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 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


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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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

House Of 1000 Corpses

I’m not a huge fan of slasher films. I have enjoyed a few over the years, but for the most part, they don’t hold a huge appeal to me. There was a lot of buzz about Rob Zombie and his debut film House of 1,000 Corpses, but I hadn’t watched it. It was showing recently on Fearnet along with the sequel The Devil’s Rejects. Both had been nominated for some minor awards. I guess I was mostly drawn in by the hype and the fact that it wasn’t going to cost me anything to watch this film. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it wasn’t good enough for me to watch the sequel…free or not.

House of 1,000 Corpses tells the story of four teens that are traveling cross country and stop at a roadside gas and chicken stop that happens to have a museum of the macabre. Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Denise (Erin Daniels), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn) and Bill (Rainn Wilson) stop for gas and end up taking a ride in a haunted house attached to the gas station. The ride guide, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) is perpetually dressed in clown makeup. He presents an eccentric appearance as he guides his guests through legend and folklore, including the local legend of Dr. Satan. The legend captures the attention of the testosterone laden guests, who end up determined to find out more about the legend. Captain Spaulding draws them a strip map so they can explore the legend on their own. After picking up a hitchhiker that bears a striking resemblance to the Director’s Daughter (Baby Firefly played by Sheri Moon Zombie), their plan goes awry. Flat tires and strange locals end up being bad for their health. The gore factor kicks in exponentially from this point on, making one wonder if any of the kids will survive.

Slashers generally lack a plot. House of 1,000 Corpses is really no different. During a road trip, several teenagers take a detour to investigate a local legend resulting in a bloodbath. That’s pretty much the plot. House of 1,000 Corpses had decent dialogue, but I wasn’t buying into the concept of the film, so it didn’t captivate my attention the way a Suspense film would. The characters were unique, eccentric and violent. A strange combination of characteristics that made this film original if nothing else. But originality wasn’t enough to make me enjoy this film. The lack of structure and pointlessness of the entire exercise bored me. Like many other slashers, the plot ends up becoming “we got into something over our heads and now there is no way out” and then watching to see who the sole survivor is going to be, if there is one. I really didn’t care enough about any of the characters to care too much one way or the other.

The casting was par for the course for this genre, too. Haig has a rather odd character that was a tiny bit convincing, but he was about the only bright spot for me. The acting seemed very staged and campy. It was very much like every other bad horror flick I have ever seen. Sheri Moon Zombie was attractive, but very unconvincing. Wilson was okay in a likeable nerdy sort of way, but his role didn’t last very long. Hardwick got on my nerves from the very beginning of the movie. He is a large part of the reason the kids end up in over their heads, so he has to convince everyone to go along with him. Rather than seeming convincing, his performance seems whiney. His attempts at exuberance feel more like a trip to the Dentist. Daniels and Jostyn did not have much to offer, either. Their performances were predictable and lifeless. The lack of credibility in the cast made the implausible script even harder to swallow. I really did not care for the actors, with the slight exception of Haig.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


I'm going to begin my review with my rating this time. After watching Twilight, I was struck by the feel, which seemed targeted to the teen crowd. However, this love story has some very artistic elements that appealed to me. So I am splitting my rating. If you are a fan of television shows like Dawson's Creek, Beverly Hills 90210 or 7th Heaven then my rating should read five stars. I have never been a fan of those shows and I am not in the target age group for this film...having said that, I would still give Twilight a solid four star rating. The film is well presented.

Twilight is based on the teen novel of the same name, written by Stephanie Meyer. I was impressed enough by this film to visit Barnes and Noble afterwards, in order to purchase the next book in the series, New Moon. When the next film comes out, I hope to be ready. The books are part of a four part series, which is also available as a boxed set at Barnes and Noble for a mere eighty dollars. After purchasing New Moon, I saw it at Walmart for under eight dollars for the paperback version.

Twilightis a classic love story. The vampire theme is the vehicle for telling the story. The female lead, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad rather than traveling around the country with her mother who has re-married to a minor league baseball player. Forks is a small town of 3,000 nestled in the rough country of Washington. The rugged terrain provides a beautiful backdrop for a coming-of-age story. Bella is new to her High School, having transferred in the middle of the school year. She is the big story in a rather small school. The boys show an early interest in her, but she is captivated by a boy that initially gives her the cold shoulder. The boy, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), is in the constant company of his two brothers Emmett (Kellan Lutz) and Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and his two sisters Alice (Ashley Greene) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed).

The five siblings sit together in the lunchroom and have an uneasy familiarity with each other. Most of the kids in school tend to avoid the group, although several of the girls secretly admire Edward. Edward and Bella develop an unusual relationship that begins to spiral out of control. Bella begins to suspect things are not as they seem and presses the issue until she realizes that Edward is a vampire. A revelation that would cure most people's curiosity. Not Bella. Bella reveals to Edward that she knows his identity and that it does not scare her. The two form a deep but seemingly benign relationship that ultimately places Bella in grave danger. It also places Edward in the difficult position of having to make life and death decisions regarding Bella.

