Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 10 Best & Worst of 2011

Top 10 Films of 2011 (in Descending order)-
The fantastic Paul Giamatti continues his own winning streak with this terrific human comedy.
X-Men: First Class- First class all the way. Great script and well cast. This reboots the X-Men franchise.
Crazy Stupid Love- Smart script and very well acted by a terrific cast.
Moneyball- A very entertaining movie about the business of baseball. Brad Pitt has charisma to spare and Jonah Hill finally shows he can really act.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Excellent adaptation of the book. Rooney Mara was very good but I still liked Roomi Rapace better as Lisbeth in the Swedish version.
War Horse- Hope, survival and love through the eyes and actions of a magnificent horse, beautifully shot by Steven Spielberg.
The Descendants- Terrific drama about life’s complications. Alexander Paine does it again and with a great cast.
Incendies- Unforgettable foreign drama about a family with a mysterious past. Devastating and haunted me for months.
The Artist- Who would think a black & white silent film could be such an wonderful delight.
Hugo- The best use of 3-D since Avatar. Martin Scorsese directs a great cast in a wonderful love story to the movies.

Honorable Mention-
Horrible Bosses- A raunchy but hysterical comedy with a very funny Jennifer Aniston.
Melancholia- Beautifully photographed and orchestrated metaphor of depression. Kirsten Dunst’s best work and a triumph for Lars van Triers.
Take Shelter- A man losing his grip on reality…or is he?

Actors who were great but will be ignored come Oscar time-
Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter”
Dominick Cooper in “The Devil’s Double”

Top 10 Worst of 2012 (in descending order)-
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark- just this movie.
The Adjustment Bureau- Good chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt can’t save this disappointing story about destiny vs. free will.
Unknown- Silly Thriller with Liam Neeson that can’t be saved by a decent twist.
The Thing- A totally unnecessary remake.
Young Adult- marketed as a comedy, this is a train wreck of a movie that, despite good acting, sucks the life out of you.
The Rum Diary- Johnny Depp as a lifeless Hunter S. Thompson in a thin, fictional telling of his early reporting days in Puerto Rico.
Tower Heist- The audience gets robbed.
Your Highness- Aiming at teenage boys, it will hit its mark. For everyone else, it’s your lowness.
Drive- A very polarizing film. You either love it or hate it. I found it very disappointing. Long, boring and violent.
The Tree of Life- Another love it or hate it film. For my taste, it was more like The Tree of Slow Death. It looked great but boring and pretentious.

The Descendants

Alexander Paine is not a prolific filmmaker having made only a handful of films since "Election" in 1999, but every film has been a wonderful examination of the human condition. "The Descendants" is a dramady examining how a family in Hawaii copes with a tragedy and it's consequences. Co-written for the screen and directed by Mr. Paine, he once again delivers a winning script and terrific performances.

While the major plot point may seem tragic, the film is really about so much more. It's themes include love, forgiveness, and acceptance. And while dramatic, it's also filled with much humor. Credit the ensemble cast for an honest and warm portrait of a fractured family finding it's way through life's complications. George Clooney is so natural as the father of two daughters he barely knows, it's his best performance in years disappearing completely into the role. Shailene Woodley co-stars as his seventeen year old daughter, Alexandra and she's a natural talent. Her scenes with Mr. Clooney show great maturity for a young actress. Mary Birdsong plays Scotti, the ten year old daughter, who is a total delight. Nick Krause plays Sid, Alexandra's friend who just may be smarter than he looks and it's also fun to see Robert Forster again, playing Mr. Clooney's cranky father-in-law. Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, and Beau Bridges round out the terrific cast.

As a location, the islands of Hawaii become another character as Mr. Paine reveals the ordinary lives going on behind the vacation paradise, exemplified by Mr. Clooney's opening monologue. And yet, the beauty of the islands can't be denied in many of the film's scenes.

This film has been out a while and has already received many accolades. It deserves them. It's easily one of the best films of the year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Director David Cronenberg has visualized a compelling new drama about the early days of Psychoanalysis and it's pioneers Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein. His terrific cast brings these historical characters to vivid life in the dawn of the 20th century.

The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender shines in his portrayal of Carl Jung. The film introduces us to Dr. Jung when he begins to treat Ms. Spielrein for "Hysteria". Using the "Talking Method" first developed by Freud, Jung cures Ms. Spielrein, who later in life became one of the first female psychoanalysts. Sabina Spielrein is played by Keira Knightley and she is brilliant. It's the best work of her career. Professor Freud is played by Viggo Mortensen, who I never could imagine in the role but he is a wonderful surprise.

The film explores the complicated relationship between the three characters, ignited by Ms. Spielrein. It is her case that brings Jung and Freud together and ultimately plays a part in what separates them. While this is a film of words and ideas, credit Mr. Cronenberg and his cast for making psychoanalysis sexy.

I certainly saw these people differently from what I remember in psychology 101 and I left the theater wanting to know more, especially about the fascinating Ms. Spielrein.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Skin I Live In

This is the latest film from Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. It stars Antonio Banderas (who started his career with Almodovar), Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes (a longtime star of many Almodovar films). It is a very twisted Hitchcockian melodrama that you will either accept or find totally absurd.

Mr. Banderas has never been more suave and debonair as he channels Cary Grant in his role of a plastic surgeon with a very dark secret. Dr. Ledgard is experimenting on a new type of human skin. He has a young woman, Ms. Anaya, prisoner in his home that he uses as a living pallet for his work. Who she is and how she got there is slowly revealed in a flashback that is more than just bizarre.

Mr. Almodovar's direction is sharp and precise. There is fine attention to every detail and his use of color, especially red, bursts through the screen. The orchestral score enhances the visuals. Besides obvious Hitchcock, there are elements of Bunuel, Cronenberg and even his own earlier work, "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down". It is an exploration of love and obsession that knows no bounds.

It is a stylish yet macabre suspense thriller. It contains moments of sex and violence with a revelation that one may find very disturbing. It you are looking for something truly different, this is it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse

Steven Spielberg is the perfect director to blend action, sweeping drama, sentimentality, and high emotion brilliantly in this story of a magnificent horse named Joey. The plot is tailor made for a director of Mr. Spielberg's talents. He can show you the horror of war and at the same time, the schmaltz of a final shot taken right out of "Gone With The Wind". This is a grand story of love, survival, and honor between a horse and every life he touches, human or otherwise in a time of madness.

The story is simple on the surface. When England goes to war with Germany, thousands of horses are shipped to France for the British Calvary. One of these horses is Joey, who is sold by his owner to save the family farm, even though his teenage son, Albert, can't bear to lose his beloved horse. Albert soon joins the war in an effort to find Joey among all the chaos. Once overseas, we follow Joey as he protects Topthorn, another horse he has befriended, as the two follow a torturous path through war-torn France. The human actors, including Emily Watson, Peter Mullen, Jeremy Irvine, and David Thewlis, take a back seat to the relationship between Joey and Topthorn, which is the most honest and beautiful bond in the film.

Mr. Spielberg films the battles on the open fields and in the trenches with the same intensity of his earlier work in "Saving Private Ryan" but resists the graphic detail, ensuring a "family film". Even the way he frames an execution (fantastic by the way) is family-friendly. Besides the remarkable shots on the battlefields, the film is filled with gorgeous images of the various landscapes and of course, the horses themselves.

Once again teaming with John Williams, Mr. Spielberg stirs our emotions with powerful orchestrations that are totally manipulative at times. Of course, this is to be expected in a Steven Spielberg film so it's easily forgiven. Besides the music, the cinematography is breathtaking and there are visual moments that will stay with you long after the film ends.

