Carol Takes the Train

Carol Christmas

In Todd Haynes’ picture-perfect design of aching mid-century refinement and repression, Carol (adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt), our titular maddening matron (Cate Blanchett) meets her soon-to-be lover/shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) in the toy department while looking for a doll for her four-year girl for Christmas.  Therese convinces her instead to buy a train set.  The whole film, delicately detailed and quietly chugging along, is like that perfectly constructed train set – and the characters are all there perfect in their places…until they aren’t…until their desires cause everything that was supposed to represent the American Dream in the 1950’s to derail.

Haynes and his lead, Blanchett, are firmly in their wheelhouses.  Blanchett is right at home depicting a troubled woman stuck at the echelons of society in an impossibly well-do-family with a controlling husband (Kyle Chandler) and adorable little girl with impossibly WASPy names like Harge and Rindy.  She was made to play this type of role, a woman of carefully controlled mannerisms hiding her repression and passions.  Continue reading

The Two Faces of Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine 2

Happy Jasmine

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine

In Woody Allen’s last dramatic mini-masterpiece, Match Point, his protagonist showed that with a bit of hard work, and a bit of good luck, a person could get away with anything…even murder.  But maybe the old Woodster really wasn’t that cynical, and maybe he wanted to atone for that message.  Allen has plenty to atone for.  And so does Wall Street.  His latest, Blue Jasmine, shares a bit thematically with Match Point in its depiction of charades and human beings willing to do anything (even start Ponzi schemes) to hold onto the good life, but it also shows that bad luck is just as easy to conjure as good luck.  Here, Allen’s culprit (Alec Baldwin) gets caught, and Allen depicts the aftershocks of a Madoff-like scandal through the eyes of the criminal’s fractured wife.  With its bi-coastal setting hopscotching timeframes between New York and San Francisco, Allen seems to be atoning for all the time he spent in Europe, and perhaps communally for Wall Street’s dirty deeds…for the gilded life he’s lived for so long in New York alongside those financial schemers…for the snobbery…for the elitism…the casually charming arrogance of it all.  Every good thing comes to an end…right?  And all we need to get through it is a little vodka and Xanax. Continue reading

Shooting Circles Around the Heart of Joe Wright’s Hanna

"So this one time, there was this girl named Hanna, and she was like a super freak, but still totally cool, even though she killed people and stuff."

Hmmm…who knew?  That Joe Wright is quite mad, isn’t he?

In his fourth film, Hanna, director Joe Wright shatters all sensible expectations.  It’s almost as if this (and not the regally refined Pride & Prejudice) was his first film.  Or could this be the first Joe Wright film?  Maybe the rest were compromises, and it is here where he throws everything and the kitchen sink at us and begs, “How do you like me now?”

The art-house action film is a rare breed indeed.  Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run are probably the most well-regarded.  Hanna, about a teenage girl/uber-assassin out for revenge, will likely join the ranks of those two and in some ways surpasses them.

So in this demented girl-power, Euro-trash, Clockwork Orange-esque, quasi-futuristic, 80’s-retro-ish, techno-club music, beat-boxing kaleidoscope of a film, what does Joe Wright throw at us?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Here’s the laundry list of treats (potential spoilers ahead) in store for audiences who take on Hanna: Continue reading

Ridley and Russell Sitting in a Tree

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first.  Russell Crowe is in his mid-forties and playing the “younger” Robin Hood — you know, as is the trend these days to show us how the men became the legends.  He’s utterly mis-cast in the role.  Being such a chameleon of an actor in his younger days has taken its toll on Mr. Crowe, and he hasn’t aged well.  He’s reached that point in his career where he now only plays Russell Crowe — you know, that bullish, overweight, talented dude full of piss and vinegar on and off the screen.  Thankfully, his old pal Ridley Scott still loves him, and you have to give the director some props for not giving a damn about the age thing (hell, Sir Ridley is in his seventies himself) and casting ol’ Russell in the title role of his revamp of Robin Hood.  He then had the good sense to cast (shouldn’t she be Dame by now?) Cate Blanchett as a feisty Lady Marion, and for fans of old school Hollywood epics, it’s a real treat to see two accomplished Oscar winners create palpable chemistry and act against each other within the comfortable context of well-worn characters.

