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2009 Web Exclusive Film Reviews

Read one year of Bill Newcott's film reviews: 2009.

Despite Hollywood's infatuation with youth, half of movie tickets are bought by people over 30. "Youth-oriented movies make or break themselves on their opening weekends," says Movies for Grownups® host Bill Newcott. "But three of the highest-grossing movies of all time—the grownup-oriented My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Dances with Wolves, and A Beautiful Mind—never reached number one at the box office. How did they manage that success? It was thanks to mature audiences, who kept those movies in the theaters for months."

NEW! Discuss Movies with Bill Newcott and Fellow Film Buffs in AARP's Online Community

2009 Movies for Grownups® Awards

Video: Bill Newcott Brings Movies for Grownups® to Life

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December 2009

Avatar (PG-13)

Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are so passé. In James Cameron's awe-inspiring Avatar, cue the dive-bombing dragons, head-ramming hippos, and pouncing panthers. Oh wow! Cameron, the über-successful director whose last feature film was 1997's Oscar-winning Titanic, wrote the script for Avatar in 1994. He then spent the ensuing years hoping technology would advance enough to allow him to make this epic science fiction film a mind-blowing 3D experience. And was it ever worth the wait.

Don your 3D specs and let Cameron take you to the Earth-sized planet of Pandora in the year 2154. The natives, known as the Na'vi, are giant blue catlike creatures. Bow-and-arrow hunters, they are a hierarchical spiritual species—they worship a sacred tree and for the most part enjoy a peaceful coexistence with the herds of animals on their planet. But then come the humans—the Na'vi call them "sky people." These interlopers from "a dying Earth" set up a colony on Pandora with plans to mine the planet for a rare mineral with the wry name unobtanium.

The humans are divided on the means for acquiring the unobtanium, which is largely deposited where the Na'vi live. A large contingent of military vets led by a Colonel Miles Quaritch (played brilliantly by Stephen Lang) plans to use force if the Na'vi won't move out of the way. A smaller group of science types, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), want instead to gain an understanding of, and a way to communicate with, the Na'vi (who speak a language created specifically for the film). Her plan is to send in avatars—clone-like creatures with Na'vi bodies that are remotely controlled by their human alter egos. The avatars will gain the trust of the Na'vi and convince them to allow the earthlings to have at the mineral under their land.

Enter our protagonist: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine paralyzed from the waist down in a combat injury who's trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Sully's identical twin brother, it turns out, was actually a scientist on Augustine's team, and an avatar had been developed for him. He was mysteriously killed shortly before the mission was scheduled to begin, and Sully is brought in to fill in for him. And why wouldn't Sully be willing; while he's in a wheelchair, his avatar would be able to walk, run…even fly!

As Sully immerses himself in the world of the Na'vi, he begins to wonder which planet he really wants to live on—or which people he wants to align himself with—especially after spending quality avatar time with a female Na'vi known as Neytiri (played in a computer animated hybrid by Zoe Saldana). When the action heats up and preemptive attacks begin, Colonel Quaritch faces off with Sully, asking, "How does it feel to betray your own race?"

The film is infused with anti-war and green messages. "We will fight terror with terror," Quaritch announces in launching his "shock and awe campaign" on the natives of Pandora. Sometimes Cameron hits his audience over the head with the real-world parallels he's drawing. We get it: Imperialists Make a Mess of Everything. And he lets his story lines sprout too many tentacles. The second half of the movie meanders—albeit excitingly—and stretches believability several times, even in this fantastical universe. And the movie's romance verges on corny more than once.

Still, for all two hours and 40 minutes, Avatar fascinates. The effects are astounding. Pandora, with all its floating mountains and crashing waterfalls and glimmering jungles, is a place you'll want to return to, just to take another eye-popping look.

—Meg Grant AARP The Magazine, Entertainment Editor at Large

Crazy Heart (R)

Marveling at Jeff Bridges's performance as the washed-up, alcoholic country singer at the center of Crazy Heart, I was reminded of an interview I once did with a recovering drug addict. She explained that she'd switched from booze to pills because "alcohol can be messy." And there's no arguing the point when you watch Bridges, in alleys and motel bathrooms, retching again and again…and again. Still, thanks to an inner tenderness Bridges brings to his character, fallen idol Bad Blake, you're more than willing to ride the downward slide with him. You also understand why a pretty young newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) would fall for him: she sees in him a familiar soul, one who knows from experience that you can't always escape the mistakes you've made.

Crazy Heart's story isn't an original one. We've been this way before with midlife protagonists who nearly crumble under the weight of their self-destructive demons (Tender Mercies and The Wrestler are a couple). Here Blake is dogged not just by substance abuse, but also by failed love, fatherly regret, and bitterness over a protégé who has risen above him (played convincingly by Colin Farrell). Finally, he attempts redemption when the guy who is perhaps his one true friend (a bartender played by a kindly Robert Duvall) reminds him that it's never too late to change.

Like a good old country song, Crazy Heart hits familiar notes, but resonates with authenticity. All the defeat that weighs Blake down comes across as Bridges, with a sigh, heaves a guitar from the bed of his truck, having driven 500 miles across the Southwestern desert to perform in a dusty bowling alley. And Blake's seemingly unfounded sense of hope is made believable when, speaking in a cottonmouth slur, he tells the young woman he's falling for (Gyllenhaal), "I keep feeling obliged to apologize for being less than you probably imagined me to be."

No matter how messy the alcohol-hazed world of Crazy Heart is, Bridges's ability to hit shrewdly pitched notes—both as an actor and a pretty fair country singer—enables this movie, like the real Bad Blakes of our lives, to get under our skin.

—Meg Grant AARP The Magazine, Entertainment Editor at Large

Invictus (PG-13)

Clint Eastwood is one of the most efficient screen storytellers around—and he proves it again with the single breathtaking opening shot of his new film, Invictus. We see a team of blond-haired rugby players scrumming on a field, their futuristic high school towering over the impossibly green grass, their crisp white uniforms seeming to repel the very dirt beneath their feet. Now Eastwood's camera rises, passes over a narrow road, and settles on a playing field across the street, where a ragtag rabble of black students kick around their tattered rugby ball on a barren wasteland, their decrepit school building barely standing beyond it.

Now the camera rises again, back over the street, as a modest motorcade winds its way between the two fields. The black students run to the fence and chant, "Man-del-a…Man-del-a…"

This is South Africa, February 11, 1990. After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela has been freed by the apartheid government. He is the nation's new de facto leader—soon to be its president—and now he must navigate his way between the worlds of the Afrikaners and the black majority they oppressed for so long.

It's an astonishing piece of screen narrative—made even better by the fact that in the film Mandela helps heal his nation's wounds by figuratively tearing down those two fences, digging up the road between them, and enlisting the country's black and white communities to join in supporting South Africa's Rugby World Cup team.

That's the story of, and while it takes Eastwood an uncharacteristically long time to spin it out, the movie is propelled by remarkable performances, dizzying "football" sequences, and the mind-bending knowledge that it's all more or less true.

