Thursday, December 31, 2009

BEST & WORST of 2009

Best of 2009

Honorable mention- Up- A very warm human comedy told through rich animation.

10) Star Trek- Works on every level. Great casting, credible story and action at warp speed. This one delivers the goods!

9) The Messenger- Excellent human drama with fantastic performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster

8) Avatar- Spectacular visuals enliven and enhance the retread plot. Tells an old story in an entirely new setting and makes it fresh and exciting

7) Precious- devastating urban drama with amazing performances.

6) Fantastic Mr. Fox- Delightful. Visually brilliant in its simplicity and crafty in it’s dialog.

5) An Education- Coming of age story brilliantly written and acted.

4) District 9- Fantastic, original filmmaking. A political Sc-fi film like no other.

3) Inglorious Basterds- Another triumph from Quentin Tarantino.

2) Up in the Air- Very entertaining but also depressing dramady with spot on acting by George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Famiga.

1) The Hurt Locker- Authentic, visceral, and gripping story of war that keeps you on edge with unbearable suspense.

Worst of 2009

10) Wolverine- All Style and little substance. Decent action but flimsy story.

9) Paul Blart Mall Cop- Silly comedy with a few laughs courtesy of Kevin James.

8) Duplicity- Audience is the one who gets duped in this confusing, empty star vehicle for Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

7) Twilight:New Moon- I just don’t get it but then again I’m not a teenage girl.

6) Sherlock Holmes- Overindulgent and actually tedious with characters that have no depth at all.

5) The International- Clive Owen can’t save this “Bourne” ripoff minus the action. A silly plot and a wasted Naomi Watts can’t make for the great worldwide locations and one solid action sequence.

4) Nine- Some enjoyable flashes but disappointing and a miscast Daniel Day Lewis.

3) Knowing- Not knowing would have been better. Un-original and dreary.

2) Year One- An awful mess on every level. How disappointing from the man who directed “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes”.

1) The Box- better left unopened.

It's Complicated

Rich white woman fairy tale with a charming Alec Baldwin and a very natural Meryl Streep. Nobody does "chick flicks" for adult women better than writer/director Nancy Meyers. However her films never seem to take place in the "real world". You have to laugh when Ms. Streep explains to her architect, "now I can have a real kitchen" when the one she is standing in comes right out of Architecture Digest. And this is also an alternative universe where minorities don't exist.

Steve Martin co-stars as a potential love interest for Ms. Streep who, after 10 years, is suddenly having an affair with her ex-husband played by Mr. Baldwin. Once again, the trailer gives you the best bits but John Krasinski provides much comic relief not seen in the trailers. Even if you know what's coming, the movie is still light and fun, even if unrealistic outside of certain circles.

If not for the A-list cast, this would have made a fine Lifetime Channel film. The principles elevate it beyond that and it does have it's charms. Who can resist Meryl Streep exclaiming "turns out I'm a bit of a slut"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Messenger

How unfortunate that this film is disappearing all too quickly from theaters. It is a powerful, moving and honest drama with wonderful performances from Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, and Samantha Morton.

Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, a solider back from Iraq after being wounded in a firefight. With three months left on his tour of duty, he is assigned to the Casualty Notification Unit reporting to Tony Stone, played by Woody Harrelson. It is the job of these officers to notify the next of kin when a soldier is killed in service. Samantha Morton plays a young mother notified of her husband's death who touches something in Mr. Foster and Steve Buscemi has a moving cameo as a notified parent. On the surface, you might dismiss the plot as too depressing but there is also humor and healing at work here.

Each notification brings it's own special circumstances and as the two men bond, their own emotional layers reveal themselves as they grow closer. The acting is just superb. Ben Foster is no stranger to complex roles and this is easily one of the best things he's ever done. Woody Harrelson caps a busy year of work with a terrific performance and both actors honor the work of the real military personnel who perform this difficult assignment.

This is a deeply affecting story that will linger long after it's over. Don't miss it when it's available on DVD.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes as action hero? Basil Rathbone is turning over in his grave. Director Guy Ritchie re-imagines the famous sleuth for the 21st century and the result is an over the top film starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.

Mr. Ritchie bludgeons us with fast paced sights and sounds practically begging for approval. He might as well be screaming "isn't this fun?" and "isn't this exciting?" Mr. Downey Jr. appears to have free reign over the character and his usual charm and wit are overblown and his portrayal soon becomes tedious even as total mayhem erupts on screen. Mr. Law tries his best to reel things in but as written, his relationship with Holmes plays like an 19th century version of "I Love You, Man".

Rachel McAdams co-stars as Irene Adler, a character who's motives are unclear. We never learn much about her except that she can run from the sewers of London to the top of Tower Bridge in record time. Her relationship with Holmes seems to change with every scene and while enjoyable to watch, her acting is wasted on a hollow role.

You can't escape the ads and previews for this film so once it starts, you feel as though you've already seen it. This is an prime example of Hollywood overindulgence. The audience is force fed a Holiday meal that looks appetizing but once digested, leaves you stuffed, uncomfortable and not asking for seconds. Unfortunately, the end sets up a sequel anyway. We can only hope for more character and less effects.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Writer/Director Terry Gilliam once again takes us for a wild ride inside his imagination. His vehicle is a magic mirror that transports a person into the imagination of the title character, played to perfection by Christopher Plummer. Of course many will seek out this film to see Heath Ledger's last performance, not even being familiar with Mr. Gilliam's earlier work or fertile mind.

Mr. Ledger does not disappoint as Tony, a mysterious and loveable rogue, who becomes part of the Dr. Parnassus Traveling show. In a macabre twist, when we first see Tony, he is dangling from the end of a noose, apparently dead. Revived by Dr. P's daughter, Valentina and the two other members of the troupe, Percy and Anton, Tony begins to earn his keep by attracting a bigger audience to the show.

And what a show it is. As the audience members pass though the mirror and into the mind of Dr. P, the screen fills with wild visions as the souls of each person are tempted by both good and evil. The evil comes in the form of Mr. Nick, the devil himself, played with flair and malice by Tom Waits. Besides the star power, the rest of the cast is also quite good. Verne Troyer (known primarily for Mini-Me) shows versatility as Percy, Andrew Garfield is heroic as Anton, and Lily Cole is delightful as Valentina.

What has created the most interest for this film was how to complete Mr. Ledger's role since he passed before the film was done. Luckily, the film has the luxury of a magic mirror and sequences of imagination that allow Tony to be played by three different actors, each time he passes through. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell each take turns playing Tony and the transformation works seamlessly in the context of the film. Mr. Depp and Mr. Law have the shorter scenes but do an admirable job keeping the character in synch. Mr. Farrell does a great job with the pivotal role of Tony in the last sequence.

Mr. Gilliam borrows from his earlier work with parts of the film resembling "The Fisher King" and even a nod to Monty Python with a dancing policemen bit. The film is a fanciful, trippy tale that will probably be best appreciated by Mr. Gilliam's fans but the pleasure of Mr. Plummer's performance as well as the "four Tonys" can appeal to anyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Hoping to recreate the magic of "Chicago", director Rob Marshall takes on the film adaption of the Broadway show, "Nine". Unfortunately, it lacks "all that jazz".

