Friday, December 28, 2007

The 10 Best New Films Released on DVD in 2007


1. PAN'S LABYRINTH. Unlike any film I've ever seen, a mixture of horror and fantasy, an adult fairy tale that explores the human consequences of fascism and the terror it can inflict on the very young.

2. RATATOUILLE. One of the finest studies of the struggling artist I have seen and, surprisingly, this film mostly populated by rats is, at its core, absolutely human. The folks at Pixar prove you can be simple yet sophisticated with gratifying results.

3. THE QUEEN. A superbly crafted docudrama with a sense of humor about the British royal family featuring a performances for the ages from Helen Mirren.

4. THE LIVES OF OTHERS. A touching examination of the conflicts that exist between totalitarianism and art, government surveillance and personal privacy.

5. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. Clint Eastwood does something amazing here, spinning a tale of the sanctity of human life from the "enemy's" point of view.

6. NO END IN SIGHT. A masterful examination of the mistakes made by the Bush administration that led to the quagmire in Iraq as told by those responsible for those mistakes.

7. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT OF GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN. Absurdest satire that will make you laugh even if you don't think you should.

8. ONCE. That rare musical that deals with life as it is actually lived and real people who care passionately.

9. AWAY FROM HER. A moving love story with the tragedy of Alzheimer's at its center, featuring a memorable performance from Julie Christie.

10. THE DEPARTED. Another Martin Scorsese masterpiece, a gritty, unflinching crime drama about paranoia and deceit that ranks alongside "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver."

THE NEXT 10:
15. Volver
16. Venus

DVD REVIEW: "Eastern Promises"


"Eastern Promises" promises more than it delivers.

For a long time I thought director Dave Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Knight were going to offer an interesting study in human nature, the battle between the good and the evil that resides within the soul of man. The man in question here is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) who is introduced to us as the chauffeur for a Russian mob family living in London. Nikolai is cold, ruthless, just about everything you would expect from a mob functionary. But with a glance here, a shift of the head there, Nikolai also shows a streak of compassion. So are we going to witness Nikolai wrestle with his own inner demons or simply wrestle two assassins while naked in a steam bath?

Unfortunately it's only going to be the latter. However, having said that, the steam bath scene is as good a fight scene as you're likely to see this year outside "The Bourne Ultimatum." I'm not going to tell you what is revealed three quarters of the way through the movie, but we learn something about Nikolai that I, at least, didn't expect which made me realize the ultimate inner showdown I wanted to see was simply not going to happen.

No matter. Although we do not get the character study Cronenberg seemed to be promising us for a good part of the the movie's 100-minute running time, what "Eastern Promises" does deliver is a superbly acted mob thriller, one of the best in the genre.

Anna (Naomi Watts, pictured above right with Mortensen) is a midwife working in a London hospital where a 14-year-old hemorrhaging pregnant girl is admitted. When the teenager dies while giving birth, Anna tries to track down her family so that the newborn won't wind up in England's foster child system. She finds a diary written in Russian among the girl's possession along with a business card from a local Russian restaurant. She goes to the restaurant where she meets its proprietor Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Mueller-Stahl does something wonderful in his opening scene. At first he comes across as the loving benevolent grandfatherly type who would love to be able to help Anna but admits that the girl in question probably ate in his restaurant just one time. But when Anna lets it be known that the girl kept a diary, Mueller-Stahl's demeanor changes, but only ever so slightly--just enough for us to pick up something menacing behind his old-world charm, but not enough for Anna to notice. It is a stunning piece of acting.

It turns out Semyon is the godfather of the Russian mob that deals in the sex-slave trade and the more Anna tries to learn about the victim's background, the more of a liability she becomes to Semyon, his son Kirill (niftily played by Vincent Cassel as a Sonny Corleone wanna-be) and, of course, Nikolai.

Interestingly for a mob thriller, no one gets shot in "Eastern Promises," but plenty of bloody carnage is inflicted by knives and when Nikolai says at one point "Now I'm going to do his fingers," he means he's going to cut the person's fingernails between the first and second joints.

Maybe the question to ponder here is exactly how much evil must be inflicted in order to achieve justice. Nah, that's too insidious, even for Cronenberg.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Number 1 with a needle

According to a story in today's New York Times (registration may be required, but it's free), during the last 30 years, Texas averaged 37 percent of all the executions carried out in the United States. This year, however, that number jumped to an astounding 60 percent. The story goes on to quote David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston, who predicts the day is not far off when 100 percent of all executions will take place deep in the heart of Texas.

DVD REVIEW: "The Kingdom"


Peter Berg's "The Kingdom" starts off with a bang--literally--has an implausible but rip-snorting finale and a long, sloggy middle section during which a lot of viewers might lose interest completely.

I'm guessing the film is trying to be a "Syriana" light, but you should just forget about the politics and view this as a thriller that almost thrills.

The movie begins on what is supposed to be a walled-in western compound in Riyadh, the capital of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The compound is walled in because of the ill-feelings created by the clash of western and Muslim cultures. Two machine-gun firing terrorists and a suicide bomber strikes a picnic/softball game inside the compound and just when you think the worst is over, it isn't.

That's the setup and a well-done setup it is. But then the film gets messy. Back in Washington, the FBI wants to send in a team to investigate the blast. Government officials, led by a head-in-the-sand attorney general (Danny Huston), nix the idea, saying the Saudi police have jurisdiction and besides, western "boots" on Saudi soil would only further inflame an already combustible situation. In a series of scenes that defy all logic, FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx, looking more like Ray Charles than an crack FBI agent) blackmails a Saudi official in Washington to give him five days for a team to investigate the explosions. The team consists of Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper, severely hampered by a screenplay that wastes his abilities), Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman, whose only reason for being on this team seems to be so that he can be a victim near the film's end) and, in a completely stupid move considering how Muslims regard women, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner in a performance that should not be featured high in her resume).