Besides your popcorn, make sure you have tissues ready when the lights go down. And if you have the chance, see "War Horse" the play, live at Lincoln Center for a thrilling night of theater.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapt an English language version of the acclaimed novel. Having read the book and seen the original Swedish version of the film, it's hard not to think about them while watching this film. If you've never seen the first film, you will have a purer opinion about the acting and how the material is handled.

Mr. Fincher has directed an taut and edgy version of the book. He sets an ominous tone right from the opening credits and as the story unfolds, you find yourself more and more unsettled. This is a story of dark and nasty secrets. The screenplay by Mr. Zaillian edits the book in a very efficient way removing a few unnecessary subplots but otherwise staying true to the novel except for an slightly altered ending. The setting is the same and you can feel the Swedish cold in every scene.

The cast is stellar with Daniel Craig starring as investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist along with Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson and as the title character, Rooney Mara. Mr. Craig brings full dimension to Blomkvist and Ms. Mara gives a fearless performance in a very difficult role. On her own merit, she captures "Lisbeth Salander" very well. Unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, having seen the original film, I can't help but compare her to Roomi Rapace as "Lisbeth". Ms. Mara, while appearing tough as nails, still has frailty that you never saw in Ms. Rapace. She also brings a bit of dark humor not seen in the Swedish version. Sometimes you identify an actor with a particular role so deeply that you just can't imagine anyone else in the part. For me, Ms. Rapace will always be Lisbeth Salander.

The editing, music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and cinematography are all excellent and help provide the ingredients for Mr. Fincher's vision. I wouldn't call this a remake as much as an alternative version of the same source material. Mr. Fincher makes it his own and I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close is simply astonishing in the title role of this new drama by director Rodrigo Garcia. Ms. Close also has a credit as co-screenwriter and producer. It is a role she played in a short run on the NY stage and now she breathes life into Albert Nobbs on screen.

This is the story of a woman who passes as a man in 19th century Dublin, working as a butler in a small hotel. No one suspects Albert is really a man until Hubert Page enters her life. When Hubert discovers the truth and keeps the secret, a strong friendship begins and Hubert encourages Albert to take more control of her life.

The film co-stars Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins, Aaron Johnson and Brenda Gleeson. The entire cast is wonderful, in particular Ms. McTeer who should gain a supporting actress nomination come Oscar time. However, the film belongs, heart and soul to Ms. Close. It is a remarkable performance that is ultimately heartbreaking to watch.

Albert Nobbs is a character and film that will stay with you, long after it ends.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

If you are looking for overstuffed holiday entertainment, then this is the film for you. Capitalizing on the success of the first film, director Guy Ritchie has decided bigger is better and assaults your senses with even more bullets, bombs, and explosions. Not necessarily the case, Guy.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are back as Holmes and Watson and while Dr. Watson marries in the film, this is clearly a bromance between the two, as his new wife is literally pushed into the background. Noomi Rapace (so wonderful in the original "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo") co-stars in her first English film as a gypsy who holds a key to the mysterious plot. Engaging enough, she unfortunately takes a back seat to Holmes and Watson hot on the trail of Professor Moriarity, played by Jared Harris (who has morphed into his father).

Mr. Ritchie tries to intensify the action using "Matrix" style "slow-mo" and while it's artistic, it's overuse simply becomes annoying. There is plenty of action but everything eventually becomes tedious and you're ready for it to end. While the film tries hard to entertain (and does to an extent), better editing would have trimmed the fat and made it more enjoyable.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Michael Fassbender gives a fearless performance as a sex addict spiraling out of control in the new film from director/writer Steve McQueen. This portrait of an addict is uncompromising, raw and very intense. It's not an easy film to watch but it's a fascinating and honest look at an addiction, not often explored (if ever) on film.

When Brandon's (Mr. Fassbender) sister, Sissy comes to visit, old wounds are opened and his world begins to unravel. Sissy is played by Carey Mulligan, who also gives a remarkable performance. Both characters are damaged goods and Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Mulligan hold nothing back for the camera. I can't say enough for the two brave performances of these actors. You feel their pain.

Mr. McQueen films New York in the darkness and shadows, taking us down dangerous paths with little respite. In some ways, the film reminded me of "The Panic In Needle Park", another classic film of addiction albeit a different kind of drug. It has the same raw power and naked (no pun intended) honesty about it's subject.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Young Adult

Marketed as a comedy, this train wreck of a story is anything but funny. It's the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody but it's a huge disappointment after the success of "Juno".

Charlize Theron is Mavis, an unhappy writer who returns to her hometown looking to reunite with her high school boyfriend. Mavis has very few redeeming qualities and watching her awkward attempts to win back Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson, is difficult to watch. Upon her return, the one person Mavis does connect with is Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, when these two damaged people find common ground in their failures.

Ms. Theron acting is excellent but her character is filled with such self loathing, she's impossible to like and the slow, boring pace of the story just contributes to the cloud of depression that hangs over the entire film. When the movie ended, I felt the need to see another movie right away just to wash away the memory of "Young Adult".

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on the acclaimed cold war novel by John LeCarre, this cerebral thriller is more wordplay than gunplay and features an outstanding cast of pedigree British actors. Gary Oldman is "Oscar" perfect as George Smiley, the retired spy asked to find a mole at the top of British Intelligence in the early 70's. With unerring restraint, Smiley goes methodically about his work barely raising his voice or even lifting a finger. Dare I say, Mr. Oldman gives Sir Alec Guinness (who created the role in the original mini-series) a run for his money.

The film co-stars John Hurt as "Control" and Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds as fellow intelligence officers. Also in key roles are Tom Hardy and Mark Strong doing some of their best work to date. One actor I'm not familiar with is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Smiley's assistant. This is his largest role so far in a young career and he is quite good. You expect great work from this ensemble and they don't disappoint.

Director Thomas Alfredson does a splendid job recreating the time period and there isn't a false note anywhere in the film. The one thing it does lack is warmth but then again, this was still the "cold war" and the British didn't coin the phrase "stiff upper lip" for nothing. The film feels as cold and calculating as it's characters and yet, it's totally appropriate to the story.

Don't expect gunfights and explosions. This is by no means, "James Bond" but rather a grandmaster matching wits with his opponent in an tense chess match. It's a complex, yet entertaining film that an audience should happily give it's full attention.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Artist

Who would think you would appreciate a black & white, silent film in 2011? "The Artist" is an absolute delight from start to finish. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius crafts a Hollywood love letter to the age of silent movies. There hasn't been anything like this since the Mel Brooks comedy "Silent Movie" and it is a treat to experience a film the way an audience did in 1929.

To be fair, there are a few well placed sounds that come as a surprise but 99% of the film is truly silent. And once the novelty wears off, you are already engaged in the story and charmed by the lead actors and a very clever Jack Russell terrier. Uggy the dog steals every scene he's in but the film really belongs to Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

Mr. Dujardin is best known for the French spy spoofs, "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" and "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies", two films previously done with Mr. Hazanavicius. In those comedies, he was a charming but clueless secret agent. In "The Artist", Mr. Dujardin is more charming than ever but he also reveals a depth of acting (and dancing) that we have not seen before. Ms. Berenice may be new to American audiences but she will not be forgotten. She displays a wide emotional range and is filled with unlimited energy, acting and dancing her way into your memory. The two stars have great chemistry together.

The film co-stars John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller. All three are terrific in non- speaking parts that let their expressions do the talking. The cinematography is sharp and clear and the score is just wonderful, substituting music for dialogue that works so well.

"The Artist" is joyful entertainment. Don't miss it.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I went into this film knowing nothing about the story, only that it was directed by Martin Scorsese and filmed in 3-D. What an amazing film it turned out to be. Mr. Scorsese has made the best 3-D film, since "Avatar". His love of his craft requires no less than a medium used to perfection to illustrate his story.

