Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pride and Glory

From the first trailer I saw for Pride and Glory, I knew this was a movie I would catch at the theater. Maybe it was the fact that Jon Voight, Colin Farrell and especially Edward Norton appeared as central characters. But it might have been that my curiousity was piqued by the suggestion that a family member might have to cross the Thin Blue Line against his own brother. The trailers gave this film an epic feel that played out the same way in totality. This film delivered everything I expected making it another great film for 2008.

Pride and Glory takes a name that plays on the pro-American Patriotic sensibilities of middle America. It is a very generic name that will probably keep movie goers away. That is unfortunate. A bit more creativity in naming this film might have done it more justice. Something that played off the family theme might have suggested the major elements of this film. It's amazing how much injustice a poorly named film can cause. I almost missed this film when looking up the new releases for the weekend by name. Once I clicked on the link, I immediately realized this was one that I wanted to see.

Pride and Glory tells the story of a police family. It is not uncommon for this profession to get handed down from one generation to the next. Jon Voight is a wheel in the Police Department...forty-one years given to the NYPD. His character, Francis Tierney Sr. has two sons who have followed in his footsteps. Franics Tierney Jr. (Noah Emmerich) is a Captain in the 31st Precinct. The other son, Ray Tierney (Edward Norton), has been voluntarily reassigned to the Missing Persons bureau where he has been hiding for two years since an incident involving police brutality which caused him to lie to the Internal Affairs Bureau. Tierney also has a daughter, Megan Egan (Lake Bell) who is married to one of Captain Tierney's Sergeants, Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). The 31st Precinct has gained a reputation for crime down and collars up...but the reputation in the community isn't as positive. Constant shake-downs and police corruption plague the community and have ired regular citizens as well as the criminal element. Francis Tierney Sr. talks his son ray into reassigning from Missing Persons to the Task Force investigating the homicide of four officers in the 31st Precinct. Guys that Ray once worked with. Ray reluctantly agrees and finds himself exorcising his own demons as he realizes that the homicide is pointing toward corruption within his brothers command. Unsure of the level to which this corruption reaches, Ray confronts his brother Franny, who lies to him. The tension in the family creates a family dynamic combined with the law enforcement concept of having each other's back. Ray finds himself in a quandry, trying to decide whether to take the easy way out or whether to follow his heart.

The writing in this film was excellent. There were a few scenes that required a bit of leeway in order to allow events to unfold in the manner that the writers wanted. One such scene has Ray clearing a building following shots fired. That just doesn't seem reasonable. However, the story as a whole delivered a great deal of credibility. The characters were believable and possessed an array of qualities that made them seem human. The human element was carefully crafted into this story which could easily have slipped completely into the police realm. The dialogue was interesting, combining enough police jargon with normal conversation to create a balance. The sub-plots worked together well to lead to an acceptable ending that didn't make you feel cheated. I remember thinking at one point that there was no way they could create a happy ending to the film. The ending wasn't necessarily a happy ending, but it tied up loose ends, which I liked. The combination of strong dialogue, interesting plot lines and character development demonstrated strong writing by Joe Carnahan and Gavin O'Connor.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008


I saw several positive reviews for Tideland, some from writers who I hold in high regard. Although this movie sounded quirky in a not-so-positive way, I figured I would give it a go. In exchange for my curiosity and willingness to "stick it out" in hopes of improvement, I received nothing. Okay, maybe some of the cinematography was interesting and Jeff Bridges as a junkie was sort of interesting to watch. But for the most part, this film was a complete waste of two hours.

Tideland is a weird tale, sort of a fractured fairy tale, that starts with a young girl (Jeliza-Rose played by Jodelle Ferland) cooking heroine up for her junkie father Noah (Jeff Bridges). Shortly thereafter, her mother Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly) dies in her sleep. Jeliza-Rose does not get much attention from her addict parents and has developed an extensive dialogue with her doll-head companions. Much of the movie explores her internal conversations with her pretend friends. After traveling to her deceased grandmother's house on the plains, her father OD's on heroine, slowly decaying over a period of days. Jeliza befriends an odd family on a nearby farm, which adds a whole new dimension to the level of strange that this movie seeks to reach. It is hard to tell reality from fantasy in this film, which explores a wide range of taboo subjects. In fact, it seemed at times that this film was meant to shock and provoke dialogue with very little substance used as a vehicle to deliver it.

The writing in this film was tedious. There was a funny scene on the bus, where Noah's bodily functions serve as comic relief. However, it's pretty bad when the only comedy you can achieve it cheap potty humor. This was a very dark film that explored some touchy subjects in a way that was painful to watch. It was literally like watching a train wreck. The writers failed to touch the audience with the characters which were all entirely out of touch with anything most people can relate to. Even Jeliza-Rose, who was required to carry this film, lacks the depth to create much of a bond with the audience. The lack of character development, reality and dialogue was tedious. Jeliza-Rose has conversations with her pretend friends, using a falsetto voice when in character...making it very difficult to understand what she is saying. Using a child in a strange character to carry a film was a disastrous mistake.

