Monday, November 21, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Movie quotes:
Cary: He's too stoned!
Martin: Oh, drugs are so bad!

At a glance:
A joint J. J. Abrams / Spielberg monster sci-fi movie that is loud, fun, and derivative

Our review (with spoilers):
1960s small town America, and five teens witness a major train wreck up close while making a super 8 movie. One of their teachers purposely wrecked the train, and he warns them not to tell anyone what they have seen, or they and their families will be eliminated. Soon, dogs are fleeing in all directions, people start disappearing, and machines of all kinds are stolen in the night.

True, Super 8 feels a lot like every other bunch-of-misfit kids movies (like The Goonies, etc.). It’s highly derivative, and it’s a little disappointing that it really doesn’t have much new to offer. This feels like an oh-so-carefully planned and plotted Hollywood Blockbuster. On the other hand, under the skilled direction of crowd pleaser J. J. Abrams, all the right chords are struck. It’s feather-light, satisfying, and forgettable – with a couple of nice performances from Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A Spielberg pastiche of uncanny precision and sublime pointlessness."
- Henry K. Miller (Sight and Sound)

 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Movie quotes:
"The earth is evil; we don’t need to grieve for it."
- Justine

At a glance:
Lars von Trier’s slow-moving, occasionally beautiful but mostly painfully entertainment-free end-of-the-world tale is really a thinly disguised ode to depression

Our review (with spoilers):
There’s no doubt that I have masochistic tendencies, and I like to confirm that every couple of years by forcing myself to sit through the latest Lars von Trier joint. It all began many years ago when I was taken to see von Trier’s first English language film, Breaking the Waves. Eschewing its supposed artfulness and deep hidden meaning, I found it to be an absurd film, populated with people performing moronic acts to suit the hidden pleasures of their director. Art porn, as it were. Many critics disagreed – but I don’t care. I took a long break, but was not disappointed by the deep symbolism, talking foxes, genital mutilation, and abject fail of von Trier’s Antichrist. Many critics agreed – but again, I don’t care. And now this.

Melancholia begins with an 8 minute segment of unrelated end-of-the-world scenes, all filmed in super-slow-motion. I was glad my partner wasn’t watching this; she had enough of super-slow-motion during TV coverage of Wimbledon tennis a few years back.

And then the film proper starts, with section 1 – Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and you know what? Von Trier proves once again that he has limitless talent. The wedding scenes are filmed with a hand held, but it is not for style – it is the perfect way to portray the claustrophobic dining and dancing. I was completely immersed in the moment. The content, however, is another story: we watch Justine trash her own wedding, not by getting drunk and vomiting, but by (supposedly) being depressed, although it comes across more as petulance and immaturity.

Section 2 is titled Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and now Justine is in full depression mode. Perhaps this is being caused by planet Melancholia, which is tracking toward Earth (although scientists say that it will not collide). Justine is now paralyzed with depression; there are long scenes of her trying to get into the bath while Claire tries to help her and coerce her. The dour Gainsbourg is not ideally suited to help anyone out of depression – perhaps if an in-drag Jim Carrey or Robin Williams had been cast in that role, the movie would have been a lot shorter. Next, Claire brings out the big guns: she makes Justine’s favorite food: meatloaf. Justine, guided to the table with eyes closed, smells this delight and smiles for the first time. She eagerly takes a bite, but then quickly spits it out and begins to cry, saying, "It tastes like ashes." "Good ashes or bad ashes?" asks Claire. Okay, Claire did not say that; I’m just punching up the script with a few jokes. Claire actually says, "Did you say ashes…or asses?" Alright, Claire did not say that either. I’m really seeing Emma Stone in this role now.

The next day, Justine rides her favorite horse, but in another painful-to-watch scene, almost beats the poor animal to death when it will not bend to her will by crossing a narrow bridge. Later, Justine planet-bathes naked in Melancholia’s light. Claire is an observer to this. As Melancholia draws near, Claire begins to stress about the collision and basically continues to do so for the next hour of the film. John (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps telling her that the scientists are right. When John realizes that they are wrong and a fatal collision is imminent, he scoots into the beaten horse’s paddock and somehow gets himself killed. These are not happy people, even if no planets were about to crash into the Earth. Claire reaches full hysteria, but the depressed Justine gets into a Zen-like state as the end nears.

I’ve pieced together a possible reason for why von Trier has made Justine the character who ultimately copes with the end of the world better than Claire. Von Trier suffers from severe depression, so he casts the depressed woman as the one better suited to cope with life and death. The Earth and its inhabitants deserve to die anyway, in his eyes. That is the way von Trier he sees the world. His movies are without joy. His characters are driven to desperation; they often torture themselves and others. If you find anything redeeming in all of this, good for you. I see it as a petulant child indulging his own ego. I will say this: I respect any director who can get their work to the screen without having it reshaped by a Hollywood committee, or changed by counterproductive audience screenings. Woody Allen, Ken Russell, and, yes, Lars von Trier are names that spring to mind.

Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"I see Lars Von Trier movies to remind me why I hate Lars Von Trier movies."
- Willie Waffle (WaffleMovies.com)

"If only Lars von Trier took into account that audiences might actually want to enjoy "Melancholia," rather than endure it, or sift through it, or submit to the director's will, he might have made something extraordinary."
- Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)

 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

Movie quotes:
Omar: [slowly] I’m…Officer…Omar…Coleman. I’m…your…parole…officer.
Ned: I’m Ned Rochlin. Why are you talking so slow?
Omar: I just figured, looking at your sheet, that since you sold grass to a uniformed police officer that you must be retarded.

At a glance:
A mildly funny, extremely pleasant actor-fest about a likeable man who naiveté causes problems for his family

Our review (with spoilers):
Our Idiot Brother is a mildly amusing comedy about a naïve man and his mildly quirky family. The title may sound like dumb and dumber, but this is a completely different take on the same type of character. You’d be hard-pressed to believe that Ned (Paul Rudd) could exist as is in real life, but there are certain elements of his character that can be seen in real people, and that gives the story an honesty that many laugh out loud type comedies do not have. Could the script have been improved by being punched up with a few more jokes? Perhaps – but at the risk of making it feel like a script that had been punched up.

The film starts are Ned’s trusting nature leads him to sell pot to a cop – and not a plainclothes cop, but a cop in full uniform. This leads to a jail term that might depress the average person, but Ned just views it as another adventure on the journey of life. When he leaves prison and is rejected by his former girlfriend, Ned turns to his mother and three sisters for a little help. As the different family members share him around, Ned’s honesty reveals hidden, often nasty truths, and soon, virtually every relationship he gets near is placed in jeopardy.

Nothing too deep or humorous happens here, but it matters little, not when you get to watch the immensely likeable Rudd having so much fun with the role, and when the film is, ultimately, as sweet as he is. He is helped immensely by a wonderful supporting cast (Emily Mortimer, who I loved in Transsiberian; Steve Coogan; Elizabeth Banks; Zooey Deschanel; and the wonderful Adam Scott). It’s such a good cast; they lift the script to a higher level than it would have achieved with lesser actors.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Rudd brings color and dimension to a borderline-simpleton schlub who could have easily become a one-note cliché."
- Alexis Loinaz (Chicago Tribune)

 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)


Movie quotes:
John: Well, I’ll be perfectly frank. I’m excited about this corporate merger between our folks and the French company, but otherwise…I’m not a big Francophile.
Helen: John hates their politics.
John: Certainly been no friend of the United States.
Gil: Well, I mean, you can’t exactly blame them for not following us down that rabbit’s hole in Iraq with the whole Bush -
Inez: Oh please, let’s not get into that discussion again -
Gil: We’re not getting in – by the way, it’s fine for your father and me to disagree – that’s what a democracy is. Your father defends the right wing of the Republican Party and I happen to think you’ve almost got to be…like a demented lunatic, but it’s like -

At a glance:
Woody Allen parlays his love of art, history, and nostalgia to create a charming, Paris-based story of a Hollywood writer at the crossroads of his career

Our review (with spoilers):
Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) arrive in Paris to do some pre-wedding shopping. Gil is in love with the city, particularly with its rich history, while Helen just wants to buy things and return to the good old USA. This is a somewhat unlikely couple; they disagree on the big things, but importantly agree on liking pita bread. One night, while Gil is out walking, he is transported back in time to his cherished 1920s Paris. There, as well as meeting a number of famous artists and writers (for example, Ernest Hemingway) he is instantly attracted to the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Soon Gil is questioning the decisions he has made in the present as he falls in greater love with the past.