As Mandela, Morgan Freeman has found the role of a lifetime, and given that fact, you'd expect him to arrive chewing on the scenery. He doesn't—indeed, his Mandela is a man clearly physically and mentally beaten by nearly three decades in jail. He speaks in a respectful monotone; he takes tiny steps, like a man whose world has until recently consisted of a single cramped cell. In his most inspirational speeches, Freeman's Mandela seems to consciously refrain from oratorical fireworks, as if what the statesman is trying to accomplish is too important to be cheapened by unrestrained emotional displays.

To lead his team to the Rugby World Cup, Mandela relies on captain Francois Pienaar, a bleached-in-the-wool Afrikaner who takes to heart the mission of national unity. Matt Damon brings hunky vitality to the role, but that South African accent does sound a bit odd coming from a star we know so well (Freeman occasionally lets his slip, and, strange as it seems, it makes his performance less distracting).

There's not much in the way of plot detours in Invictus—we know where this film is going from that opening shot, and halfway through we can be sure that, win or lose, this team has gone a long way to forging a new identity for South Africans of all races. Although the brutal game sequences go on way too long (and, really, are Americans even inherently capable of understanding the rules of rugby?), at age 79 Eastwood continues to amaze with his big-shouldered, heave-ho style of filmmaking.

Everybody's Fine (PG-13)

Robert De Niro, maybe the greatest screen actor of his generation, has been slumming it. He has always, of course, been very good in the comedies that have been his bread and butter in recent years (Analyze This, Meet the Parents, and their sequels). But do you remember a time when you approached a De Niro film with gnawing trepidation, a sense that he was going to take you someplace utterly unexpected?

The good news is that De Niro is in fine form in Everybody's Fine. The great news is that De Niro has found a character he can introduce, dismantle, and reassemble with the fluid dexterity of a master. The film is being marketed as a tender family drama, but it's really a penetrating portrait of a newly widowed man coming to terms with the realization that he has not simply lost touch with his four grown children…he never really knew them at all.

We meet Frank Goode as he glumly listens to his telephone answering machine—a wood-grain, circa 1980s behemoth—hearing each of his kids beg off of a long-planned family reunion. With nothing keeping him, he boards a train (he can't fly, for reasons that the film later explains) and begins a cross-country odyssey to drop in, unexpectedly, on each of his far-flung offspring.

The film's title is, of course, ironic. Nobody's fine at all. One daughter (Kate Beckinsale) is on the verge of divorce; another (Drew Barrymore) is leading a secret life in Las Vegas; his younger son (Sam Rockwell) has been wildly exaggerating his level of success with a symphony orchestra; and his oldest child (Austin Lysy) has disappeared into a drug-fueled vortex in Mexico.

Everybody's Fine—based on a 1990 Italian film—is a story about secrets and how they can first be kept out of love or concern or fear, then spin out of control until the ensuing lies can take on a kind of truth of their own. With each revelation De Niro, as brilliantly understated here as he is over-the-top in his comedies, conveys Frank's slow awakening with a performance that is as imperceptible as it is indelible. His catharsis at the end is all the more authentic as he sobs not only in the face of a single personal tragedy, but in the realization that in failing to share his children's pain, in the end he only magnified it for all.

Those smiley clips the film's commercials show—of snowball fights and a sweet gathering around a dining table—are mostly from the film's warmhearted wrap-up, so it's not giving anything away to say the family finds redemption. That, and some truly funny episodes along Frank's odyssey, make Everybody's Fine a nice holiday movie choice. So do stick around for the end—and for the catchy closing song, "(I Want to) Come Home," written for the film by Paul McCartney. Frank would want you to enjoy yourself. But he'd also want you to remember the hard lessons he learned on the way to his happy ending.

The Road (R)

The visual landscape of The Road—a post-apocalyptic America laid barren by some undefined catastrophe—is strangely beautiful, with its twisted metal, ash-coated roads and defoliated trees. So, too is the film's tough-but-tender relationship between a father and his son. Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the movie depicts the pair's relentless struggle to survive, inescapably raising the question: What on Earth for?

Along The Road we meet cannibals, thieving and murderous gangs, desperate and suicidal citizens. But among those on the good side are a father and son—nameless to us—played powerfully by Viggo Mortensen and young Kodi Smit-McPhee. This is their story. While they walk endlessly south in search of warmth and, perhaps, relief—their belongings stuffed in a rusted shopping cart—they face again and again the most basic human choices. Through it all, the man is driven solely by his paternal duty to protect and nurture the boy—and to somehow, against all odds, teach the boy about love and kindness. It's a lesson that's put to the test when the boy urges his father to share a hard-won meal with a barely alive "old man," played tenderly by Robert Duvall. At that moment we realize The Road is no simple morality tale. The complexities are rich and deep.

Elements of The Road's world are disturbingly familiar. If you live in a city, there's nothing foreign about people whose belongings are contained in shopping carts. And we read every day about those whose desperation leads them to steal or even kill. John Hillcoat's searing direction sometimes makes The Road, like real life, painful to watch. In the end, you will ask yourself, "What road would I take?" The beauty of The Road is in seeing someone take the right turn.

—Meg Grant AARP The Magazine, Entertainment Editor at Large

November 2009

Amelia (PG)

Indian director Mira Nair is among the best when it comes to using the tools of cinema to quickly burrow into characters' psyches—that's why films like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, which explored cultural questions foreign to most Americans, nevertheless became instant classics here. So it's a sad surprise to sit down with Amelia, her new biopic about aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and find a deadeningly conventional slog through the life of one of the 20th Century's most intriguing figures.

Hilary Swank certainly looks the part of Amelia Earhart. All angles and teeth, gamely trying to be one of the boys in her shapeless flight suit, she seems to step directly from those famous Earhart photos we’ve all seen. And as the love of her life, publisher George Putnam, Richard Gere certainly seems just the dashing type of guy a gal would recklessly hurry across the Pacific to reunite with. But the two award-winning stars seem content to play their respective types, uttering lines that seem intended to push the story ahead than on revealing the personalities behind them. It doesn't help that we know the tragic end of the story, so that every perky expression of happy days ahead comes preloaded with dread and irony.

Amelia is a handsome film shot by the gifted Stuart Dryburgh who, as in his sumptuous The Painted Veil, recreates a bygone era with striking authenticity. If only Nair had been able to wring similarly real performances from her all-star cast.

September 2009

The Burning Plain (R)

A film of striking images and indelible performances, The Burning Plain offers a profoundly intimate glimpse of the workings of a tortured soul. The story of two troubled mothers and their shattered relationships with their daughters, the movie examines the fragile but strangely resilient ties that connect parent and child—even in the face of betrayal, abandonment, and death.