We learn early on that Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, is an orphan living in the Paris train station some time after World War One. The station is populated with many colorful characters that are touched by Hugo in various ways. One in particular is Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, an old man who runs a toy shop in the station and carries a heavy secret. When Hugo discovers that secret, what begins as the adventures of a young boy fascinated with all things mechanical, slowly transforms into a love letter to the art of film.

The wondrous set of the train station itself becomes a character in the story, heightened by the inspired use of the latest 3-D technology. The sharp colors and details enhance every scene. The supporting cast includes Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Michael Studbarg and Emily Mortimer. Mr. Scorsese brings out the best in his entire ensemble but it is Mr. Kingsley and young Mr. Butterfield who truly shine.

While marketed as a family film, "Hugo" contains some scenes that may be too intense for young viewers and while charming and magical, the eventual revelations of the film may be too "adult" as well. Having said that, "Hugo" is still a wonderful achievement that expresses so well, why cinema matters.

My Week With Marilyn

Michele Williams is simply brilliant as Marilyn Monroe in this new film based on the true memoir of Colin Clark, a third assistant director on the film "The Prince & The Showgirl". Sir Laurence Olivier directed and starred along side Ms. Monroe in the "light comedy". The behind the scenes look at what happened during the filming of that movie is the basis of the new film.

Ms. Williams channels Marilyn perfectly. It is Oscar worthy acting with a guaranteed nomination. She is supported by a very funny Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, who begins the film a naïve boy of twenty three but grows up quickly thanks to Ms. Monroe. The film also has a pedigree supporting cast with Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Dominic Cooper, Zoe Wanamaker, Toby Jones and Sir Derek Jacobi, all playing the real people orbiting Marilyn's world.

On the surface, it's a film about making a movie but it's really a journey into the fragile psyche of Marilyn Monroe at the time and the true friendship she develops with Mr. Clark. It's an interesting story made memorable by Ms. Williams amazing performance.


The latest "blood and bullets" drama from writer/director Takeshi Kitano. Taking place in the contemporary world of the Japanese "Yakuza", fans of this genre will not be disappointed. Mr. Kitano's film is sleek and highly stylized, filled with great imagery. It tells the tale of warring families seeking favor with the "Chairman" and it's filled with double and triple crosses along with an escalating body count.

We've seen this kind of story before and the plot holds no surprises other than who will ultimately survive but Mr. Kitano's sense of poetry in his visuals help heighten this entertaining crime drama. The symmetry of the Yakuza vehicles juxtaposed with the henchmen in well tailor suits makes for a memorable opening alone.

Mr. Kitano also plays a starring role in the film as his alter ego, "Beat Kitano" as Otomo, an underling to the "Chairman". His character is of the same quiet but deadly killer he's played in many of his films. Honor among thieves is an important part of a Japanese crime film and even in betrayal, honor is always a priority, whether you are an underboss or a corrupt policeman. Otomo finds out that honorable or not, no one is untouched by the violence, which may well be Mr. kitano's point.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Lars von Triers is one of my favorite directors. His films are always artistic and challenging. If you are looking for simple escapist entertainment, this is not the film for you. However, if you are up for the challenge, you will be drawn in by the gravitational pull of "Melancholia". To quote R.E.M. "It's the End of The World as We Know it and I feel fine".

The film is divided into two parts. In Part One "Justine" we are introduced to Justine, played by kirsten Dunst, who is suffering from a crippling depression (one could call Melancholia) while at the same time, a planet named Melancholia is on a collison course with Earth. Ms. Dunst is celebrating her wedding to Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard. They are at the rented castle of her sister and brother-in-law, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland. It is a lavish "black tie" affair but Ms. Dunst's condition prevents her from any happiness.

Part Two, "Claire" takes place just after the events of the reception and focuses on the impending arrival of Melancholia and it's effects on Justine, her sister Claire, her husband John and their son. Mr. von Triers presents his themes and ideas to the audience through the actions and reactions of both sisters in each half of the film. The counterbalance of Justine's condition and the planet closing in on Earth only serve to strengthen his point of view.

The film is visually stunning, enriched with a wonderful classical soundtrack. Ms. Dunst gives a rich, complex performance and Mr. Sutherland is a surprise in a unique role. Co-starring in minor roles are Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt and Stellen Skarsgard but the film really belongs to Ms. Dunst and Ms. Gainsbourg.

Mr. von Triers is a writer/director with a unique style that is not for everyone but he does continues to surprise with each new film.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

J. Edgar

Director Clint Eastwood does a wonderful job with his actors in an otherwise dull biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Leonardo DeCaprio is excellent as Hoover and equally good is Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson. There were only two important women in Hoover's life, his mother, played here by Judi Dench and his faithful secretary, Helen Gandy, played by Naomi Watts. Both women give strong performances as well.

Despite the fact these four actors are at the top of their game, they are hampered by a claustophobic, dry script that bounces back and forth in time never settling down long enough for the audience to catch up. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black draws on historical facts and rumors about Mr. Hoover but keeps a tight focus on his relationships with Mr. Tolson, his mother and to some extent, Ms. Gandy. While other characters come and go, they are just background and never fully developed. The film's makeup and lighting are both distracting. Only the three main character age and at times, their makeup looks like something bought in a Halloween store. The lighting keeps the film in blue and grey hues further dulling the story.

Mr. Hoover was a powerful and paranoid man throughout his long tenure in the FBI. Even Ms. Gandy who was his most trusted confident, probably didn't know everything about the man. The film crawls through his life with only the numerous flashbacks providing any spark, keeping the audience involved trying to guess the correct timeline. The story only hints at his relationships with the eight presidents he served.

The focus is on the unspoken love between Mr. Hoover and Mr. Tolson. Their relationship was deeper than the world knew but many probably suspected and that love is painfully and honestly portrayed by both Mr. DeCaprio and Mr. Hammer. Mr. Hoover's devotion to his mother is also a focal point and scenes between them are poignant yet, a little strange. Mr. Black's script is strongest when exploring the repressed homosexuality of the two men and even suggests the reason behind Mr. Hoover's rumored fondness for cross dressing.

While the acting is terrific, "J. Edgar" is an overall disappointment.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tower Heist

A heist movie where the audience gets robbed. Usually when you mix a high concept with a big time cast and director, the results fail to make good on the promise of the trailer. "Tower Heist" doesn't disappoint in that respect but it does in everything else.

Directed by Brett Ratner and starring Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda, you would expect action and laughs but end up with a sluggish first act and only a moderately entertaining second act. The film takes forever to get going and finally shows some life once Eddie Murphy starts getting more screen time. Credit Mr. Broderick for providing some good laughs as the mousey analyst and to Mr. Alda playing against type as the smug, billionaire villain. Mr. Stiller, on the other hand brings nothing new as the Tower manager who decides to rob Mr. Alda for the good of the building staff.

The highpoint of the robbery towards the end is fun but the film is so badly edited, it appears that chunks of scenes have been omitted, ruining the continuity and taking the heart out of the story. The film ends up as disposable entertainment, quickly forgotten once it ends.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A star turn by Elizabeth Olsen in a fascinating story of a girl, who after living in a cult environment for two years, tries to reconnect with the outside world. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, his first feature film is both disturbing and captivating.

We first meet Martha as she is leaving the cult for unknown reasons. She reaches out to her sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson who brings Martha to her Connecticut home, with no knowledge of where's she's been. Lucy and her husband Ted, played by Hugh Dancy, try to be understanding but are confused by Martha's behavior especially when she refuses to tell them the truth about her recent past.

The film cuts back and forth in time, between the present in Connecticut and Martha's time with the cult, when she was renamed Marcy May by Patrick, the cult leader. John Hawkes is chilling as Patrick, a man with an evil aura hidden beneath a seemingly gentle exterior. The edits and unusual score create a dream like atmosphere that deliberately unsettles the audience.