Daniel Day-Lewis is miscast as Guido Contini, the famous director who has lost his way while trying to make a new film. Mr. Day-Lewis is too good a dramatic actor to just brood or watch others perform from the sidelines. And as for his two musical numbers, well let's just say, stick to drama. The majority of the film is set on one incomplete sound stage where Guido is trying to start his new film and it's where most of the musical numbers take place. That alone makes things very repetitious and may have worked better if the songs were more memorable.

Mr. Marshall made "Chicago" work on screen by having the musical numbers play out in the actors minds. He utilizes the same technique here but the songs aren't as strong and the actors are just adequate performing them. The exceptions are Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz, who both shine above the rest of the cast. Ms. Cotillard is easily the best actress in the film, playing Guido's long suffering wife. Her singing and acting are terrific. Ms. Cruz does a great job as the mistress, Carla and does herself proud in her big, sexy musical number.

The rest of the "star" power fizzles. Judi Dench tries hard but shouldn't be doing musicals, Nicole Kidman has nothing to do but look pretty, and Kate Hudson has a fun number but is less than memorable. Sofia Loren adds some Italian authenticity as Mama and it is nice to see her on screen once again but she's not asked to do too much. Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson doesn't act but performs the most popular song "Be Italian" and it's one of the few musical highlights.

Skip "Nine" and rent "8 1/2", the original Italian film the musical is based on. It's a classic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Director Clint Eastwood gets overly sentimental with this new film based on Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The story is inspiring enough but Mr. Eastwood manipulates the script, the music, and the cinematography to drive the emotion and inspiration over the top.

The story of how Mr. Mandela uses rugby to help unite his country is very inspirational. It's a tricky move to get an American audience involved in a film about South Africa and rugby. While the game sequences are exciting, not knowing enough about the sport hindered my emotional involvement and Mr. Eastwood's musical choices are very manipulative. When the 99% white team does a rugby clinic with a group of South African black kids, do we really need to hear a song called "Colorblind" during the scene.

Morgan Freeman is outstanding as Nelson Mandela. It's always tricky to recreate a true story with bigger than life true characters but Mr. Freeman honors Mr. Mandela with a very natural performance. The other big name in this film is Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team. Unfortunately Mr. Damon's role is reduced to some inspirational team speeches and few shots of him actually involved in the rugby matches.

Mr. Eastwood is an accomplished director, who finds the human story behind the politics and sports but "Invictus" is far from his best film.

Monday, December 21, 2009


James Cameron is once more "King of The World" with the release of his latest masterpiece, "Avatar". This new film is a visual spectacle that seamlessly fuses live action and computer images to create a stunning new world.

It's important to be dazzled by the visuals because you've seen this basic plot before in hundreds of film dating back to the earliest westerns. The evil "white man" or in this case, humans, exploit the indigenous population for their valuable resources. And, as with many of these films, resort to destroying their homes and killing off the local population to line their pockets.

Mr. Cameron liberally borrows this theme, along with plot points from the sci-fi classic book, " The Dragonriders of Pern", and even his own earlier films, "Aliens", in particular. Giovanni Ribisi, in "Avatar", basically plays the Paul Reiser role from "Aliens". But these are minor complaints because even though you've seen the plot before, you have never seen it presented like this.

Setting the story on his fictional world of Pandora, Mr. Cameron makes the story seem fresh and exciting in a most spectacular way. Every detail is perfect and moments into the film, you will forget you're watching computer generated images and everything and everyone will come alive before you. There are so many sequences that take your breath away, you might be better off with an oxygen tank rather than popcorn.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, the former Marine turned Avatar to learn about the local population. Sigourney Weaver (in "Ripley" mode) is the biologist who has developed the avatar technology and opposes the military option. Stephen Lang is Coronel Quaritch, the tough as nails military leader, who easily becomes one of the all time great screen villains. Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, and CC Pounder lend their voices and features to the main Na'vi characters. Mr. Cameron's film technology is so advanced, you just don't know where the actor stops and the technology begins.

To truly appreciate this film, I strongly recommend you see it in IMAX 3-D. This was the medium Mr. Cameron had in mind when he created the film and to see it on a regular screen in basic 2-D will just not do it justice. Avatar is a grand adventure on a whole new level.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans

In 1992, Harvey Keitel starred in "Bad Lieutenant". That film is a classic due to the raw, gutsy, over the top performance of Mr. Keitel as the most amoral cop ever. Now, Director Werner Herzog re-imagines the character, setting him in post Katrina New Orleans. This is not a sequel and has no connection to the former film except for the fact this new Lieutenant is just as amoral and into as much illegal activity as the original.

Nicolas Cage is an interesting actor. He seems to make many films just for the paycheck and then every once in a while, he pulls out all the stops and digs deep into his character. In "Bad Lieutenant", he pays homage to Mr. Keitel but also makes the character his own and gives one of his best performances. While he is excellent in the film, the story lacks the depth and raw emotion of the original.

The film has features a fine supporting cast. Eva Mendes is Mr. Cage's hooker girlfriend (with an original twist), Val Kilmer is his partner, the rapper Xhibit plays a drug dealer, Brad Dourif is a bookie (nice to see him working again) and Jennifer Coolidge (playing out of her comedy safety zone in a dramatic turn) is an alcoholic step mom. I must voice two complaints, however. Since the film authentically takes place in New Orleans, why don't any of the characters have a "Nawlin's" accent and why must all rapper turned actors play drug dealers?

The first film had religious overtones with deep Catholic subtext. There is nothing in the new film to suggest guilt or atonement. Mr. Cage never seems to suffer for his transgressions but his performance is riveting and on the surface captures the spirit of the original film.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Simply delightful.

Wes Anderson has crafted a wonderful stop motion animated film for children of all ages. His cast of vocal talent couldn't be any better. George Clooney is the dashing Mr. Fox. Meryl Streep holds it altogether as Mrs. Fox. Jason Schwartzman is their odd son Ash and Bill Murray is Weasel, the lawyer. And as the lead villain, Michael Gambon is perfection.

The visuals are amazing. Animating the puppets for stop motion is painstakingly slow work but it pays off in a big way. It's familiar and yet totally original at the same time. The story is a simple tale but the dialog is subtly subversive and adult. The film will surprise you. And it's got a great eclectic soundtrack as well.

It's impossible not to like this film. Try to see it on a big screen before it disappears but if you miss it, grab the DVD when it comes out.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Road

If you've read the book, skip the film. The book, by Cormac McCarthy, was a bleak but absorbing story of a father and son trying to survive in a post apocalyptic America. As written by Mr. McCarthy, one could envision the story unfolding on the screen in his cinematic prose. The film recreates the story but just can't convey the bond between father and son with the same depth.

Viggo Mortensen is excellent as "Poppa", a man pushed to the brink, to keep his son alive. His acting with Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the son, is convincing enough but again can't reach the emotion and conviction of the book.

