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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Ed Wood

I selected Ed Wood because NetFlix said I should. I did not know anything about this film and did not remember reading about it previously. However, the preview indicated that this was a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray...all talented at their craft. That, combined with the fact that NetFlix accurately predicted I would like The Station Agent, were enough to convince me to add this to the queue.

Ed Wood tells the true story about the man (Edward Davis Wood, Jr.) who was voted as the Worst Director Of All Time at the 1980 Turkey Awards. Ed Wood fashioned himself as a quasi-Orson Wells. He endeavored to write, direct, produce and star in his own films. I am embarrassed to admit that Wood started his Hollywood career after his service in my beloved Marine Corps. That topic is briefly discussed in Ed Wood, but not accurately portrayed (he tells a film-make that he was a paratrooper). It seems that Wood accomplished a great deal simply because he wouldn't take "no" as an answer...even at times when he should have.

I decided to fact-check the film a bit after watching it. From what I could find on the internet, it appears that Burton did an excellent job keeping the facts very close to reality. I can let that part about the Marines slide...I don't want to claim this loser into that fraternity we call The Corps. But he was indeed one of our own. Wood kicked around Hollywood from 1947 to 1953 before he got his first big break. The film only briefly examines that period, before settling into the meat of the film with Wood's feature titled Glen or Glenda. This exploitation film was followed by Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. There were other projects in the interim that the film paid passing homage to, but these were the three primary films covered in Ed Wood. The film examined some interesting side-notes, like the funding for Plan 9...the initial investment coming from the Baptist Church, hoping to raise money for future projects. Reports indicate that the cast members were baptised prior to filming...another topic covered in Burton's version (the screenplay was written by Scott Alexander, based on a novel from Rudolph Grey).

The characters in Ed Wood are the type that I like to see. They are a complex and eclectic mix of the fringe-side of society. Strong characters can carry a properly constructed film. The plot was based on Wood's true life, which leaves limited room for interpretation. Because Wood was such an intense, interesting and eccentric person, the writers have plenty of material to work with. The dialogue avoided any tendency to be average or cliche. The dialogue was often sharp and crisp, enhancing the story. The worst part of the writing was the sluggish pacing which threatened to lose me more than once. The film seemed forced at times and adrift at others. The story ends around the apex of Wood's career, to allow viewers a sense of reward for identifying with the strange lead character, with the disappointing true-life endings coming in short written capsules before the final credits role. A decent strategy to give the audience the most without compromising the story.

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Where The Wild Things Are

I was uncertain whether I would like the screen adaptation to Where The Wild Things Are. It seemed like a stretch to make a feature-length film from a picture book that could easily be read in just two or three minutes. It is difficult for me to segregate the book from the film in order to evaluate it, so I won't. The two are inter-twined, with my interest in the film stemming from my love of Maurice Sendak's original. When I wrote my review for the book nearly ten years ago, my enthusiasm was evident.

Maurice Sendak was acknowledged in the closing credits, but I was unable to tell what role he had (if any) in producing the film. Spike Jonze directed Where The Wild Things Are as well as co-writing the screenplay with Dave Eggers. The writing in this film really needed to be precise to win me over. I was curious what direction the film would take to create enough filler to draw the movie out to the advertised length of 101 minutes. Jonze did an adequate job of adding content and dialogue without drastically altering the original.

My biggest complaint with the screenplay would be the alteration of the actual story. The filler was fine with me. The back-story leading up to Max's banishment was also tolerable. In the book, Max is sent to his room, which slowly evolves into his fantasy world, only to awaken to the smell of dinner at his bedside following his fantastic journey. The film handles this transition very differently and misses an opportunity at some interesting CGI. I won't discuss the changes and risk spoiling the film, but I thought it was an attempt at adding some dramatic elements at the expense of tracking the original story. A decision left to the Director, but one that I found a bit irritating.

For the uninitiated, Max (Max Records) is a troubled boy with an abundance of energy. In today's world, he would be diagnosed with ADHD and doped up with Ritalin. In this story, Max expresses himself through unacceptable antics while dressed in a white wolf costume. Max pushes his mother (Catherine Keener) too far with his behavior and ends up sent to bed without dinner (maybe). While in exile from dinner, Max journeys by boat to a far away land where he encounters a tribe of monsters with humongous owlish eyes and dagger teeth.