Adjusting to life after her experience is not easy for Martha and as layers are peeled back, you realize there will be no simple answers. You are left to interpret these characters as you will. The end, in particular, will be open to much discussion. Love it or hate it, one thing is clear. Elizabeth Olsen has a terrific career ahead of her.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp channels his close friend Hunter S. Thompson in this film version of Mr. Thompson's novel. The book is based on Mr. Thompson's exploits in Puerto Rico early in his journalist career. Mr. Depp has played this role once before in "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" which was a slice of Mr. Thompson's career much later in life. Mr. Depp portrayed him in that film as the alcohol fueled, drug induced manic "gonzo" journalist he was to become. In "The Rum Diary", Mr. Thompson's fictional character, Paul Kemp, has yet to "find his voice" and Mr. Depp plays him wooden and colorless.

By it's own admission, the film centers on the excess consumption of rum and the antics of drunken journalists. The thin plot has to do with some shady land deals that have Mr. Depp crossing paths with Aaron Eckhart and Amber Heard. Why Mr. Eckhart's character needs a journalist "in on the deal" is never quite explained but it does give Mr. Depp time to seriously flirt with Ms. Heard (the next Scarlett Johansson). Ms. Johansson was rumored to actually be cast but I suppose that was before she actually read the script.

The film's most colorful characters are it's supporting cast played by Richard Jenkins, the editor of Mr. Depp's Newspaper, Giovanni Ribisi as a rum soaked washout of a journalist and Michael Rispoli, as a photographer who becomes Mr. Depp's best friend. This is actually one of Mr. Rispoli's best roles in a long career of character acting.

Amidst the repetitive drunken scenes, by the film's end, "Paul Kemp" does manage to "find his voice" ensuring years of a unique writing style. Unfortunately, Mr. Depp may be losing his, based on his most recent films. When he's not being outrageous (a Mad Hatter or Captain Jack), his characters tend to be lifeless and boring. When the rum's gone, all you have left is an empty bottle and a hangover.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Take Shelter

Michael Shannon is mesmerizing as Curtis LaForche, a blue collar working man in modern day Ohio who begins to have nightmares and visions of impending doom. Curtis lives with his wife Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain (what movie isn't she in this year?) and their six year old hearing impaired, daughter, Hannah.

Life is normal enough as the couple struggle to pay bills, continue to master sign language and anticipate an operation that can restore Hannah's hearing. When Curtis's visions begin, he becomes obsessed with renovating and enlarging the storm shelter in the backyard. His obsession takes it's toll on his job, his family and literally his sanity as things begin to unravel. Is it mental illness or something more?

Mr. Shannon can do no wrong, whether it's Television (Boardwalk Empire) the stage ( Mistakes Were Made) or film (Revolutionary Road) and once again shows off his brilliance in an extraordinary performance. Jessica Chastain is perfect as Samantha, the wife with unconditional love for her husband, but straining to understand his growing erratic behavior. The film also stars Tova Stewart as Hannah and Shea Wigham (also of Boardwalk Empire) as Dewart, Curtis's best friend. There are also two good cameos by Kathy Baker and Ray McKinnon.

The film may be slow for some but the building intensity of the situation captivates the viewer and the final moments of the film gave me goose bumps.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Thing

"The Thing"

A totally unnecessary "prequel" to John Carpenter's vastly superior remake of the original '50's Sci-fi classic. There is nothing here to excite an audience. The acting is minimal and logic has been totally thrown out the window. We're told it winter in Antarctica and yet the days are fairly long and people walk around outside dressed like it's + 30 degrees rather than - 30 degrees.

The creature effects are fair but will fail to shock anyone and shape changing plot line never reaches the level of suspense in the John Carpenter version. The direction is horror movie 101 with quick edits, false jumps, and tight close-ups. I will give some credit to the film score which does it's best to create a suspenseful mood.

The entire cast is relatively unknown, a mix of Americans and Norwegians. The female lead, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is no "Sigourney Weaver" action hero but she does try her best. A good deal of the film has Norwegian dialogue with English subtitles which is a complete distraction.

This film didn't need to be made and doesn't need to be seen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


It's very difficult to make a humorous film about cancer but "50/50" manages to balance both sensitivity and humor very well. Based on a true story, it's emotional but not melodramatic and sometimes outrageously funny due to a well balanced script.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, excellent as always, plays Adam, a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We follow his story from discovery through treatment and eventual results. Adam's best friend is played by Seth Rogan, who delivers the funniest lines but also delivers a heartfelt performance. Adam's girlfriend is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who after starring in "The Help" and now this, has a great career ahead as the girl you love to hate.

The film also stars Anna Kendrick as a young therapist trying to help Adam through his struggle and Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as fellow cancer patients who have an strong impact on Adam. Anjelica Houston plays Adam's mother. Welcome back, Ms. Houston. We've missed you and this part shows why. She's terrific in all her scenes.

I found the ending to be a bit rushed but otherwise "50/50" is worth your time. If you can deal with the subject matter, bring a box of tissues but also be prepared to laugh.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ides of March

Another in a long line of political dramas that point out there is no such thing as an honest politician. George Clooney directs himself, along with Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this tale of political twists and turns.

Mr. Gosling is at the center of things as an idealistic and as it turns out , very naïve press secretary helping Mr. Hoffman run the primary campaign of the Pennsylvania Governor played by Mr. Clooney. It's not the most riveting plot and the suspense is lacking but the acting carries the film. In particular, Mr. Giamati and Mr. Hoffman, who chew up the scenery fighting over the services of Mr. Gosling. This has been quite a year for Mr. Gosling and he is much more animated and involved here than his last effort, "Drive".

Mr. Clooney's direction is rather pedestrian, moving the plot along at a leisurely pace with enough exposition to make sure the audience is following every point. The film has obviously been released now for award season but doesn't have the gravitas to go all the way. It's entertaining enough but I expected more.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


The business of Baseball done in a most entertaining way. Based on a true story, the film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the real life GM of the Oakland Athletes baseball team and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, an economist who joins the team in 2002. Using an economic foundation and playing by the numbers, they manage to reverse their losing streak and have a great season, well documented in baseball lore.

While the premise may not sound exciting, the smart script by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian engages the viewer even if they are not a big baseball fan. Mr. Pitt, himself, has enough charisma to fill a baseball stadium and it's obvious he's having fun with the part. His relationship with Mr. Hill is the closest thing you will get to a love story in this film (except for the love of the game itself) and Mr. Hill finally breaks his 'stoner comedy" mold with this role.

The director, Bennett Miller, keeps things moving briskly and the story never gets bogged down or goes over your head. While those who follow baseball may know the outcome, the film still entertains on many levels. Whether it be the players adjusting to new rules, Billy and Peter's partnership, Billy's relationship with his daughter or his commitment to making the new system successful, it's all great fun to watch.

"Moneyball" is a home run.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of The Dark

"Don't Be Afraid of The Dark"

Or rather, be very afraid of the dark as that's when the little creatures will come to get you. Based on the television movie of the same name, Producer/writer Guillermo del Toro retells the tale in his own vision. The suspense is ramped up but the stakes remain the same... the life of a little girl and her family.

Guy Pearce plays the father of little Sally, who has come to live with him and his girlfriend, Kim played by Katie Holmes. Of course, they are refurbishing a huge gothic home with a dark secret in it's past. Sally is played by newcomer, Bailee Madison and she is talented beyond her years. The script calls for her to react to some pretty terrible things and she handles the role very well. Mr. Del Toro has a appreciation for dark fairy tales featuring strong willed little girls. There are moments of tribute to his earlier work, "Pan's Labyrinth" but that remains a superior film. This remake is stuffed with horror movie clichés.

