Saturday, December 27, 2008

Windtalkers


An esteemed reviewer suggested that Windtalkers required the creation of a new genre...the wasted opportunity. There are no words I could find to sum up my feelings about this film that would better frame my opinion of this film than wasted opportunity. I found this film in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart...figuring a story about the true Code Talkers of World War II would be an excellent addition to my collection. I'm not a big fan of Nicholas Cage, but I figured a film about my beloved Marine Corps was a must have. At five bucks I thought it to be a steal.

Windtalkers touts itself as a film about Navajo Code Talkers. Their communications were unbreakable by the Japanese. This was an important strategic part of the US Campaigns in the Pacific...giving the United States a tactical advantage over the Japanese. Every Marine Recruit is drilled with Marine Corps History during their indoctrination at MCRD Parris Island or San Diego. The Pacific Campaign contains major elements of Marine Corps history...stories of Tarawa (the bloodiest battle) and Midway and the Island Hopping Campaign that was adopted from General Ellis' Orange Plan. It was formulated in 1926 by the eerily prophetic General Ellis and became the cornerstone of World War II operations in the Pacific. One key event in the Pacific was the United States breaking of the tough Japanese "purple" code (our name for the Japanese code). The United States broke the Purple Code immediately prior to the battle of Midway, which every Marine knows was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. With an edge over the Japanese, our secure coded communications were never breached by Japanese Intelligence.



It seems clear that something as simple as breaking the Japanese Purple Code could turn the war in the United States favor. The prospects for telling the story of the Native Americans who developed a code based on their native language would be an important historically significant tale. A story that could swell the chests of Native Americans from every tribe (Code Talkers included Navajo, Comanche, Choctaw, Cherokee, Meskwaki and even Basque). I would personally be offended by the drivel that substituted for an intellectual examination of the contribution made by these men. This film was more about Nicholas Cage and his inability to fire a machine gun with his mouth closed (he has the ugliest "war face" I have ever seen). The opportunities to highlight the contributions of the Navajo were reduced down to three inane communications, one that made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

In terms of background...allow me to explain a bit about the film. Nicholas Cage stars as Sgt Joe Enders, a Marine whose heroics (that is to say, he alone survived a brutal attack in the Solomon Islands) earning him the coveted Silver Star. Enders rehabs at the Naval Hospital in Kaneohe Bay. Now, Kaneohe Bay was a Naval Base during World War II and was actually the first base attacked by the Japanese. The base had seaplanes, which could be scrambled quickly if not taken out first. However, during my time at Kaneohe Bay the piddly Medical Center barely had a Sick Call...you definitely wouldn't want to be treated long term there. Tripler Army Hospital would probably have been a more likely destination. Enders can't wait to get back into action, faking his hearing test in order to be cleared for duty. Enders new assignment is to ensure the safety, and if necessary prevent the capture of a Code Talker, a Navajo named Pvt Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).

Pvt Yahzee is joined by Pvt Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) whose personal bodyguard is Sgt Pete Anderson (Christian Slater). The Navajo are not entirely welcome in the unit, with one particular soldier making it know that he doesn't like Indians...predictably, his life is saved by Pvt Whitehorse later in the film. The unit is given several missions which put them directly in harms way while engaging in small unit tactics. The superior firepower of the enemy never seems to be able to overcome the inferior numbers and complete lack of fire discipline and tactical movement by the group. The men fight bravely, rarely using the skills of the codetalkers. The movie ends after a major firefight, but well before the war has ended, following Sgt Anders rather than the Navajo men.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Midnight Cowboy


What does an X-Rated Film from 1969 look like? Is it possible that an X-Rated film could achieve a five star ratings (from this humble reviewer) or get nominated and win THREE Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay)? Both Actors in this film were also nominated for Best Actor and in another rare twist, Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress with a nearly invisible three minutes of screen time. The film would be the groundbreaking Midnight Cowboy. The film was re-rated in 1970, obtaining an R Rating which allowed it to show in more theaters.

Midnight Cowboyset a new standard in film when it was released in 1969. With scenes of gang rape, sodomy, bare breasts and behinds, free sex and open homosexuality, this film crossed the line every way it could. In making a journey along cultural taboos of it's time, this film managed to create a significant piece of cinema. A compelling story of friendship and hardship that transcends the vivid imagery that set this film apart from anything else that had ever been done. Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who is more of a "stud" than a cowboy arrives in New York from his native Texas with big ideas of becoming the next big gigolo. His naivete leads him to get taken for some money by a slick operator named Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).



Joe intends to extract revenge on Ratso but soon develops a strong friendship with the down-on-his-luck scheister. Joe Buck takes up residence in a run down condemned building with no electricity with his new found friend. Ratso convinces Joe that he needs a manager and sets out to line Joe up with some lonely ladies. Joe is not a very effective gigolo, spending more money than he earns at times. His lack of experience and worldliness has him constantly running into unexpected barriers. After finally figuring out how to turn a profit, his plans for setting up business get put on hold in order to take his friend Ratso to Miami. During the trip, Joe decides to straighten out his life. He suggests to Ratso that they make an honest living in Miami. Destiny has something different planned.

Midnight Cowboywas special on many different levels. For a film from 1969 to hold appeal in 2008 requires a timeless script with a plot and characters that are timeless. The dialogue contains some distinctly sixties terminology, which was actually fresh to hear in the present day. The characters are quirky with some traits that would seemingly make them unlikable. Who would have thought, especially in 1969, that a gigolo could endear himself to his audience? His sidekick, a thief and swindler with filthy teeth, dirty clothes and a constant cough was equally intriguing. They connect with the audience because of their flaws. Their short-comings make them human and their inability to rise above their short-comings causes both characters to evoke a level of empathy from the audience. Waldo Salt did an excellent job of translating James Leo Herlihy's novel to the big screen. The writing was believable creating an interesting story that was anything but predictable.

Midnight Cowboysucceeded by casting two actors who are still performing forty years later. Who would have guessed that both John Voight and Dustin Hoffman would have been nominated for Best Actor...and who could have predicted that both would still be making movies after several decades? The chemistry between these polar opposite characters complemented the writing. Some aspects of the script stretched the imagination, but these two actors brought the characters to life and interacted in a way to make the entire concept plausible. Outstanding performances by both men made this movie exceptional. I know I mentioned that Sylvia Miles eked out a nomination for her brief appearance in this film...but it was a testament to the casting of all the minor parts in this film. There were numerous bit characters that had minimal screen time that did nothing to detract from the exceptional performances of Voight and Hoffman. However, the two stars carried this film, propelling it to a special place in cinematic history.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Black Christmas


To call Black Christmas campy would probably be a compliment. So I will refer to this film as a tepid remake of the 1974 Black Christmas which I am guessing was a superbly constructed film, based on the overall ratings the film has garnered. Although the original was a cult classic, it also appears that the script was quite different from the remake. Reading the synopsis of the 1974 version makes it apparent that major script changes altered the remake drastically…a drastic mistake from my uninformed perspective. I now find myself compelled to rent the original to find out how the 1974 version could possibly have had such widespread appeal in comparison to the garbage marketed in 2006.

Black Christmas is a macabre tale of sorority sisters who obviously don’t have a life, considering they are all twittering around their sorority house on Christmas Eve. Coincidentally, the sorority house was the scene of a grisly killing. Billy Lenz (Cainan Wiebe as the younger, Robert Mann as the older) killed his entire family in the sorority house on Christmas Eve 1991. He made cookies from his mother’s skin. Creepy, but probably the only bright spot in the movie. Billy was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane, before using a sharpened candy cane to facilitate his escape. Billy is joined by his blind and equally unstable sister Agnes (Christina Crivici as the younger, Dean Friss as the older) in a Christmas Eve bloodfest at their old residence.



