Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Town (2010)

Movie quotes:
Doug MacRay: I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people.
James Coughlin: ...Whose car we takin'?

At a glance:
Ben Afflect directs and stars in this effective Boston-based bank robber tale

Our review (with spoilers):
It’s difficult to take an action film about four tough guys from Boston who rob banks and meld it with elements of poetry, beauty, and love, but actor/director/co-writer Ben Affleck accomplishes this. He casts and directs himself as Doug, the gang leader who is all shades of gray. He has no qualms about stealing from banks and vans, but he tries to do it without hurting anyone. At the same time, he tolerates Jim (Jeremy Renner), whose violent fuse seems to erupt every time they pull a job. There are good reasons why Doug tolerates Jim. In fact, the hallmark of this script, where characters sometimes seem to be out of character, is the care in formulating a reason for this. For example, after the first bank job, Doug protects the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) from the harassment she would endure if Jim is allowed to pursue that loose end. Doug goes much further than that, and soon he and Claire are in a serious relationship.

Pursuing the thieves is a relentless FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who is a tough guy in his own right. The script presents a series of mini-battles and conflicts between Adam and Doug, Doung and Jim, Doug and Claire, Doug and Fergus (Pete Postlethwaite, playing a local tough guy), and Doug and his incarcerated father (Chris Cooper, in a small but effective role). This is a stellar cast, circling around a solid performance by Affleck, who proves that his earlier directorial success with Gone Baby Gone was not a fluke.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"In lesser hands, the central relationship might not have worked; but Affleck and Hall make it completely believable, adding to the texture of this classy thriller."
- David Stratton (At the Movies)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wind Chill (2007)

At a glance:
The chill wind whips through the assorted plot holes in this well-acted, entertaining yet flawed thriller/horror film

Our review (with spoilers):
A young college student accepts a ride from an eccentric guy who has been at least partially stalking her. When he takes a snowy shortcut, they are side-swiped by an oncoming car and get stuck in a drift. Soon, other problems arise when they are visited by a parade of ghosts, some of whom are malevolent.

Wind Chill tries to be so many things. It is a weird love story (despite the fact that the guy exhibits some stalker tendencies). It is a thriller, a murder mystery, and a horror story. There’s a bit of philosophy thrown in. Despite its flaws, it’s still a mostly enjoyable, worthwhile film, and this is a credit to the lead actors (Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes), both of whom are solid in difficult, illogical roles. The supporting cast is also very good.

The girl is a good example of a character written to further the plot. Who is she anyway? She starts as an aloof slackpacker who accepts a ride from a stranger. Her whole attitude is haughty and unconcerned. Then, after he has done nothing other than act a bit eccentric, she starts calling him a psycho. This is not the type of person who should be accepting rides from strangers. And if she truly believes he is a psycho, she should not be telling him she feels that way. She should just get out.

Here are some other nits/illogical behavior:

1)    The guy says he is going to walk back to the gas station, then returns soon after, saying it was closed. It’s obvious that he did not walk all the way there, yet the girl accepts his story. Later, he reveals that he turned back because he was coughing up blood and realized that he would never make it, then didn’t tell her because he didn’t want to worry her. How about telling her so she can walk to the gas station instead?

2)   Ghosts and apparitions sometimes appear in the waking world, sometimes interrupt dreams, sometimes just look and ignore, and other times seem able to actually inflict physical damage.

3)   It is explained how the guy knew the girl was taking the bus to Delaware – he looked at her phone over her shoulder – but how did he get the message to her phone suggesting that she look on the message board? Wouldn’t she have known that this message was from someone else? And it is never explained how he knew all about her favorite foods.

4)   A few hours after they are stuck, the engine dies. The girl looks underneath and sees that the car has been dripping gas from a cracked tank. Gas is really smelly and they have a permanent window open on the car. They would have smelled gas leaking long before this.

Rating: 2 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Despite its failings, Wind Chill represents a road rarely taken by 21st-century American horror films: Original (in the non-remake sense of the term), subtle and restrained."
- Maitland McDonagh (TV Guide's Movie Guide)

Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

At a glance:
This doco provides a sharply edited history of Australian exploitation cinema, narrated by the people who made the films

Our review (with spoilers):
If you’re a true lover of exploitation film and Australian exploitation film in particular, you’ll love this fast-paced, clip-laden homage to Ozploitation. Narrated by the people who made the films, and with numerous comments by Ozploitation adorer Quentin Tarantino, Not Quite Hollywood traces the rise, fall, and rise of Ozploitation from the 1960s to the present day. This was true gonzo film-making: Dennis Hopper boozing it up while trying to show Mad Dog Morgan; stunt people risking their lives for the perfect shot.

Eventually, this film’s length, combined with overly kinetic and modern jump editing, makes this a slightly tedious process for all but the strongest exploitation lover. But that’s not to say it isn’t worth the journey. You’re just not going to get this kind of look into this movie culture anywhere else without poring through hundreds of films.

Rating:  3 of 4

Please Give (2010)

At a glance:
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener expertly creates characters that portray the difference between caring, pity, and indifference in this gentle New-York-based comedy/drama

Our review (with spoilers):
Wonderful slice of life dramedy about Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt), a middle aged couple  who live quite nicely by buying furniture from the children of recently deceased New Yorkers. Kate’s got a conscience, however, that is being exposed by her incessant profit-taking. It isn’t helped when she and Alex buy the next door apartment and have to deal with the ‘direct’ elderly woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert) who lives in it, along with her very different twenty-something daughters.

There are poignant moments as well as some laugh out loud ones in this gentle drama. Keener and Platt are both wonderful, but it was especially great to see Guilbert (who started her career long ago as Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) still going. There also good supporting work from Rebecca Hall, Elise Ivy, and Sarah Steele. This is my first acquaintance with writer/director Nicole Holofcener, and it was a pleasant one.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Nicole Holofcener, who writes the most interesting female characters in the movies, delivers another dazzling role to her muse, Catherine Keener, in Please Give, a delightfully dry dramedy about guilt."
- Roger Moore (Orlando Sentinel)

Four Boxes (2009)

At a glance:
This low-budget film squeezes heaps of suspense and intrigue from live action combined with a voyeuristic website

Our review (with spoilers):
Trevor (Justin Kirk) is a privacy fence salesman during the week. His weekends are spent rummaging through stuff belonging to the recently dead. On this particular weekend, he and his partner Rob (Sam Rosen) rummage through a house that presents mysteries. There are scrawled notes from a depressed soul, intriguing collections of nuts and bolts, and weird line patterns that might be coded clues. Meanwhile, Rob is into this cool website called Four Boxes – four hidden camera views of an apartment that used to belong to a young, often nude girl, and that now seems to be populated by two very suspicious terrorist types. Rob hooks Trevor into watching too, and soon Trevor is starting to formulate his own theories about what is going on in Four Boxes. Meanwhile, complications ensue when Rob brings Amber (Terryn Westbrook) into the house. Amber used to go out with Trevor and the awkward factor ramps up when she is there, along with the sexual tension.

I won’t ruin anything with Four Boxes so that you can enjoy it as much as I did, but let me say that writer/director Wyatt McDill proves that he can make an effective thriller with little more than a one-house setting, a few clues, and a love triangle dynamic – and that’s impressive. The only drawback to such effective tension building is that it is almost impossible for the resolution to avoid being a letdown – and through some careful morality, this is just avoided here.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Red (2010)

Movie quotes:
Marvin Boggs: Why are you trying to kill me?
Frank Moses: Like why would I be trying to kill you?
Marvin Boggs: Because last time we met I tried to kill you.
Frank Moses: That was a long time ago.
Marvin Boggs: Some people hold on to things like that.