The casting wasn't bad, but the best part of the cast didn't last long enough to do anything. Unless you count Jeff Bridges slowly decaying and watching his tongue eventually turn black counts as acting. Bridges was actually pretty good, the only bright spot, during his rather short existence in this film. Jennifer Tilly didn't last past the first ten minutes. Her character really didn't have time to get to know the audience, never mind connect. Ferland was cute and likeable, but her character limited her ability to win the audience over by force of her personality or innocence. With the voices in her head, she was really hard to watch at times. Brendan Fletcher was exceptional as an epileptic (Dickens) who had part of his brain removed. His performance and character was weird but believable...maybe just a hint overdone. His relationship with Jaliza-Rose is eerie. Janet McTeer plays Dickens sister Dell. She was just plain weird. I didn't like her in the least bit in this movie. The cast was mostly bad. Probably because of the writing...but they were all hard to watch at times.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

I am a longtime fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. My first recollection of his work was his portrayal of a Med School student in Patch Adams. Hoffman played an intense character under self-induced stress from his efforts to follow in his father’s footsteps. In this film, Hoffman’s relationship with his father is strained at best. However, the intensity and instability that he brings to his characters was artistically evident in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Hoffman (as the lead character, Andy Hanson) easily carried this film with a tremendous performance.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead tells the story of a two brothers who don’t have the best relationship. The older brother (Hoffman) has an overbearing intense personality that he plies against the younger brother, Charles Hanson (Ethan Hawke). The chemistry between these two characters shows an imbalance that provides an early indicator or family dysfunction. This is confirmed when we discover Andy’s plan to rob their parents jewelry store. Andy delegates the dirty work to Charles, who seems incompetent in the simplest of tasks. Andy employs the assistance of a thuggish friend named Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O’Byrne). Charles and Bobby undertake this task with amazing ineptitude leading to disastrous results. The fallout from this botched robbery peels back the layers of dysfunction in the family, revealing all of the ugly scars that have been hidden. The interaction of the characters reveals hidden secrets, grudges and the unraveling of whatever fabric was still holding the family tenuously together.

Kelly Masterson put together an exceptional screenplay. The success of the screenplay hinged on the Directing, which Sidney Lumet conducted flawlessly. The film reminded me a lot of something Quentin Tarantino would produce. The story begins with rough intercourse and nudity…just to get your attention. The movie then moves immediately to the point that would be the climax in most other movies. After providing details of the central incident in this film, we begin flashing back and picking up important pieces of the puzzle. We start with the what and then begin examining the why. This examination is conducted through a series of overlapping snippets. As the past catches up with a version of events we have already witnessed, the camera angle changes providing a different perspective on events we already know about. In this manner, the story evolves in a jerky manner. This technique could have been weak and distracting. Done right, it was fresh and interesting. The dialogue between the characters was strong and direct. The language provided credibility and provided the characters depth. Although dysfunctional, the characters oddly connected with the audience. That may be a product of good character development, providing a series of personality traits that made them human. Maybe even in the dysfunction, we can see a bit of ourselves in the characters. The plot was exceptional, providing an interesting take on criminal thinking and botched criminal activity. Overall, the writing was magnificent.

The writing was paralleled by an amazing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many actors that could have been cast in this role and may have made the part work. However, this part seemed to be tailor made for Hoffman. The intensity that this character conveyed required an actor with an emotional palette that could convince the audience of his calculated instability. For me, this was Hoffman’s best performance. There was one scene where he destroyed things in his apartment…it wasn’t rage…it was sort of a controlled fit where he casually released his pent up anger in an eerie display of emotion. Ethan Hawke was required to project a quality of submissive instability and ineptitude that he convincingly managed. His character had the right balance of submissiveness to Hoffman’s off kilter power plays. The two worked great together, delivering a stunning performance. When you add the expertise of an old pro like Albert Finney, you get nothing less than what you would expect. I thought Albert Finney was exceptional in A Good Year. His portrayal of Andy and Charles’ father in this movie was solid. His depression, anger and loss gave way to vengeance in a riveting thought-provoking performance. Marie Tomei provided some sub-plot material, but it occurred to me that she might have been in this movie for his breasts, which were shown in abundance in this film. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing. Her performance wasn’t weak, but it seems she was undressed more than she was dressed in this movie. This covers the major players in the film, the rest of the cast was strong, with no performance standing out as particularly good or bad. As a whole, this movie was exceptionally well cast.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Perfect Witness AKA The Ungodly

The Perfect Witness is also known as The Ungodly. For some reason, this dark thriller didn’t make it to the big screen. Although far from being a blockbuster, I felt that The Perfect Witness was as good as many of the thrillers that have been in theaters lately. This movie probably would have had a niche audience and might have created a decent amount of revenue. Serial killers seem to be a popular thriller theme, with everything from Hannibal to the Showtime series Dexter delving into the subject.

Rather than simply pitting the police against a killer, we get insight from an amateur documentary producer (Mickey Gravatski…played by Wes Bentley) who has carefully tracked the killer with eerie precision. Gravatski studies the scenes where several of the killings happened, looking for evidence from nearby areas. He uses that information to lie in wait, capturing a killing on videotape. Gravatski uses this tape to strike a deal with the killer (James Lemac…played by Mark Borkowski) to produce a documentary. Lemac unwillingly agrees to the arrangement, videotaping insights into his background and charitable work. Lemac slowly pries information from Gravatski until he gets enough to turn the tables on his blackmailer. Gravatski ends up on the wrong side of the blackmail, but continues to uncover details regarding Lemac’s childhood and family. The juxtaposition of the characters and personal interactions provide tense situations that keep the audience guessing.

The Perfect Witness was well cast, with Borkowski presenting a riveting performance as a dark brooding emotionally scarred serial killer who hides his transgressions behind his charitable work with cancer stricken children. His tense edginess brings credibility to a character that has a little bit of depth. His chemistry with Bentley is interesting. The movie hinges on the performance and interaction of these two characters in a cat-and-mouse sort of way. Bentley is a recovering drug addict that ends up slipping back into his altered states as pressure mounts on him. The visible changes in behavior are a tribute to his excellent performance. Joanne Baron performs the role of Lemac’s sister Megan. Baron does a good job in her limited role, showing anguish and fear without overdoing it. Beth Grant had an extremely limited role as Lemac’s mother. She was okay, but didn’t have much to work with. The cast as a whole were solid, with the primary characters bringing a degree of plausibility to a rather difficult to accept premise.