The movie's overly long second act has the four of them battling with Saudi police to even have the right to search for and collect evidence and, when that war of wills has been won, an interlude in which the highlight is Sykes wading around in a water-filled bomb crater and the budding budy-buddy relationship between Fleury and Saudi police investigator Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). There's a scene in which four Saudi youths are set up as the perpetrators of the attack on the compound and are killed in a brief gun battle. Told their work here is through, the four FBI agents head for the airport.

Then, in a scene that makes absolutely no sense, except for the fact that it was the easiest way for the screenwriters to get to that slam bang finale, the agents are attacked by the real terrorist cell on their way to the airport. This sets up the last gun battle in which, against all odds, the four of them hold off an attack by a small army of terrorists, even though the four were supposed to have surrendered their weapons when they first arrived in Riyadh, and finally a suspenseful scene inside an apartment .

I've got to give Berg, cameraman Mauro Fiore and art director A. Todd Holland credit for the sense of location they bring to the movie. I really had the feeling of being in Saudi Arabia even though all those scenes were filmed in Arizona. What I can't give Berg credit for, however, is his camera placements during battle scenes. Instead of the occasional long shot that would give us some perspective, Berg tries to imitate the sense of claustrophobia Paul Greengrass created in "The Bourne Ultimatum." The reason Greengrass' techniques worked in that movie, however, was because the fights were one-on-one, not army-on-army as is the case in "The Kingdom."

Grade: C+

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "The Heartbreak Kid"


If you want to know how to take the heart out of "The Heartbreak Kid," just ask the Farrelly Brothers.

Elaine May's 1972 original featured Charles Grodin as the title character, a Jewish kid of extremely low self-esteem who, while on his honeymoon in Miami Beach with his sweet, good natured, but rather plain, wife falls in love with a blond, barely approachable but ultimately shallow shiska goddess, whom he will undoubtedly dump as soon as he wins her.

In the Farrelly Brothers re-working of the film, there is no title character. Instead we have Ben Stiller as Eddie Cantrow falling for and marrying a Cameran Diaz wannabe named Lila (played to the comic hilt by Malin Akerman) who turns out to be the bride from hell. This is not fair. This turnaround makes Eddie the victim and not his bride. Anyway, this time they honeymoon in Mexico (so we get every tasteless ethnic piece of humor the Farrellys can come up with involving Mexicans) where Eddie meets and falls in love with Miranda (Michelle Monaghan, pictured here with Stiller) the ultimate personification of all that's marvelous about southern womanhood. Let's see, which one should he choose, the Bride of Frankenstein or Miss America?

Midway through this thing, however, I'm thinking if Stiller as Eddie is grating on Lila's nerves as much as he is on mine, then the two really do deserve each other or possibly Lila should dump him. Instead of a guy with low self esteem, we get a self-centered jerk--the kind who turns in his leased car every year for the newer updated model strictly out of habit, not because he has actually given the transaction any kind of serious thought.

In the original, I wanted both the Grodin character and his bride to wind up happy, even if it meant they would have to be happy without each other. The sadness came when I realized the Grodin character could never be happy. In this remake, I could care less what happened to Stiller and his bride, as long as it didn't happen anywhere near me. It's difficult to like a romantic comedy when there are no characters in it to root for.

Grade: C-

Sunday, December 23, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "The Last Legion"


Ever seen the one where the swashbuckling masked warrior is eventually unmasked and the warrior turns out to be a beautiful woman? Or how about the one where the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered by the baddies and, just when all hope seems lost, reinforcements come riding over the hill?

Yes, dear friends, those cliches and many more can be found lumbering through "The Last Legion," a Dino de Laurentiis production that looks like the family's credit cards have all been maxed out.

"The Last Legion" tells the story of the Last Caesar, or perhaps The Littlest Caesar, or ... oh, anyway he's this brat of a kid named Romulus (Thomas Sangster) who, on the day he's crowned emperor of all he surveys, all he surveys is overrun by heathens who kill mommy and daddy and send him off in shackles to the Isle of Capri where he's found, along with his guidance counselor Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley doing his best Obi-Wan Kenobi bit), by Aurelius (Colin Firth) who swore an oath of allegiance to the little pipsqueak, for reasons only the screenwriters understand. Aurelius, Romulus, Obi-Wan and the fetching Aishwarya Rai (pictured above left with Firth) as Mira, this film's Princess Lea, then take off for Britannia where they do battle with other heathens and set the stage for the Arthurian legends.

It's all been done before and a lot better. The battle scenes in this are clumsy, the attempts at humor are forced and some things that happen here are just plain stupid. As the heathens storm Hadrian's Wall, Ambrosinus stands on the wall and fires off two great balls of fire at the approaching enemy. But he stops at two. Why isn't he popping these puppies off at regular intervals? Then there is a bit a few minutes later when Aurelius is getting the whey beat out of him by one of the original heathens (Kevin McKidd) and Romulus is just standing there looking at the whole thing, finally coming to Aurelius' aid at just the last moment. And this kid is someone Aurelius swore allegiance to?

Grade: D

DVD REVIEW: "Once"

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova on the streets of Dublin in "Once"


One of the many charms of "Once," an anti-musical musical, is that it doesn't seem planned out ahead of time. The film appears to be unfolding right before our eyes as though the characters themselves have no idea what the next day will bring either. The people in this movie don't seem to be acting, they seem to be living.

This may be a new, much-welcomed trend in movie musicals, something to separate them from their stage counterparts. Earlier this year, I saw a film very similar to this called "Colma: The Musical," in which the characters didn't burst into song, the songs burst from the characters. And like "Colma," (and unlike those "big musicals" like "Hairspray," "Chicago" et al), "Once" is about people who, even if we don't know folks exactly like them, it's very likely we could. It is also like "Colma" in that its story doesn't take us in traditional directions, but in the directions of real life. Also like "Colma," the location of the story is as much a character as the people are.