Through a series of weak excuses on why no one can leave the house, we end up with a residence full of scared sorority sisters who are too stupid to take their chances in the winter storm to leave. Personally, when faced with certain death, I would opt to brave the elements. I think that would hold true for most people. But I guess you have to create the environment for a slasher film such as this. After deciding that sorority sisters stick together (and die together) the killers pick them off one by one until the party is moved to another location where the killers get an opportunity to finish what they started.

The plot in Black Christmas, if you can call it that, lacks any direction. It is a gore-drenched film with a very weak premise. The concept of the original film was based on some actual killings that happened near Christmas. This film doesn’t maintain enough credibility to be tied to any actual events. It is simply an excuse to gross out an audience. Any opportunity to extricate eyeballs from their sockets is seized upon. The Writer/Director (Glen Morgan) wasted no opportunity to stab, jab, rip or remove flesh. The sickening sound effects were further intended to chill. It may have worked if not for the faulty premise upon which this entire exercise rests. Aside from being utterly predictable, the dialogue was sickeningly hackneyed. Ohmygod, a bunch of sorority girls discussing their options? The script was probably written in text-speak (you know, where everything is abbreviated, lol). The characters were flat, and failed to find empathy from an audience who could care less if they survive. The weak predictable characters deserved everything they got. I almost had to root for the bad guy…hoping that he would hurry up to lessen my own suffering.

The acting was equally lukewarm. It was tedious to watch the drab dialogue delivered in typical airhead fashion. The cast included Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Crystal Lowe, Kristen Cloke, Lacey Chabert, Oliver Hudson and Andrea Martin. There is not an actor or actress I could single out as having moved me. The performances were unexceptional across the board. A poor cast to further support the trend towards mediocrity set in the writing. The original film notably featured Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin before they gained widespread notoriety. Apparently Martin was involved with the remake. The acting did nothing to change my general opinion of this stinker.


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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Synecdoche, New York


"Knowing You Don't Know Is The First Step In Knowing. You Know?" If you find that title line to be funny, deep or transcendent, then you will love Synecdoche, New York. A film riddled with wordplay situational comedy, potty humor and the sick underbelly of humanity. If you like substance and concrete plot lines then you will leave this film disappointed and battling depression. Synecdoche, New York marks Charlie Kaufman's Directorial debut. Kaufman also wrote this film which many movie goers (myself included) will find hard to follow.

When I first saw the poster for Synecdoche, New Yorkpop up in my local theater I asked an employee about the film. He called the film "Schenectady." I have been to Schenectady and was certain it wasn't spelled Synecdoche. I chalked it up to the youth of this employee. During the opening credits, a song about Schenectady plays over the credits followed by a Schenectady radio program waking our star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. I immediately realized the error of my ways but continued to scratch my head regarding the spelling. The best I can figure is that this points to the fallibility of this film. Although intentional, it makes no sense to me why you would misspell the name of the city in this film's name.



Synecdoche, New Yorkprovides a voyeuristic look into the life of Caden Cotard (Hoffman), a Stage Director who we observe in the rehearsal stages of presenting Death of a Salesman. Cotards wife Adele (Catherine Keener...who coincidentally played Adele in Out of Sightas well) is too busy to attend Cotard's opening night. She claims that she has two paintings to complete for her upcoming art show in Berlin. Cotard returns to find Adele suffering the effects of getting stoned with her friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Marriage Counseling does not help the two and Adele decides to travel to Berlin with their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), leaving Cotard to fend for himself.

The audience is queued to the fact that life is moving faster than it appears on film with slight details. It begins with the rapid healing of a wound that Cotard suffers early in the film. An injury that seemingly causes him to start falling apart. Does he need to see an Opthamologist or a Neurologist...or was that a Urologist (with brown pee, that might be a good idea). In a conversation seemingly a week after Adele leaves, Cotard corrects his Box Office Girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) when she mentions that Adele has been gone a year. Cotard corrects her and says it has been a week. The audience can be fairly certain it has been a year. The rapid pace of time allows Cotard to squeeze his entire life into a two hour examination.

Cotard wins rave reviews for his production of Death of a Salesman. Time Magazine extols his brilliance for casting young unknown cast members for the production. The success of this play leads to an enormous grant for Cotard to produce a meaningful piece of theater. The remainder of this film is constructed around the production of this theatrical masterpiece. The play becomes an examination of the examination of life. At times it becomes confusing. Players are cast to act out the lives of the real people, but then they start switching places leading to a convoluted excursion into reality versus stage.

While I was trying to decompress following this film I began with an examination of Death of a Salesman. There was so much information passed in Synecdoche, New York that I felt overwhelmed by the details. Why was Hazel's apartment always on fire? Why did the realtor's son live in her basement? Why did Olive die when her flower tattoos became diseased? Death of a Salesman challenged precepts about hard luck. In a "stream of consciousness" approach it looked at life more as external forces at work on an individual than flawed traits or missed opportunities of the character. I guess the stream of consciousness approach draws a parallel to assist in understanding the premise upon which Synecdoche, New York was built.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hart's War


On occasion, I find a hidden treasure in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. While digging through the plethora of cheap five dollar movies looking for an addition to my DVD collection, I find an interesting mix of cinema. I guess it is a movie buffs version of shopping at flea markets. You never know what type of movie you’ll find amidst the scrambled clutter. One DVD that found it’s way into my hands recently was Hart’s War. I found a World War II movie starring Colin Farrell alongside Bruce Willis. Two actors I respect immensely in a World War II film…what’s not to like? I shelled out my five dollars (plus tax) and eagerly rushed home to unwrap my newfound gem.

Hart’s War begins with an innocuous trip from Headquarters. Lt Hart (Colin Farrell) has volunteered to transport a Captain to another post along with a crate of Champagne . It is 1944 and the Allies are gaining the advantage. So Lt Hart is caught off guard when Germans disguised as Military Police kill the Captain and end up taking Lt Hart captive. Lt Hart is interrogated and breaks with relative ease. After divulging his limited information, Lt Hart is sent on a harrowing trip to a POW camp. Airplanes strafe the POW planes as they are offloading at a depot, killing several POWs and adding some intensity to the tempo. What looks like a possible escape is thwarted when the ducking German’s quickly re-establish control and bring the POW’s back in line.



A forced march to the POW camp ends with an introduction to the penalty for trying to escape. Three POWs from the Russian camp are hung by their necks as a public admonition against flight. Lt Hart lies to the ranking POW, Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis) regarding his interrogation and is assigned to bunk with the enlisted men in barracks 27. Following the capture of two black pilots, who are also billeted with Lt Hart, racism begins to change the direction of the film. Racial tension leads to the death of one pilot and the trial of another. The murder trial provides diversion for the undercurrent running throughout the film. A lack of trust, predicated upon by Lt Hart’s lack of honesty with Colonel McNamara leaves him outside of the loop regarding the hidden events transpiring in the camp. The trial progresses pitting Lt Hart against Colonel McNamara in a battle of wits and secrecy. The outcome of the movie becomes a testament to morality, honor and responsibility.

It took me a while to figure out where Hart’s War was going. I could tell from the synopsis that it was set within a POW camp. What started out as an adventure in capture and escape became a story about race relations, honor and duty. These elements converged at a point where it becomes difficult to determine the just course of action. The writing was intelligent and unpredictable. The screenplay was adapted by Billy Ray based on a novel written by John Katzenbach. I could deduce that the book was better, because of the strong character development and intriguing plot. The dialogue was a bit more predictable indicating that the screenplay was not quite as well written as the original. However, the dialogue was a minor distraction. The strong characters, interesting interactions and misdirection were carefully constructed to create an intriguing story.