Writer/director Guillermo Arriaga—who wrote the complex, multi-storyline script for Babel—again presents us with parallel narratives, one set in rainy Portland, Oregon; the other in sun-baked New Mexico. At first, the characters seem impossibly distant from one another, both in locale and station: Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is the sophisticated, stylish manager of a top-tier Oregon restaurant, set atop a stunningly scenic ocean-side cliff. Gina (Kim Basinger) is a frustrated housewife in southern New Mexico, engaging in a desperate affair with Nick, a married man (Joaquim de Almeida). That these tales could possibly intersect feels unlikely until Arriaga again works his storytelling magic to make them not merely connected, but intimately so. True, he cheats a bit to throw us off track for a while, but the sheer honesty of his stars' performances more than makes up for his obvious "gotcha."

Basinger proves again that the older she gets, the more valuable she becomes as the movies' embodiment of middle-age beauty and the conflicts that go with it. Theron's character lives in an orbit light-years from Basinger's Gina, yet when their connection is revealed, it not only makes sense, but her performance renders it downright inevitable. As Gina's lover, de Almeida creates such an endearing character that I came away wishing I knew more about him; as it is, he functions as little more than a plot device in Arriaga's screenplay. In fact, all the men get similarly sketchy treatment, one of the film's few weaknesses.

There may be no more handsome-looking film this year than The Burning Plain, which employs not one, but two Oscar-winning cinematographers: Robert Elswit, whose dusty, gritty vision enlivened There Will Be Blood; and John Toll, whose lush, wild camerawork provided vivid atmosphere for The Thin Red Line and last year's Tropic Thunder. Each leaves his unmistakable fingerprint on The Burning Plain, whether it's the sizzling desert setting, which seems to throw actual heat off the screen; or the turbulent, untamed environment of the Oregon coast, where the crashing surf threatens to drench the first 12 rows of the theater.

To say The Burning Plain has a happy ending would be overstating things a bit. But as Arriaga's far-flung cast of characters also learned in Babel, often the very things that seem to irretrievably separate us can, in the end, prove to be unexpected forces of irresistible attraction.

August 2009

Play the Game (PG-13)

Some movies get points just for the casting, and Play the Game—a sweet study of late-life love—is one of them. Any time you find the amazing Andy Griffith, the versatile Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), and the indomitable Liz Sheridan (Seinfeld) entangled in a romantic triangle, well, that ought to be something worth watching. And the three veterans squeeze every funny, awkward, and poignant moment they can out of a surprisingly insightful script by young writer/director Marc Fienberg.

Griffith stars as Joe, who’d like to pitch a little woo toward a certain woman at his retirement home (Sheridan). Trouble is, Joe's been out of circulation for so long, he doesn't know where to start. Enter his youthful grandson David (Paul Campbell), who fancies himself an expert on courting the laydeeze, and who's more than happy to take on Grandpa Joe as a project.

There's great fun in the pair's give-and-take, and some subversive delight in watching as the two slowly switch roles: Joe becoming increasingly self-confident; David steadily succumbing to the inevitable insecurities of youth.

But the film's truly a delight when turning itself over to the three grownup protagonists. They circle each other tentatively, suffer pangs of inadequacy, and finally give themselves over to passions they never knew they had. In short, the lesson of Play the Game seems to be, whether you're at Sunset Acres or McKinley Central, life is all high school.

As he did in the sleeper hit Waitress a couple of years back, Griffith prods us with a gentle reminder that, Sheriff Andy Taylor aside, he's still the same fine, nuanced actor who startled audiences with his riveting performance 50 years ago as a secretly sleazy snake oil salesman in A Face in the Crowd (and if you haven't seen that underrated Elia Kazan classic, rent it now). Sheridan is one of Hollywood's most reliable character actresses—best remembered as Jerry Seinfeld's smothering mom on Seinfeld—and she brings unexpected sexiness as the object of Joe's affections. And Roberts—moving beyond her nine years as the domineering mom on Everybody Loves Raymond—shows touching vulnerability as another woman of Joe's lately resurgent dreams.

It goes without saying that Hollywood doesn’t make nearly enough films that take grownup love seriously. In bringing laughs to the table, Play the Game takes a big, joyful step in the right direction.

The Ugly Truth (R)

(500) Days of Summer (PG-13)

Usually, it's the big studios that have got the romantic comedy formula down pat: they've been cranking these things out for nearly a century now, and the formula is pretty much foolproof.

Except when it isn't. Right now there are two "rom-coms" out there in the theaters, one a slick studio blockbuster The Ugly Truth, the other a quirky independent film (500) Days of Summer. Guess which one gets it right?

Let's hear it for the little guy. (500) Days of Summer is a sweet love story cleverly told, breaking most of the rules of film storytelling with delightful success. An insecure young greeting card writer (fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls into a hopeless crush on a seemingly unattainable coworker (ever-perky Zooey Deschanel), and embarks on a quixotic quest to win her love. That's a pretty standard-issue movie setup; what makes (500) Days of Summer wonderfully unique is the filmmakers' choice to tell the story out of sequence, skipping gleefully around the 500 days of the couple's on-and-off relationship. This flash of brilliance enables the film to juxtapose the pair's happy and sad days, the days when it seemed this would last forever with the days when, unbeknownst to them, the seeds of terminal conflict were being sewn. A formula like this can get awfully confusing, but the choices of days here always make pitch-perfect sense, proving that while life happens chronologically, it is often best understood as a series of random events. In concept and execution, (500) Days of Summer is a surprisingly grown-up take on life and love from a bunch of newcomers (director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) previously responsible for little more than some music videos and the script of the recent regrettable The Pink Panther 2.

We can hope that someday the truly appealing pair Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler will find themselves in a much, much better movie than The Ugly Truth, but for now they're stuck with this one, and that's too bad. Mean-spirited from the first frame, dismissive of logic and abusive of even the most basic elements of romantic comedy, it's more than a train wreck: it's a bullet train crashing into a nitroglycerine factory.

The plot sounds okay, by movie standards: a TV news producer (Heigl) has a bitter run-in with the misogynistic star of a cable TV show (Butler, suppressing his Scottish accent), and wouldn't you know, the next day she learns he's been hired to boost the ratings of her news show. They hate each other, then they love each other, then they hate each other again, and finally they love each other for good. We, on the other hand, stick with the hate. She's an utterly unbelievable control freak; he's a crude, frothingly angry bohemian; and they pretty much stay that way throughout. The screenplay is so out of touch with reality—even by the loosest of movie standards—that in the film's most execrable scene we are expected to buy into the most base tenet of the lowest forms of pornography: that a woman can be aroused sexually against her will.

I didn't like it, and that's The Ugly Truth.

Julie & Julia (PG-13)

A sweet soufflé of a film, Julie & Julia bubbles with wonderful moments, endearing performances, and a reassuring message that dreams can come true for those who keep their enthusiasm and good nature in place.

The name of the movie is taken from Julie Powell's best-selling book—Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. In it, Powell recounts the year she recreated every single recipe in Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, right in her modest Queens, New York, home. But the film is equally drawn from Julia's autobiographical book, My Life in France, recounting how she became interested in cooking in the first place. Meryl Streep plays Julia, and the only news here would be if she gave a bad performance. Of course she doesn't—she pulls off the awkward gait of the 6-foot-2 Julia without looking like a clown, and recreates her distinctive, sing-song voice without sounding like a cheap comic (although director/writer Nora Ephron does have the good sense to let a clip of Dan Aykroyd's classic Julia imitation from Saturday Night Live run its full length). There are some slightly distracting camera tricks employed to make Streep appear much larger than she really is—utterly unnecessary, as the star's larger-than-life performance dominates every scene she's in.