At a glance:
Bruce Willis recreates his standard action hero role, this time as a ‘retired’ CIA agent pulled back in by a major US conspiracy, in this lighthearted and fun, but ultimately hollow, action film

Our review (with spoilers):
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a  retired CIA agent, survives an attempted assassination, pulling him back into the action. He drags along old buddies Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren (yes, as a machine-gun-wielding assassin) and Brian Cox. Also dragged into harm’s way is Frank’s new girlfriend, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). They face a CIA gone rogue, led by a talented, dedicated agent Cooper (Karl Urban). Let’s face it: Willis has been playing slight variations on this same role for more than a decade. With his bald top and chiseled face, he hardly seems to have aged. He’s good at this one character, so as long as you only have to see him play it every couple of years – and the script, thank goodness, doesn’t take itself or him too seriously – he’s a pleasure to watch. But the film is made to capitalize on genre combined with star quality – there is no strong underlying message, so it is a hollow film.

And there are, of course, those stock tricks used that we’ve seen before and will seen again. For example: Joe (Morgan Freeman) is approached by an assassin. In the next scene, Moses is talking by phone to someone at the home and we see Freeman’s nurse in tears. Moses’ face seems to show sorrow (well, as much sorrow as Willis’ face is able to emote, anyway). Later, we find out that Joe turned the tables and killed the assassin, and, I assume, disappeared. Why was his nurse crying, then?

Later, we see a very brief scene of Cooper at his home, checking on his sleeping children and wife. We know that the purpose of this scene is to establish that Cooper cares about his family and that means they will be placed in danger later, probably by Moses. Bingo! Finally, Victoria (Mirren) is blasting the vice president using a machine gun on a tripod. Cooper sneaks up from the other side. We see the machine gun must be still firing, because bursts of light are coming from where it is obscured by a parked car. Immediately, veteran movie watchers know this means when Cooper comes around to the other side of the car, the machine gun will be automatically firing in unmanned mode and Victoria will be long gone. Bingo!

Watching John Malkovich, one of my favorite actors who is capable of so much more - play such a broad caricature of a drugged-addled conspiracy nut is a little painful at times. Helen Mirren with a machine gun is almost as wild as the machine-gun-wielding height-challenged woman standing on the bar wearing negligee in Total Recall.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The winking, self-reflexive tone mutes any possible emotional investment."
- Robert Levin (Film School Rejects)

Black Kiss (2004)

At a glance:
This Japanese horror/drama has enough style and quirky acting to overcome its convoluted plot
Our review (with spoilers):
My favorable opinion of Black Kiss is far from subjective. It is skewed by my appreciation for unusual, thoughtful films. It is enhanced by my fond memories of my brief visit to Japan in 1999, and for my desire to see more of Tokyo and Shinjuku again. Blessed with strange, occasionally stylistically fast editing, and cursed with an almost fanatical tortoise-like speed in revealing its story, Black Kiss is a study in contrasts. Amid the photogenic doll-like beauty of young Japanese women/models, there is a sickening murder mystery and a series of gruesome murders. A man’s bloody body is shredded and spread like a paper flower. A woman’s still living torso is shipped in a box. A killer commits a murder, then performs a Houdini-esque escape from a locked room. A tormented former model takes a naïve young newcomer under her wing, and either curses her or blesses her. A strange paparazzi stalks the newcomer.
I particularly enjoyed the unusual, understated performance by Shunsuke Matsuoka as junior detective Yusuke Shiraki. He discovers information about the case that often disgusts or confuses him, causing him to shrink into himself, his head retreating into his neck much like the tortoise that prowls Kasumi’s apartment.
On the negative side, this is a long film that ultimately makes no sense. It’s a triumph of style – and good acting – over plot.
Rating: 3 of 4

Collapse (2009)

At a glance:
Michael Ruppert’s theories on the wayward path of the human race are a prescient warning of things to come, and a fascinating look at a man obsessed

Our review (with spoilers):
The simple way to define Michael Ruppert with a sound bite is as a ‘conspiracy theorist’. But this is the simple way out. He is an intelligent, emotional man who feels passionately that the human race is way off course. Agribusiness, back-ended home loan, reliance on oil – all of this, he reasons, will come crashing down unless we quickly clear our minds and find solutions to the problems. It’s a tribute to his passion and gift of speech that this film survives as one long interview. Ruppert is almost completely negative about the future of the human race until the last few minutes, when he posits the changes that need to occur to keep us from ending in total self-inflicted holocaust. Perhaps things will not be as bad as his soliloquy makes them out to be, but he makes a compelling case, especially since we have already witnessed the global crash of 2007. Either way, it is a fascinating study of a man obsessed with convincing 100 monkeys of his version of the truth.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Whether you consider Ruppert prophetic or paranoid, hearing his sobering thoughts on the collapse of industrialized civilization is a thought-provoking experience. Thought-provoking and scary."
- Liz Braun (Jam! Movies)

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Movie quotes:
Wallace Wells: If you want something bad, you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: Lesbian?
Wallace Wells: The other L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: ...Lesbians?

"You made me swallow my gum! That's going to be in my digestive tract for seven years!"
- Gideon Gordon Graves

Stacey Pilgrim: I mean, did you really see a future with this girl?
Scott Pilgrim: Like... with jetpacks.

Envy Adams: You are incorrigible.
Todd Ingram: I don't know the meaning of the word.
[Text on screen]: He really doesn't.

At a glance:
Michael Cera is wonderful as a neurotic nerd who fights like a video game character against the evil ex’s of his new girlfriend

Our review (with spoilers):
Extremely original film, that obviously feels faithful to the source graphic novel, about a nerdy bass player (the inimitable Michael Cera) who has to fight seven of his new girlfriend’s ex’s if he wants to be with her. Complicating things are his other current high school girlfriend, his band members (which also include an ex-girlfriend), and his gay room-mate, with whom he shares a tiny apartment, a single bed often filled with his room-mate’s boyfriends. Fights, music, and characters are enhanced by words describing the sounds or by on-screen captions. In some ways, it is almost a perfect film: geared toward a young audience, but accessible and vibrantly enjoyable to anyone., with too many funny and memorable lines to remember.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Some might see it as a great hipster parable, a postmodern epic for the Nintendo generation; I think it's simply a triumph of dizzying cinematic style, and it never misses a beat."
- Josh Hurst (Christianity Today)

Inception (2010)

Movie quotes:
Cobb: For this to work, we'd have to buy off the pilots...
Arthur: And we'd have to buy off the flight attendants...
Saito: I bought the airline.
[Everybody turns and stares at him. Saito just shrugs]
Saito: It seemed neater.

At a glance:
An imaginative core concept is weakened by the need for endless exposition and stock Hollywood action sequences

Our review (with spoilers):
Around 87 percent of the registered critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a favorable review to Inception. They didn’t have a problem with the endless exposition necessary to explain the rules of its singular dream universe – and that’s great. I wish I felt that way too and had enjoyed this dream more. I wanted to love this film, since it was directed by Christopher Nolan (who has helmed some of my most favorite films like Batman Begins and The Prestige), but I just could not connect to the emotions of the narrative.

The story in brief: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional dream extractor: one who enters and navigates the dreams of another to find valuable secrets. Due to a personal tragedy, he has been separated from his children. To get back together with them, he must do one last big extraction, so he assembles a crack team. This is a trendy, diversified cast: Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and even Pete Poslethwaite (in a small role). It is DiCaprio’s emotional journey that must carry the film, and for me, I find his acting shallow.

