Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lady Vengeance

I am a fan of Korean Director Chan-wook Park. His cinematic style appeals to me. The comic book flavor of his films adds an interesting visual dimension to unique scripts. The third of his Vengeance trilogy is Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. I previously reviewed Oldboy which was an exceptional film and the second in the trilogy. Although taken out of order, the films are projects that stand on their own merit. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance appealed to me on many levels, but not quite as much as Oldboy.

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance begins with Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) being released from prison after serving a thirteen and a half year sentence for suffocating a five-year-old boy that she had kidnapped. As the film moves forward from this point, Lee interacts with several different people that she met while she was incarcerated. As we are introduced to each new character on the forward journey, we are whisked back in time to learn the back story of each character (complete with criminal charges and dates of incarceration). It seems that all may not be as it seems, and Lee appears to be out for revenge. Lee appears to have carefully orchestrated everything, even during her time in prison. As her plan comes together it is becomes clear what her plans are. And those plans are not for the faint of heart.

Chan-wook Park collaborated on Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, in Korean) with writer Seo-Gyeong Jeong (who also co-wrote Thirst which I recently reviewed). The story bounces back and forth with the quick comic book like vignettes of new characters as the story develops. With the sub-titles, the pace got dizzying at times. The quick flashbacks keep the pace moving quickly (good) which, with the sub-titles, can be hard to keep up with (bad). I enjoyed the way Park and Jeong constructed the characters and moved the plot along, even with the quick pace. The main character was well developed with semi-flat characters around her…which was another comic book correlation. In totality, the writing was fresh and interesting.

Lee had a difficult job to sell her role as a heartless killer with a good heart. Does she have a heart or not? In fact, that leads to other questions that this script made me ask. Is vengeance redemptive? In Christianity, the two concepts would seem to be at odds. Yet these two concepts seem to find themselves together in this film. Maybe the redemption is a product of the catharsis found in the vengeance. Whatever the case, this film caused me to think, which set it apart. Part of selling that aspect of the film came from a spotless performance from Lee. She was able to embody a multi-layered character with opposing forces at war within her, and bring those forces together seamlessly. Lee was phenomenal. The rest of the cast had limited exposure, but provided a strong foundation for Lee to do her thing.

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A Secret

When we first meet Francois (as a seven year old...Valentin Vigourt) he accompanies his mother to the beach from a seemingly comfortable Paris existence. His ideal world has glossed over the fragments of his memories from the anti-semitism of the German occupation, tethering together pieces of reality to his imagination. He has a pretend brother who possesses the athleticism that he lacks, his parents are the epitome of fitness and perfection. The young Francois has no idea that his fantasy world is rooted in a forgotten reality.

We next meet Francois as an adult (Mathieu Almaric). His childhood was detailed in full color. In adulthood, the film is done in black and white. I guess the concept allows for transition back and forth between the time periods without explanation or confusion. Francois has been summoned by his mother, Tania (Cecile de France) because his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) has wandered off after the family dog is hit by a car. As Francois returns to find his father, he recounts his story.

Most of the story unfolds as Francois turns fifteen (Quentin Dubois). Francois' neighbor is a long-time family friend, Louise (Julie Depardieu). She has treated Francois with Vitamin D shots since he was little. As Francois begins remembering events, Louise assists him on his journey of self-discovery. During this revelation, Francois learns that many of the bits and pieces of his fantasy world are shards of whispers and memories that have a foundation in events that occurred during the war. Events that cast a pall on his Utopian view of his family. It allows Francois to draw contrasts and come to grips with his own life and to find closure for himself and others close to him.

Without spoiling any plot concepts, A Secret examines the balancing act between what a family will do to survive against compromising their beliefs. It is an interesting examination of family dynamics, perceived balance and reality. In the end, maybe there never really is any balance...only acceptance of what is. Or maybe there is only survival. A Secret challenges viewers with an imperfect set of circumstances and an ending that doesn't not tie everything together neatly, leaving the sense that there are not always happy endings.

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Children of Heaven

Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman) was released in 1997. The Iranian film received critical acclaim, getting an Oscar nomination as well as winning several lesser known awards. The 89 minute film was released in the United States in 1999. So, it has only taken me ten years to get around to this one. In cases like this, it is truly better late than never.

Children of Heaven is a tender down-on-your-luck story written and directed by Majid Majidi. Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) is a saucer-eyed nine-year-old that shoulders far more responsibility than a boy his age should have to carry. His father (Amir Naji) struggles to provide for the family. They are behind on their rent and have run up a tab at the local grocer that has reached a breaking point. Ali’s mother (Fereshte Sarabandi) has recently given birth and has some lingering health issues. Ali also has a younger sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi).

Ali is tasked with picking up bread, potatoes and a pair of Zahra’s shoes that are being repaired at the cobbler. When Ali realizes that Zahra’s shoes are missing, he panics. Ali is afraid to tell his father because he thinks he will be beaten (although his father is a fundamentally good man). Zahra is upset and needs shoes to wear to school. Because they attend school at different times of day, they agree to share Ali’s shoes. This arrangement leads to several close encounters and subsequent problems for both children. When Ali sees the chance to win a pair of shoes in a contest, he manages to get himself entered in an effort to replace his sister’s shoes.

Children of Heaven touches audiences on many levels. The examination of poverty measured against the strong morality provides interesting depth to the characters and subject matter. Although impoverished, Ali’s father will not take anything that does not belong to him, not even a cube of sugar. The family even reaches out to their neighbors, bringing them stew when they are barely getting by themselves. The work ethics and sense of individual responsibility, even that responsibility assumed by a child that does not belong to him (or her), struck a chord with me. Yet there did not seem to be a strand of Karma running through this film, which I thought there might be. It seemed, instead, that the plot centered on familial relationships and personal bonds. The plot was interesting, but does not go the direction one might think it is heading…yet still leads to the same place. It was a fun, somewhat short film that I easily connected with.

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No Man's Land

My interest in No Man's Land stemmed largely from the fact that I recently visited Bosnia only to return home intrigued by the dynamics of the recent conflict there. I worked with Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks while I was visiting...and still felt undercurrents of resentment. I heard numerous first-hand accounts regarding the war as well as opinions regarding the United Nations. The opinions were as diverse as the people. I found Bosnia to be a friendly welcoming country, but the scars of war are still visible. This film explored some of those issues from an interesting context.

During the conflict, the Serbs held the high ground. They shelled Sarajevo from the hilltops while snipers had denizens of that city running for cover. Yet the Serbs met resistance at the very "gates" of the city that was unexpected. No Man's Land takes place in the hills, where the Serbs and Bosniaks are squared off against each other across a pastoral landscape. A disused booby-trapped trench lies between the two front-lines. Replacement troops from the city head out to relieve the troops already positioned on the lines. They move under the cover of darkness to avoid detection from the Serbian lines.

As the morning sun sheds light across the hillside, the replacement troops wake up to realize they are past the line of demarcation in the middle of the DMZ. As they realize their mistake, the Serbs detect their movement and open fire. One survivor (Ciki, played by Branko Djuric) finds his way to cover in the abandoned trench. Following the firefight, a rookie bookish Serbian soldier (Nino, played by Rene Bitorajac) is escorted into the DMZ to booby trap the bodies. In the process, Nino and Ciki become engaged in a standoff inside the trench. As both sides realize that they have a fighter stuck in the DMZ, the United Nations is called in to mediate. The media catches wind of the incident and further complicates the situation. The situation leads to a comedy of errors and tragic decisions that might be more accurate than anyone would want to admit.