The writing in Twilight is exceptional. I am not certain how true to Meyer's novel Melissa Rosenberg was able to remain, but the writing reflected the dimension of a novel writer. The characters were well developed and captivating. The plot was full of smaller storylines that provided insights and depth to the story. The dialogue was soft and artistic yet believable. The interaction between characters seemed natural. The believability factor was excellent for a story about the supernatural. The exchanges and dialogue never felt forced or even coerced. There was smooth flow of both the plot and the dialogue that made the film feel like a well produced artistic endeavor.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Werewolf Hunter (Romasanta)

I was intrigued by the concept of Werewolf Hunter. The fact that this movie was based on the true story of a man named Romasanta who terrorized Spain in the 1850s easily captivated my imagination. Romasanta believed he was cursed, as the ninth son. He believed his curse was the curse of a werewolf. He claimed he hunted with another werewolf named Antonio, but this fact was never confirmed. Rather than fitting squarely into the realm of horror films, Werewolf Hunter is more a period piece that feels like a suspense crime drama revolving around an early serial killer.

Werewolf Hunter begins by introducing us to a wave of wolf attacks happening in Spain in 1851. The attacks have become so aggressive that bounties have been issued on the head of any captured or destroyed wolf, with bonus bounties if a pregnant female is eliminated. In the wake of these attacks we are introduced to a man who is being transported back to his village following an attack. The man who is transporting him, Manuel Romasanta (Julian Sands), begins transcribing a final letter for the man as he dies from his injuries. Manuel then interjects his own introduction to the man’s family, indicating that it is the dead man’s wish that Manuel act as their protector. After briefly learning about this family something tragic happens, which we cannot see. We then find Manuel with two sisters, Barbara (Elsa Pataky) and Maria (Maru Valdivielso) and Maria’s daughter Teresa (Luna McGill).

We briefly see the four together, before Manuel, Maria and Teresa part ways for a city that has no wolves. Maria feels threatened by Barbara who is obviously enamored by Manuel. Barbara remains behind, visited shortly by detectives who ask her to identify a body. She does not know the young girl believed to be her neice, but also has not heard from her sister. Eventually, Manuel returns to Barbara and takes up residence with her. Barbara learns Manuels dark secrets and runs to the police, where she participates in 1850s "Nancy Drew" style detective work.

The screenplay writer (Elena Serra) did a decent job creating the dialogue and scenarios within which the story develops. I have not read the original story by Alfredo Conde, so I can not discuss the amount of liberty taken from the book to the screenplay. I can, however, discuss the liberty taken from the true story to the screenplay. In real life, it was never determined if Romasanta actually had a hunting partner. The alleged partner, Antonio, was never captured. The investigation never lent credence to the theory but it was never disproven, either. In the film, Antonio plays a unique role as hunter, with Romasanta the target of his hunt. Antonio feels he must kill the one who turned him werewolf in order to free himself from the curse. It was a big step for a movie based on a true story, but it added intrigue and dimension to the movie. Because this movie played more like a suspense film than a horror film, the addition of Antonio into the plotlines was a smart move.

The characters were moderately well developed. The dialogue and interactions between Barbara and Maria seemed credible. The obvious sisterly love was strained by the entrance of Manuel into their lives. The balance between their own relationship and the threat of competition made for decent drama. The film also had a decent concept for tracking the killers movements, introducing the audience first to the wolf threat, then to the concept that a human was also hunting. We follow the killer through the people he hunts which was a good way to shoot the film. The pacing was okay, leading to an ending that was acceptable. However, the flow of the movie was completely off. It wasn't the pacing so much as the choppiness. There were gaps in the story that left me constantly trying to catch up. I don't think it was done intentionally. In trying to create suspense, the Director (Paco Plaza) managed to create confusion. The rough cuts and gaps in the story left me wondering who some of the characters were and how they played into the story. It seemed like some of the story was conveyed visually, but that concept didn't seem to be fully developed either.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

School For Scoundrels

Director Todd Phillips teamed up with his co-writer from Old School, Scot Armstrong, to create another offbeat comedy. Phillips and Armstrong took a 1960 comedy by the same name and created a fresh look School For Scoundrels. If you enjoyed Old School, then odds are you will enjoy this one as well. In place of the inane energetic comedy of Jack Black, we get the dry subdued comedy of Jon Heder. Heder is balanced by the consummate bad-funny guy, Billy Bob Thornton. I actually enjoy Thornton more in his comic roles than his serious ones. The two work well together to make School For Scoundrels a success.

School For Scoundrels tells the story of a likable loser, Roger (Jon Heder) who works as a New York City Meter Maid. Roger reaches a new low when he not only agrees to pay the parking fine for a guy whose car is illegally parked, but also pays him for mental anguish and gives the guys buddy his government issued New Balance tennis shoes. Roger requests counseling but ends up getting further embarrassed by his co-workers and superior. Roger finally hits rock bottom when his “Little Brother” requests a new “Big Brother.” Roger receives the name and telephone number of a guy that might be able to help him. In an extremely secretive process, Roger is introduced to Mr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton). Mr. P. is the Bad Santa of self-help gurus. His approach is underhanded and sneaky, but seems to work wonders. When it appears that Roger is excelling, Mr. P. senses competition and begins to sabotage his student. The two end up jousting over Roger’s love interest, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett) in a continuing battle of one-upmanship. The stakes are continually raised creating some humorous situations and decent drama that keeps you guessing if the loser will ever get ahead.