In fear of being eaten, Max uses his guile to convince the monsters that he is a king that has conquered other worlds. Max threatens the creatures with his incredible mind-power than destroy with a thought. The creatures take a liking to Max and make him their King. Max introduces the clan to a variety of games like dirt-wad war. He also encourages them to build a fortress for their kingdom where they can all be safe and sleep in a big pile. But things don't stay Utopian for the young King and the dynamic amongst the monsters changes. Max must decide if he is better off staying with his new found friends or returning to his own home.

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Wind That Shakes The Barley

Wind That Shakes The Barley examines Ireland in the early 1920s, when Republicans banded together to throw off the oppressive occupation of Great Britain. The film reminded me initially of the Revolutionary War, when the United States used non-traditional fighting techniques in our war for independence from England. But the film ends up reminding me more of our Civil War, pitting brother against brother, as Irishmen are forced to choose sides following a treaty to halt hostilities.

Wind That Shakes The Barley was another movie selected for me by NetFlix. It seems that I have a tendency towards Independent and Foreign Films (along with war movies). I guess that seems pretty accurate in retrospect. Wind That Shakes The Barley picks up the action with British troops terrorizing a small farm, killing a young man for refusing to speak his name in English. A young Doctor, Damien (Cillian Murphy) has deep reservations about confronting the British troops through guerrilla tactics due to the vast superiority of the occupying forces. His views apparently change and he joins a band of Irishmen who train to carry out attacks on the British forces.

The Irish opposition find ways to strike at the British, but only appear to invoke the wrath of the heirarchy, soon finding themselves awaiting the executioner. However, a sympathetic guard aids their escape allowing the attacks to escalate. Damien's brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is among the leaders of the small band and helps to orchestrate the attacks. The men manage to deal severe enough blows to the British that a peace treaty is pursued. Following the treaty, Irishmen find themselves divided over whether the treaty goes far enough to give them true freedom. Teddy and Damien find themselves on opposite sides of the argument, eventually leading to an inevitable confrontation.

This film examines the tumultuous experiences of the Irish during this period, paying special attention to the relationship between Damien and Teddy. The film takes a thoughtful approach to the issues, showing a variety of conflicts amongst the Irishmen, more than the broader conflict between the two nations. These dynamics are explored in a credible manner with interesting dialogue used to delineate viewpoints. The story takes a few interesting twists, without being entirely unpredictable. The characters were interesting and well developed. Writer Paul Laverty did an excellent job of creating an interesting period piece.

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Sunshine Cleaning

I saw the previews for Sunshine Cleaning at the local independent theater that I like to visit. I intended to catch this one at the theater…it looked dark and quirky…two elements I seem to like enjoy in movies. I ended up renting this film and watching last night. The film was dark, funny and definitely quirky. It was also realistic, examining relationships through good times and bad.

Sunshine Cleaning examines the life of a former cheerleader (Rose Lorkowski, played by Amy Adams) who must have appeared to have everything…as head cheerleader and main squeeze to the Captain of the football team, Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose didn’t end up with what she expected out of life. She spends her days cleaning houses and her nights sleeping with Mac (now a Police investigator) who married Heather (Amy Redford) instead of Rose. Rose gets little gratification and appears ready for some changes. Mac suggests Rose get into Bio-Hazard cleaning in order to cash in on a lucrative opportunity.

When Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets called to the principal’s office (yet again), Rose realizes she needs to find a better job so she can afford a private school for the gifted but bored boy. Using Mac’s contacts, Rose starts up her own cleaning business with the help of her slacker sister, Norah (Emily Blunt). The two underbid experienced contractors in order to build their business. It is a gruesome affair, cleaning up after suicides and accidents. Yet it seems morbidly rewarding in different ways for the duo. Together, they begin building a business while Rose tries to get her personal affairs on track, as well. Yet Rose seems to be possessed by what her former classmates think about her and gets her priorities just backwards enough to jeopardize everything she has worked for. Does Sunshine Cleaning end up rewarding viewers for hanging in during the good times and bad? It’s an independent film, so you have to watch to find out if the ending zigs or zags.