After numerous failures and partial successes, Woody Allen has again done what he has done so many times in the past: he has created a gentle, insightful, funny ‘film’. Almost anyone can create a handful of scenes, but Allen makes a coherent, singular object which tells a story and creates a character arc. Likewise, Owen Wilson rides this great script to produce an Oscar-worthy performance, full of natural joy, humor, and melancholy. There were tears in my eyes from his performance, and from the startling realization that Owen and Woody are back, baby!

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Woody Allen must have had a great time writing this screenplay."
- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)

"An effervescent, witty and absorbing tale lost in time ... Allen rekindles his character love affair that made him such a satisfying film-maker a couple of decades ago."
- Lisa Giles-Keddie (Real.com)

 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

Movie quotes:
"Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and at the same time sings that we’ll never die? Who teaches us what’s real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we’ll die to defend? Who chains us, and who holds the key that can set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!"
- Sweet Pea (closing line)

At a glance:
Less a movie and more a collection of music video gaming sequences, Sucker Punch offers a wealth of visual candy and a teensy bit of plot

Our review (with spoilers):
Five girls work as dancers/escorts and are virtual prisoners of an evil man named Blue. They escape, literally, into a dreamworld where they fight mechanized dead Nazis, fire-breathing dragons, or glowing-eyed giant Asian martial artists. Fortunately for (some of) us, they do all this while still wearing their midriff bearing sexy dance outfits. To call this misogynistic is like calling water ‘wet’. That’s obvious but then these are dream/video game sequences and the girls are dressed just like girls in these video games have been attired for 10 plus years. This is a hen’s night out movie, and all five hens make a game effort to get it to work, and perhaps none more so than Abby Cornish, the gamest hen of them all. Sorry, couldn’t help it.

There are times when watching a film that I become painfully aware of said film’s "target demographic" and realize that I am not in it. Not even close. Such is the case with Sucker Punch. I can feel in my bones that if I were, say, between 15 and 23 again, I would think this film was the coolest thing ever. The girls are hot and young and they wear plenty of eyeliner. Even most of the guys wear eyeliner. If  there’s an Oscar for Best Eyeliner, Sucker Punch has got the statue – and on a more serious note, they’ll probably win a second one for Set Design or Special Effects - and probably for Sexiest Fetish Outfits.

But despite its general lowly ranking amongst critics, if one treats this film as a series of music video escapist fight game vignettes, anchored together by a dead-simple story, it’s a success.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Sucker Punch is what you'd get if you mixed Mulholland Drive, Showgirls and Tomb Raider and then turned it into a music video."
- Matthew Toomey (ABC Radio Brisbane)

 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Drive Angry (2011)

Movie quotes:
Cultist: We're gonna live forever!
The Accountant: If, by "forever", you mean the next 5 seconds, you're absolutely right.

Jonah King: I'm going to kill you then defile your body.
Piper: Until now and then, I'm gonna fuck you up!

At a glance:
Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard get a sassy, smart script and turn Drive Angry into an entertaining action film with a campy supernatural/religious vibe

Our review (with spoilers):
This is what is called ‘grindhouse’ – a movie about rednecks and for rednecks, but Drive Angry is also spoofing the genre – that’s kind of a given when Nicolas Cage is involved. Nic has taken on some ridiculous roles lately – he seems to enjoy acting of any type – but this one at least does not take itself seriously. If you are a ‘condemned’ soul like Milton out to avenge the death of a family member, you need someone pure of heart. Piper (Amber Heard) is who you want – she’s rough and ready, too – but has a righteous streak and is in many ways naïve and innocent. She’s the perfect angel to ride alongside the mythical avenger. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she looks great in short shorts and big cowboy boots too.

Milton has to affect his rescue from a crazed satanic cult leader bent on human sacrifice, while at the same time trying to stay ahead of a suit-wearing ‘accountant’, played to perfection by William Fichtner, whose job is to return Milton to the prison he escaped from.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Makes a loud, incoherent but oddly compelling case for the enhancing effects of stereoscopic projection on certain treasured objects of the cinematic gaze, like classic Detroit muscle cars, women's breasts and Nicolas Cage."
- A.O. Scott (New York Times)

 

Wake Wood (2010)

At a glance:
An emotionally gripping, gory and scary film about a grieving couple who get an opportunity to spend three days with their recently deceased daughter

Our review (with spoilers):
A couple grieving over the loss of their daughter gets an usual opportunity: the chance to be with her again for three days. Such is the way of life in the small towns of horror – the inhabitants often have a deep dark secret that they have agreed to hide. In this town, the locals know a way to extract the life force from a recently deceased corpse and then use that to reanimate another one. Louise (Eva Birthistle) and Patrick (Aidan Gillen) ask that their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly), who died suddenly when she was mauled by a dog, be brought back. There are just a couple of problems: one, as you might imagine, it’s going to be pretty hard for the couple to let her go again when those short period of grace expires. And two, that’s going to be irrelevant, because the couple has not abided by the rules of the ‘game’, and the consequences will be disastrous.

The film combines the heartfelt grief that accompanies the loss of a child with a moody, scary horror/slasher vibe. It’s rare that a film can be so tense in the build-up, yet actually deliver on what it promises – and this one does. Plus, it’s got one of the best finales I’ve seen in some time – scary, funny, calculating, and just self-referential enough to make everything that came before it that much more fun.

Finally, the acting across the board is extremely solid. It’s the full package – a horror movie that will appeal to a wider audience (as long as that audience can handle a bit of gore).

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"With deliberate echoes of classic Hammer horror, this moody and inventive thriller gets under our skin with its deeply personal plot, which pays as much attention to horror as emotion."
- Rich Cline (Shadows on the Wall)

 

My Scary Girl (2006)

At a glance:
This Korean variation on So I Married An Axe Murderer and The 40 Year Old Virgin has enough originality, humor, and good performances to make it worthwhile

Our review (with spoilers):
This Korean variation on So I Married An Axe Murderer and The 40 Year Old Virgin benefits from reusing some of the same themes and presenting them within the context of non-western culture. Hwang Dae-woo (Yong-woo Park) is a studious, unusual man who has somehow made it to his thirties without ever dating a girl. Suddenly he gets the urge. He clumsily hooks up with Lee Mi-Na (Kang-hee Choi), a girl in his building who supposedly has similar interests. But she’s not only lying about her love of art and her study of design – she also has to lie even more when she starts killing various men.

The bulk of the humor is generated by Yong-woo Park’s offbeat, yelling performance. Later in the film, his quirks are mostly ironed out and Kang-hee Choi takes center stage, along with her annoying roommate (played by Eun-ji Jo). This sags the middle of the movie a little, but it improves near the end when the two prospective lovers come back together. It’s not a great film, but it is one with occasional laughs and some cultural originality.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

 

Bellflower (2011)

Movie quotes:
"Dude, it’s like a James Bond car for drunks!"
- Milly

At a glance:
Writer/director/star Evan Glodell crafts a real-feel story of two slackers whose Mad Max fantasies drive their world into violence

Our review (with spoilers):
Bellflower appears to be a character study about two slackers who have a dream to create the ultimate Mad Max world around them. It seems innocent, even when they successfully build their own flamethrower. They are heavy drinkers but generally jovial, with Aiden (Tyler Dawson) using his charm to entertain the ladies, while Woodrow (Evan Glodell), simpler and seemingly sweet, gets in a pleasant relationship with Milly (Jessie Wiseman). But infidelity and a violent accident start to turn Woodrow into someone very different. Smarter people than me will probably realize earlier that alcohol, depression, and flamethrowers don’t mix, and that this may end badly. The subject matter is confronting and sometimes ugly, but there’s no denying the absolute filmmaking ability of writer/director/star Evan Glodell. How he took this hard to watch material and turned it into a film that is at times poetic and beautiful is in itself a miracle. More please!