Phillips and Armstrong take a fairly simple plot and give it several twists and turns. The misdirection adds a bit of interest to an otherwise predictable storyline. The characters are a ragtag bunch of misfits, but the variety offsets the rather flat dimensions of many of the characters. Amanda is a very flat character that has no personality. She is sweet and lovable and that’s about it. Her character was not credible. Roger was the main character and had more depth than any of the other characters. In fact, his character was about the only one that was thoroughly developed. The rest of the players were flat and a bit predictable. However, the characters were interesting and unique in many ways. The greatest asset found in School For Scoundrels is the situational comedy which was great. The dialogue, wit and humorous visual situations were excellent. What this film lacked in character development it made up for in eccentric characters and funny sketches.

The casting in School For Scoundrels was important. By selecting Thornton to be the hard nose self-help Instructor and Jon Heder to be the loser, School For Scoundrels effectively set up great comic chemistry. Thornton can be larger than life, while Heder has a subtlety to him. The combination of these two strong actors filled the credibility gap created by some of the writing. As a comedy, this movie stretches reality and requires a bit of flatness in the characters. This makes it more important to cast actors that can create the dimension that the writing lacks. Thornton and Heder effectively delivered that dimension. Barrett was tolerable, but could have been played by a hundred different actresses without effectively changing the role. She didn’t really affect the film for better or worse. Sarah Silverman had a much more limited role, but provided some conflict. She was solid. There were many bit parts, most of which were average. However, Luis Guzman stood out as Roger’s Sergeant (Moorehead). His performance provided some decent comedy. Ben Stiller also had a cameo in this film, but his role was more of a distraction than anything else. As a whole, the cast worked because it was built around excellent performances by Thornton and Heder.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Year Of The Dog

Year Of The Dog is another quirky film written and directed by Mike White. This is a niche film which failed to create mass appeal. Because of limited release, this film did not even manage to generate 2 million dollars in box office revenue. This film is a far cry from the film White wrote prior to this, Nacho Libre. While Nacho Libre was certainly quirky, it possessed a different sort of appeal. Nacho Libre did far better at the box office (where I saw it), but did not have the intellectual element that Year Of The Dog contains. In short, this film is funny on a different level yet still engaging. If you like cheap humor then White’s Nacho Libre is for you. If you don’t mind a slower paced more cerebral type of comedy then you may find yourself enamored by Year Of The Dog.

Year Of The Dog tells the story of Peggy Spade (Molly Shannon), a single woman who lives at home with her coddled dog Pencil. Pencil meets a tragic end early in the film which sets about a chain of events that includes a slow downward spiral for Spade. It looks like the death of Pencil might lead Spade to find true love, first with her neighbor (Al…played by John C. Reilly), whose extensive knife collection and penchant for killing animals eventually grinds her down. Spades ends up looking for another pet and ends up meeting Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). Spade slowly allows herself to become interested in Newt, but the feelings are not necessarily mutual. It seems as if Spade has come out of her shell and is making great progress when things turn bad. Really bad. Spade starts becoming an Animal Rights activist after Newt introduces her to a Vegan lifestyle. This slow process ends up consuming Spade who begins donating her boss’s money to charity and adopting rescued animals for her niece and nephew for Christmas. Spade ends up fired and estranged from her family. Upon hitting rock bottom, Spade makes some really bad decisions. She eventually recovers and repairs her relationships before discovering her calling in life.

Year Of The Dog is a simple story. Not necessarily simple in a bad way. It is simple in the sense that it explores the processes of loss and recovery. It examines self discovery and the growing pains that accompany it. The characters in this story are idiosyncratic. They have unique peculiarities that make them engaging. The characters are also multi-dimensional. When we are first introduced to the characters we get a feel for their personality. However, several of the characters demonstrate another side of their personality by the time the film is complete. The characters do not lose any integrity by showing other facets, but instead appear more complete and credible. We get insights into people we know, too. The protective mother, the knife fanatic, the animal lover, the corporate ladder climber. Within these character examinations we get dimension rather than stereotype, which makes the story more believable. The dialogue has rich wording, without becoming portentous. The plot evolves at a slow pace which may have been an area for improvement. However, this is not an action film, so the pacing was limited somewhat by the context.

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Monday, November 17, 2008


I am about due for a quirky movie review. Delirious is an enjoyably quirky movie that was released in 2006 and managed to fly under the radar. I don’t remember seeing this movie advertised. With Steve Buscemi heading up the cast, I would have definitely been interested in this film from the outset. If you are into quirky, then Delirious is a film you may want to add to your Netflix queue.

Delirious begins with a homeless man, Toby Grace (Michael Pitt), uncovering himself from plastic and cardboard atop a heap of trash in a construction grade trash bin. Grace wears tattered clothes and appears unkempt, but he has a charming look in spite of his obvious struggles. Grace walks up on the paparazzi who are waiting outside an establishment to catch a glimpse of the latest big pop star, K’Harma (Alison Lohman). Among the paparazzi is a struggling photographer named Les Galantine (Steve Buscemi) whose hair is an oddly black color…very black…and thin. It is cold and Galantine craves a cup of coffee. He and the other paparazzi send Grace to get them a cup of coffee. As Grace is returning, he is stopped at a side entrance by the manager who is accompanied by K’Harma and her boyfriend. Grace advises them that the paparazzi are not looking, so that they can get to their waiting car without obstruction. As K’Harma passes Grace a sense of familiarity or chemistry seems to fill the air.