The director, Troy Nixey tries to slowly build suspense and using the "Spielberg technique" doesn't completely reveal his monsters until well into the film. Unfltunately his slow build is pretty boring. The lighting and music do create a suspenseful atmosphere but all the bumps in the night are pretty stock elements. Overall, this is a hohum thriller with a few frightful moments but it is quickly disappearing from theaters to make room for the "big guns" of fall. If you rent it on DVD, watch it with the lights out. It will help.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


From the ads and trailer, you go in expecting a certain kind of movie but "Drive" turns this genre on it's head and takes you by surprise. Unfortunately I was not pleased by the "surprise". What starts out very promising quickly becomes a bad imitation of director Michael Mann's style.

Ironic for a film called Drive, it remains stuck in first gear for most of the film. There are a total of three car chases (and the last, while effective, is sloppy in it's execution). The rest of the film is filled with endless head shots of Ryan Gosling and Cary Mulligan. Scenes with no dialogue go on forever to the pulsing beat of the electronica soundtrack. Mr. Gosling's character is a total mystery (we don't even learn his name). All we know is that he is an excellent driver and has a psychotic temper when pushed. Mr. Gosling seems an odd choice for this kind of film but his cool demeanor works well for the most part. It's the ultra violent moments that just don't make sense.

The bloodshed and violent acts are so over the top, they are almost funny and after being lulled into a daze by the poor direction by Nicholas Winding Reyn, they are a jolt to the system when they occur. This was probably Mr. Winding Refn's intent to keep the audience awake.

The film co-stars Bryan Cranston, as Shannon, Mr. Gosling's boss and a far more interesting character than "The Driver" and Albert Brooks as a menacing crime lord, who has a new career playing against type. Ron Perlman plays a extremely stereotypical goon that we're either supposed to take seriously or laugh at the role as a parody. Christina Hendricks (from TV's Mad Men) has a "blink and you miss her" cameo but it's pretty memorable in it's own way. And then we come back to Cary Mulligan who sleepwalks her way through the film as Mr. Gosling's motivation.

Maybe I missed the joke and the whole film is a parody. That would explain the outbursts of laughter from the audience throughout the film. This drive goes nowhere. It's just long, boring and violent.


Didn't we all see this movie already? The last time around it was called "Outbreak" and starred Dustin Hoffman. Before that it was called "The Andromeda Strain" starring James Olsen. Now we have an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. I guess every few years we need a killer virus movie to shake us all up. And the thing does.

Scarier than any slasher film, "Contagion" will have you squirming in your seats and reaching for your hand sanitizer. Is it enjoyable and entertaining? Not really considering how close we are to really experiencing an outbreak of this proportion. Is it compelling? Absolutely. The acting is first rate and the story is so relatable, you'll run to the restroom as soon as it's over to wash your hands.

Director Steven Soderbergh is adept at juggling a large cast and breaking them down into inter-locking sub-plots that still manage to maintain the bigger picture. In particular, Matt Damon as a widower fighting to protect what's left of his family and Jude Law's conspiracy blogger are two standout stories.

In the end, this is a public service announcement masquerading as film entertainment and it's worth your time, if only to educate you on proper sanitation protocols.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Help

Terrific performances from a wonderful ensemble cast are the heart and soul of this dramatic setting at the dawn of the civil rights movement in Jackson Mississippi. When Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, comes home to Jackson and decides to write the stories of all the African-American "help", it ignites a flame in the town that will never die.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are the first maids that come forward to tell their stories to Skeeter and these two women are incredibly powerful, each in their own way. Representing the white upper-class is Hilly Holbrook, played convincingly by Bryce Dallas Howard, who's social class and upbringing blind her to her racial bigotry. While Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer are the heart of the film, you can't ignore the work of Ms. Stone (in her most mature role to date) who is both the anchor and catalyst for everything going on around her.

Allison Janney plays Skeeter's mother, raised to think one way but willing to change before it's too late. She is so well cast and has some great scenes of her own. Also co-starring is Jessica Chastain, who just continues to amaze with every role and Sissy Spacek, who also has some wonderful scenes as Hilly's mother.

"The Help" should expect at least six or more Oscar nominations and the biggest challenge will be who to nominate in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress roles. Every woman in the film so completely inhabits their character that the audience can't help but feel the emotions coming off the screen. I didn't read the book but I have to believe that the film brings these people to life in a perfect portrayal. Credit must be given to Tate Taylor who wrote the screenplay and directed the film.

"The Help" is cleaning up at the box-office and deservingly so.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Debt

Based on the trailers that seemed to be running forever, this film delivers on it's promise. While it may strain credibility at times, it's still a pretty good espionage thriller with more than one good twist. Cutting back and forth in time, director John Madden, introduces characters and plot points like puzzle pieces that eventually come together to form a sobering picture.

The film stars Helene Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as retired Mossad agents, who 30 years ago undertook a mission to capture a Nazi war criminal posing as a doctor in East Berlin. In the flashbacks of 60's East Berlin, the agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington. Ms. Chastain has seemingly come out of nowhere to be the "it" girl of the moment. She is currently in three films with at least three more before year end. The good news is rather than be overexposed, she is showing terrific range and maturity in this variety of roles and she should be enjoying a strong career for years to come. As young Rachel Singer in "The Debt", she is terrific.

The rest of the cast all do credible work even when the plot steers into the improbable and there is a fair amount of suspense to keep the audience engaged. I was reminded at times of films like "Marathon Man" and "The Boys From Brazil" (both higher quality but sharing similar themes). If you are looking for something with a little more substance at the end of the summer, this will be a good start before the avalanche of "Oscar" bait that begins in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rise of The Planet of The Apes

A smart script and some terrific CGI work make this prequel a plausible and exciting explanation for the eventual "planet of the apes". James Franco stars as a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer's by testing his drugs on chimps. When things go wrong with a test subject, he ends up raising the remaining baby chimp, whom he names "Caesar", at his home. It soon becomes clear that Caesar's mother has past on the genetic codes to make him super smart and things progress from there.

Mr. Franco and co-star Frieda Pinto are pretty much eye candy as the "good" humans and Tom Felton does his "Draco Malfoy" evil bit as a sadistic kennel worker. John Lithgow plays Mr. Franco's father who has just a few scenes but one that is very key to the story. Brian Cox is under-used as another "bad" human but in a film like this, all the "bad" guys get their due. The CGI work, as stated, is really is terrific but the real star of the film is the motion capture work done by Andy Serkis who bring remarkable life to Caesar.

There are some clever nods to the original film and the plot evolves naturally to set up the outcome we all know and expect.. The film does leave room for a sequel that can still fill in some gaps between the timelines but specific bits and pieces make the evolution pretty clear. The climax on the Golden Gate Bridge is very exciting enhanced by a strong musical score. The one unfortunate part of the film is the brutal mistreatment of Caesar and the other chimps which, while very important to drive the revolt, is hard to watch. It should also make you sad to consider how, in real life, some people continue to mistreat animals. In that respect, this science fiction can also be seen as a cautionary tale for mankind.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Devil's Double

This film is based on the true story of Latif Yahia, a soldier in the Iraqi army who was almost a perfect double for Uday Hussein (one of Saddam Hussein's sons). Dominick Cooper plays both roles and he is terrific as the madman, Uday and as the conflicted solider, Latif. Mr. Cooper plays Uday like an Iraqi "Scarface", living a life of sex, drugs and violence. If the screenplay is accurate, Uday was a complete psychopath who took and did whatever he wanted. He forces Latif to be his body double by threatening his family and Latif's life is no longer his own.

The facts and fiction play out against a backdrop of the first Gulf War. Malta doubles (no pun intended) for Iraq with wonderful cinematography and the film has a terrific soundtrack. The film co-stars Ludivine Sagnier as Uday's girlfriend, Sarrab, who becomes dangerously attracted to Latif.