No Man's Land creates an interesting standoff that allows an opportunity to explore the individual perspectives on the war, the broader issues underlying the war and the politically paralyzed response of the United Nations. The concept was brilliant in the ability to bring together two opposing soldiers in a very intimate setting to gain individual perspective. The film does not make judgments in this arena. However, the writing is less kind to the United Nations leadership which is exposed as bureaucratic and impersonal. The failures of the UN exacerbate the problem which adds some drama to the plot. The concept is well written with excellent dialogue.

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The International

Imagine that an international banking institution (not unlike the International Monetary Fund) that lends money to nations, conceives of an idea that would allow them to control conflicts in developing countries. A bank so sinister that they select the would-be winners before the conflict is even started, in hopes of finding friends in the new government as well as dictating world conflicts and manage debts. After all, when the loser owes you money, how are you going to collect?

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) works in Lyon, France at InterPol's Headquarters. His job is to coordinate international police intelligence. Nothing more, nothing less. This much I can appreciate. However, Salinger was with a Police Agency prior to his re-assignment to InterPol. From the sound of things, this was a place that Salinger was tucked away to keep him from causing trouble. Yet is seems that this new assignment has put Salinger dead on the trail of an international conspiracy with the IBBC (an international bank) squarely in the middle. Salinger has no authority to conduct investigations, yet he finds himself violating international treaties and protocol's to carry out his personal agenda against the bank. The process takes viewers inside the illegal investigation complete with chase scenes and incredible shoot-outs.

The concept at work in The International is beyond improbable. The idea is simply impossible. The idea of international intrigue with the banking system at the core of political assassinations and insurgencies is certainly a dramatic and intriguing idea. In fact, I would not entirely discount the ability of a major international bank to attempt to affect government policies. Hiring assassins? Probably not. Picking sides in a conflict? Not a good idea...playing the middle would seem more profitable. An InterPol agent engaging in illegal investigations and involved in shooting incidents in foreign countries? He would be recalled immediately (if not prosecuted in the host country...depending on his Diplomatic status). The script in The International contains some great twists, but requires a healthy "willful suspension of disbelief."

Although writer Eric Singer stretched the boundaries of believability with his script, but it was not all bad. The concept itself was excellent. I'm not buying the InterPol angle, but I liked the way the pieces of the investigation were put together. Although simplistic, it was interesting to see the elements of the investigation come together and move more quickly than one might think. As the layers are peeled back, the direction still remains a bit veiled, leaving the ending to unravel in the final ten minutes of the film. The characters were also decent, although more shallow than I prefer. The dialogue was rich. It appeared to me that the dialogue avoided excessive police language that gets overused in television and film, concentrating instead on the subject matter at hand. In other words, the dialogue didn't try too hard to seem legit.

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Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is like many documentaries. Ben Stein acts as the host, taking viewers along on interviews. The interviews center around the discussion of Intelligent Design, with viewpoints explored from both sides of the argument. Stein exposes the complete intolerance in science for any point of view that challenges or threatens the Theory of Evolution. Because this film is a documentary, I will examine the content more closely than the style.

One of the points that Stein brings to light is that advocates of Intelligent Design are not Creationists. I did not know that. The media connects the two so firmly at the hip, that independent thought on the subject is never pursued. Not until I heard it directly from the strongest supporters of the ID theory did I realize that there is a disconnect between what is reported in the media and what Intelligent Design actually believes.

Ben Stein squares off with establishment science, highlighting several cases were scientists have been censured, denied tenure or simply asked to resign over the mere discussion of Intelligent Design as a theory that should be explored. A news reporter was also relieved for her examination of the subject. It seems that those in the field of science who are staunch Darwinists see Intelligent Design as an attempt to get God and Creationism into the classroom. For that reason, no discussion is allowed. Any proponent of Intelligent Design becomes anathema to the scientific field. It is equivalent to scientific excommunication.

After presenting the opposing arguments regarding Intelligent Design, Stein explores the role of Darwinism in Hitler's Final Solution. It is a big step to take, but certainly highlights the danger in espousing a viewpoint without considering the consequences or alternatives. Also in line with Darwin's theory, the United States involuntarily sterilized 50,000 human beings in a social experiment called Eugenics. Stein points out the flaws in Darwinism, yet cannot seem to move the ball forward against establishment science, who cling to their beliefs with religious fervor.

Yes, I referred to the scientific fervor over Darwinism as Religious. The "theory" does, after all, require faith. Isn't that the cornerstone of religion. I heard several top scientists try to explain the origins of life...the lofty claim that Darwin tried to make. So how did (at the very least) 250 chemical compounds arrange themselves in exactly the correct sequence to become life? To make me believe that this was an accident is impossible. That would be like saying you dumped 250 car parts into a tank and shook it up...causing all the parts to line up and make a car. It just does not make sense. DO these top scientists explain it?

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For anyone interested in learning more about Intelligent Design and the Theory of Evolution from the other perspective, resources are available through a PBS Special at:

A website in opposition to this film has been set up at for additional information regarding this film, ID and TOE.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was the first in the Vengeance trilogy from Korean Director Chan-wook Park. I saw this film last, which would make it a prequel of sorts. However, each film stands on its own merit with its own set of characters. The Korean name for this film is Boksuneun naui geot.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance tells the story of Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin) a "deaf and dumb" factory worker. Ryu is very close with his sister (Ji-eun Lim) who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Ryu wants to donate one of his kidneys to his sister but has the wrong blood type. In the process of trying to find a kidney for his sister, Ryu manages to lose one of his kidneys and his life savings. When an opportunity arises for the transplant, Ryu becomes desperate for money and develops a scheme with his girlfriend Cha-yeong Mi (Du-na Bae) to kidnap a little girl in order to use the ransom money for the transplant.

Things go horribly wrong for Ryu, who seems to be a good-hearted person at his core. He has lost his job, a kidney and his severance pay. His sister is dying and in need of a kidney, which is available for the right price. His kidnapping attempt fails miserably. While Ryu seeks his revenge, the little girls father, Park-dong Jin (Kang-ho Song...who was exceptional in the recent Thirst release from Chan-wook Park) has his own agenda for revenge. In the end, it seems that the main course is violence and everyone at the table gets a healthy serving (with a dose of cold noodles to wash it down).

The plot is intricate and well designed, which is what has attracted me to Chan-wook Park's work. Park was assisted in writing this film by Jae-sun Lee, Jong-yong Lee and Mu-yeong Lee. Park likes to introduce plenty of characters that are atypical. His characters are often disturbed in some way, which adds interest. Sometimes these characters take bit parts but assist in tying together loose ends. In this case, the main character conducts a kidnapping, but manages to win the audience over with his general likability. The converging plot lines and quick sequencing can be confusing at times, especially with the translation (which misses some of the written queues) can be difficult to follow at times. The film finds creative ways to kill people, completing the task contextually, brutally and with a high degree of originality.

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First Snow

I like a good thriller. I have a general set of guidelines that apply to the movies I watch, with some weighted more heavily for certain genres. For thrillers, I expect a degree of uncertainty and maybe a decent plot twist or two. First Snow fell short on that mark. I had the ending figured out within the first fifteen or twenty minutes.

