Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Year

It seems appropriate to watch a film about the events over the course of a year at the end of year. It inspires a viewer to join in the reminiscence, recalling the good and bad of their own lives. The film also reminds us that our own lives don't really follow the climax and resolution pattern of most Hollywood movies. Instead, we encounter a series of events, a series of relationships, that have various levels of meaning. We enjoy (or tolerate) them, and then look to the next one. In spite of our most glamorous dreams and plans, most of us are just plain. Another Year takes this reality and presents an entertaining view of life. Distinctly British in its sensibilities, we have four acts (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) that follow a professional couple throughout the year. Tom (geology engineer) and Gerri (therapist) are in their mid-sixties, enjoy their jobs and enjoy each other. They spend their free time working a plot together in a community garden. The key to the success of this film is in the portrayal of the relationships. Gerri's co-worker Mary is a frequent guest at the house and displays her loneliness on her sleeve. Tom's college buddy Ken is a caricature of a working class man without any vision for living life. We also meet Joe, Katie, and Ronnie throughout the year. And while there is no climax/resolution story arc in the traditional sense, there are definite turning points in the relationships which provide depth to the characters and a clear sense of time passing. Throughout the film, we see the distinct personality of each character as an individual and equally important, their personality as enhanced/diminished by those close to them. In the end, I found my self smiling and laughing at all the right places. Thoroughly enjoyable.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Dish

A story set in the midst of the space race and the Apollo 11 lunar landing. However, this story is from the perspective of small town Parkes, Australia. This town was the site of a large, southern hemisphere radio telescope and was part of the communication system for the lunar mission. Part small town farce, part historical fiction, part frontier science, we get a window into part of the mission that is not usually remembered. Plays like a made for TV special with enough good science to make if fun to watch. Perfect for a late night Christmas vacation diversion.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dan in Real Life

Steve Carell is funny. I think he is too funny for this role. He plays a guy with 3 daughters who lost his wife a few years back and is still struggling to "move on". Carell is too goofy to hold the gravity of this loss ever present. Instead, the film tosses off a glib "oh, and my wife died" set up so that we can get on to the comedic awkward family reunion. Add to this the fact that Carell falls for his brothers new girlfriend (Juliette Binoche) and has to manage hanging out with her for the weekend with his girls and family all looking on. This is written as a conventional romantic comedy and lives up exactly to that bill, nothing more. Pleasant, but avoidable.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit

Jeff Bridges personifies True Grit. I think that is the selling point of this film. We saw great 'grit' by Bridges in Crazy Heart and thought "I could stand to see more of that greatness". Unfortunately, Bridges phoned it in. Or perhaps there wasn't enough there for him to do anything else. He is a drunken, criminal turned marshal in the wild west. He wants to be left alone, but a persuasive 14 year old girl persuades him to hunt down her fathers killer. They set off into the wilderness together and [spoiler alert] get the bad guy [end spoiler]. Matt Damon joins the festivities as a Texas Ranger who also wants to get the bad guy for crimes committed in Texas. Competition between bounty hunters, precocious girl, horses and great views. Nothing surprising or new or even really interesting in this drama. The most memorable part of the film is something that I would rather not remember as a horse is ridden into the ground in an effort to save a life. I know, no animals were harmed... but I don't need the imagery to draw the connection that Bridges is also a broken down old horse who can't make it to the finish line.
2-stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Girl in the Cafe

This film was recommended by my friend Joel. As such, I fully expected to see dinosaurs show up somewhere in the film. Alas, I was disappointed on that count. Putting those expectations aside, I found myself enjoying this film. Lawrence is a single man working in the British PM office helping to set and promote policy centered on the Millenium goals and preparing for a G-8 conference in Reykjavik. He has recently met a girl in a coffee shop and since he is allowed to take a companion on his travel trips, invites her along to the conference. At the conference Lawrence and Gina get to know each other better, with Lawrence for presumably the first time in his life being challenged to really know what he thinks and who he wants to be. A nice little drama exploring relationship, self awareness, love and purpose.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My First Mister

Guest Review by Annika -
My favorite storyline is that of unlikely friendships being forged. The characters in My First Mister are not as comfortably uncomfortable as The Station Agent, as richly colorful as Bagdad Cafe, as deliciously prickly as Mostly Martha, or as triumphant over age as Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont or Monsieur Ibrahim. But in this "forging friendships" genre my tolerance is wide (unlike with cinema in general) and I'd recommend it as a close second if any of the above films are not available. Alienated teenage Jennifer gets fired from her mall retail job "not for stealing but for farting." She wanders over to a stuffy men's clothing store where old sobersides Randall (with a terrible mustache) gives her a job. Quirky life altering friendship ensues. Points also for most creative mannequin display.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The King's Speech