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A daring feature debut by Evan Glodell, "Bellflower" looks like it was shot with the digital equivalent of a Brownie box camera, and generates an almost palpable aura of anxiety."
- Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal)

 

Another Earth (2011)

At a glance:
Sci-fi elements combine with a story of grief in this intriguing, intellectual drama/thriller

Our review (with spoilers):
Rhoda (Brit Marling) is a sharp young woman who has just been accepted into MIT. Her whole brilliant life is in front of her. She is driving home drunk from her celebration party when she hears, on the car radio, that a new ‘blue’ planet has been discovered. As she gazes up at the sky, she crosses the road and hits another car. The occupants are Yale professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), who ends up in a coma, and his wife and child, who die. Four years later, Rhoda emerges from incarceration, a quiet and severely damaged woman. Conversely, the blue planet has thrived in the interim; it appears to be frighteningly similar to Earth in topology, and when voice contact is made, it seems that the planet is a mirror image, including duplicates of the people. Rhoda dreams of escaping to this planet on one of the manned flights that are being planned. At the same time, she tracks down the professor. Her attempt to say who she is and to apologize is botched, and instead she begins cleaning his house, slowly improving his hygiene and his level of squalor.

The core idea has been used many times before – that of the infiltrator who ‘stalks’ someone with hidden knowledge about how they are connected. But Another Earth uniquely blends drama and thriller with a dash of sci-fi in ways that perhaps have never been mixed and mashed before.

The two leads are excellent. Marling makes the intellectuality of her character believable – and that is such an important element of the story. Mapother has an undercurrent of unpredictability in the way he carries himself – Lost fans will remember how his character Ethan combined congeniality with menace in the early episodes of that series. Here, his character is different but just as effective.

Director Mike Cahill (who co-wrote with Marling) turns a small budget into a beautiful film. It has its own pace as we wade through grief, but the moments of power are effective. One minor distraction was the overuse of crash zoom, although, in a sense, this effect fits well in a sci-fi themed movie; it reminded me of the fight scenes from the Battlestar Galactica reimagining.

Major spoiler alert – do not read this unless you have already seen the film! The last scene in the film features Rhoda’s double, newly arrived from the mirror planet. What does this mean? I believe it is an indication that Rhoda was about to find out that on the mirror planet, there was a version of herself that did not crash into the car, and that John’s family – and her life – were intact there.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Another Earth is a tough movie to shake off... resisting movie tactics that usually accompany such material. Using a sci-fi premise to engage a grounded, almost pedestrian story of guilt and regret is a bold stroke."
- Steve Persall (St. Petersburg Times)

 

The Hole (2009)

At a glance:
Veteran horror director Joe Dante brings his blend of scares and humor to The Hole, a modest and fun film

Our review (with spoilers):
Two brothers (Dane, played by Chris Massoglia, and Lucas, played by Nathan Gamble) discover a trap door hiding a bottomless hole in the basement of their home. Teaming up with the teenage girl next door (Haley Bennett), they attempt to discover who or what is lurking down there. But when each of them is attacked by the embodiment of their worst fear, they start to wish they had never opened that trap door in the first place.

The Hole is fun entertainment, with good performances by the three leads, and good supporting work from Teri Polo as the mom. There is even a quick cameo from Bruce Dern and an even quicker cameo from veteran horror star Dick Miller.

The Hole also has one of the cleverest reveals I have ever seen in a film: the three kids drop a video camera down the hole, then view the footage on their TV. They see a blob shape – just a shape – and are discussing that when the mom comes in. The kids turn away from the screen and explain that they are just watching TV. Meanwhile, on the screen, the blob turns to reveal a malevolent, non-human eye. The mom sees this (as does the viewer) but thinks it is just a TV program, and the kids don’t know it is there!

Veteran horror director Joe Dante laces The Hole with his classic sense of humor amid the shocks. This is a scary film, but it has a jovial mood. We are pretty sure that the three leads are not going to get killed. This is also a small film lacking big ambitions, and I mean that in a nice way. There are elements that reminded me of the expansive Poltergeist, but The Hole has no such aspirations. It is about three friends and a hole that is somehow linked to your worst fear – and that’s that. And for the most part, it is a success - except for some of the shoddy stop-motion used when various things are crawling back into the hole.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Enjoyably old-fashioned horror from genre veteran Joe Dante, with a strong script, some suitably creepy sequences and superb performances from its young cast."
- Matthew Turner (ViewLondon)

 

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Movie quotes:
Sonny: Maybe they'll share some of that with us.
Ree: That could be.
Sonny: Maybe we should ask.
Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.

At a glance:
Authentic locations don’t make up for the feeling that this is a film meant to marginalize and compartmentalize backwoods culture for the sake of drama

Our review (with spoilers):
In the backwoods of Missouri, Re (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling to keep her family together. She looks after her two young siblings because her mom is in a zombie state and her meth-cooking dad has gone missing. Her dad’s disappearance takes on greater importance when Re finds out that he put up the house as his bond and they stand to lose everything if he does not show up for his court date. This sends Re on a desperate search for him among distant, suspicious and menacing relatives.

Winter’s Bone feels authentic, which is no small achievement, but is this truly a realistic glimpse at backwoods culture? To me, this is an important point. If this is a true representation of life in small town / clan, it’s worthwhile to view. But if it merely dour, depressing, and indeed stereotypical just to prove that it can be, it’s a waste of time. There’s no denying that the locations are realistic, but I wonder if the personalities are. If so, in the backwoods of Missouri, no one ever smiles. Likewise, there are times when logic and reality is swept aside for the sake of drama and conflict. Characters do, at times, seem to take action to make the storyline more interesting. Why the sudden reversal of character for the woman who first has Re beaten badly just because she shows up at Thump’s house for the second time (she is still not a threat), then suddenly decides to solve everything and provide a semi-happy ending?

Writer Debra Granik is talented, but she lives in Washington DC and is not part of this world. While watching I was reminded of Prizzi’s Honor for some reason. I know that was a comedy and this is dead serious, but it has the same pigeonhole feel.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Winter's Bone is one of those movies that can't quite make a distinction between profundity and plain old bleakness."
- Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline)

 

The Resident (2010)

At a glance:
Hilary Swank’s class, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s menace, and Brooklyn Bridge locations slightly lift a typical stalker thriller

Our review (with spoilers):
Juliet (Hilary Swank) breaks up with her cheating boyfriend and moves into an old but luxurious apartment, offered at a discount price by the seemingly sincere and innocent Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a Javier Bardem lookalike). Max’s creepy uncle August (Christopher Lee) lives down the hall. August looks foreboding and Max seems harmless, but you’ve got to watch the quiet ones. Soon, it becomes evident that Max is obsessed with Juliet and moves freely in and out of her apartment, sometimes when she is away, and sometimes while she sleeps.

The Resident is beautifully photographed and underlit to good effect, except for some of the latter stalking scenes in the walls of the old building, where it’s a bit too dark to see anything at times. Shadows cast by the night sky weave sinuous tentacle of darkness into the apartment, helping the early scenes in the film to build tension. Swank is solid, and the rest of the cast is more than competent. Morgan in particular goes from innocent to evil just by changing his expression. Lee is great as always, but his role is little more than a cameo.

I don’t watch a lot of this genre of film, so I always feel at a loss to make any kind of a comparison, nor can I get a feel for what fans of the genre will think. Personally, I liked the early use of the Brooklyn Bridge locations, but I thought the buildup was much better than the payoff, but that’s because the payoff was very typical of this type of film. I felt like it was competently executed (killer stalks woman through dark area) but had little new to offer. The resolution, in particular, has been done many times before, in slightly different variations (Juliet is trapped and feverishly smashes a window, presumably to escape, before the killer catches her. The killer then enters the room and longingly gazes out the window in what is known as the ‘wait to be crept up on’ pose). It must be difficult to create something original when so many of these types of films have already been made. Also, there was a lost opportunity to focus on the killer’s dislike of technology. He mentions that he’s not part of the Twitter crowd, and this becomes evident when he spends hours in Juliet’s apartment and completely ignores the bright message on her computer stating that there are new (security) videos to view. I also must mention a weird use of flashback early on in the film: after 20 minutes, the director rewinds the entire film in fast motion to show us some hidden plot points. It seems too soon for a refresher course, although I’m sure any memory-challenged goldfish in the audience will appreciate it.