First Snow is otherwise well constructed. The characters are engaging with decent personality traits. The dialogue was well written. The plot concept was strong enough to be worthy of a movie. Although there were some minor sub-plots that attempted misdirection and twists, they were not meaty enough for my taste. A major plot twist near the end would have satisfied me and eleveated this movie a bit higher for me.

First Snow starts out with a man (Jimmy Starks, played by Guy Pearce) seeming to recount recent events. He is pulled over on the side of the highway with blood on his face. It is snowing. The film then flashes back to a dusty roadside stop where Starks has stopped to have his car repaired. After a brief visit to the bar, Starks ventures outside to several vendors who have makeshift shops to sell a variety of tourist-type trinkets. Starks by-passes the Jack-a-lopes to the last trailer, where Vacaro (J.K. Simmons) does psychic readings. Vacaro gives Starks a reading that ends up consuming Starks to the point of paranoia. The events that play out following the reading lead Starks down an inevitable road, where misunderstandings only further the hole he seems to be digging for himself.

I enjoyed Guy Pearce, who has impressed me recently with his outstanding work in The Hurt Locker. Pearce has the grittiness that made his character believable. Slightly scared but with a great poker face. We didn't get to see much of Starks' girlfriend Dierdre (Piper Perabo), but Perabo was solid when we did get to see her (although we could have seen more...she had on clothing during her sex scene). Starks has volatile relationship with his former business partner Andy (Rick Gonzalez). The scenes between these two had an interesting intensity. Two strong characters squared off. They were both convincing...and equally believable when they like each other. William Fichtner plays one of Pearce's friends and business associates (and confidante). Fichtner seems just weird enough to be lovable. The cast was well chosen to fill the interesting roles created for this film.

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Man, Woman And The Wall

Man, Woman and the Wall is a hard film to categorize. There were times, when watching this film, that it seemed I could be watching porn. There were only a few scenes like that...but sex was an over-riding theme throughout the film. Yet Man, Woman and the Wall remained surprisingly interesting, weird and quirky.

Ryo (Keita Ono) works for a publisher. His editor has been good to him, allowing him to afford a new apartment that has a built in bathtub (things must be tough in Japan). After moving to his new digs, Ryo realizes that the walls are paper thin, allowing him to hear through to his female neighbor, Satsuki (Aoi Sola). Ryo develops a strange fetish, hooking up listening devices to allow him to listen to her every movement. His infatuation (perversion) is so intense that he has developed his own imagination of what the bedroom looks like. He has even invented his own Satsuki (Sho Nishino) since he does not know what the real one looks like at first.

Ryo's voyeurism appears to become more aggressive and he begins stalking Satsuki. He has developed an intricate map of her schedule to assist him in determining her mode of transportation and work locations. After an exhaustive search, he finds Satsuki and engages her in conversation which eventually leads to controlled meetings and manipulated interactions. It is a strange relationship, but not as strange as the one Satsuki is engaged in with her current boyfriend Yuta (Hiroto Kato). Yuta seems to have his own penchant for voyeurism. Yuta also seems to be more than just a little off kilter. The strange combination of relationships twist and turn a while before settling on an unlikely but intriguing ending.

Director Masashi Yamamoto adapted Man, Woman and the Wall to a screenplay from an original story written by Fumihiro Yamada. Although incredibly sensual at times, the story has strong plot lines and interesting characters. The ending is unexpected but a bit strange and abrupt. The characters have some interactions that seem to me to be improbable, but I enjoyed the direction the movie took anyway.

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I thought I had my fill of coming-of-age films during the 1980s. But it seems those films were all cookie cutter Hollywood formula movies. In 2000, a fresh, sensual coming-of-age film came out of Italy that made the ones I remember seem incredibly tame. The sexual side of "coming-of-age" is more thoroughly examined in this recollection of the woman that brought out the man in all the adolescent boys of a small coastal town in Italy. Malena!

Malena was written by Luciano Vincenzoni who appears to narrate his own coming-of-age during World War II in Italy. He is much older, as evidenced by his own admission that he does not recall many of the loves he had over the years, but will never forget the day he met Malena. It was his twelfth birthday and Il Duce had just pronounced war against Britain. He got a new (used) bicycle for his birthday, but even a bigger surprise when he found out what an erection is. The character is Renato Amaroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro). He is introduced to Malena (the incredibly sensual Monica Bellucci) by his young friends. Renato has a streak of independence and breaks free from his gawking friends, secretly tracking Malena's every move. Renato is aggravated by the incessant gossip in the town regarding Malena, who is outcast simply for her unparallelled beauty. Tragedy claims Malena as a victim, but a happy ending might still be in her future if Renato finally mans up.

Vincenzon's story was beautifully adapted to screenplay form by Director Giuseppe Tornatore. Tornatore infused the story with rich dialogue that could have slipped into seedy tawdry exchanges, but instead elevates the film to artistic excellence. The dialogue was humorous and unique. The angst that our young hero experiences is palpable in the brutally honest writing and original viewpoints. Renato's father (Luciano Federico) provides some excellent comic relief as a caring but strict man with a surprising soft spot. The torrid nature of some encounters in this film is handled delicately and artistically, which sets this film apart. The plot is part tragic, part happy ending. An excellent film with the important elements for good drama.

Renato ages a few years during the course of this film. Beginning as a twelve year old boy, haircuts and attire help define his age. As he matures, the aging is accomplished simply with changing taste in clothing and even the way Renato carries himself. Sulfaro does an excellent job of creating the illusion of aging, although he is very mature for a twelve-year-old to start with. Sulfaro brings a strange level of timidity to a role that is, at times, aggressive. It is a nice balance that allows the boy to seem boyish, yet struggling with his emerging manhood. Sulfaro was exceptional in balancing the opposing traits of his character. The struggle seems genuine. A veteran performance. Bellucci does not have much in the way of dialogue. She doesn't need to. Her beauty is the central issue, and she provides that silently. When it comes time for Bellucci to create the strongest drama of the film, she does it with apparent ease. Her performance was shocking and brilliant. The film is carried by these two excellent performers, but special mention should be given to Federico who provided some great scenes. The cast was impeccable.

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Empire Of The Sun

I sometimes find myself blowing the dust off of older movies and giving them another go. I normally don't watch a movie more than once unless enough time has passed that I have forgotten much of the film. Such is the case with Steven Spielberg's 1987 hit Empire of the Sun. I vaguely recalled some of the scenes as the film progressed, but it was almost like watching the film for the first time (I hope that isn't a sign of senility setting in).

The film opens with a choir singing in a very European looking church in Shanghai, China. A somewhat distracted but talented young soprano delivers his solo with amazing precision before drifting away again to some other distraction. We soon learn that the young man is named Jamie Graham (Christian Bale). His father, John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is wealthy and connected in China. However, a different wind is blowing in from the east...a Divine Wind. The Japanese have 50,000 troops in China and Shanghai appears to be squarely in their sights.

With a surprise attack launched on the city, the Grahams attempt to make it to the waterfront to board a boat to safety. In the crush of people running frantically from Japanese tanks and foot soldiers, Jamie becomes separated from his mother (Emily Richard). Jamie wanders aimlessly as the passage of time becomes visually evident. Jamie seems to be a smartass kid, but incredibly intelligent. Combine those qualities with a strange street savvy, and you have a character that easily wins the affinity of those around him while finding ways to make the system work for him. He is aided in his street schooling by a Fagan-like character named Basie (John Malkovich). Basie's lackey Joey "pants" Pantiolano) appears to feel threatened by the gifted young boy, but keeps his feelings to himself. The dynamics between the group vary from protection and friendship to alienation and using. But it seems it is Jamie (who has been renamed "Jim" by his new tutor) that brings a ray of light to the interment camp where they eventually find themselves.

