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At the Movies With Ann Hornaday

Ann Hornaday
Ann Hornaday (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

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Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Movie Critic
Friday, December 5, 2008; 12:30 PM

Trying to decide whether to see "Australia," "Milk" or "Slumdog Millionaire" in theaters this weekend? Ann Hornaday can help you choose. She was online Friday, Dec. 5 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss what's currently showing as well as the films heading to theaters this holiday season.

Hornaday has been a film critic for the Post since 2002. Prior to that, she reviewed movies for the Baltimore Sun and the Austin-American Statesman.

A transcript follows.

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Ann Hornaday: Hello, film fans! Hope everyone's having a great day. Let's get started!

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Alexandria, Va. - Four Christmases: Hi Ann, how are you doing? I was wondering if anyone else found Reese Witherspoon to be incredibly overrated? It's been a long time since the fantastic "Freeway" and she seems to have evolved into the 8th grade girl who thinks she is the prettiest girl in school, but actually isn't. Know what I mean?

Ann Hornaday: Greetings from across the river, Alexandria!

I kind of see what you mean about Reese W., I've never been her hugest fan, either (although I do think she did an adorable job with "Legally Blonde"). I just saw that Angelina Jolie has outpaced her in commanding the highest salary for an actress, so you might be on to something!

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Freising, Germany: What exactly is the National Board of Review?

Apparently they've picked "Slumdog Millionaire" as the year's best film, but they've also selected Clint Eastwood as best actor for his performance in the not-yet-released "Gran Torino."

In a way, it strange that movie critics can judge and vote on the merits of a film before it's been released. But on the other hand, you'd think that an appraisal of a film before its box office success was determined would indicate that artistic merit was more important than commercial merit.

Ann Hornaday: That is a really good question. Apparently, the National Board of Review has been around for more than 100 years, and is made up of 125 "knowledgable film buffs, academics, young film professionals, and students in the New York metropolitan area" according to its Web site (www.nbrmp.org).

I agree with you that this year's list of Bests seemed off-kilter. I happen to disagree with them about "Slumdog Millionaire" (I probably would have voted for "Milk" or even "WALL*E"), and since I haven't seen "Gran Torino" yet I won't opine -- but it's hard to think of anyone topping Sean Penn in the aforementioned "Milk." ... Oh well, this is what makes those year-end lists such fun -- the arguments!

But your comment about awarding films that 99 percent of the public haven't seen -- and may not see until the next year -- is an important one. It points to the trend of releasing films for a short time in one or two cities, purely to qualify for awards in that calendar year...With most people just having to wait and wait and wait for the movies to get to them.

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washingtonpost.com: National Board of Review

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Seattle, Wash.: Always a pleasure to read your comments, Ann, even when one hasn't been able to get to the theater.

Do you have any one favorite movie that's playing right now? As always, thank you!

Ann Hornaday: Thank you so much! Always great to hear from Seattle!

I'd say my favorite film that's new and out right now is "Milk," the Harvey Milk bio-pic starring Sean Penn. Penn's fantastic, it's a great story, very well told by Gus Van Sant, and lots of terrific supporting performances. Just a good, absorbing, moving and timely movie.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also liked "Cadillac Records," out today. Kind of a conventional musical biopic, in this case about the great Chicago blues label Chess Records, but features outstanding acting and musical performances by Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles and Mos Def. Lots of great music, lots of fun.

I'm sure there are more, but those are two winners!

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dear Ann: I just did an "It's a Wonderful Life" quiz online that said that Cary Grant was at one time supposed to have played George Bailey. The mind reels! That would be like Anthony Hopkins playing The Old Man in "A Christmas Story." Or Broderick Crawford as Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street." Anyway, wonder if you know of any other potential casting oddities in the holiday classics. Merry Christmas and thanks.

Ann Hornaday: Wow! Fun fact! This question sent me to my trusty IMDB site, where I saw that Fred Astaire was originally intended to co-star with Bing Crosby in "White Christmas," as kind of a follow-up to "Holiday Inn" (one of my all-time holiday faves), but he refused. So they cast Donald O'Connor, who wound up pulling out of the project, and was replaced at the last minute by Danny Kaye.

Not that you asked, but my very favorite holiday movie is "The Man Who Came to Dinner," starring Bette Davis and Monty Woolley. It's not usually thought of as a holiday movie, but it takes place at Christmas and is just hilarious. The movie is based on a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, who were inspired by the humorist Alexander Woollcott, and originally asked him to play "himself" as a cantankerous New York writer who visits a Midwestern family and winds up staying with them; Woollcott said No, so they cast Monty Woolley and thank Heaven for that! Priceless!

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Washington, D.C.: "I've Loved You for So Long" is one of the best movies I've ever seen. However, as a lawyer, I don't think it's a spoiler to say that its premise is impossible under any modern legal system. This doesn't really detract from its brilliance, but to non-lawyers who have seen it and might be wondering, no, that's not the way it would have worked.