The location for "Once" is the streets of Dublin and the first scene of the movie shows us a guitar-strumming angry pop/folk singer (Glen Hansard) in the Van Morrison tradition on those streets singing for loose change and trying to keep a junkie from stealing that change. His anger in these songs is directed at the girlfriend who cheated on him and then moved to London. One night he happens to meet a Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) who also makes her living on the streets selling flowers. She likes his songs and, in talking to him, learns he works by day in his father's vacuum-cleaner repair shop. Just so happens she has a vacuum cleaner that needs to be repaired.

OK, that sounds manufactured, but it really isn't. There's not a manufactured moment in this film. That's the beauty of it. Look at the recent "Hairspray," for example. As delightful as its opening scene is, you are never, never, never going to find a teenage girl bounding down the streets of Baltimore or any other city singing like Nikki Blonsky does in that sequence. And, if you do, she will not wind up in high school classroom, she will wind up in a strait jacket. In "Once," however, the songs happen when songs would naturally happen. One of the best scenes in the movie has Hansard and Irglova (the characters in this movie are not given names) in a music shop where she is allowed to practice her piano playing and they work on their first musical collaboration as she accompanies him on one of the songs he has written.

Another deceptively beautiful moment comes when she purchases batteries for a portable CD player and then walks home singing to one of the songs on the CD. Writer-director John Carney films this extended sequence exactly right, with only one edit, so that we live the moment right along with the enchanting Irglova. Many of the movie's other tunes are heard as they are recording a demo Hansard wants to take to London where he hopes to win a record deal.

Do the two of them fall in love? Of course they do, but their love affair does not take the normal course of traditional love stories. Instead, it takes the course love stories of this type would more likely take. Carney makes no attempt to turn this into a fairytale.

One of the songs in this movie is called "Once" and I guess it's from that song that the film gets its title. However, I prefer to think the film was named because something this special comes along only once in a great long, while.

Grade: A

Saturday, December 22, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Balls of Fury"

Maggie Q and Dan Fogler in "Balls of Fury"

There are two types of people who should see "Balls of Fury": hardcore Def Leppard fans who simply can't hear their heroes enough and those who have this mad desire to see Christopher Walken dressed like the grand marshal of the Chinese New Year parade. And even these two groups should approach this DVD with some trepidation.

The movie stars Dan Fogler who has all the charisma of a ping pong paddle and comes complete with more below the waist/above the knee physical humor than has disgraced any movie in recent memory. Fogler plays ping pong hotshot Randy Daytona who avenges his father's death and helps the FBI combat terrorism by playing in a sudden death table tennis sponsored by international arms dealer Feng (Walken). I suppose we're not supposed to question that this tournament is held "somewhere in Central America" which seems somewhat outside the FBI's jurisdiction, but never mind.

Whenever a player looses a match in this tournament, he is dispatched to ping pong heaven with a poisonous blow dart, leading to the only funny line in this entire movie when Walken says "What part of sudden death didn't you understand?"

We also get Maggie Q wearing a lot of skin-tight shorts, James Hong as a blind ping-pong master, George Lopez completely wasted as an FBI agent, enough homophobic and racist attempts at humor (Chinese people talk funny and eat weird food) to make anyone cringe and, oh, yes, a rousing finish with Def Leppard playing on the soundtrack.

OK, I've said enough because I've probably spent more time writing this review than director Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (who also has an unfunny bit as Randy Daytona's chief ping pong nemesis) spent writing the "Balls of Fury" screenplay.

Grade: D+

Friday, December 21, 2007

DVD Review: "Stardust"

Claire Danes and Charlie Cox in Stardust


To a certain generation, there was no better DVD to pop into the player when you were inviting your best girl over for a pizza and a flick than "The Princess Bride." Now here comes "Stardust" a tongue-in-cheek fairytale adventure to provide the ideal replacement.

Don't be put off by the fact that "Stardust" is directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose only previous directorial effort was the much different "Layer Cake." Well, there are some similarities. "Stardust" has its share of violence, but unlike "Layer Cake," the violence here is part of the fantasy.

The premise of of "Stardust" is simply this. England is divided by a wall. Not a mighty fortress wall, mind you, but one of those typical three-feet high stone jobs you see all over the English countryside. On one side of the wall is ... well, regular England. On the other is this enchanted land called Stormhold. The king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) is dying and is trying to decide which among his cutthroat sons should assume his crown. He takes a jewel, flings it into the air and says whichever son retrieves the gem will become king.

As the jewel flies through the air, it turns into a shooting star that is witnessed on the English side of the wall by the movie's hero Tristan (Charlie Cox) and the woman he is pursuing, Victoria (Sienna Miller). When they see the star crash to earth on the other side of the wall, Tristan vows to retrieve it and bring it back to Victoria as a demonstration of his love for her. Tristan makes it to the place where the star has landed only to learn it has assumed human form, Yvaine (Claire Danes).

Meanwhile, three witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer who steals this movie much in the same way she stole "Hairspray"), want the star so they can cut the heart out of its human form and use it to restore their youth and beauty.

So there you have it. Tristan needs to bring Yvaine back across the wall to Victoria. The sons of the king, led by Septimus (Mark Strong), who dispatches his siblings rather quickly and mercilessly, want the star so they can rule the kingdom. And the witches want to get to Yvaine to cut out her heart.

Vaughn does a masterful job cutting to and from all these different elements and building excitement in the process. It all leads up to a momentous showdown in the witches castle, highlighted by a hilarious bit in which Tristan engages in a sword fight with a dead Septimus whose body is being controlled by Lamia. All this is being witnessed by the ghosts of Septimus' siblings who serve as a macabre Greek chorus. Trust me, the bit works to perfection.

And before I forget: There's another segment in which Tristan and Yvaine hitch a ride aboard a floating pirate ship commanded by Captain Shakespeare. Robert DeNiro plays Captain Shakespeare as though he was Jack Sparrow taken to his most logical and hilarious limit.