The writing in The Perfect Witness was decent, primarily in the area of dialogue. The exchanges between the characters provided insight into their mental processes and often involved deep philosophical exchanges. The premise that provides the foundation of the story requires a good stretch of the imagination. But as a guy that enjoys the Dexter series, I guess I shouldn’t be pointing out the faults of believability. The plot is interesting because it takes a different tack on the serial killer thriller genre. The involvement of the characters provides an interesting backdrop for the story. My main problems with the writing were two-fold. First, the characters were slightly developed, but could have used a bit more latitude. Second, the ending left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t a bad ending and it certainly wasn’t predictable. But it sort of left a lot of loose ends hanging. I hate that feeling at the end of a movie. A bit more closure would have made this movie exceptional for me. As it stands, it was a decent script that was worth watching but nothing spectacular.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

City of Ember

Mixed reviews. You have to love them. You don’t know what you are getting yourself into when you go into a film that none of the critics can agree on. City of Ember wasn’t necessarily panned, it just hasn’t gotten exceptional reviews. I had not read a review raving about this film prior to taking my son to see it over the weekend. So I really did not have high expectations going in to this one.

I was pleasantly surprised at this film. It wasn’t one of those films that creates a lasting impression and it certainly will never go down as a classic. However, City of Ember was an entertaining take on Science Fiction from a child’s perspective. It is a film that was heavily marketed to younger viewers (my son claimed he had seen the trailer to this film several times, but I had never seen it…so it must have been on Nick or Disney Channel). The marketing must have worked, because the theater was crowded during the matinee showing. The crowd appeared to be around my sons age, ranging from seven or eight up to about twelve for the most part. Just a few years younger than the characters this film portrays.

City of Ember tells the story of an underground city built by “The Builders.” The builders planned the city to withstand unstated changes occurring in the world at a critical juncture in time. The sealed instructions for leaving the underground city in a metallic box designed to open in 200 years. The box is passed from one city Mayor to the other over a century and a half. One Mayor dies unexpectedly and the box lies dormant in his closet for the remaining half a century, opening unnoticed in the closet. We pick up the story at a tumultuous juncture, when the city is undergoing severe difficulties. Powered by a giant generator, the city is wholly reliant on its continued functioning in the absence of adequate parts and knowledge. Blackouts, food shortages and a corrupt Mayor indicate that things are unlikely to improve. It is illegal to venture outside the lighted areas of the city which means that there is no way to know if anything exists beyond the cavernous walls of the subterranean society. A couple of recently graduated students hold the future of the city in their hands. Their combined knowledge might hold the key to the world beyond their city. Finding that world is an adventure filled with minor sub-plots that are sometimes interesting and at times a distraction.

City of Ember is based on a 2003 book written by Jeanne Duprau and adapted to a screenplay by Caroline Thompson. I did not read the book and can offer no comparisons between the two. Duprau wrote a sequel called The People of Sparks which may find its way to the big screen if this movie manages to do well. The plot does not contain much complexity and is a bit predictable, which makes it age appropriate. The characters are interesting in a Who-ville sort of way. The sub-plots are shallow and seem to be intended to provide details related to the overall story. I found the storyline to be engaging and the characters developed enough for my liking.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008


It has been years since I watched Nightwatch. I watched again last night and remembered why this film appealed to me. The plot was a bit predictable, but still had enough twists to keep you guessing. This film was interesting and at times riveting. With just a bit of tweaking this could have been a memorable film. The all star cast and interesting script made for two hours well spent.

Nightwatch tells the story of a law school student, Martin Bells (Ewan McGregor), in his final year (hopefully) of school. To help offset his bills he takes a job as a nightwatchman at the County Morgue. The midnight shift to make things interesting. His best friend James (Josh Brolin) is an odd character who feels like his youth is wasting away. He seems jut a bit off balance...but is he off balance enough to kill prostitutes after making them "play dead?" That is the question that begins to arise and threatens their friendship. Martin becomes the prime suspect in the search for a serial killer. The lead investigator (Nick Nolte) lets Martin know he doesn't believe Martin to be the killer...that he may be getting set up in order to release the real serial killer from suspicion. Wierd things begin happening during the night shift that have Martin crying "wolf" one too many times. As the investigation comes to a head, the characters begin unraveling the truth as their paths cross at inconvenient times.

This film was written and directed by Ole Bornedal whose credits include a dozen foreign films and television programs. His ability to create characters with depth and credible quirks made this movie interesting. Quirks create doubt, which can build suspense or keep you guessing which way the plot is going to break. The quirks that Bornedal injects his characters with are sometimes subtle but sometimes a bit more flagrant. These traits infuse believability into a script that tests the boundaries of plauisibility. The dialogue was interesting. The interactions between the characters seemed natural except in circumstances where the dialogue was intended to foster doubt or cause tension. I cared enough about the characters to remain interested and found most of the characters to be well developed and interesting.

The addition of a star-studded cast certainly made Nightwatch much more interesting. Watching Josh Brolin eleven or twelve years younger was amusing. I probably didn't even know who he was when I first saw this film. Nick Nolte on the other hand, has always been one of my favorites. Nolte delivered his typical solid tough guy performance with a little bit of an edge...something that seems to come natural for him. His performance along with Josh Brolin's were enough to keep me just enough off balance to be unsure of where teh plot was headed. Ewan McGregor carried this film and delivered a performance that was quirky enough to be odd but had an innocence that never really made me doubt his character. Patricia Arquette plays his girlfriend/fiance Katherine and did an excellent job of selling a wide range of emotions. Arquette had a smaller role but was exceptional in that role. Brad Dourif was a bit of distraction as a Duty Doctor who believes Martin is undermedicated and could use some help from the "Zine Family." Thorazine. Dourif didn't have many lines, but his appearance was interesting and certainly quirky.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Dirty Love

Dirty Love was heavily panned on its release in 2005. I watched this movie with great trepidation figuring it would be a complete waste of time. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this film had some great comical qualities that were sometimes overdone. Some of the excess was to the point of nausea. There was one scene in particular I could have done without. With that considered, I felt that the humorous elements in this film outweighed the excess to the point where I could actually find myself moderately recommending this film. But I won’t go quite that far.