Ridley Scott has traversed many genres, but he — more than any director out there — knows his way around historical epics.  Let’s not forget it was his first marriage to Russell Crowe in Gladiator that brought the two their biggest hit — and deservedly so.  His Robin Hood (though I already can imagine a bloated director’s cut coming to Blu-Ray) is surprisingly quick-footed.  Continue reading

A Review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Cate asks Brad, Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?

Cate asks Brad, “Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?”

Nothing Lasts Forever, 28 December 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On a cold night on the eve of WWII in Russia, a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton) shares tea with a most peculiar tugboat man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). When she asks him where is he from, Benjamin replies, “New Orleans…Louisiana.” Swinton’s character replies, “I didn’t think there was any other.”

This moment comes about forty minutes into the film which has been established on the grounds of a woman (Julia Ormond) reading to her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) from the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina sweeps over New Orleans. The ghost of a New Orleans now lost haunts David Fincher’s lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards. There’s no denying this film couldn’t have been made five years ago, not only because the technology wasn’t there to make the process of aging backwards look real, but it would’ve also been a completely different movie as screenwriter Eric Roth wouldn’t have been able to bookend the film with Blanchett on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina comes to literally wipe away her life. The story is hung on a gimmick, and the film told as a fable, but there’s grounding in the reality of life’s greater mysteries that speaks volumes about not just the death of a man or a woman, but the death of a city and the death of a way of life.

A big part of making the audience believe in the story falls on the film’s technical aspects: the make-up, the CGI, the period-piece details of the film’s set designs and costumes. If you look close enough, you can find things to nitpick, like the distracting disembodied voice of Cate Blanchett distorted onto a little girl, but for the most part Fincher constructs it all seamlessly. In terms of scope and sentiment, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems a complete departure for a director usually obsessed with darker more violent tales, but Fincher has always liked his plots to begin (think Seven or Panic Room) or end (think The Game or Fight Club) with a gimmick, and he’s always been a filmmaker obsessed with cutting-edge technology (think of the VIPER camera used to film Zodiac). Fincher does a superb job with his meticulous construction of these elements (complimented nicely by Alexandre Desplat’s subdued score), and he really wins the audience over with his flashbacks within flashbacks that are done in a charmingly stylized manner that remind us we’re watching a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed above any other pretense.

By shifting the central location of the story from the original setting of Baltimore to New Orleans, Roth opens the film up to a new layer of interpretation. Though the episodic tale of Pitt’s Benjamin growing younger while Blanchett’s Daisy grows older spans the globe from Manhattan to Russia to Paris, the characters’ hearts remain united in New Orleans. Roth, who also penned the thematically similar Forrest Gump peppers his screenplay with many momentous events from the 20th Century, but those moments ebb and flow through Benjamin’s life just as the other characters do showing us that life is made only of moments. None of them last forever.

The supporting players (including a gutsy performance from Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adoptive mother who runs a nursing home) are wonderful and allow Pitt and Blanchett to shine as the movie stars that they are. Sure, these two have probably given better performances elsewhere, but here they have been given roles for which they might be best remembered long after their star-power has dimmed.

In a year when the films with the most impact (like The Dark Knight) have been those that have tapped into the fears and mindset of the times we live in, it’s rather fitting that a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes along at the end of the year. It should be one of those movies that hold audiences rapt in hushed silence, but it’s also the type of movie that usually receives instant backlash. I wonder how it will stand up over time. On the surface it attempts to tell a timeless tale, but in a bittersweet way proves the opposite. Movies stars like Pitt and Blanchett, movies like this, stories, fables, dreams, cities like New Orleans…none of these things are timeless. Timelessness is just a flight of the imagination…like the idea of a man aging backwards.

