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Films I Neglected To Review: I'm Back!
by Peter Sobczynski

Reviews of five new movies and a mea culpa from the author--who could ask for anything more?

Those of you who have been following my reviews for a while may have noticed that I have been largely absent for the last couple of months and that when I have managed to offer up something, it has usually been collection of short capsule reviews instead of the full-length pieces that I normally write. In a couple of cases, such as with “The Social Network,” I was unable to submit a full-length piece here because I was contracted to write about it for another publication. However, for the most part, the real reason for my recent absence is a lot more insidious and I thought I would take a moment to share it with you.

Around the middle of July, I developed a strange and borderline agonizing pain in my left foot that felt like my middle toes had been frozen stiff and then stuck in a vise while my legs would more than occasionally feel numb. At first I thought that I needed a new pair of shoes or that I had injured it somehow while exercising but no matter what I did to try to alleviate the pain, it would not go away. Eventually, it got so bad that I finally broke down and went to the doctor--a fairly significant event since I had managed to go nearly 14 years without requiring medical attention of any kind--and she immediately sent me off to see a foot doctor. Neither one could quite figure out what was wrong with me--there was no obvious damage and X-rays revealed naught--but I was given anti-inflammatory medication and told that it would help alleviate the pain within a couple of weeks. Although the medication did provide such lovely side effects as making me jittery and nervous and occasionally unable to speak clearly, it didn’t really do much for my foot. After that, I received a change in medication and a couple of cortisone shots directly between my toes but while the pain sometimes abated a bit, it never went away completely and eventually came back as strong as ever.

Finally, I decided to go to another doctor for a fresh view and thanks to him, it appears that I have finally figured out what it is that I have. During all of this, I was also diagnosed with having diabetes and it appears that what I have is diabetes neuropathy, a lovely spin-off that Google Health describes as being “a common complication of diabetes in which nerves are damaged as a result of high blood sugar levels.” I have changed my medication again to something more appropriate for treating this particular disease and I have managed to wrestle my blood sugar levels down to reasonable levels (so long, my beloved Coca-Cola) and I am hoping that before too long, I will be able to get some sort of control over this. Until then, however, I am currently spending my days in a constant state of pain--since it is a nerve problem, simply staying off my feet isn’t enough--and it has become difficult to concentrate long enough to sit down and write a full-length review; there are times when I have been barely able to get off the couch in order to get to the screenings in the first place. My guess is that the next couple of weeks will consist of irregularly scheduled collections of short reviews and by the time December comes around, I will have gotten on top of the pain and the medication enough to resume my regular duties because let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see me go on at length about “Yogi Bear.”

Anyway, thanks for your patience and understanding.

Making a movie about the case of Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover operative whose identity was blown by government officials when her analyst husband publicly stated that one of the chief rationales for the U.S. invasion of Iraq--that they were in the process of purchasing yellowcake uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons--was untrue, presents the filmmakers with two significant challenges to overcome if it is to succeed: they need to figure out how to take such a complex tale and transform it into a narrative that is reasonably easy to follow and it needs to figure out how to bring a sense of drama to the story even though most audience members presumably will be going in knowing how things turned out. Happily, “Fair Game” manages to pull both of them off by transforming the story into a film that plays both as a finely detailed and surprisingly lucid reconstruction of recent history and as a powerful look at the personal and professional pressures that a couple of ordinary people are forced to endure simply because they did their jobs and did them correctly. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn both turn in excellent performances as Plame and husband Joe Wilson and director Doug Liman, a man more normally associated with blatantly pop entertainments like “Go,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and that “Jumper” nonsense, demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch with the far more complex material on display here. Granted, this film probably won’t change anyone’s political viewpoint and it is unlikely that it will be appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s Netflix queue anytime soon but for those interested in a smartly made depiction of how political power can be used and abused, “Fair Game” is worth checking out.

Imagine a James Bond movie in which 007 spent the entire running time sitting at his desk getting caught up on paperwork or an installment of the Robocop franchise following the cyborg as he undergoes his annual maintenance checkup. Obviously it sounds silly to take a distinctive character and place them in a situation in which they aren’t allowed to do any of the things that audiences expect to see them doing but that is precisely what happens in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the hugely disappoint Swedish adaptation of the final book in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling “Millenium Trilogy.” In the first two installments, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” audiences were entranced by the character of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the tough-as-nails, bisexual punk computer genius who brought down her many oppressors with her combination of strength, intelligence and sheer perseverance. This time, however, she has inexplicably been sidelined by a storyline that requires here to spend virtually the first half of the film in a hospital bed following the attack that concluded the previous installment and the second sitting silently in a courtroom for standing trial for murdering her abusive legal guardian while her collaborator, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) tries to publish an article that will clear her name and expose the vast conspiracy that has tried to silence here since she was a little girl. As with the earlier parts in the saga, the story is a ridiculously complicated stew of double-crosses, shocking revelations and assorted goofiness but with the other films, Lisbeth proved to be such a welcome distraction that few people hardly noticed how ridiculous they were but without her this time, all the implausabilities ring loud and clear--of course, having the characters constantly commenting on how absurdly complex the proceedings are becoming doesn’t exactly help matters much--and at 2 ½ hours, it quickly runs out of steam. Once again, the best thing about the film--the entire series, frankly--is Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth, one of the most perfect combinations of character and performer to come along in a long time. Too bad for both of them that they weren’t able to end the series on the high note that each one deserves.

