Apollo 13 - Apollo 13 tells the true story of a near-tragic space shuttle mission. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are three American astronauts scheduled to be the second crew to land on the moon in the year 1970. Two days prior to their launch, however, Mattingly is deemed unfit to accompany the mission due to the possibility that he may be infected with the measles. He is replaced, much to the entire crew's concern, by back-up pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). The launch goes according to plan until, on the third day of their trip, something goes wrong and there is an explosion aboard the shuttle. Acting with speed and professionalism, the staff of NASA's mission control in Houston, Texas led by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) grasps at straws for ways to bring their men home safely. Over the next several days the world holds it's breath as the crew of the Apollo 13 struggle to survive their return to Earth, their dreams of making it to the moon shattered by a small malfunction in their otherwise state of the art space shuttle. Masterfully directed by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 tells a story about overcoming all odds which will stay with you for a lifetime. The majority of the film takes place in just three locales: the cramped Apollo 13 capsule, NASA's mission control center in Houston, Texas, and within the home of Jim Lovell and his family. The scenes within the Apollo 13 lunar module are incredibly impressive to this day. The film is now more than twelve years old, but the special effects are still seamless. This is partially due to the fact that many of the scenes of "weightlessness" inside the craft were actually filmed on an aircraft in mid flight that is designed to free-fall for brief periods, causing an anti-gravity effect within. This removed the need for wire work that would have undoubtedly been underwhelming. In addition, the outer space shots and in-flight shuttle shots are all top notch as well. What really sells the scenes within the ship, though, are the performances of Bacon, Paxton, and Hanks. Kevin Bacon's character is sort of the "odd man out" who has never worked with the other two before. He's the rookie of the group who no one completely trusts, but who earns everyone's respect. Bill Paxton plays a seasoned veteran who lets his nerves get the better of him and begins to worry the others as his health wanes. Paxton has a tendency to pull off very down to Earth roles particularly well and fits into his character in this film perfectly. Tom Hanks is kind of the fearless leader of the group. He's had the most experience out of the three of them and shows it by remaining the most level-headed of the bunch. When it all comes down to it, it is not the performance of one of these men, but all three that make the shuttle scenes so amazing and memorable. During the mission control scenes the main focus is obviously on Ed Harris' character and the way that he holds everything together while remaining the calm and collected one in the room. Despite this, many of the members of his staff get a considerable amount of screen time. This really translates the idea that the safety of the Apollo crew was held in the hands of an entire group of trained professionals. These scenes had a lot more character and credibility than they really had to, which was just one more great call on the part of Ron Howard and the film's writers. Finally, the scenes within the home of Jim Lovell's family really revolved around how his wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) dealt with the events of the mission as her husband's life hung in the balance. These were the least important moments in the overall story, but the film would have been missing some serious emotion without them. I honestly can't think of anything bad to say about Apollo 13, so (not that there are too many people out there who haven't seen it) I would highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone reading this.
Blood Diamond - According to Wikipedia.org, a blood diamond is "a diamond mined in a war zone and sold, usually clandestinely, in order to finance an insurgent, invading army's war efforts or for warlord-like activity". In this film Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman living in the midst of a civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999, wants nothing more than to be a good father and to watch his son grow up to be a doctor. His dreams are crushed, however, when rebels attack his village, taking his wife and children from him and shipping him off to work in the diamond mines. Later, while searching for diamonds under the watchful eyes of the rebels, Solomon discovers a large pink stone which is worth a pretty penny. While attempting to bury his treasure so that he may return and retrieve it later, one of his captors discovers what Solomon is up to. Before he can do anything about it though, the army attacks the mining operation and both Solomon and the rebel who found him out are arrested. While in prison, the rebel talks openly about the large diamond and is overheard by Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been arrested for smuggling diamonds himself. After being released from prison, Danny helps Solomon get out as well and offers to help locate his family in exchange for his help in locating and procuring the pink diamond. Solomon agrees, and along with American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), they begin a dangerous journey across Africa to locate the diamond and Solomon's captive family. However, the completely different motives that each of them has are sure to only make their journey more difficult than it already is. Blood Diamond is an interesting movie. It focuses on a number of very small plots and goals set against a huge backdrop of war that encompasses an entire continent. In this way it is a bit like the film Saving Private Ryan. In that movie, the main characters travel across a great distance in the thick of World War II just to locate and save one seemingly unimportant man. In Blood Diamond, our three main characters risk life and limb as they struggle to pass through fire fights and dangerous jungles to find a single diamond and a few prisoners of war. What happens though, just as with Saving Private Ryan, is that by focusing on these few characters we witness the full scope of the situation going on in their surroundings while still getting a very personal story. As such, the people we follow through the film must be able to hold their own, and Leonardo, Djimon, and Jennifer do just that. Leonardo DiCaprio put in one of two incredible performances in 2006 in this film (the other being in The Departed). He has certainly managed to transcend past the pretty-boy that he began his career as and become a damn fine character actor. He's quickly joining the ranks of such actors as Edward Notron, Christian Bale, and even Christopher Walken, who, in my book are all capable of pulling off any character in any scenario that you could throw at them with an equally convincing performance. The more I see of DiCaprio, the more I become anxious to see him in more roles. Jennifer Connelly is a long time favorite actress of mine, based in part on her stunning beauty. She has a certain pin-up girl quality that earns her the term "Va-voom" in a way that Bettie Page once did. Aside from her looks, though, Connelly also has some of the best acting chops I've seen from a modern actress, and she has for some time. Djimon Hounsou is a name that I fear I will forever be unable to remember (much less pronounce), but I am a fan of his acting nonetheless. Never before have I seen him in such a large and deserving role as Solomon Vandy, and much to my delight, he did a wonderful job pulling it off. Blood Diamond is definitely not my favorite film of 2006. In fact, it may not even make the top ten, but it is a fine film and well worth a watch.