Tag Archives: Tommy Lee Jones

727 – The Family (***)

Whatcha gonna do with that match, Michelle?  Image from Collider.com.
Whatcha gonna do with that match, Michelle? Image from Collider.com.
The Family, a dazzling, profane, hilarious mob film from Luc Besson, includes – I am not kidding – a great performance by Robert De Niro, an actor who, for the better part of a decade has made plenty of paycheck films. But whatever he was paid for this, it’s clear this was no cash grab. The writing – by Besson and Michael Caleo – is top notch, oozing vicious decadence from every pore, and the rest of the cast, including a terrifying turn from Michelle Pfeiffer, is up to the task. This is vintage De Niro in his kind of movie.

De Niro plays Fred Blake (not his real name), the patriarch of a high-ranking mob family who’s turned snitched for the Feds. Since his snitching, he’s had to move several times, often because he and his clan (wife “Maggie” and kids “Belle” and “Warren”) can’t help but revert to their old ways. Now they find themselves in Normandy, which is known for being a landing place for the U.S. military in WW II – and little else. Assimilation won’t be easy; it never has been.

Each family member runs into their own brand of trouble. Son Warren (John D’Leo) is bullied at school on the first day, so he wheels and deals to set up the bullies for a fall. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) deals her own justice to mean girls and overly friendly boys. Neither is to be trifled with. Wife Maggie, insulted in French at a grocery store, takes matters into her own hands. Yeah, revenge is not a foreign concept to this group.

Fred slips when he meets his next-door neighbor and mentions that he’s a writer, yeah, that’s the ticket, and he’s writing a book on the landing at Normandy. To be clear, Fred is not only not a writer, he’s not a historical scholar. This will make the cover tough, won’t it? But two variables change that equation: Fred’s discovery of an old typewriter in the house and a phone call from a local English professor, who subsequently invites the local American writer to a film-society screening so that he can offer his input from an intellectual standpoint. It might not surprise you that the scheduled film, Some Came Running, does not arrive; what might surprise you is the one that does, a perfect piece of self-awareness that is one of the highest moments in a film full of them.

But this is no simple fish-out-of-water movie. You know, of course, that ol’ Fred helped the Feds. Well, guess who’s looking for him and his family? Mob guys! So the mob’s hot on their trail, there are real-life obstacles like terrible jealous girls, school muscleheads, lying plumbers, cheating mayors, and corrupt water-plant presidents. This is the kind of movie where everything that’s not nailed down gets either blown up or used as a weapon.

De Niro is terrific, definitely, with work that at least rivals his role in The Silver Linings Playbook, but he’s not the only standout here. Michelle Pfeiffer’s NY/NJ accent sounds authentic – perhaps remembering her work in Scarface and Frankie and Johnny, both with Al Pacino – and she’s amazing, tough, and beautiful as the resiliant Maggie Blake. But the fun doesn’t stop with Pfeiffer – both D’Leo and Agron nail their roles gracefully and realistically. You’d want these kids on your team, is what I’m getting at. Like their pop, they don’t suffer fools gladly and are a heck of a lot smarter than they may appear.

Also on board as the agent in charge of the “Blake” family is the hound dog Tommy Lee Jones, looking and sounding like he was fresh off the set of The Fugitive. He growls, he complains, he threatens, he cajoles – all to keep Fred and family relatively clean, and to little avail. Hey, wiseguys are gonna do what wiseguys wanna do, capisce? Jones’ signature mopiness is a perfect fit for the part.

Rest assured that although there is plenty of gunplay – particularly at the end – it’s the comedy, the subtle injections of humor into an otherwise black-hearted plot – that really fill out the film. It helps that each of the leads – including Jones – has sound comic timing. Comedy properly deployed is much more effective than that fired from a Gatling gun of jokes.

The Family is, certainly the kind of movie that De Niro has appeared in several times, so much so that he could play the role of a mafioso in his sleep. But he doesn’t mail this one in at all. He’s charming and engaged and once again shows himself to be one of the very greatest actors of his generation.

The Family: ***

The only Oscars picks you’ll ever need, probably

Oscars-2013Oh, yes. Here it is. The moment one of us has been waiting for: my Oscar picks!

This seems like a good time to point out that we do have polls still running. I’ll close them shortly before the show itself.

As in years past, I’ve made a concerted effort to go out and see these movies in the theater, and I did manage to cover most of them. I had no desire to see Les Miserables or Amour, and I just missed out on The Sessions and The Impossible. But enough chit-chat, let’s see who’s going to win the 85th Academy Awards!

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

My Pick: Lincoln. Everything about this movie clicked for me. This is a case filled with veteran actors, and each seems to pull out all the stops to deliver their best work in ages. Heck, it even managed to make the internecine quality of politics in general to seem rather exciting. It’s a nearly flawless movie – even though you know exactly how it’ll end! Its best competition will be Argo, but the fact that Ben Affleck didn’t get a nod for Best Director might indicate that his movie won’t win for Best Picture. Or not. I’m going with Lincoln.

Best Director

Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ben Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

My Pick: Well, I have to go with the Best Picture/Best Director theory. If I’m going to pick Lincoln, then I should pick Steven Spielberg to win here, and I really think he deserves it. With no Affleck, I’d say Spielberg’s big competition would be Russell or Lee, but this is a Steven win.

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

My Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s a time-machine movie. Those Lincolns from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter pale in comparison, as well they should. Seriously, could it be anyone else winning this award? Maybe Cooper, who was a surprise standout. Did not see Les Mis, so I can’t comment on Wolverine’s singing ability (others sure have). Phoenix wasn’t too bad, although the movie was; Washington was mediocre at best and didn’t deserve a nomination here. Bill Murray, of Hyde Park on Hudson, sure did.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

My Pick: Jennifer Lawrence. She owned the movie. Owned it. This is the year of the Lawrence. Well, 2012 was. Anyway, I didn’t get to see The Impossible, but I think Watts would be a dark horse. Chastain is the closest competition for Lawrence, truly the best aspect of a ho-hum action movie. Riva an Wallis fall into the “just happy to be here” category, although I will say that Wallis was sensational. Hope she keeps up the good work.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

My Pick: Boy, is this a toughie. I’m eliminating Hoffman, who I felt was pretty bad in a pretty bad movie. I want De Niro to win, because I feel his work in this movie was his best in maybe decades. I don’t think Arkin should win, because he’s not in the movie much and was nominated for one line he spoke about five different times. Jones, I thought, was great but was essentially playing the same Tommy Lee Jones character we’ve seen for eons – grumpy old bastard. This means I pick Christoph Waltz to take home the gold. The German actor is pitch perfect in his very deliberate delivery.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

My Pick: Sally Field. Yes, I know the buzz right now is for Hathaway, but I have my doubts. Being the best in a movie that sort of underperformed (I’ve read, and maybe this is wrong, that the earlier movie versions and even stage versions were superior to this lavish movie) doesn’t mean you should be considered the best of the best. I wish I’d seen The Sessions, although I’m glad Helen Hunt is still awesome. Adams was a bright spot in a dismal movie. Weaver has only a few scenes in her film and contributes virtually nothing. So for me, it’s Field’s to lose. She completely dominated the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, to the surprise of many.

