Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Reader

The Reader is still playing in theaters near me. It will be released on DVD in April 2009, so I was tempted to wait and buy the DVD. It was an excellent movie, so the DVD may still end up in my collection. I was a bit surprised that the theater was mostly full for a matinee showing. It appears that this movie continues to maintain its appeal.

Going into this film, I had heard and read a lot about it. I knew some of the basic premises of the film without exposure to the details. I was also aware that Kate Winslet won the award for Best Actress in this film. Although I agree that Winslet was exceptional, I did not feel that her performance is what made this film great. All of the elements of this film come together in a complimentary nature to make the individual pieces seem greater than they really are. The depth of the dialogue and characters were especially central facets of this film.

So was The Reader a love story? It certainly was. It explored a unique life altering relationship between a teenage boy (Michael Berg, played by David Kross) and an older woman (Hanna Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet) nearly twenty years his senior. But this relationship is far from a tryst. The relationship shows signs of strain...yet there are admissions by both parties that they are in love. Although steamy and sensual, the relationship seems at the same time delicate and emotional. Prior to engaging in sexual relationships, the young lover reads to his elder. It is an act that evokes deep emotions at times.

The Reader also explores morality. The obvious moral issue in play might be the concept that a fifteen year old boy is having a relationship with a woman old enough to be his mother. The mild seduction seems to require little prodding by either lover. The relationship seems destined to evolve from the very beginning. With the introduction of Hanna's storied past, Michael is forced to confront the depth of her previous actions. To include revelations that Michael was not the first person Hanna had asked to read to her. The depth of the issues that surface create a conundrum that Michael must face, this includes knowledge that could seriously affect the outcome of Hanna's pending trial.

Michael is in law school at the time he finds himself faced with Hanna's history. She had disappeared suddenly years before, and now he had the opportunity to help her. In discussing these issues with his classmates and professor, several key issues that address the broader story become apparent. The professor talks about the gap between morality and law. Another student needles Michael and addresses the issue of selective prosecution. This convergence of legal and moral issues further complicates Michael's perception of the events he is confronted with.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Novocaine is a dark comedy starring Steve Martin that centers on a murder plot. I saw this film years ago, but didn't remember if I liked it or not. I viewed it again recently, and came away mildly satisfied. This film was tedious at times and hilarious at others. If you are a fan of Martin's brand of comedy, you will probably enjoy this film.

Novocaine begins in the office of Doctor Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), a Dentist with a bustling office. Sangster's Dental Assistant Jean (Laura Dern) is also his fiance. The two have a seemingly passionate relationship until a strange girl (Susan, played by Helena Bonham Carter) shows up in his chair complaining of a painful tooth. The attraction causes Sangster to call his relationships into question while prompting him to make several bad decisions.

Doctor Sangster's peccadilloes begin to add up until he seems trapped in his own lies. However, you get the feeling that Sangster is being set up. His brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) blows into town to create some diversion. The fact that Harlan is a drug addict and at one time had his eyes set on Jean don't seem to cause Sangster enough pause to deny his brother. The introduction of Susan's brother Duane (Scott Caan) further complicates matters...especially when Duane shows up dead in Sangster's home, covered in Sangster's teeth marks. The show takes a couple of bizarre turns before the happily ever after ending.

Some elements of Novocaine were predictable, but the overall plot remained veiled for a good portion of the film. Several times during the film, small clues were dropped that began to make sense in retrospect, leading up to the ending. I found the pacing to be fairly good for most of the film, but there were times where Sangster's bad choices got under my skin. Of course, that was part of the plot. The dialogue was excellent. The exchanges between characters seemed believable within the context of a comedy film. The sub-plots were designed to keep you guessing...they worked effectively to that end. The story was not exceptional, but it was entertaining enough for a tempered recommendation.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

King of the Ants

The description blurb for King of the Ants described the film as film about a young hitman groomed by a local mobster. The description was enough to grab my interest. I was expecting a Gotti-type mobster film with an up-and-comer making his bones. Wrong. This film takes place in California with a group of wannabe mobsters that don’t have the stomach to do their own dirty work.