Jenny McCarthy wrote and starred in this comedy, which tells the story of a heart-broken photographer who wants to try and win back the affection of her male model boyfriend of two years. The film starts out on Hollywood Boulevard, which was interesting, since I recently returned from a trip to that location. McCarthy’s character (Rebecca) visits a fortune teller on that road…I don’t know if it’s the same location, but I remember seeing a fortune teller store front on Hollywood during my recent visit. Rebecca learns from the fortune teller that she will find true love if she is watching for her white pony…a play on words that ultimately leads her to understand where her opportunity for true love lies. Her friends are odd and one-dimensional, especially Carmen Electra, who plays a ghetto talking body waxer. Her friends set her up on various dates in an attempt to make her boyfriend jealous. Instead we get puke down the blouse and plenty of other bodily functions, but especially butt fetishes. Weird…but oddly funny.

The screenplay provided a rather weak and extremely formulaic plot that really offered nothing new to this genre. The characters were so laughably flat that they completely lacked any credibility. The dialogue was tedious at times, due in large part to the characteristics assigned to the players. The only strong point in the writing was the comic elements, which were sometimes refreshing. The comic situations set up in the script often involved toilet humor, which is sophomoric, but also lends to cheap laughs. Although tawdry, I actually got some pretty good laughs from it. There is a grocery store scene that involves another bodily function that was so disgusting I almost turned the movie off. In effect, the only redeeming quality in the writing was the guffaw inducing comedy that occasionally hit. Some of the comic elements fell flat.

Jenny McCarthy was actually very funny. I know she won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress in this film, but I disagree. Her facial expressions and delivery have the capacity for inducing laughter. Although she was not entirely funny, I thought that she took a rather weak script and managed to keep it interesting (even if she is to blame for the script, too). Her character had a little bit of dimension, but not much. I was intrigued by her character in spite of the fact that she was very predictable. Carmen Electra justifiably won Worst Supporting Actress for this film. She was horrid. In totality, the cast was moderately good, but didn’t have a lot to work with here.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

He Was A Quiet Man

What thoughts go through the mind of a meek office worker in the moments before they begin killing off their co-workers one at a time? We read about these incidents in the paper and watch them on the evening news. It always seems the neighbors knew there was something just not quite right…but He Was A Quiet Man. It’s odd…people in retrospect identify anti-social behavior, yet point to the non-confrontational aspects of the deranged shooters’ personality. This film ventures into the mental machinations of one such man…

Bob Maconel (Christian Slater) works in your typical cube farm. His visible appearance immediately sets him apart as different. His “Members Only” jacket an indication that he is the last remaining “member.” Slightly balding, front teeth that could use a bit of dental work and glasses that have that serial killer look to them. An odd man indeed. What makes Maconel even odder is the fact that he has a revolver in his desk drawer and fumbles with his bullets as he loads the weapon. Close up camera work reveals the intensity of the moment, as Maconel mumbles under his breath with each bullet he loads. He looks from person to person describing and numbering his victims to coincide with their position in his cylinder. The sixth one he has trouble loading…he doesn’t want to admit who it’s for…but he knows…the sixth one is his own.

To fully describe the events that happen in perspective would give away major plot details. So suffice it to say that Maconel goes from zero to hero after dropping his sixth bullet. As he stands up, he hears shooting and observes his co-workers falling one-by one. Maconel intervenes in the shooting spree after an interesting but brief conversation with Coleman. Maconel empties his revolver through the partition, striking Coleman five times. He then goes to the aid of a female co-worker who survived the assault, staying with her until help arrives. Maconel is rewarded for his heroism and works his way through a plethora of issues as the plot slowly unravels. Small clues are dropped throughout the movie to hint at the direction the movie is going, saving the final revelations for the last scene.

The screenplay for He Was A Quiet Man (written by Frank Cappello) contains a strong story-line complete with several sub-plots that are all tied into the main story effectively. Because of the nature of this film, the sub-plots are used to create distractions that reveal small clues regarding the character and conflict. There are several visual cues also written into the script. The characters in this movie are developed to varying degrees, with the main character carrying the story. The characters change with perception changes which I thought was consistent with the plot. The dialogue was also interesting. There were some interesting exchanges between Maconel and his goldfish. The dialogue also included cues regarding the broader storyline. There was juxtaposition in the story, where Maconel is mowing his lawn and listening to music with earplugs. Following the music into Maconel’s ear, we see inside his mind that he has switched places with another character who is in a wheelchair. This mental image of Maconel in a wheelchair in his mind sort of conveyed the concept of mental handicap. It was an interesting use of imagery. This is one example of many that are implemented throughout the film to assist in telling the story. The writing was exceptional.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Clay Pigeons

Somehow I managed to go ten years without seeing Clay Pigeons. Judging by the reviews I have read, this is a movie you either like or hate. There are some average ratings, but overall, it appears that this film evokes strong opinions. Personally, I am in the “love it” camp. Clay Pigeons takes an interesting somewhat predictable story and delivers an entertaining piece of cinema highlighted by superb acting.

