President Spanier shares annual holiday movie reviews

By Graham B. Spanier
President, Penn State

Here are my holiday movie reviews. "Relationships" seems to be the predominant theme this season — but when is it not?

The number of films is shorter than usual this year due to the brief time frame between graduation ceremonies and Christmas. I'm missing a few important movies that will open in most theaters in the next few days. All except one of the listed movies was seen over the holidays.

These are on a scale of one to four stars. Most all of those listed are worthy of your ticket purchase, with many very highly recommended.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
four stars. Sentimental and moving throughout. One of my favorites this year in so many ways — casting, scenery, costumes, music, make up. Based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchet star in this touching story about a man who is born old and dies an infant as his life is challenged by myriad circumstances and an unusual mix of characters.

Slumdog Millionairefour stars. A brilliantly produced and compelling story of a boy surviving the slums of Mumbai without parents, juxtaposed against his unlikely involvement in the Indian version of a popular TV show. Above all else, a "must see" love story.

Milk four stars. An important movie about the life — and untimely death — of a gay community organizer in San Francisco. Harvey Milk's historical importance has perhaps become even more relevant over the last 30 years. Superb acting in a film that reminds us that the bigotry of an earlier era still surrounds us.

Doubt four stars. On most lists of this year's top movies, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in a tense joust. A nun accuses a priest of illicit behavior with a 12 year old boy in the Catholic parish where she is the school principal and he is the priest. This is a gut-wrenching conflict full of ... doubt.

Valkyriethree and a half stars. Suspenseful portrayal, adapted for Hollywood, of the last unsuccessful attempt, in July of 1944, by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Even though we know the outcome in advance, the plot is riveting. Tom Cruise redeems himself in his portrayal of the colonel who stages the coup.

Seven Poundsthree and a half stars. A poignant drama with Will Smith in perhaps his best performance. The story keeps you guessing about whether he is the angel of goodness or darkness. Only near the end do we fully appreciate and understand the complexities and motivations.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona three and a half stars. Listed here because it is still in some theaters, but also because it was my summer favorite, showcasing splendid acting performances and a lively assortment of relationships between two young American women, a Spanish painter, and his ex-wife. You can "hear" Woody Allen's directing, and I loved Penelope Cruz.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
three and a half stars. A disturbing, tragic view of one aspect of the Holocaust and a German military family's turmoil as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy. Sorry, this is one where the ending can't be revealed.

Rachel Getting Marriedthree and a half stars. A remarkable performance by Anne Hathaway as a recovering addict who returns home for her older sister's wedding. A portrait of family dysfunction amidst unusual wedding doings.

Twilight three stars. A "teenage" romance undoubtedly appealing to teens — witness its box office appeal. But it's worth seeing by other than teens. I've never liked vampire movies, but this is the exception.

Wthree stars. Noteworthy because they got it about right, which makes for a depressing reminder of much that has unfolded in the last eight years. Those who follow the news will have no trouble matching up the characters with all the folks we've come to know so well.

Australia
three stars. An epic cinematographic movie with some historical basis that unfortunately is a bit tedious for much of the first two hours. Stars Nicole Kidman and Graham's body double, Hugh Jackman.

Quantum of Solacethree stars. The familiarity of James Bond but adapted for 2008 tastes and expectations — including the Bond women. A little darker than usual, with great special effects. One of the best Bond movies.

A Girl Cut in Two
two and a half stars. An independent film with an unlikely and quirky story about a young TV weather girl and the young playboy and older artist who compete for her affections.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
two and a half stars. Loved the message. This remake of the classic movie can be commended for special effects and its suspense, in addition to the compelling point it makes. Keanu Reeves is ... Keanu Reeves.

Nothing Like the Holidays
two and a half stars. Not really a holiday movie, except by the timing of the plot, but rather a story of a Puerto Rican family in Chicago sorting out four sets of relationships while negotiating family matters.

Yes Man
two stars. Light fare with several laughs around a clever theme. Jim Carrey in typical fashion, but not the best vehicle for him to shine.

Last Updated December 28, 2009