Saturday, January 31, 2009


Taken does not venture into unchartered territory. The premise has been done in Hollywood more than once. You have a typical highly trained father whose child is abducted by bad characters. The film Ransom came to mind in terms of similar films. Takenelevates this concept to a whole new level. CIA operatives, international espionage and a high stakes multi-national slave trade market increase the stakes in this interesting film.

Takenbegins with a retired CIA agent (Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson), who has moved to California to be closer to his daughter. The backstory of Neeson's strained relationship with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is captured through Mills' recollections of past birthdays. Mills wants to reconnect with his daughter, but the amount of time the CIA kept him away from his family makes him more of a signatory than a father. Reluctantly, Neeson agrees to sign a release to allow Kim (who is seventeen) to travel to Europe with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy). The only condition is that Kim bring along a cell phone and check in regularly with her father.

Upon arriving in France, Amanda and Kim are met at the taxi stand by Peter (Nicolaus Giraud) who is actually a scout for an Albanian sex slave ring operating in Paris. Peter shares a cab to the girl's address in Paris, providing the information to the Albanians. The sex slave traders shortly arrive at the location and kidnap the girls. Kim manages to get a quick call out to Mills, who quickly kicks into CIA mode. Mills uses his extensive contacts to begin tracking down the abductors, leaving a trail of carnage and destruction in his wake. It is a race against time as Mills attempts to react within the 96 hour window his CIA contacts advise he has to respond.

Takenrequires suspension of all belief. If you go into this film expecting anything remotely resembling reality you will be disappointed. This is a big Hollywood film replete with massive explosions and unlimited firepower. Given the exaggerated nature of the film, the writing is more a product of inter-personal relationships, dialogue and character development. The character development was a mixed bag, with Mills' character exhibiting the most depth. I was surprised at some of the actions taken by Mills during the film, but those actions did not contradict the personality traits assigned to this character. Lenore was a bit flat and predictable. As with most films of this nature, the bad guys were also one-dimensional. The relationships between the characters were plausible, creating the right set of circumstances to make the plot concept work. The dialogue was hackneyed at times, but enjoyable nonetheless. As a whole, the writing was mixed. Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen took an interesting concept and developed a workable script that was entertaining if nothing else.

Selecting Liam Neeson for the starring role was a good choice. Neeson brings an intensity to his performance that makes him credible as an enraged father with the deadly skills needed to create complete and utter chaos throughout Paris. Neeson's performance was brilliant. He was fun to watch. Lenore was a flat character, the depth that was visible in this character was a product of the acting skills of Famke Janssen. Her performance made a mediocre character better. The cast was made up of many smaller parts, with Neeson carrying the major role. These smaller parts had little opportunity to shine (or fail as the case may be). One noteworthy actor in a minor role was Olivier Rabourdin as Jean Claude Pitrel of French Intelligence. As a whole, the acting was excellent.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Away From Her

In the late 1970s, my grandmother (who raised me) started showing signs of “senility.” They were simple signs…but dangerous ones. Things like forgetting she put a tea kettle on the stove. The official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease didn’t come until about 1980. There wasn’t much known about the disease at the time, even though knowledge of the symptoms dates back to the early 1900s. Treatment for the disease did not exist. There was no internet to research. In short, it was a dark journey into the unknown. Alzheimer’s is initially devastating. It is a slow degenerative disease that creates strong emotional responses. Yet it is a numbing process. By the time my grandmother died in 1988, it was a release. Death was a welcome end for a dignified woman who had long left the shell of a body that I visited in the Nursing Home.

When I found Away From Her and realized it dealt with the relationship between two people who were very much in love, I was intrigued at the way the movie would deal with these issues. The funny thing about Alzheimer’s is the lucidity that creeps in from time to time. Names become secondary to general concepts and memories that are thoroughly clouded. My multi-lingual grandmother sometimes slipped into another language, completely losing any chance she had of communicating an idea to me. In Away From Her, this cruel game of juxtaposition between lucidity and confusion can wreak havoc on relationships. It is a gut-wrenching ordeal during the initial stages when your loved one still grasps the concept of people that are important to them.

Away From Her was directed (and adapted to screenplay) by Sarah Polley, based on the book The Bear Came Over The Mountain written by Alice Munro. The story follows the relationship of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie). Their lives become intertwined with another couple experiencing the same conditions, Aubrey (Michael Murphy) and his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). Grant and Fiona have shared their best lives. Grant feels guilt for some indiscretions when he was a young college professor. It seems that Grant perceives that his wife Fiona is using her Alzheimer’s to get back at him for his earlier transgressions. The struggle to come to grips with the fact that Fiona will slowly lose her mind, eventually slipping completely away from him, make Grant angry and confused. Grant and Fiona agree that Fiona should enter an assisted care facility while Fiona is still sane enough to participate in the decision. However, Grant must allow Fiona to adjust for thirty days before he is allowed to visit.

When Grant finally comes to see Fiona at the facility he learns that she has made a new friend in Aubrey. Aubrey has become dependant on Fiona’s attention, acting childish whenever she shifts her focus toward Grant. Aubrey appears torn between her commitment to Aubrey, which appears to be a job she has given herself to help maintain her focus and give her direction. Yet Grant perceives this as being supplanted. Aubrey is eventually removed from the facility by his wife causing a severe downturn in Fiona’s condition. Grant finds himself in a situation where his love for Fiona outweighs his sense of displacement. Grant determines that the best course of action is to convince Marian to return Aubrey to the facility. Marian wants something in return. What we end up with is a complex relationship based on needs.