Clay Pigeons drops you right in the middle of the action, where the title character, Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix) is drinking and target shooting with his buddy Earl (Gregory Sporleder). Although there is a strong redneck feel to this film, the backdrop feels more like Wisconsin or Minnesota. Beer, shooting at beer bottles hanging from a tree and a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. I thought this movie had a great start. Earl ends up as the first of many bodies that are discovered by the Sheriff (Scott Wilson). As bodies turn up all over town, the FBI steps in. Agent Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) leads the search for a potential serial killer, and has her eyes set on Clay. A series of twists and turns (some predictable) lead us through a tangled web of deceit and violence.

Clay Pigeons was written by Matthew L. Healy. It is his only credited screenplay. Healy managed to produce interesting dialogue, with characters that were a bit on the flat side. Clay Bidwell has a little bit of depth, but the rest of the characters fall into stereotypical behavior. In spite of the flat characters, the dialogue provides enough substance to overcome this defect. The Sheriff’s Deputy Barney (Vince Vieluf) is a predictable Barney Fife patterned character. Although Barney is inept, his character provides some comical exchanges between characters. The plot and sub-plots are skillfully woven together to keep the story from being completely opaque. At times I thought I knew where the plot was going, but wasn’t quite sure. The script manages to keep you guessing throughout the film.

The acting in Clay Pigeons was its greatest strength. Vince Vaughn was eerily funny and scary at the same time. His character (Lester Long AKA Lyle AKA Bobby) provides some interesting drama accompanied by a creepy laugh. It was weird seeing Vaughn and Phoenix together, both of them ten years younger. The two had great chemistry together and provided credibility to the story. Georgina Cates character, Amanda, was predictable. Given that fact, Cates managed to present her character in a fun enjoyable performance. She was a cold hearted witch and completely sold her part. Janeane Garofalo did moderately well in her role as the lead investigator. I wasn’t completely sold on her part and didn’t care too much for her character. However, her character wasn’t completely weak. I was interested in seeing where she would go with the part and she grew on me as the movie progressed. Overall, the cast did an excellent job creating continuity and believability within the confines of the script.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Doing Hard Time

Every once in a while I watch a film that fails on every level with morbid curiosity. I can’t help but wonder how a script that makes no sense whatsoever could ever get bankrolled into production. They say there is a sucker born every day, but whoever laid out the cash for this film is the Sucker King. Doing Hard Time was written by Preston A. Whitmore II, who has several screen plays to his credit. Several of these scripts are prison movies, which would make one think that Whitmore would be capable of creating an accurate depiction of prison life. Instead, this film tries to survive on writing that lacks any semblance of continuity or plausibility.

Doing Hard Time tells the story of a drug deal gone bad, followed by a foot chase involving gunplay that was the brief highlight of the film. During the gunfight, a young boy is shot in the eye by one of the drug dealers. Neither drug dealer will tell on the other regarding the shooting so they are both convicted of the small quantity of drugs recovered by police. They are sentenced to five years in prison. The father of the young boy who is killed falls into a deep depression and decides to get himself locked up in order to avenge his son’s death. An improbable series of events in prison fails to resolve the many issues created by this film. The cops and prison guards all appear to be corrupt, the bad guys are varying degrees of good and the twists and turns that are attempts at plot fail to add up.

The problems with this script are numerous. The father of the deceased boy is consumed by anger and depression. The bad guys only have to do two years of their sentence before they can get out. If he wants revenge, he can simply wait two years. Instead he sets a series of events into motion to get himself locked up and equipped to handle himself on the inside. If you consider it would take months for such a plan to unravel, the parole date for the bad guys would be close anyway. Additionally, the father creates a weapon that can be manufactured in prison. This weapon would not be detected by a magnetometer. So, if you really can’t wait, it would be quicker and easier to make the weapon, visit the inmates and kill them inside the prison as a visitor.

Aside from the fact that you pretty much have to accept that all prison officials are on the take and all Police Officers are conducting profile traffic stops and abusing prisoners, the story here still manages to require extreme stretches of the imagination. We get to witness a prison fight, complete with the mandatory “prison shank.” What didn’t make sense to me was that the fight took place in the kitchen, where knives were abundant…at one point the conflict ends up on a table where a silverware container gets knocked around. Neither inmate is armed at that point and either one could have easily grabbed a weapon. The timing of the events was forced and poorly thought out. Another concept that never played out for me was the fact that the boy was holding a video camera at the time he was shot. I though the film from that camera would come into play at some point in this movie. I was surprised that it was entirely forgotten. In every sense, the plot in this movie lacked substance and credibility.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008


My personal movie tastes include a wide range of genres. Westerns rank in the lower echelon of my personal favorites. Every once in a while, a classic western (like 3:10 to Yuma) comes along and captures my attention. But for every 3:10 there is a Tombstone. The latter put me to sleep better than a warm cup of milk.

I had high hopes going in to Appaloosa based largely on the reviews I had seen. I figured I might be in for a let down from the very beginning. I was surprised to see that Ed Harris managed to put together a film that had a decent pace (for Westerns), some interesting plot twists and intelligent dialogue. The sub-plots were well thought out and combined to create an interesting story where the cowboy rides off into the sunset.

Appaloosa takes place in the days when City Marshals only lasted as long as their ability to be the quickest on the draw. There is always someone faster. The concept was succinctly captured by the narrator, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who related that he isn't too knowledgeable about the law stuff. Hitch is partners with another traveling gun slinger, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris). Cole finds work as City Marshal of Appaloosa along with his partner Hitch. Hitch refers to the work as a way for a gun slinger to legally ply his trade. We have a bad guy in a black hat...Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his rag-tag gang of less capable gun-toting sidekicks, a dame Allie (Rene Zelwegger) who threatens to break up the good guys, and a tumbleweed town along the railroad that needs protection. Not an entirely new concept, but not necessarily cliche, either.