There is an endless parade of exposition in the film; characters are constantly having conversations merely for the purpose of outlining this alternative universe for the audience. A little exposition is often necessary in fantasy / sci-fi, but in this film it is used throughout its lengthy running time of 2 ½ hours. Nolan tries to jazz all this talk up with a lingering bass beat in the background, but you can’t fool me.

Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The dream logic of Inception -- which deals, like Nolan's far more intriguing Memento, with the architecture of memory and the nature of reality -- is stymied by a clunking script, crammed with expository exchanges and urgent blather."
- Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer)

"Mixes arcane talk about dreams with traditional action sequences resulting in strange and ineffective hybrid."
- Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Practice)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Frozen (2010)

At a glance:
Frozen takes a great, simple concept (three people stranded on a chair lift) and squanders it with bickering and plot contrivances

Our review (with spoilers):
There’s nothing like a pure concept movie. And here’s the concept: two bratty skiers and one nice girl bribe their way onto the chairlift rather than pay full price for lift tickets. With time and light running out, they negotiate one last lift ride. The ride operator is called away and forgets all about them, the power is shut off, and the ski resort is closed down on Sunday night, to re-open five days later – and the three people are stranded on the chairlift. That’s it.

Despite being stranded and facing death, these three still find the time to argue incessantly before doing dumb things. There’s the usual angst about the girlfriend ruining the lifelong friendship between two guys. The girl (Emma Bell), very sweet before she gets stranded, proves that she was well cast: her scared yelling voice is extremely annoying. Consequently, the guys urge her to stop yelling. Stop yelling? They are stranded on a chairlift! I’d say yelling is one of few decent options they have left!

The other option is to jump. The boyfriend does this, but does so in a way that his fall is not broken at all. The result? He breaks both his legs (with many shots of the bloody bone protruding from one of them), and is soon surrounded by a pack of wolves and eaten. Yes, wolves. This might be funny if the movie weren’t being irresponsible to propagate this gross demonization of wolves. Wolves have never attacked a human – except, of course, in silly movies.

The boyfriend’s friend and the girlfriend argue, then bond, but despite the cold, they do not huddle close together – and huddling is definitely a good option if stranded in cold weather. Instead, after surviving one night, the guy climbs along the cable, shredding his hands, but somehow, unbelievably, continuing anyway, reaches a pole, climbs down, and ski-boards down the hill, pursued by wolves. He is never seen again, so you can assume the worst.

The girl takes advantage of an unraveling cable to reach the ground. She is confronted by bloody-nosed wolves but they spare her. She crawls to the road and is rescued by a passing motorist. I kept thinking the motorist was going to be a serial killer, but he was just a nice guy driving her to the local hospital. The ending feels a little bit like the idea bin was empty, so time to end the movie.

The film is flawed in so many ways (there isn’t really enough there to fill 90 minutes) and could have been much better, but it’s still fun to watch.

Rating: 2 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A stuck chairlift just doesn't exert the same primal terror as a roiling sea, and to make up the difference, Green would need a better cast and sharper dialogue than he has here."
- Cliff Doerksen (Chicago Reader)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Wild Hunt (2009)

At a glance:
A role-playing game turns from sincere acting to deadly bloodletting in first time director Alexandre Franchi’s amazing low-budget tale

Our review (with spoilers):
In a universe of cookie cutter genre pics, The Wild Hunt, small budget and all, stands out. It tells a tale of Evelyn (Kaniehtiio Horn), a young woman who breaks up with her boyfriend Eric (Ricky Mabe) and takes part in a LARP (Live Action Role Playing) game with a bunch of guys who seem to be rougher than usual of these sorts of people. She is a Viking queen, the captured wench of Murtagh (Trevor Hayes), a powerful sorcerer. She’s enjoying herself but is also spurning his advances. It’s like a little mini-holiday for her from her more serious, aborted relationship. When Eric goes in search of her and enters the role-playing world in contemporary clothing, he is surrounded by game players and pelted with unending shouts of "decorum!" until he returns to the entrance and dons the proper gear. He’s not exactly an enthusiastic game player still, but he is singularly dedicated to his rescue mission, and he has the help of his enthusiastic LARPer brother, Bjorn (Mark Antony Krupa).

This could have been a light-hearted look at relationships framed within a tame LARP world, but the disruption of the game, combined with a darker side of some of the players, causes the stakes to escalate into life and death. Recited oaths of blood and courage suddenly become real, and the film turns to dark, claustrophobic horror.

I wish I had not known in advance that this film was going to morph from an intense but harmless drama into dark and sporadically violent nightmare. The shock of the change would have been even more intense. As it is, the story at the heart of this tale feels ancient, like a Nordic war fable, and the resolution, though violent, just feels so right. It’s been a long time since pure eye-for-an-eye has made me feel so good inside. The film is far from perfect – Krupa, although good, is sometimes just a bit over the top – but the acting generally is at an extremely high level for a low budget film (partial credit for this must go to director Alexandre Franchi - whenever you see an entire cast of newcomer actors performing at a high level, that usually means someone is helping to ensure this) and this superior acting made the personal stories stay with me long after the credits rolled. Franchi, please do more!

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"First-time feature filmmaker Alexandre Franchi shoots the outdoors amazingly claustrophobically — an almost-oxymoric effect that contributes to the unsettling atmosphere of The Wild Hunt."
- Jim Slotek (Jam! Movies)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Joneses (2009)

At a glance:
Consumer culture is skewered in this fabled love story about an unusual family dedicated to getting their acquaintances to buy

Our review (with spoilers):
An affluent suburb in Somewhere, America, has just received a new resident family moving in. Steve and Kate Jones (David Duchovny and Demi Moore) and their two high school aged kids are comely, happy, friendly, and have all the latest clothes, accessories, furnishings, gadgets, and cars – and don’t mind showing them off. They seem to get just a little more chuffed when people they mix with buy the same items they are flaunting. What’s going on here? Is this just normal viral consumerism, or is it something more?

The Joneses’ script relies on one big important secret, and the reveal used to hint at the secret involves the daughter and is quite ingenious – and perverse. And the Joneses success or failure as a film relies on the acquired taste of Duchovny’s underplayed desire for love and family. It works for me, especially when it is balanced by Moore’s similarly underplayed desires. On the surface, she’s all – or mostly – business. But her eyes tell a different story. Both of these people can act. And Duchovny’s easygoing charm perfectly offsets Moore’s slowly eroding ambition.

This latter day Duchovny reminds me more and more of a good friend of mine from my bowling days, Ron Wagner. Ron has the same easygoing charm and nonchalant attitude about almost everything, punctuated by bursts of enthusiasm. Like Duchovny’s Steve Jones, Ron also would have found his enthusiasm stoked by Demi Moore, whose looks and confidence are appealing.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Moore looks fabulous in a role that plays to her strengths as a feisty, independent woman, and she generates on-screen heat with Duchovny to make the conventional happy ending easier to swallow."
- Catherine Jones (Liverpool Echo)

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

At a glance:
A straightforward and brutal kidnapping gets much more complicated and deadly as hidden relationships are revealed

Our review (with spoilers):
Two seemingly cold-blooded hoods carefully plan and execute a hostage for ransom plan. They are brutal but business-like. These are not sadists, in it for the thrills. They are merely there for the monetary reward, but that doesn’t diminish the stomach-churning effect of watching their machinations. But this is much more than a straightforward story of hostage-taking; there are hidden relationships here that, before long, will complicate matters greatly.