The paparazzi come crowding the departing car, spilling coffee everywhere. Grace ends up following Galantine home under the guise of returning his change from the coffee. Galantine ends up offering Grace a place to stay in exchange for his work as an assistant. Grace agrees and the two develop and interesting relationship. Galantine is consumed by his work and considers his profession to be legitimate. Grace and Galantine have a symbiotic relationship with both benefiting from the other in a variety of ways. As Grace uses the opportunities provided to him by Galantine to secure his own acting career, he leaves Galantine behind. The strained relationship is tested as the two go their separate ways. Several other relationships are explored in this film developing various aspects of the personalities of our two male leads. The characters are flawed and unique, giving them a candid likeability that helps create the drama that makes this comedy drama work.

The Writer/Director Tom DiCillo did an excellent job of creating a script that pokes fun at Hollywood and the paparazzi while delivering sharp and witty dialogue that provides great comic relief. The strength of this movie lies in the development of the characters. By creating characters that are quirky and flawed, DiCillo makes them relevant. The interpersonal relationships that are explored possess a realistic feel that manages to connect with the audience. The major theme of this film spoofs Hollywood and the paparazzi. The story does not tie up all the loose ends, but nicely packages the ending so that you don’t feel cheated, either. The sub-plots are exceptional, providing insight into the background and identity of the major characters. There are several parallels drawn between a wannabe photographer, a music superstar and a homeless guy. The unique backgrounds of these individuals and the commonalities make for an interesting insight into human nature. The characters also have a diversity that creates good opportunities for both comedy and drama, simultaneously. The intelligence of the writing is evident.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Harsh Times

I watched Harsh Times last night. Luckily I didn't read any of the reviews before settling on this film because I probably would not have watched it. Reading the synopsis for this film, I was iffy about whether I would enjoy it or not. Christian Bale sold me and did not disappoint. However, the synopsis is misleading and does not really convey the concept of this film adequately.

Harsh Times advertised itself as a movie about a Gulf War veteran returning to LA, where he wreaks havoc on his neighborhood while binging on drugs. The drugs were more of a side story here. The Gulf War Veteran, Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is exorcising his personal demons, making this film more about a severe case of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) than it was about drugs. The film begins with Davis in Iraq (or Afghanistan) engaging in battle. Davis awakes in his in Mexico where he realizes he was having a flashback. He kisses his Mexican Bride-to-be goodbye and heads back across the border to Los Angeles. Davis meets up with his childhood friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) to go job hunting. It is evident immediately that Mike's wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria Parker) does not like Davis. Not that Davis cares what other people think...he seems to thrive on conflict.

Davis and Mike get sidetracked from their job hunting mission and end up drinking and smoking pot (hardly the drug binge I had imagined...I was thinking heroine or coke). Davis displays behavior that readily indicates he has issues. His over-the-top actions make it clear why he failed to pass LAPD's Psychological Battery, leading to his dismissal from the hiring process. Instead, Davis ends up getting a call from Homeland Security who wants to hire him to engage in special operations in Columbia. Davis gets busted for having a dirty urinalysis and is confronted but offered a job anyway. However, he must make a choice regarding his Mexican a foreign marriage at this point could jeapordize his security clearance. One thing that is evident throughout this film is that Davis should not be toting a gun. You can feel the pressure mounting and wonder when he is going to snap. As the movie winds tighter and tighter the suspense builds to an excellent crescendo all the way up to the final minutes of the film.

I was impressed by the writing in this film. One thing that was evident was the credibility. I was starting to question a lot of the writing because they were going a direction I knew could not stand up. Well it didn't. For instance, before taking the urinalysis, Davis drinks a bottle of vinegar claiming it shuts down the kidneys. It doesn't. However, when I discovered that Davis failed the urinalysis it lent believability where I was starting to have questions. The characters were well developed and interacted plausibly. The plot is a bit harder to accept but not beyond the realm of possibility. I suspended my speculation a bit regarding the plot, in order to enjoy the story. The story was fresh with interesting story-lines. I cared about the characters, which included Davis, who would have been easy to dislike. The Writer/Director (David Ayer) did an excellent job of giving Davis facets to his personality that connected with the audience creating a degree of empathy along side disapproval.

The casting was exceptional. The characters in Harsh Times were brought to life by a professional cast that, as a whole, were superb. Christian Bale provided the edginess and charm to make Davis a likable yet detestable character. That's not an easy task. I found myself identifying with his character at times and really wanted him to succeed. That was a combination of strong writing and flawless acting. Davis' sidekick Mike was interesting. Rodriguez gave Mike an affability that made his bad decisions tolerable. This film had a heavily latin influence, which I don't feel was overplayed. Although I have had exposure to the latin community I am far from an expert. However, I did not sense that the major characters slipped into stereotypes. Eva Longoria Parker was interesting. Although she had a limited role, her character created conflict and provided some depth to the story. Eva provided a strong performance in her limited role. I first became a fan of JK Simmons when he was a regular on the HBO series Oz. Simmons played a recruitment officer (Agent Richards) for Homeland Security. I just enjoyed seeing Simmons in this film, even if it was nearly cameo. His character had a bureaucratic way about him that reminded me of people I know. I liked him in this role. The cast members took a strong script and easily conveyed the themes to create suspense and believability.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Joyride (1996)

What was Adam West thinking? That’s the only thought I could bring to bear when watching the original Batman pimp his daughter from a seedy motel. I guess Adam West as a degenerate father who would pimp his own daughter might not have been so bad if he did so in a script that was coherent or believable, but Joyride was neither. Joyride is a jumbled mess of ideas haphazardly thrown together in an effort to create a tense crime drama. Instead, we get an amateurish film that is short on crime and big on drama…but not the good kind.

