Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Separation

Nominated for Best Foreign Film this year, "A Separation" should be the frontrunner to win. This is an intimate story of an Iranian couple who's separation sets off a chain of complex events neither of them could possibly imagine.

What starts out as a domestic difference of opinion soon grows more intricate when Simin decides to leave her husband Nader and daughter Termeh for a better life. Nader refuses to leave the country because of his elderly and Alzheimer's stricken father and when forced to get a caretaker for the old man, the plot (as they say) thickens.

The acting is terrific, especially Peyman Moadi as Nader and Sareh Bayat as Razieh, the caretaker. The complexity of the situation they all find themselves in, is all the more fascinating because of the cultural differences of Iran's justice system. Even after revelations and resolutions, the lives of two families are forever changed and the audience is left to debate the final moments.

"A Separation" is a compelling drama worthy of your time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Innkeepers

Filmed on location at The Yankee Pedler Inn (rumored to actually be haunted), this is an old fashioned ghost story done very effectively. Relying heavily on atmosphere with little to no violence or gore, the tension mounts leading from goose bumps to truly scary moments.

Director Ti West does a great job building the suspense and his cast do an excellent job selling the belief of spirits in the night. The film stars Sara Paxton as Claire and Pat Healy as Luke, the innkeepers of the title, who are keeping watch on the last remaining days of the inn before it closes for good. There are just a few guests remaining and one in particular, played by Kelly McGillis, plays an important role in what is to come.

Ms. Paxton and Mr. Healy don't seem to act as much as just play themselves and it's very effective as things get stranger as the film goes on. Everything appears very natural and Mr. West goes out of his way to keep things minimalistic so when the scares come, they are genuinely frightening.

There are a few stretches where nothing much happens but the payoff is worth the wait. With so many films violent and gory that pass as today's "horror" films, it's refreshing to see how a light touch can still scare the pants off you.

Kill List

Looking for something completely different? The second feature from director and co-writer Ben Wheatley fits the bill and then some. What starts out as a domestic British drama cleverly slips into something much more as a former hitman takes one last job to support his wife and young son. You're probably thinking "I've seen this movie before". Nothing will prepare you for what comes next.

As Jay's money troubles mount, his former partner, Gal comes around with an offer for one last job. A mysterious man offers a huge payout for three assassinations . At this point the film's become a typical British crime thriller but with each kill, Jay's growing paranoia escalates the violence, and then the story takes a very sharp turn into "Twilight Zone" territory.

Similar to the way the Japanese thriller, "Audition" changed genres in the middle of the film, "Kill List" becomes a totally different movie in the last act and yet still links itself to everything you've just seen. Brace yourself for an unforgettable ending.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


A searing and powerful performance by Woody Harrelson anchors this new drama from director Oren Moverman (who also co-wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy). Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Moverman have teamed up before in the excellent film, "The Messenger". This new film could not be any different but still delivers an emotional knockout.

Mr. Harrelson is Dave Brown, a policeman and Vietnam vet, patrolling the streets of 1999 Los Angeles. Officer Brown live by his own moral code and blurs the line between right and wrong. As we meet him, circumstances from his past are colliding with events of the present and his life is crashing down around him.

Dave lives with two sisters and the two daughters he fathered between them. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche play the sisters. Brie Larson plays the older teenage daughter, Helen. This unusual arrangement is taking it's toll and Dave is forced to move out. His emotional scenes with Helen depict their strained relationship as they try to find a common bond between them.

While his family life is unraveling, Dave's professional life is also in crisis. Under fire for beating a suspect (among other things), he 's under investigation by Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, and Ice Cube ( a terrific IA officer). At the same time, he gets involved with a number of women, most prominently, Robin Wright. Drinking, taking drugs and abusing everyone around him, Dave sinks lower and lower into despair, his internal anger at the world threatening to explode at any moment.

The film has a terrific score and wonderfully inventive camerawork. The camera is a living character, giving us point of view angles from everywhere. There are also some gems of small scenes with co-stars Ned Beatty and Ben Foster. Mr. Harrelson is not quite Harvey Keitel in "Bad Lieutenant" but he does share some similar qualities. While that film went way over the top, "Rampart" plays it all too real and Mr. Harrelson is just mesmerizing.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Despite a gripping performance by Tilda Swinton, this is a contrived story of what happens when your child is growing up an obvious sociopath with violent tendencies and there's nothing you can do about it. Of course the title is ironic because no one actually talks about Kevin, which is the key point.