Danny and Vic certainly seem to have coldly imprisoned a stranger named Alice, chosen only because her rich father is deemed to be ransom worthy. But when Alice grabs Danny’s gun during a bathroom break, Danny reveals to her that behind the mask is her boyfriend. Yes, he did brutally kidnap her, but that was only so that her video plea to her dad to pay the ransom would be completely sincere. Danny’s plan is to double-cross Vic, take all the money, and run off with Alice. But Alice’s reaction is anger at being brutalized and kept in the dark about the plan. When the opportunity arises, she turns the tables on Danny, hand-cuffing him to the bed. The tables turn a few more times, and more about Danny and Vic’s relationship is revealed, so that you start to wonder just who Danny owes his allegiance to.

Director J. Blakeson tells the story with dead seriousness. This isn’t some stylized Tarantino clone. There’s not a shred of humor to lighten the upsetting events. Yet it isn’t torture porn either. It’s a reality reveal of how a crime is conducted and how humans are inevitable and deeply flawed.

Some of you who know me and my reviews will remember that I have a low tolerance for violence in general and torture in particular. Nonetheless, I thought that this film had such strong emotional lynchpins that the torture, though difficult to watch, was worth it, because what happened to Alice was part of a more important story.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Plenty of movies have covered the same terrain as this British kidnapping thriller, but few in recent memory with as streamlined a sense of tension-soaked purpose and commitment to character-driven minimalism."
- Brent Simon (Shared Darkness)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lake Mungo (2008)

Movie quotes:
"Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."
 - Alice’s friend Kim

At a glance:
This unusual and original supernatural thriller is both an intriguing mystery and a showcase of acting and directing talent

Our review (with spoilers):
Alice Palmer, an Australian teen, drowns accidentally; her parents and brother explore their grief in different ways. That’s the very short summary of Lake Mungo, an original combination of supernatural thriller and mystery. If you haven’t seen Mungo yet, please stop reading now, as this film is so much better when you can follow the path and have no idea where it’s going.

After Alice’s death, noises in the house indicate that she has returned in spirit form. Her brother (who was there when she drowned and could even be considered a possible suspect) mounts video and still cameras throughout the house and garden; the results show a shadowy, Alice-shaped figure. But this is debunked when the brother admits that he doctored the footage as a way of getting Alice’s supposed body exhumed to ensure that DNA testing could confirm it was indeed her.

But the DNA confirmation is not the end of the story. Director Joel Anderson makes home video, mobile phone footage, and videotaped interviews with a psychic play an important role in this unraveling mystery. Anderson also displays a knack for getting sincere, achingly subtle performances from his actors, whose grief and/or detachment is as real as the real thing.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It's not so much scary as spooky (except for one really creepy moment) but this ghost story is less about supernatural hauntings than human secrets and lies."
- Sean Axmaker (Seanax.com)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009)


Movie quotes:
"Right now, I’m working on about an hour and a half sleep over the past three days, and I’m still trying to remain courteous, but I’m beginning to think that that’s getting in the way of my being effective."
- McDonagh

Chavez: Are you all right?
McDonagh: Sometimes I have bad days.

At a glance:
Werner Herzog is the perfect man to direct Nicolas Cage’s gratuitous bad cop wallow in depravity and excess

Our review (with spoilers):
Nicolas Cage is about as bad a lieutenant as humanly possible. We see him briefly in the opening scene – he talks tough, but at least he is willing to dive into snake-infested water to rescue a drowning convict. But that dive causes a life-long back problem that spirals him into a world of prescription and non-prescription drugs. He has no qualms about using the power of his badge and gun to steal drugs from anyone who is in possession, and have sex with their girlfriend, too. Absolute powe corrupts absolutely, and perhaps he could have gone on with this depraved lifestyle forever, but he makes two mistakes. First, he threatens and harasses an old woman whose son is a senator. And second, he steals drugs from a guy who is close with the mafia. Soon, he is being blackmailed for 50 large, while at the same time, his gun is taken away and he is under investigation. Perhaps worse than that, his girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendez) has been talking to his father, a reforming alcoholic, and now she has started going to AA meetings with him. Yet despite all his side trips into self-gratification, he’s still a good detective dedicated to solving the murder of a Senegalese immigrant family – even if it means he’s doing drug deals with the guys who did it.

Cage, who has recently been looking increasing haggard as various action heroes with much younger girlfriends, finally gets to play a part that both suits his current look, and allows him to chew scenery, something he does so well. He’s still got a young girlfriend, except this time it makes sense, as they are both addicts and he’s more of her pimp/protector, anyway. And who better to direct Cage in this role than a man who loves to document and live extremes, Werner Herzog?

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Becomes bizarrely comical as it gets increasingly depraved. But Herzog's deliberately bonkers approach, matched by Cage's hammy performance, is strangely entertaining."
- Rich Cline (Shadows on the Wall)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Movie quotes:
"How do you do, sir? I'd like to talk with you sometime, sir, and tell you about my idea for harnessing the life force. It'll make atomic power look like the horse and buggy. I'm already developing my faculty for seeing _millions_ of miles. And Senator: can you imagine being able to smell a flower - on the planet Mars? I'd like to have lunch with you someday soon, sir. Tell you more about it."
- Bruno Anthony

At a glance:
This Hitchcock classic features tension and occasional bursts of humor in Robert Walker’s creepily accurate portrayal of a deranged killer who wants to trade murders with a naïve stranger

Our review (with spoilers):
A serially pesky neighbor got me and a friend of mine thinking about some fantasy solutions, and I’m not ashamed to admit that this film came to mind. Could we trade murders and stay above suspicion? Of course, it wouldn’t work in our case, we realized, as we are not strangers, and we weren’t on a train. But it motivated me to watch this classic again. It had been a while, so for the most part, my bad memory meant that the details seemed almost new to me again.

The story: on a train ride, young tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets the eccentric Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Anthony knows an awful lot about Guy’s private life, including his dying marriage and his affair with Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno has a lot of crazy ideas, but the craziest is to trade murders – he’ll get rid of Guy’s cheating wife, and Guy will get rid of Bruno’s disapproving father. Trying to back away from this madman and be polite, Guy may have said, vaguely, that this was a good idea. Bruno takes this as a pact and soon dispenses with Guy’s wife Miriam by strangling her in an amusement park. In typical Hitchcock style, we view part of the strangulation reflected on the lens of Miriam’s discarded glasses. Guy now has two big problems: the police suspect him, especially after his alibi falls through; and Bruno expects him to fulfill his part of the bargain. Even though Guy is under surveillance, Bruno still invades his life, pestering him. When Guy continues to refuse, Bruno plays his trump card: he will place Guy’s lighter at the scene and further implicate him.

For such a genteel film by 2010’s standards, Walker still delivers one of the most accurate depictions of sick mind. The murder scene is particularly creepy and intense: for no reason, he flirts with the woman before killing her, as a cat might play with a mouse, or as a way of enforcing her poor character. Despite looking almost like he has a stick figure body hidden inside his loose suit, he is able to bang the gong when showing off for her on the carnival test your strength mallet game.

As in most Hitchcock films, there are highs of tension and great diversions of humor. During a tense final fight on an out of control, racing merry-go-round, there is a quick shot of a distraught mother, being restrained by police, screaming, "My son! My son!" We cut to the boy, unharmed and laughing joyously as his horse careens around the merry go round.

Hitchcock’s fascination with the idea of lookalikes surfaces here, too – Anne’s sister Barbara bears a striking resemblance to the murdered woman, and this coincidence helps to implicate the murderer.

The one slight weak point in the film is Granger’s overly naïve turn as Guy, although some or most of the blame for this goes to the script – and he does get better as the film progresses. But oh, if only Jimmy Stewart had been cast in that role!