I would love to see Swank get a role that flexes her acting muscles next time, rather than just her muscle muscles.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Any ambiguity and suspense is frequently stripped by writer/director Antti Jokinen's signposting of every upcoming twist and turn. This is epitomised by a supposedly revelatory and overlong flashback sequence that occurs just half an hour into the movie and contains big snippets of scenes we've already witnessed!"
- Ben Rawson-Jones (Digital Spy)

 

The Other Guys (2010)

Movie quotes:
Terry Hoitz: No, I don't like you. I think you're a fake cop. The sound of your piss hitting the urinal, it sounds feminine. If we were in the wild, I would attack you. Even if you weren't in my food chain, I would go out of my way to attack you. If I were a lion and you were a tuna, I would swim out in the middle of the ocean and freaking EAT you! And then I'd bang your tuna girlfriend.
Allen Gamble: OK, first off: a lion? Swimming in the ocean? Lions don't like water. If you placed it near a river or some sort of fresh water source, that make sense. But you find yourself in the ocean, 20 foot waves, I'm assuming off the coast of South Africa, coming up against a full grown 800 pound tuna with his 20 or 30 friends, you lose that battle, you lose that battle 9 times out of 10. And guess what, you've wandered into our school of tuna and we now have a taste of lion. We've talked to ourselves. We've communicated and said 'You know what? Lion tastes good, let's go get some more lion'. We've developed a system to establish a beach-head and aggressively hunt you and your family and we will corner your pride, your children, your offspring.
Terry Hoitz: How you gonna do that?
Allen Gamble: We will construct a series of breathing apparatus with kelp. We will be able to trap certain amounts of oxygen. It's not gonna be days at a time. But hour? Hour forty-five? No problem. That will give us enough time to figure out where you live, go back to the sea, get some more oxygen, and then stalk you. You just lost at your own game. You're outgunned and out-manned. [pause] Did that go the way you thought it was gonna go? Nope.

Terry Hoitz: Your farts aren't manly.
Allen Gamble: Are you serious?
Terry Hoitz: They sound like a baby blowing out birthday candles.

At a glance:
The Other Guys exploits the cop buddy template to produce some really big laughs, led by the deadpan delivery of Will Ferrell and the raw anger and frustration of Mark Wahlberg

Our review (with spoilers):
Two bumbling cops are teamed up, seemingly just so they can argue all the time. Allen (Will Ferrell) is happy to stay behind a desk and actually volunteers to do the paperwork for the flashier copy buddy teams. Terry (Mark Wahlberg) wants to get out there and be a star, but he’s burdened by his big mistake: while on duty at Yankee Stadium, he shot Derek Jeter, costing the Yankees the World Series. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Allen and Terry latch onto a case that could make or break their careers.

This is a gloriously mismatched buddy teaming. Ferrell gets into a serene nerd zone, while Walhberg is bottled up and seriously angry. If you know a little about Wahlberg’s past, you know that his anger is not acting – it’s behaving – and it feels genuine. And against Ferrell’s comedy deadpan, there’s something hilarious about it.

I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard in months as I did when Allen trumps Terry’s Lion Eats Tuna story with his long soliloquy detailing how he and his school of 800 pound tuna will stalk Terry’s Lion pride back up onto land using jury-rigged kelp to get oxygen. There is also a hilarious scene where Allen and his wife Sheila (Eva Mendez) compare their anal-centric how-did-they-meet story with the supposed anal-centric plot of You’ve Got Mail.

The Other Guys is not perfect. Like many comedies it cannot sustain that high laugh level, and when it gets serious in the second half, that isn’t nearly as much fun. But the laughs that are there are huge, and there’s good supporting comedy work from Michael Keaton and Steve Coogan.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It runs out of steam in the final third but The Other Guys is constantly kept afloat by a grand cast that includes Michael Keaton as station captain Gene Mauch and Eva Mendes as Gamble's smoldering wife Sheila."
- Allan Hunter (Daily Express)

"There's a wealth of joyously berserk idiot humour, fusing slapstick and satire, surrealism and stream-of-consciousness improv into what could well prove the funniest movie of the year."
- Tom Huddleston (Time Out)

 

Winnebago Man (2009)

Movie quotes:
"I don’t want any more bullshit anytime during the day from anyone… And that includes me."
- Jack Rebney as the Winnebago Man

At a glance:
The backstory of a man whose five minutes of swear-laced out-takes from a Winnebago sales video became a YouTube phenomenon

Our review (with spoilers):
I came into this film as (apparently) one of the few people who had never heard of Winnebago Man, the angry corporate sales video star whose out-takes became one of the most famous and popular viral videos on YouTube. Some of the footage of this frustrated, cursing man is shown at the beginning of the doco, and it did nothing for me. Jack Rebney seemed like a bombastic, angry, threatening, unfunny guy who would have been hell to work with. I was unsure if it would be worth my time to continue watching his story.

Was I ever wrong. By making this film, director Ben Steinbauer changed the public perception of Jack Rebney. Without this film, he is just a man whose five minutes of over the top anger out-takes, watched to infinity, defined him narrowly. For those fortunate enough to see this documentary (or to attend the Found Film Festival on the fateful night when Jack was a special guest), Jack Rebney becomes a real man, a complex man, a man balancing the conflicting desires of audience and isolation. He is a man infuriated by his unwanted celebrity, and angered by his belief that the USA is going downhill. Yet, despite his over the top anger, he is also a man who can laugh and keep things in perspective. And although unwilling at times, he is also a natural performer. By the end of the film, Jack has changed his opinion about his YouTube fans. He now sees them as clever, intelligent people. Likewise, his fans see him as a sweet angry grandpa, and not a movie star and a caricature.

In 1988, a powerful documentary called The Thin Blue Line made me believe that there could be no greater purpose for film than to shed light on a personal story or situation. Winnebago Man has that same feel and purpose. Perhaps the story is not as important this time, although both subjects were, in a way, in prisons of sorts. But this film has its own niche of importance. As well as fleshing out Jack Rebney, it also stands as a chronicle of these strange YouTube Viral Video times we live in. Even this shall change: there will be acceptance, or so many people will purposefully create goofy videos in an attempt to gain celebrity status that these innocent, truly random videos will be a thing of the past. The documentary Winnebago Man will not let that happen. So ‘do me a kindness’, and make sure you catch it.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"...a terrific character study. It also airs provocative meditations on the ramifications of living our lives via media. Steinbauer accomplishes both in this thoroughly entertaining feature debut."
- Laura Clifford (Reeling Reviews)

 

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Movie quotes:
Kurt: Then next thing you know, she makes herself a little snack. A Popsicle. Then – a banana. And finally – a hot dog. I mean, c’mon – three penis shaped foods? That – that can’t be a coincidence, right? And - and eating ‘em in that weird order – that’s not a proper meal.
Nick: That’s hot to cold.

Detective Hagan: You wanna explain why you were doing 61 in a 25 zone, one block from the victim’s house, just moments after he got shot dead.
Nick: I was drag racing. I’m a drag racer.
Detective Hagan: You were drag racing? In a Prius?
Nick: I don't win a lot.

Dale: if you didn’t murder someone, what did you do?
Muther Fucker: You guys ever seen the movie, ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’?
Kurt: No.
Nick: I’ve never seen it.
Dale: I love that movie.
Muther Fucker: What happened was, I took a video camera into the movie and I bootlegged it. They was waiting right outside the exit.
Nick; You did ten years for video piracy?
Muther Fucker: They take that shit so seriously.
Dale: Not that seriously.
Kurt: We’ve been taking murder advice from some guy whose biggest crime is taping an Ethan Hawke movie!
Muther Fucker: So you do know the movie.

