HLS Review Briefs: Break for Movies


Perhaps like many of you, in the weeks following the end of the fall and winter semesters, I spent my newfound freedom sleeping and watching television and movies. What follows are mini-reviews of those movies I saw on the big screen, some of which are Oscar nominated, and some of which I chose purely for their potentially mind-numbing entertainment value.

The DepartedStarring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack NicholsonDirector: Martin Scorsese

While The Departed is quite possibly was the most violent movie I have ever seen, it is also quite possibly the best of the violent, gangland crime dramas I have ever seen. If you haven’t heard, The Departed boasts an all-star cast and an all-star director, both of which have been recognized with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, including a Golden Globe win for best director. Combined with strong dialogue and a great soundtrack, The Departed delivers a thrilling, suspenseful and smart story of two cops-played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio-on opposite sides of the law caught in a cat-and-mouse game. The two and a half hour movie is peppered with profanity, some peripheral story lines that are not so necessary, and enough killing to make the two and a half hours fly by. With The Departed, Scorsese has scored his sixth Oscar nomination for direction. Perhaps he finally will win himself an Oscar this year. But even if Scorsese is not awarded his coveted Oscar, he will have left us with the hilarious image of the wild-eyed Jack Nicholson imitating a rat, which I think alone was well worth his effort. Based on the $125 million it has raked in, if you are one of the few people left who hasn’t seen The Departed, there is still time to catch the violence and rat imitations.Rating: ****

Freedom WritersStarring: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick DempseyDirector: Richard LaGravenese

I always have been and always will be a sucker for these inspirational, inner-city teacher movies. Following in the footsteps of Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers tells the story of a first-time teacher (Swank), fresh from some preppy college complete with her matching pearl necklace and earrings, whose first teaching task is a freshman English class wise in life on the street, but less than capable in the classroom. In the face of violence and gang-life infiltrating her classroom, Swank’s character is able to reach her students by requiring them to keep daily journals. In fact, the story is based on the actual diaries of several LA students a short time after the LA riots. Although in the end Freedom Writers is just the latest in a long series of movies about idealistic teachers’ attempts to improve their at-risk students lives, Freedom Writers breathes new life into the genre with believable and impressive performances from Swank and a cast of newcomers. And for those who cannot get enough of McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey portrays Swank’s husband, bringing to light the plight of an impassioned and hard-working woman’s husband.If you are as big a sucker for these movies as I am, Freedom Writers may be a perfect break from a hectic beginning of the semester.Rating: ***

The HolidayStarring: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Jude LawDirector: Nancy Myers

Every holiday season comes with its own sappy, heart-warming Christmas movie. Last year that movie was The Family Stone, and this year it was The Holiday. As with most Christmas movies, it is a mind-numbing story with a happy ending and the big stars that make the movie worth seeing. The Holiday tells the story of two women, living 6,000 miles apart, both malcontent in their lives and heartbroken during the holidays. By unbelievable chance and the aid of the Internet, they decide to switch houses for the season, with the fabulously successful movie trailer producer (Diaz) traveling to London, and the wedding columnist (Winslet) traveling to Southern California. In their respective locales, they meet the men in the others’ lives (Law and Black, respectively). Romance, drama, and love ensue. As with most holiday movies, there are some twists and turns that make it unique, but in the end it is just the usual stab at the holiday genre. If you are desperate next year for a brainless movie that only makes sense to watch when it is actually the holiday season, The Holiday will do just fine, but so will next year’s re-incarnation.Rating: **

Notes on a ScandalStarring: Judi Dench, Cate BlanchettDirector: Richard Eyre

In my opinion, Notes on a Scandal stands out as the movie of the year (despite not being nominated for best picture). Even though I have not seen all of the Oscar-nominated films, I will be heartbroken if Notes does not at least win one Oscar (both Dench and Blanchett are nominated for their performances). Notes is told from the point of a view of a very jaded, very manipulative, and generally horrid school teacher (Judi Dench) who teaches at a London high school. When a young, somewhat flighty, and generally lost looking art teacher (Cate Blanchett) arrives, Dench’s character sets her sights on turning her into a new “friend.” As the title intimates, Blanchett’s character has a forbidden affair with one of the schoolboys. But the real scandal is the lengths to which Dench’s character will go to secure the new, younger, beautiful teacher as her close, close, close friend. It is the performances that make Notes the delight that it is. Dench delivers an impressive and startling performance, undoubtedly raising audiences’ eyebrows from her first sentence to her last. Blanchett expertly crafts a sensitive, unhappily married woman who genuinely seems to be drawn into an illicit affair unawares. Dench elicits revulsion and abhorrence, while Blanchett elicits sympathy and pity. Together with the forbidden storyline, Notes makes for a gripping, lurid, and sometimes creepy drama that is too good to miss. Rating: ****

VenusStarring: Peter O’Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie PhillipsDirector: Roger Michell

Capturing what will likely be his last best actor Oscar nomination, Venus marks Peter O’Toole’s eighth nomination and last chance to walk away with that coveted Oscar. As with Notes, it is the acting that makes Venus worthwhile. O’Toole brings grace to the story of an elderly actor on the verge of death who has a somewhat questionable relationship with a young woman. The storyline itself is sometimes less than gripping, but O’Toole masterfully uses its loose framework to create a poignant and comedic drama that is marked by O’Toole’s understated musings on youth, mortality, beauty, and regret. Starring alongside O’Toole, Whittaker creates a loveable small-town girl beset by the glitz of the big city. With Venus, O’Toole just may have a chance for his Oscar. Regardless, the film marks the perfect nightcap to O’Toole’s spectacular career.Rating: ***1/2

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