While watching this film again, I was able to see it in a broader light based on Spielberg's other work in the interim. The film has an E.T. like quality with a child star and mild glossing over of the harsh realities of life in an internment camp. The death part was portrayed as a stark reality, but the survival aspects were portrayed with some whimsy. It worked for this type of film, which was somewhere between E.T. and Schindler's List, but closer to the E.T. end of the spectrum. Tom Stoppard adapted this story to a screenplay from the novel written by J.G. Ballard. The plot combines strong characters with an intense background and unusual combinations of respect and honor. Young Jim is not only a gifted intellect, but his love of aviation and sense of honor give him an eerie connection to his Japanese captors, putting him in a delicate position to create balance in the camp. The story allows for some betrayal, harsh treatment and even sensuality, but does not dwell on the depressing aspects as much as the survival point of view...which is what makes this film different and special. It is not supposed to be Schindler's List and succeeds on its own merit. An enjoyable, touching story complete with a happy ending.

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Saint Ralph

Is this film based on a true story? Of course not. But you can't help but ask yourself that question as you watch this film. The incredible against-all-odds determination and grit of the young Canadian named Ralph (Adam Butcher) seem to defy logic. The stuff that true stories seem to be made of. Instead, Saint Ralph is the product of Director Michael McGowan's imagination.

Ralph Walker is a troubled ninth-grader who attends a private Catholic school. His mother (Shauna McDonald) lies hospitalized and believes her son is staying with friends. Ralph has convinced the school that he resides with his grandparents (who are both deceased). Ralph has a lot of issues...he seems to have his own set of rules. He smokes, swears and likes to diddle himself. He also finds himself the target of school bullies. Yet the troubled teen seems to have an incredible capacity for moving forward in spite of setbacks.

Ralph's mother falls into a coma after he explains to her that a flaw in the design of the public pool was the cause of his embarrassing emission into that body of water. The subsequent harassment seems to roll off of the young man, who is absorbed with his mother's illness. Upon hearing about miracles, he becomes obsessed by the idea that he can give his mother a miracle by performing one on his own. His objective is to run and win the Boston Marathon. In the process, he manages to stoke the anger of the head priest, burn down his house, alienate his friends and enlist the aid of a former Olympian. The improbable events are portrayed in a surprisingly believable format.

McGowan weaves the story around the five months between Ralph's epiphany and the Marathon. The "chapters" are tied to festivals of various Saints. I am not sure if McGowan tailored the film to the corresponding Saints or if he was able to find Saints for each month that related to a specific theme for that chapter. Either way, there are different concepts at work during each stage of the film and those ideas are loosely tied to the cause of the Saint representing that chapter. It was an interesting side note that added an element of interest to the story.

The plot is fairly straight forward. It is your typical run-of-the-mill beating the odds story of human will and overcoming challenges. What makes Saint Ralph special is the stuff in between. We have a pretty good idea where the film is headed, but it is the journey that the audience can enjoy. The setbacks often seem insurmountable, but are presented in a credible way. The characters are extremely well developed and engaging. The human qualities in the characters provides the film with necessary believability. That is what makes one ask "is this a true story?" The characters are the core of the story. The dialogue was also great. The exchanges were not always predictable. Ultimately, the story tugs at your heart strings and manipulates your emotions. It is tastefully done, and if you are not connected to the action you probably have no soul.

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The Road

Which road is the one less traveled in a post apocalyptic world? In a dark world where cannibalism has become commonplace, carrying the torch of humanity to light a darkened world is the road less traveled. In a cold greyness that stretches to eternity, where no one can be trusted and everyone competes for scant resources, what level of civility can exist? Two roads diverged in a wood, and The Road takes us down the one less traveled.

A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trek across the United States from an undetermined location with a destination of the Southern coast of the United States. Battling hunger, polluted water and bands of hungry cannibals, the duo encounter many close calls in their efforts to survive. The father teaches his ten-year-old essential elements for him to survive. Yet the boy still seems to have a glimmer of humanity that his dad appears to be losing. Although dark and brooding, the story ebbs and flows with a series of tense scenes that are as heart-pumping as they are disturbing. Alternately, we get brief glimpses of humanity and self-sacrifice that keeps the story grounded.

The Road was adapted by Joe Penhall from a novel written by Cormac McCarthy. I have not read the novel, but am certain that it is as gripping and maybe even more disturbing than the screen version. The story provides tension through the ten-year-old son, who seems to be in constant danger and sometimes even compromises himself. The film has superb dialogue, but tells much of the story without words. The situations, scenery and simple expressions tell much of the story. Flashbacks pick up some of the history of the boy, who appears to have been born after the "event." His mother (Charlize Theron) disappears shortly before the journey begins. Her abrupt departure is not fully explained but seems to be alluded to. The complex issues of survival and humanity are balanced through strong character traits and some flaws as well. The plot seems nothing more than having a direction and "going that way." But the obstacles are where the story gets told. An excellent journey that doesn't really end.

Mortensen's character seems well educated, caring and tough. He also seems to have lost his trust in humanity and sees his son as the only hope for the future. Mortensen has that rugged exterior with a kind intelligence in his eyes that balances the opposing forces within his character. It is not a hard sell...the performance simply seems to flow out of him. Smit-McPhee seems to feed off Mortensen's performance, bringing an innocence to his role that makes the concept of a child wanting to commit suicide seem normal. The young actor seemed at ease in his role. Theron had a smaller part, but her struggles are the catalyst that begins this journey and she commits herself fully to that role. In an even smaller role, Robert Duvall makes an appearance as a man traveling the same road. The encounter seems to be an examination of the depths that humanity can sink to and the civility that can still manage to survive. Duvall was spectacular. With just a few minutes of screen time he left an impression. The cast helped keep my white knuckles clutched to my seat.

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A concentration camp survivor named Adolf Burger wrote a memoir about a secret Nazi initiative called Operation Bernhard in which they planned to destabilize the economy of the United Kingdom by flooding world markets with counterfeit British Pounds. Burger would know. He was a typographer who assisted in the operation. Director Stefan Ruzowitsky worked with Burger to adapt his novel to film, resulting in The Counterfeiters.

The Counterfeiters creates a fictional character named Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics) who is busted by Berlin Police for trying to counterfeit the U.S. Dollar. Sally ends up doing time, but quickly realizes jail has become more brutal...but the basic rules still apply. It seems Sally may be no stranger to prison life. Sally quickly figures out a scheme to survive, by endearing himself to his captors by drawing murals, portraits and propaganda drawings. Sally is abruptly transferred to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where he is greeted by the head of the counterfeit operation, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the very detective that arrested him in Berlin.

The prisoners who are involved in Operation Bernhard are treated better than others in the camps. The brutality that goes on just beyond the thin walls is not lost on the prisoners, who must balance the concept of survival against the harsh realities that their operation might be funding the Nazi war effort and could prolong the war and increase the suffering. Burger (August Diehl) sabotages the work, prolonging production of the Dollar as long as possible. His actions risk the lives of the men he works with as they all struggle to strike a balance between survival and morality.