Anyone going into a screening of “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows--Part I,” the first installment of the final chapter of the enormously popular film adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s equally successful books, hoping for a couple of hours of cheerful fantasy and fun are in for a rude awakening. This is one grim, dark and despairing film that is chock-full of misery, betrayal, depression, death and virtually bereft of anything remotely resembling lightness and hope. This time around, the forces of darkness are growing stronger and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), along with friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), leave the once-safe confines of Hogwarts to track down and destroy the three long-missing horucruxes before the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) can get them and regain all of his malevolent powers. Over the years, the series has maintained a surprisingly high level of quality and this installment is no exception. The performances from the three young leads are excellent and they are ably supported by what appears to be half the members of British Equity, the special effects continue to dazzle and the story still manages to come across as dramatic and emotional as any straightforward drama in recent memory. However, I have to admit that when it was all over, I came away from it feeling a little less enthused than I did with most of the other films in the series. Although director David Yates does a generally sound job of bringing this mammoth effort to the screen, there are a few points in the middle where it does drag a bit and he and screenwriter Steve Kloves haven’t figured out a way to break the story in half in a way that gives this part a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, this is still a strong, smart and well-made movie that should satisfy Potter fans of all ages, though many of them may require more than a few tissues by the time it concludes.

In a directorial career that has now spanned nearly 40 years, Clint Eastwood has often surprised audiences by tackling projects that one normally wouldn’t associate with him--sometimes these experiments have resulted in such unexpected treasures as the delightful Capraesque comedy “Bronco Billy” or his surprisingly solid adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County” and sometimes they have yielded things as dire as the misbegotten “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” However, he has never ventured has far outside of his comfort zone as he has with his latest effort, “Hereafter”[.b] and the result is his strongest work behind the camera since “Million Dollar Baby.” The film is a globe-spanning drama following the stories of three disparate people--a French journalist (Cecile de France) who undergoes a near-death experience while caught in a tsunami and becomes obsessed with learning more about others who have supposedly died and come back to life, a San Francisco-based psychic (Matt Damon) who appears to have a genuine gift for contacting the dead and who is tormented both by his abilities and how said abilities prevent him from having a normal life and a young British child (Frankie and George McLaren) desperately trying to communicate with the spirit of his recently deceased twin brother. Based solely on such a description, one might fear that the film would turn out to be either a load of New Age claptrap or just another “Sixth Sense” knockoff but Eastwood has provided viewers with something far more intriguing and challenging--a thoughtful and absorbing meditation on mortality and what, if anything, happens once we pass on from this world that derives its strength from an intelligent screenplay by Peter Morgan, strong central performances from de France and Damon (the latter has a heartbreaking extended scene with potential love interest Bryce Dallas Howard in which he demonstrates the downside of his powers that may be one of the best things he has ever played) and direction from Eastwood that sees him moving away from the hurry-up-and-shoot aesthetic that has marred some of his recent films by taking more chances than usual and making them pay off (the tsunami sequence that opens the film is alternately spectacular and horrifying). “Hereafter” does stumble a bit in its final scenes--Morgan’s attempts to tie the three stories together feel a little strained and Eastwood lets the proceedings drag a bit--but for the most part, it is an uncommonly absorbing work that once again demonstrates that when Eastwood is firing on all cylinders, he is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

Having already offered audiences the sub-Altmanesque stylings of his fantastically overrated “Crash” and the pseudo-Oliver Stone histrionics of “In the Valley of Elah,” writer-director Paul Haggis has apparently decided to embrace his inner Peter Hyams with “The Next Three Days,”
an utterly bland and boring thriller that is marked only by the fact that just gets stupider and more implausible as it goes on. Russell Crowe stars as a college professor (see what I mean) and all-around family man whose life is turned upside down when his wife (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested and convicted of the brutal murder of her boss. When her final appeals run out and she attempts suicide rather than face the next twenty years behind bars, Crowe decides to sink all of his time, money and effort into concocting a plan to break her out of the slammer using plenty of internet research, a meeting with a legendary jailbreak artist (Liam Neeson in a scenery-chewing cameo that is easily the film’s highlight) and more unlikely coincidences than you can shake a stick at. In theory, I suppose the ingredients for an interesting movie are there--maybe they worked better in “Pour Elle,” the 2008 French film upon which this is based--but the end result just never works for a moment. The dramatic tension is nonexistent, the action sequences are as formulaic as can be and the two lead actors are so badly miscast that not even they can save the proceedings. The nicest thing that I can think to say about this one is that it isn’t nearly as offensive to the senses as Haggis’ previous films--it is ultimately too forgettable and innocuous to get too worked up over.

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originally posted: 11/19/10 23:05:52
last updated: 11/20/10 00:38:18
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