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Walker's creepy performance ranks among the best found in any Hitchcock film."
- Matt Brunson (Creative Loafing)

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Movie quotes:
Ruth: Well, how bad is it?
The Ghost: You haven’t read it?
Ruth: Not all of it.
The Ghost: Well, let’s just say it needs some work.
Ruth: How much work?
The Ghost: Well, all the words are there; they’re just in the wrong order.

Ruth: Are you married?
The Ghost: Certainly not.
Ruth: Gay?
The Ghost: No.
Ruth: Did you have a -
The Ghost: I had a – a – a -
Ruth: What? Girlfriend?
The Ghost: Well a bit more than that.
Ruth: Partner?
The Ghost: A bit less than that. I don’t know, 40 thousand years of English language and there’s no word to describe our relationship. It was doomed.

The Ghost: Did you ever want to be a proper politician in your own right?
Ruth: Of course. Didn’t you want to be a proper writer?

At a glance:
Roman Polanski’s lyrical thriller shows why he is a master at creating beautiful, artistic films, where perhaps the beauty and flow always overshadows the plot

Our review (with spoilers):
A fat paycheck for a month of intense writing is enough to lure a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to take a job writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The Ghost (whose real name, by the way, is never revealed throughout the film – a fitting touch) takes the assignment despite the fact that he is replacing Lang’s former ghoster, who committed suicide. But the job gets more complicated almost immediately, as Lang stands accused of facilitating the arrest and torture of four British citizens. The Ghost travels to the USA and tries to work amid the conflicts caused by Lang and his eccentric entourage, including the prime minister’s volatile and complex wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). Director Roman Polanski gently stamps this film as his own. He graces the film with a lyrical quality not normally seen in thrillers (but for another example of his ability to accomplish this, watch Frantic some time). He also slowly, almost inscrutably builds the tension and rewards patient viewers (although there are some fairly obvious plot holes, and there was a slight derailment for me when I figured out the fairly obvious ‘twist’ with about 20 minutes to go). While McGregor, Williams, and Brosnan anchor the film (especially the byplay between The Ghost and Rush), Polanski also cares about the small details and small but consequential roles; he milks compact and effective performances from Kim Cattrall and Jim Belushi. And of course it is great to see the legendary Eli Wallach, now 95 years old, still working.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Polanski polishes the lackluster material and his impeccable style creates the illusion of suspense where our steady pulse tells us there is none."
- Damon Smith (Scotsman)

"Polanski's fiendishly clever and extremely subtle touch is in every frame."
- Rich Cline (Shadows on the Wall)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

She’s Out of My League (2010)

Movie quotes:
Jack: You know what your problem is Kirk?
Kirk: What?
Jack: You’re a moodle.
Kirk: A moodle?
Jack: A man/poodle. Girls want to take you out on a walk, they want to feed you, cuddle you, but – no girl…wants to do the moodle.

At a glance:
‘League’ starts with a hilarious, original and quirky insightful comedy, but falters when it insists on becoming a more conventional rom-com.

Our review (with spoilers):
Kirk (Jay Baruchel) is a plain looking guy with mild ambitions and medium-level self esteem. Up to now he has settled for a go nowhere airport security job and a cuckold girlfriend. But through circumstance, he becomes friends with fresh-faced beauty Molly (Alice Eve). Against all odds, Molly begins to fall in love with him. And even though everything is going right, Kirk purposefully foils the relationship due to his own lack of confidence.

There are very few great films. Most are flawed in one or more ways, of course. She’s Out of My League is tantalizingly frustrating in this regard, because it is one of those films where the first 40 minutes or so is everything one would want from a comedy. But as sometimes happens, the entire script is not great. There are 40 minutes of great jokes combined with fantastic comic casting. ‘League’ is in many respects a by-the-numbers rom-com, but Baruchel is unique, Eve is well cast and well-performed, and the supporting cast is a deep well of quirk. But League’s need to be by-the-numbers also does it in. Baruchel’s fumbling of the relationship is not believable – not after so many scenes where he had done so well in this regard. Some of his goofs are pale imitations of similar scenes from better films. And the jokes run out when the romance gets more serious. Still, you’re not going to see a better 40 minute snippet of rom-com for some time – so it’s still worth it. And Kirk’s outrageous dad, brother, ex-girlfriend, and their hockey-related humor is priceless.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Every time I thought it was developing a comic pace, it would stumble, most notably in a few extended, ridiculous gross-out scenes late in the film."
- Brian Tallerico [Movie Retriever]

Friday, June 4, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

At a glance:
Jim Carrey throws his all at playing famous con man Steven Russell in this lighthearted, sometimes hilarious romp through scams, prison, and love

Our review (with MAJOR spoilers):
Note: Please watch the movie first before reading any further!

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) presents a compelling argument for nurture versus nature. Abandoned as a child, his life is shaped by deception and lies. He seems to be happily, passionately married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), but he’s living a double life. Some of his hidden moves are on the other side of the law. When he is arrested and incarcerated, he meets and falls in love with fellow inmate Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a sweet man whose naive nature has been taken advantage of before. Steven swears to protect him, but the only way he knows how is with money made from scams. Of course, that ends up having the opposite effect.

The film’s first 20 minutes are absolutely hilarious, especially if you have not been spoiled by a review like this one. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa set a buoyant, lighthearted tone, deviate from it when required, and return to it, making for a true start-to-finish film experience. There are a couple of moments that may offend some people by making light of illness – but comedy does that sometimes – and it’s worth it for the surprise. Plus it’s based on a true story.

This is a wondrous starring role for Carrey, who gets to combine his gift for comedy (and, occasionally, his talent for bending his body into amusing shapes) with his latter day ability to create a sincere character. McGregor, one of my favorite actors, gets to play gay ‘straight’ here – not taking part in the comic side of things at all. Carrey’s character is based on a true person/story – check out the Steven Jay Russell wiki article for more information.

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It's the comic role of a lifetime for Jim Carrey, who apparently worked for union rates in order to help the film get made."
- Catherine Bray (Film4)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Detour (1945)

Movie quotes:
"As I drove off it was still raining, and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears."
- Al Roberts (Tom Neal)

"She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn't see her eyes. She was young - not more than 24. Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that's almost homely, because it's so real."
- Al Roberts (Tom Neal)

At a glance:
Detour is seminal American film noir on a ‘B’ movie budget: a dark tale where fate deals a stacked deck to an innocent man

Our review (with spoilers):
A troubled piano player hitchhikes cross country to join the love of his life; bad luck and bad decisions cause him to get involved with murder, crime, and the wrong people.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) initially believes he is lucky to be picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who just happens to be driving all the way to Roberts’ destination, Los Angeles. Although Haskell is a con man, he doesn’t seem to be playing Roberts as a mark. But Haskell brings bad luck. He passes out while resting while Roberts drives. When Roberts opens Haskell’s door, Haskell falls to the ground, hits his head on a rock, and dies. Roberts thinks the cops will not believe the truth, so he hides Haskell’s body and continues driving. His plan is to ditch the car in LA and put the whole incident behind him. But he foolishly picks up a female hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). Haskell has mentioned picking up a woman earlier, and this is that women. She knows that Roberts is not Haskell and gets him to confess about what happened. She then blackmails him, first forcing him to sell the car, and then asking him to get involved deeper and deeper.

Detour is a fascinating gem. When it began, the opening diner scene felt dated and stale. But before long, the film draws you in. It changes tone and becomes something timely, timeless. The danger of circumstance, the perils of bad luck, and the heartbreak of bad decisions are portrayed deeply. None of these basic themes have changed, and the message and mood is still meaningful.