Colin Firth is a king. Playing George VI, King of England during the onset of World War II, Firth delivers another command performance, presenting a character that is struggling internally and presenting that struggle subtley such that we are able to commiserate (see A Single Man for another great example of Firth at work). Here George's older brother abdicates the throne in order to marry his recently divorced beau (which is necessary since the head of the Church of England could not possible marry a divorcee). George takes the throne just as mass public communication becomes an effective tool for politicians and heads of state, a necessary tool to rally the public to war. The problem is that George has a problem with stammering and a deathly fear of speaking in public. Enter Geoffrey Rush, unconventional speech therapist who coaxes and coaches George into coping with public speaking and realizing that perhaps some of his royal elitism is misplaced. A fascinating look at modern royalty.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Harry Potter 7: Deathly Hollows 1

I grew up with dead authors. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis Narnia and Space Trilogy, Asimov's Foundation and Robot series, even Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I grew up knowing that when I started book 1 of a series, I could read as fast or slow as I wanted, but was still able to finish the series. Somehow this is my default expectation for any series, and if this expectation is not met, no matter the reason, I find myself annoyed at having to wait. I read the first 7 books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, only to give up after being required to wait 18 months for the release of book 8. I couldn't imaging not finishing the 12 book series for another 10 years. I am similarly annoyed by Paolini's Inheritance series (which also turned a 3 book series into 4), and until recently Terry Brooks' Shannara series.

Why do you care about this in a movie review? HP7DH1 is one of these unfinished series. In the grand tradition of Back to the Future II and III, DH1 is clearly a setup film. A well made and entertaining setup film, but a setup film none-the-less. Voldemort is in charge and things are changing. Everyone is in danger. In fact, 80% of the film is spent showing everyone in danger. Harry and Co. spend their time searching for Horcruxes, but basically, their search is a series of travels into and out of danger because of the recent regime change. They don't actually make much progress. So over the course of two and a half hours we learn that things are dangerous and we learn what the Deathly Hollows are... to be continued...

While I of course understand marketing and capitalism and why films are made ($$$), I personally would have preferred to wait another 12 months and then paid double for a 5 hour feature length film that didn't climax with the credits. Which means that next year, I will probably just need to organize a Potter marathon and set 18 hours of my life aside so I can watch the 8 films in sequence. And I will wait until 2012 when the "final" Wheel of Time novel is released to pick that series up again.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pieces of April

This probably showed up in my Netflix queue after I watched Please Give, enjoyed Oliver Platt, and proceeded to add anything Platt that I could. Platt plays a supporting role as April's (Katie Holmes) father. April lives in Manhattan with her boyfriend Bobby. They have invited the entire family to their place for thanksgiving. The film is really two different stories: that of April preparing for the family to arrive and that of the family driving from upstate NY into the city for the meal. April (of course) encounters problems with cooking her first ever turkey and gets to meet a bunch of neighbors in the process. The family tiptoes around mom's health, grandma's senility and a pretty open disdain for April. In fact, the common theme through these stories is that both April and the family are processing April's role in the family. The beauty of the film is that the heaviness of family dysfunction is balanced by the comedy of family dysfunction (a la Little Miss Sunshine without the keystone cops routine). Very well done and the fact that the sound track is full of The Magnetic Fields pushes this into the 5-star category.
5 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Painted Veil

Set in the early 20's, a research doctor (Edward Norton) and his new wife (Naomi Watts) travel to China to help combat the spread of a cholera epidemic. Along the way, the two must sort out a trunk full of baggage ranging from why they got married, to why they are still married and what is it about each other that they like and/or loath. Highlighting the difficulty of relationship and the difficulty with honesty, the film surrounds all of this difficulty with the fabulous natural beauty of China. Throw in a little bit of political intrigue (western immigrants v. warlords), a little bit of faith searching and a bit of pestilence to wrap up an engaging, well acted film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Crossing Delancey

In this 1988 film, thirty something Isabelle is a single woman running an independent bookstore in Manhattan. She is happy and has a full life, but her Jewish mother doesn't believe it for a minute. When the mother hires a matchmaker, Isabelle is beside herself with annoyance and embarrassment. This is not how relationships are started these days. The mother is conniving and persistent and Sam ('the match') is patient and understanding. There are no surprises where this film is going, and the "niceness" of the characters is unbelievable (as in, not believable). But there are also enough cute interactions (especially between Sam and mom) that made this enjoyable to watch.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Wednesday