This fictionalized accounting of Operation Bernhard was created in close cooperation with Adolf Burger. Although fictional, it maintains a strong connection to the events that inspired it. Because of the quandry that the prisoners find themselves in, the story is able to bring out the best and worst in people, allowing for an excellent character study. It also shows the strange characteristics that can emerge, even in a setting as seemingly faceless as a concentration camp. In other camp-based movies, it seems that the other characters (other than the lead) become a faceless mass. In The Counterfeiters we learn about many of the characters and their own traits and flaws. One former banker detests Sally's arrival, looking down on him as a common criminal. His indignant reaction in the midst of a concentration camp is laughable. It shows the capacity of humans to close out the reality of the world around them and focus on the microcosm of their daily routine. The characters were well developed and were provided with credible dialogue that propels the film to the upper tier of my favorite World War II films.

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I have been vacillating on whether or not to recommend Adventureland. The film really doesn't cover any new ground and does not have a lot of great comic. In fact, the comedy tends to be juvenile. On the other hand, I laughed at some of the sophomoric humor and toughed it out to the end of the film. It wasn't bad, it wasn't was dead in the middle in that area that leaves you wondering whether to go thumbs up or thumbs down. So I am going to go thumbs sideways with two and half stars and the slightest recommendation possible.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) thinks he has his whole future planned out, beginning with a Summer 1987 trip around Europe before settling in as a Journalism Major at Columbia University come Fall. He has trouble wrapping his mind around the idea that his father has taken a major pay cut, short-changing his travel plans as well as the feasibility of attending Columbia. His impressive resume of lawn mowing (with references) and his score of 770 seem to limit his employment options, leaving him with only one alternative. Adventureland.

Adventureland is a cheesy amusement park with rigged games and carnival style rides. The mom and pop park is run by an odd character named Bobby (Bill Hader) who runs the park his own way...which doesn't always mean the customer is right. Brennan's buddy (king of the sack whack) Frigo (Matt Bush) works at the park running rides. He also develops a new friendship with Joel (Martin Starr) who seems to have some of the economic limitations and intellect but has lost the vision. A love interest (Em, played by Kristen Stewart) blossoms, but with complications. Adventureland provides Brennan the opportunity to find himself, if he knows where to look.

Adventureland is formulaic, but doesn't seem to know exactly which formula to use. The excessive use of pot might point to a "smoke" movie. Then there is the whole "coming-of-age" thing...but most of these kids seem to have already passed "that age." Love story? Nah. Romantic comedy? Not quite. Comedy? It wasn't quite funny enough. It almost seems like they wanted to capture that mysterious quality in Napoleon Dynamite and capitalize on it...but it wasn't that, either. It worked out okay, but not great for me.

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Birthday Girl

What kind of guy mail-orders women from Russia? Could it be the same kind of guy that would fall hopelessly in love with a woman even though they could not effectively communicate? Would it be the kind of guy who has Sucker written across his forehead? The kind of guy that is easily targeted by scammers? If the answer is "yes," then the guys name is John (Ben Chaplin) and he works a dead-end job at the bank and goes through life following the same routine without really experiencing life.

John is surprised when he orders a companion from the internet and she shows up at the airport unable to understand English. What to do? John frantically calls the agency to explain that a mistake has been made, but ends up getting the run-around. The Russian claims that her name is Nadia (Nicole Kidman) but we later learn that she uses an alias. When her play cousin Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) shows up unannounced with his friend Alexei (Vincent Cassel), John's orderly world takes a drastic turn for the worse.

Birthday Girl takes an interesting journey full of plot twists and turns, some of which are predictable, others keep things interesting. John isn't dumb, but it seems his choices sometimes defy logic. His character is fairly well constructed, but his actions seem extreme within the circumstances created by the plot. The credibility factor requires quite of a bit of leeway. The sub-plots and minor twists were enough for me to enjoy the film in spite of lethargic dialogue and unlikely actions. The story could have been better but was decent enough.

Nicole Kidman is Nicole Kidman. This film is worth watching just to see her show some skin. But her acting abilities are on full display as she puts on a Russian accent that was convincing enough for my untrained ear. She speaks her lines in Russian, which was interesting to hear. She convinced me that she was Russian. The success of the story depends on a weird chemistry between Chaplin and Kidman that worked for me. Kassovitz is almost likable as one antogonist, while Cassel was legitimately scary. This film was not average because of the acting. That part was pretty good.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Amateurs

Andy Sargentee (Jeff Bridges) dreams big, but executes small. He spends his days in a tiny bar of his everybody-knows-each-others-business small town. Andy used to be married, but now his wife lives with an ultra-successful and wealthy (but decent) man. His teenage son has everything a teenage boy could want, to include a basketball court in his bedroom. But not much of a relationship with his father.

Andy has a tendency to come up with big ideas which he seems to drag everyone else in town in on. As he begins cogitating in the bar over a tall cold one, the townspeople begin to get nervous. They have seen this look before and it has usually cost them money. When Andy happens upon his epiphany, that is exactly what happens. Andy gets everyone to ante up two thousand dollars so they can create a pornographic film. One that involves almost everyone in town (in some sort of fashion). What we end up with is a tongue-in-cheek examination of the process, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Will this finally be the one time that Andy can pull it all together, even as the wheels fall off the wagon? You'll have to watch to find out.

The concept behind The Amateurs (which was originally released in the United Kingdom as The Moguls) is that the end product you are watching are the rough cuts created during the making of the film. So the movie itself is about the making of the film, rather than the film itself. Not an entirely unique concept, but certainly entertaining. The plot does not have the depth of a drama or quite the humor of a comedy, but falls somewhere in between. The characters display some unique traits and have enough depth to keep the film interesting in spite of the thin plot.

The interesting characters are created by an ensemble cast that play some fun roles. Ted Danson as the closet homosexual (and he is more ways than one). Joey "Pants" Pantoliano works at a photo mart kiosk...and talks Sargentee into allowing him to be a "writer slash director." Middle-aged and living with his mom creates some interesting dinner conversation during discussions about the film. Tim Blake Nelson as a plumber who is in love with one of the film stars...and ends up destroying her footage. Willliam Fichtner as a lovable loser whose great revelation is that a girl who works in a mattress store must love sex (and he ends up being right). You couldn't ask for a more veteran cast. Although the script was quirky and mediocre, you could tell they were having a good time doing this one. That created some good chemistry that showed on film. A different cast could not have carried this added to the humor.

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Across The Universe

The cover art on Across The Universe was terrible. Even after reading the synopsis of the film, I wasn't so sure about this one. It is definitely one of those films that borrows a little bit from various places and strings the elements together to create something new. I have seen that concept done poorly too many times to count. However, I am happy to say that Across The Universe did an excellent job, throwing in extremely subtle references alongside those that are easy to spot.

The plot isn't so much what this film is about. It is more about enjoying the ride. With elements of Hair, The Wall and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band combined with Beatles references and trivia mixed together with a 1960s time line, Across The Universe examines the journey of a young man from Liverpool on the road of self discovery. He travels to America where he makes a new best friend and falls in love. His happiness and heartache transpire against the backdrop of the 1960s, where major historical events coincide with his journey, throwing him together with an odd mix of characters representative of the era. At its heart, this film is about the music. Cover songs of the Beatles are recreated to tell the story. At times, that creates some obviously contrived scenes. But its okay...that is part of the concept. It is a mish-mash of psychedelic experiences with animated sequences of strange brew.