Sunshine Cleaning, written by Megan Holley had a beautifully presented script with characters that matter. The characters carry this story about hardship and heartache. By making the characters imperfect, Holley makes them real. The struggles of a family broken by suicide and never fully recovered runs as an undercurrent, while pulling back the veil on the damaged emotions and flawed relationships of the family and their interaction with other people. The realistic and well constructed personalities and relationships layered over a rewarding, imaginative and dark story-line make for a tale that held my interest. I found the dialogue to be fresh enough and the interaction of the characters to be vividly credible. Although predictable at times, the plot moved at a good pace and rewarded me for my time.

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Inspired by his girlfriend's photography, journalist Brian Kessler (David Duchovney) realizes that a combination of photography from the locales of infamous serial killers along with his own perspectives on the crimes could form the foundation of a best seller. Kessler has spent his advance money and needs some financial assistance to bring his dream to reality. He needs someone to split expenses on a criss-cross-country trip to California, stopping at the infamous crime locations along the way. What Kessler does not expect is that he might be closer to getting into the mind of a serial killer than he really ever wanted to be.

Tim Metcalf wrote the screenplay for Kalifornia, which is based on an original story he wrote along with Stephen Levy. The story provides something very different and gripping. I thoroughly enjoy thrillers, and this one provides all the elements to a good thriller. It moves at a good pace, it reveals just enough to keep you wondering when the hammer is going to drop, it has characters that can be unpredictable, the premise offers opportunities for good action and the dialogue adds to the suspense. If anything, the story moves over-the-top at times, slipping into extreme stereotypes or incorporating elements that stretch believability to a breaking point. But the interesting characters, although a bit flat and stereotyped somehow seem to engage the audience. The plot has some predictabiilty, but provides enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

I appreciate David Duchovney in his Showtime series, Californication. Duchovney convincingly plays a man-ho in that series. Seeing Duchovney sixteen years younger was a shock. He was a bit gangly and green in this film. Not that I didn't like him or his character...but he was not nearly as believable as the backwoods trailer-trash bubba, Early Grayce. Grayce was brought to life by a much younger Brad Pitt, who completely unleashed this character in the film. The character has some cartoonish traits, but Pitt appears to become lost inside this character. Pitt was exceptional. Juliette Lewis also has a character given over to cliche...but she did an excellent job of selling a part that might otherwise have lacked any credibility. Lewis plays Grayce's childish girlfriend, who refuses to believe he is bad because he protects (as well as beats her). Michelle Forbes rounds out the primary cast as Carrie Laughlin, the misunderstood photographer whose photographs are too graphic for "main-stream consumption." Another one-dimensional role that Laughlin makes work with her hot jet-black bob-style hairdo. The cast members had great chemistry, adding to the suspense.

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Life Is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful was released in 1997 (as La Vita e Bella), but I could just as easily have been convinced that this film was released in 1967. The film has a throwback quality that gave it the same flavor as some of the great films created in the 1960s. The sets, cinematography and even the dialogue had a simple innocent quality that enhanced the experience for me. Roberto Benigni, who also stars in this film, did a phenomenal job as director, giving this film the essence of a Golden Era in Hollywood film.

Life Is Beautiful provides everything a movie-goer could possibly want. The script takes us through the full range of emotions. Benigni introduces us to a sharp young man, Guido Orefice (Benigni) whose mental acuity seems uncanny. Orefice is great with solving riddles, but even better at using his impeccable timing to woo the girl of his dreams, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Although Orefice earns a meager but honest living working as a waiter, he relies on his eternal optimism and humor to win Dora from a wealthy suitor (Braschi is Benigni's wife in real life, too!) The two gallop off on a green horse and we are swept forward several years as young Joshua Orefice (Giorgio Cantarini) comes running from the greenhouse. Joshua is willful and every bit as sharp as his father.

The film takes a sour turn as we realize that much has changed since Joshua was born. Nasty signs that declare "Jews and Dogs not allowed to enter" and graffiti mark the walls of the Orefice's town of Arezzo. Sandbags are visible everywhere. The darkening tone escalates, as we see Guido, Joshua and Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) are carted away in a military truck. They arrive at a concentration camp, where Guido uses his quick wits to convince young Joshua that the prison camp is an elaborate game, a surprise for his birthday. Guido's unflappable determination to protect Joshua's innocence even amongst the death and decay of a concentration camp provides for some interesting opportunities to explore the full range of feelings. Hope, despair, humor, love, sadness, loss...this film visits the depths of your soul.