At a glance:
While perhaps not as funny as the favorable reviews would indicate, Horrible Bosses still benefits from a good concept, some excellent over the top performances, and Jason Bateman’s trademark deadpan delivery

Our review (with spoilers):
Three male friends regularly meet in the bar after work to trade stories about their evil bosses. Nick (Jason Bateman) has been toiling under Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) for a long time, with the carrot of a promotion dangling in front of him. When that promotion is denied, he is pushed over the edge. Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is subject to the whims of a cokehead (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) who regularly brings call girls into his office and makes no bones about his ultimate goal to bleed the company dry. Dale (Charlie Day) works for a female dentist (Jennifer Aniston) who is constantly flashing her body at him and trying to get him to have sex with her, even though he is engaged. Dale’s stories of abuse ("she keeps pushing her naked breasts in my face!") just don’t sound as bad as the stories told by the other guys. In any event, they all agree to off their bosses, and hire Muther Fucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), a scary looking black guy, to do the deed. Needless to say, complications of all types ensue. There’s a lot of mildly raunchy humor in this one, and some great scenery-chewing by Spacey and Aniston. And of course Jason Bateman is a standout for me with his low-key performance. But the other two ‘stars’ (Day and Sudeikis) aren’t up to a leading role in this type of film – and Bateman seems to play down to them, which diminishes his performance as well. In short, I didn’t laugh as much as I wanted to, but it had some great moments.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Seeks approval by establishing a sloppy routine of shock and improvisation, slapping viewers with pedestrian acts of misbehavior when something far more macabre was in order."
- Brian Orndorf (BrianOrndorf.com)

"The stars lack the charisma, the comic energy and the overall appeal of the A-listers playing supporting roles. That's a fundamental miscalculation."
- Robert Levin (Film School Rejects)

 

Heartbreaker (2010)

At a glance:
This unique French rom-com farce about a con artist who is paid to break up couples is funny, fast-moving, and a joy to watch from start to finish

Our review (with spoilers):
Movies are littered with compassionate con artists whose hearts are in the right place. Just like the hit men with hearts of gold, these types of people probably do not exist in real life. But I’ve got to admit I have a weakness for the sweet con artists in film. And no one could be sweeter than Alex (Romain Duris). Together with his sister and her goofy husband, their job is to use seduction to break up couples.

The film is wonderfully unconventional, and it is important that you stop reading right now if you haven’t seen it. It begins as a young woman leaves her obviously inferior fiancé by the pool. She wants to explore Marrekech and he wants to drink in a lounge chair and ogle women in wet t-shirts. She is driven to the dunes by a young man who provides medical supplies for needy children. The chemistry between them is instantaneous and strong. He doesn’t need to say much to get her to realize that her fiancé is not the right man for her. When they explore the desert dunes together and share a first kiss, this appears to be a romance film. But it ends there. Alex has done his job, and is not in this for love. The fiancé will be dumped; his mission is accomplished.

His next client is a bit more complicated. Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) seem like a perfect couple. By masquerading as a hired bodyguard, Alex manages to get close enough to find out her foibles and fears, and in the process, he is surprised to find that he is falling in love.

Heartbreaker feels exotic if you are accustomed to Hollywood fare; Romain Duris’ scraggly beard and sneering but sincere smile are a welcome change from the leading men of Tinseltown. Light, and occasionally hilarious, it contains action, romance, glamour, and a little dirty dancing. When it ended, I felt I could have just started watching it all over again.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Manages to be such a pleasant little soufflé of a movie that it's hard not to like it on its own terms."
- Ken Hanke (Mountain Xpress - Asheville, NC)

 

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Movie quotes:
"Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers only."
- Blake

At a glance:
David Mamet’s pen yields an uncompromising, highly charged drama about struggling real estate salesmen

Our review (with spoilers):
GGR is an intimate, highly charged look at a small real estate office and the men who toil there. Working with bottom of the barrel leads, they try to sell land in Arizona. It sounds like an obvious scam, but they manage to make it palatable – even as they, for the most part, fail to close. The one exception is hot shot Ricky Roma (Al Pacino). His performance garnered the Oscar nomination, but the entire cast (Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and Alec Baldwin) are fantastic. The unique, stylized, repetitive staccato dialogue penned by David Mamet is used to reveal the vicious underbelly of real estate sales. Almost all of the Mamet writing is gold, but one scene in particular is top shelf: when Ed Harris and Alan Arkin are speaking about – but definitely not talking about - stealing the prized Glengarry leads.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Words fly with the speed and impact of bullets."
- Phil Villarreal [Arizona Daily Star]

 

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Movie quotes:
"Tell me why I can’t be with Elise…because the last guy didn’t know."
- David

At a glance:
Based on a Phillip K. Dick story, there’s a clever concept at the heart of the Adjustment Bureau, but it is severely manhandled

Our review (with spoilers):
Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) has his bid to run for the Senate squelched when  a long-ago college prank becomes a breaking story on election eve. Soon after, mysterious men appear, all wearing similar old man hats, to perform some sort of adjustment of events to suit their upstairs ‘chairman’. David finds out by accident, and then becomes our conduit to discover more about these ‘angels’ or case workers. Meanwhile, David continues to try to track down Elise (Emily Blunt), a mysterious woman who he met on election night, even though he has been forbidden to do so by these same adjusters.

This is your typical bland Hollywood approach to sci-fi. There’s a real laziness in establishing the A story. Why do we care whether David gets elected or not – just because he is young or is Matt Damon? Why do we care whether David and Elise make a love connection? The script and director George Nolfi barely lift a finger to convince us. And John Slattery plays his role way too flippantly for a guy who can change the world with a wave of his arm. There’s also way too much ‘Exposition Man’ syndrome - David conveniently has an angel (Anthony Mackie) to explain the convoluted rules of adjustment – most of which are soon broken anyway when it furthers the plot.

On the plus side, things briefly improve when Terence Stamp is on camera, and Emily Blunt’s dancing is excellent.

Rating: 2 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Philip K. Dick's story The Adjustment Team was published in 1954. But the movie The Adjustment Bureau only trades on Dick's name. All else is shoved aside by George Nolfi, who directed and wrote the screenplay."
- Tony Macklin (tonymacklin.net)

"We know Damon and Blunt are a perfect fit mostly because they finish each other's cutesy banter."
- Geoff Berkshire (Metromix.com)

"…all the sci-fi stuff about men in hats and trench coats dictating life on Earth clashes brutally with the lovey-dovey meet-cutes."
- Steven Snyder (Techland)

 

Lust, Caution (2007)


At a glance:
Lust, Caution is Ang Lee’s lavishly tragic story of a woman who sacrifices her heart and her body to aid the Chinese resistance of the Japanese during World War Two

Our review (with spoilers):
Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is a young woman who becomes deeply involved in the Chinese resistance movement against Japan during World War Two. She begins as an actor, depicting patriotic plays and rallying support for the cause. Then, led by the passion of Kuang (Leehom Wang), she and a small band of actors turn to undercover work in an attempt to isolate and assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who is spying for the Japanese. Wong eventually gets close enough – and intimate enough – to expose him, but her proximity exposes her emotions to his intoxicating power – and each of them are influenced by the undeniable power of love and lust. In this beautiful, lavishly filmed epic tragedy, Wong makes perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, allowing herself to fall in love with a man whom she knows is condemned to death by her own actions.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"A beautifully rendered, long, drawn-out but ultimately very satisfying story of betrayal and revenge in an uneasy setting of wartime paranoia."
- Damon Wise (Empire Magazine)

 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)



Movie quotes:
"Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!"
- Dodge Landon (homage to the original film)

At a glance:
James Franco is appealingly sincere, and Andy Serkis creates a memorable simian in the entertaining and visually impressive Planet of the Apes prequel

Our review (with spoilers):
In San Francisco, Will Rodman (James Franco), an innovative geneticist, has discovered a wonder drug that may be able to cure Alzheimer’s. He’d love to finish testing on chimpanzees and get it approved pronto so he can use it to help his own deteriorating father (John Lithgow). When one tested chimpanzee goes berserk, the order is given to abandon the project and terminate the chimps. Will rescues and cares for a baby chimp dubbed Ceasar. Soon, Caesar, who has inherited the wonder drug’s effects from his mom, begins to show signs of advanced intelligence.

I have to admit that I was not a big Francophile when I arrived at this film. James Franco had not over-impressed me to date. I thought his best roles were playing crazed eccentrics (in Date Night and Pineapple Express). He has a way of slurring his words that stretch his credibility as a genius scientist. And yet I must also admit that he is excellent here.

Ceasar is played by Andy Serkis. Serkis did all the physical movements while wearing motion capture gear, and then WETA Digital of New Zealand (the same group that did Avatar, and also Serkis as Gollum in Lord of the Rings) ape-ified him. Serkis is perhaps the world’s leading specialist actor at this type of role; wearing the motion capture does not detract from his performance, and he is able to inhabit a cross-species personality, making Ceasar captivating to watch. And in fact, the apes are so wonderfully realized, their story and interactions are much more intriguing than the clichéd humans.