King of the Ants was written (both novel and screenplay) by Charlie Higson. Higson also co-produced this film. I am not familiar with Higson’s work, but it appears that he has done several other films as actor, producer and writer. King of the Ants being the last film that Higson wrote and produced in 2003. This film was not exceptional in any way. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was forgettable.

Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna) ekes by doing odd jobs. His obvious lack of painting skills draws the attention of an electrician who stops by for a quick wiring repair. The electrician, “Duke” Wayne (George Wendt) tells Sean that he may be able to help him find some extra work. Sean takes Duke up on the offer and ends up tailing an accountant from city hall. The job escalates into a hit…which doesn’t take much arm-twisting. After the job is done, Sean realizes he is not going to get paid. Sean ends up in a cat-and-mouse game with the mobsters while he tries to gain the upper hand.

I had trouble with several aspects of this film. The acting was average at best. The mob (Ray Matthews) was played by Daniel Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t convince me of his ruthless nature. In fact, I found him to be laughable in the role. The casting as a whole just wasn’t very good. Chris McKenna was okay. His love interest is the wife of the man he kills, Susan Gatley (Kari Wuhrer). Wuhrer looked like she was still in one of her soap opera roles. The mob henchmen were juvenile. Much of the acting looked like shtick from a drama class. The acting left a lot to be desired.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009


Spoiler Alert: This review reveals more details than my normal reviews.

Watching the trailers for Knowing, it seemed to me that the film might be something like Signs. That was a decent assessment, but Knowing took a very different route to get where it was going. I enjoy a good thriller as much as I enjoy science fiction. Both can be done exceptionally well but generally are not. Knowing presents a combination of these two styles in a well constructed film that delves into some deep waters at times. The film seems to begin as a thriller that evolves into science fiction. The evolution of the film could have been a bit smoother, but there were enough redeeming qualities in this film to have made it worth seeing on the big screen.

Knowing sets events into motion in 1959, when a time capsule is buried at the dedication of a new elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts. Each child is instructed to draw a picture of what they think the future will look like when the capsule is opened fifty years later…in 2009. Fast forward to2009, we are introduced to an MIT professor who has lost his faith. John Koestler (Nicholas Cage) believes that events do not have meaning. Koestler lost his wife in a mass fire that claimed dozens of lives. Since that time, Koestler has subscribed to a belief in randomness. When the time capsule is opened, Koestler’s son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) receives an envelope that has a page covered in number rather than a picture. Although Koestler’s methodology is never discussed, he begins researching the page of numbers, only to discover that every major mass disaster in the past fifty years is outlined within the numbers. Three prophetic dates have not yet happened, but are looming near. Koestler feels that the dates are somehow connected to his son and sets out to discover if he can save him.

From a believability perspective, I had a bit of trouble accepting the premise of plotting every major disaster for the past fifty years. If you were to plot every one worldwide for fifty years, I think it would exceed the number portrayed in the film. Furthermore, the movie never examined how Koestler put the numbers together. Lets suppose he started with 911 as suggested…we could use a six digit date system to keep things consistent…091101. Following that number would be a four digit number for the deaths resulting from that incident. Then we have skipped numbers before the next event. Even if Koestler googled known events, he would certainly have missed some…yet he amazingly plotted every event to include the three getting ready to happen. How he managed that one is beyond me. What baffled me further, for this MIT professor, was the fact that lat/long never crossed his mind for the missing numbers. That was the first thing I thought of. There is one small problem. To get an accurate reading, you need to plot down to the “seconds.” The eight digit number divided in half, gives you only the degrees and minutes, which would not provide an accurate enough reading to put you on an exact street corner in lower Manhattan. Aside from that fact, North America uses negative numbers for longitude and there were no negative numbers. Okay, you can suggest that the negative numbers were implied…the accuracy would still be suspect.