So order the pizza, turn the lights down low, and pop "Stardust" into the DVD player. I would, however, think twice before lighting that candle.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 20, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "The Simpsons Movie"


If you ranked all "The Simpsons" television episodes from best to worst and then tried to find a place for "The Simpsons Movie," I think it would fall right about into the middle of the pack. Now Time magazine, no less, calls "The Simpsons" the best television series of the 20th century and if you buy into that assessment, than middle of the pack is pretty darn good.

I must admit: I am not a regular viewer of the television show. Don't let that trouble you, however, because I am not a regular viewer of any television show. That's not snobbery speaking, it's just that in my free time I prefer watching movies, a few select sporting events or reading.

My son, however, loves "The Simpsons" and if the late Sunday NFL game we are watching is on the Fox network, chances are "The Simpsons" will come on as I am preparing Sunday dinner. And often times I have to sneak a peak at what the son's guffawing about.

The movie has fun playing with some of the most often questions asked about the TV show (as in what state is Springfield in) and gets in its usual sarcastic digs at do-gooders, the federal government, religion, fast foods, the oil industry, the rich and pet fads. True, the digs are more like pin pricks than sharp, deep jabs with a hypodermic, but there you have it. "The Simpsons Movie" also wants to make sure you know this is all make-believe, that you can't take any of this seriously, by having us living in a United States in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is president.

Because of another in a long line of stupid Homer Simpson acts, the EPA declares the town of Springfield "the most polluted city on the planet" or somesuch and, to prevent the toxicity spreading, the agency places a giant dome over the entire town, sealing all its residents inside. Homer and family escape, however, and try to make a new life in Alaska (an expansion of the television show's field of vision I guess the 11 screenwriters involved in this--that's right, 11 of 'em--felt was necessary to justify expanding a television show into a movie). But the Simpsons are visited by the specter of Tom Hanks, more or less, who tells them that now the EPA is going to nuke Springfield right off planet Earth. The family sets off to save their hometown (Homer is nudged along by an Inuit medicine woman) and Homer, with the aide of Bart and some daredevil motorcycling, eventually saves the day.

What's funny about "The Simpsons Movie" is not what happens, but what is said, especially in little side remarks. However, I'm not going to spoil them for you by repeating them here. There is also a clever spoof of Austin Powers in a scene where a naked Bart skateboards through Springfield and a marvelous bit that involves Marge and Homer after they discover they are alone in their Alaskan cabin and can share a romantic interlude. And the moment the family first crosses the Alaskan state line is a howl.

If you are a fan of the TV show, I don't need to tell you to rent this film, because you have probably already purchased it as a Christmas present for someone in your family. If you are not a Simpsons watcher but want to know what all the fuss is about, this is a very fine introduction to what I'll call the most anarchistic family comedy of the 20th century. It may not make you a faithful follower, but, then, who knows.

Grade: A-

Actors shave 'Sweeney Todd'


The Oscar momentum building for "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" has been dealt a major setback. The Screen Actors Guild has announced its nominations for year-end awards and "Sweeney" is nowhere to be found. "Atonement," which is listed by many as a co-favorite with "No Country for Old Men" as the Oscar winner for best picture, also received zero nominations from SAG. The reason this is important is because actors make up the largest Oscar voting bloc.

Interestingly, Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," which was shutout by the Golden Globes, got the biggest boost from SAG with four nominations, more than any another film. SAG calls its best picture category Outstanding Performance by a Motion Picture Cast and there were many surprises in this field. "No Country for Old Men" made the cut, which wasn't a surprise, but the other four nominees were somewhat of a shock to me: "American Gangster," "Hairspray," "Into the Wild" and "3:10 to Yuma." The only one of those I can possibly see with a best picture Oscar nomination is "Gangster."

Actor nominees were George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"; Daniel Day Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"; Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"; Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild"; and Viggo Mortenson, "Eastern Promises." Of those, only Clooney and Lewis seem sure things for Oscar nominations.

Actress nominees: Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Julie Christie, "Away From Her"; Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"; Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart"; and Ellen Page, "Juno". Except for Blanchett, no real surprises here.

Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; Javier Bardeem, "No Country for Old Men"; Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"; Tommy Lee Jones, "No Country for Old Men"; Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton". Jones is a minor surprise in this field.

Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"; Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"; Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild; Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"; and Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton." This slate, with the possible exception of Keener, could be the same as the one for the Oscar.

How much stake can these nominations be for an Oscar forecast. Well, SAG nominated neither "The Queen" or "Sands of Iwo Jima" for its top award last year and both were nominated for best picture Oscars. But you can bet the winners here, which will be announced Jan. 27, will be high among the Oscar favorites, which does not bode well for "Sweeney Todd" and "Atonement."

DVD REVIEW: "Interview"

Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller in "Interview"


I remember standing backstage in the press section at the 1979 Grammy Awards ceremonies. The press section is where, after someone has received a Grammy, he or she, along with the celebrity presenter, is ushered to so that they can be interviewed. This was when pop music journalism was still in its infancy and I found myself surrounded by a lot of sportswriters whose editors gave them the additional assignment of covering the Grammies. Emmylou Harris was one of the award winners that year for her album "Blue Kentucky Girl." I first noticed Ms. Harris six years earlier when she recorded the album "Grievous Angel" with Gram Parsons. She released her first solo effort, "Pieces of the Sky" in 1975 and had at least three other marvelous albums to her credit before "Blue Kentucky Girl." So it was an embarrassment to me and it had to be a slap in the face to Ms. Harris when she was brought into the media room and one of these sports writer types shoved to the front to ask her "How does it feel to win a Grammy with your very first record."

I remembered that incident watching the opening moments of
Steve Buscemi's "Interview," in which he plays a journalist, Pierre Peders, totally unprepared to interview Katya (Sienna Miller), a beautiful star of horror movies and a television program that is supposed to be something like "Sex in the City." In fact, I not only remembered it, I completely bought into the fact that Peders, who works for a weekly news magazine and thinks of himself as a hot-shot investigative political reporter, would go into this assignment with complete disdain for the subject matter. What happens next in this movie, however, I didn't buy into.