Because Across The Universe is about the music, it is important to look at the quality of the covers. The cast was carefully selected to create a diverse look at the 60s. The young man from Liverpool (Jude, played by Jim Sturgess) did an excellent job of acting and had some strong covers. But in terms of tonal quality, I really preferred the two male supporting actors, Max (Joe Anderson) and Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy). Max is an ivy-league dropout that gets drafted. His vocals were strong and grainy, which I enjoyed. Jo-Jo had some great guitar rifts and strong vocals with a tinge of Jimi Hendrix thrown in. The female lead (Lucy) is played by Evan Rachel Wood. Her vocals were eerily haunting. Her soprano voice brought a nice element to songs like If I Fell In Love With You. Other strong vocals were done by Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Other vocals were snuck in during cameo's by stars like Bono (I Am The Walrus). You never know who is going to break into song, which added to the might be a bum or pimp (Joe Cocker) doing a song which they have already covered. Exceptional vocals made this film work for me.

My own 1960s timeline was a bit off. I thought that the Detroit Riots (I grew up in the city, you would think I knew) happened in 1968. They happened in 1967. I thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated before the Detroit Riots and figured that the film had the time line wrong. I was wrong. Reverend King was assassinated in April 1968 after the Detroit riots. Both events were properly sequenced in the film and provided direction or inspiration to various characters. The Kent State Massacre was also portrayed, which did not happen until May 1970. The one time line event that was out of sequence (that I picked up on) was Kent State. The Beatles references were injected throughout the film. One big nod that was given to the band was the impromptu concert performed on top of Apple Records. This occurred before Kent State, but afterwards in the film. That was the only anachronism I found in the sequence of events.

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Chan-wook Park is synonymous with tense Asian suspense films. The Korean director caught my attention with his Mr. Vengeance trilogy. Park is back, sinking his teeth into the vampire genre with Thirst, which was released in 2009 under the Korean name Bakjwi. Vampire films (read that Twilight) have gotten soft and have lost their edge. Park is back with a film that tests new boundaries with a film that is certain to make your stomach hurt.

Thirst opens with dialogue between a priest, Sang-Hyeon (Kang-ho Song) who feels called to assist a study being conducted by a controversial Order to stop a debilitating illness called EV. During the tests, Hyeon is given a blood transfusion. Unknown to Hyeon, the blood has been taken from a vampire. Hyeon is the only subject among fifty who is healed from the EV, creating a throng of believers that seek him out hoping that he can heal them (or their loved ones).

Hyeon does everything in his power to fight the beast lurking inside him, but requires blood to maintain his health. Without the blood, lesions begin forming on Hyeon, evidence of the other monster (EV) lurking in his blood. Hyeon seeks a peaceful alternative to hunting for his blood, feeding instead on a hospitalized friend who is in a coma. But Hyeon experiences more than just a blood lust, which causes him to be manipulated into engaging in activities he would otherwise resist. Hyeon's sins follow him and eventually consume him, forcing Hyeon to make an impossible decision.

Vampire films have been done many ways. Thirst is an intelligently written look at the genre. Many taboos are explored in this film, along with enough gore to put this film very close to the slasher genre. Thirst is definitely not for the weak-hearted. The special effects are often stomach wrenching. Hyeon is a fundamentally good person. A priest who sought out the disease EV because he felt God had called him to help people. This dictates Hyeon's decision making matrix, which more than once leads him to kill those he loves. The plot creates circumstances that challenge traditional mores. Excellent dialogue (the sub-titles were pretty good...with only a couple of odd translations) combined with an intriguing plot were indicative of a well thought out plot. Park co-wrote the script along with Seo-gyeong Jeong.

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The Last Word

The concept of The Last Word intrigued me immediately. Evan (Wes Bentley) is a writer. Evan is introverted and struggles to relate with people. Most of his feelings are summarized in quotes taken from famous (and some obscure) writers. Evan makes his living as a free-lance writer. He advertises his services on a website called "The Last Word." Evan writes suicide notes that are eloquent and capture the essence of the suicidal client. A strange profession to say the least.

Evan's life becomes more complicated when he is spotted taking notes at the funeral of a client. The sister of the deceased, Charlotte (Winona Ryder) spots Evan and approaches him to find out what his relationship was to her brother. Evan lies, and tells Charlotte that they knew each other in college. Charlotte pursues Evan, who is reluctant to engage in any sort of activities with her. In the meantime, Evan takes on a new client, Abel (Ray Romano) who becomes sort of a sounding board for Evan. Evan's new found love and strange friendship with a client lead him to begin questioning his choices. The lies eventually begin building while the walls around Evans secluded small world begin crumbling around him.

If anything stands out in The Last Word, it would be the writing. The acting was solid, but the dialogue was unique and structured. The plot was different and unpredictable. The characters were well developed and quirky enough to capture ones attention. In essence, The Last Word epitomizes the best qualities of Indie films. There are stretches in the film that are paced on the slow side, but overall, the writing is exceptional. Geoffrey Haley did an excellent job wearing hats as both writer and director.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

I Am David

NetFlix let me down this time. The database suggested that I Am David would register better than four stars for me. I liked the concept and felt like there were definitely some good concepts explored. However, the film had the quality (especially dialogue) of an “Afternoon Special.” The poorly written dialogue was tepidly adapted by Paul Feig from a novel written by Anne Holm. Reading the synopsis of the book, it appears that Feig added an interesting twist to the plot, but changed some elements of the story. This is one where the book might be far superior to the cinematic version.

David (Ben Tibber) is a fictitious boy who, at twelve years of age, has very few memories of anything other than his life in a post-WWII concentration camp. Ben want to escape the camp and enlists the aid of Johannes (James Caviezel). Johannes has become fond of the boy, offering him advice to help him survive. After a brief exchange in the camp, we are guided through twenty minutes of action, overlapped by instructions that have been given to David prior to his escape. The instructions are step-by-step directions to assist David in finding his way to Denmark. Several borders and unexpected challenges await the young escapee on his journey. David meets a variety of people who each share something with David, helping him to understand life outside the confines of a concentration camp.

I Am David is a tender poignant tale that has two very good plot twists to enhance the value of the story. The excellent concept is compromised by dialogue which seems like it is drawn directly from a first –grade reader. The dialogue borders on insulting in simplicity. The film has a run-time of ninety minutes, the first twenty being narrated. That leaves precious little time to develop the characters that David meets on his journey. It seems as if David bounces from one experience to the next with little opportunity to fully engage the other characters. This made the dialogue even more tedious and superficial. The characters really did not matter to me. There was an excellent plot twist at the end that could have paid out in spades if it had been played right. As it was, I merely yawned at the ending. It was squandered on characters that just did not matter to me.

The acting wasn’t necessarily bad in I Am David. However, because of the weak character development and generic dialogue, the characters lacked life. It must be difficult for an actor to try and engage an audience with a character whose interactions are sparse or perfunctory. We go through the motions along with the actors and never have a chance to feel anything. In a nutshell, this film lacks soul, and no Oscar-winning performance can change that. Having said that, Tibber was decent as the confused but brave escapee. Joan Plowright was a bright-spot as a kind-hearted artist who befriends David near the end of the film. She was engaging in spite of her limited role. Caviezel seemed genuine enough, but again, his relationship with David was weakly examined. The rest of the cast was forgettable. None of them were bad, just made invisible by dialogue and interaction that lacked heart.