Away From Her does not have a complicated plot. It can be hard to follow at times, until you realize that the film is shifting from the past to the present at irregular intervals. Once I grasped the basic idea, the film became much easier to understand. The story is touching, deep and emotional. For those who have experienced the pain of Alzheimer’s, the emotional impact of this film can be cathartic. The dialogue between the characters has teeth. The conversations are deep and often contain meaning beyond the conversation at hand. The characters experience the pain and joy that all of us experience, making them tangible. It is hard not to care about the outcome in spite of the inevitability of the subject matter. The story is woven together skillfully into an interesting examination of love and loss. It is a powerful thought-provoking story.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke looks good for a fifty-six year old. I should be so lucky when I reach his age. Rourke put himself through a pounding regimen to sell the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in his latest film The Wrestler. The work that Rourke put in to make this film believable should easily qualify him for a Best Actor nomination. I had high expectations going into this film based on the viral hype that The Wrestler has generated. Although Rourke was phenomenal, The Wrestler was not without a few shortcomings.

The Wrestler examines the life and poor timing of a washed up wrestler who rose to fame in the late 1980’s as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. We pick up the story of Robinson following a poorly attended wrestling event. As Robinson arrives back at his dilapidated trailer he finds the doors locked by management. Robinson spends the night in the back of his visibly deteriorated van. Robinson’s coat has seams bursting and duct tape repairs in many places. It seems as though Robinson’s meager salary at the local Supermarket combined with the cash he earns for wrestling events barely covers his steroids, pain killers, run-down trailer and lap dances. In a nutshell, Robinson is barely holding things together.

Robinson ends up in a horrific bloody match that becomes difficult to stomach even for a hardened wrestling fan. Barbed wire, shattered glass, razor blades and staples make for a gruesome event that ends in the locker room where a shaken Robinson experiences a heart attack. Robinson learns from his Doctor that his heart cannot withstand the abuse of his steroid use and the physical requirements of his wrestling profession. Robinson ends up engaging a stripper (Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei) in an attempt to remove his lonliness. Cassidy gets Robinson to reestablish contact with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Robinson has deep scars internally as well as the physical damage he has done to his body. His tremendously bad timing leaves right where he started. Or worse.

Darren Aronofsky Directed The Wrestler, creating an almost documentary feel at times. The film was written by Robert D. Siegel who put together an intelligent look at this subject matter. Siegel created strong characters that were able to deliver a powerful message. The dialogue was interesting and credible. The storyline took directions that are not often pursued by Hollywood. The Wrestler does not tie things up into a tidy package or ensure any kind of Happily-Ever-Afters. Instead, we get realistic characters that suffer. We can almost feel the pain sometimes…physically and emotionally. I was a bit disappointed in the storyline involving Robinson’s relationship with his daughter which was glossed over. The chemistry between the two was great but insufficient to tell the story. It seemed that Stephanie’s interaction with her father evolved quickly and dissipated with equal speed. I did not find their relationship to be explored thoroughly enough to make it plausible. The relationship between Cassidy and Robinson seemed a bit more developed and intricate. In spite of the brief examination of the father-daughter relationship, I found the story to be compelling.

I cannot imagine any actor that could have been cast more perfectly than Mickey Rourke. It felt as if The Wrestler was written specifically for him. Rourke provided depth and breadth to the role that made his character convincing. I was “in his corner” pulling for him in the ring as well as out. Rourke managed to evoke a range of emotions without overplaying his hand. Although I thought the father-daughter relationship was not completely explored, I found the chemistry between Rourke and Wood to be exceptional. There seemed to be a genuine chemistry between the two that initially made the relationship work for me. Tomei is another story. She wasn’t bad, but she wasn’t exceptional either. Her biggest asset was the amount of skin she showed. Nipple rings and a G-String provide Tomei with enough to keep her performance interesting. Tomei was probably well cast as an aging stripper to balance Rourke’s aging wrestler.

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Monday, January 26, 2009


Stephen King never ceases to amaze me with the stuff he can come up with. The way that King manages to layer his books with different levels of terror while toying with his readers shows a degree of sophistication often absent within the thriller genre. There are differing degrees of terror. There are a variety of ways to engage a reader or movie-goer with a scary story. King has mastered his art with a confidence that allows him to take ordinary ideas and make them extraordinary. 1408 is no different. In 1408, King manages to keep his viewers guessing while keeping them gripping the edge of their chair.

1408 tells the story of a writer, Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who makes his living off the haunted hotel circuit. Enslin’s books about haunted places provide him a meager living, evidenced by the degree of reception he draws at his book signings which is equally meager. In his work, Enslin has witnessed the hype of forlorn “off the beaten path” hotel owners who will do anything to book rooms. Enslin has grown jaded, failing to experience the paranormal to the point of exhaustion. He keeps an unlit cigarette lit in the event things ever get interesting. His cigarette has seen many hotel rooms.

Enslin becomes intrigued by the ploy used by the Dolphin Hotel. A simple postcard from the hotel shows up in Enslin’s post office box indicating that he should (or should not) stay in room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. When Enslin calls the hotel to make a reservation and specifically requests room 1408, he is told that the room is unavailable. Whatever date Enslin provides the hotel indicates the room is still unavailable. After suing the hotel, Enslin is granted permission to spend the night in room 1408. Upon arrival at the hotel, the proprietor, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), is notified that Enslin is attempting to check in. Enslin is escorted into Olin’s office. Olin immediately attempts to convince Enslin of the folly in his request. Enslin sees the entire episode as a hard-sell to build his suspense before allowing him to check into room 1408.