Make no mistake, this film earns it's "R" rating. It is very violent and at times the depravity of Uday Saddam is hard to watch but it is necessary to juxtapose the actions of a good man thrown into a hellish existence.

I just can't say enough good things about Mr. Cooper's double triumph. This is by far the best work he's done on screen and while the story may not be for everyone, it's worth it just for his performance.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Guard

Writer/ director John Michael McDonagh has his brother's sense of dark comedy but lacks the skill to pull it off as brilliantly as brother Martin. Getting a top notch performance out of Brendan Gleeson and a subtle low key performance out of Don Cheadle is not enough to elevate this independent crime comedy to the level of an "In Bruges" (a far better mismatched black comedy starring Mr. Gleeson and Colin Farrel).

The story is almost an afterthought to bring attention to the wry use of language and Mr. Gleeson's portrait of a sly Irish small town policeman who gets involved with Mr. Cheadle's American FBI agent chasing drug smugglers. The whole film is low key and moves by in a lazy idle way much like the life in Mr. Gleeson's Irish hamlet. There are some good laughs, mostly at the expense of the American agent but the dark outweighs the comedy and is overall disappointing.

I'll stick with "In Bruges". A far better story, direction and chemistry between the leads.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Point Blank

This French import is a thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up. It is pretty much non-stop action that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even though the basic premise has been done many times before.

Samuel, played by Gilles Lellouche, is a loving husband who's pregnant wife is kidnapped before his helpless eyes. Innocent of any crime, he is forced to help a criminal escape from the hospital where he works as a nurses aide. Things escalate from there and Samuel finds himself a wanted man pursued by both the police and rival gangsters in a race to save his wife and unborn child.

The various chase scenes on foot through Paris will leave you breathless and sudden twists come unexpectedly so pay attention. Roschy Zem plays Sartet, the mystery man Samuel must help and both actors have great chemistry as they end up in an uneasy alliance to stay alive.

In French with English sub-titles, "Point Blank" is playing in New York only at Cinema 3 on the Upper Eastside or downtown at The Sunshine Theater on Houston Street. I would recommend The Sunshine which has stadium seating and a much larger screen.

If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, this is the movie for you.

Crazy Stupid Love

Stupid may be in the title but this is a smart script and a very enjoyable adult comedy/drama. In many ways, it addresses clichés head on while at the same time managing to avoid them altogether. The cast is first rate and really sells the story.

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore play Cal and Emily, a couple who's life is turned upside down when Emily announces early on that she wants a divorce. When Cal meets Jacob, played by Ryan Gosling, at a local pick-up bar, Jacob takes him under his wing (complete with total makeover) to teach him the art of meeting and seducing women.

Multiple love interests are entwined among the various characters and they all come together in a most surprising way. The film has two directors, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, both of whom do a great job balancing the subplots. The family, friends, kids, and strangers that all cross paths are very real characters dealing with the joys and anguish of love.

Emma Stone, as Hannah, continues to mature as an actor and holds her own in her scenes with Ryan Gosling (who shows a flair for comedy for the first time). Jonah Bobo plays Robbie, Mr. Carell's wise 13 year old son with love problems of his own and he is a standout. Mr. Carell does his best work yet balancing his silly side with some well done serious moments. Ms. Moore is good but becoming rote with too many similar characters. The same can be said for Marisa Tomei (but she's so good at her type of character).

This is a modern love story with a lot of heart and just the right touch of crazy.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Take a high concept idea, mix it with stereotypic characters, throw in two action hero icons and how can you miss? It's a weak story but you can still have fun watching cowboy heroes defeat evil aliens and save the day.

Director Jon Favreau has developed a distinct action style. Many of the action sequences here reminded me of "Iron Man" but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He does a good job playing the high concept straight and keeping things dramatic despite the unlikely combination of the old west meets "Alien/Predator". He does show a flair for the visual with two scenes in particular. The first time the locals encounter the alien ship will remind you of Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" but it still makes a visual impact (coincidently Steven Spielberg is an executive producer). The other visual standout is a shot of the Indians taking position among the bleached white rocks before the attack on the alien ship. It's a quick shot but looks great.

The screenplay's roots can be traced all the way back to "The Searchers" starring John Wayne (his grandson actually has a small part in the film). Rather than tracking his niece captured by Indians, Rancher Harrison Ford goes in search of his wayward son captured by aliens, here on Earth to mine our gold. Enter the mysterious gunslinger played by Daniel Craig (with a reasonable American accent) who teams up with the rancher, a gang of outlaws and the local Indian tribe to find their family members also captured by the aliens.

Olivia Wilde plays Ella, a woman with secrets of her own and the various other key characters are played by Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, and Walton Goggins. With the exception of Ms. Wilde's Ella, everyone else is a stock character out of any western. Mr. Ford and Mr. Craig take everything very seriously and keep you engaged as the film progresses towards it's inevitable climax.

It's a crazy concept that works on the strength and conviction of it's cast. So while not the most intelligent script, "Cowboys & Aliens" is still a fun ride... whether on horseback or spaceship.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Like one of Harry Potter's spells, this movie has been protected from critical review. There really is very little to write as we say goodbye to beloved characters that will live on in DVD immortality (and a Universal theme park). "Part Two" picks up moments after the end of "Part One" and it is a wonderful ride to the end of the line for Mr. Potter and friends.

If you are a fan, of course you will not be disappointed since splitting the last book into two films allowed for a much more thorough screen adaptation than the previous films. If you are not a fan, you really have no business going to see this anyway as you won't have a clue as to what is going on. Our three heroes, Harry, Hermione and Ron have grown up before our eyes and their maturity speaks volumes in this final chapter. There is some fine acting going on beneath all the CGI and special effects. Even Ralph Fiennes, as Vortemort, manages a worthy performance without a nose and bad teeth.

The film brings back beloved living and dead characters for many a farewell cameo (you can only get away with this in a film consumed with magic). I think three quarters of England's actors will be out of work now that this series has come to a close. Standout kudos to Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Michael Gambon.

"The Deathly Hallows, Part Two" is exciting, dramatic, heartfelt and best of all, brings satisfying closure to a fantastic series.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America

Even if you aren't familiar with the comic it's based on, you can still enjoy this action adventure as a fun "popcorn" summer film. Actually purists familiar with the source material may be upset with certain liberties (no pun intended) taken to the original origin story. The character of Bucky Barnes, for instance has completely been rewritten and during WWII, Nick Fury is nowhere to be seen but his "Howling Commandos" play a prominent part in the story.

Aside from these plot deviations, the film is still fun and sticks to the core of Captain America's origins. Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Steve Rogers, the puny soldier destined for greatness. Tommy Lee Jones is also perfect as the gruff Colonel in charge of the Super Soldier project. Hugo Weaving, always a good villain, brings the "Red Skull" to life with the right attitude and great makeup. A wonderful addition to the story and a fun nod to fans is the important part of Howard Stark, played by Dominic Cooper. Howard Stark will become the father of Tony Stark, who we all know by now is "Iron Man". Mr. Cooper is a great choice as you can really see the resemblance to Robert Downy Jr. and believe he could be his father. It also lays down the foundation for next year's "The Avengers" movie, especially with the addition of Samuel Jackson's "Nick Fury" cameo at the end.

The battle scenes are good but get a bit repetitive. Fortunately Cap's shield is a great special effect of it's own and fun to watch every time he uses it. The first third of the film takes a while to get going but there are some clever bits about a USO tour and a growing love interest, Peggy Carter (played by newcomer Hayley Atwell), who's daughter just has to show up in "The Avengers".