Aside from the science fiction aspect of this film, there were some deep religious aspects that were worked into the film. For some, the biblical aspects might be interesting, while others might find them heretical. In the greater scheme of things, the movie would fail to be prophetic in the sense that Revelations provides specific events that must transpire. There were several religious corollaries that I found within this film. Before discussing them, I should probably give the expected spoiler warning. You are hereby warned. First and foremost is the fact that only God (for believers) knows our heart (or can speak to it). In this film, there are creatures that can be interpreted as aliens or angels, it really depends on your theology. These creatures are referred to as whisperers because they whisper thoughts directly into the minds of children. Science fiction buffs refer to it as telepathy. Believers refer to it as omnipotence. These creatures shed their human bodies near the end of the film (God was said to walk with Adam in the Garden of Eden…in human form). The creatures have an appearance similar to humans but with an energy quality. Aside from the ability to fly, these creatures trail energy in a manner that resembles wings. If you were to create the biblical interpretation of angels using a “life on other planets” translation, this is probably what you would come up with. Other biblical representations include the ark and collection of species as well as the introduction of a “Garden of Eden” at the end of the film. It seemed to me that this film may have been an intelligent attempt to reconcile biblical beliefs with a higher life form that is not God. In other words, our ancestors were visited and guided by these same aliens, and biblical stories now make more sense through the new interpretation. Although I could have easily found this film to be heretical, I did not sense it was intended that way. The biblical parallels were intended…the number and extent of comparisons made it visible that there was a concerted effort to reconcile some accounts from the Good Book. I took the comparisons more from a literary perspective than religious.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Paris, Je T'aime

In English, Love is a word that encompasses a wide range of topics. The Greeks had several words for love. Agape indicated affection, while Eros pointed toward a more intimate and passionate love. Philia (where the name Philadelphia derives from) suggests virtuous love or friendship. Storge describes the type of natural love that family members have for one another. Thelema means desire or will of the flesh. These descriptive words indicate the importance of the many definitions for the single word we use today. Love. Amore. Paris, Je T'aime employs the many facets of love to tell several short stories centered in the City of Love...Paris.

I generally prefer tightly woven plots with distinct direction. Paris, Je T'aime departs from the orderly structured storyline that I generally prefer. Using the concept of love, this film loosely ties together several vignettes into an non-cohesive but enjoyable film. Rather than being a single story, Paris, Je T'aime tells several unrelated stories which are weakly tied together at the end. Some of the stories are neatly packaged well produced snippets while others left me feeling a bit uncertain. Using the idea of demonstrating many different aspects of love, this film managed to succeed artistically in spite of the lack of cohesion between story lines. Taken at its face, this a set of short stories with a common theme and nothing more.

When you consider that Paris, Je T'aime contains several independent stories rather than a single plot, it becomes more difficult to judge the film as a whole. While some of the vignettes were satisfying, others were rather lame and could probably have been left out. The style of the directing also changes from segment to segment because Paris, Je T'aime was produced by 22 different Directors. Normally, too many cooks spoil the broth. However, this film was not a collaboration, but rather a set of individual tales. With each storyline being produced by a different Director, the flavor of the stories changed a little, but the concept worked.

Paris, Je T'aime takes place in several different neighborhoods around Paris (and of course, one in the Metro for good measure). The stories cover a variety of cultures with sub-titling for several languages, not just French. While some of the stories are humorous, others attempt to be poignant within a very tight time frame. The sketches cover a variety of circumstances which also brings an element of interest to the film. A guessing game of sorts. What type of love does this segment explore? Love that has been lost, love that has been found, searching for love, finding love in a place, or simply loving the place you are in. The variety of styles, topics, cultures and love concepts provides a rich examination of the human experience. That really boils down the essence of this film.

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Monday, March 9, 2009


A blue penis is still a penis. I could have done without the flaccid member flopping around the big screen for two and a half hours. One thing is certain about this graphic novel-based film…it is not the type of superhero movie you want to bring the kids to. I say that with utmost sincerity. I tend to be a bit liberal in what I allow my children to watch, but this particular film does not make the cut. I lead with this warning because I am one of those parents who enjoys brining his son to this type of film. I’m glad I did not bring him to this one.

Watchmen does not follow the traditional superhero mold. The characters have distinctly human sensibilities. The lines are clear in most comic books, with superheroes possessing abnormal moral direction and villains who are clearly guided by nihilistic tendencies. This stereotype is challenged in Watchmen, where the heroes seem to lack the sensibilities of their predecessors, with an almost anarchist view of morality. The edginess of these characters could not be better demonstrated than in a flashback scene where The Comedian attempts to rape Sally Jupiter. The Comedian has serious abject traits that surface throughout the film.