Colin Farrell has played good guys and bad guys with equal capability. In Hart’s War he gets to be the good guy. A bit wet behind the ears, a bit gullible and a bit conflicted, but overall a good guy. Farrell does an exceptional job of bringing these character traits to life. A fallable character with negative character traits that really believes in justice and honor…combinations that make for a realistic character. Bruce Willis is a bit more type cast in his typical tough guy role, where he is the one in control. Willis excels at this type of character and delivers it with his normal intensity. Willis character is also flawed making the performance that much more enjoyable. Another notable performance came from Terrance Howard, who I also consider to be an excellent actor. Howard’s character Lt Scott) provided insight into the concept of honor that could not possibly have been matched by the other two characters. Lt Scott believes in America and understands the meaning of sacrifice in a way that only his character could explain it. Howard gave that character the credibility needed to sell the entire plot. An outstanding job by a veteran cast.



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Monday, December 22, 2008

Watching The Detectives


I noted that Watching The Detectives was a film-noir based romance comedy starring Cillian Murphy and Lucy Liu. I was familiar with Murphy from Redeye, and Batman Dark Knight. Murphy was also in Cold Mountain, a film I have not seen in it’s entirety. Murphy has not hit the big time yet, but I consider him to be a solid actor. His co-star in Watching The Detectives is Lucy Liu…what more can I say? I decided that this film couldn’t be bad. I was wrong.

Watching The Detectives was written and directed by Paul Soter. As near as I can tell, this was Soter’s Directorial debut. It is also one that I think he hopes he can forget. If it is a sign of things to come, Soter won’t be Directing for long. Watching The Detectives is touted as a comedy romance about a lonely video store owner (Murphy) with a quirky group of regulars who treat his store like a coffee shop. It is a gathering place for hard corps film buffs. An eccentric and attractive girl (Liu) shows up one day and ends up dating/taunting the video store owner in a mating ritual unknown to any culture I have ever studied. The ensuing events are meant to create comedy but really act more as an incessant irritant.



Neil (Cillian Murphy) and Violet (Lucy Liu) are both eccentric in many ways. In terms of character development, I should have loved this movie. Generally we get a set of bland predictable characters with zero personality. Instead, Watching The Detectives pelts us with quirkiness in a non-stop bizarre plot that is difficult to follow and appears to go too many directions. Violet is a practical joker, but her jokes aren’t funny. In fact, her character was so tedious I started to dread any set up where I knew a joke was coming. It was simply bad. In every sense of the word. The plot was also non-existent. I think that they were going for something along the lines of…Violet sets Neil up to take the fall for her and then has a change of heart…but instead, I was completely lost. The dialogue was a bright point…it was interesting…even if it was predictable at times. The originality in this film make it a wasted opportunity. What could have been a decent film with strong characters and fresh dialogue was lost in a mess of failed comedy. Maybe they should have made this one straight drama.

I find it hard to judge Murphy and Liu because they really didn’t have much to work with. Murphy was actually good, considering he was the straight man. Liu made me grind my teeth. I like Lucy Liu. I didn’t want to dislike her character but it was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Her part was a complete mess, which is no fault of her own. However, if this were the first film I had ever seen her in, I would probably have an unfavorable opinion of her. I guess that is why it is important for actors to pick strong scripts. A bad script can really make a good actor look bad. That is exactly what happens to Lucy Liu in this film. The supporting cast were equally eccentric, but actually weren’t that bad. The misfit band of video store lurkers were a decent diversion from the train wreck script.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire


With all the new movies coming out this past weekend, nothing looked worthwhile. It was a down weekend for Premieres. Most of the mainstream movies were tracking three stars...the same for the Independent movies near me. I thought about Syndoche, New York or Happy Go Lucky, but they were both hitting three stars as well. I checked an Independent theater a little further from my house and saw Slumdog Millionaire which I had not heard of. A quick search of several movie websites (including Epinions) revealed nothing less than five stars. With raving reviews everywhere I looked, my mind was easily made up. What would we do without the internet?

Slumdog Millionaire tells a story of star-crossed lovers whose destinies are intertwined. It also tells the story of two brothers who love each other, but see the world through the eyes of opportunists. As young boys they are orphaned, leaving them to fend for themselves in the trash heaps of Mumbai. The older boy, Salim Malik (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Madhur Mittal) takes on the role of protector at a very young age, often taking advantage of his more trusting younger brother Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda and Dev Patel). The boys were portrayed during three stages of their lives (the actors being listed from youngest to oldest).



After their mother is murdered, the boys are forced to fend for themselves. The two boys fashion themselves to be two of the three muskateers (names given to them by their teacher for their early antics). Jamal notices young girl caught in the rain while he and his brother have found shelter. Malik tells the girl to go away, but Jamal convinces his brother to allow her into their shelter. The three have guaranteed their destiny. Through a series of life stories, Jamal ends up on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He has risen from a lowly slumdog to the position of Chai Wallah at a telephone company. His job is to bring chai tea around to workers. His sharp intelligence and quick wit makes him very popular amongst his friends at the company.

Jamal's knowledge of individual bits of trivia put him in a position to land himself on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He doesn't do it for the money. He does it in order to find his lost love, Latika (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Freida Pinto). Destiny finds Jamal in the form of questions asked on the show. Every question is a story on Jamal's life journey. And through the questions, we learn how Jamal has come to being on the program. From his very first question, which tells the story of how Jamal ended up getting an autograph covered in dung to the very last question that brings events up to the present day, we are introduced to every element that has shaped his journey. It is an amazing piece of story telling where no idea or concept is lost. The biggest question is whether the ending will be happy, tragic or both.

Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan directed this amazing piece of cinema. Taken from a novel written by Vikas Swarup, the screenplay was created by Simon Beaufoy. The writing was spectacular. The approach was fresh, incorporating elements that people can relate to anywhere in the world with distinctly Indian flavors. The characters were incredibly well developed with human traits that transcend cultural differences. The dialogue was well formulated with language that was credible. The film was shot mostly in English with some sub-titling carefully placed in lighter areas of the film with back-shading. This made it easy to track the foreign dialogue during action sequences, so nothing was lost in the story telling. An incredible plot mixed with a dash of comedy made for an amazing story. It was gripping until the credits started rolling.


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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Eye 2


The Eye 2 (Gin Gwai 2) is an Asian horror film by the Pang brothers, who did the original, The Eye, as well as The Tesseract and Bangkok Dangerous. Although touted as a sequel to The Eye, this film is more of a stand alone production with it’s own storyline. The fact that this film is not merely a sequel works to it’s advantage, creating opportunities to go in different directions without the constraints of remaining true to some previously determined formula.

I like the Pang brothers. I thought Tesseract covered some new territory in a well constructed piece of cinema. In the first Gin Gwai, the main character discovers the spiritual world following a cornea transplant. Rather than bringing back the other characters and trying to create a continuation of the first film, the writers (Lawrence Cheng and Jojo Hui) created a new set of circumstances surrounding the delicate topic of suicide, which plays a prevalent role in the film. The choice to go in a new direction with this film seemed to be a wise one. The Pang brothers who produced the movies along with the writers managed to deliver a fresh look at the original concept in The Eye 2, without using the original as a crutch.



In The Eye 2, Joey Cheng(Shu Qi) has a deepening relationship with a man named Sam (Jesdaporn Pholdee). Joey does not realize that Sam is married. At the beginning of the film, you witness a cell phone conversation between Joey and Sam from Joey’s point of view. The telephone call gives the impression that Sam does not want to see Joey anymore. There is a bit of a misunderstanding, because Sam’s wife (Eugenia Yuan) overhears his conversation while he is speaking to Joey. The misunderstanding leads to a failed suicide attempt by Joey.