If Streep is overpowering, her costar Amy Adams seems small, vulnerable, almost unbearably adorable. It’s a performance perfectly calibrated to contrast with the bombastic Julia. As Julie, the woman who sets herself the impossible gastronomical challenge of a lifetime, Adams more than holds her own opposite Streep. (Luckily for her, perhaps, they never do appear onscreen at the same time).

The women run the show here, of course, but they are lovingly supported, in character and performance, by some truly gifted actors. As Julia's endlessly encouraging, transparently adoring husband, Stanley Tucci will serve as the catalyst for countless wives to thump their hubbies on the way out of the theater, asking, "Why can't you love me the way he loved her?" Chris Messina has a tougher task as the over-fed spouse of the hard-core-cooking Julie. He patiently stands by as Julie burns the beef and tearfully dumps live lobsters into boiling pots, but when the script asks him to storm out of the house in a furious huff, possibly never to return, it seems tacked on, like one of those fake conflicts that pop up on TV reality shows. The truth is, Messina can't help but be one more immensely likeable character in a cast you just want to gather up and give a collective hug.

And that seems appropriate for a movie that ends up to be all about love: passionate, hot-blooded love; long-time, well-seasoned love; love of cooking; love of eating; love of formulating a challenge and then conquering it. Julie & Julia is a love story that leaves you, ironically, hungry for more.

Read Julie Powell's article "Cooking With Julia" on our Good Food channel >>

July 2009

Brüno (R)

Sometime in the next few weeks, somebody is going to urge you to go see Brüno, the new semi-scripted comedy starring Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen. "Of course, it's totally offensive," they'll say, "but it's just so funny." And it's true: If you go, you'll laugh. But (cue scary music here) at what price?

Cohen has an uncanny way of mining laughs out of true awfulness. And that's perhaps the most frustrating thing about him and his films. At the packed screening I attended, the audience seemed perilously close to oxygen deprivation due to its endless, relentless state of hilarity.

Cohen plays Brüno, a flamboyantly gay fashion critic from Austria who comes to America for no purpose other than to become world famous. As he did in Borat, Cohen takes his camera out into the real world, where Brüno interacts with real people who don't know they're dealing with an actor whose chief goal is to make them angry, disgusted, fearful, self-righteous—and ideally, a mixture of all four. Sometimes the prank is fairly benign—as when Brüno interviews a fashion model who reflects on the difficulties involved in turning around on a catwalk. But pretty soon the discomfort level gets ratcheted up to infinity and beyond. Cohen's wide-eyed sense of innocence is soon shown to mask a smoldering malevolence. This being a family website and all, there's not a whole lot of detail we can go into here. But you tell me: Is it okay for Cohen to inflame a TV studio full of African Americans, some moved to sorrowful tears, by standing before them and professing the joys of abusing an adopted African baby? Is it okay to lure then-presidential candidate Ron Paul into a hotel room and, in front of hidden cameras, attempt to seduce him? Or to go camping with a trio of hunters, then present himself to them, naked, in the middle of the night? Or to visit an alleged former terrorist in a Middle Eastern safe house and tell him Osama bin Laden resembles "a homeless Santa Claus"? (Well, maybe that last one is okay).

Some of Brüno is funny, some of it is sad, a lot of it is so beyond the realm of taste—good or bad—that you'd need the Hubble Telescope to track it down. But there's no denying all the laughter, mine included. Maybe we laugh at Brüno because our psyches have not yet evolved an appropriate response to the sight of a guy posing babies into a Crucifixion tableau. Maybe Cohen has tapped into a whole section of the human brain that has never been explored before. Maybe. But that doesn't make me feel much better about the movie. And it sure as hell doesn't make me feel any better about myself.

June 2009

The Proposal (PG-13)

There are lots of good reasons to enjoy the delightfully stupid romantic comedy The Proposal: Sandra Bullock once again proves herself one of the screen's most gifted comic actresses; Ryan Reynolds emerges as a first-tier lightweight leading man; and some very nice Massachusetts scenery doubles admirably for, of all places, Alaska. But the best reason of all is the glorious Betty White, who steals the movie from the younger folk with such ease it isn't even fair.

Bullock stars as a barracuda-like book editor, who suddenly learns her career is toast because she's about to be deported from Manhattan back to Canada where, apparently, they do not publish books. In an act of desperation, she impulsively announces she is engaged to marry her assistant, played with wonderful cluelessness by Reynolds. I feel like we've heard this one before, along with the rest of the ensuing jokes. In fact, the old marry-to-avoid-immigration plot line is so well worn we can't quite believe the characters don't know exactly what's going to happen next. But the cast is so engaging we really don't give it a second thought.

To make the charade look good to Immigration, the pair head off to the groom-to-be's home in Alaska for his grandmother's 90th birthday party and at last we get to meet Betty White—and from here on all bets are off. The script throws every old-lady gag in the book at White, who hits each one out of the park with a mighty swing of her thin little arms. She's a hoot encouraging the kids to make some babies, innocently feeling up Bullock as she measures her for a wedding gown, and making the inevitable inappropriate observations. And while she's not asked to be a rapping granny, White does perform a pretty convincing Native American dance around a campfire. Her character even ends up providing the final plot twist that ensures a happy ending. It's nice to see a movie giving a real comic role to an older actress for a change, and White makes the absolute best of it. Let's hope Bullock gets the same kind of chance when she's 87.

Away We Go (R)

Turns out the best movie about parenthood to come along in some time features a couple whose baby isn't even born yet. A deeply thoughtful, unexpectedly riotous comedy for grownups, Away We Go explores every parent's fixation on making a perfect world for their children, the inevitable landmines that blow every such plan to smithereens, and the ultimate realization that life's small disasters can be every bit as reassuring as a mother's embrace.

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski of The Office and Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live) are an attractive young unmarried couple about to have their first baby. Their excitement takes a distinct blow when his parents (a delightfully self-absorbed Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) announce they're going to live in Antwerp—a month before the baby's due.

"You're moving three thousand miles away from your grandchild!" Burt gasps.

"Oh," says Mom, "I think it's farther than three thousand."

Since Verona's parents are both deceased, and the couple desperately want their child to grow up near extended family, they head out across the country, visiting friends and relatives, trying each one on for size. They map out a trip to Arizona; Madison, Wisconsin; and Montreal—where, naturally, none of the target couples or their lives turn out to be everything they'd hoped for. For Burt and Verona, that's bad news. For us, the various pairs constitute a wonderful jumble of human foibles. Verona's aunt and uncle in Arizona (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan) are cheerfully embittered by life's disappointments, chirping endlessly about their personal and physical declines, locked in a parent-child relationship which seems, at best, to consist of mutual apathy.

