Here are some quick movie reviews. These are movies that I either forgot to review, saw on airplanes or did not think merited a full review.
The Good Shepherd. This flick stars two of Hollywood’s hottest and most bankable stars: Matt Damon as the CIA operative Edward Wilson and Angelina Jolie as Clover, his incredibly attractive but mostly emotionally estranged wife. Usually when you put two highly attractive actors in a movie, you do not get much in the way of stellar acting. Happily, that is not the case here. By framing Matt Damon in a pair of ugly 1950s glasses worthy of Clark Kent he comes across as almost ordinary. Since this movie takes place over twenty years, the trick is to make him look ageless, which director Robert DeNiro manages to do rather convincingly. This is a suspenseful and intriguing story of a highly trusted CIA operative. It is about as good a movie as is possible to make in the spy genre. Over his long career, the secrets Wilson keeps for the good of his country seem to suck the soul right out of him, and you are right there with him. Both Damon and Jolie are at the top of their acting forms. For this, we can thank DeNiro, who proves his directing is as excellent as his acting. The film starts at the beginning of the Cold War, which allows Wilson to become a rising star in the brand new agency. This is a long movie (more than two and a half hours) but the time will zoom by. It is fascinating, deeply engaging, and often supremely suspenseful. You end up leaving the theater feeling not as if you just spent two and a half hours being entertained, but that you saw a movie. It will make you wistful for the days when movies were not commodities, but classy events. Two thumbs up. It rates 3.4 on my 4.0 scale.
The Painted Veil. Like The Good Shepherd, this movie also gives us two very marketable actors: Edward Norton as the medical researcher Walter Fane and Naomi Watts as his wife Kitty. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this is a story we have seen many times in the movies: the consequences of coping with infidelity. However, this time it gets to happen in the 1920s in the exotic location of rural China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. At the time, after the fall of the Chinese dynasty, China was largely run by warlords, but also maintained a considerable British influence. The Chinese resented the British, as much for their advanced knowledge as for simply being foreigners. The cholera epidemic just happens to coincide with the rise of Chinese nationalism. This makes tough going for Walter, a specialist in infectious diseases who has to turn into a physician. It also makes things challenging for his bored wife, a victim of the British privileged class. As such, she is someone who has been minimally exposed to the real world. Boredom drives Kitty into helping out at a Catholic run orphanage and thus testing her mettle. Her husband treats victims of the cholera while working feverishly to solve the epidemic by bringing in fresh water down from up in the mountains. These grim circumstances bring to light a side of her husband that Kitty has never seen. Over time, she begins to admire and then to genuinely love him. It will not spoil anything to say the ending is tragic and poignant. This is a good Friday night in front of the television with popcorn kind of movie and better than most movies in its genre. 3.3 on my scale.
Shooter. What Hollywood needs is another convoluted action and conspiracy movie, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. Shooter delivers on the action part, but the conspiracy element is very transparent. The movie is about a Special Forces sharpshooter played by Mark Wahlberg. Apparently, he had enough of the business and decided to retire and live a modest life with his dog in a house deep in the mountains of Montana. Like Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd he a passionate patriot. So why would he not want to help the Secret Service? Apparently, the Secret Service knows that there will be an outdoor assassination attempt on the president at one of three upcoming events. They say that it will be done by one of a handful of men like Bobby Lee Swagger capable of knocking off someone with a rifle from a mile away. They need Swagger as a consultant to help prevent the assassination. Swagger’s sense of patriotism eventually prevails and he agrees to help. Except, you guessed it, Swagger has been duped! This is not a good thing because when he is duped, Swagger gets very, very angry. Apparently, there is some mysterious group with a bigger agenda than merely running the United States that was using Swagger. It turns out that it is not the president, but some African leader who is the real intended victim. Before you can say “Trilateral Commission”, this African leader is dead and Swagger has been framed for his death. Naturally, despite all odds Swagger has to free his good name, but not before becoming a fugitive, engaging in all sorts of heroic stunts, hitching up with a babe who must fall for him (Kate Mara) and messing with a certain evil Senator Meachum (Ned Beatty). Meachum represents a nefarious uber-force that apparently controls the destiny of the world. Naturally, many of our national leaders are also aligned with this force. It seems to have the goal of ensuring that their kind keeps wielding global power. If you are a conspiracy buff, you might appreciate the movie. However, the plot is transparent. While it is reasonably well acted and is full of terrific chase scenes, it is not particularly suspenseful. You get the sense that despite it all that Swagger will win in the end and wreak vengeance. Perhaps it was written as homage to the many putrid Billy Jack movies put out in the late 60s and 70s. Fortunately, this is a better movie than any of them, but it still feels transparent and lacks the suspense you should feel with all those crazy chase scenes. So unless you really liked Billy Jack movies, you can give this one a pass. 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.
Surf’s Up. As those of you who read me regularly know, my wife is into penguins. So any movie with penguins, real or animated is on our short list to see. Surf’s Up is an animated movie about, you guessed it, surfing penguins! You might call Surf’s Up a penguin comedy. Another recent animated penguin movie, Happy Feet had comedic elements, but there was also this dang social message. You do not have to worry about anything like that in Surf’s Up. The star is an animated penguin named Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf). At a tender age he had an up-close encounter with Big Z, the legendary penguin surfing star (of course penguins surf!). Big Z is obviously modeled after the real life surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, who popularized the sport. The movie is full of mostly lowbrow humor but executes a few really funny ideas quite well. Rather than take place in Antarctica though, it takes place on some beautiful tropical island. Of course, holding penguin surfing contests on tropical islands does not make any sense, but nothing in this movie makes any sense including the surfing chicken, Chicken Joe. There are some definite chuckles in this movie. As animated characters, these are more distinct than most. The CGI is so good you get flawlessly rendered penguins and lush animated scenery. Like in Happy Feet, you will be taken on a few digital rollercoaster rides that will have you checking to make sure you are still in your seat. Wow, those animated waves are better than any you will find in a surfing movie! Nonetheless, my tolerance for these kinds of movies is rather low; it is rare that an animated movie that fully engages me. This did not. In fact, I came close to nodding off a few times. My wife liked it though. If I were not married to her, I would have given this one a pass. It manages to be clever yet it never fully engaged me. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I were in the mood for fluff. This movie would improve by having a gin and tonic before going into the movie. Give it 3.0 out of 4.0 stars for decent comedy and the cool CGI. Lacking it, it would have ranked a lot lower.