Olin finally concedes and advises Enslin regarding the history of the room, which Enslin quickly recites back. Olin then makes Enslin aware of the multitude of deaths that were not reported in the newspapers because they were considered natural causes. Enslin is undeterred by the history of room 1408 and declines Olin’s offer of a Penthouse upgrade and an expensive bottle of Cognac. Olin allows Enslin to keep the bottle of Cognac regardless…after all, it may be Enslin’s last guilty pleasure. Upon entering the room, Enlin’s entire reality is turned upside down in a series of events that quickly make it apparent to him that he is no longer in control. Enslin is committed to beating the room but he is up against an unstoppable force. The question then becomes “what can I believe?”

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Parents should be cautious about telling their children that they can pick a movie. There are plenty of decent films out right now that are aimed at younger audiences. So, I figured I would spend yesterday afternoon at Marley and Me, Hotel For Dogs or Bedtime Stories. No, kids don't see things through the same eyes...for some reason my son wanted to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop. What??? That one came out of the blue...he hasn't even mentioned that film.

I have seen a few of the advertisements for Paul Blart: Mall Cop with that guy from King of Queens(Kevin James). James stars in the title role as a Mall Security "Officer" who has tried repeatedly (make that eight times) to pass the New Jersey State Police entrance battery. Blart is one of those guys that was picked on in High School, primarily for his weight which is a side-effect of the constant sugar fixes he needs to battle his hypoglycemia. Blart seldom travels without some medicine (in the form of Pixie Stix) close by.

Officer Blart takes his position as Mall Security very seriously. He rides his Segue around the mall with diligence. His ride is tricked out with a blue light for serious infractions, like dangerous operation of a motorized wheel chair. Blart's co-workers paint a stereo-typical view of mall security...lazy, disinterested and utterly bored. Blart seems to take his job seriously because it is one of the few things in life he enjoys. His wife left him after gaining her citizenship (leaving him to raise a daughter). The lack of love in his life seems to be taking a turn when he meets Amy (Jayma Mays) who works at the weave kiosk in the mall. Everything seems to be falling apart for Blart when his young protege Veck (Keir O'Donnell) turns out to be a criminal mastermind who robs a bank and steals the transaction codes for all of the mall stores. Veck's extreme sports influenced cohorts wreak havoc on the store until Blart comes in to save the day.

I was expecting Paul Blart: Mall Copto be a complete bomb. What I found instead was a halfway interesting story laced with some pretty good one-liners and situational humor. The characters were a bit flat and predictable but definitely interesting. The concept provides an excellent vehicle for creating the comic situations. There are even a couple of plot twists. Although the film reaches a bit I got some solid chuckles. The formulaic nature of the plot was a drawback, even though the setting and characters were fresh. The dialogue was also fairly generic other than the comedic elements. The writing had some positive attributes that I was not expecting. Kevin James and Nick Bakay did a decent job with the writing.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Factory Girl

Andy Warhol was a bit before my time. I am familiar with Warhol's Pop Art like his famous 100 Soup Cans. I was completely unfamiliar with Warhol's work with movies, probably because they just weren't good. Some of Warhol's films were highlighted in the movie Factory Girland they just weren't good. Warhol began making these films in 1963. Upon meeting Edie Sedgwick in 1965, Warhol decided to insert her into a film based on the novel A Clockwork Orange that was made of an all male cast. After another small part in Horse,Warhol decided to make a film that featured Sedgwick. Thus, a factory girl was born. Her first film was called Poor Little Rich Girl.

Andy Warhol developed the concept of fifteen minutes of fame. Edie Sedgwick is the personification of this idea. Edie came from a very wealthy family with an impressive pedigree. She was descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Authors, Artists and Railroad men were among the distinguished ancestors from which she derived. Sedgwick could probably have used her family influence to get into real movies, but she somehow seemed enamored of Warhol. Factory Girlpaints their relationship as somewhat predatory on Warhol's part. Sedgwick's introduction to drugs and bohemian lifestyle is a recipe for disaster for her, that clouds her judgment.

The film covers a brief tryst between Sedgwick and Bob Dylan during the time that Sedgwick is still making films with Warhol. In reading her biography, it appears more likely that Sedgwick became familiar with Dylan while living at the Chelsea Hotel after severing her ties with Warhol. Either way, the relationship is covered in the film with Dylan confronting Warhol over his parasitic treatment of people. The film also deals With Sedgwicks relationship with Bob Neuwirth. A fundamental story line covers Sedgwick's battle with addiction that culminates in her death in 1971. Edie Sedgwick seems to have been an integral part of growing up in the 1960's, influencing hair styles and attire. She has been the subject of many songs. Growing up in the 1970's, I am surprised I was unaware of Sedgwick's influence. I guess every generation has it's own influences.

Factory Girlwas directed by George Hickenlooper. The screenplay was written by Captain Mauzner, based on the story created by Aaron Richard Golub, Simon Monjack and Captain Mauzner. Although the story seems to take a few liberties with the time lines, it was interesting to watch the interaction of famous characters like Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. The language from the 1960s has a delicious flavor that I really like. So the dialogue was rich and interesting. The plot was anti-climatic which is not uncommon for a biography. The pacing was okay but it was sluggish a few times. There were some funny wacky moments written in that I got a good chuckle out of. Overall, the writing was tolerable but not exceptional.