Robert Duvall, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael kenneth Williams all have very minor roles as people met along "The Road". Charlize Theron, also has what amounts to a cameo as Mr. Mortensen's wife (seen only in flashbacks).

The film is dark and bleak, true to it's source, as it follows the father and son on their journey across a barren and hostile wasteland. There is little in the way of hope and it is an unrelenting 90 minutes. If this storyline intrigues you, read the book instead for a more fulfilling experience.

Up In The Air

George Clooney is perfectly cast in this new comedy/drama from director Jason Reitman. His character, Ryan Bingham, is a corporate "terminator for hire" sent in to fire employees when companies can't do it themselves. He spends the majority of his life on planes, in airports, and Hilton Hotels jetting from city to city to downsize corporations.

Ryan's lifestyle is threatened by Natalie Keener, a young upstart with plans to fire via the internet and he is forced to take her on the road to "show her the ropes". This begins a journey of self examination by both Ryan and Natalie, which is further complicated when Ryan meets Alex Goran, a female equivalent of himself.

Anna Kendrick plays Natalie and she is just terrific, watching her character deepen as the story evolves. Vera Farmiga plays Alex and she plays beautifully against Mr. Clooney. In minor roles are Justin Bateman, as Mr. Clooney's boss, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis as downsized employees, and Danny McBride as a nervous bridegroom.

It's an entertaining film but, at the same time, depressing to those of us who have been "downsized" in real life. Mr. Reitman acknowledges the terminated by having real people play many of the employees fired in the film. The story itself takes some unexpected twists and turns but has much to say about corporate America in our current climate and the digital age.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pirate Radio

The year is 1966 and rock and roll is banned from British radio. Pirate stations take to the high seas to broadcast without government approval. This sets the stage for Pirate Radio. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Nick Frost, and Rhys Ifans. January Jones (of Mad Men fame) has a small cameo that doesn't seem worth her time (or ours). Pirate Radio could have been a dramatic retelling of rock rebellion but instead plays it light and fast in an enjoyable romp with a great soundtrack.

Mr. Branagh is over the top conservative as the uptight government official trying to shut them down. His scene at the family Christmas dinner is priceless. Mr. Hoffman plays "The Count", an American DJ and defacto leader of the radio rebels. This is rare chance to see him obviously having a good time in a fun role. Each of the other DJ's are played by well known British actors and each is a character unto themselves.

The film is nothing more than a series of vignettes about the various characters juxtaposed by the efforts of the government to ban them from the airwaves. The soundtrack is classic '60's rock and roll ( and I won't quibble if some of the songs played were post 1966).

A fun time is had by all.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Red Cliff

Director John Woo returns to his Chinese roots with this epic tale of medieval China. Fans of "Braveheart" and "300", will appreciate the fine art of war as an outmanned rebel army makes it's stand against thousands of invading soldiers.

Featuring a real cast of thousands, arrows fly and swords clash in the epic battle at Red Cliff. Mr. Woo directs like an general, leading his cast through battle after battle until the final fiery climax. The cinematography is breathtaking with sweeping panoramas and vivid close-ups. The battle scenes have striking realism, on foot, horseback or at sea, everything is authentic.

Chinese superstar, Tony Leung is in fine form as the leader of the rebel army. He is probably the most recognizable name to an American audience. Lin Chi-Ling co-stars as his wife and plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the battle. The rest of the cast all do admirable work but the real stars of the film are the action sequences, which are spectacular.

The film is in Chinese with sub-titles but once the action starts, it's just good vs. bad and their weapons do the talking. If you are a fan of this genre, don't miss it on the big screen.

The Blind Side

A terrific true story of a poor, homeless, Black American teenager who is taken in by a well to do white family is given a sugar-coated screenplay making it the "feel-good" holiday movie of the season. It's the story of Michael Oher, who manages to succeed at academics,and with the help of his adopted family, gets a football scholarship at Mississippi State. This kind of true life tale can be a true inspiration but gets bogged down in a sanitized script that ultimately still succeeds on the strength of it's cast.

Sandra Bullock stars as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the feisty mother, who feels sorry for "Big Mike" and takes him home and under her very protective wing. Ms. Bullock inhabits the role completely and is just terrific in the part. It is easily one of her best roles to date. Country singer Tim McGraw plays her husband and does a good job as second fiddle to the fiery Leigh Anne. Newcomer, Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher and he is excellent, especially with very little dialog. He has great expression and uses it effectively in every scene.

It's a great success story but the film manages to make everything look too easy. The film lacks tension until a potential problem near the end, which is resolved rather quickly. I enjoyed the acting and the football background but the film left me wanting more than a 20 second flashback of Mr. Oher's back story. In real life, I'm sure Mr. Oher's triumph came with more blood, sweat, and tears.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Broken Embraces

The latest film from Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar is a wonderful tribute to the '50's film noir, filled with many cinematic references, including nods to his own earlier work. Mr. Almodovar, once again, works with Penelope Cruz and she is just wonderful in the film. There is something so natural in their collaboration that brings out her best work.

While a homage to the "50's noir, the film is very contemporary in it's use of color. Bright colors are a staple of Mr. Almodovar's work and he paints a bright palate as he weaves his tale of love, betrayal, and deception shifting back and forth in time from the '90's to today. The cinematography is wonderful with fanciful angles and fascinating shots throughout the film.

The intricate story unfolds at it's own pace and plot points slowly reveal themselves. Ms. Cruz has never looked lovelier and does some of her best work as Lena. Lluis Homar is Mateo, the film director blinded years earlier and now living as a screenwriter. Mr. Homar is excellent as a man reinvented after horrible circumstances who finds himself reexamining the past only to confront his future. How these two lives become entwined is the central plot of the story.

The film is in Spanish with subtitles but don't let that deter you. It's a deep and rich story that will pull you in and and you'll find yourself happy in it's charms.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New Moon

Not a film I would ordinarily review but since I took 4 teenage girls to see it, I'll weigh in. Bogged down in teenage angst, the film just crawls along dragging the audience with it. The cast has returned to part two in the series and this time the focus is on Jacob (Taylor Lautner) after Edward (Robert Pattinson) turns his back on Bella (kristen Stewart).

Mr. Lautner's idea of acting is to remove his shirt and let his buff body carry him through the film. Mr. Pattinson and Ms. Stewart have cornered the market on brooding and sleepwalking through a role. The film is joyless and painful to watch as Bella procrastinates between her vampire and her werewolf.

Polling my 4 teen viewers, one really liked it, two thought it was ok, and one disliked it. The young lady who didn't like it said it didn't hold up to the expectations of the book. I didn't read the book but I did see the first film and I was expecting more as well.

The legions of fans make this film critic proof and frankly, that's just who the film is for...the fans. Everyone else can skip it and and not miss anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Devastating drama of an overweight, illiterate 16 year old African American girl in Harlem circa 1987. Director Lee Daniels pulls no punches exploring the horrors that are this young girl's everyday world. Precious has been raped twice by her father resulting in her second pregnancy as the film begins. She struggles in school, and and lives under the tyranny of her abusive mother.