Ann Hornaday: Aha! You have answered a lingering question I had after seeing that movie -- which I agree is one of the finest of this year. What great performances, and I loved, loved, LOVED where it ended up. But, again without indulging in any spoilers, that legal issue did seem a bit contrived to me, and ultimately unbelievable. Still, it's a wonderful story about family and healing and love. Glad you caught up with it!

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Cape St. Claire, Md.: Ann, you nailed "Australia" right on the head. It's absolutely preposterous (the audience at my showing laughed out loud several times at points that were definitely not intended to be humorous), but it's also such great fun you can't help but go along. It's sort of like a spoof of epic movies. It could have used tighter editing and that cattle stampede was definitely computer enhanced. If you're not into things that are too "over the top," you should probably give this a pass. Otherwise, it's a fun way to while away an afternoon or evening.

washingtonpost.com: Australia Review

Ann Hornaday: Well, thank you Cape St. Claire! (One of the loveliest communities in this area, I might add!)

I'm really glad and gratified that you enjoyed "Australia," which as you said one absolutely has to be in the mood for in order for it to work. ... A big, crazy, over-the-top movie, for sure, but sometimes that's what you want, right? Thanks for the vote of confidence, always nice to get a reality-check!

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Acting Chops: I heard that Beyonce is portraying Etta James in a movie. Have you seen it and how is Beyonce? In Dreamgirls, Beyonce was the lead actor but Jennifer Hudson's performance got in the way. Does Beyonce have the acting chops to continue a serious career in acting? I don't see her having the acting chops of Jamie Foxx.

washingtonpost.com: 'Cadillac' Runs Over The Blues (Post, Dec. 5)

Ann Hornaday: Hello! Yes, I did see "Cadillac Records," and I thought Beyonce did a fabulous job. I agree that in "Dreamgirls" she was overshadowed by Jennifer Hudson -- she just didn't seem all that confident. Here, she really comes into her own as an actress. And her singing is really good, too -- and "doing" Etta James singing "At Last" canNOT be easy!

I'll put another plug in here for my beloved Jeffrey Wright, who is absolutely brilliant as Muddy Waters. Also, a guy named Eamonn Walker plays Howlin' Wolf in a stunning performance. I had not heard of him before, and he steals all his scenes. Great fun.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: N. Kidman and A. Jjackman appeared to have little "chemistry" in Australia. Any info on that?

Ann Hornaday: Hmm, not that I know of. From where I sat it looked like they were kind of overwhelmed by the sheer scale and artifice of the whole thing...but that worked for me. It was very much Hugh's movie though, don't you think? It just seemed like the camera slurped him up deliciously every time he was on screen.

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Bethesda, Md.: Planning on seeing Let the Right One In this weekend. Good choice?

Ann Hornaday: I cannot tell a lie: I haven't seen it yet (I'm trying, I'm trying, folks!). But it has received excpetionally strong reviews, especially from our own John Anderson, so -- if you know what you're getting into (horror, graphic violence, subtitles), I'd say you might want to give it a shot.

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Baltimore, Md.: Would Slumdog Millionaire be eligible for Best Picture or is it a foreign film? Either way, I hope Danny Boyle gets serious consideration for Best Director -- such a good movie.

Ann Hornaday: You know, I think that since it's mostly in English with some Hindi, it qualifies as English-language and thus can qualify for Best Picture. (I stand to be corrected if someone out there knows better.) Lots of Oscar prognosticators are already predicting that it will be nominated and may even win -- so look out for that. And I bet you're right that Boyle will be nominated, it's certainly an impressive technical achievement on his part.

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Falls Church, Va.: Well, I went to see "Australia" when my wife's family was in town over the holidays, and I can report that moviegoers will love it -- if they're 65 or older.

Seriously, the movie is openly a mashup of every epic romance made between 1935 and 1955 that I felt like I was watching the annual "In Memoriam" montage from the Oscar broadcast. The acting is hokey, but that may be a deliberate attempt to imitate that old-movie style.

The cinematography is surprisingly disappointing. So often, it managed to make grand location shots look like matte paintings on a studio lot.

Add to that the fact that it's three hours long without an ounce of suspense as to what's going to happen in any given scene, and I think most people will be horribly bored.

Ann Hornaday: That's an interesting take, Falls Church! You are certainly correct about the mash-up approach, and older viewers may indeed appreciate those Golden Age references more than others....As for being bored, it just all depends on what you're going for and what your expectations are. I know some people who didn't care for it, others who just had a ball. It's that kind of movie, you either love it or hate it...I guess! (I actually liked that super-heightened cinematography -- one friend of mine compared it to a Maxfield Parrish painting, with all those lurid, vivid colors.)

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features outstanding acting and musical performances by Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles and Mos Def.: Now Ann I'll believe you on Mos Def and Jeff Wright. But Beyonce? Seriously was she good at being an actress?

Ann Hornaday: Well...I thought so! If you go to see for yourself, let me know what you think at the next chat!

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Arlington, Va.: A rough segue here, but thought I'd ask. As a hardcore Dylan fan, I just sat through "Masked and Anonymous." Dear God, it was bad. Have you seen that movie, and what did you think?