The casting for Factory Girlbrought some familiar faces to the screen. I was not wowed by the performances, but I was entertained. Sienna Miller was fairly strong in the lead role of Edie Sedgwick. Her performance was believable and she bore a decent resemblance to the photos I have found of the real Edie Sedgwick. Guy Pearce has that angular Warhol face...with some make-up and a blond wig, he was pretty convincing. Pearce was a bit better as Warhol. The credits refer to Hayden Christiansen as the Musician, who is never actually identified in the film as Bob Dylan. The biography seems to indicate that Dylan would be the character referred to as the Musician in the credits. Jimmy Fallon played Chuck Wein. I want to laugh whenever I see Fallon...he's just funny. His role in this film was not funny, but it was nice to see him...even if his performance was forgettable. The cast did a good job of creating a 1960's atmosphere, but there was not a standout performance.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In the process of creating something new and different, consideration must be given to how the pieces are going to fit together. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was written as a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921. At the time the story was written, it reached back to 1860 and ran the story forward from that point in time. The screenplay, which was written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord tells a very different story than the original. I often find that screenplays find a way to cheapen or shortcut original stories. I believe that this screenplay took an excellent concept from F. Scott Fitzgerald and created an entirely new story from the original. The screenplay told an exceptional story.

The movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins with the birth of a child on the day the Great War ended. The child’s mother dies in childbirth. His father panics upon seeing that the child appears to be an old man, leaving the child on the doorstep of a nursing home (along with a ratty seventeen dollars). The child is found by one of the housekeepers who rears the man-child as her own, in spite of warnings from a staff Doctor that the child does not have long to live.

As Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) witnesses the normalcy of death in his nursing home environment, he is exposed to many truths about life. The wisdom of aging forgotten people impresses him with many important lessons. As the younging process begins, Benjamin becomes exposed to the world. He meets a young girl Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to see beyond his age to the young Benjamin inside. The two strike up a lifetime friendship that causes their paths to meet and cross. The intersecting story never seems to turn itself parallel, as the two progress through life in different directions. For a brief period of time, the two “meet in the middle” and are able to journey together for a very short time. While it appears that fate wants them together, it seems intent on keeping them apart. But a birdie told me that they would eventually find each other for eternity.

The writing in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was prodigious. The elements of the story are carefully crafted to bring concepts together in a tightly woven manner. The interlacing of story-lines created a complex story that worked on two levels. The subtleties were not difficult to grasp, either. The character development engaged the audience with vibrant characters that contained dimension. The sub-plots provided essential details in developing the overall theme of the story. Although very different from the original version, the screenplay managed to create an intricate enjoyable plot that shifted enough to be unpredictable. Excellent dialogue and interesting characters rounded out nothing less than writing perfection. It may be a very difficult challenge when creating a set of rules out of thin air. But it appeared a momentous task that was met with visible tenacity and intellect.

One of the writing elements that appealed to me above the originality was the gentle use of sub-plots to tie together the larger themes. There is a point in the film where Benjamin is being advised on the proper way to eat caviar. A small morsel at a time so that you can savor it…and still have some. That concepts seemed tied into many of the smaller plots. The writers used a hummingbird to explain the concept of eternity. A ship’s Captain (Jared Harris) that befriends the young (or is that old) Benjamin admits that he really wanted to be an artist. He used that talent to tattoo a hummingbird on his chest. The hummingbird represented the Captain, who explained that a hummingbirds wings form a figure-eight…the symbol for eternity. Upon the Captain’s death, Benjamin observes a hummingbird, noting that he had never seen one that far out to see. The hummingbird comes to represent eternity in this manner, giving it more meaning later in the film. Other small tidbits of developing storylines that come one morsel at a time involve lightning strikes and a woman (Tilda Swinton) swimming the English Channel. I do not want to give everything away so I will leave it at that. It is refreshing to see writing that so carefully employs the use of building blocks in creating intended meaning.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

In A Dark Place

They need to send this film back to the dark place where they found it. I have not read The Turn of the Screw, which is the 1898 novella written by Henry James upon which this film is based. However, it appears that this novella sparked a great deal of debate regarding the intent of James in presenting a ghost story that might be more an extension of normal experience than super-natural forces.

Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary critic who was only three years old when this book was written. Wilson was the first known person to support the theory that Turn of the Screw was an examination of the Governess and her own insanity rather than a haunted house story. It appears that Wilson's interpretation of the book formed the basis for the screenplay, which left open some interpretation but tended to lean towards the insane governess point of view. I'm not certain how closely the screenplay followed the book or how much influence Wilson had on the finished product, but the film seemed to contradict itself at times, in an effort to leave open the possibilities.

In A Dark Placebegins with a troubled art teacher, Anna Veigh (Leelee Sobieski) who tries to use art as a form of therapy for her students. Her approach to teaching art has put her at odds with her superiors. Veigh uses sex to avoid losing her job, but finds herself referred to another job by her superior. Veigh undertakes the task of caring for the nephew and niece of a wealthy businessman who does not have time or concern for the task. Veigh is handsomely rewarded for taking full responsibility for the children.

Veigh is explained her tasks by the Estate manager, Ms. Grose (Tara Fitzgerald). Veigh soon meets Flora (Gabrielle Adam) whose paintings indicate an other-worldly presence. Flora's brother Miles (Christian Olson) attends a private school but is expelled shortly after Veigh's arrival. It is his third expulsion. The children appear to be progressing well under Veigh's tutelage when she begins seeing curious figures around the property. The kids are obviously troubled and Veigh ends up slowly losing her sanity. She is comforted by Ms. Grose who was initially cold but eventually warms up to Veigh to the point of some girl-on-girl action. As Veigh loses her sanity we are led to believe that the darkness comes from within Veigh rather than the house.