Pregnant and failing, Precious is sent to an alternative school where she begins to improve under the guidance of a friendly teacher. While her educational awakening begins to change her life, her world at home continues to spiral out of control.

Gabourey Sidibe stars as Precious and she is a wonder. This is an extremely difficult part and yet Ms. Sidibe never compromises and pours out every raw emotion on screen. The film co-stars the comedienne, Mo'nique, playing against type as a monster of a mother. The physical and mental abuse she brings down on Precious is almost unbearable to watch. I would expect Oscar nominations in the future for both women.

The film also features Paula Patton, as the teacher who gets through to Precious, Lenny Kravitz as a hospital nurse and Mariah Cary, almost unrecognizable in her role as a social worker. Mr. Kravitz and Ms. Cary only have a few scenes but they are both very credible.

This is not an easy film to watch but it is powerful filmmaking. There is no doubt that girls like Precious are out there struggling to survive every day. However, while not a traditional "upbeat" ending, there is a message of hope at the end.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Box

Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella star in a film based on a Richard Matheson story...what could be bad? How about the whole thing?

Written and directed by Richard Kelly, of "Donnie Darko" fame, you expect an off the wall story and you get it. The possibility of Martians conducting human experiments , zombie-like townspeople with nosebleeds, conspiracies by NASA and The NSA, it's quite the mix for a simple tale of human imperfection. Faced with a simple choice, "push the button and get a million dollars but a stranger dies", do you push it or not?

It's a promising premise and Mr. Langella is quite chilling as the messenger (with great CGI makeup) but the film loses it's way and get tangled up in it's own intricacies. In the end, it's just a convoluted mess.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Education

A terrific new drama that is smart and brilliantly cast. The adapted screenplay is by Nick Hornby and it easily deserves an Oscar nomination. The dialog is sharp, witty, and authentic.

The film stars Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard, and Cary Mulligan as the 16 year old school girl swept off her feet by Mr. Sarsgaard's "older" man. Ms. Mulligan reminds me of a young Audrey Hepburn. She is a marvel to watch and along with Mr. Hornby, also deserves an Oscar nomination. Mr. Molina, as her father and Mr. Sarsgaard as her "boyfriend" respectively are both terrific. Everyone in the cast fill out their characters perfectly. There is not a false note to be found. Even Emma Thompson, in a small supporting role, is a wonder.

The story takes place in 1961 England and while everything is very proper, there are hints of change in the air. The mood, the music, and the styles are captured just right and the film clicks on every level. This is easily one of the best films of the year and shouldn't be missed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Shot on a shoestring budget, this "homemade" horror film is the heir apparent to 'The Blair Witch Project". Shot with one camera and featuring a cast of two, the story takes place inside the house of Katie & Micah, who decide to document the strange events happening in their home. The difference between this and "Blair Witch", aside from the steadier camera work, is that "Paranormal Activity" actually scares you.

The "film" leads you to believe that what you are watching is the video evidence of an actual haunting from 2006. There are no credits and nothing that resembles a "film". It's just 90 minutes of Katie and Micah trying to cope with the increasingly menacing activity in their house. The point of view is completely through Micah's video camera and computer images of footage captured while they sleep.

There are a few brief scenes with Katie's girlfriend and a doctor who communes with the dead, but it is left up to Katie and Micah to provide the creepy atmosphere unfolding through the camera. They start out rather boring and routine but build a serious sense of realistic dread as things go bump in the night. They are convincing enough to make you question whether or not this is real or scripted until the very end, which for this viewer, goes a bit over the top.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Based on the famous children's story, "Wild Things", the film faithfully recreates the creatures and their surroundings in a live-action film with the use of costumes, puppets and some animation. Max, the little boy in the story is brought to life by the young actor Max Records and he couldn't be more perfect for the part.

The cast of creatures are voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and Forest Whitaker. With such distinct vocal talent, the "Wild Things" take on real personalities and are portrayed as much more complex creatures than in the book.

The cinematography is excellent and the Australian locations are amazing. Director Spike Jonze has done a wonderful job bringing this classic to the screen. The only drawback is,while interesting to watch, the story still lacks depth so don't plan on trying to analyze what's going on. Just enjoy the simple pleasure of "the Rumpus".

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg star in this comedy gorefest and seem to having a good time among the zombie mayhem. The audience will too if you check your brains (least they be eaten) at the door and enjoy the silly ride.

Apparently the only other humans left besides our heroes are Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, as con artist sisters also trying to survive. Oh, and one other unbilled cameo who pretty much steals the film with minimum screen time. Besides these players, the film is filled with flesh eating, blood dripping zombies of all shapes and sizes who are anything but scary. The film is played completely for laughs with lots of sight gags and clever dialogue.

I'm a big fan of Jesse Eisenberg but he's got to start appearing in films that don't include an amusement park. He is a deadpan, young neurotic, quick witted, and loveable in a vulnerable way. If he wasn't available, I could see Michael Cera in the part as the two of them have these types of characters down cold.

I guess you can call this an American cousin of "Shaun of The Dead". They would definitely make a great double bill.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Whip It

Actor and now first time director, Drew Barrymore takes us into the world of Roller Derby in this female fueled comedy. As the new recruit for the "Hurl Scouts", Ellen Page continues her winning ways with support from Ms. Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Juliette Lewis, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden.

The film is a fun, appealing story that doesn't take too many chances and stays true to it's formula. Unhappy with the life her mother has chosen for her, Ms. Page discovers a love for Roller Derby and becomes "Babe Ruthless", the new star of a team of lovable losers. Both the team and Ms. Page turn their fortunes around much to the chagrin of her disapproving mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and rival team leader (Juliette Lewis).

Already a star on "Saturday Night Live", Ms. Wiig continues to grow as an actress in her largest supporting role to date. Ms. Lewis appears to be having the time of her life as "Iron Maven", the leader of "The Holy Rollers". Everyone else is in fine support mode including Landon Pigg as the musician (big stretch) who rocks Ms. Page's world.

Ms. Barrymore direction is straightforward and she handles the action scenes well. The action-comedy is a fun glimpse into the hard knocks life of Roller Derby.

Life During Wartime

The latest feature from writer/director Todd Solendz is a sequel of sorts to his earlier film, "Happiness". It is a series of vignettes revolving around the dysfunctional family we first met in that amazing film. The difference here is that all the characters are played by an entirely different set of actors.

Having thoroughly enjoyed "Happiness", it's a bit disorienting at first to reconnect to the characters when they are played by different people. I don't think the film will appeal to anyone without seeing the previous work. It doesn't really stand on it's own as it's major theme is forgiveness and without seeing "Happiness", you just won't get it.

Many of the new actors are terrific. Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy and Michael Kenneth Williams make the characters their own, which for some of them is a very hard thing to do considering who played their parts in "Happiness". Conversely, Shirley Henderson and Ciaran Hinds (while good actors in their own right) do not do justice to their characters and could not make me forget the originals.