This is an oft-told story of slavery, enlightenment, revolt, and freedom, modernized with state-of-the-art digitally enhanced performances. Action fans will enjoy the full-out 20 minute battle scene; I appreciated the personality/drama/thriller aspects more. But there’s something for everyone, and there’s little doubt that at least one more prequel can be stuffed in the timeline between this story and the original film. I’m already looking forward to it.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It stays true to the central metaphor of the original films and takes its time setting the story up so that when the apes finally do run amok, we are totally invested in the story."
- Eric Melin (Scene-Stealers.com)

 

Planet of the Apes (2001)



Movie quotes:"The young ones make great pets. Just make sure you get rid of them before they mature. Believe me, the last thing you want is a human teenager running around your house."
- Limbo

At a glance:
Although Tim Burton’s take on the apes franchise is flawed in big ways, it’s still entertaining pulp sci-fi

Our review (with spoilers):
From the very beginning, there are gorilla-sized problems with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. First, the space sequences have nothing that stamps it as a Burton film. Then, we get to the Planet (of the you-know-whos) and suddenly Burton decides that the apes should be amusing quipsters, obsessed human-lovers, or violent warriors. Every ape is a cliché. No one truly cared about making the apes into layered characters, so they come off like so many cartoon Grinches, with no one more Grinchy than Limbo (Paul Giamatti). Contrast this (and I know it’s not completely fair to flash forward) with the way Ceasar is constructed in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He is leader, friend, warrior, and thinker – capable of limitless paths and emotions – and his multi-layered character is created virtually without using the spoken language.

The good news about Burton’s take on the Planet is that his eccentric touches finally are evident. The choices might be wrong, but it’s still fun to watch. For example, he sets up an unusual love triangle, with Ari the chimp (Helena Bonham Carter) and Daena the underage cave-girl (Estella Warren) both fawning over stranded astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg). The film continues to improve once Leo leads a small band of apes and humans against the warring regiments of the brutal Thade (Tim Roth). Charleton Heston gets an extended cameo dying scene as Thade’s father.

Even though the choices are strange, Wahlberg’s performance seems too subdued, and this feels like a film driven to cash in on the franchise, it’s still light entertainment and a lot of breezy fun.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"...one of the most entertaining check-your-brain-at-the-door flicks in recent years."
- David Nusair (Reel Film Reviews)

 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Agree? Disagree? Read this…

Movies and movie reviews evoke strong emotions in some people. In particular, people who love a film sometimes get incensed when coming across a negative review. Over the course of the years, I’ve been called:

• a moron,
• uninformed,
• lacking in emotional depth,
• unable to grasp the point of the film
• and many, many more (I’ve conveniently blanked out the worst ones)

Like, everyone, my views on films often are at odds with others. All films leave viewers divided. We can all agree on this basic premise.

I always respect other people’s viewpoints on film, even when, and especially when, they disagree with mine. I wouldn’t see the purpose in going to someone’s website review and trying to argue that I am right and they are wrong. And I certainly would not be so lacking in self-respect and confidence that I would then need to tack on some insult or derogatory comment to try to convince myself that I am more qualified to judge the film than they.

Let me try to explain something to those that still do not understand where I am going here.

Watching and judging a film is a completely personal experience. Whether you like it or not will depend not only on the film but what you bring to it. It will be influenced by other films you have seen, and by what experiences you have lived through. It may be influenced by your current mood or state of mind.

There is no one who is more or less qualified to review a film. You’ve been to film school? Great! That gives you a different perspective, not a better-than-thou attitude. You’re seen and reviewed more films? Different perspective. Sorry, that’s all.

So why do I post reviews? This is a question that I have asked myself a few times.

First, it is because I love to write, and this is an outlet. I’m not a great writer or the best writer, but I can write to a degree. I write professionally and have made a living from it.

Second, I use other people’s reviews not to argue and seek dissension, but to find people who may have a similar perspective and then perhaps be willing to accept that if they like or dislike a film that I have not yet seen, there is a chance I will agree - and use this as a guide to deciding if I should watch. With my reviews, I would hope the same might occur for others: some people may find that they agree with me more often than disagree, and they can then use my guide.

I’m a movie lover, and my reviews are never meant to dissuade people from watching. Watch, make your own judgment. The ’at a glance’ is meant to be used if you have not seen the movie before. The expanded review is meant to be read after viewing.

Well, that’s all. I see no point in continuing to allow comments, as people who agree rarely bother posting, and people who disagree cannot seem to do so without throwing an insult into their comment. People hide behind the anonymity of the internet to grow bold and to transcend normal levels of politeness – it could be argued that I am doing this as well when I post a negative review, so I don’t fault them for taking the opportunity to do so – but I just don’t see the point of allowing it anymore on these pages.

So read, enjoy, agree, or disagree – but post it on your own blog if you have something to say.

This blog is mine again. :)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Stone (2010)

At a glance:
On one level, Stone is a well-acted film noir about crime, prison, and parole; but beneath, it veers into an obscure sub-text of spirituality, retribution and belief

Our review (with spoilers):
On the surface, Stone has a fairly accessible story about Gerald ‘Stone’ Creeson (Edward Norton), a con  who is trying to get early release by convincing his parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) that he has learned his lesson and done his time. In order to facilitate this, Stone involves his sexy, scruple-free wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to seduce Jack. Jack believes in nothing and is eminently corruptible, despite first appearing to be a by-the-book type of guy. While this surface story is playing out, we get to appreciate the solid performances by Norton, De Niro, and Jovovich.

But besides this tale, which in and of itself amounts to an interesting but not outstanding film, there is some kind of obscure religious/metaphysical allegory. ‘Stone’ is a reference to the beginning of life: we begin as a stone and are reincarnated into more complex organisms. Mabry is evil, and/or a non-believer who will be punished for his sins. Stone is there, perhaps, to offer temptation and to deal out the punishment. At least, that’s my quick take on what may have been alluded to. I could be quite wrong, and that always worries me when watching a movie such as this – one that could be called ‘subtle’, ‘obscure’, or perhaps even ‘open to interpretation’.

I really have no idea if Gerald Creeson had a true Epiphany. His actions, or the way our viewing of his actions are manipulated, would lean toward him being sincere. Did he start the fire that burned down Jack’s house? What horrible secret was Jack hiding – or was the horror simply that of a life led in a vacuum of belief?

The lesson here could also be about living and listening. Jack immerses himself in sounds of spirituality – he constantly listens to religious talk-back radio; he attends church; and he reads scripture and drinks heavily with his sad wife (Frances Conroy). He also listens to prisoners all day. But he does not actually appear to hear any of what is being said.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Set up as a familiar noir plot, the film veers off into unexpected places, keeping the audience guessing as to the main characters' motivations well after the credits roll."
- Rob Thomas [Capital Times (Madison, WI)]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

Movie quotes:
"You’ll always be beautiful to me."
- Oliver (to Laura)

At a glance:
This simple parable about inner beauty and love is told with elegance and grace

Our review (with spoilers):
Boy, did they know how to make movies back then! No complicated plots, no pyrotechnics, no messing with the timeline – just a very simple and elegant parable about how it’s what’s on the inside of a person that counts, and not one’s outward appearance.

Laura (Dorothy McGuire) is a sweet, ‘homely’ girl without a family who is taken in by Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick), a widower who owns and occasionally rents an old cottage in the small town. The cottage is all that is left of a once large castle that was owned by a British nobleman. The castle burned down, leaving one wing intact. This quaint wing had, by tradition, been lent to newlyweds. Now, Mrs. Minnett is ready to rent again. A young couple, Oliver (Robert Young) and Beatrice (Hillary Brooke) are about to be married and plan to spend their honeymoon there. But when Oliver is called to war and is shot down and disfigured, their marriage plans end. Oliver returns to the cottage by himself to hide away, but he is healed by the kindness of Laura and the guidance of neighbor Major John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), another war veteran who lost his sight in action.

