Four For the Holidays

On The Aisle
by Tony Macklin

2008 has been a year of pretty mediocre movies. In considering my list of 10 best movies of the year for the next issue, I could only come up with three or four that were released before December. Fortunately, December probably will have more worthy releases than the previous 11 months. The following are four notable films that will be in theaters for the holidays:

‘Seven Pounds’ (A-)
‘Seven Pounds’ is an unexpected holiday powerhouse. Will Smith shakes off his familiar, comfortable persona, and cuts to the unsettled heart of humanity. Smith has been riding a recent wave of gimmickry (‘Hancock’) and contrived sentimentality (‘The Pursuit of Happyness’), but in ‘Seven Pounds’ he challenges the audience to accept an intense, provocative experience. It will be very interesting to see if the audience is up to the challenge and will accept this new, bold Will Smith venture.
‘Seven Pounds’ is a movie about goodness, and a man who is on a crusade to reward goodness. Smith plays Ben Thomas, an IRS agent, a tormented good Samaritan, who gets involved in the lives of seven strangers. They are all good people who have serious problems.
But this is no Frank Capra populist entertainment. It’s surprising that the screenplay actually has reached the screen. It’s one of the best scripts of the year, but the writer Grant Nieporte has only written for TV and this is his screen debut.
The script is clever, motivated, and has integrity. Some people may reject “Seven Pounds” because it does demand integrity. But I’m guessing that a lot more people will affirm it.
The director Gabriele Muccino, who helmed “The Pursuit of Happyness,” seems an unlikely choice to overcome sentimentality with true sentiment. But he does.
Rosario Dawson renders a very affecting, sincere performance as one of the troubled strangers. She has touching chemistry with Will Smith. (Will asked his wife, Jada, for advice about how to play a sex scene with Rosario. Smart Will.)
Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper and a gifted cast add texture and personality to the human drama. By the way, don’t let anyone tell you the ending.
This seems to be the movie Will Smith and director Muccino really wanted to make, not just another commercial venture. “Seven Pounds” is a potent, thought-provoking, challenging experience.

‘Milk’ (B+)
Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant have created a warm-hearted testament to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay individual elected to major political office, the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. Milk was then murdered and martyred.
Penn is effective as the quirky, spirited Milk. He’s less self-indulgent than usual. Fortunately, he’s no Sam I Am; he’s Harvey I Want To Be.
Van Sant, from an original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, concocts a Wizard of Oz with Anita Bryant as the Wicked Witch of the West. Van Sant treats Harvey very kindly, maybe too kindly, and Penn presents Harvey as a happy warrior on the golden brick road of San Francisco.
Josh Brolin gives another strong performance as politician Dan White, the confused murderer of Milk, and Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber). James Franco is deftly low-key as Milk’s partner. Only Diego Luna seems somewhat lost in a thankless role as an uncontrollable young lover of Milk.
Obviously this is not a movie for homophobes, and might have a few uncomfortable moments for average viewers, but “Milk” is worth seeing as an artful homage to a provocative figure and a movement.
One might suppose, given the facts of what happened, that “Milk” is a depressing movie, but Van Sant and Penn transcend the facts and create a moving tribute.

‘Frost/Nixon’ (A-)
Director Ron Howard has made the award-winning play into an engrossing movie. Frank Langella is masterly as the thwarted, damaged, but still willful Nixon. Michael Sheen keeps up with him as the impetuous Frost. (See the complete review in the Dec. 11 issue).

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (A for some. C for me.)
This inventive treatment will intrigue and fulfill some audiences, but not me. Despite general critical euphoria (90 percent favorable on, I found it a plodding tour de force.
Supposedly based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, it is nothing like Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has a lyrical, lilting style, but director David Fincher and semi-hack Eric Roth concoct a 2 and a half hour trek into a hodgepodge of labored fantasy.
Fitzgerald set the story in Baltimore; Roth moves it to New Orleans, so he can witlessly include Hurricane Katrina. Fitzgerald is deft; Fincher this time out is ham-handed.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is the tale of the birth of the title character as an old man who gets younger instead of older. It’s a promising concept with which Fincher indulges himself.
Brad Pitt for much of the movie plays Benjamin, or at least his face does. Ah, that ageless CGI. Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton play the romantic interests in Benjamin’s meandering life. Elle Fanning is the younger Blanchett character.
The film is beautifully photographed. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda shoots lifelessness really well.

All four of the above holiday treats could be depressing, given their plots, but all four promote character to affirm their visions and humanity. I can strongly recommend three of the four, which is a nice change for me. I almost feel like Santa. Happy holidays at the cineplex!

Categories: Entertainment