Joyride tells the story of a couple of outcast small town students who go to school once in the film…just long enough to get harassed by the local bullies. For the rest of the movie, it seems that the concept of school was forgotten. One of the boys, JT (Toby Maguire), helps his father run a seedy motel which is located directly on the wrong side of the tracks. The other boy, James (Wilson Cruz), is an effete teenager who owns a Hyundai that barely qualifies as a hoopdee. A young female guest at the motel, Tanya (Amy Hathaway) catches JT’s eye and threatens the close friendship between JT and James. The three mistakenly decide to go joyriding in a car belonging to an assassin, which still happens to have a body in the trunk. When confronted by the assassin, JT truculently refuses to cooperate. With the Police (Benicio Del Toro) and the Assassin (Christina Zilber) creating conflict, the teens must decide how to get themselves out of a jam.

Joyride takes the easy road at every turn. The plot concept wasn’t all bad, but it was not well thought out. For starters, you have Tonya Bayer being pimped by her father in a seedy motel. She is being pimped, at one point, to the Mayor for five thousand dollars. That is a high dollar amount even if you are the Governor of New York. For that kind of price, the Mayor doesn’t need to visit a cheap motel and run the risk of someone in his everyone-knows-each-other small town seeing him. No…for that money you get a house call. But it was decided that the action needed to center around this seedy motel, so many of the plot details end up feeling forced.

Another thing that really bothered me was Benicio Del Toro’s observation that the homicide being investigated was done by a professional. But the discovery of the body was inconsistent with the homicide because the murder scene was so meticulously cleaned. First of all, if the murder scene was meticulously cleaned, how did he know where the murder took place? It assumes the police would be privileged to the same information provided to the audience without ever creating a logical bridge to that assumption. Furthermore, an assassin that is so adept at covering her tracks that the police consider her to be a professional would certainly not leave the rotting body in the trunk of her car. If the body needed to be disposed of…it would have been done quickly and efficiently. Parking a car with a dead body in it in front of your motel room would be pretty dumb.

Another problem I had with Joyride involved the cuts. They were about as bad as I have ever seen. If you are going to have a character skinny dip in a swimming pool, you need to figure out a way to keep his blue shorts from showing in the water. I don’t know…maybe cover the top of the pool with a layer of leaves. That may have worked. But it seems at the very least the camera angles could have prevented his blue shorts from showing. What’s worse is that James jumps into the pool to join JT and Tanya who are already allegedly naked. After removing his clothes, James jumps into the pool, but the shot of him jumping clearly shows that he is also wearing blue shorts. Better cutting and improved camera angles could have sold scenes like this much more effectively. And these issues don’t even address the fact that the joyride car mysteriously becomes a different car by the end of the film.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008


Flyboys came out in 2006, quickly getting panned as inaccurate and formulaic. The major studios declined the opportunity to back this film which ended up going into production with private funding. The 60 million dollar budget was not wisely invested, with a return that would lucky to hit half that. This movie did not appeal to me at the time it was in the theaters, maybe in small part due to the reviews but more likely due to other movies that were higher on my must-see list at the time. Inevitably, I did not get a chance to catch this film in the theaters, waiting instead until it came out on DVD.

While watching Flyboys I could understand some of the critical comments, but was actually surprised that it is was so widely disliked. One thing that appealed to me about Flyboys was the fact that it was based on a true story. That limits the directions that the movie can go. Within that context evolves a period piece that tells the story of young Americans who agree to enter the Great War flying fighter planes for the French at a time when America had not yet entered the fray.

Flyboys starts by providing short background biographies on the American Pilots, concentrating primarily on Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a young rancher whose parents are dead. Following foreclosure on his ranch, Rawlings decides to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a volunteer air force in France comprised of Americans who wanted to enter the war before the United States committed. Rawlings is joined by other young men from various walks of life. Among them are a black boxer named Vernon Toddman (Keith McErlean) and Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) a Harvard dropout who refuses to bunk with Toddman due to his race. Other pilots include Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson) who was based on Raoul Lufbery, Eddie Beagle (David Ellison) whose character was an amalgam of pilots Courtney Campbell and Bert Hall, Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) based on Eugene Bullard and William Jensen (Philip Winchester) whose exploits were taken from a variety of sources. These young pilots end up under the tutelage of Capt Thenault (Jean Reno). Thenault was an actual character. Thenault trains the young pilots to fly, land and shoot. They quickly end up engaging German fighters in some great aerial fighting sequences. The pilots engage in numerous missions as they await the United States entry into the war. The movie ends with correlations between the characters and events following the war that the characters engaged in. Some of the events were based on the true stories of the pilots upon whom some of the characters were based. However, it appears that some of the stories were complete fabrications.