It's pretty obvious to the real fan that all the recent Marvel films have just been pieces of a bigger puzzle which will be next year's superhero blockbuster. The introduction of the Cosmic Cube in this film, a glimpse of "Hawkeye" in "Thor", Nick Fury at the end of "Iron Man" all help set the table for "The Avengers". Let's hope it's a meal worth waiting for.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Horrible Bosses

After being disappointed by "The Hangover 2" and "Bridesmaids", I had my reservations about this new comedy. I'm happy to say that "Horrible Bosses" is far from horrible. Yes, it's a raunchy buddy comedy but it has a clever plot, some great chemistry from it's three leads and most importantly it's funny throughout and doesn't overstay it's welcome.

Jason Bateman elevates any comedy and mixing in Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day is a great formula for a summer comedy you can depend on. The three play friends who all hate their respective bosses for different reasons. The three bosses are played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston. Mr. Spacey takes his "Swimming With Sharks" crazed boss character to another level while Ms. Aniston gets down and dirty as a sex crazed, foul mouthed dentist. Mr. Farrell goes over the top in a bad hairpiece and is truly a horrible boss but doesn't get enough screen time.

Jamie Foxx co-stars as a shady character the boys turn to for help when they decide to kill their bosses and Julie Bowen takes a break from "Modern Family" for a funny cameo as Mr. Spacey's wife. It's a great cast having a lot of fun with a outrageous premise. And for once, the trailer didn't give away all the fun parts so there is still plenty to enjoy. It's bawdy, silly stuff but clever in it's own way and deserves to be this summer's breakout comedy hit.

Monday, July 04, 2011


A distant female cousin to "The Hangover", writer/star Kristen Wiig tries hard to create the perfect all girl "buddy flick". While there are some genuine laughs and lots of gross-out moments, the film wears out it's welcome and runs about twenty minutes too long.

Ms. Wiig plays Annie, lovelorn and broke who is asked by her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to be her maid of honor. She ends up competing with Lillian's rich sister-in-law (Rose Byrne). Laughs ensue when the girls go for a fitting after getting food poisoning and when Annie gets drunk on plane heading to a bachelorette party in Las Vegas.

As written, Annie is such a loser that her bottom just keeps going lower. Funny at first, each embarrassing or offensive moment starts to become increasingly pathetic and you stop laughing and start aching for her uncomfortable situation.

Ms. Byrne has been showing more range with each of her last few films and is well cast here. Ms. Wiig and Ms. Rudolph are very natural together (their "Saturday Night Live" connection obviously helps). Ellie Kemper (The Office), Melissa McCarthy and Wendi McLendon-Covey round out the bridesmaids and each has their own "wacky" quirk to amuse us.

Ms. Wiig is a comic gem and this is a perfect starring vehicle for her. With some tighter editing and writing, it would have been that much better.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


A pedigree cast of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent can't save this plodding, depressing story. Even the addition of a cute dog doesn't help. Written and directed by Mike Mills, this autobiographical story meanders back in forth in time, has characters that only appeal to the writer and follows no logical course except to constantly remind us how dysfunctional and sad all the characters are.

Mr. McGregor plays a humorless man who discovers his 78 year old father, played by Mr. Plummer, is gay and then shortly thereafter, also dying from cancer. I'm not giving anything away as all of this is revealed in the opening moments. The two men are wonderful actors and play their roles well but the material makes it hard to care for either one of them.

Jumping ahead a few months after his father has died, Mr. McGregor begins a relationship with Ms. Laurent (so good in "Inglorious Basterds"). We learn that his character is terrible at relationships and this one seems to be no different. The tedious film ends as they begin again (hence the title) and that's the big emotional payoff. Ironic that for a film called "Beginners", I couldn't wait for it to end.

A Better Life

From director Chris Weitz, comes this story of an illegal Mexican immigrant and his teenage son. Carlos is determined to give his son, Luis a better life in California and when he has the opportunity to have his own gardening business, he believes he's found his salvation. Life, however, takes unexpected turns for father and son in this poignant drama.

The film stars Demian Bichir, who is a major actor in Mexico but known here primarily for his role on "Weeds", the past few seasons. Mr. Bichir is just terrific as Carlos. He fears he is losing his son in many ways and with one turn of fate, they learn from each other and grow closer for it. His scenes with Jose Julian, who plays Luis are honest and heartbreaking.

The story has moments of quiet beauty, suspense and sorrow but the growing strength of the father/son relationship anchors the film in hope for the future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Super 8

In a summer filled with sequels, I was looking forward something fresh from two of the most talented people in the entertainment world, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. I guess I'll have to wait a little longer. Written and directed by Mr. Adams with Mr. Spielberg as Executive Producer, "Super 8" comes with huge expectations. And unfortunately it doesn't live up to most of them.

You can see and feel the Spielberg influence everywhere in this film. You might consider Mr. Abrams was paying tribute to his mentor but the film ends up a mixed bag of Mr. Spielberg's greatest hits. From "Jaws" to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.", everything about this film feels like you've seen it before. Throw in a little "Stand By Me" from Rob Reiner and there you have it.

I will say the film's young cast is first rate. The boys have a natural friendship and ease with each other that is honest and refreshing. Elle Fanning is really coming into her own as an actress with a very bright future. The adults don't fare as well. Kyle Chandler (of TV's "Friday Night Lights") might as well be in a TV movie of the week and Noah Emmerich is simply a cartoon villain.

Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors but he can easily lay on the heavy sentimentality. You can just feel him pulling the strings in the last five minutes of the film. The over orchestration and abrupt change in attitude of two major characters has his stamp all over it. There is a spectacular train wreck early in the film which pulls you in quickly but is spoiled by the unrealistic moments after the crash. I don't like to give things away but I think you'll know what I mean if you see it. Like "Jaws", the threatening menace is unseen for most of the film which does heighten the suspense but again gets ruined by an "E.T." moment.

I give "Super 8" a not so super 4.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Tree of Life

Or more appropriately, "The Tree of Slow Death". Director Terrence Malick has made only a handful of films over his career and every one is a visual masterpiece. "The Tree of Life" is no exception. It is beautiful to watch but I was bored beyond belief trying to decipher his message.

The film has little dialogue, and what little there is exists as voiceovers to the exquisite visuals. On the surface, the plot revolves around Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a couple raising their three young sons in '50's Waco Texas. We learn early in the film that the middle son dies and then we are temporarily transported back to the dawn of creation as interpreted by Terrence Malik. After about 20 minutes of this highlight mind-blowing sequence, we return without explanation to the family.

Sean Penn turns up in the modern day sequences apparently as the oldest son now grown to adulthood but tortured by his past. At least that's the impression we get, in a role that is basically a cameo. The oldest son, Jack, as a boy is played by Hunter McCracken and he is a standout who holds his own in his scenes with Brad Pitt.

Mr. Malick likes to tell his stories visually and while they are a treat, many of the visuals are repeated to the point of exhaustion. You can view this film as pretentious or as a masterpiece but either way, you will be talking about it long after it ends...if you stayed awake.

Monday, June 13, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Five writers are credited with the screenplay and however they collaborated, they got it right. Director Matthew Vaughn takes a great script and translates it into a truly first class film in every respect.

The X-Men have always been sort of the "Anti-Avengers", much more serious in their own corner of the Marvel universe. This is a smart script that takes itself seriously and reboots the "X-Men" franchise. All the comic book mythos is there but the film works even if you are a casual fan or even unfamiliar with the other films. Of course if you are new to this franchise, you will miss the pleasure of two great cameos.

Coupled with a strong story, Mr. Vaughn brings a deft hand to the action sequences and molding the story to the real life Cuban missile crisis of the '60's brings plenty of gravitas to a film that could have gone in a completely different direction. He makes you believe that mutants forced the Russian's hand and almost set off World War III.