The thing that set Appaloosa apart for me was the interpersonal exchanges. The characters are fairly well developed and not always predictable. We learn that Cole strives to be educated but lacks the mental faculties to fully grasp less common language. Hitch is sort of the sidekick, but as a former Army Officer has some education under his belt. He handily provides his partner with words that escape him...a sometimes comical diversion from the story. The dialogue was rich and the exchanges belieavable. There were great uses of archaic or uncommon language. One exchange has a Judge telling a young witness to get on his horse and ride while the bees are still in the butter. Dialogue like that is hard to find. As we discover the depth of some of the characters, we invest varying degrees of concern over their welfare.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Spider (2002)

Perception. That’s what comes to mind as I reflect on the movie Spider which was released in 2003. Spider examines the burden of living with mental illness, providing insight through the title character Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes). The film cleverly provides insight into the internal workings of Cleg’s mind through the use of visual cues as well as through the changing appearances of some of the key characters. I thought that the script was intelligent and insightful but dragged at times. The slow pacing was part of the story, but will probably turn off many viewers.

Spider begins with a train pulling into a station somewhere in England. We watch, like a relative, as an eclectic array of people exit the train. We slowly move along the exterior of the train with people passing us until the very last rider exits cautiously onto the platform. If it is not evident from his disheveled appearance that he is suffering from mental illness, it soon becomes more readily apparent as he retrieves a sock from his groin area. The sock and a small satchel appear to contain all his earthly belongings. The journey to the halfway house is a slow laborious process with bits and bobs distracting our main character on his journey. The panoramic filming is breathtaking, filling the wide screen with photographically superior images. It’s not that the scenery is necessarily exotic, it’s the framing and isolation that is captured by the camera that is stunning. This might be lost in translation to a television with traditional ratio aspects.

Upon arrival at the halfway house, we are introduced to two characters who interact at times with Cleg, the Superintendent of the house and another resident, who seems to babble incessantly, but actually provides insightful dialogue at times. Much of the movie centers on Cleg exorcising his demons. We realize that he is in the town where he grew up. There is a scene where he lies in a garden and sobs. It seems unexplainable until later in the film. There is a correlation with this garden that I may not fully understand beyond the revelation of Cleg’s perceptions from his childhood. Much of the film is spent recalling his childhood, where memories flood back down to exact words. As his childhood unravels expectation builds on gaining clarification on Cleg’s condition. That clarification, like much of this film is shrouded in darkness. Perception. The cobwebs of time are trimmed back to Cleg’s recollections, errant and otherwise, leading to revelations hinted at throughout the movie.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Nutty Professor II

In spite of his crude and often stereotypical humor, I have always found Eddie Murphy to be extremely entertaining. However, The Nutty Professor II failed to meet the high expectations I had for it. Although there were several funny sequences, this movie basically rehashed the original.

THE PLOT... The plot is basically the same as the original movie. The venerable Professor Klump struggles against his arch-nemesis, Buddy Love. However, Buddy Love is a product of the Professor's own DNA. In the original movie, Buddy Love attempted to take over the Professor's identity by drinking the "secret formula" and maintaining his appearance as the professors alter-ego. In the sequel, Buddy Love attempts to surface through Professor Klump's sub-conscious, causing him to seek a radical gene-extraction formula to rid himself of Buddy Love forever. However, the experiment backfires, and Buddy Love generates himself out of scientific goo and the DNA from a dog hair. As extreme and unlikely as this plot is, the comedy centers around Professor Klump again trying to outsmart his alter-ego, to maintain control of the NEW "secret formula." By the way, the new formula rejuvenates age (the Fountain of Youth) and a pharmaceutical giant is offering the $150 Million for the formula. Of course, Buddy Love is willing to undersell at a mere $149 Million.

THE LOVE CONNECTION... Professor Klump must really have great charisma, because both movies feature his relationship with a true hottie. This time, Janet Jackson captivates his dreams (she also conducted the research that led to his development of the new she is intelligent as well as beautiful). Professor Klump attempts to court this intelligent and capable colleague, while battling the conniving Buddy Love. Of course, the good guy finally ends up with the girl. There is a nice scene where Professor Klump proposes to his dream girl by spraying pheromones on lightning bugs, causing them to light up his message.

MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER... How does Eddie Murphy manage to keep his characters straight? I imagine that he must REALLY get into character. His ability to believably portray a variety of characters has always amazed me. Especially the Jewish guy in "Coming to America." However, the characters were very one-dimensional and relied on the success of the first movie. Professor Klump's mother clapped her hands i the first movie and said "Hercules, Hercules." She does it a dozen more times in the sequel, saying "Billy Dee" or any other host of names that come to mind. The grandmother is nastier, and talks incessantly about sex. The father starts a fire at the All-You-Can-Eat restaurant, by farting. The brother complains about everything. There was very little new material here.

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Remember The Titans (Spoilers)

I would definitely add Remember The Titans to my list of lifetime movies. My Lifetime Movies are movies that have left an indelible impression on me. Among the other movies that grace this category are Schindler's List, The Green Mile, Forrest Gump, and Platoon. Although I have not heard much acclaim about this movie, I felt it effectively dealt with a very turbulent period in American History without delivering a political agenda.

Two high schools in Virginia are forced to integrate. This integration finds it's first opposition in the football program, because football camp takes place prior to the beginning of the school year. The white head coach feels like the in-coming black coach and his players are a threat to his already successful football program. The black coach (Denzel Washington) comes from a small North Carolina school, where he was an assistant coach. He is passed over for several head coaching positions that he was probably most qualified for. Virginia does not have a black head coach, and Washington is given the job to satisfy a quota. However, the powers that be plan to remove him at the first opportunity.