First, a little background on why this movie even exists. It is a remake of a 2003 movie ofthe same name by Dutch filmmaker
Theo van Gogh, a direct descendant of Vincent's brother. Van Gogh, who gained a reputation as an outspoken opponent of political Islam, planned to remake the film along with two others in the United States. However, on Nov. 2, 2004, as he was bicycling to work, he was shot to death by a countryman with ties to terrorist groups. As a tribute to van Gogh, Buscemi and two other American actor-directors got together to remake three of van Gogh's film. This is the first of the three.

Peders and Katya meet in a restaurant where they trade insults and from which both leave seething with anger at the other. But when Katya feels responsible for Peders getting into an accident, she takes him to her loft apartment where the bulk of the film takes place and where we see a very elementary remake of "
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" ("You tell me your deepest, darkest secret and I'll tell you mine"). So while I did buy into the basic premise of this movie I certainly didn't buy into the idea that this reporter or any legitimate reporter would be mentally seduced like Peders is, nor did I accept the idea that Katya's handlers (agents, managers, publicists, etc.) would allow her to do a late-night interview in her apartment during which she drinks heavily, snorts a couple lines of coke, sexually body presses Peders into the kitchen counter and basically toys with the poor guy for an hour.

I did, however, thoroughly enjoy watching Buscemi and Miller go through the explorations of these two characters. It was fascinating to see the layers being revealed. Buscemi is a wonderful actor, never showy, always feeling at home in whatever role he plays. And Miller nails perfectly the actress who knows that she isn't the greatest talent in the business, but is her own distinct person and is entitled to being unique, the woman who is smart enough to how how to play dumb.

Grade: B-



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Been a long, long, long, long time




Last Saturday I was riding to Austin with a dear, dear friend to attend an annual party there and during the trip the topic of conversation turned (perhaps I steered it to) the recent Led Zeppelin reunion concert. Part of the conversation touched on Zep's 1977 Dallas concert appearance.

So today, Robert Wilonsky over at Unfair Park had an item about the Zep and made reference to this Web site. I would love to be able to tell you, dear readers, that it brought back a flood of memories, but, frankly, I don't even remember writing that stuff. I guess that's the price of daily journalism.


DVD Review: "December Boys"

Christian Byers, Daniel Radcliffe, Lee Cormie in "December Boys."


Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter got his first kiss in the recent "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." He gets kissed and a lot more in "December Boys," an otherwise dull and predictable tale of four orphans who spend their Christmas holidays on an Australian shore.

December, of course, is the height of summer in Australia but the four orphans are called the December Boys because they were all born in the last month of the year. The four are Maps (Radcliffe), Misty (Lee Cormie), Sparks (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser). Radcliffe gets top billing because everyone knows him from the Potter series and it's his name that attracts attention. The movie, however, is really Misty's story.

The four are in a Catholic orphanage in the desolate Australian outback so this trip the shore is really a gift. They are housed by a nautical couple, Bandy (Jack Thompson) and his cancer-stricken wife (Kris McQuade). Once there they learn that a neighboring couple, Fearless (Sullivan Stapleton), so named because he's a motorcycle daredevil, and his wife Teresa (Victoria Hill), who gets boys' hormones raging as soon as they arrive, may adopt one of them. Misty goes out of his way to make sure that he's the one selected. Maps, meanwhile, enjoys a bittersweet dalliance with Lucy (the captivating Teresa Palmer).

I was interested in seeing this movie to see whether Radcliffe possessed the acting chops to carry a straight dramatic role (he does) and whether he had the star power to elevate such a vehicle (the jury's still out on that but based on this effort I would have to say no). There are a lot of hokey religious references and the boys spot saints in the unlikeliest of places. There's also a tacked-on ending that raises more questions than it answers and is completely unnecessary.

The cinematography, however, is brilliant. The way David Connell captures the locations almost makes you forget just how simplistic the rest of this effort is.

Grade C:

Oscar Nomination Scorecard II


These results are based on polling of Oscar voters who are asked to rank their nominees in order of preference, just like the actual Oscar nomination process works. This time around I have not included the screenplay and technical categories and concentrated on those most people care about. The first percentage number listed is the percent of the total points the entry received. The percentage in parenthesis reflects the change plus (+) or minus (-) from that entry's percentage two weeks ago. The results

Picture
"No Country for Old Men" has, on the strength of a number of critics' awards, jumped into the lead over "Atonement." "Juno" has also picked up a lot of support, but the movie that really seems to be gaining momentum is "Sweeney Todd." "Sweeney" has opened to sterling reviews and could really pick up steam when it goes into wider release at the end of the year. It is kind of the reverse of last year's musical, "Dreamgirls," which started the season as the Oscar favorite (largely because of its year-long Oscar campaign) and faded mightily as the season wore on. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" also increased dramatically, but, unlike "Sweeney," I don't expect it to climb higher in the coming pollings. In somewhat of a surprise, "Michael Clayton" is getting a lot of renewed interest, possibly because films voters were expecting to be contenders (i.e. "Charlie Wilson's War") aren't what they promised to be, so voters are going back to earlier films like "Clayton." Support for "American Gangster" is rapidly falling. The current standings:
No Country for Old Men 26.9% (+ 9%)
Atonement 24.6% (- 5.6%)
Juno 12.2% (+ 6%)
Sweeney Todd 9% (+ 1.6%)
There Will Be Blood 6.6% (- 3.9%)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 6.1% (+ 5.8%)
Michael Clayton 5.7% (+ 3.8%)
American Gangster 3.1% ( - 8.6%)
Into the Wild 2.3% (- 2%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "Zodiac," "Once," "The Kite Runner," "In the Valley of Elah" and "Grace Is Gone."