Watchmen takes a different tack on history. The series that this film was based upon was created in the mid-1980s. The graphic novel intended to take aim directly at the cold war being waged between Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev. Of course, this book was conceived at a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing and the Cold War was not perceived to be experiencing death throes. Yet a few short years later, Reagan’s policies helped bring down the wall. This book did not intend to treat Reagan nicely. It was intended to create a parallel…with the superheroes representing the government (who watches the watchmen?) Reagan was a popular President, so an alternate history was created with a multi-term Nixon (who won the Viet Nam war by employing the services of the Watchmen) filling the role as the government heavy. I found the idea to be cowardly (because it intended to divert backlash due to Reagan’s popularity). However, the alternate reality did create an interesting setting for extraordinary characters to exist.

Watchmen has a back story that needs to be presented in order for the characters to make sense. This is accomplished in a variety of ways. Much of the history of the Watchmen is covered during the opening credits, which tracks various eras dating back to the 1940s. I thought that the use of MTV and President Nixon was an anachronism until the story revealed the alternate history in which Nixon gets elected several times. The story takes place in 1985 at a time when the United States and the USSR attempt to resolve internecine issues. The United States has a major advantage, with Dr. Manhattan providing the equivalent of Strategic Defense Initiative. Dr. Manhattan was a nuclear scientist who was caught in an experiment which reduced him to atomic level. Dr. Manhattan reconstructed himself with strange abilities. Dr. Manhattan became the center of the United States defensive posture due to his ability to provide a nuclear shield for the United States (although it is revealed that he would probably not be able to stop the entire Soviet arsenal). Historical elements are picked up throughout the film through the use of flashbacks or memories triggered through a variety of methods.

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Monday, March 2, 2009


A Henry Selick film wouldn’t be complete without eerily crafted creatures created from inanimate objects that project an independent sense of spookiness. When Coraline opens, we are greeted by mechanical hands fashioned from sewing needles. The needles are structured much like the bones in a skeletal set of hands. These needle hands exist in a parallel world where they create a doll that looks very much like our title character, Coraline. I viewed Coraline at a theater that used the 3-D format.

Coraline feels that she is invisible. Her parents have moved into an old house that has been divided into three apartments. Her mom and dad are creating a gardening catalog, which consumes a great deal of time. Her parents never seem to have spare time to spend with Coraline. Coraline meets a strange boy named Wyborn (why born) who brings her a mysterious doll that he found in his grandmother’s (Coraline’s landlady) trunk. Wyborn explains to Coraline that his grandmother does not allow him in the apartments because she lost her sister in the house many years ago.

The neighbors in the apartment house include unique and interesting characters. Two elderly ladies who once performed theater together live in the basement apartment. The second floor resident trains performing mice. They are an odd set of neighbors sure to create fun and interesting diversion. The old house has many secrets, which Coraline sets out to explore. Among them is a papered over door which opens with a button-key. What appears to be a bricked over doorway holds a secret that draws Coraline in. It is a portal to the other-world where Selick-magic prevails.

Henry Selick Directed this film from a screenplay he adapted from a book written by Neil Gaiman. At its core, Coraline is a story about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. It is a dark film with eccentric characters. Yet compared to Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, I found Coraline to lack the dark undercurrents that permeated the former. Although there were dark elements to Coraline, the storyline empowered the young central character. The plot lines were interesting although simple. I found the overall plot to be predictable, but this film stands on its ability to tell the story in a unique fashion. It succeeded.

Dakota Fanning provides the voice of young Coraline, who also seems exasperated by people who call her Caroline. An easy enough mistake. Fanning does a good job of creating that exasperation without hamming it up. Although the performance is voice-over for animation, I though Fanning was excellent. Her ability to create tension was excellent, but it was the subtle traits of her character that Fanning deftly created for Coraline. The other voice actors included Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman and Robert Bailey, Jr. None of these actors stood out above the rest, other than Ian McShane who provided life to Mr. Bobinski. Bobinski is the upstairs neighbor with a thick Eastern European accent. McShane made me snicker on a few occasions with his heavy accent and use of language. McShane and Fanning delivered notable performances.

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