As the film progresses, we begin to see overlapping points of view regarding the conversation between Joey and Sam. Additionally, we find that Joey has become haunted, with a spirit taunting her leading those around her to think that Joey has emotional problems. Joey does not fully understand what it happening to her and seeks guidance from Buddhist Monks. The Monks assist Joey in understanding the spirits she is seeing, but Joey does not want to give in. To avoid spoiling major plot twists, suffice it to say that Joey is pregnant and does not want to have her baby. Her realization of the events that she is experiencing creates some good creepy fun.

The Eye 2 deals with interesting issues like Karma and Reincarnation. The reincarnation angle of the movie actually makes it a little less spooky, although the creepy factor remains high enough to keep the suspense level up. There were elements of The Sixth Sense in the film, although the concept was not stolen from that film. The idea for this film is more rooted in the religious traditions of the Far East. The writing is a bit confusing at times, but the overlapping stories eventually work well together to tie together some interesting plot twists. The writers did a good job of keeping the pace moving while maintaining a decent level of eeriness.


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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Flying Scotsman


The Flying Scotsman is based on the true story of Graeme Obree, a Scottish bicyclist who set speed records in the 1990’s with his unconventional riding style. But this movie is more than just an inspiring film about a bicycle deliveryman who builds a record breaking bicycle out of spare parts. This movie delves into the mental health issues that plagued Obree, and the affect that his illness had on Obree as well as the people around him. The real struggle in this movie wasn’t so much against the Cycling Federation as it was a struggle with deep emotional trauma. The movie is as much about exorcising demons as it is about exercising muscles. Obree’s exceptional physical condition belied the fragile mental condition explored delicately but poignantly in this film.

The Flying Scotsman was carefully crafted by writers John Brown, Simon Rose and Declan Hughes. The story balances the emotional turmoil Obree suffered from with the triumph of Obrees inventiveness and dedication to his sport. The story provides background on Obree’s emotions struggles before tracking his rise, fall and recovery in the sport of cycling. It is likely that the writers took some artistic license with the ingenuity that Obree displayed, drawing his inspiration from the unlikeliest of places. The characters in this movie are flawed in a way that makes them endearing. It is more than a story of inspiration and overcoming physical challenges to rise to the top of your sport. There are parallel plot lines dealing with the rule changes directed at Obree’s unconventional riding style as well as the mental health issues. The challenges are carefully scripted to augment the story without unnecessary distraction. The dialogue was rich and fresh with characters that interacted with credibility. The writing was exceptional.



The casting in The Flying Scotsman added to the credibility of the movie. I am not one to distinguish a Scottish accent from any other, but the accents sounded believable. It did not appear to me that any of the actors were putting on their accent…and at times I had trouble distinguishing what some of the actors were saying. The stronger accents required intense attention to even catch the flavor of the conversation. There were times when the accent and unfamiliar terminology had me completely lost. The credibility came at the expense of my thorough comprehension of the exchanges. Jonny Lee Miller was cast as Obree, providing intensity to the role that was often needed, but at times a bit overdone. Miller was plausible in the mental health parts…the parts I felt were overdone were the training bits where I didn’t fully buy the intensity of his concentration.

Sean Brown was the younger Graeme Obree, struggling against the schoolyard bullies. Brown had a limited role but portrayed Obree nicely. Obree’s long-suffering wife Anne was portrayed by Laura Fraser. Fraser had a limited role, but was superb in her restricted capacity. Obree’s Manager and good friend Malky McGovern was played by Billy Boyd. Malky becomes frustrated at times with Obree’s moodiness and stubbornness but remains a good friend. Boyd found the right balance to demonstrate the tenuous relationship between the two men. One of the key relationships in this film was between Obree and a minister named Douglas Baxter. The role of Baxter went to seasoned Scottish actor Brian Cox. Cox’ performance was exemplary. The chemistry between the two men was plausible adding dimension to both characters. The casting complimented a well constructed script.


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dorm Daze 2


I did not watch Dorm Daze, so I really did not know what to expect going into this film, other than the fact that it was a National Lampoon film. National Lampoon can be hit or miss. I guess National Lampoon without Chevy Chase is like cereal without milk. This movie just didn't have the oomph to hold my interest. A good clue regarding the quality of this film, if I had been paying attention, may have been the name "Kato Kaelin" in the credits.

Kato Kaelin actually had a minor role in this film. His line "I like boobs" was credible, but far from an artistic stretch. Who doesn't like boobs? I don't mind nudity in a film...in fact, I welcome it. But there is a fine line between art and pornography....this film bordered on pornography. The quality of the film, the dialogue and the constant need to find a way to insert nudity and sexual themes over shadowed the mediocre comedy.



The writers of this film, Worm Miller and Patrick Casey also have roles in the film...Brady and Mike, respectively. The plot centers around a College Cruise, a precious gem and a theatrical competition. The combination of factors converge to create inane situations that are attempts at humor. The comedy might work if it didn't borrow so heavily from other films. There was nothing new or original about this film. The characters were flat, the dialogue was hackneyed and the plot was barely visible. It seemed like a college free for all on a boat, with some plot lines thrown in for good measure. It wasn't very funny, was predictable and failed to measure up on any level. A look at the American Pie series might have helped the writers. American Pie was a very sensual group films, but the plot kept everything in context. It seemed like this film was striving for that type of humor without the intellect.

The acting was equally weak. There were no performances that I could point to that seemed credible. The characters were so flat I don't know if the cast could have done anything to save this film. The writers wrote themselves into the script, but did not impress me any...at least write yourself a good role. An idea about the thought process in the casting might be the selection of two porn stars, one for a major role. The Ship Captain's wife (Jasmine St. Claire) likes to invite men to her room, her large (obviously fake) breasts are given a starring role. I guess this was the Queen of Gang Bongs' attempt to go legit. She was joined by former Playboy Playmates, Katie Lohmann and Vida Guerra. None of the other cast members are worth mentioning.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Arthur and the Invisibles


I watched Arthur and the Invisibles over the weekend. The synopsis on this film made it sound like it might be age appropriate...geared towards my ten-year-old son’s age group. After watching this film, I would probably adjust that downward a bit, with ten being on the upper end of the spectrum for this film. The very basic plot and predictable writing make this film a simple straight-forward movie with very little for the adults that are watching it. All things considered, it wasn’t bad, but it was forgettable.

Arthur and the Invisibles tells the story of a boy named Arthur (Freddie Highmore), whose grandfather was an explorer in Africa. Arthur lives with his grandmother while his parents look for work in a larger city. His grandfather mysteriously turned up missing sometime before the movie begins. Arthur’s grandmother (Mia Farrow) has a developer attempting to foreclose on her property so he can build. The foreclosure is looming two days away. Arthur is determined to prevent the eviction and sets out decoding messages left by his grandfather. In the process, he discovers a secret portal to the land of the “Minimoys” a small African tribe that his grandfather relocated to the family’s backyard.



Arthur alerts the tribe to the pending development which will destroy their habitat. Arthur must find rubies that his grandfather entrusted to the care of the Minimoys, in order to prevent the pending foreclosure. In the process of finding the treasure, Arthur is joined by a Minimoy Princess Selenia (Madonna). Arthur and Selenia travel to the land of Necropolis, where the Evil M and his henchmen have their own plans for destroying the Minimoys (and where the treasure and Arthur’s grandfather also reside). In a race against the clock, the group must save the Minimoys from the Evil M, while preventing the foreclosure.

The storyline had some major flaws, which would probably not be considered by the younger audience that this film was geared towards. One of the issues I had was the fact that the developer was interested in a remote plot of land in the middle of nowhere. The entire premise of the foreclosure was a bit forced and seemed to create an artificial timeline that was difficult to swallow. The characters were also shallow, with no compelling attributes. This created minimal connection with the audience, making the entire performance forgettable. The pacing was good, moving along at a fast pace, with very little wasted effort. There was plenty of excitement written into the script although not much in the way of sub-plots. It also appeared that film borrowed elements from many other works. Some of those elements could have been changed slightly to make them fresh, but instead were left as obvious reminders that the script lacked originality. As a whole, the writing left a great deal of room for improvement.

