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December 31, 2006

Thank You For Smoking
Jason Reitman, USA, 2006
Rating: 3.8
Don't be fooled by the snarky title. This darkly comic fable from first-time director Jason Reitman doesn't so much take a firm moral stand against smoking -- this is no The Insider or even Fast Food Nation -- as it takes uncanny and often-hilarious aim at a host of ripe-for-the-skewering targets. Lantern-jawed Aaron Eckhart nails the part of cigarette lobbyist Nick Naylor with welcome brio; he's a master of Teflon doublespeak who enjoys arguing for the merits of tobacco for the sport of it. Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley's novel, engagingly pokes fun at politicians (embodied by William H. Macy as a socks-and-Birkenstocks-wearing senator from Vermont), journalists (Katie Holmes is slightly miscast as a manipulative seductress), Hollywood, advertising and the smarmy "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong" mindset of slick salesmen and spin-meisters. Among the latter are Naylor's lobbyist friends, played by Maria Bello and the fine David Koechner, who shill for alcohol and guns, respectively. But Naylor is the acknowledged leader of the pack, a smiling shyster who has no problem taking his young son along as he courts Hollywood (Rob Lowe, as a handsomely self-absorbed agent, and Adam Brody as his unctuous assistant, almost steal the film) and bribes the "Tumbleweed Man" (Sam Elliott), who's dying of lung cancer. Inevitably, the movie Naylor a crisis of conscience, and the movie falters slightly in the final stretch as a result. But its dead-on potshots at silver-tongued, ethically challenged snake oil salesmen and a portfolio of solid performances (including Kim Delaney as Nick's skeptical ex-wife and Robert Duvall and J.K. Simmons as his bosses) help keep Smoking from losing its black, nicotine-stained wit.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 31, 2006

Hollywoodland
Allen Coulter, USA, 2006
Rating: 4.0
Talk about method acting: You come away from Hollywoodland wondering if Ben Affleck gamely spent the last several years picking up a paycheck for his work in Armageddon, Forces of Nature and, well, Paycheck as research for his solidly affecting turn as frustrated thespian George Reeves. One can't help but project some of Affleck's tarnished It-boy baggage into his portray of the 1950s star of TV's The Adventures of Superman, whose real-life death under mysterious circumstances sparks this well-crafted exploration of the high price of unwanted fame and the deep psychic cost of failing to live up to one's own expectations. Whether Reeves' death was in fact a suicide or, as posited here, something arguably even more pedestrian, sordid and tragic, Affleck convincingly portrays the late Reeves as a likeable lug whose status as the kept man of the beautiful, neglected wife (Diane Ladd) of a powerful Hollywood producer (Bob Hoskins) -- and his inability to break out of Superman's shadow -- weigh heavily on his broad shoulders. (Affleck deserves awards consideration just for the scene in which his appearance in a premiere screening of From Here to Eternity provokes derisive laughter.) As a down-on-his-luck private detective investigating Reeves' death (and seeking to overcome his own self-imposed limitations), Adrien Brody convincingly executes a regular-guy counterpoint to Reeves' tragic fall, adding an extra human dimension to this cautionary tale of fallen would-be idols.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 06, 2006

Capote
Bennett Miller, 2005
Rating: 3.8
Biopics typically bend over backwards to present their titular subjects in a favorable or, at worst, ambiguously murky moral light (see Danny DeVito’s Hoffa for a good example). Bennett Miller’s Capote surprisingly does just the opposite, exposing the shameless ethical failings of the flamboyant author. Focusing on Truman Capote’s researching and writing of his most famous work, In Cold Blood, the film follows Capote (in a note-perfect bit of mimicry from the physically ill-suited Philip Seymour Hoffman), urbane intellectual personified, on assignment for the New Yorker in Halcomb, Kansas, where he's to report on the brutal murder of a farming community family of four. Accompanied by childhood friend -- and future To Kill a Mockingbird author -- Harper Lee (a woefully underwritten part demurely played by Catherine Keener), Capote manages to cajole and charm his way into the lives of those affected by and investigating the crime. The legwork part of Capote’s assignment is well handled. The main problem stems from the subsequent capture of the two assailants and, specifically, Capote’s fascination with (and exploitation of) the seemingly more vulnerable of the two, Perry Smith (a strong if too likable Clifton Collins Jr.). Miller takes great pains to show just how duplicitous Capote was when it came to extracting information from the doomed killer. Worse, when the inmates’ appeals drag on (eventually reaching the steps of the Supreme Court), a self-serving Capote frets he’ll never be able to finish his book until the pair has been executed. We get beaten over the head with this insight into Capote’s substantial flaws when simply showing his inaction on the killers’ behalf (such as helping them get a good lawyer to argue before the nation’s highest court) would have been stronger than having Harper Lee act as his too-obvious conscience.

::: Laurence Station

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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