This is where I have a fundamental problem with the script. We are led to believe that a previous caretaker and her groundskeeper lover have both died prior to Veigh's arrival. We have a boy who has been expelled three times for eerie encounters with his classmates. The boy is seen very early in the film swinging a scythe at his sister while wearing a burlap bag over his face. This is long before Veigh begins spiralling downward. The children paint pictures depicting the ghosts that Veigh sees. Yet, in the end, we are led to believe that Veigh has generated the evil herself. Veigh's demons derive from a sexual assault that occurred when she was a child. The indication is that the childhood demons have created a monster of Veigh who has subsequently molested her charges. I could buy this proposal if not for the incongruousness in the story that clearly point to some other explanation. The conflicting plot lines seem impossible to reconcile.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009


One of the first stories in Genesis involved the world's first homicide. After killing his brother Abel, Cain was asked by God where his brother was. Cain responded "Am I my brother's keeper?" This answer was in direct response to a pointed question. An evasion meant to shift focus away from Cain's own guilt. Yet the question remains. Am I my brother's keeper? Defiance is a story of a people bound together by circumstances.

My mother's grandparents came to the United States from Russia. They were Russian Jews. Defiancetells the story of BelorussianJews who survived spartan conditions in order to survive the German invasion. Although my grandmother converted to Christianity, remnants of the Jewish tradition can still be found in my mother's home. Subtleties like a Mazuzah on the door frame or the prayer for Jerusalem on her mantle are a quiet reminder of our ancestry. My ancestors immigrated long before World War II, yet I somehow felt connected to this story. Maybe it is just my American tendency to pull for the underdog. It could be because I come from a family of brothers. Or maybe I just like a good story.

Defiance takes place in 1941 and 1942 in Belarus, following the German invasion. It begins with Jews being rounded up and carted off in trucks. The Bielski brothers return after the slaughter to find bodies strewn around their farm and their father dead. We learn that the father was a smuggler and the boys grew up in trouble with local law enforcement. The brothers are familiar with the forests from their frequent encounters with law enforcement. The Bielskis retreat into the woods where their familiarity with the terrain may help them evade detection from German patrols.

Instead of traveling light, Jewish survivors straggle into the forest placing responsibility on the Bielski's to act as protectors. There is conflict among the brothers regarding their responsibility. Zus Bielski points out to his brother Tuvia that these Jews would have looked down on them if not for the current circumstances. These brothers are hardened. They are not afraid to fight and survive. Word spreads in surrounding cities of the Bielski Otriad, swelling their ranks. But the weight of feeding over a thousand survivors creates conflict within the ranks. Zus leaves the forest to join Russian Partisan fighters while Tuvia remains behind with the younger brothers Asael and Aron. The group manages to evade contact while struggling to survive until a German offensive takes a heavy toll on their numbers.

Defiance was an interesting story in spite of many historical inaccuracies. Among the more egregious revisions of history involves a massacre known as the Naliboki Massacre. There is a contention in some circles that the Bielski Otriad fought alongside Russian Partisans killing Polish peasants and resistance members. However, the film takes place primarily through 1942. The Naliboki Massacre did not happen until 1943 so the time frame of the movie allows enough artistic license to omit this event. Attempting to cover too much territory would have easily bogged this movie down. This omission was probably well-advised. The age of the brothers presents another issue. The film has Tuvia and Zus as the oldest. Zus was third, after Tuvia and Asael. The brothers also spoke Russian fluently even though they were in a heavily Polish area, where the Polish language was more likely to have been spoken. Smaller issues I had included a rabbi talking about Passover beginning the following day, when it would actually have begun after sunset. Another issue was the quest for ampicillan at a local Police Station. Ampicillan would not be around for another twenty years.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Bug (2006)

I noticed that Bug (2006) received fairly good reviews. My understanding going into this film was that it was somewhere between a Suspense/Thriller and a Dark Comedy Love Story. The film synopsis seemed interesting and the cast included Ashley Judd and Harry Conncik, Jr. I felt that this film was a fairly safe bet. I was wrong. This film convinced me that I should buy in to the premise, which I did. However, this film failed to deliver.

Bug tells the story of a Gulf War veteran, Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), who shows up at a Honky Tonk in Oklahoma. He is from Beaver (in the panhandle) but is “between addresses.” He ends up meeting one of the waitresses who introduces him to her friend Agnes White (Ashley Judd). After spending a couple of hours together bantering around, Evans ends up spending the night. White’s ex-husband, Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), shows up the next morning after obtaining an early release from prison. Goss demonstrates his abusiveness toward White before a tense exchange with Evans. Goss then departs.

The movie centers on the relationship between Evans and White following Goss’ departure. The two end up in a steamy sex scene. While trying to fall asleep, Evans awakens after being bitten by an “aphid.” This revelation leads to Evans stripping the bed searching for more aphids. What begins as an innocuous bug bite ends up as part of a large government conspiracy tenuously tied to Tim McVeigh, medical experiments, International Bankers and whatever other conspiracy theory Evans can manage to squeeze in. The movie begs the question “Is this really a government cover-up, or are we dealing with an obviously disturbed individual?”

I enjoy Suspense movies and am often willing to suspend belief in order to enjoy a good story. Supernatural elements often creep in on films like this, so I was expecting a twist that might point to something bigger than the story unfolding. This certainly can’t be just a delusional war veteran who manages to spread his delusions to a girl he just met. There are elements that point to outside forces. Am I to accept a psychiatrist who shows up alone to intervene with a violently dangerous mental patient? In the real world…no. When there are ulterior motives at work…maybe. What about a psychiatrist who imbibes in a bit of crack smoking? Now something is definitely amiss. The helicopters that are ever-present, the missing child, the psychiatrists’ promise of information in exchange for Evans…these are all issues that force you to consider a larger scheme. The absence of such scheme left me feeling used.