Okay, so there they are, my picks for the top six categories. I’d have typist’s cramp if I went into all of the slots, and most people don’t care about them anyway. I do hope Argo and Django and Moonrise Kingdom and Life of Pi get something. Here’s hoping!

Best Supporting Actor Poll

Pretty good choices here, but isn’t it funny how Hoffman gets a supporting nod for The Master when his character was, in fact, The Master? Either way, I hope he doesn’t win.

690 – Lincoln (****)

Image from thesevensees.com.
Image from thesevensees.com.
Can anyone truly be surprised that Lincoln, starring the gifted Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg, is an out-of-the-park, instant classic? The movie was destined for success as soon as those two signed on, and do they ever deliver. Lincoln is a powerful, provocative, timely piece of art that is so well crafted that it diverts focus, as needed, from the president to the issues at hand – the potential end to the Civil War and the potential ratification of the 13th Amendment.

The movie covers the time period of December 1864 until Lincoln’s death in April 1865, with attention paid in equal amounts to the aforementioned national issues and the character of the 16th president himself, a tactful, down-home man who suppresses his emotions at the expense of his health. His is the most exasperating of dilemmas: should he agree to a peaceful accord with the confederates – and thus risk losing the fight against slavery for all time – or allow the bloodiest war to continue – and thus hope that the surrender would compel the defecting states to observe an amendment to abolish slavery? Ah, but of course there’s even more to consider – would said amendment even pass? As more and more young men die each day, the decision becomes burdensome, almost Sisyphusian task.

In 1865, it was the Republican Party that was anti-slavery, made up mostly of Northerners, with Democrats coming from the South. In order for the amendment to pass, all of Lincoln’s Republicans would need to vote for it – plus a good number of Democrats. As today, lobbyists were deployed, by the Secretary of State (David Strathairn), to convince undecided politicians to vote for the amendment if and when it was presented for a vote. Meanwhile, the confederates are requested by a Lincoln emissary to travel from Richmond to Washington to talk – but will they arrive in time? And is this what the president truly wants?

One thing is for certain: the machinations within political circles has not changed all that much. Secretary Seward attempts to woo some lame-duck senators with promises of jobs in Lincoln’s new administration, but there are only so many jobs to go around. As these negotiations and overtures go on, the War Secretary (Bruce McGill) orders a massive attack on the rebels. Lincoln’s own son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is frustrated by his father’s refusal to allow him to enlist, and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) has tremendous mood swings and could well be mentally unstable.

Standing tall above the fray is the inscrutable, yet vulnerable Lincoln himself. He sees his end and believes he can find the means to achieve it, but at what cost? See if this sounds familiar. One argument brought up by a senator against the abolition of slavery is that it would lead to Negros getting the right to vote, to be on the same ground as white folks. Topical, isn’t it, with current talk about immigrants and their standing in our country. Lincoln himself puzzles over the ramifications, but he is convinced that he must first get the amendment passed and then worry about the consequences. Why? Here’s a sneak-peak story. Lincoln wonders if we are born equal, if we are born for certain times or if we must fit into the times into which we are born. He even uses a Euclidean notion to prove a point, along with countless other stories with some sort of impetus behind them. This Abraham Lincoln is lawyer, teacher, thinker, philosopher, and father.

Day-Lewis, as is his wont, disappears into the role. Imagine an Irishman playing an iconic American – preposterous! And yet there he is, plain as day, looking and sounding like he jumped out of the Oval Office in the 19th century. To say that his performance is terrific would be an astounding understatement. He breathes Lincoln, gradually allowing us to see various layers of the character.

But we have come to expect that from Daniel Day-Lewis, haven’t we? What about Sally Field, though? Let’s think about this. Sally Field is 66, 20 years older than Mary Todd was in 1865; she’s only 10 years older than Day-Lewis. Can we accept her as his wife and not his mother? A resounding yes. Field hits her role hard, with raw emotion and guts, toning down the First Lady’s infamous histrionics. For the past couple of decades she’s done a lot of television and few big-screen roles. This may change things, oh it just might. Sally Field has just proven that an actress of certain talent can play younger. She’s not just a plausible Mary Todd, she’s Mary Todd incarnate.

Their supporting cast is filled with familiar faces, with not a slouch to be found. Hal Holbrook. James Spader. Strathairn. McGill. John Hawkes. Jackie Earle Haley. Gordon-Levitt. And a dour, bewigged Tommy Lee Jones. Spielberg doesn’t mess around when it comes to casting epic masterpieces, does he?

Lincoln is a hit, from beginning to tragic end, thanks to…well, everyone. It’s the kind of film that makes you forget you’re in a dark room with strange people. It’s the kind of film that makes you think you’re standing in the balcony of the Capitol, watching the proceedings. It’s deliciously detailed and does not shy away from the grisly results of the wars between men.


643 – Men in Black III (***)

I got to get me one of those! Image from filmofilia.com.
A significant upgrade over part II (yes, I know I liked it, shush), Men in Black III offers a plausible plot, the usual engaging performances from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and awesome-looking aliens. It’s a keeper.

This time around, the taciturn K (Jones) finds himself the target of the nefarious Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), a bad, bad alien who’s just broken out of the maximum-security prison designed to hold him on the Moon. Turns out Boris isn’t just out to get K, though; he plans to travel back in time to when K arrested him (and shot his arm off) and kill him there. This, of course, leads to a time-travel journey taken by Agent J (Smith), who must stop Boris before he messes up the future for K – and instigates a full-scale alien invasion in the present day.