Freddie Highmore spent half the movie as a real boy and the other half as an animated Minimoy. Highmore surprised me with his performance. Although the script was rather predictable, Highmore was convincing. There is one scene where Highmore has tears in his eyes, which did not appear to be put there during a cut. Highmore sold the emotion and did not overplay his hand. He is an outstanding young actor who will probably have plenty more movies in his future. Mia Farrow had a more limited role, but was delightful nonetheless. Although her character did not have much room for development, she was great. Snoop Dogg had a cameo voice over as a Rastafarian club owner…a fun diversion, but not much in the way of demonstrating his acting chops. Madonna provided the voice of Princess Selenia. I can’t stand Madonna, but her voice over performance was tolerable. Other voice animation included cameo’s by David Bowie (Evil M), Robert DeNiro (Princess Selenia’s father), Harvey Keitel, Jason Bateman and Emilio Estevez. The casting was strong, but having a long list of familiar names certainly doesn’t guarantee a hit.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Goya's Ghosts


Goya’s Ghosts begins in a dark room where several clergymen are gathered around a large wooden table. A high ranking clergyman (Michael Lonsdale) shuffles through a stack of prints that have been placed before him which depict grotesquely disfigured characters. It seems as if the characters are mocking the Church and the Holy Inquisition. A discussion ensues around the table regarding the artist, who it is discovered, it held in high regard. The Church’s response to the prints becomes the topic of discussion. An up and coming clergyman (who himself has commissioned a portrait) defends the artist, Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) indicating that the appropriate response should be to reinstitute the “old ways” of the Inquisition to elicit confessions from heretics. This clergyman, Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) asks to provide leadership and instruction in identifying heretics, which he is granted.

While he is sitting for Goya, Lorenzo notices an unfinished painting of a beautiful young woman. He inquires about the young lady, Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman) in a passing conversation with Goya. A few days later, the young lady is arrested by the Inquisition under suspicion of practicing Jewish beliefs. The unfounded charges are based on the fact that Ines visited a tavern where pork was served and ate only chicken. Ines’ denials of practicing Judaism are put to “the question” which consists of being stripped naked, having your hands bound behind your back, and being lifted by your arms until a confession is tendered. Ines confesses leading to her imprisonment pending trial. Goya is asked to intercede on her behalf by her wealthy family. Goya invites Lorenzo to dinner with Ines’ family in order to broach the subject of her release. Lorenzo indicates that her confession can not be overturned because it would erode the credibility of the Inquisition. Lorenzo is tortured until he confesses that he is the prodigy of two primates. The confession is tendered to King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) after Lorenzo fails to convince the church to release Ines.



Lorenzo becomes a fugitive, fleeing to France. When the movie jumps fifteen years, the French are on the verge of seizing Spain, leading to a major power shift. The relationships established early in the film come into play in various ways after the French succeed in bringing their regime to Spain. The power shift creates interesting dynamics which end up shifting yet again before the movie completes. There are some interesting ironies that arise from the imprisonment of Ines that are explored following the arrival of the French. The ruthlessness and greed of the French occupiers is short lived leading to further events, all of which seem to loosely tie around the life of Goya.

Goya’s Ghosts was written by Milos Forman (who also Directed) and Jean-Claude Carriere. The story appears to be mostly fiction, although there are strong factual elements throughout the plot. The characters are well developed with actions that avoid the formulaic writing of Hollywood. The interactions are sometimes intense, avoiding any temptation to strive for tidy happy endings. Because Goya was considered one of the last great Masters, whose work influenced modern artists, it placed him half in one era and half in another. The political events of his era saw remaining influences from the Inquisition combined with the French Revolution and the ushering in of a new era. This creates an exceptional background for a Period Piece that explores some of these issues, incorporating them into a gripping story. The dialogue was sharp adding depth to the characters and script. As a whole the writing was excellent.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An American Haunting


What initially attracted me to the tale called An American Haunting was the fact that it was touted as a true story based on the Bell Witch of Tennessee. Having recently watched Werewolf Hunter, another film based on a true story from the annals of history, I thought I might be in for some good suspense. The teaser indicated that this story contains the only documented case of a haunting that resulted in death. The teaser promised something that it quite simply didn’t deliver.

The story of the Bell Witch is apparently well documented in American folklore. If you conduct internet research on the subject will return half a million results. It is a well documented story from the early 1800’s. In the true accounting of the Bell Witch, many strange events were reported, which mirrored the events that were depicted in An American Haunting. However, Courtney Solomon took liberties with the original accounts (I might call them “indecent liberties”) in an effort to give the plot a twist. These changes to the original story make the entire premise that this film is based on a true story a stretch at the very best. I felt duped after watching this drivel, expecting a climactic ending based on historical events. Instead, I was given a weak plot twist that felt contrived, in order to try and provide scientific foundations for the story. The liberties go far beyond artistic license.



John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is an upstanding member of his church and community. We find Bell early in the movie defending himself against his neighbor, Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown) who many people consider to be a witch. The church elders find Bell guilty of usury for charging Batts twenty percent interest involving a property dispute. Batts appears dissatisfied with the judgment, feeling recompense for the timber taken off her land should also be included in the judgment. When her plea falls on deaf ears, Batts takes matters into her own hands. As they are exiting the tribunal, Batts places a curse on John Bell and his daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). This curse begins to manifest itself in the Bell household, where the entire family begins to witness strange events. Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), John Bell Jr (Thom Fell) and family friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) also witness strange events in the house. Attempts to exorcise the haunting fail, leaving the family at the mercy of the entity. The film was okay up to that point, tracking much of the documented history. However, the deviation late in the film from the true story does little to further the story, focusing instead on an ill-advised plot twist that ruins the entire story.

An American Haunting is based on a novel written by Brent Monahan. Because the story is based on true events, the scare factor is built in. The important aspect of the writing was to create intensity within the script while keeping the story within the proper context. Deviations from the documented events and minor changes to make the story more interesting would have been fine. But changing the entire premise of the events, and failing to deliver something as simple as the events listed in the teaser leave the story severely lacking. The complete upheaval of this story for a cheap twist was a dumb move. Although the characters were well developed and the dialogue from the 1800s was interesting, the overall story was a farce, leaving me to feel cheated.

The acting in An American Haunting, was a redeeming quality. Although I wasn’t thoroughly convinced by Hurd-Wood’s performance, I have been a long-time fan of Donald Sutherland. As usual, Sutherland impressed me with his skills. Sutherland’s accent could have easily been distracting, but it was subtle. There was a slight drawl that indicated he resided in the south, without the stereotypical excess that southern accents sometimes garner. Sutherland’s performance seemed natural rather than affected. Sissy Spacek was also excellent. Spacek was credible in a motherly role, with a legitimate 1800s look that fit her well. Gaye Brown did not have a major role, but her character was integral to the story…she was strong in her performance as well.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

American Gun


I watched American Gun after being impressed by Forest Whitaker in another ensemble drama called The Air I Breathe. Although American Gun held my interest, it was not nearly as good as the latter. Both stories follow several characters whose lives intersect at various points. However, the storyline is nearly as intricately interwoven in American Gun. Additionally, it appeared to me that the film provided different perspectives on the idea of gun ownership. In doing so, it seemed that the film took a position against guns without being particularly preachy about it. I would have panned this film if it had been overtly anti-gun. However, they managed to keep the film credible by keeping their sentiment within the confines of the script.