This film is a hard one for me to rate, because the concept was interesting and intense. The characters were flawed which made them real, but their actions were incongruous. If I were to accept the premise that this film was a delusion extended from one individual to another then I would have to accept that a relationship of two days with one sexual encounter could be enough for a person to completely suspend their sanity. The plot wove together a variety of elements into an interesting story that ended abruptly with plenty of unanswered questions. That may have been the point intended…but it felt like the writers weren’t creative enough to tie up the loose ends. The individual parts did not equal the whole. The dialogue was interesting, although it moved quickly at times. The pacing was a bit sluggish at times. Overall, this film had great potential. The writing had strong facets but the lack of plausibility (even in a film where I would have accepted supernatural influences) kept me from enjoying this film.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Half Nelson

How Can One Empathize With An Addict Teacher Who Has An Inappropriate Teacher/Student Relationship? That is the question that this movie asks. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden provide us with a script that does exactly that. The writers somehow manage to create empathy between the audience and teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) in spite of his many short-comings. I think his character had a scary believability that causes one to challenge presuppositions regarding people in positions of authority. Dan Dunne is an odd character who is at times an aloof bastard and at other times a compassionate mentor. It is a delicate balancing act that ventures into a touchy realm. The deft writing provides us insight into addiction....the extent to which addiction has infiltrated our society and the depths to which it can drag you.

I missed Half Nelson when it was in the theaters in 2006. I enjoy Ryan Gosling, which was the biggest draw for me to see this film. I was not familiar with the subject matter of this film prior to watching it. The title suggested a film about wrestling (or if you are street savvy...dominant sex), but this film touches on neither subject. The film does deal with opposing forces which is the closest I can come to deciphering the intent of the title.

I was initially put off by the grainy film and background noise, which appear to have been intentionally constructed. The use of this format gives the film a documentary feel. The subtlety created by this approach works for this subject matter but might be considered to appear rough to some viewers. With the highly controlled environments that many films are created in these days, this film did not feel amateurish nor did the approach seem contrived. It was an interesting style that I got used to after a while.

The plot in Half Nelsonwas well developed. Although Dunne is easy to empathize with, his struggles do not make for easy resolution. The script delves into territory that raises questions about his judgment and ability to deal with his addiction in a way that is both believable and disturbing. The delicate balance employed by the writers captivates the audience. The interaction between Dunne and his female student Drey (Shareeka Epps) should create disbelief, but manages to cause us to confront our own assumptions about what is right and wrong as well as what can be believed. The characters have major flaws that make them human. Flawed characters that can engage an audience and evoke empathy are the product of strong writing. The dialogue mirrors the plot and character development with interesting exchanges between the characters that are unpredictable. The writing was exceptional.

An excellent script can fail without good casting. Half Nelsonwas spot on in selecting Ryan Gosling who seems to have a knack for this type of role. Epps was also an interesting choice for Drey's character. But what made the casting special was the chemistry between Gosling and Epps. At times it seemed to border on a forbidden love story and at other times it seemed to be a mentoring type relationship. Yet there were times that the relationship felt wholly inappropriate. It was a chemistry that sold every aspect of the story. Nathan Corbett gave a solid supporting effort as Drey's "family friend" Terrance. Corbett did not go for the gangsta' drug dealer look. He was another well developed character who was charming and interesting while simultaneously exploiting the thirteen year old Drey. A cast of characters who were asked to make us like them in spite of their obvious short-comings. This cast managed that task effortlessly.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009


"Alex, I would like Flick-Flops for 1,000 Dollars."

"The Answer is...This film, which rhymes with Windtalkers stinks even worse."

"What is...Skinwalkers?"

"Skinwalkers is control the your next answer."

If only Skinwalkers were nothing more than an insignificant Jeopardy! question...but no...I sat through the entire 110 minutes of this stinker. Windtalkers was a big budget flop, while Skinwalkers was a B-Movie flop. A big budget could not have done anything to help this film which was painful to watch. It was a complete and utter mess.

Skinwalkerstells the story of werewolves who set themselves apart from other werewolves because they find that feasting on human flesh is inherently wrong. These special werewolves are taken care of by Native Americans who they refer to as...are you ready? Caretakers. The werewolves that do feast on human blood are drunk with the power that comes with their blood thirst. This whole thing reeks of a cheap knock-off taken directly from the Stephenie Meyers books. However, Meyers story-telling makes sense. There is a legend that a half-breed boy will bring about the end of the blood thirst, "curing" the werewolves and depriving them of their power as well as their thirst for blood. The movie runs like a countdown clock, with the bad werewolves attempting to locate the half-breed boy that would bring about their demise.

There are so many things wrong with this film I don't know where to begin. There a plot holes worse than the potholes on I-94. First of all, these werewolves have to be physically restrained in a Machiavellian type harness system to control their urge to hunt. So I have to did this system come about to begin with...a system that requires human intervention to assist in the restraining process...and how did the Native Americans come to be the caretakers? It would have been a pretty tense situation the first time out. But more confusing is the concept that these good werewolves maintain a pure bloodline. A bloodline that will eventually produce a half-breed (half human) that could deliver a cure. It seems that these werewolves would be forced to in-breed in order to maintain pure bloodlines and not mix with bad werewolves.