The writing in Life Is Beautiful is nothing short of genius. Benigni co-wrote the story with Vincenzo Cerami. The very idea that you could make a film about fascism, prejudice and life in a concentration camp and find room for humor speaks to the originality and creativity that Benigni and Cerami bring to this script. The plot meanders along with no clear direction, but dark foreshadowing that indicates the coming tribulations. The film is a love story, exploring the uncanny love between Guido and Dora, and the parental love for Joshua. The dialogue has a crisp talkative pace at times, where the sub-titles moved at speed-reader pace. But it was excellent. It did not appear that the humor lost anything in translation. The exceptional exchanges between the characters showed an immense intelligence was applied to this script. Life Is Beautiful had writing that was a breath of fresh air.

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The Soloist

When I saw the previews for The Soloist, I waited eagerly for the release. Then, just when the film hit the theaters, Jamie Foxx had to spout off at the mouth and say some pretty stupid stuff about Miley Cyrus. His comments about a sixteen-year-old making a sex tape and doing heroin and crack jaded me enough to wait for this film on DVD. Thanks saved me some money. The film was not worth full price at the theater.

The Soloist appeals to me because it is a true story that sheds light on mental illness, homelessness (and subtly, the connection between the two). The story begins with a chance encounter between a Los Angeles Times Reporter, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Lopez finds Ayers playing a violin with two strings at the base of a statue of Beethoven. In a disjointed conversation, Ayers runs through a litany of music and location related ramblings before Lopez asks about three names written on a nearby tree. Ayers advises Lopez that those were his friends at Julliard. Seeing the potential for a story, Lopez begins running down Ayers' history. What began as a chance encounter leads to an examination of responsibility and friendship.

The story itself could be a powerful, poignant, moving story about an unlikely relationship that grows into true friendship. There were some decent lines, especially Lopez, near the end of the film, reflecting on what he had taken away from his friendship. The film uses flashbacks to pick up some of Ayers' history, which works to an extent. However, the transition between scenes if often jerky with awkward timing. Maybe it was an attempt to convey mental illness to the audience. If that was the source, it didn't work for me. I found many of the scenes to be ill-conceived. There were some opportunities to force emotion from the audience that seemed to be squandered away. I wanted to be moved but found that the material was too sterile. With subject matter as deep and intense as this I expected much more. I place much of the blame for that at the feet of Director Joe Wright, who has an unimpressive resume.

The weak directing was offset by stellar performances. Jamie Foxx was exceptional as Ayers. His willingness to give himself over to the part was evident. The rambling disjointed thought processes that manifest themselves as a mumbling jumble of words were not unlike encounters I have had with mentally ill people in the past. Foxx convinced me. He was definitely the bright spot in this film. Robert Downey Jr. was also brilliant, with a role that was not as much of a stretch. However, His delivery helped sell the story. The two had good chemistry and were believable. Catherine Keener had a smaller role as Mary Weston, Lopez' significant other. She had a decent drunk scene, but did not have a very significant role in the film. The actors provided this film with the heart that was lacking in the script and directing.

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A Serious Man

I don’t know how many goyim attended the Coen brothers latest release, A Serious Man, but there were plenty of movie-goers laughing at stuff that this goy didn’t find funny. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing (if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand). I gave the Coen’s last two movies (Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men) Five Stars each. A Serious Man reminded me more of The Ladykillers, which I was less enamored by.

A Serious Man begins with a short scene that introduces us to a family curse. The credits follow, before introducing us to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a 1960s professor whose luck seems to be a product of the introductory scene. This luck appears to apply to his jobless, homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) and most likely passed to his son Danny (Aaron Wolff). The family dysfunction becomes the heart of glib ruminations into every aspect of Gopnik’s life. Attempts to prevent Gopnik’s tenure at his school, a scary neighbor who ignores the property line between their houses and children who view him only as the source of filched money or adjusted television reception. But the worst of it is Larry’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) who has decided that she wants a “get” (a traditional Jewish divorce) so that she can marry Larry’s friend, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed).