The plot line is typical of Mr. Solendz. Multiple story lines overlap with many uncomfortable situations. You find yourself laughing even as Mr.Solendz makes you squirm uneasily as the observer of these emotional distraught people, all looking for forgiveness in one way or another.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Serious Man

The new film from the Coen brothers is a personal, some say autobiographical, story of a Jewish family in Minnesota in the '60's. Far from the broad appeal of their last two films, "A Serious Man" has no "A" list star power, although Michael Stuhlbarg (best know for his Broadway work) is excellent as the lead, Larry Gopnick. Also co-starring is Richard Kind and Adam Arkin.

The story has universal themes but is heavily steeped in Jewish culture. Mr. Stuhlbarg plays a college professor with growing problems at home and at work. As the film progresses, his problems mount and he seeks council from various place, including three very different rabbis. The Coen's ruminate on religion, family, and one's values. The film is a drama but there is much humor underlying the serious story.

As usual with the Coen Brothers, the film is brilliantly photographed (by Roger Deakins), directed with a detailed eye, and extremely well acted. The story will probably not appeal to a wide audience but as a young Jewish teen growing up in the '60's, the film brought back many memories of my own experience.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


It's been reported that Lars Van Trier was in a terrible depression when he wrote the screenplay for "Antichrist". Making the film may or may not have been cathartic for him, but his state of mind at the time is clearly visible on the screen. This is clearly the work of a man trying to deal with his personal demons.

On the surface, it's a simple story of a man (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) trying to deal with the aftermath of their young son's death. The film is basically just the two characters who retreat to a remote cabin in the woods to deal with their loss. Both actors give remarkable performances, raw, powerful and not easily forgotten.

What lies below the surface will either astound you or repulse you (probably both). Visually, Mr. Van Trier has literally painted an unforgettable portrait of pain, grief, and despair. The film is divided into a prologue, multiple chapters, followed by an epilog. As it progresses, it takes the viewer to places you may not want to go. This film is not for the squeamish but if you enjoy challenging cinema, it is not to be missed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Informant!

Director Steve Soderbergh crosses "Catch Me If You Can", "Ocean's 12", and "The Informer" to make an film based on a wild true story. Mark Whitacre is a bio-chemist executive and the world's greatest bi-polar sociopath. A series of events turn him informer against his corporation and the ensuing intrigue turns more outrageous the deeper Whitacre goes, building lie upon lie, right up to the end.

Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre and he is terrific. He completely inhabits the character and the role is unlike anything he's ever done before. The problem is when you begin to realize what a nut job Whitacre really is, you lose your sympathy for the character. While Mr. Damon is very entertaining to watch, the film is all style and not much substance.

Mr. Soderbergh captures the mood and style of the mid- 90's and Marvin Hamlisch's kitschy score is perfect for the story. The film is very amusing but never laugh out loud funny, and the trailer spoils many of the best lines.

Scott Backula, best known for his TV work, does a good job as the FBI agent assigned to the case as Whitacre's handler. He tries hard to keep up but he's no match for Mr. Damon, who completely owns the film. Tony Hale also co-stars and does some great double takes as Whitacre's attorney.

The disclaimer at the beginning alerts you that the film is based on a true story but names and elements have been changed and or embellished. Truth be told, thanks mostly to Mr. Damon, "The Informant!" is worth your time.

Monday, September 07, 2009


Mike Judge's "Office Space" is a cult comedy classic. The same will not be said for "Extract". While the film has some pretty funny moments, the plot and characters dissipate into the air and don't stay with you very long.

Jason Bateman plays Joel, the owner of an Extract factory and the film is built around his problems at work and at home. Mr. Bateman is a wonderful comic "everyman" but watching him here only made me miss "Arrested Development". Ben Affleck, surprisingly, is the funniest character in the film and when his character disappears for most of the 3rd act, he is sorely missed. All of the factory workers are portrayed as morons or immigrants who have no skills and don't speak the language. It's a wonder the factory runs at all.

Clifton Collins Jr. plays Step, a worker injured in a freak accident. When a beautiful con artist, played by Mila Kunis convinces him to sue, Joel's problems multiply and the plot thickens. There is a funny cameo by Gene Simmons as a bottom feeding lawyer and a subplot about infidelity featuring Kristen Wiig, as Joel's wife Susie. Ms. Wiig is a very funny sketch comic but her character here has very little to do and J.K. Simmons is wasted as another factory manager who keeps popping into Joel's office like a blue collar version of Kramer from "Seinfield".

When the film is funny, it's very funny. Unfortunately it's not funny enough. The bar for Mr. Judge is still set at "Office Space" and fans of that film, if they look carefully, will catch a glimpse of Gary Cole in the background in a bar scene.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

World's Greatest Dad

Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, this is one dark comedy. While not as twisted as "Shakes The Clown" , "World's Greatest Dad" uses a rather nasty plot device to reveal a film with a strong emotional core. That said, this is not a mainstream film and will not be for everyone.

Robin Williams is just terrific as a dad coping with a poor excuse for a son. When tragedy strikes (in a unusual way), an opportunity arises by accident and sets in motion very unexpected results. Mr. Williams plays this role very straight and shows his best dramatic side since "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo". The subject matter is dark but Mr. Goldthwait shows maturity in his writing and keeps the film honest even when his protagonist isn't.

The film co-stars Daryl Sabara as Mr. Williams son, Kyle. This is not the cute kid you remember from "Spy Kids". Also featured is Henry Simmons, Alexie Gilmore, and Evan Martin as Kyle's best friend, Andrew. Mr. Martin is very good as the kid who is sharper than anyone thinks.

This is the type of film that won't draw a big audience but one day may reach cult status. I look forward to seeing more from Mr. Goldthwait.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

Making a film out of a bestselling, complex, romantic Sci-fi novel is a difficult thing. The film succeeds on the simplest level. It brings out the best in it's lead characters, highlights the most memorable parts of the book and draws the viewer into the romantic conundrum of it's time traveling tale.

Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana are very believable in their love although it's a great leap of faith to accept how it starts. I was disappointed in Mr. Bana's aging process in the film though. Wearing a long hair wig to be appear younger and adding a few gray streaks to appear older really wasn't that convincing.

If you buy into the relationship, you will be rewarded by a very romantic tale of love unconstrained by time. If you don't, you'll probably find yourself walking out mumbling how idiotic it all is. The story works so much better as a novel. The book was a complex story that had the luxury to tell it's tale at it's own pace. As the film must inevitably edit for (ironically) time constraint, so much is lost but the central story still does work. I think fans of the book will be happy with the film but if you haven't read the book, you may have a hard time accepting Henry and Claire's relationship.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Using the Woodstock festival as a backdrop, Director Ang Lee recreates events behind the scene that add up to a sweet coming of age film. While we never actually get to see the bands play, Mr. Lee cleverly recreates an atmosphere that gives the viewer a sense of what it must have been like for those remarkable three days.