Oliver and Laura’s friendship leads to marriage. Their bond, originally more for convenience, increases in intensity and sincerity until the two newlyweds see an amazing physical transformation in themselves. Laura becomes as beautiful as a movie star, and Oliver’s disfiguration disappears. At the same time, they become happy, confident, and unburdened. Their fantasy is briefly shattered by Oliver’s overbearing mother, but with John’s help, the two lovers quickly realize that their true gift is how beautiful their love makes them feel to each other.

Movie making in this period was not only about entertainment; it often was a gentle way to give advice or teach important life lessons. That is the inner beauty of this film. It may not be perfect, but its heart is beautiful.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"John Cromwell’s moving romantic fable celebrates the transforming power of love but also exposes the disfiguring force of pity."
- J. R. Jones (Chicago Reader)

Catfish (2010)

Movie quotes:
"They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They'd keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin."
- Vince Pierce

At a glance:
This documentary explores the hidden secrets behind a Facebook friendship between a New York photographer and an eight year old girl from Michigan

Our review (with spoilers):
Nev, a New York photographer, has a dance photo published in a major magazine. Soon after, he receives a wonderful painting of his photo in the mail. The painting was done by Abby, an eight year old girl from Michigan. Soon Nev is corresponding virtually (through email, Facebook, and Twitter) with Abby, her mom Angela, and her sexy half-sister, Megan. Nev and Megan are mutually attracted and begin an on-line relationship, with both of them looking forward to the day when they can meet. Megan, also a talented artist, uploads a couple of songs written especially for Nev. But an internet search reveals that the songs were written  and sung by somebody else. Soon Nev discovers that all the talk of Abby’s various successful gallery showings were also fabricated. Nev is stunned and angry, but since he is now in the middle of a documentary about the whole situation, he agrees to go to Michigan to find out exactly what is real and what is not.

Soon Nev finds out what astute viewers might suspect: there is only one person behind this ruse that exists: Angela. She did the artwork; she changed her voice to be Megan, and she did the paintings. Nev and crew spend a day with her, and then Nev gently confronts her and gets most of the true story. Angela, her dreams shattered and her life burdened by the care of her new husband’s two extremely retarded twin boys, escaped into multiple personalities and used fragments of herself in her youth to woo Nev.

For his part, Nev is grateful to find out, and somehow these two people form an unlikely (Facebook) friendship. But the pain in their eyes is unmistakable.

This is a wonderful documentary, created on a very low budget. Based on social media, it makes clever use of Google Earth and Google Maps to augment the story. There is a small niggling factor that this may not be completely what it seems – why did they start filming so early in the story? – but the film-makers swear that it is 100% true.

Rating: 3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The great thing about Catfish is the compassion it shows towards everyone involved. It tries to reach an understanding of the truth but without mocking or judging."
- Allan Hunter (Daily Express)

The Presence (2010)

At a glance:
A woman’s idyllic cabin retreat is haunted by ghosts and by her past

Our review (with spoilers):
Imagine the most boring movie ever – just watching The Woman (Mira Sorvino) as she tinkers around by herself in a log cabin with no electricity. She makes tea. She listens to an old Victrola. Every time she uses the outhouse, a dead bird is thrown against it. And just so it isn’t completely boring, there a pale guy watching her all the time. She can’t see him, and he has the pallor of a dead person. We get about 35 minutes of this, until finally The Woman’s Boyfriend shows up, uninvited and unannounced (there’s no boat sound or anything). This is supposed to be a scary moment, I think. They have zero chemistry, but I believe that is by design. Despite this, The Man proposes to her and she accepts, although immediately after, he almost falls down a cliff and she drops and loses the ring while saving him. Things go downhill from there. She suddenly becomes moody and detached. He keeps making food and coffee that she does not ingest. She just wants to work and he would like someone to speak to. All the time, Dead Guy watches and does…nothing! Finally, we find out the source(s) of her mood: she was abused by her father as a child, and now, an evil spirit is whispering things in her ear and she is listening. I’m going to stop right there and not tell more of this plot, as it is making me relive this horribly boring film yet again. Let’s just say a couple more things happen near the end but I congratulate any marathon runner viewer that can make it that far. One thing I will add – and it is my only positive – the ending had a lovely little  - you could almost call it a twist but it is more of a concept revealer – that shows that this idea could have been much more successful if it was filmed with a bit more passion and movement.

Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Woman with personal issues goes to a remote place in the woods somewhere to spend some time alone in the cabin she spent her summers as a child. What she doesn't know is that there is some guy (which we the audience can see) who looks like something between a department store mannequin and crew member of the starship Enterprise haunting the place. He does this by standing and staring or sitting and staring. Maybe about 20 minutes in, or so, he swivels an eyeball to the side. Then about 40 minutes in he becomes less like a mannequin and more like crew member of the Enterprise looking for a way to get back to his ship.

I was intrigued when the movie started and I saw the ghost sitting or standing staring. --Right off the bat; just like that; no preamble; as is usually NOT the case with most ghost stories. "Hmm.....this is a different approach", I say's to myself, "Let's see where it goes". I believe I already told you where it went for 40 minutes."
- Boloxxxi (IMDB user review)

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Movie quotes:
Nick: [handing her the ring] This is for you.
Gina: Holy crap.
Gina: Did you get it from the store in Honolulu?
Nick: eBay.
Gina: How long have you had it?
Nick: Year and a half.
Gina: A year and a half? Well what were you waitin' for you dumb bastard!
Nick: The right moment...
Gina: Baby, you are a man in full.

At a glance:
Maui locations, clever twists, and a sense of humor elevate this thriller about a newlywed couple threatened by killers on their honeymoon

Our review (with spoilers):
Hawaii is so beautiful that you could enjoy your honeymoon there, even if you were being stalked by a killer couple at the same time.

This is what is happening to Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich). Their jungle overnight hike is populated with weird couples, some friendly, some threatening. Things get tense when news reaches them that a honeymooning couple was murdered in Oahu. Cliff and Cydney seem to suspect eccentric Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), but there are others as well who seem to be even more likely suspects. There is some squeamish but cartoonish violence, and it’s obvious that the creators have a kind of morality that is old-fashioned and appealing.

A Perfect Getaway never takes itself too seriously, yet it has plenty of tension and action. The Maui locations are fantastic, the more so for me, as I was just recently in Hawaii and it was great to go back, even under these circumstances. The acting is great, right across the board, which is a sure sign of good direction. Lovely to look at and fun to watch, this is not a great film: just a very good and entertaining one.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It works because it's smart, knows it's smart, announces to us that it's smart - then backs off and lets the suspense and dark comedy mix."
- David Cornelius (eFilmCritic.com)

Cropsey (2009)

At a glance:
A compact, focused documentary about a string of child murders on Staten Island in the 1980s

Our review (with spoilers):
Staten Island, New York, the dumping ground the city’s garbage (and for corpses from mob hits) also was somewhat of a dumping ground for deviates, perhaps – or maybe they just had their fair share. In the mid 1980s, one or more of these crazed people was kidnapping and killing children. Their preference was for kids with mental handicaps. If the killer was Andre Rand, the man arrested and convicted of two of the murders, then the reason was that he felt that the children were not wanted and that they were better off dead. Rand’s crazed ideas were formed because he worked for a time at a horrific mental institution and saw this first hand. Rand may or may not have been the killer; he never admitted to it, and the body of the second girl (and of the other murdered children) was never found.

Directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman capture the sense of community on the island by using new and archival footage. Their vigilant efforts to interview Rand showcase their dogged documentarian pursuit of facts.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Brancaccio and Zeman don't offer any easy answers, merely throwing all of the many issues of the story of Cropsey into a melting pot of danger, terror, and secrecy."
- Brian Tallerico (Movie Retriever)

Girl 27 (2007)

At a glance:
The corruption of 1930s MGM studios is revealed in detail in this story of a young dancer who is violated at a stag party

Our review (with spoilers):
In 1937, in the midst of a crushing recession, the fiefdom called MGM studios was still turning a huge profit. They rewarded their army of salesmen with a lavish party. Besides liquor and entertainment, the salesmen were gifted with hundreds of dancing girls, many of them underage. The girls, who thought they were answering a stage call for a movie set, had no idea that they were also expected to entertain these gentlemen. One of the girls, seventeen year old Patricia Douglas, was raped by a salesman named Don Ross. This in itself was probably not that unusual at the time in this male-dominated, studio-dominated corner of the world. But Douglas chose to fight against the studio. She faced an uphill battle, with so many people in the area either employed by or dependent upon MGM (including the district attorney, her own lawyer, and the man who discovered her and her attacker and later recanted his testimony).

