Story last updated at 12/10/2008 - 11:30 am
Looking at the new movies this week, you could easily think Hollywood has no idea how to make movies that are what can be technically called, "good." The highest-profile offering? The sequel to "The Punisher" - what, you missed the first one? - except without the original's Thomas Jane and John Travolta.
In fact, I've heard more than a few people grumbling about the quality of what's been available in the past few weeks, when even the new Bond movie is finding it hard to get many passionate defenders.
But hang in there: Things are looking up.
I've had a chance to watch three movies that are coming to most cities in the next three weeks, movies that all offer the grown-up charms and smarts that I'm guessing aren't going to be found in "Punisher: War Zone."
All three have plausible Oscar hopes, if that matters to you. But don't think they're stuffy, good-for-you snorefests. Far from it.
Two take us back to real events in the ?70s, in all its shaggy-haired glory; the other is a romantic coming-of-age story that's most definitely modern. All gain some resonance because of their tie-ins to current events: the defeat of gay-rights propositions, the chaos in Mumbai, and the release of 198 hours of previously unheard Nixon White House tapes.
Here's a sneak peek.
Milk (Dec. 12)
Sean Penn seems certain to get at least an Oscar nomination (I'd bet on a win) for playing Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city supervisor who, along with the city's mayor, was assassinated by a former fellow supervisor (whose lawyers later claimed he was the victim of a junk-food diet).
Director Gus Van Sant's naturalistic style helps "Milk" avoid most (but not quite all) of the cliches of the biopic genre, but Penn's performance is what you'll remember. It's unfussy, amusing, passionate, sly and altogether astonishing.
Slumdog Millionaire (Dec. 19)
Believe the early ecstatic reviews. A teenager from the slums of Mumbai makes it big on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", but there's much more going on here - destiny, true love, sibling loyalties, cruelty and simple survival.
Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later") keeps the visuals dazzling, but they're matched by the storytelling bravado and the story's big romantic heart. I saw it at home on a DVD screener; I imagine it would be even more fun in a crowd at the theater.
Frost/Nixon (Dec. 25)
Frank Langella doesn't look much like Richard Nixon, certainly less so than Anthony Hopkins did. But dang if you don't forget that after a while as he begins to bring the disgraced ex-president to life. He's the canny adversary of playboy TV "performer" David Frost (played by Michael Sheen, Tony Blair in "The Queen"), who's landed this big catch for a series of TV interviews - and now, rather amusingly, runs the risk of looking like a fool. He doesn't really know what to do now that he's got Nixon in his sights.
The based-on-fact movie is directed by Ron Howard, so it's as careful and classy as you might expect (I'm thinking it could have used a dash more disreputable charm). However, I will note that, as Frost's socialite girlfriend, British actress Rebecca Hall (she was in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") will get hearts racing. There are amazing things going on with her heartbreakingly gorgeous face, and Howard's smart enough to know that.
Matt Soergel may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.