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Spanier Shares Annual Movie Reviews; 'True Grit,' 'Social Network' Top 'Gasland,' 'Little Fockers'

on December 27, 2010 12:03 PM

"The Social Network" and "True Grit" have earned higher rankings than "Unstoppable," "Gasland" and "Little Fockers" in the annual movie reviews by Penn State President Graham Spanier.

Each year around the holidays, Spanier reviews an array of current films, sharing his thoughts and reactions via e-mail with a list of friends, colleagues, relatives and others. This year's reviews, focused on 22 films, also are posted on Penn State Live, the university's official news source.

All of those reviewed are worth seeing -- "depending on your tastes," Spanier wrote. Topping his list, with four stars apiece, are "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," "Fair Game," "The Social Network" and "Inside Job."

It's worth noting that "Fair Game" focuses heavily on the public outing of formerly covert CIA officer Valerie Plame -- who is a Penn State alumna.

Among those that Spanier granted the fewest stars are "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," "Sex and the City 2," "Little Fockers" and "Gasland."

He called the Fockers flick "the lamest of the three Focker movies." And of "Gasland," a politically charged documentary about natural-gas drilling, he wrote that it "has done a service in drawing our attention to these issues. But all is not right with the movie, given some factual gaps, misimpressions, and uncritical reporting."

Below is the full text of Spanier's reviews.


Happy New Year to all! Here is my annual Holiday Movie Review for 2010. These are movies I've seen in the last month or so and that are still in many theaters. The number of films is shorter than usual this year due to the brief timeframe between graduation ceremonies and my imminent departure for Penn State's bowl game in Tampa. Absent from the list are movies that have recently opened or will soon open in New York but are not yet in State College or Des Moines.

These are listed on a scale of one to four stars, roughly in order of my overall preference. All of those listed are worthy of your ticket purchase, depending on your tastes, with many very highly recommended. I welcome your feedback. Hope you enjoy a movie or two--or 10!

The King's Speech: Four stars

One of the great movies of 2010, it seems likely to contend for a best picture nomination and other awards. Spectacularly filmed, this historical British story is touching and poignant--a must see. Colin Firth as Duke of York (and later King George VI) and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist give stellar performances.

Black Swan: Four stars

I've been unable to answer the question of whether I "enjoyed" this movie, since it is disturbing, even while it is moving and beautifully filmed. There should be little doubt that Natalie Portman will contend for Best Actress awards. Portman lures us into her world where physical, psychological, sexual, and familial pressures compete and complicate in the tug of war between the white and black swans of the Swan Lake ballet.

Fair Game: Four stars

A must-see movie that reveals how White House politics compromised the integrity of our national security while profoundly affecting the lives of a former ambassador and a covert CIA officer. The personalities and marriage of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson occupy the screen as much as the interplay between political ideology and its impact on intelligence gathering and analysis. The movie is reasonably true to the book written by Valerie, a Penn State alumna.

The Social Network: Four stars

Who would have expected that a movie about the launch and evolution of Facebook could make for great movie-making? Surprisingly informative, even if partly real and partly fictional, this movie gives insights into today's youth, the sometimes bizarre world of entrepreneurship in information technology, and the tricky aspects of "monetizing" good ideas. Academics will revel in the negative depictions of Harvard—except, of course, those who are from Harvard.

Inside Job: Four stars

A documentary that has the quality of a feature film, this comprehensive yet understandable analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 gives a fully triangulated picture of what went wrong and why. I can't imagine who would leave the movie feeling satisfied with the behavior of our government, Wall Street, and for that matter even some individuals in academe. Narrated by Matt Damon, this movie will make you either mad or defensive, perhaps depending on what you do for a living.

The Fighter: Three and a half stars

This film has all of the usual elements of a boxing movie--the blue collar neighborhood, the underdog, family tensions, and the girl. But it rises above others because of exceptional character development. Based on a true story of two brothers who renegotiate their relationship while both are overcoming a multitude of odds.

127 Hours: Three and a half stars

A gripping movie based on a harrowing true story of a young man who ultimately had to amputate his own arm after being trapped in a canyon by a boulder. The film does an excellent job of chronicling his 127 hours. The pace of the movie is faster than you'd expect.

True Grit: Three and a half stars

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon star in this 2010 version of the classic book and movie. It's even grittier this time around mostly because of the witty and feisty 14 year old girl who is determined to bring to justice the man who killed her father. Spectacular cinematography.