But what a wonderful flight it is.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

CAPTION:  Cate Blanchett tells Harrison Ford, “YOU MUST RELIVE YOUR CHILDHOOD.”

Where Were the Dinosaurs?, 25 May 2008
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Nineteen years after the alleged Last Crusade, producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and over-the-hill star Harrison Ford reunite for a fourth Indiana Jones film with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Only in our overly ironic post-modern world could a film like this exist where Spielberg attempts to recapture those magic movie moments he created back in 1981 with the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was an attempt to re-imagine the classic action-packed serial adventures from the 1930’s and 1940’s. But can those magic moments ever truly be recreated?  Though it stumbles through nostalgia tinted frames, Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull is by no means the disaster that was Lucas’ Star Wars prequels or the mind-numbing exercise that was last year’s Transformers.  Those were four dour commercial films coldly designed to evoke feelings of a lost childhood era that were saved only by amazing visual effects. Surely we hope to say more about this film.

Indy deserves to be cut a certain level of slack. Many of the complaints swirling around this long-awaited flick (i.e. the screwball dialog, the cornball stunts, and the cheesy effects) were present from the very beginning of the franchise. And lest we forget, a large portion of people were initially appalled by the heart-ripping Temple of Doom and mildly disappointed with the creaky Last Crusade.  Even the holy grail that is Raiders of the Lost Ark ended with a lame special effects sequence (and one hell of a face melting). Those who love big set driven stunt action complete with one-liners and death defying tumbles will eat this stuff up just like they did the first three films. My major complaints with this fourth film are the cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, who hyper-lights everything to the point of images being washed out or made smeary, and the lazily lame screenplay from David Koepp, which borrows far too liberally from X-Files era rejected story lines.

The cast is hit or miss with Ford about as effective as you would expect at his age, Cate Blanchett acting the crap out of her villain role (and what great fun she has with that Ukrainian accent), Shia LaBeouf (he’s no River Phoenix) barely tolerable as a motor-head punk kid, and Karen Allen all fun and smiles, most likely from finally securing a big payday after all these years. The update to the 1950’s didn’t quite work for me as no amount of Cold War hullabaloo and Chariots of the Gods style mumbo-jumbo could replace the inherent kick-ass spookiness of Nazis hunting for religious relics. Storywise, Spielberg manages to fit in all of his recurrent child-like obsessions with divorce and aliens, and he playfully recycles his greatest hits not only from the first three films but also from other flicks he’s crafted over the years. When the adventure moved to the Amazon rainforest, I half expected a T-Rex to come traipsing through the jungle for a spell.

The beginning of this installment is a tepid mess, but once Karen Allen shows up about an hour into the film to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood, the film picks up tremendous steam. For about thirty minutes or so, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a rollicking, old-fashioned white-knuckle adventure complete with car chases through a jungle and along the edges of a cliff, sword fights, waterfall drops, and giant killer ants. The kid in me couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when once character’s face is eaten by the little buggers. It was for these thirty minutes that I completely forgot about Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose scenes replayed in my mind for the remainder of this film’s run-time. Were those magic movie moments recaptured? No, but they were temporarily forgotten and clumsily intertwined with some mildly entertaining new ones. I guess that’s about the best we could’ve hoped for. Just think, this could’ve starred Tom Selleck or been directed by Michael Bay.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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Home Movies Wrap Up Winter 2008

Is it just me, or is the 2008 movie season getting off to one of the worst starts in recent memory in terms of the quality of films?  While Hollywood jams the multiplexes with Oscar nominated films I’ve already seen and their Z-level garbage not good enough for year-end or summer releases, I decided to catch up with some films recently released on DVD.  Sadly, these films made 2007 seem not so hot either.  They include a historical epic, a horror remake, and a sci-fi flick that range in quality from “it’s so bad it’s good” to “transcendentally awful.”  I should’ve just seen There Will Be Blood for the fourth time and called it a day.