American Gun takes place nearly three years after a Columbine-type incident. The concept is conveyed through security camera footage showing children running from a classroom. Eventually we see a subject holding a rifle come into view of the camera. The movie follows the events surrounding this incident. The story shows the interaction of the shooter’s mother Janet (Marcia Gay Harden), his brother David (Chris Marquette) and the first Police Officer on-scene the day of the incident, Frank (Tony Goldwyn). The three characters interact late in the movie as the film tracks their individual involvement in events memorializing the shooting victims. David seems to struggle, especially after learning that he can no longer attend his private school, meaning he will have to attend the school where the shooting occurred. His reluctance becomes softened after he meets Tally (Nikki Reed) who doesn’t seem to judge him based on his relationship with the shooter. Tally ends up crossing paths with Frank late in the film into the rolling credits.



American Gun also follows two other stories that aren’t very closely woven into the greater story. One interaction involves a Chicago school Principal named Carter (Forest Whitaker) who crusades against school violence and desires to promote change in his community. However, the dangers of getting to school and back simply make the students more creative. One student, Reggie (Kevin Phillips) has to cover some rough territory getting back and forth from school. He hides an unloaded firearm in a secret spot on the school grounds when he gets to school. The principal catches him one day and has to consider suspension. Reggie does not get his gun back and chooses not to get another one. Reggie also moonlights at a gas station in a bad part of town. The crack heads are rampant and the opportunity for violence is abundant. That violence manifests itself during the night shift after Reggie opts to travel unarmed. Several gunshots into his attendant’s booth manage to miss him and he finishes his shift beneath the counter.

The final story involves a gun store owner, Carl Wilk (Donald Sutherland). Sutherland is another one of those actors that I love to watch. However, in this film they give him nothing to work with. The storyline involves the relationship between Wilk and his granddaughter Mary Ann (Linda Cardellini). It seems that Mary Ann doesn’t care too much for the rural lifestyle and isn’t really into guns. She doesn’t show much affection to her grandfather who she has stopped calling “papa.” The storyline was an unnecessary diversion that really didn’t add anything to the film. In fact, it was boring at times. I did not understand how the characters were intended to add anything to the theme of the film, finding the entire set of characters to be distracting.

The writing (written by Bagatourian and Aric Avalino) wasn’t entirely bad. There were elements to the film I liked. The characters were interesting and the writing created some excellent dramatic opportunities. They provided Harden and Marquette with some great dialogue and conflict which provided excellent value to the film. Yet the gun shop storyline failed to connect with the audience creating yawns if anything. The violence in the Chicago storyline was compelling and provided great opportunities for the writers to allow the characters to develop and interact, which they did adequately. What the writers give us amounts to two-thirds of excellent writing and one third of a script that amounts to crap. This film also fails in terms of being an examination of the American Gun Culture because it failed to deliver any positive messages. I was expecting the Gun Shop Owner to intervene in a rape or other violent crime and effectively become the hero…an opportunity to show the positive aspects of gun ownership. That was a pipe dream. Aside from that, the characters were interesting and the dialogue was sharp, especially the family exchanges. In essence, the writing was a mixed bag.


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Monday, December 8, 2008

The Air I Breathe


The Air I Breathe is allegedly based on a Chinese Proverb about life. At the beginning of the film, there is a quote that I can’t quite recall, which sets the stage for the film. To paraphrase, Life consists of four basic elements…Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love. I tend to be a bit jaded towards Hollywood, whose attempts at profundity sometimes seem whimsical and superficial as opposed to their intended depth. The concept that life would be comprised of these particular four elements just doesn’t seem like something a philosopher would come up with. So mark me in the skeptical column regarding the premise of this movie. Snopes failed to confirm my suspicions on this one.

Major Spoiler Alert (skip six paragraphs)
Having dismissed the premise of this movie as a product more of Hollywood than Confucius, I must say that I enjoyed the film in spite of myself. The Air I Breathe tells four intertwining stories based on this alleged proverb. The elements are applied singularly to four individuals and how that element expresses the essence of the character being studied. The four studies intersect in a single story of rebirth. It begins with an investor Happiness (Forest Whitaker) who appears to be obsessive compulsive. He is infatuated, not surprisingly, with butterflies (a theme that works it’s way into the film many times). Happiness interacts with a single client that we observe, amazed at the accuracy of his client’s investment prowess. Happiness ends up overhearing an inside tip on a horse race, which leads him to break from his normal routine and invest 50,000 dollars. The horse trips and falls, leaving Happiness on the hook to a mob boss named Fingers (Andy Garcia). Fingers explains to Happiness what the consequences are for trying to run, making an example of another debtor by removing a finger.



Happiness decides to try and run, and discovers that Fingers has an enforcer that happens to be his best investor. The enforcer is called Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). Pleasure is waiting in Happiness’ home when he returns and attempts to pack his belongings. As Happiness attempts to head out the front door, Pleasure stops him, and shows that he is visibly angry over the choices Happiness has made…forcing Pleasure to intervene. Pleasure holds a small handgun to Happiness’ head, before handing the firearm over to him. The handgun has a small butterfly on the handgrip. Happiness realizes that he has lived his life within a set of rules that he chooses to free himself from. The liberation leads Happiness to plan a bank robbery in finite detail.

Pleasure is Fingers’ right hand man. He has the ability to see the future. It is a gift that does not allow him the liberty to change the future. So what does it matter? Pleasure is never wrong. Pleasure is tasked with showing Fingers nephew “the ropes.” Fingers also shows Pleasure an album cover featuring a singer (Trista, which means Sorrow) whose contract he has won through a bad debt. Pleasure does not see anything when looking at the girl on the album cover. An indication that Pleasure’s gift may be failing. While showing Fingers nephew the ropes, Pleasure is wrong for the first time in predicting the future, resulting in a severe beating. He is rushed to the hospital where he is treated by Love (Kevin Bacon).


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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Basketball Diaries


Basketball Diaries has an all star cast. Of course, at the time it was released back in 1995, many were lesser known than they are now. Three stars who would later become familiar faces in The Sopranos (Vincent Pastore, Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco) have relatively minor roles. The film is headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, who later teamed up again in The Departed. Juliette Lewis is reunited in this film with DiCaprio, her co-star from What's Eating Gilbert Grape. This film was filled with famliar faces.

Basketball Diaries tells the story of addiction and redemtion of Jim Carroll (DiCaprio). The movie is based on a true story, taken from the notebook type diaries that Carroll kept during his time as a rising basketball player and through his fall into the depths of addiction. Carroll's addiction is fueled through unhealthy friendships with long-time friends Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) and Pedro (James Madio). Carroll has already begun an unhealthy lifestyle when his best friend Bobby (Imperioli) dies of lukemia. Carroll is hit hard by his loss and eventually ends up with a severe heroine addict. The addiction to heroine is described in his own voice as excerpts from the diary describe the initial freedom the heroine brings from pain, followed by the increase in use from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays, until it finally becomes a strategy of living for the next fix.



Carroll's mother (Bracco) kicks him out. While running the streets, Carroll, Mickey and Pedro end up burglarizing a closed candy store/soda fountain resulting in Pedro's arrest. Mickey tends to be over the top, constantly living for the moment, while Carroll's introspection shows glints of promise. Carroll passes out in the snow drenched in his own urine when Reggie (Ernie Hudson) finds him and brings him home. Reggie tries to dry Carroll out the hard way. Carroll's struggles show the reality of relapse and the lengths that a junkie will go to for a fix. The addiction leads to Mickey's arrest and incarceration, followed shortly thereafter by Carroll's arrest and time at Ryker's Island. The film is a study of the cycle of addiction and the hope of redemption.