It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t need to try too hard to win an audience over. We know the characters; put them in an interesting situation, and everything works out fine. Some movies throw in the figurative kitchen sink, the better to confuse the audience into thinking everything means something – when, in fact, nothing means a darn thing. MIB doesn’t bother with trickery. The personalities of J and K – well established and reflective of the public perception of Messrs. Smith and Jones – meld so seamlessly and are so symbiotic that the actual plot is almost (almost) relegated to the background.

Remember, it can be difficult to create a decent third film in a series. There are no surprises with the characters, and presumably we know all about someone’s backstory. In MIB III, though, we do learn a little bit about Agent K’s past. But thanks to a vibrant script by Joel Coen, that past history is more complementary than front and center. I think a focus on just K’s 1969 life would have made for a pretty dull movie. I mean, it’s not as if he’s Mr. Excitement, right?

Clement is a terrific, terrible villain as the monstrous Boris the Animal (“It’s just BORIS!”); he has this nifty parasite thing that lives in his remaining hand, and when he aims the hand at someone, a dart shoots out. Pretty cool. Emma Thompson is also on board as the new head of the MIBs (her name? O, of course. Get it? O and K?); former leader Zed (Rip Torn) has passed away. Alice Eve plays the 1969 version of O as well. Josh Brolin plays the ’69 K, and he’s like a mini-Tommy Lee Jones in his mannerisms.

An undercomplicated plot doesn’t mean that the special effects are blasted in your face, though. In fact, they’re kept at a minimum, again lending support to the charisma of Jones and Smith instead of supplanting it. There are some cool transportation devices in 1969 (but not in the current day, weird), and the time-travel device itself is wacky (it’s a time JUMP, literally). The effects feel as if they’re meant to be there, not that they’re shoehorned in to make things look pretty. And that’s a positive development.

Men in Black III is a typical, solid blockbuster action movie. Not all action movies can stand up to much scrutiny, and if you’re Michael Bay they don’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, not when your third act is always Blow Stuff Up. This is an audience pleaser with a fascinating plot, amiable performances, good effects and set pieces, and some funny dialog to boot.

Men in Black III: ***

638 – Captain America: The First Avenger (***)

Image from Movie Carpet.com
I admit that I don’t know what to make of this, that there’s been a run of comic-book movies that have managed to be plausible and thrilling, not cheap knockoffs rushed out to exploit a fad. Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the former. It features a terrific performance by Chis Evans as the Cap, a modicum of special effects and CGI, a slimy villain played by Hugo Weaving, and the famous backdrop of World War II. So help me, I found myself liking the movie despite my preconceptions.

Steve Rogers (Evans) is a spindly, sickly young man who’s full of desire to go fight those dastardly Nazis, but he’s just too frail for the military, so he’s classified 4F. Several times, in fact, under different names. A mysterious scientist named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) recruits Rogers to be part of a secret project: he’ll inject Rogers’ major organs and arteries with a new serum that will turn him into a super soldier. The military, represented by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and the CIA, represented by Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) are very interested in the results. Well, the results aren’t too good, as the Nazis grab the serum and prevent anyone from making more super soldiers. But at least the US has Rogers, right? He’s now super strong, fast, and agile.

But one man is not an army, so instead of leading troops to victory Rogers is instead hired as a sort of USO cheerleader for war bonds. Yep, seriously. But you can’t keep the good Captain down for long, and soon he is indeed leading some crazy mission to rescue his best friend Bucky and assorted Allied troops while also looking out for the nefarious Red Skull, head of Hitler’s science division.

It’s well cast. Evans is believable as both the skinny Rogers and the pumped-up Captain America. He’s earnest without seeming to take himself or the movie too seriously. Tucci, Jones, Weaving and newcomer Atwell are top notch as well.

Even bearing in mind that this movie is merely a setup for the big Avengers film coming out soon (as were other movies, like Iron Man, Thor, and The Hulk), one can easily lose oneself in the great old-time action-adventure feel this one has, reminiscent of 1991’s The Rocketeer. You have mad scientists, mythical technology, Nazis, all-American good guys, lots of neat guns. It’s not a loud bore like Transformers, and the action scenes are well staged, as are the pyrotechnics. Throw in a believable plot (at least in the realm of comic-book movies), and this one’s above average for the genre. I’ve probably said this before about other movies, but this is definitely one that’s what a comic-book movie should be – daring, easy to follow, full of pulse-pounding action, and human.

Captain America: The First Avenger: ***

The greatest movies of the Aughts, I say!

a-trphy2Updated on December 6, 2009

That’s this decade we’re in now, the decade no one could name. Best of the decade time!

This is an alphabetical list, since ranking the movies by greatness was too tough for me.

Movies that have been out for some years, say five, have the added burden of remaining relevant over time. For example, Gladiator resonates as much now as it did in 2000. Will The Wrestler be able to say the same in 2013?

And remember, the list is composed only of films I have seen personally. So there certainly can be others to add.

Now, I’ve done all the hard work. You as reader have two tasks:

1) Indicate which of these movies is NOT one of the best in the period 2000-present.
2) Indicate which other movies SHOULD be on this list.

The Aristocrats

A plethora of comedians tell the same raunchy joke in their own unique ways. Sounds uncreative, but it’s amazingly unique, with some side-splitting, standout standup by Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Saget (seriously), and Bill Maher.


Married couple trying to save their marriage during an overseas vacation suffers a tragedy when she’s shot by a sniper. And that’s only a third of the intertwining stories. Gripping, terrifying thriller starring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.

A Beautiful Mind

Brilliant mathematician (Russell Crowe) dabbles in espionage – or is he merely losing his remaining faculties? Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris costar. Crowe, who won an Oscar for this, is outstanding in a compassionate, conflicted role.


The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 as told through the eyes of several incidental characters. Filmed in a cinema verite style, the movie is so intense that it all adds up to a most satisfying vicarious experience. Great ensemble cast, including Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, and Lindsey Lohan.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen’s side-splitting, dead-on parody of all things American is sharp and witty, and what’s more, it leaves the real funny parts to the everday, Americans who little suspect that their foibles and prejudices are on display for all the world to see.


My favorite of the Pixar films (aside from Toy Story), Cars succeeds because of its vivid characterizations and top-gear fun.


The Broadway musical is turned into a powerhouse Hollywood standard for modern-day tunesmanship. Excellent performances by Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who won an Oscar); rousing, soaring score.