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Elizabeth - The Golden Age (Widescreen Edition)

Her Majesty!!!!!!!, 10 February 2008
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It’s really not so odd that director Shekhar Kapur would wait nine years and then craft a loud, bombastic sequel to his only claim to fame, the lavish period drama “Elizabeth” which rightfully launched the career of uber-actress Cate Blanchett, in an attempt to resurrect his own floundering career. It is rather odd that Blanchett, a consummate actress of incalculable range, seems to never turn down a script, including this dud of a sequel to the film that first allowed her to shine. The oddest thing, however, is that the completely uncalled for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is actually quite entertaining and might’ve received higher praise had the intrusive music score not induced such a numbing headache.

Blanchett, of course, is terrific, and doesn’t seem to mind that the screenwriters have turned her signature character into a woman with split personalities: a raving love-scorned woman in private who constantly crumbles under pressure, and a powerful monarch who commands the wind and becomes a divinity to her people in public. Elizabeth has no character arc here like she did in the original film that saw her mature from frightened princess to calculating queen. The sequel suffers from this lack of development for its titular historical icon, but Blanchett rules the madhouse with an iron fist, chewing the scenery when necessary for dramatic effect and maximum entertainment value.

The sequel also suffers from too much focus on a silly love triangle involving Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh (an uninspired Clive Owen), and one of her ladies in waiting (a ravishingly gorgeous but ultimately lifeless Abbie Cornish). The rest of the film covers events that were already treated in a more respectful and quietly powerful manner in HBO’s miniseries starring Helen Mirren. These include Elizabeth’s divisive relationship with Mary Stuart (a blistering Samantha Morton doing an entertaining bit of over-acting), and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, whose sinking is done up in a rock opera style that serves as a guilty pleasure to watch.

Meanwhile, director Kapur, who never saw an overhead shot, candlelit scene, or 360 degree crane movement he didn’t love, uses his bigger budget to ridiculously grand effect creating immaculate set designs populated with over the top costuming and epic pageantry. “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is completely unnecessary, but despite some of its stunning ineptitude, it turns out not to be a colossal waste of time and will entertain those who will allow it to bludgeon them. Where the first film was a smart period piece inspired by “The Godfather”, the silly sequel is a dumb art-house film inspired by obnoxious action flicks. Blanchett, who hopefully will become more selective in her roles as she ages, oddly seems at home in both. I’m not sure if that’s the mark of a great actress or a desperate movie star.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database:

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Halloween - Unrated Director's Cut (Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition)

Dreary Rehash from Zombie, 11 February 2008
5/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*The following is a review of the unrated director’s cut:

Say what you will, but Rob Zombie is a director of considerable technical talent who knows how to frame tension-filled scenes, utilizes rock music as another character in his films, and shock audiences with his juxtaposition of pristinely photographed shots and extreme quick-cuts of brutality. Why he would decide to do a remake of the original “Halloween” is anyone’s guess. Granted his original works have been far from masterpieces, but with such innate skill, one wonders what Zombie would be able accomplish as a for-hire genre director. Instead he continues to wallow in the muck of the horror film gutter and debase his audiences through the display of his own sick obsessions.

The actual remake portion of the film (the last 45 minutes) is fairly well done and probably would’ve worked had Zombie not made the three teenage girls stalked by Michael Myers such annoying and unsympathetic characters. The “chase” scenes are well staged and Zombie throws in some decent scenarios not found in the original. The climax is an entertaining combination of classic 80’s style horror where you are screaming at the female lead for being so stupid and modern horror grisliness where you feel sick to your stomach after enduring it.