This seminal noir is referenced by film historians as evidence of how to make a great thriller on a shoestring. The notoriety of the movie was strengthened by the unusual circumstances involving the off-screen life of Tom Neal. Years later, Neal murdered his third wife with a bullet to the back of the head and was convicted of manslaughter.
Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."
- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Betrayed (2008)

Movie quotes:
"Michael Is not meant for this life. Some of us are. Not him, Not you."
- Falco

At a glance:
Tension and twists abound in this highly-charged, low budget captive/torture yarn expertly written and directed by Amanda Gusack

Our review (with spoilers):
Jamie (Melissa George) awakens from a car accident and finds she is lying on the floor of an old warehouse. Her hooded captor Alek (Oded Fehr) says that, unbeknownst to her, her seemingly normal husband Kevin (Christian Campbell) was leading a double life as a hired assassin. Kevin embezzled a large sum of money; Alek has to retrieve it is a few hours or abandon it – not a viable outcome. Alek tasks Jamie to weed through audio surveillance tapes of her home and find the method her double-agent husband was using to send messages to his hidden collaborator. If she can’t find anything in 12 hours, her diabetic son, also a captive, will die. Jamie does not have muscle mass of Lara Croft, so she uses her limitless guile instead. Her time is divided between decoding tapes and using whatever is at her disposal, a la MacGyver, to affect an escape.

Writer/director Amanda Gusack successfully breeds tension from the opening scene. What could have been a mundane investigation of an accident scene becomes something quite edge-of-the-seat. Likewise, Gusack’s POV-style as Jamie scans her environs for items she can use to escape helps to establish the reality of the captivity. George is very good at combining nervous vulnerability with tremendous resolve. It helps, of course, that her character is well written and complex; we’re never sure how much she knows or what she is capable of doing until she does it. And, of course, you never know what the inimitable Alice "Borg Queen" Krige will do.

The Betrayed would be a nifty little light torture thriller on its own, but let’s just say there’s even more intrigue there than you might expect. Whom should Jamie believe? Which answer will save her life? Whom do you believe?

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"...a gripping, downright suspenseful thriller..."
- David Nusair (Reel Film Reviews)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Don McKay (2010)

At a glance:
Despite moments of originality, Don McKay is undone by its combination of comic tone and glacial pacing, and by its unbelievable conclusion

Our review (with spoilers):
Thomas Hayden Church’s Don McKay is a quiet, studious, sensitive man. His voice is calm but his face is always worried. Years ago, his affair with Sonny (Elisabeth Shue) ended, and he retreated into a lonely existence, far from the town where he grew up. But his love never died; each year he sent a letter to her, filling her in on his boring life, and not caring if no letters ever came back from the other direction.

So when, out of the blue, Sonny asks him to come to visit because she is dying, he’s there in a moment. It’s fairly obvious (to the viewer, anyway, though if it is obvious to Church, he hides it well behind his inscrutable mask-like face) that something is amiss with Sonny’s mystery fatal illness, Sonny’s live-in caregiver Marie (Melissa Leo), and Sonnny’s not-quite-right doctor, Dr. Pryce (James Rebhorn). Things get crazier very quickly with an unexpected attack and an accidental murder.

Glacially paced (or you could call it ‘unrushed’) and quiet, Don McKay the movie shows that director Jake Goldberger is in no hurry to tell his story. I’m not sure if there is quite enough style, or if the characters are strong or portentous enough to carry this pacing, since for the most part there’s a slight comic feel to the material. So the result is a bit like watching a screwball comedy played at half speed. A batch of clever and unlikely twists is shoehorned into the final ten minutes, but it’s way too late to redeem this watchable and unique but ultimately disappointing film.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The tone and the pacing always seem a little off and as a result, we become all too aware of mechanics of the screenplay grinding along towards a finale that is simply too complicated and unbelievable for its own good."
- Peter Sobczynski (eFilmCritic.com)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Missing Person (2008)

At a glance:
Michael Shannon gives an award-worthy, natural performance as an alcoholic private detective dealing with grief and loss while trying to solve an intriguing missing person case

Our review (with spoilers):
It is completely understandable that Michael Shannon, the star of The Missing Person, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Revolutionary Road. In a perfect world, he would probably get a Best Actor nomination for his work here in The Missing Person. Shannon is that rare actor who can emote solely with his body. Here, as John Rosow, he feels the pain of loss – his wife died in WTC  2001 – and his life and career exploded along with the towers. He was a vibrant, healthy police officer in New York City, but now, he is a drunken, depressed private detective on the other side of the continent. LA suits him, because no one cares, least of all him. But a new case comes his way: he is asked to find Harold (Frank Wood) a missing person, a man whose wife longs for him to come back – a man who used his own near death experience in the WTC to keep running, also to LA, but for different reasons.

Rosow is a caricature of the hard-boiled dick from the 1950s – he’s even aware of this, as are the people on whom he tries to use his typical sardonic one-liners. This is a make or break case for Rosow: if he brings Harold home, he could be set for life. But there’s so much more to the story than that – so many gray areas, and much growth for the inhabitants of this story – especially Rosow, who through the eyes of Harold and his family, comes face to face with his loss.

The Missing Person is in no hurry to tell its tale, which might frustrate some impatient viewers. The movie inches along as slowly as Rosow’s awkward gait. But Shannon’s performance is well worth every step. Shannon inhabits his character – this is not acting, it is being. He appears to be drunk. His crinkled face exudes his pain. This tiny indie film will slip by the big awards ceremonies, so Shannon won’t get his Oscar – at least not from this performance. But he probably will get one soon.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Sluggish, stylized and frequently washed in a bilious green tint, The Missing Person is yet oddly irresistible, its omnipresent anxiety like a musical chord that neither rises nor falls."
- Jeannette Catsoulis (New York Times)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stay (2005)

Movie quotes:
Sam Foster: What are you going to do?
Henry Letham: [mimes a gun to his head]
Sam Foster: You're going to try to kill yourself? And how serious should I take this threat?
Henry Letham: Saturday at midnight. It's what I'm going to do.
Sam Foster: Okay, you've gotta know that everything just changed, if you talk to me about suicide I'm required to take certain actions.
Henry Letham: Wait, just deal with him
[indicating patient in waiting room]
Henry Letham: , and we'll talk about it next time.
Sam Foster: There's a next time?
Henry Letham: Yeah. Yeah, we got three days.

"If this is a dream, the whole world is inside it."
- Sam Foster

At a glance:
Masquerading as a real-time story of a psychiatrist attempting to help a suicidal art student, Stay is in actuality a visually rich exploration of the imaginative capabilities of the human mind

Our review (with spoilers):
Psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) takes over for a fellow psychiatrist to treat Henry (Ryan Gosling) a severely troubled patient who states that he will kill himself in 3 days. The more Foster delves into the case history, the more confusing it becomes – and he begins to lose his mind as well. Meanwhile, he tries – and fails to avoid discussing the case with his high maintenance artist girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), who also tried to commit suicide a few years ago. The story is told with beautiful imagery, dreamlike sequences and locations, twins and triplets carrying metal cases, and artfully inventive transitions between scenes.

Stay received an overall low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but this was because it polarized reviewer. Some hated it; others loved it. In most cases, I like movies such as this. They are usually outside the box, and some reviewers will reject that outright. I crave originality, although it must be said not at any cost: some of David Lynch’s weaker efforts, such as Mulholland Drive, seemed to me to be little more than random words and images pieced together to intrigue his cult of followers, with no real inherent meaning. Stay is in that same vein: you’ll invest a lot of time in trying to decipher it, and you’ll either enjoy the effort (and the inability to truly solve it) or be frustrated by it. Either way, the visuals and acting can be appreciated.