Children of Men

Sci-fi thriller hits you hard from the get-go and never lets up. In the future, women have become infertile, and the human race is doomed. When a young woman becomes pregnant, a former activist (Clive Owen) is asked to shepherd the expectant mother to safety. With a dystopian London as the backdrop, the movie doesn’t so much as ask you along for the ride as insist vociferously. Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine are all top notch, and the set pieces are jaw-dropping – as is the cinematography.


Director Henry Selick’s gorgeous, vivid, and highly imaginative fantasy about a little girl who moves into a strange house – and finds a duplicate of her mother and father behind a forbidden door – is full of rich visuals and exceptional craftsmanship. It’s a must see for anyone with a creative pulse.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A baby is born with the physicality of an old man and proceeds to age backwards while living his life forwards. Poignant, touching, and astounding in its grasp of the intricacies of human relationships, this movie belies its length (nearly three hours) despite often slow pacing. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star, with Blanchett offering a dynamic, inspiring performance.

Eastern Promises

A young woman (Naomi Watts) finds an old diary and becomes involved with the Russian mafia and a tortuous old-world-values story. Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, and Viggo Mortensen (who’s terrific) costar. Watch for the naked-wrestling scene (not involving Watts, though)!

Fahrenheit 9/11

Devastating look by Michael Moore to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – and the government’s reaction to it. Under Moore’s withering lens, almost no officials are spared, and no matter your politics, you’re likely to come away from this one feeling shortchanged and outraged.

Finding Neverland

Beautiful story of how J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), the writer of the beloved story Peter Pan and came to write the classic tale. Kate Winslet plays the struggling single mom who inspires him; Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie also lend their considerable talents. Not to be missed.

Garden State

Sweet story about a struggling actor (Zach Braff, who also directed) who returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and undergoes an awakening of the soul thanks to an old friend (Peter Sarsgaard) and a new friend (Natalie Portman). Andrew’s despair is heart wrenching, but the film’s sincerity compensates for any maudlin attitudes.


Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic has held up rather well over the past eight years, with a deposed general (Russell Crowe) avenges the loss of his career and social standing and the murders of his wife and son by fighting in a gladitorial arena. Full of vim and vigor, Crowe makes for an intrepid, steely eyed hero.

Good Night, and Good Luck

A hateful Senator is brought to his knees by a fearless, sincere newsman in this biopic of legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn, nominated for an Oscar). George Clooney, who directed, costars as producer Fred Friendly.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I liked this a little better than even the previous one (see below). The kids are practically grown up now, and this one is easily the scariest of the series so far. Harry is entrusted with adult tasks by Dumbledore, who still doesn’t tell him everything. The Dark Lord is everywhere.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

All of the Potter films were released this decade, but I liked the fifth (and most recent, to date) the most. Harry and his pals age realistically while facing literal and figurative demons with panache and vulnerability. Here, Harry wishes to avenge his stepfather’s murder and to discover more about the prophesy made when he was born. Great cast continues to awe, particularly newcomer Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius Black’s murderess.

Hustle and Flow

Great story of a small-time pimp trying to add “rapper” to his resume. As DJay, Terrence Howard is scary and uncompromising, and unlike in most rags-to-riches stories, his character is almost entirely unsympathetic – and yet he’s not some single-minded monster. Ludacris also appears.

In the Bedroom

Before making Little Children (see below), Todd Field directed this little gem about a young man who falls for an older, divorced mother; then tragedy strikes, drawing the young man’s parents into the situation. Nick Stahl (as the kid) and Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek (as the parents) are all great, but what struck me most about this psychological thriller is how perfect Marisa Tomei, as the older woman, is. I hadn’t really seen Tomei since My Cousin Vinny, which most people assumed was a fluke performance. This movie put her on the Great Actresses map.

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore’s probing – and not preachy – documentary on the environmental crisis facing the planet won plenty of awards, including a Nobel prize for its creator. Gore doesn’t simply beat his viewers over the head with How We’ve All Failed; he eschews castigation for hope.

The Interpreter

Nicole Kidman as a South African UN worker who may have overheard assassination plans, Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent who’s not sure he should believe her claims. Political thriller from Sydney Pollack shows he’s still got game.

Into the Wild

Gorgeous scenery is only half the appeal of this slice of Americana, about a young man who gives up his worldly possessions and sets out to see the country, ending up in the wilds of Alaska, where he eventually meets his demise. As the protagonist, Emile Hirsch turns in a beautiful, breakout performance; Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Vince Vaughn offer able support.


Charming, witty tale of an acerbic high schooler who finds herself knocked up by a meek-minded, unassuming track athlete. Diablo Cody’s tale isn’t a mere cautionary tale, it’s a story about growing up mentally as well as physically. It’s about friendship and family, too. Ellen Page as the titular heroine, Michael Cera as her befuddled beloved, and J.K. Simmons as her pop are all fantastic.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Characteristically violent Quentin Tarantino fare is only slightly better than its descendent, a stark revenge movie about a woman out to perform the titular act. Uma Thurman is well cast in the lead, and the whole thing is a stylish nod to the chop-socky movies of the 1970s. Great soundtrack, strong characters with even stronger convictions, and some totally creepy scenes.

King Kong

A flawless remake of a classic. King Kong is much longer than its 1933 predecessor, but it’s time well spent. The effects are spellbinding, and even the acting is up to snuff. Great fun, with nonstop action for the bulk of the movie. Check out those dinosaurs! And you won’t be disappointed with the denouement atop the Empire State Building, either.

Little Children

Todd Field’s look at disillusioned suburban life suffers few missteps. Kate Winslet falls for stay-at-home dad Patrick Wilson, while a child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) tries to reintegrate into society. Adding to the storytime quality of the film is the narration, which doesn’t inhibit the plot as much as you’d think. Gripping drama.

Little Miss Sunshine

This is not a bonding-family-road-trip adventure; it’s a dysfunction disaster. A little girl is chaperoned across the state to enter a beauty pageant. With her are her parents, her drug-addicted dad, her suicidal uncle, and her mute brother. Fun for all! Original, sentimental, and funny – particularly Steve Carell as the uncle and Abagail Breslin as the young contestant.

Lord of the Rings trilogy

Yes, they all count as one movie, because I said so. To my thinking, each of these could have been Best Picture – each stands well on its own, each combines the original text with vivid realizations of the author’s true vision, and each has commanding performances and viable, volatile plotlines. There’s hardly anything to be disappointed with here.