The film centers on Elliott Teichberg, a young man trying to help his parents hold on to their decaying motel in White Lake NY. It was Elliott who contacted Woodstock ventures and eventually helped to arrange to have the concert held on Max Yasgur's farm. Elliot's relationship with his parents, friends and the townspeople is the focus here with the concert itself taking a backseat.

There are some terrific performances from Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman as Elliot's parents. Liv Schreiber and Emile Hirsch have interesting cameos (although I would have enjoyed more of their own back stories) and Eugene Levy plays it straight as Max Yasgur. Elliot is played by Demetri Martin and it is Mr. Martin who has the unfortunate task of being the bland glue holding all the other colorful characters together.

The film is interesting if only for the back story of how the festival came together. Elliot's coming of age tale is nothing new but Woodstock does make for a colorful fabric to weave the tale. If you're more interested in the concert itself, rent the recently released 4 hour uncut version of "Woodstock". One of the greatest concert films ever produced and a visual reminder of something that we'll never experience again.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino takes his time making films but his results never disappoint."Basterds" is his latest triumph. This is a revenge fantasy farce, clear from the start, whereby Mr. Tarantino rewrites history in a most entertaining fashion. The films works on every level and if there is anything I can find fault with, it's probably some minor editing in a couple of scenes.

The trailer doesn't even begin to reveal the complexity of the story. It misleads you into thinking this is just a film about a squad of Jewish soldiers killing Nazi's during World War Two in occupied France. It is that but so much more. In fact, there are actually just a few scenes of the "Basterds" actually carrying out their missions. While some of these scenes are violently graphic, most of the violence is implied and off screen. The film really concentrates on it's characters and they are all fascinating to watch.

Brad Pitt is obviously enjoying himself as Col. Aldo Raine, the leader of the "Basterds", but the film completely belongs to Christoph Waltz as the charming but very evil Col. Hans Landa. Whenever he is on screen, the tension is unbearable. It is a remarkable performance that should easily be nominated at Oscar time. Melanie Laurent shows great range as Shosanna Dreyfus, especially in a restaurant scene with Col. Landa.

Mr. Tarantino's writing and direction is terrific. It is clear that he loves film, referencing cinema past and treating his actors with much generosity. The film is comical and yet, deadly serious with terrific tension induced scenes. The opening chapter, in particular, is spectacular from the first shot to the last.

All of the dialog is spoken in native languages so there is much use of subtitles but don't let that stop you from enjoying one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Writer/director Neil Blomkamp has created a fantastic morality play about discrimination and prejudice using alien creatures nicknamed "prawns" as his metaphor for the minority populace.

The film is set in South Africa, which in itself is a blatant statement but also a refreshing location, rather than New York, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. It is set twenty years after a huge alien population is stranded on earth and forced to live in a confined shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. When the government decides to relocate the aliens, the plot is really set in motion and it is fascinating to watch.

This very easily could have turned into a comedy of sorts but Mr. Blomkamp writes and directs with a serious eye and very quickly you are caught up in the drama of the alien plight. Using hand held cameras and shooting documentary style, makes "District 9" very plausible. The Aliens themselves appear to be a combination of CGI, costumes, makeup, and puppetry and they blend in perfectly with the human actors.

The cast does a fine job but the standout performance is by Sharlto Coply as Wikus Van De Merwe, the government official put in charge of the relocation. Wikus becomes the central figure in the story when his world is shattered and a new reality becomes all too apparent.

The action is turned up to eleven in the last act of the film, along with the tension but it also sets up a poignant ending with a haunting final image. "District 9" gets high marks for a low budget Sc-fi film.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese director well known for great animation, "Ponyo" will not disappoint. The "G" rated film is beautiful to look with vibrant colors and fluid motion. The story itself is a variation on "The Little Mermaid", except this time it's a fish who wants to become human.

What's very trippy about this film is the little fish has a human face, turns part chicken before becoming human and falls in love with a five year old boy, wise beyond his years. While it's a simple tale at the core, it's also very weird and that gives it some extra appeal for older kids and adults.

The film takes place in a coastal Japanese village but all the dialog is in English by an A-list of actors including Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson as well as Betty White and Cloris Leachman. For the kids in the audience, they will recognize Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as SoSuke, the little boy who finds her on the beach.

There is some sub text about saving the planet and restoring the balance of nature but it gets so strange, that you shouldn't try to figure it out. Keep it simple and enjoy the heartwarming story of Ponyo's adventure.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Funny People

"Funny People" is the new film from Judd Apatow. If you go expecting another "40 Year Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up", you will be disappointed. Let me be clear, "Funny People" is not a comedy. It is a serious film about comedians. Now having said that, there are funny moments in the film but for the most part, this is Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love" mode, angry and morose for most of the film.

I was happy to see a new maturity in the writing and the acting. In particular, Seth Rogan does a fine job as an struggling comic who ends up as Mr. Sandler's assistant and confidant. While the story is more serious, the humor is still juvenile and vulgar. Mr. Apatow wants it both ways, to up his game but not lose the fans that got him here in the first place.

The strangest thing is that halfway through "Funny People", there is a plot twist that spins it into a completely different movie that now puts the emphasis on Mr. Sandler's relationship with his lost love, played by Leslie Mann and her husband, played by Eric Bana. I sympathized with Mr. Rogan's character at this point, who just wants to go home rather than be stuck in a bad sitcom subplot.

Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill play Mr. Rogan's roommates and I honestly don't see the appeal of Mr. Hill. While Mr. Schwartzman brings some depth to his character, Mr. Hill brings nothing to the table. Of course, that may be attributed to the underwritten character but so far in his career, he's a one trick pony.

Ultimately, "Funny People" left me depressed.

In The Loop

This new film is a hilarious biting satire of government officials and the inner sanctums they inhabit. The film is a BBC production that takes place in England, Washington and The United Nations. The beauty of this film is in the razor sharp dialog and you must pay attention or you'll quickly be lost.

This is a very funny film following hapless British officials back and forth across the Atlantic to either help start a war or avert one (at some point I don't think they are even sure). The film will demand multiple viewings as much of the dialog is drowned out by audience laughter.

Many of the stars are not familiar to US audiences but you will be sure to remember Peter Capaldi as the senior official with the most foul and funny language. Tom Hollander is also brilliant as Simon Foster, another hapless diplomat. There are some familiar American names in the cast. James Gandolfini plays a very funny General (who would have been right at home in Dr. Strangelove), Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche play the American Government counterparts and they are both excellent as well. And rounding out the great cast is Anna Chlumsky as Ms. Kennedy's assistant. I don't think Ms. Chlumsky has been in a feature film since she co-starred as the title character in "My Girl" with Macaulay Culkin.

The screenplay is by Jesse Armstrong and it is Oscar worthy. It is smart, cutting and just plain hysterical. In a summer laden with CGI effects and animation, "In The Loop" is an original breath of fresh (and funny) air.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Julie & Julia

Based on the book by Julie Powell, this new film juxtaposes two stories about the art of cooking. The film alternates between 1949 Paris featuring a wonderful Meryl Streep as Julia Child and 2002 Queens, New York featuring an always reliable Amy Adams as Julie Powell.