Next it's off to Madison, where Burt's old college friend Ellen (who now spells her first name "LN") and her ponytailed husband (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton) have pushed their New Age lifestyle way beyond even a Shirley MacLaine fever dream. The gift of a stroller from Burt and Verona draws shock and thinly veiled derision from LN, delightfully played by Gyllenhaal with earnest creepiness.

"I love my babies," she says condescendingly. "Why would I want to push them away from me?"

Final stop is Montreal, and a couple whose home rings with the happy sounds of their adopted children. And here Away We Go finds its way off the well-worn comedy path that it has followed thus far. At first glance Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) seem to have it all, but there emerges a sadness about them—explained poignantly and beautifully in an impromptu dance by the wife, played with a haunting emptiness by Lynskey (you know her as the psycho/sexy neighbor on TV's Two and a Half Men).

We can see the conclusion of Away We Go coming from a few thousand miles down the road Burt and Verona travel. Slowly it dawns on them that the perfect place for raising a child cannot be found via MapQuest, but in the heart of a family. Not a perfect family; just a family populated by human beings.

To make the charade look good to Immigration, the pair head off to the groom-to-be's home in Alaska for his grandmother's 90th birthday party and at last we get to meet Betty White—and from here on all bets are off. The script throws every old-lady gag in the book at White, who hits each one out of the park with a mighty swing of her thin little arms. She's a hoot encouraging the kids to make some babies, innocently feeling up Bullock as she measures her for a wedding gown, and making the inevitable inappropriate observations. And while she's not asked to be a rapping granny, White does perform a pretty convincing Native American dance around a campfire. Her character even ends up providing the final plot twist that ensures a happy ending. It's nice to see a movie giving a real comic role to an older actress for a change, and White makes the absolute best of it. Let's hope Bullock gets the same kind of chance when she's 87.

 

Away We Go (R)

Turns out the best movie about parenthood to come along in some time features a couple whose baby isn't even born yet. A deeply thoughtful, unexpectedly riotous comedy for grownups, Away We Go explores every parent's fixation on making a perfect world for their children, the inevitable landmines that blow every such plan to smithereens, and the ultimate realization that life's small disasters can be every bit as reassuring as a mother's embrace.

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski of The Office and Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live) are an attractive young unmarried couple about to have their first baby. Their excitement takes a distinct blow when his parents (a delightfully self-absorbed Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) announce they're going to live in Antwerp—a month before the baby's due.

"You're moving three thousand miles away from your grandchild!" Burt gasps.

"Oh," says Mom, "I think it's farther than three thousand."

Since Verona's parents are both deceased, and the couple desperately want their child to grow up near extended family, they head out across the country, visiting friends and relatives, trying each one on for size. They map out a trip to Arizona; Madison, Wisconsin; and Montreal—where, naturally, none of the target couples or their lives turn out to be everything they'd hoped for. For Burt and Verona, that's bad news. For us, the various pairs constitute a wonderful jumble of human foibles. Verona's aunt and uncle in Arizona (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan) are cheerfully embittered by life's disappointments, chirping endlessly about their personal and physical declines, locked in a parent-child relationship which seems, at best, to consist of mutual apathy.

Next it's off to Madison, where Burt's old college friend Ellen (who now spells her first name "LN") and her ponytailed husband (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton) have pushed their New Age lifestyle way beyond even a Shirley MacLaine fever dream. The gift of a stroller from Burt and Verona draws shock and thinly veiled derision from LN, delightfully played by Gyllenhaal with earnest creepiness.

"I love my babies," she says condescendingly. "Why would I want to push them away from me?"

Final stop is Montreal, and a couple whose home rings with the happy sounds of their adopted children. And here Away We Go finds its way off the well-worn comedy path that it has followed thus far. At first glance Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) seem to have it all, but there emerges a sadness about them—explained poignantly and beautifully in an impromptu dance by the wife, played with a haunting emptiness by Lynskey (you know her as the psycho/sexy neighbor on TV's Two and a Half Men).

We can see the conclusion of Away We Go coming from a few thousand miles down the road Burt and Verona travel. Slowly it dawns on them that the perfect place for raising a child cannot be found via MapQuest, but in the heart of a family. Not a perfect family; just a family populated by human beings.

My Life in Ruins (PG-13)

In case you're not going to find yourself traipsing around Greece this summer (Anyone? I thought not.), you could do a lot worse than to spend an hour or so in a dark theater with My Life in Ruins, an enjoyable tour bus comedy that wends its way among lofty Greek temples and bustling street markets, never far from the unspeakably blue Aegean.

Nia Vardalos, whose My Big Fat Greek Wedding remains one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time, stars as a love-starved American stuck in a dead-end job as a tour guide in Greece. So jaded is she that she can glance at her newest group of tourists and expertly pigeonhole them: the businessman who can't leave his cell-phone home, the rude Americans, the surly teen, the man-hungry divorcee, the would-be comedian. Luckily for us, the last is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who wrings from his character's wisecracks a lot more mileage than they deserve.

Off they all go into the Grecian sun for a week-long tour, and we well know that by journey's end the businessman will chill out, the teen will crack a smile, the jokester will reveal the tender heart behind his barbs, and the tour guide will find love and fulfillment. In fact, My Life in Ruins plays to the hope that just about all vacationers pack along with the suntan lotion: that somewhere along the road they will find that elusive little puzzle piece that will make them truly, enduringly happy.

Vardalos brings much of the awkward charm that endeared her to audiences in Greek Wedding; in fact, Ruins feels in some ways like an alternate story for the character she played before. My Life in Ruins lacks the undercurrent of social tension that gave Wedding its surprising heft, but the gags are funny, the denizens of the bus are appealing, and Vardalos makes a sweet ringmaster. Besides, I'm willing to give every benefit of the doubt to the film's first-time movie scripter Mike Reiss, who has written and/or produced some 175 episodes of The Simpsons plus two of TV's lost masterpieces, Sledge Hammer! and It's Garry Shandling's Show.

And as for the movie's real star, well, from Zorba the Greek until now, Greece has never, ever given a bad performance.

May 2009

Is Anybody There? (PG-13)

As a retired magician struggling to find continued meaning in life—even as he feels life slipping away—Michael Caine works his own special brand of magic in Is Anybody There?

When we first meet Clarence (formerly known as "The Amazing Clarence") he's turned up, unshaven, cranky, and distraught, on the steps of a retirement home in the English countryside. It's the last place he wants to be, a sentiment shared by the owners' young son Edward (Bill Milner). But at least Edward has a hobby: he secretly tape records the last moments of the home's dying residents, then replays the tapes through, trying to discern some audible clue as to what happens at the moment of death—and perhaps beyond.

Edward treats Clarence with the same indifference he bestows on all the residents until he spots the old man quietly performing a card trick in his room. A tentative friendship takes root, then blossoms as the two gleefully share their discontent and comfort each other about their day-to-day problems, most of them born of their refusal to conform to the rules of the house.