Stay works for me because it is tied, at least loosely, and I suspect quite elaborately, to a real event. For maximum enjoyment, see it with the type of friends who like to discuss movies afterward. Or get on the internet and visit sites like Tuikip’s Blog.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"So often, I have seen films like this that try to walk the fine line between creativity and confusion. Director Marc Forster manages to walk that line with precision."
- Kevin Carr (7M Pictures)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Defendor (2009)

Movie quotes:
"When you break the law, you’re a punk. When you break the law with a badge, you’re a punk with a badge. I don’t strike officers. Punks…different story."
- Defendor

At a glance:
Woody Harrelson’s Forrest Gump like performance as a mentally challenged superhero has some amusing moments, but the emotional impact just isn’t there

Our review (with spoilers):
Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is a simple-minded man named who lives on the fringes of society and believes that when he dons his moniker (Defendor), his black eye makeup mask and elaborate hand-made costume, he’s a better man – and a superhero. He fights crime, corruption, and bullying wherever he finds it in the big city, and in this fictional big city amalgamation of all big cities, it’s easy to find.

Defendor’s powers are somewhat limited (marbles, an ancient bully club, and swarms of hornets) ; his crime-fighting forays often earn him a beating – but there’s no doubt he has the heart and the morals of a superhero. His simple-minded quest to find and defeat ‘Captain Industry’ is not some comic-fueled fantasy, however: it is a deep need within him based on facts from his childhood. And Captain Industry is a real, dangerous drug dealer and cold-blooded killer; it seems like Defendor is in way over his head this time.

During his quest, he is adopted (or vice versa) by Kat (Kat Denning) a young hooker who alternates between doing drugs and dealing with some rough johns. Kat moves in with him for a fee – she provides info on Captain Industry - and their symbiotic relationship slowly grows into a deeper friendship.

Defendor the movie isn’t wholly successful, perhaps because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to poke fun at or sanctify its hero. Through glimpses of Arthur’s childhood, we see a truly sad story of a boy who is neglected and never nurtured. But then, the film itself treats him in a similar manner. Likewise, undercover narc Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas) is treated similarly – his character is written to be s stupid as to be completely unbelievable. I enjoyed Harrelson’s performance, but the emotional punch just wasn’t there for me. I connected more with Michael Kelly’s supporting work as Arthur’s concerned, brotherly employer.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The low-budget movie continually shifts from comic-book spoof to gritty crime story to mental-health drama, the inconsistent tone preventing it from ever fully working as one or another."
- David Germain (Associated Press)

Monday, March 22, 2010

In the Electric Mist (2009)

Movie quotes:
"That’s a beautiful child, Dave. By the time she’s 18 years old, your hair gonna be solid white – if there’s any of it left."
- Batist

"I came to accept that the general, as Bootsie had said, was only a figment of my imagination, there to remind me out of the distant past that the contest is never quite over; the field never quite ours."
- Dave Robicheaux

At a glance:
Local sheriff Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) steadfastly pursues justice in the present and the past as he trudges through his Louisiana backwater attempting to unravel twin mysteries in this moody, deliberate, effective thriller

Our review (with spoilers):
If you lived in a small southern town in Louisiana, you would want Dave Robicheaux  (Tommy Lee Jones) to be your local sheriff. Seasoned, smart, compassionate, incorruptible, and tough as nails, he treats each crime as a personal challenge to get to the truth and find the culprit – no matter who objects. He puts just as much effort into solving the current spate of grisly serial murders of young women as he does into solving the long-standing mystery of why a black man was gunned down in a bayou swamp. You might not want to be this guy’s wife and family, however – long-suffering wife Bootsie (Mary Steenburgen) begins to worry more and more as Dave’s obsession grows, his nights get longer, and the danger he places himself in multiplies.

In this unabashed starring role for Jones, he limps through every scene like a gimpy bloodhound, his sad eyes and sharp nose for crime leading him slowly and deliberately into a deeper swamp of cover-ups and lies. The film is atypically directed by Bernard Tavernier, who brings a welcome, unrushed, non-Hollywood approach to the storytelling. There’s nothing flashy here to distract from Jones’ ultra solid performance, allowing him to carry the film (with help from John Goodman, in another effective supporting role).

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Even though the film meanders a bit, the skilful direction and camerawork combine with strong acting to create an engaging, insinuating thriller"
- Rich Cline (Shadows on the Wall)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dread (2009)

Movie quotes:
"Someone once wrote that no man can know his own death, but to know the death of others…intimately – to watch the tricks the mind would surely perform to avoid the bitter truth – that was a clue to death’s nature…wasn’t it?"
- Quaid

At a glance:
Good performances, writing, and direction combine to make Dread a winning combination of psychological drama and sadistic gore

Our review (with spoilers):
Quaid (Shaun Evans) has been hiding from his past – when he was six, his parents were killed by an axe murderer - as he watched. Now he has inspired Stephen (Jackson Rathbone) to undertake an unusual film project –interviewing people about their greatest fears, about what they truly dread. Driven by Quaid, the film stops being something light to fulfill Stephen’s school assignment, and instead bares the souls of those who are interviewed, and of those making the film. Quaid also wants to deal with his own fears – the film project is part of it, and flushing his copious medications accelerates the unpredictable results of his ramped up aggression.

There’s much to think about and beautiful prose to provoke us in the Dread script – kudos to writer/director Anthony DiBlasi, who adapted a short story of the same name by horror guru Clive Barker. The interesting character interplay is punctuated by quick moments of sheer nightmare gore, fostered by Quaid’s dark past and nurtured in his future.

Now, those of you who know me know I don’t really like the more sadistic and gory aspects of horror films, nor do I particularly like getting cheap scares caused by noise combined with clever editing. So why am I watching (and reviewing) horror films? Good question, one that will especially be asked by those of you who love them, and particularly by those of you who love this one. Well, this one IS good – I give you that. I love these films in their ‘suspense’ modes, when we are waiting for something really bad to happen, but we don’t know if or when. When those really bad things happen, however, I don’t like to watch. I think about copycats during these moments. I don’t mind nightmare images, but I do mind people being sadistic. Dread has some heavy sadism, but I watched, because it was attached to  interesting characters with back stories. And it was still intriguing to see just how far they would go. And they do go far. Unfortunately, some horror critics felt the film meandered. They don’t enjoy the buildup of suspense as much as I do. Go figure.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Directed in an un-showy, controlled fashion with understated use of music and a total absence of contrived shock effects, Dread is a very impressive piece of work."
- Steven West (The Horror Review)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Food Inc. (2008)

Movie quotes:
"A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design a human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals with its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality."
- Steve (Farmer at Polyface Farms)

"Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect."
- from film’s closing lines

At a glance:
Robert Kenner’s fascinating, potentially life-changing documentary pulls back the veil shielding the destructive practices of the handful of multinational corporations who control the American food industry

Our review (with spoilers):
I delayed my viewing of Food Inc. as long as I could, for quite some time, because I knew a bit about what it would reveal, and I knew it would force me to re-evaluate what me and my family eat.

No more chicken will be consumed after viewing the way most chicken are now engineered with big breasts and brittle bones – they often cannot support their own body weight. They are crowded beyond belief in warehouses with no windows.

No more beef will be consumed after realizing that a handful of major meat packers control the market, and that e-coli, which can kill quickly, can also spread efficiently because of a system that shuns diversity. The methods big business try to use to combat disease is to ‘wash’ the meat with ammonia.