Princess Aurora (Orora Gongju)

Princess Aurora was released in 2005 under the Korean title Orora Gongju. The film follows a skilled Korean detective who is studying to be a minister, a mysterious woman who goes on a killing spree and a bevy of other baddies who happen to cross paths with the sadistic killer. The killings don't appear to be random, so why common thread ties the victims together? That is the question that keeps viewers watching until the end.

I am familiar with the work of Korean Director Park (who had an excellent film titled Old Boy), but do not recall having previously seen anything by Director Eun-jin Bang. I enjoy Korean films, in spite of the sub-titles, which sometimes take away from the visually appealing aspects of Korean film. Because of my affinity for this particular genre, I hoped that Bang would produce a film I would enjoy. He did. Not quite up to the same standard as Old Boy, which had a stronger visual element and graphic novel type storyline. Princess Aurora is more your standard psychological thriller, where you try and get inside the head of killer to figure out what is going on. In that endeavor, this film succeeds in telling an interesting and somewhat unique story.

We pick up the action in Princess Aurorawith a brutal gore-dripping homicide in the ladies room at a department store. An inexperienced detective is mentored along in the investigation by a sage investigator named Detective Oh Sung-ho (Seoung-kun Mun). The department store murder is the first in a series, which are linked together by stickers left at the scene of the crimes of a cartoon character named Princess Aurora. We know the killer. She is Jung Sun-jung (Jeong-hwa Eom). We follow her around as she marks her next targets, and watch as she employs unique methods for delivering their last breath. What we don't know are her motives or her relationships to other characters in the film. These revelations are pieced out to viewers as the film progresses. Although the pacing could be picked up at times and the plot seems a little jerky, the story was interesting and somewhat unique.

Because this is a Korean film, I am not familiar with the cast. That can good, because I can go in without any preconceived ideas or stereotypes regarding the actors. I thought that the female lead was convincing as this films killer. She had an odd combination of ruthless killer and charming introvert. I thought she pulled it off well. Her interactions with the other characters were convincing and fun to watch. Our male lead also does a good job of balancing his role and the chemistry he has with the other characters. The cast was excellent.

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Unfortunately for me, the “End Is Near” did not happen for a painful 158 minutes. 2012 ties together ancient calendars and cosmic events with an end-of-the-world apocalyptic cataclysmic string of events that seem to be timed perfectly to coincide with the near death escape of the major characters. If that fails to be conveniently improbable enough for you, the major characters seem to be so intertwined that their paths crossing could not even be attributable to karma (which seems to be suggested near the end). The explosions and big special effects failed to win me over. This disaster movie was exactly that…a disaster.

2012 introduces us to a bevy of flat characters who are all agenda-driven. They seem to have a limited purpose in the film, which becomes evident quickly (talk about predictability). The flat characters are augmented with cheesy dialogue that I would be embarrassed to claim. Attempts at subtlety were exchanged for beat-you-over-the-head clichés that bombed. Lines like “it’s not the end of the world…” or similar “foreshadowing” language were so blatantly out-there that I felt like this film was written with a first-grade audience in mind. Or were they intentionally trying to insult the intelligence of movie-going patrons? The plot had an interesting direction that could have been explored further rather than relying on gimmicks and imagery to carry the film. Instead of thoughtful writing, we get big explosions, too many close calls and an eternity of celluloid before the film finally ends. And the ending really wasn’t that bad (other than the trite dialogue). An opportunity squandered by Director and writer Roland Emmerich and writer Harald Kloser.

The film opens with a couple of young scientists discovering changes in the Earth’s core caused by sun-flares. The American (Adrian Helmsley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) works for the government as a geologist. During his visit with Indian scientist Dr. Tsurutani,(played by Jimi Mistry), Helmsley realizes the importance of the discovery and reports immediately back to Washington DC. The matters are brought to the attention of President Wilson (Danny Glover) who immediately initiates a program with other world leaders to preserve our species and as much world knowledge, art and animal species as possible. In the meantime, we meet Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed writer who stumbles on the unfolding events while taking his estranged kids back-packing at Yellowstone Park. Curtis bumps into Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) during that trip, and given the rough outline of pending events.

Hold on tight…because things are gonna’ get confusing... Curtis is separated from his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) who is currently shacked up with Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) who also happens to be a private pilot. Gordon is also a plastic surgeon, who has done work on Tamara (Beatrice Rosen). Tamara is arm candy for a wealthy Russian named Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric). None of them not directly related to each other has ever met the others. And oh, did I mention that Curtis happens to drive a limousine for Yuri when he isn’t writing his loser books?

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Twilight Saga: New Moon

I thought that the original Twilight film was interesting. A new spin on the classic with some fresh faces and decent plot lines. Twilight was based on a book series by Stephenie Meyer. The film prompted me to go out and purchase the next book in the series, New Moon. I liked the book far less than the first film, attributed mostly to the tedious task of tracking Bella's every thought. Because of the brilliant imagery and interesting spin in Twilight, I thought I might give the film New Moon a chance. I mean, without constant voice-overs to track Bella's thoughts, how could they possibly incorporate that much mental baggage into the film?

Boy was I dissappointed! New Moon, the film, failed me on every level. In fact, my teenager daughter, who was impressed with the buff Taylor Lautner as Jake Black, admitted that the film barely exceeded three stars. I'm not that generous. In fact, Lautner did expose his impressive abs, but he also exposed his lack of acting chops. Lautner's lines were delivered with the passion of an elementary school play. Aside from his physcial attributes, Lautner was nothing short of horrible. But I digress...

New Moon picks up where Twilight left off. For a brief period of time, all seems normal. But an unfortunate incident at the Cullen's house, combined with the fact that Mr. Cullen has been in Seattle too long, and hasn't aged, leads the Cullen's to depart Seattle (oh, woe...where will they find such dismal atmosphere to protect their diamond glistening skin?) Poor Bella (Kristen Stewart) slips into a deep depression at the departure of her true love. Not to mention her obsession with aging. Bella exorcises her demons by finding any adrenaline opportunity that avails itself. Reckless and naive. Meanwhile, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) believes Bella has killed herself and seeks his own demise.

In a nutshell, this book in the series is supposed to conceptually track the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet. If you are not smart enough to figure that out, Meyer beats you over the head with the concept with references to the classic. However, Romeo and Juliet succeeds because it is a tragedy. They die. New Moon is only a tragedy in that I not only read the book, but wasted my money on the film version as well.

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Passengers is one of the first films that I have watched on my Samsung BDP3600 Wi-Fi Blu-Ray Disc Player using my Netflix instant queue to stream the video live on my television. I added this film to the instant queue from the Netflix website, after reading the synopsis, which appealed to me. The concept seemed intriguing, although an effort at misdirection. It took me about half the film to figure out that I was watching something I have seen before (in other films).

Warning: The following paragraph will analyze the material in this film that has been done before. It will not expose the plot of the film, but will provide enough information to act as a spoiler...

Passengers borrows concepts that were better applied in the films The Others and The Sixth Sense. Obviously, The Sixth Sense set the standard for this type of film and will never be adequately replicated. However, The Others took this genre in a different direction with a phenomenal performance by Nicole Kidman, that elevated that film to a close second. With two excellent movies already available with similar themes, this one trails as a distant third. Passable, but not nearly as good.