The wonder of Is Anybody There? lies in the subtle development of the relationship between Clarence and Edward. They're both misfits—Clarence because he feels his storied past should entitle him to a more convivial twilight than this, Edward because he suspects his present state is stunting his future. The retirement home is their common ground, and it provides a fertile plot for their flourishing relationship.

We're more than halfway through Is Anybody There? before we understand the serious health problem dogging Clarence. It becomes apparent during an impromptu magic show, performed for the residents, that goes hideously and hilariously wrong (and how wonderful it is to see some familiar faces in the crowd: the great Sylvia Sims, the radiant Rosemary Harris, and the inimitable Peter Vaughan, who stole the show a few years back as awful Uncle Alfie in Death at a Funeral).

From this point on, young Edward assumes the role of mentor, stretching beyond his years for a maturity that will help reconcile his friend to his personal demons before it's too late.

Of course, it's Michael Caine's show, and he disappears into Clarence as magically as a rabbit vanishing into a top hat. Proud, frightened, showy, and shy, Clarence is every man facing death: desperately trying to fit the puzzle pieces of his life into a meaningful picture. He invites us to laugh with him, to cry with him, and to be infuriated, as he is at his follies. In short, Caine's Clarence is human in a full, satisfying way. It is a masterly achievement by one of the screen's true masters.

Read AARP Bulletin Today's article "Crossing Generations" by Michael Caine >>

April 2009

The Soloist (PG-13)

As uplifting and beautiful a film as you will see this year, The Soloist soars as a testament to friendship, loyalty, and the surpassing power of music.

When we first meet Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), he is standing before a statue of Beethoven in downtown Los Angeles playing a violin with just two strings on it. Anyone who lives in a city has seen him thousands of times: the disheveled, vaguely confused, rambling homeless guy with whom you desperately try to avoid eye contact.

On this particular day, however, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) can't afford to stay aloof. He's desperate for something to write about, and he suspects this unfortunate fellow might just be grist for his mill. What ices it for him is the revelation that this particular homeless man, now a shopping cart-pushing paranoid schizophrenic, was once a promising student at Juilliard.

After his column runs, Lopez finds himself drawn back to Ayers' sidewalk sonatas. He decides to try and help Ayers get back on his feet, and so begins a rocky, wonderful relationship. At first Lopez approaches the task from a decidedly superior position. It is his personal journey from savior to mentor to friend, and Ayers' concurrent pilgrimage from dependent to student to equal, that make The Soloist so much more than a standard-issue rags-to-riches sickness-to-restoration saga. Indeed, by the film's end—aside from Ayers' transition from the street to a mental health residence—the characters' apparent lots don't change all that much. It is deep in each man's soul, despite the private demons that dog them both, that the true transformations take place.

Based on the Los Angeles Times columns of the real-life Steve Lopez, and a resulting book, The Soloist supplements the author's rich prose with an element only the movie could add: the music that lifts Ayers from his mental haze. Director Joe Wright proves to be a cinematic visionary in that regard: An impromptu cello recital in an LA underpass becomes a religious experience as the camera pulls back, then soars upward, high above the city and into the clouds. At a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (the orchestra plays itself, adding a nice touch of authenticity), Ayers closes his eyes and with him we "see" the music: abstract, delicate lights reminiscent of the opening segment of Disney's 1940 classic Fantasia.

At the center of The Soloist stand two astonishing performances. Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray a few years back. But I always felt that performance was a little gadgety, informed a bit too easily by Brother Ray's distinct styles of speech and movement. Here Foxx creates a fully defined character of his own, a man determined to overcome his disability, yet oddly comfortable with the ways in which it has helped define his personality.

As for Downey, he continues his steady middle-age march to becoming the go-to guy for virtually any role that demands a mixture of cockiness and vulnerability. The Soloist, in the end, triumphs as a lovely duet by two supremely gifted stars.

Watch Bill Newcott's interview with Steve Lopez, journalist and book author >>
Listen to Mike Cuthbert's Prime Time Radio interview with Steve Lopez >>

Alien Trespass (PG)

There's a goofy goodwill that makes Alien Trespass irresistible from the outset. At once a send-up and loving homage to 1950s sci-fi flicks, the movie takes its retro premise and galumphs along not just predictably, but inevitably, toward its dumb conclusion. Along the way we get to revisit a bunch of stock characters we remember vividly from those old Saturday TV matinees but never dreamed we'd ever meet again.

Setting his story squarely in the Eisenhower years, longtime The X–Files director R.W. Goodwin happily limits his cinematic resources to mid-century film technology (Alien Trespass includes some of the least-convincing rear-screen projection effects this side of The Blob). The story is pure '50s pulp: a mysterious craft crashes outside a remote Western town. Soon the countryside is terrorized by a flesh-eating monster—and mankind's only hope is an intergalactic cop trying to capture it.

All the essential character types are on hand: the "nice kids" who stumble upon the awful truth yet cannot convince the local adults that the planet is in grave danger…the hard-boiled cops whose cluelessness is exceeded only by their confidence that they have things well in hand…the street-smart hoodlum kid with a heart of gold…a truly cheesy monster…and, of course, the mysterious good-guy alien who must convince a trigger-happy skeptical world that he comes in peace.

The last role is wonderfully played by Will & Grace star Eric McCormack, who brings the perfect blend of humanity and alien-ness that Keanu Reeves tried to achieve, but couldn't quite muster up, in the recent play-it-straight remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Also along as a nice casting move is Robert Patrick—who as the replicating robot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains one of the scariest movie monsters ever—as a grunting, somewhat lecherous small-town cop.

Probably best viewed from the back seat of a ’57 Chevy, Alien Trespass is a warm-hearted visit to a time when those Americans who were worried about aliens gazed nervously skyward—not toward the nation's borders.

March 2009

Brothers at War (R)

You can tell a movie is really good when it makes you forget every other film in its genre. So, if only for brief moments, last year Mamma Mia! became for me the greatest film musical ever, Slumdog Millionaire was the best rags-to-riches story, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ranked as the top film about a baby who ages backwards (oh, wait, it still holds that position).

That's why I can state categorically that the new documentary Brothers at War is hands down the best war movie—documentary or fictional—ever made. So what if temporary amnesia wiped away all conscious memory of the barrel-chested heroism of Sands of Iwo Jima and the raving antiheroes of Apocalypse Now. Populated with unforgettable characters, shot with edgy assurance by first-time director Jake Rademacher, Brothers at War immerses us in the Iraq war experience with an intimacy born not only of technical and artistic achievement, but also of a profound personal connection with the soldiers in the field.

Director Rademacher, you see, has two brothers—both of whom happen to be fighting in Iraq. Isaac and Joe are a couple of all-American GI Joes; Jake is, by comparison, something of a film school nerd. When we see them all together at a family function, it's clear that although the three are loving brothers, only two also share membership in a separate brotherhood. As odd man out, Rademacher decides to go to Iraq, embedded as a documentarian. Ostensibly, he's there to cover the war from the inside. In his heart, he's trying to understand what it is that makes his brothers so different from him.