Ms. Swinton plays Eve, married to Franklin, played by a miscast John C. Reilly. When Kevin is born, it's apparent only to Eve that something is not right about the boy. Whenever she brings up her concerns, Franklin brushes them off as normal growing pains and "fawns" over his son. As Kevin grows, a second child is born, a daughter they name Celia. From the outside, all seems normal but Eve's growing dread about her son soon proves all too right and tragedy ensues.

The story is seen only through Eve's point of view and director Lynne Ramsay opts to tell the story in a fragmented time line. We move back and forth in Eve's life with each scene a puzzle piece that eventually all connect. Ms. Swinton immerses herself in the part trying early on to raise Kevin and then coping with the aftermath of violence she has been sensing all along but never tried to prevent.

Three boys play Kevin. Rocky Duer plays the toddler, Jasper Newell, the young Kevin to age eight and then Ezra Miller, the teen Kevin. Young Mr. Newell is a revelation as he is asked to play a very difficult part of a troubled little boy. Mr. Miller is electric as the teenage Kevin revealing his psychotic nature in subtle yet terrifying ways.

It's a tragedy that unfortunately this country has actually endured (and may again). It's too bad the story never takes an objective outside look at "the how or why" instead just focusing on "the what" because that ultimately lessens the emotional impact of the film.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House

A "by the book" espionage thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds borrows heavily from "Three Days of The Condor" and manages to hold your attention with some exciting action sequences. Mr. Reynolds (known mostly as "eye candy") has been improving his acting (ok, forget Green Lantern) and does a decent job as the rookie CIA agent overseeing a safe house when CIA traitor Tobin Frost (Mr. Washington) is brought in as a prisoner. Of course circumstances find them on the run together and back at Langley, not all is what it seems.

The film co-stars Sam Shepard, Vera Farminga, and Brendan Gleeson as top level CIA brass trying to decide how to best handle their missing agent dilemma. There is nothing special here but writer David Guggenheim has obviously seen plenty of these spy genre films so he knows how to keep things moving. Credit director Daniel Espinosa for staging a terrific car chase and some first rate fight scenes to keep the audience involved and not thinking too much about the plethora of plot holes.

Mr. Washington along with Mr. Reynolds work hard, with minimal dialogue, for your enjoyment and the film succeeds as crowd pleasing entertainment if you like lots of gunplay, explosions and car crashes.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep doesn't just star in this biography of Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, she explodes. As she does with most of her film, Ms. Streep disappears so completely into her character that you forget the actress and imagine the real Mrs. Thatcher. It is a towering performance.

The film itself is interesting enough if you care at all about England during the late 70's and 80's. What will hold your attention is Mrs. Thatcher's personal history and her rise to political power which ultimately leads to England's first female Prime Minister. What makes the film so unique is the bold choice to start with Mrs. Thatcher as an old, feeble woman prone to hallucinations of her dead husband and slowly reveal her story in flashbacks. Much of the film has Ms. Streep playing the elderly version of "MT" (as her husband referred to her) and yet there are plenty of striking moments of "MT" in her prime (no pun intended).

Jim Broadbent co-stars as husband, Dennis Thatcher and there is wonderful chemistry between the two stars. A major contribution to Ms. Streep's success is the wonderful makeup that even in the many close-ups is flawless. As Margret and Dennis age, the make-up never falters and is well deserved of it's Oscar nomination.

This is a remarkable story of a woman who refused to compromise and always believed one's life must have purpose and I can't think of a better actress today than Meryl Streep who honors Mrs. Thatcher, in one more shining performance.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

One for The Money

More like "nothing for the money". This is a TV show disguised as a feature film. It would probably make a good one hour show. What can you expect when a film features four TV "stars" in the major roles. Katherine Heigl is a good fit for Janet Evanovich's plucky heroine, Stephanie Plum, but the lifeless script doesn't do her any justice. Ms. Evanovich has written at least 18 books based on the adventures of Ms. Plum so obviously there is an audience for this genre. A better script, director and choice of actors would have made a world of difference.

The film co-stars Jason O'Mara and Daniel Sunjata (two "hunk" actors better know for television roles), John Leguizamo (sleep walking through his role), Sherri Shepherd (as a ridiculous hooker), Debra Monk, and Debbie Reynolds. Everyone does bad New Jersey accents and I was particularly embarrassed for Ms. Reynolds.

Lionsgate should seriously consider turning the franchise into a weekly TV show. Ms. Heigl is far more comfortable on the small screen and bring in Ms. Evanovich as a producer. That might work. The film doesn't.