Lost in Translation

Beautiful story of two lost souls – who couldn’t be more different – meeting up and talking and bonding in Tokyo. Call it a Brief Encounter, or even Before Sunrise, for this century. Bill Murray turns in his best work in a long, long time, if ever, and Scarlett Johannsen disposes of the myth that the pretty ones can’t act. Sofia Coppola got some strong directin’ genes!

Man on Wire

Suspenseful documentary about a man who walked on a tightrope between the fledgling Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Incorporates archival footage, reenactments, and interviews with the conspirators, and it’s positioned almost like a heist flick.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Billy Bob Thornton is a small-town barber who wants to invest in a newfangled craze called dry cleaning, so he blackmails his wife and her boss/lover, but nothing goes according to plan in this efficient, black-and-white Coen Brothers film noir. Also stars Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini.


Guy Pearce suffers from short-term-memory loss, which is a real hindrance to his finding out who murdered his wife, so he tattoos clues on himself. He’s not even sure if his friends are foes. And everything’s shot out of sequence, so we wonder right along with him.


Sean Penn plays the first openly gay man elected to public office, Harvey Milk in San Francisco in the 1970s. Great work by Penn, who might get an Oscar nod this year, and by James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin.

Minority Report

A surprisingly good Tom Cruise movie, this one’s based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Cruise is in charge of Precrime, a goverment arm that stops crimes when they’re merely conceived of, with the help of Precogs that know the name and address of each miscreant. Imagine Cruise’s shock when he’s named as the next villain! A lot more thrilling than you’d expect from Cruise, for sure. Directed by Steven Spielberg, perhaps you’ve heard of him.

Monster’s Ball

Solid drama about a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who gets involved with the widow (Halle Berry) of a man he just executed. Complicating matters is his relationship with his dad (Peter Boyle) and son (Heath Ledger), both of whom are also guards. Raw, bitter, multilayered (but racist) characters abound; some scenes are almost too intense to watch, although the sex scene between Berry and Thornton sure isn’t.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood directed this story about a connected neighborhood man (Sean Penn) who’s daughter goes missing and is discovered to have been murdered. As he searches for the killers, two of his older friends – Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins are drawn in as well, and we learn about something that happened to the trio when they were young boys growing up together. Riveting, traumatic film grabs you right away with Penn’s dead-on performance.

No Country for Old Men

This Best Picture winner didn’t please everyone with its ambiguous ending, but the Coen Brothers knew what they were doing. Tommy Lee Jones is a sheriff out west, Josh Brolin is an Everyman who stumbles upon a cache of cash in the desert, and Javier Bardem is unforgettable as the terrifying murderer Chigurh, chasing after Brolin and being chased by the grizzled Jones.

Notes on a Scandal

Decadent tale about two teachers, one a staid, by-the-book spinster (Judi Dench) and the other a free-wheeling art teacher (Cate Blanchett) who has an affair with one of her high school students. Their worlds spiral downward after that, but not all is as it seems. Great work by the two leads.

One Hour Photo

Robin Williams, in one of his quietest, most sensitive roles, is a hermit-like photo-shop worker who lives his life vicariously through the lives of his customers, one family in particular. His obsession gets the better of him in this character study that gives us a heavily nuanced performance from Williams.

The Others

In this thriller, a woman cares for her two strange kids while waiting for her husband to return from the Civil War. But there’s something odd about the servants in their mansion.. Genuinely spooky horror movie makes good use of Nicole Kidman’s talents and is helped by startling lighting, too.

Pan’s Labryinth

Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy about a little girl looking to save her mother from the clutches of an evil Spanish despot during WWII is visually arresting and, at turns, terrifying. Highly imaginative and not easily dismissed.


Ed Harris is alcoholic artist Jackson Pollock, a man hell bent on destroying all remnants of his talent, despite the efforts of his lover and agent, played by Marcia Gay Harden (who won an Oscar). Harris, who also directed, is stellar as the painter.


I’ve liked almost all of the Saw films, but the first one will always be number one. Two men wake up on a long-unused pubic-restroom floor, chained. A dead man lays in the middle of the floor. One of the men must kill the other by 6 pm, or his family will be murdered. Exciting, if quite bloody, horror stew kicked off a spate of imitators, and its visceral attitude gets under your skin, figuratively speaking.


This time, Michael Moore takes on the American health-care industry. As with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s knife is sharp, and he twists it (and, sometimes, the facts) to great effect. A worthy movie for anyone who’s had to deal with an HMO.

Slumdog Millionaire

In India, a young man is poised to win a boatload of money on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – but did he somehow cheat his way to the top? How could a boy from the slums know so much trivia? Fascinating look at true love with a game show as the backdrop.


Several stories are told in this Steven Soderbergh drug thriller, including those about a conservative, family-oriented judge appointed to the post of U.S. Drug Czar, a somewhat-corrupt Mexican cop who undergoes a series of crises of conscience, a woman who watches as her husband is taken away by the police on charges of drug smuggling, and a 16-year-old golden child who dabbles in soft and hard drugs. Convincing, realistic, and complex, well told.

Vantage Point

The US president is shot while giving an anti-terrorism speech in Spain; the event is replayed for the viewer through the eyes of several characters, and each replay gives the audience additional insight as to what has actually happened. It’s not just a matter of determining the chain of events, it’s a matter of figuring out who is involved in the shooting, and to what extent. Expertly shot, well acted by pros like Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, and Forest Whitaker.

Walk the Line

It seemed improbable beforehand, but Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash are perfect singing and acting. James Mangold’s biopic of the legendary crooner doesn’t suffer the same cliches as most singer biopics, and it’s mostly because of the wonderful work by the two leads.


Some said this Alan Moore graphic novel would never be filmed, but Zack Snyder proved them wrong. The superheroes aren’t always good, and they’re not always right, and that dose of humanity is what helps this movie soar. That and the astounding special effects. Brilliant.

The Wrestler

Widely billed a Mickey Rourke’s comeback, this movie also offers a very strong – to the point of should-get-awards status – performance by Marisa Tomei in an unflattering role. Rourke’s a rapidly aging pro wrestler who suddenly sees the end of the road and tries to keep on keeping on. Desolate, even mournful at times, The Wrestler leaps off the top rope and into our hearts. Okay, so I couldn’t end this without a cliche.


David Fincher, between movies like Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, gave us this grimy, dark look at the infamous Zodiac killer who stalked San Franciscans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite knowing the endgame, you simply can’t look away at the perseverence and/or insanity on the part of those who would bring the baddie to justice.

Cuba Gooding, Jr.? Cmon, you people. Srsly.