Zombie leads up to this with 45 minutes of wildly offensive exposition giving us details on Michael Myers’ life we never cared to know. Part of the thrill of the original was the mystery behind Myers’ insanity. Zombie plays up the “tortured childhood” aspect in his signature white-trash-nightmare style and makes the adult Myers too superhuman to be truly feared. It’s a calculated gamble to add this new layer, and it doesn’t pay off. In the end, “Halloween” is perfectly watchable for horror buffs, but why would anyone waste their time with Zombie’s monster of a movie when they could just sit down with the original?

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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Sunshine

Messy Space Opera Implodes, 11 February 2008
3/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

At some point in the future scientists discover the sun is dying and send a team of non-characters on an obvious suicide mission to, well, I guess stop the sun from dying. Yes, the plot of “Sunshine” is that dumb. What’s amazing is how dead serious it is all treated by director Danny Boyle. This is one of those sci-fi films where characters stand around talking lots of technical jargon designed to trick viewers into thinking the plot is plausible, and then get overly emotional and start yelling when the mission goes horribly awry.

Boyle has always been one of those directors with an obnoxious visual style (lots of hand-held camera work, an obsession with bright whites and golds, and quick-cuts) who somehow manages to tell decent stories. The zombie melodrama “28 Days Later” and the kids flick “Millions” were good in-spite of Boyle’s nauseating cinematography. “Sunshine” has no such luck as the story never makes any sense. While it does boast some amazing space visuals of the craft hurtling towards the sun, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in a dozen other sci-fi flicks. The special effects, when not subverted completely by Boyle, make the film marginally watchable.

The film eventually devolves into “emo” nonsense and has a pointlessly tacked-on horror element thrown in at the last minute for no apparent reason other than Boyle clearly ran out of ideas. “Sunshine” is one of those rare films where I had absolutely no idea what was going on most of the time, but I could see the hideous ending coming from a mile away.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel”

*I’ve discussed this film often in my blogs, and as it is one of the Best Picture Nominees and the Golden Globe Winner for Best Drama, I feel the need to broadcast the review I posted on the IMDB when the film was originally released in November of 2006. 
 

Babel-on, Wayward Director…, 6 November 2006
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

With “Babel” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has crafted the apex to his trilogy that began with the gangbusters “Amores Perros,” and continued with the finely crafted and haunting “21 Grams.” Unfortunately, it seems that peak is crumbling. “Babel” has the same intertwining story structure as the previous two, but in hopping across continents and making the stories global (taking place in Mexico, Morrocco, and Japan), he loses some much needed focus. It also has what has now become his signature editing-with-a-hacksaw-style of chronology that worked beautifully in “21 Grams” but seems forced here. In fact there’s one set of scenes taking place at a Mexican wedding that is needlessly incoherent in its jumping back and forth. Everything in this set of scenes is taking place at one location on one night, so why the jumbled chronology? It makes one wonder if they forgot an editor all together.

“Babel” is not without its merits. The story lines are more often than not thought-provoking and challenging. The ensemble acting is top notch from the big stars (Cate Blanchett is riveting as always in all her subtle and alluring ways and makes the most of her limited screen time) down to the no-name locals (the Morrocan kids being especially effective). There’s also a commendable ambition to the whole endeavor as it attempts to explore communication and human emotion in the increasingly global and paradoxically intolerant world. Memorable, too, is some great cinematography of the Tokoyo skyline (especially that awesome closing pan-out from the high-rise balcony) and the Morrocan highlands, where the centerpiece of the intertwined tragedies takes place when an American tourist is accidentally shot by some goat-herding kids playing with a gun used to keep away jackals from their family’s livelihood.