Spoiler Alert concluded. You may resume reading here, if you skipped the previous paragraph...

Generally, psychological thrillers necessarily seem subdued with a slower pacing than other films. That is okay if the film is using the lag time for the viewer to cogitate on the information being provided. Also, some films in this genre use the slower pacing to provide visual cues to the audience regarding the plot. Tidbits that can be collected on subsequent viewings. At times, those sluggish plots squander opportunities and simply flail while they try and figure out a direction. That is how I felt about Passengers. I enjoyed the film, but the lag time seemed wasted.

Passengers also seemed to try and go too many different directions. Although everything was tied up in a neat bow at the end, the beginning was awkward enough to create confusion. I know that this misdirection was intentional, but the extent that it was taken seemed excessive. Almost as if Rodrigo Garcia (Director) and Ronnie Christensen (Writer) conspired to create filler to extend the length of the film to its current 93 minute run time...short by most movie standards (although those horrible spoof movies all seem to run 88 minutes). The slack times in this film did not appear to add anything to the movie.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a Woody Allen joint. I am not a big fan of Woody Allen and found the movie to be a bit irritating from the very beginning. When a narrator provided a "first-grade-reader" level of introduction to the characters, I told my wife that I sincerely hoped that the narration was only part of the introduction. It was not. The story-teller interjects throughout the film with distracting simplistic explanations that seem a failed attempt at humor.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells the story of two friends (Vicky and Cristina...played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, respectively), who spend a Summer vacation in Spain. Vicky is grounded and stable, while Cristina is impulsive. The two end up crossing paths with a blunt artist (Javier Bardem) who talks them into spending a weekend with him. The artist has a mentally deranged ex-wife (Maria Elena AKA Penolope Cruz) who enters the picture later in the film. The four experience a variety of relationships during the course of the film, with very little in the way of closure. The film seemed more like an excuse to show off the phenomenal products of talented Spanish artists and the Spanish landscape than anything else. For that reason, I can give the film a star.

The acting was also very I will throw in another star for good measure. Bardem was fairly good in this film, but was up-staged by Penolope Cruz, who was allowed to let her fiery side out. Cruz was actually funny in a tortured sort of way. Hall and Johannson had decent roles and good chemistry with Bardem. As a whole, the acting made up for the boring plot and forced dialogue. (The dialogue was anything but cliche...but it seemed to try to hard to be the point that I had no idea what people were talking about at times). Penolope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress for her role in this film, and it was well deserved. Her performance upstaged the leads and even upstaged the script!

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The Station Agent

I recently signed up for NetFlix, which allows you to rate movies in order to allow the database to suggest films you might like. The hundreds of movie reviews I have posted on Epinions made the task quick and simple, allowing me to enter enough data to give the database a strong background to draw from. One movie (The Station Agent) drifted to the surface with a NetFlix suggested rating of 4.7 based on my viewing and rating habits. Close, but not an exact science. I would go with a solid 4 stars. I am glad NetFlix found this film for me, because I do not recall having seen this film when it was released in 2003.

The Station Agent has that quirky independent quality which I have enjoyed immensely from films like Lars and the Real Girl. The film briefly examines the relationship between and dwarf (Finbar McBride, played by Peter Dinklage) and an elderly man (Henry Styles, played by Paul Benjamin) who share their passion for trains. The two run a train hobby shop and sponsor “train chasing” film nights, where they live vicariously through members of their club who document their train travels on film. A quick turn events lands the dwarf in an abandoned train depot, where he takes up residence. Finbar (Fin) is a bit reclusive and finds it difficult to adjust to small town life.

The parking lot of the disused train station hosts a local hot dog vendor (Joe Oramas, played by Bobby Cannavalle) who boasts about his café con leche. Joe is a talkative extrovert who forces his way into Fin’s personal space. Fin’s obvious reluctance to engage with Joe seems lost on Joe. In a pesky sort of way, Joe eventually seems to grow on Fin and the two spend some time together. The two are joined by a tortured artist (Olivia Harris, played by Patricia Clarkson) who’s grief over her lost son appears to be temporarily eased by the duo, before returning with intensity. The film follows the interaction between these strong likeable characters while exploring different issues.

The Station Agent seems to end a bit trivially for a film that holds great promise. Yet, I found myself reflecting on the characters and their interactions after the film in spite of the timid ending. With a drama that balances levity with some darker issues, you almost expect a dramatically intense conclusion, which never came. The rather mundane completion of this film left some questions unanswered, but did not leave me feeling unfulfilled. The characters reached me with their realism. The characters all had flaws which surfaced at different times during the film. Combined with the interesting dialogue and great chemistry, the characters provide the audience with a sense that we are witnessing real people.

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The Boys Are Back

Just say “yes.” A simple slogan for child rearing that spells disaster. Sports writer Simon Carr wrote a novel based on the situation he was left in, raising a young boy, following the loss of his wife to cancer. Carr struggled with his relationship, realizing that it had become too easy to say no. “If a child asks to play together in the river, we automatically respond ‘no, I have to go buy milk.’” Carr’s fictional counterpart, Joe Warr (Clive Owen) takes the concept to dangerous levels, speeding along the beach with his younger son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) sitting on the hood in front of the windscreen or allowing his to jump from a ledge in the bathroom into the tub. This reckless parenting style becomes further complicated when Warr’s teenage son Harry (George Mackay) asks to come live in Australia with him.

With the arrival of Warr’s son from his first marriage, the home dynamic becomes a bit more complicated. Although there appears to be some favoritism towards the younger son (from the second marriage) and the eight year age difference, the two boys grow very close. The house is filthy, the boys have very little structure and Warr does not ask much from the boys. What should be easy living bounces from obnoxious silly fun to a very dangerous scenario. Warr realizes that his lifestyle requires adjustments and struggles to do damage control to win back his oldest son.

The Boys Are Back is a touching drama based on the true story of Simon Carr. The film is based on Carr’s novel, with the screenplay adapted by Allan Cubitt. It is hard to tell how much of the story is fiction and what percentage is fantasy. It would be interesting to know where the line is drawn. The film is a touching examination of the family dynamic combined with superb drama and offbeat humor. Although not laugh-out-loud funny, the comedy elements were sweet and subtle. The dialogue was rich with the English and Australian vocabulary requiring a bit of attention at times. The characters were well developed with great interaction and surprising believability. The plot was predictable with a simple ending that was as fulfilling as it was expected. Overall, the writing provided a fresh examination of family dynamics with interesting characters, excellent drama and some well-placed levity.

I am a fan of Clive Owen. His performance in The Boys Are Back was consistent with the excellence that I have grown to expect from him. Because the plot requires Owen's character to be likeable (but with major issues) it required a special actor to make the role work. Owen was that actor. I was impressed with his grittiness and tenderness equally. The balance made the character connect. It made the audience want Warr to succeed and get his family back together. Owen deserves a look when the awards come around. Laura Fraser appears in a limited capacity as Warr’s second wife, Laura. She provided a nice balance in some of the scenes where Warr was unsure which direction to go. Although limited, her appearances were solid. The film also requires strong performances and good chemistry from MacKay and McAnulty, which both delivered. The characters were adequately brought to life by an exceptional cast.

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