Director
Mirroring the best picture race, the Coens have taken the favorite's spot from Joe Wright. But while "Juno" is third in the picture balloting, its director, Jason Reitman, is an also-ran. Tim Burton, Julian Schnabel and Sidney Lumet all picked up additional support in this polling period while Ridley Scott is falling like the picture he directed.
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men 28.9% (+ 9%)
Joe Wright: Atonement 17.2% (- 9.57%)
Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd 11.5% (+ 4.7%)
Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood 10.6% (- 3.1%)
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 10.2% (+ 8.3%)
Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead 5.3% (+ 2.8%)
Ridley Scott, American Gangster 5.2% (- 10.3%)
Sean Penn, Into the Wild 4.7% (- 0.3%)
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton 2% (+ 2%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): Mike Nichols, "Charlie Wilson's War"; Jason Reitman, "Juno"; David Fincher, "Zodiac"; Sarah Polley, "Away From Her"; Todd Haynes, "I'm Not There"; David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises."

Actor
The surprise here is George Clooney jumping into third place, although Daniel Day-Lewis continues to have a stranglehold on this category. James McAvoy and Tommy Lee Jones each lost a lot of support, although McAvoy still looks to be a good bet for the fifth nominee. Watch out for Frank Langella, however, especially if his film can be seen by more voters.
Daniel Day Lewis: There Will Be Blood 28.1% (- 1.1%)
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd 17.3% (+ 0.5%)
George Clooney, Michael Clayton 14% (+ 9.7%)
Denzel Washington, American Gangster 12.4% (- 3.1%)
James McAvoy, Atonement 9.6% (- 7.8%)
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah 3.1% (- 4.4%)
Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening 3% (+ 3%)
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises 2.4% (- 1.3%)
Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men 2.3% (+ 2.3%)
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild 2.1% (+ 0.9%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): John Cusack, "Grace Is Gone"; Benicio Del Toro, "Things We Lost in the Fire"; Don Cheadle, "Talk to Me"; Brad Pitt, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson's War"; Mathieu Almaric, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Casey Affleck, "Gone Baby Gone"; Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"; Will Smith, "I am Legend"; Sam Riley, "Control"; Tony Leung, "Lust, Caution."

Actress
Based largely on her critics awards, Julie Christie has jumped from third to first, but just barely in front of Marion Cotillard. Right now I'm betting the top four in this category are all locks for nominations and the race is for the fifth spot. It's also interesting to note that Helena Bonham Carter, who registered strongly in the supporting category for her "Sweeney" role in the last polling, did better this time in the lead category.
Julie Christie, Away From Her 26.6% (+ 8.7%)
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose 26.1% (+ 0.2%)
Ellen Page, Juno 17.9% (- 3.7%)
Keira Knightley, Atonement 10.2% (- 1.57%)
Amy Adams, Enchanted 6.8% (no change)
Laura Linney, The Savages 5.8% (- 0.4%)
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart 2.6% (+ 0.1%)
Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd 2.5% (+ 2.5%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): Marketa Irglova, "Once"; Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Wang Tei, "Lust, Caution"; Nicole Kidman, "Margot at the Wedding."

Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men 31% (+ 0.2%)
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild 16.8% (+ o.8%)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War 16% (+ 4.9%)
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton 14.4% (- 2.9%)
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 9.8% (- 0.5%)
Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood 4.5% (- 1.1%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): Philip Bosco, "The Savages"; Tommy Lee Jones, "No Country for Old Men"; Robert Downey Jr., "Zodiac"; Max Von Sydow, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Ben Foster, "3:10 to Yuma"; Albert Finney, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"; Jack Black, "Margot at the Wedding"; John Travolta, "Hairspray"; Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sweeney Todd"; Ed Harris, "Gone Baby Gone"; Russell Crowe, "American Gangster."

Supporting Actress
The major news here is the big jump by Amy Ryan who is now giving once-runaway frontrunner Cate Blanchett a contest. It's also going to be interesting to see who might get the fifth spot in this category in a race between the rookie (Jennifer Garner) and the veteran (Ruby Dee).
Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There 27.3% (- 5%)
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone 24.2% (+ 9.9%)
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton 15.3% (+ 5.4%)
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement 12.9% (- 0.8%)
Jennifer Garner, Juno 3.5% (+ 3.5%)
Ruby Dee, American Gangster 2.8% (+ 2.8%)
Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement 2.4% (- 2.6%)
Others receiving mentions (in order of points scored): Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd"; Jennifer Jason Leigh, "Margot at the Wedding"; Marisa Tomei, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"; Romola Garai, "Atonement"; Marie-Josee Croze, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Emmanuelle Seigner, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild"; Meryl Streep, "Lions for Lambs"; Olympia Dukakis, "Away From Her."

Memo to Mayor Leppert: Give credit when and where it's due


One of the many issues former Dallas City Councilman Garry Griffith was passionate about was panhandling, especially around the Lakewood Shopping Center. The center was a mecca for beggars. I remember one sunny afternoon after a lunch at Cantina Laredo a panhandler approached a woman about to enter the restaurant and asked her for some money. She reached into her purse and gave him a 20-dollar bill. I was about to rush home, put on some scrubby clothes, return and work the neighborhood myself.

But the Lakewood merchants were alarmed, especially when the panhandlers became more aggressive. Led by Mr. Griffith, as part of his efforts to reduce crime throughout his District 9, and Carol Hensley, who had formed the Lakewood Business Association in part to help fight the panhandling, they began a campaign to drive the panhandlers out of Lakewood. Their first effort was basically a "Just say no" program. The theory was (and is) simple: If the panhandlers realize the Lakewood money fountain has dried up, they will move elsewhere. The problem is that it didn't work so well because (1) the Panhandlers became even more threatening and (2) there are a lot of people in Dallas with good hearts who just want to help those less fortunate than they.