The script isn’t bad. Although the critics aptly pointed out that this film falls into formulaic period piece pitfalls, I disagree with the assessment of the dialogue. The dialogue in this movie has been referred to as unoriginal or hackneyed, but I found it to be enjoyable. It did not feel contrived or overused. If they had attempted to outgun Top Gun I might have felt that way. However, this story stays within the framework of the endeavors of the 124th Air Squadron with obvious liberties taken along the way. I thought that the characters were developed to an adequate degree, especially considering the number of individuals involved. We get brief insights into the backgrounds of several characters through various sub-plots or personality conflicts. These sub-plots add to the overall effect of the film, providing depth to the characters, helping them connect with the audience. I have seen better, but Flyboys wasn’t as tired as the critics made it sound. The movie lasted nearly two and a half hours, which was a bit long, so the pacing was definitely an area which could have been improved. I think the Director (Tony Bill) may have tried to squeeze in too much information.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

I figured it would be a good idea to go catch the early showing of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa on Veteran’s Day. It’s a Tuesday…my son and I would certainly have the theater to ourselves. Wrong. The line at the theater was the longest I’ve ever seen it and packed with kids. I guess this wasn’t one of my best ideas. After waiting almost past the start time for our tickets, we managed to slip into the theater while the previews were playing. The theater was packed, but we were still able to find decent seats. People continued trickling in even as the show started. If this visit was any indication, this movie is going to be a blockbuster in terms of box office take.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa starts out in Africa where a young Alex Lion (Ben Stiller) is being shown the ropes by his father Zuba (Bernie Mac). Alex is lured off a wildlife preserve by hunters, ending up in a crate that ends up in a river, ultimately washing up in New York City, where Alex becomes the star of the Central Park Zoo. Not exactly a believable plot line, but it lays the foundation for the rest of the film. After providing us the details of Alex childhood in Africa, there is a quick recap of the escape from the first film of Alex, Marty Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). We catch up with the four in Madagascar, where they are preparing to fly back to New York in a plane piloted by the Penguins. Things don’t go quite as planned, and our band of misfit zoo animals end up back on the very wildlife preserve where Alex grew up. The film explores the relationships of our main characters and others like them in the preserve, drawing the group back together by the end of the film, where they launch a joint effort to help their community.

The plot in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is very simple. There a minor sub-plots involving the relationships between the characters and other animals of their own kind, which adds a bit of interesting diversion from the very simplistic overall plot. This film targets a pre-teen audience, which makes the plot lines more than adequate. The dialogue is witty and interesting, with every opportunity to turn a pun exploited. And I mean that in a good way. There was even a bit of adult humor thrown in for the guardians that were at this showing in abundance. Little gems like “bring me my nuts on a silver platter” were sprinkled throughout the script. Although the plot is predictable, the characters are interesting and the dialogue flows smoothly. Considering the genre, the plot was well thought out. However, I did not think it was quite as good as the original…most likely because the idea was fresher the first time around.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa had interesting animation. I know that we have come to a point in CGI where it is often difficult to distinguish between reality and graphic enhancements. However, I am still amazed that a computer can generate water washing up on a beach or flowing in a river and create the reflections and ripples in a convincing manner. The level of detail in the animation of this film is outstanding. When you are creating background detail out of nothing, it becomes a true art form. Many of the scenes contain background detail that easily gets lost in the clutter of animation. It is the background that sells the believability of the animation. I was impressed with that aspect of the film. I am also always amused at the similarity I find between animated characters and their voice-over counterparts. When you get those idiosyncrasies down, you create an interesting illusion. There were some gestures that Alex made that definitely made me feel like I was watching Ben Stiller perform. Details like that really make the animation special. From my untrained eye, the animation was perfect.

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Monday, November 10, 2008


When I saw the name Tesseract advertising this film, it immediately caught my attention. A Tesseract is the four dimensional analog of the cube. The movie begins by explaining the meaning of the title, explaining that a square can be unraveled to form a line, a cube can be unraveled to form a cross and proceeds to show the Tesseract unfolded to a structure made of eight cubes that resembles a 3-dimensional cross with cross-arms that point in four directions. This image is actually one of 261 “nets” that the shape can take. What intrigued me was the name in relationship to the film. A mathematical term that refers to four dimensions was most likely used to identify a story that followed four intersecting paths as opposed to a single linear story. As such, Tesseract follows the lives of four individuals connected to the Heaven Hotel in Thailand. Their paths intersect throughout the movie, often jumping track and following a different path.

This film begins by showing a white guy (Sean, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), apparently tweaking in a seedy hotel room. His scantily furnished room has a bare-bones look. The film jumps and skips, filming Sean from various angles as he paces his room. Sean eventually leaves the room, passing Rosa (Saskia Reeves) who is checking in. The film jumps track via flashback and eventually coming back to Rosa, who is helped to her room by a young bellboy named Wit (Alexander Rendel). Wit likes to go through things in people’s rooms while they are gone, fencing them through his connections on the street. Wit agrees to be interviewed by Rosa, who is a psychologist studying Thai children. During an interview, Wit reveals a dream in which he sees a girl who has been shot. However, his dream has already been shown as actual events when Wit walks into the hotel room of Lita (Lena Christensen) a lethal assassin hired to locate stolen drugs. The lives of these four individuals intermingle throughout the film as the lines of the Tesseract seem to intersect to the past and back, following different scenes involving the four main characters.

A Tesseract is not necessarily a stable figure like a cube or a square. The image can collapse in on itself and expose its various surfaces through movement of the cells. It is actually an interesting concept. This film seemed to borrow heavily from that concept. The flow of the movie felt like a story that happens in stages as opposed to a linear story. This concept set Tesseract apart from other films. It would have been easy for this movie to have devolved to an incoherent mess. There is a snapshot like sound effect and stop action filming that provides a visual and audio cue to assist in tracking the stages of the film. The director, Oxide Pang, did an excellent job of connecting the dots in order to present a story that doesn’t lose the viewers. The film also had the feel of a comic book at times, using extreme close up shots and stop action to create a surreal effect. Instead of introducing a character, you may simply be introduced to an extreme close up of that character’s shoe. The camera angles were also another comic book inspired effect. The subject matter isn’t always perfectly framed and the camera often jumps from overhead shots to point of view to straight on shots. The camera work was excellent.