Because Basketball Diaries is based on a true story, it makes the film more gripping. The reality based aspect of this film brings home the extent of drug addiction, the core theme in this film. The characters in this film may have been enhanced to make the film more interesting. The depth of the characters and uniqueness of the roles was interesting. There were a few cliches in the characters, but several of the characters were passing and did not have time to develop. The main characters were developed enough to create a connection with the audience. The plot was fairly simple, a true story of redemption, but contained enough detail about the character to make the plot unpredictable at times. The dialogue was distinctly New York providing a nice accent to the piece.

The cast was exceptional. Easily the strongest aspect of the film. As dramatic and touching as the true story is, without strong acting to bring the characters to life, it would be an empty kettle. The cast were credible, avoiding the opportunity to slip into stereotypes or overacting the drama. This is especially true for DiCaprio who had to show the pain of heroine withdrawals. Something I have witnessed first hand. It was hard to watch. DiCaprio adequately captured the pain and intensity of withdrawal in a stunning performance. Another excellent depiction of addiction came from Juliette Lewis (Diane) who is "jonesing" in several scenes has the non-verbal gestures that seemed to provide more information about her state than her lines. Lewis was believable, delivering an excellent but limited performance. Wahlberg, Bracco, Imperioli and Madio were all exceptional. The cast created a striking film worth watching a decade later.


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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Let The Right One In


It seems I have been stuck in a Vampire and Werewolf rut lately. With films like Werewolf Hunter and Twilight, and my book review of New Moon, why stop? My latest venture into the genre is a recent Swedish film called Lat Den Ratte Komma In (Let The Right One In). This film, based on the book of the same name, was released in October 2008. The author, John Ajvide Lindquist, wrote both the novel and the screenplay. I have not read the book, but I would imagine the screenplay remains fairly true to the book considering this fact.

Let The Right One In begins by winning the audience over to the underdog bullied schoolkid, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant). Oskar seems likeable although obviously bookish. His withdrawn personality shows evidence of deeper issues at home. We discover that Oskar's parents Yvonne (Karin Bergquist) and Erik (Henrik Dahl) are divorced and have a lot of their own baggage. This baggage leaves little room for Oskar to bask in the affection of his parents. The bullying further represses Oskar into a caccoon. Oskar has a lot of deep emotional scars that are evident from his knife play and pretend stabbings, as well as his macabre book of eerie news clippings.




When Oskar meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), she begins their friendship by telling him they can't be friends. An interesting introduction. Oskar seems intrigued by Eli and a gradual relationship begins. At some point in the relationship, Oskar figures out that Eli is a vampire. She is twelve years old (give or take), but has been that age for an apparently long time. With Oskar's realization that Eli may be the only friend he has, the fact that she is a vampire seems to be a minor issue. The budding friendship is strained a bit when Oskar is exposed to the brutality of Eli's hunger, but he overcomes his shock and maintains good will toward his friend. The friendship begins to show positive effects as Oskar begins to defend himself from the bullying, which leads to further conflict later in the film. Let The Right One In examines relationships in a way that parallels Twilight but with a much sharper edge. The film explores relationships with some touchy subject matter to provide good drama.

The writing in Let The Right One In was strong. The pacing was a bit slow, but this film is not Hollywood, where everything seems to have an artificially fast tempo. The dialogue is translated with sub-titles. There were a couple of times where the sub-titles seemed off a bit, but I'm not certain. One particular exchange involved translating "a hole in the ice" but appeared to be written into the script. However, something in that exchange got lost in the translation. The dialogue was powerful and plausible. In this genre, shortcuts are common. You can't let anyone know a vampire is around...the vampire reveals himself/herself to the human, etc. Not in this film. Let The Right One In allows the characters to evolve without interference. Secrets are exposed and have to be covered or discovered, both of which happen. The characters are well developed and have a variety of traits that make them credible. The plot does not get off track with details and manages to provide a great deal of background with little wasted space. As a whole, the writing was excellent.

The casting was exceptional. Let The Right One In hinges on the believability of a twelve year old who may be hundreds of years old. Leandersson was phenomenal as Eli, with saucerlike blue eyes that filled her large sockets with a waifish innocence that somehow seemed twelve. Yet there were times that Leandersson's gestures, posture (and perhaps make-up) seemed many years older. Her performance was phenomenal and belieavable. Hedebrant has an instant likeability that enhances his performance. His slender build seems fragile, but his intellect appears developed. Hedebrant effectively conveyed the concept of a bullied child with inner demons that seem to escape through odd behavior that no one else seems to notice. The two had great chemistry on film. It was odd that they took a love story much like Twilight subtracted five years in age for the characters and conveyed a more convincing relationship...which is saying a lot. The rest of the cast added to the credibility of the film.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Legends of the Fall


Legends of the Fall was released more than a decade ago. However, it is a timeless classic with plenty of twists and turns. With a star studded cast, breath-taking scenery and superb writing, this film was destined to become a Classic. Classic it is. I can blow the dust off of this one, put it in the DVD player and it still seems as fresh as the first time I saw it. A saga of love, betrayal and family struggles that keeps viewers riveted from start to finish.

Legends of the Fall is set during World War I and the Prohibition era. An Army Colonel (Colonel Ludlow played by Anthony Hopkins) retires in the West after resigning his Commission. The treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the Government seems to weigh heavily on his conscience. The rugged outdoorsman opts to raise his family on a ranch where the gritty lifestyle is too much for his wife Isabel (Christina Pickles), who moves back to the city, leaving Colonel Ludlow to raise their three sons Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and Samuel (Henry Thomas). The movie is narrated by a good family friend, One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis).



As the boys mature, Samuel falls in love and becomes engaged to Susannah Fincannon (Julia Ormand) who is apparently enamored by Tristan. Before they have a chance to marry, the three brothers end up fighting against the Germans as members of the Canadian Army. Samuel is killed during the war. Tristan and Alfred return to the ranch, but Tristan leaves to search for himself. While Tristan travels the world, Alfred ends up marrying Susannah. Tristan returns after several years to find that his father has had a stroke and his brother has married Susannah. Tristan ends up marrying Isabel Two (Karina Lombard), the daughter of Decker (Paul Desmond) and Pet (Tantoo Cardinal) who live and work on the ranch. Tristan ends up engaging the local rum runners, cutting into their profit margin, while Alfred ends up running for Congress and getting elected. The situation ends up in a showdown with tragic results.

Legends of the Fall is based on a novel written by Jim Harrison. The screenplay was written by Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff. The characters are diverse and intriguing with idiosyncrasies that make them unique and interesting. The interactions between the characters are plausible and make for strong storylines. The plot ebbs and flows interspersing excellent action scenes with thought provoking drama. The dialogue is sharp, avoiding hackneyed language in favor of less predictable speech. Although the foreshadowing indicates some of the plot direction, the plot is not very predictable. Strong emotional sequences spring from the many plot twists. The writing was exceptional.

Not only does Legends of the Fall contain a few acting superstars, but the roles in which they are cast are well chosen. Brad Pitt is a surprisingly good fit as the adventurous Tristan. Although Pitt is a pretty boy, he really sells the part as a hard corps frontiersman with an extreme edginess. Pitt easily carried this film in the lead role, which could have been easily miscast. A grittier actor might not have balanced all the traits that Pitt was able to offer his character. Hopper was also spectacular. The process of mimicking a stroke patient and having the audience believe it is not easy. Hopper manages to convince viewers that half his body is paralyzed. I’m not sure how he was able to hold that look for so long, but it was effective. Hopper and Pitt offered awesome star power with great chemistry to lay the foundation of the strong performances in this film.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Bolt


I went to the early showing of Bolt yesterday, managing to avoid the long lines. The crowd was surprisingly mixed, with predominately younger children, but a few teenagers mixed in. My ten year old son seemed to have plenty of company in his age group. The target audience for this film seemed to be pre-teen, but there was plenty of good stuff for all age groups.