While the coaches are dealing with the dynamics of the strained decision to appoint Washington as head coach, the players are forced to overcome THEIR own biases. The players head out to camp two separate teams. One white, one black. Teamwork is emphasized while they are at football camp, and Washington's no-nonsense approach forces the players to bond. This bond seems impenetrable until they return to the real world, and are faced with the prejudices of their families and friends. However, the football program experiences huge successes, and the players find a way to remain tight.

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Patriot (Spoilers)

watched this movie on video for the first time today. I wanted to see it while it was in the theater, but never got the chance. I'm glad I took the time to rent it, and wish I had been able to see it on the big screen. I am certain that the battle scenes would have been much more dramatic in theater proportions. I wonder how much artistic license this movie took with history. Although I don't know the answer, the thing I DO know is that this movie was exceptional.

I hate going to see a movie, only to find that it lacks plot, depth of characters, realism and believability. I guess that the musical scores have an effect on the overall experience, but I normally don't pay them much attention. In this respect, The Patriot delivers. The casting, script, acting and cinematography are great.

It is interesting that Mel Gibson was cast as the lead character. It seems that he is an Australian, playing an American patriot. There must be a parallel there somewhere... There are a host of supporting actors, which often bogs a film down. Gibson has several children, and leads a motley band of Militia men. In spite of the numerous characters, the writers are careful to develop well-rounded characters that seem much more than one-dimensional props.

The script does an excellent job of drawing viewers in. Although the movie starts slowly, and tends to be boring, initially, it manages to deliver eventually. Gibson does not want to fight England, because he feels the responsibilities of being a single father are too important to compromise. He is a respected veteran of the "Wilderness Campaign" and disappoints many townspeople with his decision. However, the war soon comes to his back yard, and his fifteen year old son is slaughtered by a ruthless English Colonel. The Colonel is the only main character that is one-dimensional. However, that aids the script, because the movie becomes a personal vendetta between Gibson and the Colonel.

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Shrek (Spoilers)

When did the Ogres and Dragons become the “good guys” and the (ahem) Handsome Prince become the “bad guy?” Shrek provides a modern twist on the Classic Fairy Tale, with cameo appearances from many of the traditional cast of characters (Pinnochio, Snow White, the blind mice, the three pigs, etc). The healthy dose of Americana provides comic relief for an otherwise warm, yet entirely predictable film. Bottom line: The good guy and his sidekick save the princess from marrying the evil prince.

Animation...The most striking quality of this film is the animation. The animators have provided a healthy dose of realism, without seeking photo-reality. The animated sequences are busy with small details that add a pleasant reality to the film, without losing the Fairy Tale feeling. The scenes move smoothly. The characters interact with their environment in a seemingly natural and realistic way.

Story Board...Although the story is very predictable, there are enough surprises or minute details to keep anyone interested. I am certain that if I watched this movie again, I would catch a lot of little details that I missed the first time. Other interesting aspects of the story are readily visible. Something just doesn’t seem right about the princess....the “mirror on the wall” foreshadows this by attempting to warn the prince about nighttime. In another sequence, we see the princess waking early in the morning, singing with the birds. She squeals until the bird explodes...the next scene shows her cooking the bird eggs. These details help establish the depth of the princess’ character, as well as providing an insight into her true identity.

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Assault On Precinct 13 (Spoilers)

I grew up in Northwest Detroit. It was kind of nice to see a movie about my home town. The one disappointment about this film was that it did not show much of Detroit. I didn't see anything really recognizable. There was one shot of the skyline, but I felt cheated, you could barely see any of the landmarks that would make you say "yeah, that's definitely Detroit." I would have like to have seen the RenCen or Cobo Hall. What follows are my observations about Assault on Precinct 13.

Plot...I don't feel a movie is worth seeing if it doesn't have a good plot. Every other aspect of the movie is built on this platform. The plot in "Precinct" is fairly simple. A crime boss who is set to testify against a few dozen Detroit Policemen is forced to spend the night in a Precinct that is about to close it's doors. It is a snowy New Years Eve, and the bus transporting the crime boss can't navigate the slick roads. The corrupt police decide that this is their opportunity to keep the crime boss from testifying, and they attempt to extract him from the precinct. It turns into an all out battle, where the criminals being housed at the precinct end up armed (some with antiquated weapons from the evidence locker). An interesting if not unbelievable plot.

Okay, in the real world, the crime boss would have been questioned, and his information would have been presented to the Grand Jury. The police officers he fingered would most likely have been put on Administrative Leave pending completion of an Internal Affairs investigation. However, the story somewhat addresses that scenario, by initially showing the crime boss as uncooperative. Apparently, the bad cops are hedging their bets by eliminating the possibility that this ruthless killer will turn snitch. Overall, the plot was well constructed and attempted to head off some of these questions.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Right At Your Door

I watched Right at Your Door as a viewer looking for entertainment. I had some issues with factual aspects of this film, but allowed myself the indulgence of accepting the premises put forth in order to enjoy this film. Initially, I thought this film would be a cheap knock-off disaster film meant to capitalize on current events. What I found instead was an intelligent (if not accurate) examination of the implications caused by fear and pending doom. Although slow at times, Right at Your Door offered an intelligent script that provided enough action to keep things interesting.

Chris Gorak wrote and directed Right at Your Door. This was Gorak’s debut as both Writer and Director. I was surprised to see that Gorak’s only credits were previous work primarily in the area of Art Directing. Although slow at times, the dialogue was fairly interesting. The characters were fairly well developed, although some of the character interactions felt a wee bit forced. The plot was fairly straight forward with a few minor sub-plots thrown in. It felt like some of the sub-plots were only added to stretch the film length to it’s 96 minute run time. If the pace were picked up just a bit and a few of the needless filler scenes were deleted, this film could probably be reduced by fifteen minutes. The interpersonal relationships that this film explores are interesting. The actions and reactions of the characters, for the most part, seemed well thought out. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about the outcome of the film.