So Ms. Hensley organized a business Volunteers in Patrol program with the help of the Dallas Police Department and Mr. Griffith came up with something called "the Apple campaign." The way it worked was something like this. Those Lakewood merchants who were part of the campaign had large apple posters in their store windows and plates of fresh fruit inside their stores. The stores also provided lists of charities in Dallas that helped the homeless and other unfortunates. If a shopper was accosted by a panhandler, he or she would give the beggar some fruit and also could make a donation to the charity. Mr. Griffith even convinced a local advertising company to donate its efforts to create a logo and to help spread the word.

This morning, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, along with John Crawford, president and CEO of DowntownDallas, and city council members Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano announced the launching of something they are calling "Lend a Hand," which is nothing more than a blatant ripoff of Mr. Griffith's Apple campaign. The program is worthwhile, I guess, but instead of patting themselves on their collective backs they should be giving Mr. Griffith some acknowledgement, especially since he recently briefed Mr. Crawford on the Lakewood effort.

A few thoughts on Nicole Kidman and Diane Keaton


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus
Nicole Kidman always gives the appearance of having a thick skin. Good thing.

Forbes magazine branded her the most overpaid actress on Hollywood's ever-fluctuating A-list. Her current big-budget opus "The Golden Compass" quickly headed south, as did the recent "The Invasion," both with Daniel Craig. Meanwhile, her indie effort "Margot at the Wedding" sharply divided critics and remains only a middling performer on the art house circuit.

"Margot at the Wedding" actually has several points in its favor, most specifically the manner in which it captures the edginess of some family reunions. As such, it's a welcome antidote to the popular "
Dan in Real Life," wherein family members are so snug and cozy you expect them to bring out a box of puppets and start singing "The Lonely Goatherd."

But director
Noah Baumbach, whose previous dsyfunctional-family dramedy "The Squid and the Whale" was poignant and haunting, uses "Margot" as a canvas for characters I couldn't wait to get away from his in-your-face style mirrors his in-your-face characters. And none is more in your face than Kidman's Margot. She's a ferociously judgmental and arrogant writer. An ice goddess and proud of it, she loves her intuitive but troubled adolescent son, yet berates him with a professional writer's cold precision.

Kidman's never been afraid of playing unpleasant people, which is to her credit. But in "Margot," she fails to walk the tightrope of playing an irritating person without seeming like an irritating actor.

Truth is, she's never carried a major box-office champion. Both "
Cold Mountain" and "The Interpreter" earned solid rather than spectacular figures. Even the much-hyped "Moulin Rouge" underperformed with ticketbuyers. And such purely commercial ventures as "Bewitched" and "The Stepford Wives" were turkeys.

She's always been aware of her place in Hollywood hierarchy. In 1992, Nic 'n
Cruise were giving interviews for "Far and Away." (That uneven epic, of course, was released during their "cute couple" days, when she always referred to her then-husband by his last name and he always called her "Nic.") She proudly cited that she was the first star to be cast in an upcoming thriller "Malice," with Alec Baldwin later signed as co-star.

"This is the first time I've been cast before the male lead," she told the media. "That's an important sign to me."

Also important to her is establishing "street cred" -- acceptance by those who crave independent film fare and care not the tiniest Raisinette for hopeful blockbusters. That's a difficult feat for a
Chanel No. 5 spokeswoman, and she hasn't managed it gracefully. "Dogville" was a success, but "Birth" and "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" were as misguided as "Bewitched" and "The Stepford Wives."

One of her few roles to earn both "street cred" and mainstream acceptance was the lethally ambitious aspiring newscaster of "
To Die For." Yet that character hinted that she was in a no-win situation, with many moviegoers sneering, "She's just playing herself." Her undeniable beauty has an aloof quality, and she indeed oozes ambition as shamelessly as any Joan Crawford-ish Old Hollywood diva.

Still, most of her directors praise her efforts. Texas native
Robert Benton guided her through "The Human Stain" and "Billy Bathgate," both based on difficult-to-adapt novels. He gratefully cited her efforts to make the filming of "Billy Bathgate" flow as gracefully as possible, saying that she recognized that other cast members were not doing the same (an unspecified reference to Dustin Hoffman.)

So what's ahead for Diva Nicole? She's now 40, generally considered a difficult age for actresses. But for her, it could be a blessing. Despite her mainstream aspirations, many of her choices reflect the taste of a character actress. Yet her beauty could prevent her from attaining that lofty if unglamorous goal. After all, how many fake noses can win an Oscar?

Like I said, sometimes she's in a no-win situation.

*********

Another actress submitted to public scourging, albeit not as drastically as in Forbes Magazine, is
Diane Keaton.

In an interview in England's
The Independent, Rupert Everett moans about how legendary actors have become grotesque parodies of themselves. He lists all the usual suspects: DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, Redford. But he also adds Keaton's name, having just seen "Because I Said So" and finding her performance an impure self-parody. (If you're thinking that Everett's own movie career hasn't exactly zoomed since "My Best Friend's Wedding," he blames that on "Hollywood's homophobia.")

Maybe Rupe should lighten up on Keaton. She's now 61 years old and is still playing lead roles. But she knows and accepts the position of a sexagenarian actress in Hollywood. Four years ago, she won an Oscar nomination for the hit comedy "
Something's Gotta Give" and was asked if she felt it would nudge her career in new directions.

"Oh, no, not at all," she said with a laugh. "There's no such thing as a new direction for an actress my age. I'll be offered the same types of roles, and I'll play them happily. There are young directors I would love to work with --
Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola. Oh, how I would love to work with Sofia, having been directed by her father and having acted alongside her!
But I have to face facts. They're young talents and they don't usually direct films with parts for women my age."

Her career always has been marked by dry patches brightened by sudden creative bursts. After starring in the
"Father of the Bride" sequel and, even more ignominiously, doing a voice-over for the "Look Who's Talking" sequel, she suddenly had a hit comedy with "The First Wives Club" and an Oscar nomination for "Marvin's Room." She gave a touching, truly heartfelt performance in the latter film, and in a cast of Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Hume Cronyn and the pre-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio, she was the sole Oscar nominee.