So we’ve moved onto round 2 of our quest to find the best Best Supporting Actor of the past 16 years.

You guys spoke, all 10-12 of you. Below are your eight winners. I reseeded them all based on the year the actor had won his Oscar.

They faced off against each other, sort of, as villain and good-guy sidekick in Unforgiven, which yielded Hackman an Oscar as the dastardly, despotic Little Bill. So who’s had the better career?

It’s hard to argue with George Clooney’s career path; he makes blockbusters, he makes “serious” movies. He makes sci-fi, political thrillers, legal thrillers, dramas. I like him. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, still rocks but plays a heck of alot of good-ol’-boy, aw-shucks dudes in westerns.

I dunno what you people were thinking: Cuba Gooding Jr. has no way had a better career than Tim Robbins! Are you people high? Cuba Gooding Jr. did crap like Snow Dogs, for crying out loud, and that was after his Oscar win. Robbins has been in scores of good things, like Bull Durham, Shawshank Redemption, The War of the Worlds (ok, not so good), Mystic River, High Fidelity… However, then there’s Caine, who’s been awesome for like at least 75% of his career. He did have Jaws 4, and other crap.

To the younger crowd, Williams would win this going away. Even if you throw away the maudlin performances in Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man, there’s still Insomnia, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam.. James Coburn was a gifted old-time actor by the time he won for Affliction, so he might not resonate as much with the youth.

It’s time for the Best Best Supporting Actor Tourney!

So since the Best Best Supporting Actress tournament was such a success (read: a dismal failure), I’m going to supplement it with the Best Best Supporting Actor tournament. It’s important that we, all ten of us or so, determine who of these supporting actors is truly the most bestest.Remember, your task here is to judge these thespians based on the entirety of their careers, not just the one shining moment they had when accepting their Oscar. As with the ladies, I’ve selected the sixteen most recent Best Supporting Actors. Some of them were one-hit wonders, others were awesome throughout their workload. Others may have even gotten their Oscar based ON their careers up to that point, rather than for that one movie.

This might be a little tougher than the ladies’ one, because there are plenty of leading men in here, rather than just character actors.

Have at it!

375 – In the Valley of Elah

Retired soldier Tommy Lee Jones learns his son, just back from Iraq, has gone AWOL, and he searches in vain for him, running up against resistance from both the Army and, at least initially, the local police. But unlike most military-crime dramas, he does not unfold some huge conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the command chain; rather, he has to come face to face with a reality that runs counter to what he knows about his boy.

Hank Deerfield is one of those clear-thinking, straightforward, honest characters that Tommy Lee Jones has played time and time again. In short, he’s a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, most of the time, and yet here he is baffled by the sudden disappearance of his youngest son, Mike. All he has is Mike’s cell phone, which includes short videos shot in Iraq.

Quickly, though, the case changes from a missing-persons situation to a murder, as a burned, dismembered body is found near Mike’s base. However, first there’s a question of jurisdiction – was Mike killed on the street and then dragged to within the base’s property line? No one seems to care much about how Mike came to be where he did; the official stance is that he was the victim of a drug deal gone wrong, perhaps a Mexican gang.

Hank is frustrated, and he feels that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. After all, he knows Mike would never be mixed up in drugs or anything illicit; he was a good boy. Could it be that his death was caused by one of the other three soldiers he’d hung around with the night he died? Hank’s determined to get to the bottom of it all, if only to preserve the memory he has of his son. He managed to enlist the help of a local detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who has to fight through monumental red tape (and the patronizing attitude of her fellow cops) in order to work the case.

In the end, though, it’s not about exactly what happened to Mike, it’s really a referendum on the insanity of war. What happened to Mike in Iraq? Did he return to the States demonstrably different from when he came? It’s very difficult for the straight-shooting veteran (along with his wife Joan, played by Susan Sarandon) to grasp just how different Mike is from the boy who left home to join the armed forces, following in the footsteps of his old man and his older (and now deceased) brother.

This is a mystery that is solved in the end, but it’s not a simple explanation; even though the motives and means for Mike’s murder are revealed, nothing is really settled; only more, deeper questions on top of questions emerge. This is definitely a point in the movie’s favor. A typical murder mystery might be deciphered halfway through, with the protagonist fingering the villain in the third act, and everyone goes on to live happily ever after. This is so far from the case in this movie that it might as well be another zip code. We know who did it, we know why they did it, but we don’t know – and Hank can only guess, despairingly – what happened to allow the situation to even occur.

Jones is brilliant as always, and he earned an Oscar nomination as the taciturn Hank Deerfield, a resolute, devout man who is unwilling to believe that which runs against the facts he already has. Hank, a former MP, had also a methodical, insightful investigator in his own right, and his analysis of the developing case allows him to hold out hope that his son’s legacy, if not his life, will be kept intact. Theron is solid as the sympathetic detective; a tough-minded, almost distant cop whose own tenacity proves essential to the case. (Although arguably she comes off pretty uncaring early on.)

In the Valley of Elah, named for the place where David fought Goliath, works because of the well-cast Jones and an ending that leaves plenty of issues unresolved, to its credit. There’s interaction with Emily’s son that could have been excised (although it serves as the source for the movie’s title), and there’s not quite enough interact between Hank (who’s investigating, near the base) and Joan (who’s still at home, a two-day drive away); true, too, that the stiff-necked bureaucrats are a little too stubborn and uncaring. But Paul Haggis does a good job otherwise of keeping the story on track without revealing too much too soon. Even when the end is in sight, Jones’ evocative, empathetic performance keeps us from being too complacent.


Oscars 2008

Apparently, it’s been a bit of a down year for movies. There wasn’t anything as subversive as, say, Little Children or as maniacal as Notes from a Scandal. In fact, I think voters had to reach this year in order to come up with some worthy films for Oscar nominations.

I haven’t gotten to see a lot of them, and to tell the truth there weren’t many that really excited me. But in keeping with tradition, I’ll go over the nominees for the biggest categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) and present my picks. Then, after February 24, we’ll see how badly I guessed.

For the seventh year in a row, the festivities will take place at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Jon Stewart hosts for the second time; he hosted in 2006 as well.

Best Picture

Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

What Will Win: At first I thought it would be Atonement. I didn’t care for it much; it strikes me, though, as just the sort of movie that seems made for an Oscar. It’s slow-moving, not too challenging, and is a romance. Oscar voters eat that stuff up. But instead, I’m going to go with a movie I haven’t seen: There Will Be Blood. Odd title, but I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about it.