Many other supermarket items are not what they appear. In America, corn is used in 90% of products sold in the grocery. Foods with salt, sugar, and fat (the three trigger items craved by an unhealthy human) are heavily subsidized, so that fruit and veggies keep going up in price, while the fast food hamburger keeps getting cheaper.

Perhaps the most tragic story was of the beautiful, healthy 2 year old boy who got e-coli from a hamburger and died 12 days later. But what also hurt me deeply was seeing what Monsanto was doing to any farmer who dared to plant a non-Monsanto soybean, or to the man who was helping these farmers clean and reuse their seeds. At the time of filming, Monsanto controlled 90% of the soybean mark with their ‘Roundup Ready’ bean (it can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup and will carry on living while all other plants and weeds die).

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Like a 21st-century updating of The Jungle ... Food, Inc. is infuriating and disheartening, as it introduces us to the unpleasant verities of eating and the cynical rationalizations of those who purport to feed us."
- Philip Martin (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

Movie quotes:
Clive Park: Very difficult... very difficult...
Larry Gopnik: Well, I... I'm sorry, but I... what do you propose?
Clive Park: Passing grade.
Larry Gopnik: No no, I...
Clive Park: Or perhaps I can take the mid-term again. Now I know it covers mathematics.
Larry Gopnik: Well, the other students wouldn't like that, would they, if one student gets to retake the test till he gets a grade he likes?
Clive Park: Secret test.
Larry Gopnik: No, I'm afraid...
Clive Park: Hush-hush.

"That's right, things aren't so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry. Just look at that parking lot."
- Rabbi Scott

At a glance:
A Serious Man, another original entry in the Coen Brother’s oeuvre, uses black humor to prove the futility of contemplating the meaning of your life

Our review (with spoilers):
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a serious man, and his life is about to unravel, much to his surprise. His tenure is jeopardized by a student who offers him a bribe, and by anonymous letters written to the tenure committee. His wife informs him that things have not been good for some time, and, of course, she has developed a friendship and a bit more with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). It’s only logical that Larry move out so as not to disrupt the lives of the two children, one of whom, Danny (Aaron Wolff) is about to be barmitzvahed. Normally, it would be fortunate to be having these kinds of problems and to be Jewish as well, for the Jews can turn to their strong communal faith, and to the shared wisdoms of their rabbis, for guidance (although in this case, the only help Larry receives from his rabbis is in the form of obscure metaphors about parking lots, or unrelated anecdotes about goy teeth.

The Coen brothers have created a wonderful anti-Hollywood movie. Unconcerned with the narrative or with any kind of standard, expected beginning, middle or end, they instead lead you on a journey through a slice of life / collection of vignettes. Some of the best parts of the journey are populated by the lovely, softly deep, mesmerizing voice of Melamed. And, as usual, the Coens have assembled an unusual looking and unusually talented cast of actors (another standout is Sari Lennick as Larry’s wife Judith).

There’s a higher level of accessibility to this Coen Brothers' offering. We can all relate to how that unpredictable thing called life throws random events at us and tasks us to deal with them as best we can – which sometimes is not very well.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"If there is a moral to this story, it is that trying to make sense of life is a foolish endeavor doomed to failure."
- Robert Roten (Laramie Movie Scope)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Vicious Kind (2009)

Movie quotes:
Donald: Trespass on my property again, and I will shoot you.
Caleb: Better work on your aim, then.

"I swear to god, if you fuck him up, I will dig a hole, and I will put you in it!"
- Caleb to Emma

"You alright, Caleb? Never seen you throw a hammer like that."
- J.T. (Vittorio Brahm)

"I just wish I could get over this…strange compulsion to protect Peter, you know, because…the only way I know how to do that is to…to hurt him."
- Caleb

At a glance:
The Vicious Kind is an intriguing character study of two brothers: one a bitter misogynist, and the other a naïve, puppy-dog virgin – and of the woman who is a love interest to both of them

Our review (with spoilers):
Caleb (Adam Scott) plays the brutal, dominant big brother to his virgin sibling Peter (Alex Frost). Caleb isn’t very happy about anything; but mostly, he’s angry at all women, since his girlfriend just cheated on him. Now Peter has a new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow) who looks just like Caleb’s old one. Caleb sees it as his mission to save Peter from getting hurt like he did, but he’s also intensely attracted to Emma. His moods range from bitingly sarcastic to weeping to adoring to threatening and aggressive. It isn’t helping that he hasn’t slept in over a week.

The Vicious Kind is all about studying Caleb’s character, wondering what kind of a man he is, wondering what is going on inside his head and what he is capable of. For a while, Caleb’s character is intriguing shades of gray and black. Then it appears that he’s just psychotic. Then he seems to get a better grasp of reality for awhile. As his obsession with Emma becomes more transparent, we can see his appeal. He’s the wild, crazy brother, the big risk, the outlaw. Emma can see it too, and although she maintains her disgust on the outside, we know she finds Caleb very appealing.

Finally, without giving too much away, I’m not completely convinced at the plausibility in the path on which the Vicious Kind leads its characters. But then, it’s all about the journey anyway, and the journey is intriguing. Writer/Director Lee Toland Krieger makes it so by wringing sincere, stirring performances from his cast.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"What lifts this trenchant dramedy out of the ordinary are Krieger's ear for dialogue and Adam Scott's breakthrough performance as a family's black sheep seemingly intent on earning that bad rap."
- Pam Grady (Boxoffice Magazine)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Movie quotes:
Audrey: And thank you for what you did.
Frank: For what?
Audrey: For turning the car around so that Jack wouldn’t have to see us fighting. You really know kids, don’t you?
Frank: I know fights.

At a glance:
Jason Statham returns as the driver with many talents (especially regarding fighting) in this mostly fun sequel peppered with inventive fight choreography and sappy dramatic scenes

Our review (with spoilers):
Frank (Jason Statham) the Transporter’s seemingly innocent assignment to ferry a 10 year old boy to and from school suddenly becomes a lot more stressful when the boy is infected with a deadly virus. And why would baddie Gianni Chellini (Alessandro Gassman) do such a heartless thing? Simple – the target is his father, Jefferson Billings (Matthew Modine), a leading security expert. By infecting Billings just before a big security conference, Chellini can wipe out hundreds of industry leaders in one evil night.

Frank’s job is simple: get the antidote, save the boy, save his dad, save the other business leaders, and save the mom – and avoid sleeping with the mom, despite her willingness and vulnerability. Meanwhile, he has to avoid cars, trucks, punches, knives, swords, syringes, and bullets.

With Transporter 2, the co-directors credits from the first film have been abandoned, and we now can determine that Corey Yuen is responsible for the excellent fight/stunt choreography, whilst Louis Leterrier can take credit for the sappy dialogue (always delivered over a sickening, soft-core soundtrack – in case we can’t tell that people are speaking to each sincerely on our own). For his part, Yuen tries to top the first film by going over the top – in one early scene, Frank’s car flies from floor to floor of adjoining buildings with a decidedly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang quality – a quality that thankfully was missing from the first film. There is also a sexy yet emaciated sick female baddie, played by Amber Valletta in a kind of dark-eye-makeup homage, perhaps, to Daryl Hannah’s character Pris from Blade Runner.

The fight scenes are top notch; they usually feature one key gimmick or limitation (for example, in one scene, Frank neutralizes 6  bodyguards, all with guns, before any of them can fire a shot; or another memorable scene where Frank’s only weapon is a fire hose).

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Besides a fun script and never-a-dull-moment directing, Jason Statham really deserves praise for his screen presence. Expect mindless action and have a great time."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)