She's also one of the few contemporary actresses who one day might make a sensational subject for a biographer. That's not merely a sly reference to her relationships with
Woody 'n Warren 'n Al but also a salute to her survival instincts. She doesn't have the same choice of roles she once did. She knows it and accepts it. That's the sure sign of a survivor.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wanna get away for a while?


I recently had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Inn at Sandy Creek on Rancho Sereno. The experience made me want to spend a few days there.

I'm not the kind of person who relaxes easily. I need to be doing something all the time. That's one of the reasons I began this blog. But the Inn at Sandy Creek accomplished the impossible ... it got me to relax.

The four-room Inn is located about an hour north of Dallas, just outside of Whitesboro. It's only 10 minutes from Lake Texoma; but unless you really need to put a speedboat in a larger body of water, forget Lake Texoma because right there on the grounds of the Inn is a five-acre lake stocked with largemouth bass.

The Inn's "great room" is adjacent to a gourmet kitchen where breakfast is served each morning. Just outside the great room is a heated, screened dining porch and outside of that is a large deck that overlooks the lake.

Now this place is definitely out in the country. I did not see anything I would call a "supermarket" once I left the Plano city limits. Having said this, the Inn at Sandy Creek is "roughing it" like the Mansion on Turtle Creek is "roughing it." The great room I referenced earlier features a stone fireplace that separates the oval dining table area from the area where you can gather to watch the 48-inch flat screen high definition satellite television.

But I've saved the best for last: the guest rooms. The picture above is the view from one of the guest rooms. C'mon, just imagine waking up to that. Two of the guest rooms, each with their own separate entrance, are part of the lodge and offer immediate access to all its amenities. But my favorites -- the ones I want to return to for a longer visit--are located in separate cottages a couple hundred feet from the main lodge, offering even more seclusion and privacy. The room rates include a fresh cooked breakfast served in the great room from 7:30 to 9 a.m. on the weekends (continental breakfast on weekdays), afternoon tea (I mean, how civilized is that?) and unlimited self help to beverages and ice from the outdoor pavilion kitchen (one of the best barbecue pits I've ever seen is also in this pavilion.)

Does it lack anything? Well, yes. The whole time I was relaxing at the Inn I kept looking at a spot where I said to myself "I would love to put a horseshoe pit right there." Now I will admit I'm of two minds about the horseshoes. There's a part of me that says horseshoes with some other guests could be a lot of fun and would amount to all the exertion I would like to have in a relaxing heaven such as this. Then another part of me says I don't want the clanging of horseshoes interrupting my reveries.

The mention of horseshoes, however, reminds me of something else. Rancho Sereno is a 16.5 acre private quarter horse ranch and wildlife preserve in addition to the site of the Inn at Sandy Creek. It is located in the heart of the Texas horse country, within minutes of the most recognized trainers and breeders of quarter horses in the United States. That makes the Inn the perfect place to say for those horse owners and professionals visiting and possibly shopping in the area.

You can find out more by going to www.ranchosereno.com or by calling 214-502-2403. I promise you, for a getaway weekend, the Inn at Sandy Creek can't be beat. Perhaps we can all get together for a game of horseshoes, the Super Bowl, the Mavs in the playoffs or just to read and swap some good books and other tales.

DVD REVIEW: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Daniel Radcliffe as a more tormented Harry Potter

The first two Harry Potter films, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" were fun bits of whimsy filled with some thrilling set pieces. With the second two films, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the franchise really took off. Now here comes a giant step backward with the confusing "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the adaptation of the longest of the J.K. Rowling novels, yet the the film with the shortest running time of the five.

But that short running time could be a good thing, as this film seems closer to one conceived by Ingmar Bergman than Chris Columbus, the director of the first two films in the franchise. "Phoenix" is deary, it's slow and it's special effects don't seem all that special. What elevates it even to the level of the first two is impeccable acting by what seems like today's British Who's Who of film talent. Even the film's three leads, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger have grown immeasurably into their roles as they mature from adolescence into young adulthood.

And perhaps that's the problem with the film as the students at Hogwarts school for wizards and magicians are now struggling with the problems of young adults which are, quite obviously, far more serious and certainly more ominous than those of adolescents. This is, without question, the darkest of the five films.

It begins with Harry going on trial for using his magic in public around Muggles. (By the way, if you have yet to be introduced to the Harry Potter phenomenon, do not start with this movie and quit reading this review right now.) But the charges seem merely an excuse to expose Harry's guilt in the death of Cedric Diggory, who was killed by the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) at the end of "Goblet of Fire." But in this political allegory, the Ministry of Magic buries its head in the sand refusing to acknowledge Voldemart is even alive and Harry is branded Harry Plotter. The ministry even sends a representative, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton plays her like Mr. Chips crossed with Mr. Hyde), to Hogwarts as the new professor of dark arts to make sure Harry toes the party line. She also does her best to isolate Harry from the rest of the students.

But that's not his only sense of isolation. The once protective headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) prefers to keep a safe distance from Harry and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) lets Harry know that he's too young to join the Order in the fight against Voldemort. All the while, however, signs are pointing to an ultimate showdown between Harry and the Dark Lord which means, I'm afraid, episodes six and seven in the series may even get darker than this one.

Director David Yates doesn't have the style of an Aflonso Cuaron ("Azkaban") or Mike Newell ("Goblet"), but then he doesn't fumble the ball either. It seems to be that there is a lot more plotting, a lot more preparation and a lot less action in this film than in the others.

And, in addition to the fine actors already mentioned plus Helena Bonham Carter (as a witch who would repel the witches of "Sleeping Beauty"), Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman (whose Severus Snape reveals here what he has against Harry), Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson and Julie Walters, this movie introduces us Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, the weirdest of all the witches and someone I will look forward to seeing in future Harry Potter films.

Grade: B