What should win: No Country for Old Men. Now, this one I liked a little. Violent, sure, but not simple. There are no angels in this movie, but it does have the worst devil of them all, a madman who decides people’s fates by flipping a coin. Chilling and provacative stuff.

Best Actor

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Who Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. People love this guy. He’s a good actor, perhaps even a great one, but since I haven’t seen this movie I can’t say how awesome he was in it. Are people voting because of his rep, or because of his work in this movie? But I think he stands the best chance, even against this stiff competition. Jones is overshadowed by his own later work in No Country for Old Men, and Depp is still trying to get out from the shadow he cast as Jack Sparrow. Clooney is a dark horse, but I’ll go with Day-Lewis.

Who should win: Mortensen. He’s a killer in the Russian mafia working his way up the food chain, but he’s also not a sociopathic dirtball. Mortensen delivered a knockout performance; who else could pull off a naked shower-room brawl so well?

Best Actress

Julie Christie, Away from Her
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Ellen Page, Juno
Marion Cotillard, La Mome
Laura Linney, The Savages

Who will win: Laura Linney. It’s her third nomination, and this might be the year for her. Blanchett’s won before, and she’s up for a movie that sounds more like a straight-to-video title, doesn’t it? Page is a sentimental choice, but it’s one of those honor-to-be-nominated deals. Cotillard is perhaps too foreign to win here. That leaves grande dame Christie. It’s her fourth nom, and she’s already won (1972, for McCabe and Mrs. Miller).

Who should win: I have no idea. Didn’t see any of these five, although I want to see The Savages.

Best Director

Jason Reitman, Juno
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Julian Schnabel, Le Scaphandre et le papillon
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Who will win: Well, since I think There Will Be Blood will win for Best Picture, surely I have to pick its director to win, right? Right.

Who should win: And by the same logic, I’ll go with the Coen brothers here. I hope they do pull it out.

Best Supporting Actor

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Who will win: Bardem. Hoffman recently won an Oscar for Capote, Wilkinson is still only vaguely known in the US, Affleck ain’t Ben, and Holbook is no Alan Arkin. Or is he?

Who should win: Bardem again, although admittedly Hoffman was really good.

Best Supporting Actress

Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There.
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Who will win: I’m going to pick a sleeper here and go with Dee, who’s never been nominated before and is 83 years old. Blanchett’s won a few here and there, and Ronan (who was awful, in my opinion) and Ryan are pretty much completely unknown. Swinton’s known more for quirky characters, so she might have a shot if her film does well otherwise.

360 – No Country for Old Men

Mysterious and elusive, provocative and disturbing, No Country for Old Men is the finest Coen Brothers film to date. It’s got the profane violence of Blood Simple, the wry wit of Raising Arizona, and the tight plotting of Fargo – not to mention outstanding performances by Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. And it culminates in a big finish that’ll either leave you wanting more or simply cold.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A hunter named Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone really, really sour. Dead bodies, including a dog. Shot up trucks. A huge stash of drugs. And, at the end of a bloody trail, a dead man and a satchel with $2 million in cash. Now, what would you do in that situation? You’re armed, but who knows who’s out there in the wilderness, looking for their lost loot? If you’re Mr. Moss, you amscray the heck out of there.

Of course, someone’s gonna come looking for that money, and that person is a crazy bastard named Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has a penchant for killing and absolutely no moral compass to speak of. He wants something, he kills you and takes it. Or takes it and kills you. Either way. Chigurh is single minded, but he’s by no means a simple man; he’s whip smart and blindingly fast with his gun and his feet. There’s something about Chigurh that separates him from every other killer who wants his money back; its intangible, and it’s all because Bardem is so perfect in the role. His sad eyes belie an absolutely terrifying, methodically maniacal criminal.

Completing the trifecta is a beleagured, world-weary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is to No Country for Old Men as Marge Gunderson was to Fargo; the no-nonsense, superclever, seasoned Johnny Law who tries desperately to piece together the puzzle before every character has been murdered, a la Shakespeare. This is a role Jones was made to play, and I can safely say he turns in the finest, most nuanced and sincere performance of his long career. Jones has the countenance of a leathery cowpoke as it is, and the unique drawl to accompany it, and the beautiful, poignant script (also by the Coen brothers) allows him to really show his stuff.

Make no mistake, though, in spite of its subtleties, this is a very violent movie; many painful, gut-wrenching deaths occur. Still and all, one thing that makes the movie work is that the violence seems real, not comic-book style; it’s not violence without serious repercussions.

Back to the writing. At times during the film, multiple storylines are in motion, a la Pulp Fiction, and everything moves so seamlessly that it’s only later, in retrospect, that you recall certain aspects that tie in one character’s perspective with that of another. A mediocre screenwriter would have trouble with this, and plot holes the size of the Rio Grande itself would emerge. People would laugh about the plot inaccuracies and overall inadequacies.

And then, finally, there’s that ending. Some people will absolutely love the ending, but others will stare at the screen for a few minutes, wondering if there’s more to the story. Simply put, not everything is explicitly resolved, so if you’re the kind of person who must have everything tied up as if in a 30-minute sitcom, you’re going to have an issue or two with the finale. There was a bit of silence in the theater in which I saw this movie, but I didn’t get the impression it was the angry “THAT’S IT??” kind, just the surprised kind.


Son of 1995 blurbs

(Originally published spring 1995 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Airheads: This could have been a fun one. Three dimwitted metalheads are desperate to have their demo tape played on the radio, so they take over a station armed with toy guns and a lot of cojones. This plays out like Wayne’s World meets Dog Day Afternoon, although any resemblance to those two superior movies ends there. Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler star, with support from Michael McKean, Joe Mantegna, Chris Farley, Ernie Hudson and Michael Richards. *1/2

Baby’s Day Out: Another comedy from John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), who seems to be returning to the Home Alone well. Baby Bink has been kidnapped, and somehow eludes his captors long enough to wander New York City untethered. Story is simple, but effects and the baby’s charm are so good, who cares? ***

Blown Away: Perhaps the only real crime perpetrated by this film was that it came out in the theatres around the same time as Speed. Jeff Bridges is a bomb-squadder in Boston; an over-the-top Tommy Lee Jones is his nemesis.. Plot is predictable, but effects are eye-popping and nearly make up for the over-acting. **1/2