However, the plot doesn't stop requiring willful suspension of disbelief. The writers (James DeMonaco and Todd Harthan) expect us to accept some pretty major plot twists that make absolutely no sense. I do not want to get into the plot twists which might give away too much, but suffice it to say...the relationships are deeper than they appear and really require a stretch of the imagination. Although creative, this script is not a bit plausible...even allowing for the fact that is contains supernatural elements. The dialogue is equally weak. The lines are often predictable. The attempts at creating drama fall far short of where they were intended to go making the entire plot feel contrived. I remember thinking at the end of the film..."how convenient." It just wasn't plausible. Plus...I liked the bad guys least the characters were interesting...I was hoping the bad guys would win...and I don't think that was what the writers intended.

The acting was on par with the writing. Jason Behr (as Varek) was the only actor I cared much for and he was one of the bad guys. Behr was acceptable in a role that was completely absurd. Elias Koteas played his brother Jonas, one of the good guys. I like Koteas...he has an impressive resume and has been a solid supporting actor in some films I have enjoyed. But this role didn't do him any favors. I was not impressed with his hammy performance. Rhona Mitra plays the mother of the promised one...her role was so ridiculous that I couldn't believe she took it. She also has an impressive resume (and was in The Shooterwith Koteas...I enjoyed that movie...although I enjoy Mark Wahlberg's films). Mitra's character was flat and she was unable to sell the character even a little bit. Maybe it was the role, maybe it was Mitra...maybe a combination. But she was bad. Another veteran, Natassia Malthe, played one of the villains. I only liked her performance because she is easy on the eyes. The cast as a whole, have extensive work in Hollywood under their belts...why this group got duped into doing such a bad film, I cannot understand...but they did not bring anything to the table to make this weak film any better.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009


The winds of change are blowing. In 1964, the Catholic Church was in the final stages of Vatican II. In the words of Pope John XXIII, the windows of the church were opened, letting in some fresh air. It is interesting that the Pope's choice of words were visually incorporated into Doubt...based during the transition of the church under Vatican II.

The concepts explored in Doubt are filled with symbolism and irony, but are much easier to follow than Philip Seymour Hoffman's other recent existential work, Synecdoche, New York, which I felt took the symbolism to the extremes. Doubt provides an interesting period piece on the Catholic Church, focusing on the strained relationship between Father Flynn (Hoffman) and the Principal of his Catholic School, Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep). In recent years, long-term abuse by prominent members of the Priesthood have plagued the church. Looking at those issues in hindsight provides an interesting framework for an intense look at doubt and certainty.

Doubt begins with a sermon delivered by Father Flynn regarding the redeeming quality of doubt, which he asserts is equal to certainty. An interesting paradox that I'm not certain I would fully agree with, but which provides the foundation for the script. The juxtaposition of doubt and certainty among the characters throughout the script provides an intelligent examination of the issues. Father Flynn comes from the new school, where the church should mirror the community and be a part of the community rather than above it. Sister Beauvier has old school traditions running like ice water through her veins. Her inability to show compassion or question her own ideology becomes one of the primary issues explored in this film.

Father Flynn's penchance for compassionate pastoring is matched by an idealistic young History teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister James becomes entangled in the battle raging between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn. Sister James' ability for compassion becomes confused by the facts confronting her regarding Father Flynn and his relationship with the first African American student at the school, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Father Flynn's explanation to Sister James satisfies her curiosity, but falls short of appeasing Sister Beauvier. The conflict escalates between Father Flynn and Sister Beauvier leading to change. Change that blows in like cold Winter winds. Can certainty be confused with doubt?

One thing is certain about this film. The ending came about quite abruptly. I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending, which I understood and accept as it is written. What may seem like loose ends left hanging are left blowing in the wind to stimulate dialogue. It still did not set my mind at rest, failing to feel I had complete closure on this film. The plot was well constructed, with dialogue that was straight out of Catechism. Sister Beauvier had the steely sharp tongue that has only been matched in recent films by Mark Wahlberg's Dignam character in The Departed. The conflict was well designed with credible dialogue that felt anything but contrived. Because this film does not take a side in the conflict, it was a careful dance of words carefully selected to avoid any concrete judgments. The writing in that sense was among the best I have seen this year. If only the ending had been more satisfying, this would easily have been a five star film.

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Friday, January 2, 2009


Valkyrie appears to be getting panned in some circles, while garnering high ratings in others. I went to see this film the day after it was I was unaware of the widespread dissatisfaction with this film. I'm glad I saw it before reading the less favorable may have been enough to persuade me to watch one of the other big releases over Christmas and wait for this one on DVD. Valkyrie is a big Hollywood production that was exceptional on the big screen...I'm glad that this is the format I was able to watch it in.

Valkyrie may not be the best movie of the might not even break my Top Ten. (If you haven't seen Gran Torino yet, I would suggest that one before I would Valkyrie.) I did not understand some of the negative reviews of Valkyrie. Although I am not a big fan of Tom Cruise, I did not feel he took anything away from this film. Going into the movie, my biggest concern was how the writers (Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander) would handle the important historical context of this film. Valkyrieis a story that has already been is a footnote in German History, but an important one. Presenting this film with historical accuracy was as important as creating intensity and drama. McQuarrie and Alexander succeeded overwhelmingly on both counts.