In Iraq, Rademacher nervously starts heading out on missions. We meet his brothers' buddies—guys with nicknames like Mongo (the commanding officer dubs Rademacher "Hollywood"). There's a tense patrol along the Syrian border. Later, hunkered down with a team of snipers in the Sunni Triangle, Rademacher lets his camera roll while the riflemen put distant figures in their crosshairs—and hope against hope they'll get the order to pull the trigger. "Everyone wants a kill," says one. Still, in the movie's single most devastating moment, one sniper, his boyish face filling the screen, tells of the day he very nearly blew the head off a child carrying a gun that turned out to be a toy. For the rest of his life, he confesses, his worst memory of Iraq will be the kid he didn't kill.

The deadly drudgery of war takes up much of the film: The soldiers trudge across the countryside seeking enemy combatants, occasionally setting a suspicious car or truck ablaze, questioning the locals, then moving on. Through it all, the Americans patiently—and sometimes not so patiently—try to train their Iraqi comrades to take over the fight. At times it seems a futile task. The language barrier alone causes repeated delays and misunderstandings that could prove lethal.

Finally, Rademacher finds himself dodging bullets in a full-fledged firefight. Side by side, the American and Iraqi soldiers hurl themselves into the ditch along a highway, aiming their rifles at an enemy that seems invisible. Rademacher's single camera seems to be everywhere, swinging wildly, fortuitously finding soldiers at the precise moments when they must make the snap life-or-death decisions that blend together in the fog of war. Suddenly, it's all over. Rademacher's camera dashes up the road, revealing some seriously injured Iraqis. But nobody on our side dies today and later, when the American commander praises the Iraqis for their professionalism and courage, the camera focuses on their faces—proud of their accomplishment, determined to make this victory stick.

Executive-produced by actor Gary Sinise, an outspoken supporter of American soldiers and their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brothers at War serves as a valuable reminder. No matter how fiercely the debate over the wars rages at home, in those desert and mountain outposts, a singular focus never wavers: Kill the bad guys; give the good guys a chance to succeed.

In the end, Rademacher feels he knows his brothers a lot better. They in turn feel their civilian sibling has at least tried to understand who they are. And we come away, silently and reverently, awed by the mystery of such casual courage.

Director Rademacher, you see, has two brothers—both of whom happen to be fighting in Iraq. Isaac and Joe are a couple of all-American GI Joes; Jake is, by comparison, something of a film school nerd. When we see them all together at a family function, it's clear that although the three are loving brothers, only two also share membership in a separate brotherhood. As odd man out, Rademacher decides to go to Iraq, embedded as a documentarian. Ostensibly, he's there to cover the war from the inside. In his heart, he's trying to understand what it is that makes his brothers so different from him.

In Iraq, Rademacher nervously starts heading out on missions. We meet his brothers' buddies—guys with nicknames like Mongo (the commanding officer dubs Rademacher "Hollywood"). There's a tense patrol along the Syrian border. Later, hunkered down with a team of snipers in the Sunni Triangle, Rademacher lets his camera roll while the riflemen put distant figures in their crosshairs—and hope against hope they'll get the order to pull the trigger. "Everyone wants a kill," says one. Still, in the movie's single most devastating moment, one sniper, his boyish face filling the screen, tells of the day he very nearly blew the head off a child carrying a gun that turned out to be a toy. For the rest of his life, he confesses, his worst memory of Iraq will be the kid he didn't kill.

The deadly drudgery of war takes up much of the film: The soldiers trudge across the countryside seeking enemy combatants, occasionally setting a suspicious car or truck ablaze, questioning the locals, then moving on. Through it all, the Americans patiently—and sometimes not so patiently—try to train their Iraqi comrades to take over the fight. At times it seems a futile task. The language barrier alone causes repeated delays and misunderstandings that could prove lethal.

Finally, Rademacher finds himself dodging bullets in a full-fledged firefight. Side by side, the American and Iraqi soldiers hurl themselves into the ditch along a highway, aiming their rifles at an enemy that seems invisible. Rademacher's single camera seems to be everywhere, swinging wildly, fortuitously finding soldiers at the precise moments when they must make the snap life-or-death decisions that blend together in the fog of war. Suddenly, it's all over. Rademacher's camera dashes up the road, revealing some seriously injured Iraqis. But nobody on our side dies today and later, when the American commander praises the Iraqis for their professionalism and courage, the camera focuses on their faces—proud of their accomplishment, determined to make this victory stick.

Executive-produced by actor Gary Sinise, an outspoken supporter of American soldiers and their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brothers at War serves as a valuable reminder. No matter how fiercely the debate over the wars rages at home, in those desert and mountain outposts, a singular focus never wavers: Kill the bad guys; give the good guys a chance to succeed.

In the end, Rademacher feels he knows his brothers a lot better. They in turn feel their civilian sibling has at least tried to understand who they are. And we come away, silently and reverently, awed by the mystery of such casual courage.

February 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (PG)

It’s great to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. Even better is to skulk into a film expecting the absolute worst and then emerge so utterly delighted, you’re a bit disoriented. So it is with Confessions of a Shopaholic, a shockingly smart comedy about the perils of living in an überconsumer society.

Isla Fisher—who stole Wedding Crashers a couple of years back with her turn as the sexy-crazy sister of the bride—plays Rebecca, a recent journalism school graduate who is hooked on buying stuff. Expensive stuff. Stuff she can in no way afford. And so as her New York apartment swells with Gucci, Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent, so does the number of dunning letters and phone calls arriving from her credit card companies. She knows she’s in trouble, but at every turn she surrenders to the need to indulge with her similarly stricken best friend (huge-eyed, raven-haired Krysten Ritter) or impress the man of her dreams (Hugh Dancy, looking as if he has ripped himself from one of those inscrutable Vanity Fair fashion ads).

Now, it’s at this point that most Hollywood films will jump off that cliff that lies just on the other side of Hypocrisy Hill: they roundly condemn materialism while at the same time wallowing in it. For a while, it looks like that’s exactly where Confessions of a Shopaholic is heading. As Rebecca gazes longingly—no, lustfully—at the shoes and dresses and handbags that (literally, in this case) beckon from the windows along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, we begin to buy into in her plastic-fueled mania. But as she spirals into economic ruin, and a truly sleazy debt collector comes ever closer to exposing her dilemma to the world, we begin to catch on: It’s okay to want that Gucci purse. But it’s also okay to wait and—get this—save up the money until you can afford it! What, you find that moral a tad simplistic? Well, check out the worried looks on all those people you’re riding the bus with these days, and you might realize it’s a pretty profound lesson. Just try passing this message on to the girls of Sex and the City, or even The Princess Diaries. They’d probably claw your eyes out. And some measure of kudos must be offered to the big-name fashion houses that allowed themselves to be attached to a film with such a revolutionary outlook.

Fisher is rapidly proving herself to be the most reliably inventive young comic actress working these days—and her status is implicitly affirmed by the presence of some truly gifted women in supporting roles, including Lynn Redgrave, Joan Cusack, Wendie Malick, and, perhaps best of all, the too-seldom-seen Julie Hagerty, who after 30 years remains known mostly for her wondrous work in Airplane!, and that’s enough. John Goodman and John Lithgow also show up as additional grownup anchors for the youthful lead cast.