The Client: The third John Grisham novel turned into a movie, about a boy who may know a crucial Mob secret, isn’t bad; although it takes several liberties with the plot. (For example, Susan Sarandon’s character was an older black woman in the book.) But overall it’s fine entertainment, with Sarandon’s endearing work and Tommy Lee Jones’ galvanizing performance major assets. Only drawback: the abrasive, shallow portrayal of the boy himself. **1/2

I Love Trouble: Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte star as competing Chicago reporters after the same breaking story. They start out at each other’s throats, but (surprise!) they fall for each other in the end. Few sparks fly between the leads, and this miscasting (plus a stilted script) sink this film. **

Maverick: Side-splitting western/comedy stars Mel Gibson as the itinerant gambler; Jodie Foster as his love interest, a bettor herself; and James Garner as the intrepid lawman keeping tabs on them both. Fantastic performances by all three charismatic leads, a hilarious script, and some excellent action scenes make this a must-see for everyone. ***1/2

North: Elijah Wood (Forever Young, The Adventures of Huck Finn) plays a boy who decides he’s had enough of his neglected parents, so he declares himself a free agent and travels the globe looking for replacements. Rob Reiner’s (This is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally…) comedy was supposed to be funny and touching, but fails miserably. Too many stereotypes and too many colorless jokes remove any potency this film may have had. Bruce Willis contributes in a hilarious minor role as, among other things, a giant bunny rabbit. **

Renaissance Man: Danny DeVito, an out-of-work ad man, is relegated to teaching slightly mentally deficient Army soldiers remedial English. Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own) gives us another heartwarmer, but this one doesn’t jump into sappiness, thanks to DeVito’s personality. If only all Shakespeare was taught like this. **1/2

The Stoned Age: Terribly inferior rip-off of Dazed and Confused, with lots of loud, hard-edged music and little else. Two druggie high school pals are in search of the perfect party… among other things. Amateurish acting is supplemented by godawful script. A waste of time. **

True Lies : Watch out! Arnie’s back in the action biz again! For those of you who loathed Last Action Hero, here’s your reward! Schwarzenegger plays a super-spy for a super-secret U.S. organization who’s successfully hidden his true job from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis)… until now. Arnold’s great as always, and James Cameron can direct an actioner like no one else, but the effects are the big attraction here. Watch a bridge get torched by missles and Arnie pilot a Harrier jet. ***1/2

Wagons East!: John Candy died while making this turkey; you’ll die watching it. And I don’t mean by laughing, either. This offensively bad comedy/western has nothing going for it; even Candy’s role careens between pathos and slapstick, and doesn’t do either emotion well. A lot of talent wasted, and hardly a fitting end to such a glorious career. *

154 – The Missing

Cate Blanchett is a tough-as-nails frontierwoman whose significant other (Aaron Eckhart) is slain and whose eldest daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by a savage tribe in 19th-century New Mexico. Reluctantly, Maggie Gilkerson (Blanchett) must ask her long-estranged father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) to help her track down her daughter. (Samuel shows up at the family homestead early in the film, having been absent from Maggie’s life since she was a very small girl.)

So there’s your basic story. Maggie and Samuel, with the younger daughter Dot in tow, attempt to recover eldest daughter Lily. On the surface, it sounds like any other rescue movie, but there are a couple of interesting elements that set this movie apart from others.

For one thing, there’s the relationship between Maggie and Samuel. As you can imagine, Maggie’s a little bitter at having been abandoned all those years ago, but she needs her father. Samuel, by contrast, isn’t the apologizing or type – yes, a recipe for disaster.

The other intriguing element is the theme of mysticism. Maggie is a pious God-fearin’ Christian, whereas Samuel is as close to being an American Indian as a white man can get – i.e., he’s well attuned to the powers of medicine men and shamans.

For me, this movie was carried quite ably by two towering polarizing performances, by Blanchett and Jones. In fact, I think Cate Blanchett was absolutely amazing in this movie. For a woman as beautiful and glamorous as Blanchett is – and can play – her Maggie was as down-and-dirty and multilayered as that of an Oscar-worthy performance. I believe this movie would have been nearly worthless had Blanchett not been cast.

The Missing: ***

130 – Men in Black II

Sure, there’s a Roman numeral appended to this movie, and we all know what that means. It means someone decided to eke some more cash from the first movie in a series. Which is not in itself such a nasty, horrible thing, but all to often sequels are awash in dreckery, hodge-podge, and undying crapitude.

The original MIB starred Will Smith as Agent Jay and Tommy Lee Jones as Agent Kay, part of a superdupersecret organization that monitored the activities of aliens on Planet Earth. At the end of the first movie, Kay neuralizes himself, erasing all memory of his MIB adventures, choosing instead to retire from active duty and leaving Jay to handle those mean ol’ aliens all on his own.

As MIB II begins, Kay’s now a postmaster. Yep, you read that right, a postmaster. In a small town. Wny, he’s about as removed from alien adventurin’ as one could get. Meanwhile, Jay is BAOC (big agent on campus) in the land of MIB, answering directly to Zed (Rip Torn).

Which is all fine and dandy till some oversexed strumpet (Lara Flynn Boyle) from outta space lands on Earth (okay, so she’s not really female or human, but rather takes the guise of a model in a victoria’s Secret catalog) to find some special light that was supposedly left there back in the day. If she/it finds the light, the planet is doomed. So she takes MIB headquarters hostage. I mean, after all, who wouldn’t? It seems like the right thing to do.

Jay’s the only agent left running loose, coincidentally, but it’s Kay who holds the right information in his now-addled brain, info that could Save the World from Destruction. Trouble is, Kay can’t remember a darn thing, being neuralized and all. He doesn’t even remember being an agent.

Can Jay deneuralize Kay? Can they both save the world? Will Lara Flynn Boyle ham it up as the evil temptress, or will she try to save her career and turn in some decent work? YES! YES! NO!

This is truly a popcorn movie, although I forgot to eat popcorn while watching it. It’s the kind of movie where you do other things while watching the DVD. You look up every now and then, see alien guts being spilled or hear witty repartee, and then go back to what you’re doing. It’s not a thinking man’s movie; it’s more of a slouching man’s movie.

And that’s just fine. That’s what the original movie was, after all. Smith and Jones are excellent and appealing; they have great chemistry onscreen. Think Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon, or Dreyfuss and Estevez in Stakeout. Boyle’s a good foil, but she’s mostly ineffectual. After all, it’s the boys’ show.