The writing in this film was exceptional. In order to create continuity, a great deal of creativity was injected into this film. The writing formed the foundation for the rest of the movie to build upon. The story line was not exceptional, relating events following a botched drug transaction. What made this story exceptional were the characters and the development of the plot from multiple vantage points. The characters were interesting, providing a bit of dimension. Some characters were a bit more developed than others, but considering the comic book feel of this movie, the characters were further developed than I might have otherwise expected. The dialogue was also strong. Much of the conversation is done in English and does not have sub-titling. The exchanges that take place in Thai are sub-titled, creating a two-language film with half of it sub-titled. I actually liked the effect. The sub-plots were minor and added to the overall quality of the film. There may have been room to add a wee bit of dimension to some of the characters, but not to the interesting backgrounds of the characters. As a whole, the writing was spot on.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008


I was unfamiliar with the Christine Collins Story prior to watching this film. After watching the trailers for the past few weeks, I was eagerly anticipating the release of this film. I was further intrigued upon learning that this film was based on a true story. At nearly two and a half hours, this latest film from Clint Eastwood was a bit slow, but equally profound. It did not quite reach the level of Schindler's List which left me stunned and disoriented, but that eerie silence was evident as viewers slowly funneled out of the theater. Eastwood did a phenomenal job of conveying this story.

Changeling reveals the story of Christine Collins, whose son Walter turned up missing in 1928. Collins is notified by the Los Angeles Police that they have found her son and escort her to the train station amongst a throng of media. Collins immediately rejects the notion that the child is her son which angers the Police Department. They try to convince her that her son has changed and the separation has caused her anxiety. She is asked to take the child home on a "trial basis." Collins quickly discovers that the child is shorter than her son and is circumcised. The Police Department dispatches a Psychologist who further belittles Collins into her own delusions, insisting that the child is hers. Collins begins publicly challenging the Police Department and finds herself committed to a Pschotherapy Institution where shock treatment was still a common method of treatment. While these events are unfolding, a police detective stumbles on a serial killer in Wineville (now called Mira Loma as a result of the negative publicity). This discovery casts doubts on the police investigation regarding the Collins boy. The resulting investigation causes public outrage at the Los Angeles Police Department resulting in public hearings and an overhaul of the department. In order to preserve the integrity of the story, I will leave the speculation regarding Collins own son up in the will have to watch the film to find out more.

Because this story was a true story, the writer (J. Michael Straczynski) was limited in terms of plot. However, developing characters and writing dialogue in a period piece are where the challenges lie in this film. Straczynski did a great job of taking historical characters and bringing them to life. His characters were well developed and interesting. The 1920's dialogue was different at times. Because I am not an expert on the era, I certainly cannot disclaim any of the language in the film, but it appeared that they did their research. Another strong aspect regarding the writing was the development of the storyline without getting bogged down in details. Now that I have seen the film, I looked up the story on the internet to find out what really happened. There were a few differences in the true story which I would chalk up to artistic license. I believe the story was streamlined a bit, because at two and half hours, the story was already thick enough without adding more plot lines. Although the movie progressed slowly at times, it wasn't necessarily sluggish and the gripping story unfolding was worth waiting for.

Do not read this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film: One of the interesting items that was not delved into in this film, which I will add here as a bonus concerns the Northcott Ranch. The killer, Gordon Northcott, was living on a ranch owned by his father. In the movie it is portrayed as vacant other than Northcott and his nephew who is held at the ranch against his will. It appears that in real life, this ranch was occupied by the Northcott family. Gordon's father incestually molested his sister who was still in Canada (the place where he is arrested in the film). Gordon was a product of that incest. So the woman who lived at the Ranch that he believed was his mother was actually his grandmother. So, in essence, it is his own mother/sister who turns him into police when he arrives in Canada. Collins does not believe her son Walter was killed, but in real life, Northcott's grandmother testified that she killed the boy and was sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled after serving twelve years.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

The World Of Henry Orient

It’s time for me to open the vault and take out a dusty. Blowing a cloud of cobwebs and dust off of The World of Henry Orient reveals a treasure long hidden in the vault of classic movies. The World of Henry Orient stars a younger Peter Sellers during the timeframe that he filmed his much more popular Pink Panther movie. A cast full of rising stars compliment this film directed by George Roy Hill which was written by Nora and Nunnally Johnson.

The World of Henry Orient is an interestingly innocent story of two teenage girls who meet in 8th Grade in the 1960s. The girls quickly become friends and allow the audience to explore the world through the eyes of two fourteen year old girls. The girls are silly in a fun way, disliking the same teachers and sharing their secrets. When one girl (Valarie Boyd played by Tippy Walker) falls in love with a “Avante Garde” pianist named Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), the two begin following Orient around. Boyd, who is affectionately called Val, shares her secret scrap-booking like album with her newfound friend Gil (Merrie Spaeth). Val and Gil bounce around New York trying to catch a glimpse of Orient, inadvertently spoiling his chances to share his affection with a very attractive and very married woman. When Val’s parents suddenly show up, the carefree fun comes to an end. Val’s mother Isabel (Angela Lansbury) also discovers her scrapbook and ends up taking Val to task over a project that was innocent and fun. Isabel is not a nice woman and the audience is easily swayed to favor Val’s father Frank (Tom Bosley), who ends up running static for his daughter. The story examines the innocence of youth and the tribulations of coming of age. Unlike the coming-of-age movies of today, this film examines the subject from a sheltered and interesting perspective.