Her life was derailed dramatically by this incident. Three loveless, frigid marriages produced a daughter whom she could not talk to or be close to at times. She hid her story for 65 years until documentarian David Stenn patiently wooed it out of her, and with his persistence brought her friendship – and the vindication of truth. Using archival footage and personal interviews, Stenn places the incident in the context of the time, when a woman’s reputation was ruined completely by rape.

This style of personal, one-on-one documentary (as also seen in Winnebago Man) provides a truly fulfilling film experience. The documentarian’s relationship to the subject becomes a secondary but important player in the story.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"This stunning expose of Hollywood's buried scandal is a revelation about the movie industry's influence, and a well-documented backgrounder on Hollywood's 'casting couch' attitude towards women."
- Jennifer Merin (About.com)

Red Hill (2010)


At a glance:
A classic modern-day western with horror overtones, Red Hill brings an Australian backcountry flavor to the genre

Our review (with spoilers):
This modern day Australian western appears to be ultra-conservative – so much so, in fact, that one begins to suspect there will be a major twist. A small town in outback Australia is cold toward young policeman Shane (Ryan Kwanten) who has recently moved from an unnamed big city to provide a more peaceful life for his pregnant wife. But on his first day, he walks into the middle of conflict. The Inspector, played by a scenery-chewing Steve Bisley, is adamant about preserving the old town values like free use of the land, and is against things like new age business nature preserves. The normal, quiet day turns very serious when a convicted murderer breaks out of prison and heads for Red Hill. The locals all know he is coming back for vengeance, so they arm heavily. But this man, an aboriginal tracker, is more than a match for them, and begins killing them one by one.

The aboriginal man never says a word, is horribly scarred, and kills almost everyone he meets, and thus he seems way too evil – almost like a horror movie star. But there is more to the story, and it’s up to Shane to figure it out. The facts are laid out for him a bit too easily in the end – a signed deathbed confession by one of the perpetrators – but there are enough effective moments in the film that we can forgive director Patrick Hughes his occasional wide brush strokes and clichés.

Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"If Red Hill isn't quite a classic, it surely is a work of genuine passion for a genre that's unmistakable, and unkillable."
- Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle)

The Fighter (2010)

At a glance:
Richly textured (with four Oscar-worthy performances), The Fighter is more about dysfunction and less about boxing

Our review (with spoilers):
When a story is common and its circumstances are widespread and shared, it can sometimes feel clichéd. So it is with The Fighter, a film that is more about a dysfunctional family and less about boxing. One family member - here it is boxer Micky Eklund (Mark Wahlberg) - has the talent and the salary, and the rest are hangers-on who scramble to keep their hold on the cash cow, using blood relations and guilt where necessary. Micky has always been tutored, trained, and managed by his older brother Dick (Christian Bale), who once was a boxer of some talent. The highlight of his career was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard (before eventually losing the fight). Micky’s mom Alice (Melissa Leo) also co-manages, but Micky’s career is dove-tailing, due to bad match-ups. It doesn’t help that Micky has to get his older brother out of fights and drug-related legal jams either. I don’t think the film is clichéd – it is more that the situation is common, but it is told with directorial flair by a perfectly chosen cast.

Christian Bale inhabits his characters, and he’s on top of his game as the crack-smoking older brother. The real Dicky Eklund appears briefly at the end of the film; you can see that Bale would have studied Dicky’s mannerisms to create his own spin on the character. Melissa Leo is excellent again (and almost unrecognizable) as Alice, the dominant mother of ten children. Bale and Leo each bring a very similar energy to their roles. They do not seem to be acting – just living. Each of them won Best Supporting Oscars, and Amy Adams, who is oh so sweet-with-an-edge, was also nominated. Mark Wahlberg is quiet and solid in the lead, surrounding by these tornadoes of passion.

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The ring action in The Fighter is bruising enough, but it's the drama outside the ropes that will leave you reeling."
- Jason Best (Movie Talk)

Solitary Man (2009)

Movie quotes:
Ben Kalmen: You got your little jokes, you know, the Spanish thing, interests are the same, and the studying. But, um, are you getting it, you know, where it counts?
Maureen: Oh, Ben. Cheston thinks you care about him.
Ben Kalmen: This has nothing to do with him. He's never gonna know about this. Never.
Maureen: Aren't you a little old for all this?
Ben Kalmen: You're still standing here, aren't you?
Maureen: Yeah, 'cause I'm contemplating throwing this drink in your face. But I'm not going to, because I don't want Cheston to know what you just tried. So you can just walk away. Please.
Ben Kalmen: Nothing personal.
Maureen: Hey. That is it, actually. Since you asked, that's what I get from him. Something personal. Besides getting it done where it counts, which he does. Cheston and I reach each other. He's tender and sweet and smart and funny and a million things that you aren't.
Ben Kalmen: I was once, honey. It doesn't last.

At a glance:
Michael Douglas is captivating as a morality-challenged middle aged man in this solid drama

Our review (with spoilers):
Nobody plays self-centered better than Michael Douglas, and in this tour-de-force performance, he’s at the top of his game. He plays serial womanizer Ben, who was once a big player in car sales, with a string of successful dealerships and cover shots on Time Magazine and Forbes. But when middle age is in full bloom, he is unable to deal with thoughts of aging or death, and instead embarks on a quest to bed as many 19 year old girls as possible, despite being married to Nancy (Susan Sarandon). Other morals go out the window as well, and when he is caught in a business fraud, his life spirals downward.

A talented cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fischer, and Imogen Poots bring depth to this story, but Douglas, who is in every scene, is captivating. Despite his age, he has an amazing presence and strength; it is still believable that he could seduce women one-third his age (although this may be the last movie of this kind he can make).

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"You'd think Michael Douglas has played the charming cad on screen once too often, but damned if he doesn't pull it off once more in grand style."
- Moira MacDonald (Seattle Times)

Black Swan (2010)

Movie quotes:
Thomas Leroy: What's going on?
Nina: [crying] Lily! You made her my alternate?
Thomas Leroy: Well there's always an alternate. Lily is the best choice.
Nina: No, but she wants my role.
Thomas Leroy: Every dancer in the world wants your role.
Nina: No, this is different. She's after me. She's trying to replace me!
Thomas Leroy: Nobody's after you.
Nina: [crying harder] No, please believe me!

At a glance:
Darren Aronofsky creates a nightmarish reality for a perfectionist ballerina played by the lovely Natalie Portman

Our review (with spoilers):
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina whose technique is virtually perfect. But according to choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel), her dancing lacks passion and is as frigid as she appears to be. Her drive for perfection means that she falls short when attempting to let herself go. Despite her shortcomings, she is able to convince Tomas (with her dancing as well as with one moment of aggression) that she is the best in the company, and against the odds she is chosen to be the Black Swan, the lead dancer. This sends her into an even deeper spiral, her drive for perfection pushing her into an area where her life and nightmares are intertwined.

As well as being threatened by her own sexuality and that of others, she has to compete with rival dancers like the free spirit Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems to be friendly but also could be plotting her demise.

Nina’s drive for perfection seems to derive from nature and nurture; her doting, bitter mother (Barbara Hershey) is a sad figure who keeps an extremely close eye on her daughter, sometimes protecting her as if she were still a child.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s strongest talent of many is his ability to create a nightmare blended with reality. He does this again here, as he did in Pi, with his protagonist almost tortured by herself and her environment. Portman is also perfectly cast as the frigid beauty. Aronofsky’s film is captivating because each moment is key – there is no filler, no wasted scenes. Every moment, movement, and word spoken is part of the story.

While the film is hard to watch at times (as is almost all of Aronofsky’s work), it is ultimately accessible and rewarding. This cannot be said of all films that are so dreamlike and artistic.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"You've never seen a movie quite like "Black Swan" before. It's brazen, it's ridiculous, it's magnificent, it's human, it's unique, it's the world at its worst, it's the worst at its best - and this is why it's so weirdly compelling."
- Christopher Smith (Bangor Daily News - Maine)