So don’t worry, go see Confessions of a Shopaholic. And as you spill out of the multiplex into the shopping mall, remember to just keep going.

January 2009

Gran Torino (R)

Somebody call the cops (where’s Dirty Harry these days, anyway?). Clint Eastwood has stolen his own movie, scowling and growling his way through Gran Torino. And while we're not quite talking grand theft here, it's a long-overdue guilty pleasure to see the director/star allow himself to be the center of attention for a change.

In some ways, Eastwood's Walt Kowalski—a grumpy former Detroit autoworker who hates everybody and seems ever on the verge of pulling a gun on just about anybody—could easily have been written as Dirty Harry in retirement. The disdain with which he sees his crumbling world, and the slit-eyed gaze through which he views it, are unsubtle shadows of the cop who defined the term "loose cannon." Newbie screenwriter Nick Schenk has plopped this hopelessly Neanderthal guy down in an overwhelmingly ethnic neighborhood, populated mostly by Hmong families—whose southeast Asian heritage Walt seems to keep confusing with that of the Koreans he fought nearly 60 years ago.

February 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (PG)

It’s great to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. Even better is to skulk into a film expecting the absolute worst and then emerge so utterly delighted, you’re a bit disoriented. So it is with Confessions of a Shopaholic, a shockingly smart comedy about the perils of living in an überconsumer society.

Isla Fisher—who stole Wedding Crashers a couple of years back with her turn as the sexy-crazy sister of the bride—plays Rebecca, a recent journalism school graduate who is hooked on buying stuff. Expensive stuff. Stuff she can in no way afford. And so as her New York apartment swells with Gucci, Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent, so does the number of dunning letters and phone calls arriving from her credit card companies. She knows she’s in trouble, but at every turn she surrenders to the need to indulge with her similarly stricken best friend (huge-eyed, raven-haired Krysten Ritter) or impress the man of her dreams (Hugh Dancy, looking as if he has ripped himself from one of those inscrutable Vanity Fair fashion ads).

Now, it’s at this point that most Hollywood films will jump off that cliff that lies just on the other side of Hypocrisy Hill: they roundly condemn materialism while at the same time wallowing in it. For a while, it looks like that’s exactly where Confessions of a Shopaholic is heading. As Rebecca gazes longingly—no, lustfully—at the shoes and dresses and handbags that (literally, in this case) beckon from the windows along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, we begin to buy into in her plastic-fueled mania. But as she spirals into economic ruin, and a truly sleazy debt collector comes ever closer to exposing her dilemma to the world, we begin to catch on: It’s okay to want that Gucci purse. But it’s also okay to wait and—get this—save up the money until you can afford it! What, you find that moral a tad simplistic? Well, check out the worried looks on all those people you’re riding the bus with these days, and you might realize it’s a pretty profound lesson. Just try passing this message on to the girls of Sex and the City, or even The Princess Diaries. They’d probably claw your eyes out. And some measure of kudos must be offered to the big-name fashion houses that allowed themselves to be attached to a film with such a revolutionary outlook.

Fisher is rapidly proving herself to be the most reliably inventive young comic actress working these days—and her status is implicitly affirmed by the presence of some truly gifted women in supporting roles, including Lynn Redgrave, Joan Cusack, Wendie Malick, and, perhaps best of all, the too-seldom-seen Julie Hagerty, who after 30 years remains known mostly for her wondrous work in Airplane!, and that’s enough. John Goodman and John Lithgow also show up as additional grownup anchors for the youthful lead cast.

So don’t worry, go see Confessions of a Shopaholic. And as you spill out of the multiplex into the shopping mall, remember to just keep going.

January 2009

Gran Torino (R)

Somebody call the cops (where’s Dirty Harry these days, anyway?). Clint Eastwood has stolen his own movie, scowling and growling his way through Gran Torino. And while we're not quite talking grand theft here, it's a long-overdue guilty pleasure to see the director/star allow himself to be the center of attention for a change.

In some ways, Eastwood's Walt Kowalski—a grumpy former Detroit autoworker who hates everybody and seems ever on the verge of pulling a gun on just about anybody—could easily have been written as Dirty Harry in retirement. The disdain with which he sees his crumbling world, and the slit-eyed gaze through which he views it, are unsubtle shadows of the cop who defined the term "loose cannon." Newbie screenwriter Nick Schenk has plopped this hopelessly Neanderthal guy down in an overwhelmingly ethnic neighborhood, populated mostly by Hmong families—whose southeast Asian heritage Walt seems to keep confusing with that of the Koreans he fought nearly 60 years ago.

A story develops, for sure: A neighbor kid is trying to avoid being sucked into the local gang culture, but not before he gets caught trying to steal Kowalski’s meticulously preserved Gran Torino (Kowalski, it seems, installed the car’s steering column back in his days on the assembly line). But really, what keeps us riveted to Gran Torino is Eastwood’s fierce performance. With age, his long frame is indeed slowly curling, but here he seems more coiled, ready to spring—or snap—at the slightest provocation. In the face of his neighbors' emerging humanity he softens, and Eastwood pulls off the neat trick of making us appreciate his newfound embrace of his fellow man while wistfully missing his old, craggy self.

For an Eastwood film, the supporting players are surprisingly weak. It may be due to many of the cast members being first-timers (or close to it) and at times the proceedings bear resemblance to a big star slumming at a community theater. Still, running full-bore, Eastwood is positively magnetic. He doesn’t act nearly enough these days, and when he does—as in Million Dollar Baby and Space Cowboys—he seems content to let his costars take center stage.

In Gran Torino Eastwood, who in recent years has distinguished himself with the best movie directing of his life, reminds us definitively that he is, first and foremost, a movie star. And for that, we should all feel lucky…punk.

Last Chance Harvey (PG-13)

The movies generally try to tell us that lovably awkward love is just for teens and twentysomethings—but in the charming new comedy Last Chance Harvey, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson fumble their way through midlife romance with all the endearing uncertainty of two kids fretting over their junior prom.

Not that the two seem for one moment infantile in their uncertainty. The ingenious distinction here is that rather than sailing into uncharted romantic territory, these two know the waters all too well. Harvey is a divorced composer discovering, too late, that his lifetime of aloofness is being returned to him in kind by his family and the world at large. Kate has had her heart broken so many times, there's no place left to apply another dab of Krazy Glue. And so when they find themselves drawn to each other during a chance encounter in London (he's in town for his daughter’s wedding, only to learn she wants her stepfather to give her away), the pair's wariness is palpable. Yet Harvey can't resist Kate’s downright decency; she finds his mumbly rumpledness oddly attractive. And when he sits down to play piano for her, well, there's no turning back.

Hoffman and Thompson, as appealing a couple as you'll ever spend an hour and a half with, make Last Chance Harvey an authentic grownup romance: giddy with hope, mellowed by experience.

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