Unfortunately “Babel,” in its uncompromising vision, plays out painfully in strained, awkward lurches that stretch believability. It’s interesting how during various moments, different story lines seem the most compelling. The early scenes in Morocco of both the American couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) and the local goat-herders are stark and intimate and represent the best at what Inarritu is capable of as a storyteller. Later, he applies a humanistic touch to the scenes of the Mexican nanny taking her American charges across the border for her son’s wedding. There’s a wide-eyed innocent nature to the culture clash he depicts that gets garbled later when Gael Garcia Bernal (as the nanny’s nephew) dives off the deep end with little reason and leads to a tragic series of events that really test the viewer’s ability to take this all as seriously as the filmmaker’s would like us to. Likewise, the Japanese tale of the deaf-mute teenage girl struggling to cope with society’s unwillingness to communicate on her level, a distant father, and the recent suicide of her mother lurches forward so melodramatically it becomes banal, and the connection it has to the other stories is the biggest stretch to swallow, and most viewers will choke on it.

Then, of course, there is the presence of the aforementioned uber-star Brad Pitt. He’s at a point in his career where his celebrity status trumps his acting talent. He’s actually quite good as Blanchett’s frantic husband, but his star-power is distracting and constantly has the viewer thinking in the back of their mind “wow, Brad Pitt can act” rather than feeling anything for the character. This is a piece of stunt-casting that doesn’t work.

There are many compelling moments and noteworthy performances in “Babel,” but it crumbles under its own weight as just about everything is reduced to the big breakdown/crying scene, and we are left wondering what Inarritu will do next as a director. He’s got talent to spare, but ran out of steam when taking his intimate look at human tragedy global with “Babel.”

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

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A Review of Richard Eyre’s “Notes on a Scandal”

The Dame vs. The Cate, 8 January 2007

8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Instead of becoming the tawdry, salacious affair it could’ve easily been, two masterful and textured performances from two of our greatest actresses catapult “Notes on a Scandal” to the echelon of art-house entertainment. In one corner, we have Dame Judi Dench as the lonely schoolmarm and mentor. In the other corner, we have Cate Blanchett as the flighty but endearing new art teacher just begging for someone to take her under their wing. The film starts innocuously enough, with the two women becoming fast friends, with Blanchett inviting Dench into her home and family, and Dench all too eager to find a new best friend. Deliciously seasoned with spicy subtexts involving the bourgeois sense of entitlement, the bitterness of the lower middle class, the candidness of those with everything who never seem to be satisfied, the resentment of those sucked into this confidence, and of course, the psycho-sexual entrapments of all relationships, “Notes on a Scandal” is rife with everyday tragedy. The convoluted subtexts often take precedence over what is being seen on screen, until Dench’s voice-over entrances us and sucks us in.

In the early scenes where Dench is describing her burgeoning fascination with Blanchett, the audience shares in the allure as Dench paints beautifully the appeal of Blanchett’s talents as an actress. Soon, though, the fantasy makes way for reality, and Blanchett as raw and vulnerable as she has ever been falls under the spell of a troubled 15 year-old boy with whom she begins an illicit affair. Blanchett’s folly is mirrored in Dench’s obsession with becoming her sole confidant.

Director Richard Eyre (who previously directed Dench in the superb “Iris”) structures the film in a crisp clip. As the plot quickly goes through the motions, secrets are revealed, true natures are uncovered, and the lives of both women become tragically entangled as they unravel.

Enough can’t be said about Dench’s mastering of the thespian art form. She could’ve easily dived head first into this role and delivered something akin to Kathy Bates turn as the mad spinster in “Misery.” Instead, she adds subtlety, humor, and melancholy in her perfectly balanced performance that allows you to sympathize with her character for the loneliness she feels while at the same time hating her for her opportunism and bitterness.

Likewise, Blanchett, manages to play to our sympathies, and it’s easy to see why Dench, the boy in question, and Blanchett’s husband (a shockingly good Bill Nighy), are completely smitten with her despite her impetuousness.

With betrayal leading to hatred and a complete breakdown of all things sacred in human connections, the climactic showdown between The Dame and The Cate is the type of goose-bump inducing acting tour de force moviegoers dream about. There’s also a sense of a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of great actresses to the next. Far from being just the highbrow version of “Single White Female,” “Notes on a Scandal” entertains and provokes those willing to enjoy the psychologically complex roller coaster.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database

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