Bolt tells the story of a dog, by the same name, who is a Hollywood superstar. The only problem seems to be that no one has told Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) that he is simply an animal actor. The Producers of his television series keep Bolt in the dark regarding his superpowers, opting to allow him to believe he really has special powers. It seems that they are able to capture more meaningful expressions from the dog because he really believes he is protecting his human, Penny (Miley Cyrus). Penny wants Bolt to simply live a normal dog life, but her agent (Greg German) seems to like to burst her bubble. When Bolt escapes his studio in an attempt to save Penny, he ends up on a cross country trip that reveals his sheltered past and exposes him to the truth about his powers. The learning process creates opportunities for some fun diversions. Bolt is assisted on his journey by a cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and a hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton).



The writers, Dan Fogelman (who also provided the voice for a pigeon) and Chris Williams (who co-Directed with Byron Howard), put together a decent diversion filled with interesting characters. Animated films are generally predictable. Targeted towards younger audiences, I generally don’t expect a lot in the way of plot twists. However, Bolt manages to make the journey fun, with plenty of great dialogue and interesting characters. Some of the characters are flat and predictable with clear lines regarding who the good guys and bad guys are. But the characters that count are interesting, with quirks that are fun to observe. One concept worked into the film involved pigeons, who represent their respective regions with appropriate dialect. The pigeons in New York sound like wise guys, while the California pigeons have a distinct Hollywood sound. We even get to see some Country pigeons. The pigeons were a brilliant idea. As a whole, the writing provided interesting subject matter and unique characters, making Bolt a fresh new animated release.

The casting was strong, with some heavy hitters in the line-up. Although the strength of the “acting” comes from the animation, the voice-overs were great. John Travolta provided the majority of the voice work, while Miley Cyrus had a fairly large role. The two of them worked well together. Susie Essman seemed to have a bigger role than Cyrus, providing a bit of the drama in the film. Mark Walton was the best of the animated voices as an over-zealous television fanatic hamster that wants to be an action hero like Bolt. Walton delivered his sharply written lines with the kind of enthusiasm that made the part credible. The animation that accompanied his parts were fun to watch…a hamster with histrionic non-verbal gestures that were bigger than life. The pigeon voice work was also exceptional. They pigeons captured the essence of their communities in sharply delivered performances that seemed to transcend the limitations of the animation.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Boy In The Striped Pajamas


movie like this can really only be compared to one other - Schindler's List. However, it is very different from Schindler's List in many ways. Boy In The Striped Pajamas tells a riveting story in a manner that can't help but draw the audience in. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this film and it did not disappoint. Well, one thing disappointed me. This film was only available at one of the ten theaters near me...an independent theater. That is a travesty. Many people will unfortunately not be exposed to this great work of art.

In my first life, I was a soldier. A Marine. There's a thing that we do as soldiers, and as a people, that de-humanizes our enemies. We give them names. Terminology is seditious. It has a way of convincing us that we have the moral high ground. In the military we used to call the "moral high ground" a good place to sight in artillery. Terms like Kraut, Kyke, Redskin, Yank or Nip remove the humanity from our opposition creating an equivocation that provides a moral ambiguity behind which we can hide. A deficiency that allows us to commit atrocities while good people look the other way. The words of Edmund Burke express it best, "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing."



Boy In The Striped Pajamas exposes this mythology by telling the story through the eyes of the executioner. Well, more accurately, through the eyes of his son. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is not unlike any other eight year old. In the middle of a war, he and his friends enjoy playing Army with finger pistols and extended arm airplanes. The fly freely around Berlin until Bruno's father (David Thewlis) receives a promotion. His promotion takes the family out to a country home which is tightly guarded, restricting the freedom of movement in an interesting contrast. The boy's mother (Vera Farmiga) feels mounting stress as she discovers that the concentration camp her husband has become Commandant of has been tasked with burning detainees. Bruno wants to be an explorer when he grows up, and feels confined within his courtyard. He discovers a way out through an out-building, and runs freely through the forest.

Bruno has seen a farm through his window, where he observes the farmers wearing strange striped pajamas. As Bruno runs through the forest, the woods open up to a small creek beyond which is the farm. He seems startled at the sight of the large barb wire fence looming on the other side of the creek. As Bruno scales the other side of the creek he sees a boy his own age on the other side of the fence. He learns the boys name is Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) who is also eight years old. The two boys develop an unusual relationship through the electrically charged wire. This relationship leads to betrayal and reconciliation.

Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a stark reminder of the human aspect of war. That behind atrocities lie people. Behind people there is often compassion. Small things, like thanking a prisoner for patching a boy's scraped knee. When we see the visible struggle of the Commandant's family, the obvious opposition of his own mother (Sheila Hancock) and the mental breakdown of his wife, the story hits home. This is not about "them" it's about US. It is the other side of the same coin. The fierce brutality has a human face with no misleading monikers attached.

Boy In The Striped Pajamasadapted from John Boyne's novel by the Writer/Director Mark Herman. The story is compelling. The characters are the strength of this movie. They are eerily real, removing the barrier that we might try to construct between reality and our own sanitized system of beliefs. The characters touch us with their plausibility forcing us to face our own capacity for darkness. The depth and dimension of the characters, like the ability to make a death camp Commandant human, creates a strong storyline. The plot winds out towards inevitable disappointment, which it delivers. If you want happy endings, this is definitely not the movie for you. It is poignant, dark and brooding. As I stated in my title, this film left me gasping for air.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Chocolat


I have owned the video for Chocolat for quite a while, but it seems like I keep forgetting to watch it. I dusted it off yesterday for an afternoon viewing. I needed something sweet to chase the awful drubbing my Detroit Lions suffered at the hands of the Superbowl-bound Tennessee Titans. I have heard many good things about this film, mostly from my good friend Harold, who watched this movie at the theater several years ago. I was not disappointed.

Chocolat tells the story of a young drifter, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) who blows from town to town with the clever North Wind. She is a confectioner whose chocolate possesses seemingly magical qualities. She travels with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) and her imaginary kangaroo. Set in France in the late 1950s, the small villages that Vianne visits tend to have a low tolerance for her lack of religious fervor and seeming lack of traditional values. We catch up with Vianne as she and her daughter brave the harsh winds entering a small village on Sunday, where all but one of the villagers appear to be in church. The lone holdout being Armande Voizin (Judi Dench) who owns a Patisserie that Vianne asks to rent. Vianne’s arrival in the village sets off rumors and speculation, much of it fueled by the pompous Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) whose staunch morality appears threatened by Vianne’s arrival.



Reynaud makes it clear that he does not like Vianne, especially when she opens a Chocolate Shoppe in the middle of the Lenten season. He advises Vianne that her business will not last until Easter. However, the town soon realizes that Vianne’s chocolate has a magical quality to it. It rejuvenates the enjoyment in life that many of the locals appear to have missed. The arrival of river people along the banks of the Village further exacerbates the tension within the community. Vianne’s acceptance of people and willingness to defy the Reynaud creates an atmosphere of competition that is destined to be counter-productive. The competition triggers a regretful chain of events. While these events unfold, the arrival of Vianne changes many dynamics within the Village as her ability to touch people becomes apparent. Vianne must also learn that helping others means nothing if you don’t help yourself.

The screenplay for Chocolat was adapted from Joanne Harris’ novel by Robert Nelson Jacobs. The story does not have a complex theme or strange twists, which makes it fairly predictable. However, the concept of a chocolatier touching people through sweets and affecting the community is an interesting one. The characters are interesting, inserting themselves into the lives of the audience. They seem like genuine people with normal longings. They are an eclectic group with an array of eccentricities and quirks. The interactions and growth that the characters experience in response to the events during the story make them all the more enjoyable. The dialogue was not hackneyed, but was predictable at times. Although the direction of the movie was easy to guess, it was fun watching the characters lead us through the story.

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