One of the things I liked best about this film is that the setting was so different from today. New York in the 1960’s was a different place. There were issues in this film that easily created distinction from the current climate. Two fourteen-year-olds running amok with little supervision may not be a stretch of the imagination. However, the commentary within the dialogue paints a very different picture on society. In one scene, Gil refers to a group of boys that she is forced to dance with on Saturdays as not being as refined as her mother might think. She asks her mother “do you know what those boys were doing while waiting for the school bus?” In todays world, I might answer “flashing gang signs?” Or, “brandishing weapons?” No, they were burping. What a social travesty. The girls also manage to create a bit of trouble here and there, but the comedy has a very innocent feel. Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed in this film was watching actors and actresses I have known later in life performing roles from before I knew them. Tom Bosley is Richie Cunningham’s dad…everyone knows that. Seeing him a bit younger and slimmer was fun. Angela Lansbury is the old lady from Murder She Wrote. Okay, she is not defined by that single role, but it’s the one I associate her with. Seeing her as a sex-kitten is a bit weird. Fun, but weird. It was enjoyable to see such a treasure from a by-gone era.

The writing in this film was spectacular. The Johnsons effectively developed a script that truly had the feel of two mischief prone teenage girls experiencing life in an era that I barely remember. The dialogue was quick and interesting. There are exchanges between the two girls where they create fantasy worlds in their imagination. During the creative process there are ideas being passed back and forth as they build on their common fantasy. The communal fantasy seemed very credible and spontaneous. The characters were well developed with small quirks that made them more appealing. The script was engaging enough to create a bond with the characters and a concern over the outcome. The plot was fairly simple and straightforward, with very little in the way of antagonism. The carefree feel created an atmosphere where a strong plot was not necessarily needed, although enough difficult subject matter evolved to keep things interesting. In a nutshell, the writing created interesting dialogue, strong characters and a tolerable plot.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Close Your Eyes

While trying to decide on a good movie to watch, I came across Close Your Eyes. The description sounded intriguing enough to capture my attention. I selected this film, which had a slow steady pace, but managed to move quickly enough to maintain my interest. The combination of British accents, interesting concepts and good acting allowed the film to effectively overcome the sometimes sluggish movement. It ended up being an excellent choice.

Close Your Eyes is an interesting detective story based in England. The story has an Illuminati or Davinci Code type of mystique about it, without being quite as elaborate. A young girl who has been traumatized after escaping from a serial killer is held in police custody while the Department engages in a massive manhunt for the killer. Supernatural elements become evident in the story beginning with the introduction of a hypnotist who accidentally sees the young girl in the thoughts of a Police Officer whom he is trying to help stop smoking. This chance event draws the hypnotist into the investigation which skirts around the occult and supernatural with sometimes bloody consequences. The events twist and turn at a leisurely pace, but quickly enough to keep you guessing on the outcome. The story culminates in a series of events that seem a bit contrived, setting up the plausibility for a sequel.

As a whole, the writing was refreshing. Thrillers have a tendency to be slow paced. When you add supernatural aspects to a Thriller type film, you also end up battling believability. By encasing the script in the occult, there was added credibility, but the major theme of the film was a bit difficult to accept. As entertainment, this film succeeded on the strength of the dialogue and character development which was well explored. I enjoy British films but don’t always understand the meanings of words. I find myself rewinding to see what I missed, sometimes guessing at the word meanings based on context. The dialogue was sharp and because of the accent, interesting. The characters had normal quirks that added dimension. The hypnotist experiences conflict at home based on his descent into the case, which added depth to the story. The antagonists are eerie but maintain a degree of normalcy to give them an element of acceptance. However, they tended to be flatter characters, as villains often are. In essence, the writing had strong dialogue with characters that connect while conveying a story that truly challenges ones ability to buy into the concept.

The acting was superb. Shirley Henderson plays the lead police role of Janet Losey. Her personal issues are briefly explored and she experiences some turmoil at work. Between balancing her character’s personal issues and work stress, Henderson effectively delivered a complex character with enough warts to be believable. Her work is brilliantly mirrored by Goran Visnijc, who I was previously unfamiliar with. Visnjic plays the hypnotist, slowly sinking into a creepy underworld of occultic creepiness. His ability to project confidence while countering his secrecy when dealing with his wife accurately conveyed the concept of a guy reluctantly involves himself in an investigation he really does not want to be consumed by. Visnijc was superb. His delivery is convincing, which made me wonder why I have not seen him before. Miranda Otto balances Visnijc, creating the worried wife role or Clara Strother. She does not come across as overbearing but her obvious concerns are evident. A good blend of concern sans bitshiness. The young girl, Heather, is portrayed by Sophie Stuckey. Stuckey doesn’t get much opportunity to speak and on one rare occasion her voice is not her own. It was a nice piece of dubbing. Stuckey took a part the required non-verbal communication for the most part, and effectively delivered her performance. Stuckey was another exceptional member of a cast that was well chosen.

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