Julia Child's story in 1949 is very much the stronger of the two. With Stanley Tucci playing Paul Child to Ms. Streep's Julia, they recreate the years when Ms. Child learned the art of French cooking that led to her world wide fame. Ms. Streep and Mr. Tucci are terrific together and we get to see a very human side of a woman many of us only remember as a TV chef and author.

In 2002, we watch as Ms. Powell decides to recreate every recipe in Ms. Child's book over the course of a year. Amy Adams is always fun to watch even when her character becomes whiny and annoying. Many critics didn't find these sequences well done but it's a rare actress that can still make annoying tolerable.

The film is light as a soufflé and fun to watch as Ms. Child goes to cooking school and Ms. Powell has meltdowns cooking every recipe. I would have enjoyed watching an entire film just about Julia Child and sometimes found it intrusive bouncing back and forth but the modern story holds together on the strength of the captivating Ms. Adams and ultimately the two stories work their culinary magic.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"A story about love that is not a love story". So says the narrator of this smart, honest look at 500 days of a relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel).

Not since "Say Anything" has a film about love been written this honestly from the male point of view. Mr Gordon-Levitt is known for quirky Indy dramas and "Third Rock From The Sun". It's refreshing to see him here in a lighter more natural role and as usual he does not disappoint. You feel all the highs and lows of his emotions as the film leapfrogs between the 500 days of his life with Summer. Ms. Deschanel is also excellent as Summer, the non-committal love of Tom's life.

Leapfrogging through their relationship is an interesting plot device that takes us from day 488 to day 1 and back to day 342 and so forth, showing us pivotal moments in Tom's courtship of Summer. The film also makes good use of animation, split screen, and a particularly good dance sequence (that represents Tom's feelings perfectly).

Director Marc Webb frames Los Angeles much the way Woody Allen would New York, bringing the city to life as another character in the story. His musical choices also blend in beautifully further enhancing the story. A good effort all around.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince

This is by far the weakest of the six Harry Potter films so far. The film creeps along at a deadly pace for more than two hours without much excitement but plenty of exposition. It is clearly a setup for the final book (which will be broken up into two films). You can consider this film the Potter version of "The Empire Strikes Back", without all the action.

All the lead actors are back but appear to be going through the motions at this point in the series. The most interesting performances are by Jim Broadbent as the potions teacher, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin as the young Tom Riddle, and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. The budding teen romances are awkward and provide little comic relief.

Visually the film would be memorable but it's hard to tell as the entire film appears to have been shot in the dark. What is really disappointing is the editing. Many scenes are very choppy and lack a fluid and cohesive motion between them.

The film is rated PG but really deserves a PG-13 based on some scenes that will definitely frighten smaller children. Also for die-hard fans, be aware a major plot point has been tampered with and that should cause much debate among the faithful

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Even more outrageous and borderline pornographic than "Borat", "Bruno" tries hard at shock and awe but ends up with just laughs and yawns.

This time around, Sasha Baron Cohen tries to hard to top his last film. Much of the set up is the same, throwing an outrageous character into the figurative and literal laps of clueless people, it's not as fresh as the first time around. Don't get me wrong, there some some very funny moments but much of it has a "been there, done that" feel.

Bruno worked very well as a character on a sitcom with short skits. As a full length film, it runs out of steam and hopes the more outrageous "Bruno" gets, the less you'll notice how empty it begins to feel. There are moments of genuine satire and eye opening commentary of the ignorance and intolerance still in this country but like "Borat", some of the sequences feel staged and that lessens the impact.

Of course real or staged, many scenes are really quite funny and if "Borat" worked for you, "Bruno" will too.

Monday, July 06, 2009


Writer/director Duncan Jones borrows some elements from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Silent Running" and creates a fascinating tale of isolation in space. Sam Rockwell stars as the sole mining company employee serving a three year contract on the Moon. His only companion is a robot named Gerty voiced by Kevin Spacey.

Mr. Duncan does a nice job creating the claustrophobic environment for Mr. Rockwell, especially when thing may no longer be what they seem. Without ruining the plot, I can say that Mr. Rockwell delivers a knockout performance in what must have been a difficult acting assignment.

Because of the basic story elements, the film does tend to border on tedious at times but stay with it as there is an emotional impact at the end and the final outcome should stir some thought provoking conversation.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Proposal

Romantic comedies are not really my favorite genre but my daughter picked this one so off we went. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is a stereotypical story of opposites attracting and fairly unbelievable but it works because of the chemistry of it's stars, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

Ms. Bullock is adept at physical comedy and not afraid to poke fun at herself. Mr. Reynolds has an easy charm about him and wonderful facial expressions. The two stars really click together and combine to make the film a lighthearted romp that works even though you know the end even before the film starts.

Betty White co-stars as the feisty grandmother (also a very typical role) but finds a way to infuse her own charm into the character. Other co-stars are Craig T. Nelson (nice to see him working again) and Mary Steenburgen as the parents, Denis O'Hare as a cocky Immigration officer and Oscar Nunez (so good on The Office but a setback for Latin American actors here).

There's a fun epilogue during the credits so don't rush to leave when the film ends.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Simply the most intense Iraq War movie since "Black Hawk Down". "The Hurt Locker" grabs you by throat from the opening minutes and never lets go. Director Kathryn Bigelow has made an visceral stunner of a film, based on the account of an embedded journalist who spent time with a bomb squad in Iraq.

This is an intimate portrait of three men and how the war affects them as they serve out their last month in rotation. While trying to survive the horror of the war itself, the intensity of serving on a bomb squad takes it to another level altogether. And to Ms. Bigelow's credit, her direction, camera work and editing put you, the viewer, right in the middle of this harrowing experience.

Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty make up the squad who's job is to solely diffuse both bombs and bombers alike. While all three actors are terrific, this is a star turn for Mr. Renner, who is just mesmerizing to watch. There are some blink and you miss them "star" cameos but the film truly belongs to Mr. Renner.

"The Hurt Locker" is authentic, suspenseful, tension filled and down right scary. It's a huge accomplishment for Ms. Bigelow and everyone involved and one of the best films of the year so far.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Whatever Works

Over the past few years, Woody Allen has tried many different actors to be his surrogate in his films. Some have worked (John Cusack) and some have not (Kenneth Branagh). Larry David is the perfect choice. His character in this new comedy from Mr. Allen is similar to his personality on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" but here it's even more abrasive and annoying. Boris worries about death and disease constantly, is negative about everything and appears to have no redeeming qualities at all.

Into his life comes Evan Rachel Wood (in her first comedy, I believe) and somehow these two completely different souls connect. Further complication ensue with the arrival of Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. as Ms. Wood's parents. The material is dated (apparently the original script has been kicking around for decades) and the film feels like a throwback to earlier Woody Allen comedies but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It runs out of steam in the third act but there are plenty of great one-liners and some good acting particularly from Ms. Wood. If you are a fan of both Mr. Allen and Mr. David, you will definitely enjoy "Larry does Woody"...Whatever Works.