The casting is first class as well with James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Michael Fassbender as the young Erik Lensherr (Magneto). Mr. Fassbender, in particular, is outstanding as the mutant balancing good and evil mixed in with a strong revenge motive. Rose Byrne has fun with her CIA operative role, as does Oliver Platt. Jennifer Lawrence moves on from "Winter's Bone" and takes on the role of a young Raven/Mystique. January Jones is perfectly cast as yet another "ice queen", playing Emma Frost (an important figure in X-Men lore) and rounding out the major cast is Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the central villain of the film.

With so many superhero sequels constantly bombarding us, it's refreshing to have the original idea of a "prequel" that really jumpstarts the franchise. Smart, action packed and fun from start to finish.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


"Priest" is a futuristic sci-fi western version of "The Searchers" with Paul Bettany filling in for John Wayne and vampires substituting for Indians. Mr. Bettany plays Priest, a military man of God, trained by the church to hunt vampires who goes in search of his missing niece, Lucy. Karl Urban plays a vampire version of Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" from his early spaghetti westerns. If this all sounds appealing, you will find it to be a lot of fun.

The special effects are well done and there is plenty of action (in 2 or 3-D) as Priest, his cowboy partner Hicks, played by Cam Gigandet, and another priest, played by Maggie Q try to rescue Lucy and stop the vampires from reaching the unprotected cities. The vampires are depicted more like monsters than the Dracula version. They are muscular and fast, have no eyes but huge teeth and of course, can only hunt at night. Only Mr. Urban, as a former priest turned vampire, can exist in sunlight. The last third of the film takes place on a gigantic transport train keeping the vampires safe from sunlight as they move closer to their target. We've seen the climax before but credit Mr. Bettany and Mr. Urban for pulling it off with a fresh twist.

Christopher Plummer takes a paycheck in a cameo as the head of the church and Brad Dourif also cameos as a stereotypic western "snake oil" con man.

The film comes to a conclusion but also sets up a part two, which if this one ends up successful, will be inevitable.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Midnight In Paris

Woody Allen's love letter to Paris is a charming light comedy and a most unexpected romance. It opens with a video postcard to the "City of Lights" before we even see the title credits. Mr. Allen's avatar this time around is Owen Wilson, as Gil, and his love affair with the Paris of old and new drives the plot.

While on vacation there with his fiancée, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, Gil is magically transported each night at midnight to Paris of the 1920's where he meets and parties with the likes of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and many other literary figures and artists of the time. He also develops a crush on Marion Cotillard (who wouldn't) who plays a woman drawn into affairs with the famous.

Gil is a screenwriter but longs to be taken seriously as a novelist. He brings his first novel to Gertrude Stein for a critique. Gertrude is played by Kathy Bates and she is terrific. All of the historical casting is spot on. Adrian Brody, in particular is a very funny Salvador Dali.

During the day, Gil contends with Inez, her parents and her annoying know-it-all ex-boyfriend, played by Michael Sheen but each night he is taken back to his magical era. Mr. Allen never explains the time travel but does draw us to Gil's eventual revelation that changes his life.

The film is an enjoyable soufflé without the calories.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

First of all, I saw this film in standard 2-D and saved the seven dollar 3-D extra fee. I don't think it made much of a difference as either way, the film is so dark, it might as well have been called "On Darker Tides". There were times I wished I had a flashlight to see any detail. Even the daylight scenes were poorly lit.

As for the story, it's pretty standard for what we've seen before from this franchise. You'll have no trouble following the plot as there is so much exposition, everything is constantly explained (even if it doesn't make much sense). Johnny Depp's charming rogue, Jack Sparrow wears out his welcome in the bloated two hour race to find the Fountain of Youth. He is at his best in the first third of the film. Geoffrey Rush is back as Captain Barbossa and he seems to be enjoying himself very much. The same can be said for Ian McShane who plays Blackbeard. You get the sense everybody is having fun playing pirate, including Penelope Cruz as Jack's rival/love interest.

The subplot of the handsome Christian falling in love with a Mermaid is an absolute waste of time and doesn't make up for the loss of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly. Keith Richards, however does make another cameo as Jack's father but is smart enough to jump ship after one scene.

I've heard Johnny Depp enjoys playing Jack Sparrow so much, he's already signed on for a fifth film. Stop before it's too late. Abandon ship. This franchise has sunk.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Hangover, Part II

The original "Hangover" was clever and very funny and of course made a ton of money which made a sequel inevitable. "Part II" takes us to exotic Bangkok for basically a retread of the first film. The filmmakers needed an exotic location to hide the fact their script is weak and their actors are lazy.

Ed Helms is back as Stu and his wimpy, screaming tantrums are funny the first time but become as tedious as Bradley Cooper's Phil who's dialogue consists of cursing in every situation. Zach Galifianakis plays the very strange, Allen who's man-child schtick also grows old. A golden opportunity is missed by not giving Justin Bartha more to do. Understandably he was the missing groom in the first film but here is wasted as a minor character on the sidelines. I've seen Mr. Bartha do comedy live on Broadway and he can be very funny. Leaving him on the sidelines was a big mistake.

Ken Jeong is back as the maniacal Mr. Chow, an even more embarrassing stereotype here but effective as the driver in a well done car chase. A two scene cameo by Paul Giammatti just gives him an excuse to mug for the camera and forget he can act. The best actor in the film is the drug dealing monkey who becomes central to the story. I loved his Rolling Stones vest buy scenes of him smoking a cigarette border on animal cruelty.

No one in the film really exerts any effort. Even when a character loses a finger, it doesn't even garner more than a shrug from anyone including the character himself. There are a few funny situations and one or two great lines but they are far and few between. The audience laughed more at the trailer for "Horrible Bosses" than all of "The Hangover II". Pack it in, Wolfpack.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Double Hour

This is a terrific new Italian film that is difficult to review without revealing any of it's secrets. In basic terms, it can be described as a romance, a robbery and a mystery. But it is so much more that that.

When Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) meets Guido (Filippo Timi) at a speed dating session, a romance develops but events take a very unexpected turn soon afterwards. It is best going into this film without knowing anything else and take pleasure in deciphering the multi-layered puzzle it soon becomes.

The chemistry between the leads is excellent and so important to the story. Ms. Rappoport carries the majority of the film and she admirably pulls off what becomes a very complex role. The direction and editing keep things well paced and the viewer engaged. This is important as the film demands your attention. Entertaining and thought provoking, "The Double Hour" will garner much conversation well after it ends.

Monday, May 09, 2011


You don't have to be versed in the comic book or Norse mythology of Thor to enjoy a reasonably exciting adaptation of the Marvel comic character, "The Mighty Thor". You do, however, need to enjoy mindless action adventure filled with cartoonish violence.

Director Kenneth Branagh infuses just enough Shakespearean gravitas to add human drama to the story but "Thor" is no "Dark Knight" and for most of the film, keeps things light and moving quickly. After all, this "origin" film is just a set up for next year's "The Avengers", which will star most of the recent influx of Marvel screen characters.

The film stars Chris Hemsworth, who is well cast as the fallen God banished to Earth in order to prove his worth. He is banished by Odin, the allfather, played with much pomp and circumstance by Anthony Hopkins. Natalie Portman plays the love interest, Jane Foster (a nurse in the comics who has morphed into an astro-physicist for the film). A nice surprise is Tom Hiddleston, who plays Thor's half-brother, Loki. He is very well cast as the God of Mischief who's schemes drive the plot.

Most of the story is adapted intact from the comic source with some minor changes that may disturb purists but simplify the plot to keep it moving. The special effects are disappointing and 3-D is once again wasted, adding nothing special to the visuals. If anything the film is actually darker and harder to see with the glasses on. See it in regular 2-D if you can. You'll save at least $3.50 and never miss the effect.

If you do go, stay past the credits as you will be rewarded with a clip that adds another piece to the "Avengers" storyline. And also keep you eye out for Jeremy Renner in a cameo that sets up another Marvel hero.