Right at Your Door tells the story of a couple recently located to a new home very close to downtown Los Angeles. The male lead, Brad (performed by Rory Cochrane) is a musician who seems to be a doting husband to Lexi (Mary McCormack). Lexi works in downtown LA. The story quickly gets to work on the plot line, with Lexi leaving to work and Brad finding out shortly thereafter that bombs had been detonated in Los Angeles. After initial attempts to locate and rescue Lexi fail, Brad sets to work securing his house from airborne pathogens believed to be heading his direction. Assisted by a maintenance man (Tony Perez) who seeks shelter in Brad’s home, the doors and windows are soon covered with plastic and taped shut. Lexi survives the blasts, but returns home infected by toxic agents. The bulk of the story revolves around the dialogue and emotions evoked between Brad and Lexi who come to grips with their situation between sheets of plastic. The apparent ineptitude of the CDC to deal with the problem exasperates the situation as the couple gropes for answers and deliverance. Eventually, the gears of government kick in along with quarantines and antidotes where applicable. The ending provides a gimmicky twist, which is the only major plot device. The twist is a bit of a stretch, but did add to the overall story.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers was an interesting but somewhat sluggish look at High School life in Long Beach, California following the 1994 riots. The determined teacher faced with incorrigible students and misfits has been done a hundred times before. Sidney Poitier comes to mind in this role in his 1967 film To Sir, With Love. You could say that Dangerous Minds and Lean on Me were take-offs on this genre as well. This story has been done on the football field, in the swimming pool and in the dance hall. You name it…many incarnations of this story have been done. One interesting thing about Freedom Writers is the fact that it’s based on a true story. In evaluating this movie, I don’t see it so much as how original the plot is as much as how much it held my interest.

Freedom Writers tells the story of an idealistic teacher, whose father (Scott Glen) passed on his Civil Rights Era idealism. She passes at the opportunity to become a lawyer in order to try and intervene with students who are at risk of eventually entering the Justice system. The Teacher, Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) quickly finds out that idealism doesn’t restore order in an unruly classroom. Gruwell is faced with the challenge of connecting with her students while faced with an Administration that simply wants her to warehouse her students. Attempts to get funding or proper books are met with bureaucratic resistance, so Gruwell takes on extra jobs to pay for her materials. Lessons on the Holocaust help draw correlations to the struggle each student faces, helping each of them to come to grips with their individuality. There are minor sub-plots that play out during the film, most of them very predictable.

The dialogue in Freedom Writers is fairly decent. In order to demonstrate Gruwell’s lack of street cred, they slip in a few street slang errors, like “my badness.” There are two dozen students in Gruwell’s class, each with his or her own story. There are cliques at first, which are made up of Cambodians, Hispanics, Blacks and the lone White boy. There are a few sub-plots involving the students that play out as part of the broader story. The major sub-plot was weak and predictable. However, the back-stories that we are given when exposed to the Journals kept by each of the students provide interesting diversions from the main story. The use of Journaling to introduce us to the characters and provide dimension and character development was an interesting approach, even if it may have been based on the actual events. It allowed for character development without getting bogged down in a bunch of tired stories that don’t have time to fully develop. Instead we get snippets of life experiences that provide some insight without requiring plot lines to develop. The writers also managed to evoke a range of emotions from the audience without using cheap gimmicks. The writing created some gaps that made the pacing slow at times, but overall, the dialogue and plot were strong for a concept that has been done to death.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008


While watching Blindness I was reminded of an independent film I watched earlier this year called Noise. Both of these movies tell their story through the use of your senses. Both movies allow the viewer to experience the altered senses of the characters in the movie by use of increased exposure to one sense or another or through visual and audible cues. I find it refreshing to see writing that can incorporate these elements into the story line without the feeling that the effects are gimmicky or forced. Blindness effectively accomplishes this effect.

Blindness succeeds because the story is a study of human nature. The writing includes compelling dialogue that is believable and natural. The characters are a wide range of personalities forced together in a decrepid insane asylum. The human interaction between the various characters is a study in human nature. Movies like this have been done before. Blindness takes a new approach to this concept by equipping the characters with various abilities to change the dynamics. The characters end up in severe conflict and are required to utilize their abilities to overcome. Tough decisions and disturbing situations evolve out of this conflict leading to eventual resolution that was a bit anti-climatic. The major characters were well-developed and likable. However, some of the characters fell a bit flat and were predictable. Because of the number of characters involved in the plot, it is difficult to develop deep character traits throughout. However, it seems that a couple of characters may have had room for improvement.

The casting in Blindness was excellent. The primary bad guy in this film is played by one of my favorite lesser known actors, Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal is a quirky actor who has popped up in several films I have seen this year including Babel and Science of Sleep. Bernal was exceptionaly cast as the main antagonist (although the blindness might also be the antogonist in this film). Julianne Moore has a personality in this film that seems warm. She has a humanitarian compassion that seems genuine. She pulls this role off without a problem as the lead character. Her male lead is played by Mark Ruffalo, her husband and eye Doctor who is exposed to the blindness disease early in the film. Ruffalo's character balks at the maternalistic patronizing of his wife following his development of the disease. This sub-plot was a little bit distracting and really didn't add anything to the movie. Near the end of the movie we get to witness the Doctor experiencing some empowerment but it felt weak to me. Moore and Ruffalo were joined by Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Don McKellar and Mitchell Nye. The rest of the cast did well in their respective roles.

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