Valkyrie was an operation undertaken primarily by Colonels in Hitler's Officer Corps. There were some Generals and Civilians involved in the plan, but it was primarily the brain child of a Colonel named Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise). The plan was based on Orders issued by Hitler under the name Operation Valkyrie, which intended to use Reserve Soldiers to restore order in the event of an uprising. The concept was fairly straight forward. Kill Hitler, accuse the SS of attempting to seize power, initiate Operation Valkyrie and have the Nazi's arrested in a counter-coup. The operation was brilliant and may have succeeded if Hitler had actually been killed by the bomb intended to set this chain of events in motion. Instead, a lack of initiative on several fronts combined with the failure of the plot to kill Hitler culminated in a miserable failure. Valkyrie was dismissed by the Allies as an internal dispute among the Nazis rather than being viewed as a legitimate coup. The participants were viewed for many years as traitors by the German people.

I watched the History Channel to get more details on Operation Valkyrie, checking the historical account against the cinematic account. I was surprised on two fronts. First of all, details that I was unaware of going into this film raised big question marks in my mind...I doubted the accuracy of the historical facts...which turned out to be surprisingly close to reality. An added bonus was the eerie physical resemblance of many of the characters with the actual conspirators. Although the film condensed many of the details down to a viewable format, very little historical accuracy was sacrificed in the process.

In evaluating the writing, the historical framework was the most important to me and I considered it successful. However, the condensation of events left very little room for a back story, whittling Stauffenberg's service in Africa down to a quick conversation followed by an Allied attack and Stauffenberg's injuries from that attack. It would have been nice to get into Stauffenberg's head a little bit regarding his injuries and any role that played in his anger over the conduct of the war. There were other character development issues in this film that can mostly be chalked up to time. Stauffenberg is painted as a hard nosed Colonel who provided the leadership that was lacking from many of the other conspirators (including those who outranked him). I'm not sure how much information was available regarding these historical figures and the character development issue could have been tied to a desire not to create character traits that were not fully known...which might paint an inaccurate picture of the characters. The dialogue in this film was believable, some of it coming directly from historical accounts of the event. The writers also did an excellent job of creating intensity and suspense within the framework of a story that we now the ending to. As a whole, the writing succeeded but would have been exceptional with more character development.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood directed and stars in a film that felt like his farewell to acting. After seeing the trailers for Gran Torino, I have waited anxiously for the release. While visiting my brother in Detroit, we found the film at the Birmingham 8 (which had a five dollar matinee). It was certainly not the closest theater to us, but the only one that was showing this film. Gran Torino was worth the drive.

Clint Eastwood's character is Walt Kowalski. A Korean War veteran with baggage from the war that he still hasn't dealt with. Following the death of Kowalski's wife, a Hmong family moves in next door. The entire neighborhood appears to have experienced a cultural shift, with Kowalski the lone holdout. Kowalski finds himself drawn into a family dispute between a promising young Laotian and his gang member cousin. The young man (Thao Vang Lor played by Bee Vang) begins a close relationship with Kowalski following a failed attempt to steal his car. Kowalski finds meaning in mentoring the young man, filling a void in his life that seems to lack flavor. Kowalski is dogged by his wife's priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised Kowalski's wife that he would get him into confession. The young priest appears to be no match for a grizzled old war veteran who says more with a grunt than one might be believe possible. Kowalski also finds friendship with Lor's sister Sue (Ahney Her), a bright young girl who explains Hmong culture to the politically incorrect Kowalski. The friendship puts Kowalski into a position of intervention and possibly redemption in a riveting, tear jerking climax.

This film contained more racial slurs than I think I have ever seen in a film. The slurs are contextual, showing the grim bitter closed-mind of an aging war veteran. The insensitive nature of Eastwood's character allows Kowalski to exhibit a softening gradual change in his outlook. Although Kowalski shows an inability to speak without saying something offensive, his character has a smooth quality that demonstrates a familiarity and consciousness of his words that belies the rough exterior created by the slurs. This apparent dichotomy reveals a complex character capable of endearing himself to the audience in spite of his social short-comings.

Nick Schenk adapted the screenplay from the novel he wrote with Dave Johansen. I am unfamiliar with Schenk's background, but believe he may very well be a Detroit native. If not, he sure could have convinced me. The film does not state exactly where in Detroit this film takes place, listing Kowalski's address as a Detroit address on some medical documents. However, the Hmong gang members live at a Highland Park address as evidenced by the patrol cars in scenes at that location. Considering Kowalski claims his Polish ancestry and the proximity of Highland Park to Hamtramck along with the location of a Ford Plant in that area (where Kowalski worked for thirty years) I figured that Kowalski may very well have lived in Hamtramck (a Polish section of Detroit). This knowledge shows a very strong Detroit background in the writing. The Detroit references are strewn throughout the script lending believability as well as a sense of familiarity with the area. Having been able to screen this film in nearby Birmingham (and having grown up just a few miles from Hamtramck and Highland Park) I felt a strong connection to this film.

What Schenk accomplished in this screenplay was amazing. He brought back the gritty Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry films and placed him in a role where that inner fortitude and propensity towards memorable one-liners provided Eastwood's character the ability to shine. The plot required an actor that could sell the grittiness in spite of his age (in order to have served in the Korean War, the character had to be in his seventies). The character was not only believable, but complex, likable and carefully constructed. Kowalski's background plays heavily into his actions. The gradual introduction of pieces of that history were well placed rather than force fed. Schenk allowed the story to tell itself, unfolding at a natural pace rather than trying to cram background in through a more rigid story telling technique. The characters were interesting and engaging providing the audience with a fresh perspective on cultural issues as well as internalized issues. The dialogue was classic Clint Eastwood, with great lines like "every once in a while you meet a guy you realize you shouldn't have messed with....that guy is me."

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