities. Rent the original, The Flight of the Phoenix!