A Serious Man lacks a concrete plot, concentrating more on the characters and their interactions while leaving the ending open to interpretation. The concept of this film appeared to be a family curse that we witnessed being manifested on a later generation. The troubles are sometimes trivial, like the property line issue, but the Coen’s seek every opportunity to exploit the effete main character. The subdued comic elements were woven throughout the script seizing every opportunity to elicit laughter. Some of the humor seemed awkward. The audience erupted following the death of a character, puzzling me. I understood the essence of the scene, but didn’t find it amusing. I laughed several times, but much of the humor was shallow and cliché. The characters were quirky and interesting. I enjoyed many exchanges between them.

I am not familiar with Michael Stuhlbarg, but found his performance to be engaging. I liked the way he schlepped along in the film while appearing earnest in his struggles. I wanted his luck to change. I cared less for Kind’s performance, but it was more the role he played. His character irritated me, making it difficult for me to enjoy his performance. Melamed was captivating, bringing a quirky comedic presence to his character that was subtle and enjoyable. Aaron Wolff was also enjoyable as the son. His facial expressions were often more compelling than the script. The cast was not very familiar to me, but did a fine job.

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I do not remember seeing advertisements for Junebug, and I am not sure I would have watched it when it was released in 2005 based on the synopsis of this film. However, putting my faith in the sage advice of Netflex, I decided to add this film to my queue. I have been happy finding treasures on NetFlix that I had previously overlooked. Junebug presents an interesting story that, in many ways, reminded me of my own life. The characters were scary-close to my own experiences. I guess that is why Junebug connected with me…it felt close to home.

Junebug introduces us to Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer and her husband George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola). We see a rapidly brief romance before catching up with the couple six months later as newly-weds. George is in North Carolina checking out a local artist (David Wark, played by Frank Hoyt Taylor) from Pinnacle, NC, who appears to have some serious psychological issues. But George likes the art enough to advise Madeleine to come down and check out the art for herself. Madeleine likes Warks “Antietam,” relating that she recognizes the corn fields and likes the dog heads and scrotums. The art has a very vulgar quality, but obviously qualities that Madeleine thinks will sell.

Madeleine and George have only been together for six months. Madeleine has not yet met George’s family. Pinnacle is merely a half hour from George’s hometown, so the two decide the time has arrived to meet the family. The family dynamics mirror the dynamics of most normal, slightly dysfunctional (and likely average) families in America. Some qualities were exaggerated for effect, but the emotional aspects of individual relationships between family members make the film interesting and relevant. Madeleine is showered with adulation from George’s sister-in-law, Ashley (Amy Adams). Ashley has a bubbly ubiquitous energy that seems both childish and adorable. Ashley is excited by Madeleine’s arrival. The same cannot be said for George’s mother Peg (Celia Weston) who Madeleine mistakenly calls “Pat” during their first encounter. Peg may be a protective mother who won’t find any woman satisfactory for her son…or she may just be a strong personality who rules her roost. Speaking of roosts, Scott Wilson plays Peg’s hen-pecked husband Eugene. Eugene is a quiet, quirky fellow who appears to avoid conflict. George’s brother Johnny is a brooding and explosive under-achiever who seems troubled at George’s arrival. He is also reluctant to accept Ashley’s pregnancy.

Junebug follows the family through the mundane motions of breakfast, painting fingernails, a baby shower, church dinner and more. While plotting a seemingly routine course for the visit, we observe Madeleine and George both learning things about each other that they didn’t know. In a sense, it is an opportunity for them to grow as husband and wife. We also begin to learn details about the other characters, some of which play into the climax of the film. Subtle cues are provided that foreshadow the ending without giving away too much. Even with a suspicion of where the plot was heading, it was enjoyable to pick up the nuance without having the message spelled out in block letters like much of the mindless drivel out there. The dialogue (especially Ashley’s) is exceptional. The family interaction, as well as thematic material, is expertly woven into the dialogue for viewers to consume. Although sluggish at times, the story was well thought out with an obvious avoidance of cliché.

There were many hidden undercurrents worked into this script. I am not sure I caught them all, and may have to make this one of those rare films that I watch a second time. There were some themes that seemed more obvious than others, and I haven’t fully analyzed how all of it applies to the story. But one element that I found intriguing was the juxtaposition of the relationship between the two brothers and their spouses. They both appear to be with the right spouse. Yet George and Ashley seem to connect with each other in a spiritual way, while Johnny and Madeleine appear to experience some sexual energy. The exchanges between the four create some depth.

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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.

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