Tangled: Three and a half stars

It's a delightful, animated Disney movie musical based on the story of Rapunzel. See it with a child who is not yet too old to be cynical about romance and fairy tales. The music and lyrics are a special treat, especially if you fancy musicals--and maybe one will follow. This is Disney's 50th animated feature.

Salt: Three and a half stars

Angelina Jolie. End of Review. No, wait, I'm obligated to say more. This would just be a thrilling, action-packed, far-fetched, escapist spy film with a gorgeous actress playing the role of Evelyn Salt if it hadn't coincidentally been released around the time that the FBI arrested ten covert Russian spies that were living and working in the U.S. and shortly thereafter sent back to Russia as part of a deal. The premise of the movie, then, turns out not to be so outlandish.

The Next Three Days: Three stars

A literature teacher reaches the end of his patience as his convicted wife, who is now suicidal over the situation, runs out of options to appeal her sentence for murder, and he decides he must break her out of prison. As any good academic would do, he researches his plan carefully. Not too believable, but the viewer's sympathies become aligned with the couple, and we thus root for them.

The Tourist: Three stars

Angelina must want me to see her often, but she never calls. As for the movie, one reviewer noted that Angelina Jolie sucks the air right out of the screen, or something along those lines. Yes. But The Tourist also has a less compelling Johnny Depp and wonderful scenes from Paris and especially Venice. There are some fun twists in the movie, on top of the romance, chase, and intrigue. Go for some fun and the stars.

Burlesque: Three stars

Audiences liked this movie more than the critics did, and I'm with the audience. If you like music and dancing, see the movie. If you are into important, meaningful movies that will change your life, forget it. Cher is always a phenomenon, but the center of the movie is Christina Aguilera, who sings and dances up a storm.

Inception: Two and a half stars

Fascinating. I'm aware that this movie was considered innovative, imaginative, and intellectual. It was a huge hit with plenty of hype that had moviegoers, reviewers, and talk show hosts excitedly analyzing it. But frankly, I didn't get some of it. I don't mind needing some time to consider what it all means, but if I need an organizational chart, a rereading of Freud, or decoding lessons from specially-constructed web sites to enjoy the movie, 2.5 stars is all I can muster, even with some great acting performances.

Tron Legacy: Two and a half stars

Video games, the Internet, and the future all meet in an action-packed adventure with spectacular special visual effects. Few readers will be in the male teen or young adult demographic for this movie, but go for visual escapism or because you like Jeff Bridges.

Unstoppable: Two and a half stars

I was hoping for something better, mostly because this movie was filmed near Penn State. The half star is because I liked all of the familiar references and locations. As many have observed and noticed, this is "Speed," but with trains rather than busses. One has come to expect great things from Denzel Washington, but I'm not sure he had a lot to work with here.

Iron Man 2: Two and a half stars

The first Iron Man, in 2008, was a wonderfully positive surprise, enjoyed by critics and audiences, but this sequel did not hit the same mark. Robert Downey, Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow were fine, but the script for the sequel gives them less opportunity to shine, and their characters do not seem as interesting or likable.

How Do You Know: Two stars

A run of the mill romantic comedy that isn't very romantic. Reese Witherspoon is a confused former star athlete who has to make up her mind about which guy she wants. She makes the right choice, of course, obvious from the first scene with Owen Wilson. Jack Nicholson appears as he typically does.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Two stars

An adventure to a world of fantasy with islands and water, ships and things that fly, good and evil, lovable animals, competition and sentimentality. Children rule on Narnia. It's a tedious tale where each scene takes another unexplained turn. All is well in the end, of course.

Sex and the City 2: Two stars

The good news was that a significant part of the set for this movie, which involved a moat filled with water, was built by none other than Brian Spanier, CEO of Custom Fiberglass Installations. Proud father speaking! The bad news is that this sequel seemed to be an extended fashion show with some frivolity. This was mostly yet one more opportunity to reunite the four stars, fill up screen time with product endorsements, and find a couple of spots other than New York to show it all off.

Gasland: Two stars

The Marcellus Shale is one of the most important discoveries of energy in the world, sitting mostly under Pennsylvania. It is so important to the state's future that it deserves a critical examination of issues such as land management, water quality, transportation, and environmental impact. Gasland, like all documentaries, has an attitude, and has done a service in drawing our attention to these issues. But all is not right with the movie, given some factual gaps, misimpressions, and uncritical reporting.

Little Fockers: Two stars

The lamest of the three Focker movies. Go for a modest laugh or two or if you need to see it out of obligation to the series, but the movie is mostly a shame, since it wastes the talents of seven of Hollywood's stars. By the way, it is not really about the little ones.

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