Ann Hornaday: Well you get your Dylan Boy Scout badge for that one! I just went to metacritic.com to look at my review of "Masked & Anonymous" and here's a quote: "A fascinating, vexing, indulgent, visionary, pretentious, mesmerizing pop culture curio."

And, with apologies to Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, I'll stand on Charlie Kaufman's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that!

Seriously, I actually kind of loved "Masked and Anonymous," if only for the sheer insane ambition of it. Plus, I absolutely loved all those Dylan covers, some of the best of all time.

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Desson Thomson: Not that you are not fabulous but what happened to Desson? Did he take the buyout?

Ann Hornaday: Alas, alackaday, yes he did. As did Stephen Hunter, so I'm flying solo for the time being (with the ample support of such terrific colleagues as Michael O'Sullivan, Philip Kennicott and the aforementioned Mr. Anderson, huzzah). Desson is still very much at large, thankfully, and you can hear him of a Saturday on Scott Simon's NPR show. ... We miss him!

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Washington, D.C.: Ann, looks like a very weak weekend for quality new indie openings, which is kind of hard to believe with the huge glut of Oscar-rumored films still outstanding.

Any word on when movies like Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Let Them Chirp Awhile or The Class will make it down here?

Ann Hornaday: Yes you're right, it's a light weekend. As for the three you mention, only "The Class" is scheduled at this time for a Washington opening, on Jan. 30 (subject to change)...I guess all the little guys are scurrying away from the big holiday behemoths tramping their way down the trail. Duck!

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Australia: Hi, Just have to concur with "Cape St. Clair" on Australia. I think it could have easily lost about half an hour in length and still worked. That being said, as escapism, it wasn't bad. (Disclaimer, I went for the Hugh Jackman eye candy, and with no expectations of it being a great film!)

Ann Hornaday: Aha, yes, Hugh Jackman eye candy. You got it. And you're absolutely right -- it's all about managing expectations! I'm glad yours were met!

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Takoma Park, Md.: I convinced my sister to go with me to Slumdog Millionaire last weekend and she hated the first fifteen minutes so much we had to leave.

I guess we should have known what we were in for when I saw it was a Danny Boyle movie, but at least the first fifteen mins were very painful to watch.

Is anyone making movies without torture these days?

Ann Hornaday: Hi Takoma Park -- It's funny, I was literally just talking to a colleague about how so many critics and fans are calling "Slumdog" a "feel good movie," apparently completely forgetting those painful scenes of graphic torture -- not just in that opening sequence but in most of the movie! I also found it painful to watch, which may explain why I'm not as overwhelmingly positive about the movie as so many people.

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Washington, D.C.: When does Frost/Nixon come out in D.C.? By the way I thought Milk was the best movie so far and my wife loved Slumdog Millionaire.

Ann Hornaday: "Frost/Nixon" comes out next Friday and....without violating any review embargoes I'll say: See it. I'm glad you liked "Milk," which as you can probably see it high on my list, too. "Slumdog," see above (or below). But glad you're making it out to the movies and even liking one or two! Always a plus!

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Annapolis, Md.: Bow Tie Cinemas operates two movie complexes in Annapolis and generally does a good job. I receive weekly e-mails telling which films are going to be playing at which complex. The e-mail for the week of Nov. 21-27 said that "I've Loved You for So Long" would be opening on the day before Thanksgiving. The Annapolis Capitol had the aame information. However, when my husband and I went to the theater, we were told its opening had been delayed until Dec. 19. However, we noticed that it has in fact opened in several D.C. theaters. What gives?

I guess this is another cautionary tale to always call the theater before going to see a movie. That seems like an unnecessary nuiance, but we've been burned often enough to think this is the way to go. Of course, sometimes even the recordings are wrong; and good luck trying to reach an actual person. For $8.50 a ticket, I think we deserve more. At least the theater could change the newspaper listing! However, all we got from the very youthful employees was, this happens all the time. Netflix, anyone?

Ann Hornaday: Oooh, ouch. I'm glad you posted this, Annapolis, and I'm sharing it not because I have any hard and fast answers, but because I'm sure there are lots of people out there who share your feelings. It looks like the studio might have decided to re-schedule too late for printed listings to be changed, but it seems that if they can email you weekly notices, they can send out emails with schedule changes...

If anyone out there would like to share an insight, please weigh in. In the meantime, I'll try to get some answers on my end for the next chat. Please come back!

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Eamonn Walker plays Howlin' Wolf : I first saw him when co-starred with Denzel in "Julius Ceaser" on Broadway a couple of years ago. Great actor. I hope to see more of him.

Ann Hornaday: Wow. That must have been an amazing experience. In "Cadillac Records," he seems to be, like, nine feet tall. A very commanding presence. Shivers.

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Eamonn Walker plays Howlin' Wolf in a stunning performance. I had not heard of him before, and he steals all his scenes. Great fun. : Eammon played the Muslim leader Said on the HBO series "Oz."

Ann Hornaday: A show I never saw! This is why I need to get out more (or stay in more, as the case may be...). Thank you!

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Ann Hornaday: Gang, this has been fab. I need to scoot to a screening ("Seven Pounds"), so -- please come back in a few weeks and we'll figure out the world together. Or at least the movies. Bye!

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