Public Enemies

Nobody working today can touch director Michael Mann when it comes to crime drama. "Public Enemies" works on almost every level for an adult audience looking for a quality film among animation, CGI, and explosions.

Johnny Depp stars as bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale is Melvin Pervis, the FBI's special agent charged with bringing down. Mr. Depp reaches deep to bring Dillinger to life and no one can top Mr. Bale when it comes to intensity. There are many scenes with little or no dialog and yet both actors convey so much through their expressions.

You can find similarities with Mr. Mann's earlier work, "Heat" starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Mr. Depp and Mr. Bale only have a few minutes of screen time together but it generates the same excitement as that earlier film. And I found the gun play equal to or even better than the shootouts in "Heat".

Using hand held camera's, Mr. Mann draws us intimately into this violent world. His excellent cinematography, editing and use of the film's music adds so much depth and color to the story, at times scenes are just poetry in motion.

Marion Cotillard co-stars as Billie Frechette, Mr. Dillinger's "moll" and she proves here that her performance as Edith Piaf was no fluke. Billy Crudup makes an interesting choice as J. Edgar Hoover and the rest of the cast is filled out by very reliable character actors including Stephen Lang, Stephen Dorff and Jason Clarke.

"Public Enemies" brings the heat.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Year One

Director Harold Ramis tries for a "Blazing Saddles" vibe in this new comedy but completely misses the mark. By combining contemporary language and references in an early historical setting, Mr. Ramis expects big laughs. It just doesn't work.

To begin with, the story is a mess. It's starts with what appears to be cavemen, played by Jack Black and Michael Cera banned from their tribe and turns into biblical skits that fall short of laughs and ends in Roman times in the city of Sodom (which I'm not sure is historically correct either). What really kills any hope of a coherent film is the terrible editing. Multiple scenes literally stop in their tracks leaving the viewer to wonder what happened next.

Mr. Black doesn't bother with acting and relies heavily on his frat boy shtick. If you're a fan of his style of humor, this film is for you. Mr. Cera fares somewhat better, actually eliciting laughs with his timing and deadpan humor. However, he deserves far better than having to urinate on his own face for laughs.

The film co-stars Oliver Platt (in the most embarrassing role of his career) as a gay high priest and David Cross as "Cain" who serves as a plot device to further the lame story.

If you want to laugh, watch the trailer and skip the movie.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

There is no mistaking a Tony Scott film. They are all built for speed and "Pelham" literally fits the bill. Not exactly a remake but based on the 1974 film of the same name, "Pelham" is about a hijacked subway train and the interplay between the criminal and the transit worker who answers his call.

The original starred Walter Matthau as the transit worker and Robert Shaw as the ringleader. It was a tense game of cat & mouse between the two that turned on a clever plot point. The new version stars Denzel Washington as the transit worker and John Travolta as the hijacker. The intelligent interplay of the original is lost here, replaced by 21st century secrets and motives.

The two actors are very effective in their roles. Mr. Washington, in particular, is quite believable as the dispatcher with a secret of his own. Mr. Travolta is menacing enough but takes his part over the top, at times chewing up all the scenery. The film also stars James Gandolfini as the "Mike Bloomberg" mayor of New York and John Turturro as a hostage negotiator.

Everything about the new film is ramped up for speed. Much of the early part of the film is dialog between the leads and even that is short snappy patter. The "beat the clock" race through the streets is exciting enough but dumb. As one character suggest in the film, "why not take a helicopter". Why indeed?
And as a native New York, it bothers me no end when chase scenes through the streets of New York make no sense geographically. If you look closely, the runaway train passes Shea Stadium which is nowhere near where the train is supposed to be (and that's just one visual gaffe).

The film is decent summer entertainment but for an intelligent and tense thriller, rent the original.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Away We Go

An indie charmer from director Sam Mendes. This is the story of an expectant couple, Burt & Verona, who set out on a road trip across America to define their life and put down roots for their new family.

Starring as the 30 something couple are Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski. They are wonderful together (although the character of Burt could easily be related to Jim, the character Mr. Krasinski plays on "The Office"). As they travel from state to state, they meet friends and family who provide different directions their life together may take.

The film co-stars many familiar actors such as Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Paul Schneider. Representing the people that Burt & Verona meet along their journey, their respective roles amount to cameos during various points in the film. Burt & Verona are the glue that holds the film together (exemplified by a pancake & syrup metaphor) and the one constant throughout.

The soundtrack is comprised of songs by Alexi Murdoch, a singer/songwriter in the Cat Stevens vein. His songs form a sweet backdrop as the couple follow their odyssey.

Written by Dave Eggers and Veldela Vida, this is a comic drama about a really nice couple that you will enjoy spending time with and will probably miss them when you leave the theater.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Hangover

The raunchy buddy comedy gets a welcome makeover in this very humorous film. The premise sounds familiar when four friends decide to take a road trip for a bachelor party in Las Vegas but writers Scott Moore and Jon Lucas take a fresh approach by adding a bit of mystery to the plot. Think "Memento" as an "R" rated comedy.

Rather than follow a linear storyline, "The Hangover" really starts the "morning after" in Las Vegas when three friends try to piece together what happened the night before and why the groom is missing. When they wake in their trashed suite, Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms have no memory of what transpired and spend the majority of the film piecing it all together. The three actors have wonderful chemistry and that makes the film's sum greater than it's parts. It's a very funny ensemble piece.

Director Todd Phillips keeps things moving at a brisk pace and never lingers too long on a joke. The film contains some great lines and even better visuals as we see Las Vegas in a familiar yet fresh way. Mike Tyson has a cameo that would have been funnier had it not been shown in the trailer but it's still pretty funny.

There is even more to laugh about during the credits so don't leave too early.

Monday, June 08, 2009


Pixar does it again. The track record for this studio is simply amazing. I never expected the emotional impact of "Wall-E" and I never would have believed an animated film starring and old man and a boy would be such a touching and emotional thrill ride.

Up is an original story with so many adult themes, you can't simply dismiss this as a kid's film. Realizing one's dreams, dealing with loss, reconnection, love, faith, friendship, and the importance of a strong garden hose all come together in one man's quest to fulfill a dream.

The opening montage that sets up the story is beautifully written and very emotional. It will, however, go way over the heads of small children like the thousands of colorful balloons that carry our hero, Carl Fredrickson off on his adventure. The emotional plot continues as a genuine and touching relationship develops between Carl and his accidental guest, Russell.

Besides the emotion, "Up" is filled with exciting chases and many funny moments (provided by in large by "Dug" the dog and "Kevin" the bird). The menacing dogs may frighten young kids but the lighter moments of the film more than make up for it.

And I can't say enough about the animation. I saw the film in 3-D and the effect is not used for cheap visual gags but rather to enhance the colors, depth and detail of this wonderful film.

"Up" will not let you down.