An Indian action-thriller where we follow the police over the course of a day chasing down a potential terrorist. In the morning, a call comes in from a man claiming to have planted several bombs throughout the city. One of these is in the police station, and when that one is found, the threat is real. The demand of the terrorist is the immediate release of 5 men serving time in prison who also have terrorist connections. The police chief and two of his trusted officers work throughout the day to insure the safety of the people of Mumbai. This film fills the typical no-nonsense form of Asian action thrillers. There is no time "wasted" developing character or background. Instead, there is a problem to be solved and we are working to solve it...quickly. The feel of the film is hasty, if not skittish. But in fact, based on the tension that the plot is building, this pacing actually accentuates the experience of watching the film. A bit like Speed or even Crank where the circumstances of the film and the style of direction build the tension. And at the same time, by the end you feel that you know a bit more about the characters than you would in any Hollywood action thriller. Somehow, it all gets in...
3 stars (out of 5)

The Social Network

This film has been getting good reviews and I just couldn't fathom why. It seemed like it would be in the same vein as the Jobs v. Gates film Pirates of Silicon Valley and all of its made-for-TV glory. And in some ways, it is. We get the story of the invention and development of Facebook and some of the back story on the main players (primarily Mark Zuckerberg). We get the tension between Zuckerberg and his co-founder Eduardo Saverin, his Harvard elitist enemies and basically the world. And we get a story of how a nerd is finally in charge of something cool and are left wondering if he really is seeing a long term view in building this thing, or whether he is just a nerd who can't deal with letting his coolness fade. I was engaged throughout this film and am really having a hard time point a finger to a specific reason. I guess I will attribute it to good acting and an engaging story that wasn't just paparazzi news.

One thing that I did find fascinating is the lack of a sympathetic protagonist. Instead, there were three distinct types of asses that drove the film. Zuckerberg, Sean Parker (of Napster fame) and the Harvard elite. Zuckerberg was an ass to most people, but I don't think he knew that he was. He was simply not engaged with the relational part of any relationship he had and was instead engaged with the intellectual gamesmanship that a relationship provided. This carried over into his business as well and I will call him the Intellectual Ass. Parker was portrayed as a "F--- the Man" ass who was really about being the "The Man 2.0". Everything revolves around "The Man 2.0" and he thinks he is so revolutionary that no one would confuse him with The Man, but it is painfully obvious that he is just a Narcissistic Ass. Finally, there are the Harvard elite asses. I use Harvard here because that was the role played in the film by the Winklevoss brothers (I have no particular gripe with Harvard). Their particular brand of ass-ness is based on inherited wealth and entitlement. They are in fact The Man, even as 20-something undergrads. All of this leads me to wonder if there is in fact a classification of asses. For example, is there an enneagram of asses, where different ass types have specific characteristics? I am sure there are and I am sure that the three named here are pretty common. It was just interesting to see three distinct types (Intellectual, Narcissistic and Elitist Ass) portrayed so clearly and distinctly in a single film.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 24, 2010


The story of Hypatia, the renown philosopher of Alexandria in the 300's A.D. Very fictionalized in that we don't really know what science or study she was able to complete. As such, creative license was given over to allow her to work out the motion of the planets as elliptical orbits some 1200 years before Kepler was able to do so. But the science/philosophy is a back story. Instead, this is a story of the developing political power of the Christians in a pagan world. As the Christians gain more momentum and popular support, they increasingly take control of the bureaucratic structures as well as the intellectual structures of Alexandrian society, leading to the famed burning of the library. Since this is obviously highly fictionalized, I am not sure about the historical basis. What I wonder is how true to fact the cultural portrayals are. In an ancient urban area, how much mob mentality and killing in the streets really happened? How violent and despicable were "the christians" really? I am sure quite (based on the history of the crusades and even 20th century events) but the imagery seemed to fall too neatly into my preconceived notions and for some reason did not ring authentic. Perhaps an authentic portrayal of ancient urban culture would sell even less tickets that Agora did as written. Overall, while I found this interesting and at times painful in its portrayal of the christians, I also found it too slow to develop and rather "made-for-TVish".
2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, October 22, 2010


Clint Eastwood is pretty much golden. I haven't seen anything that he is involved in go bad so this was a pretty good bet. In Hereafter we get three (of course) seemingly unconnected stories that eventually connect. In the beginning, this played like a tame version of the Final Destination series. Knowing that the Matt Damon character spoke with the dead, the first few scenes stressed me out as I was waiting for someone to die. Fortunately, knowing that there were only three unconnected stories let me relax shortly into the film. After that, we get an interesting view on the meaning of death and how different people deal with death. This is not exactly a film about grief and death, but instead it is an emotionally serious look at how people choose to decide what is important in life. The most enjoyable moment of this film was just an insignificant snippet in the last third. Damon is at a book reading and listening to his favorite audio book reader read from one of his favorite books. I think that as an actor, if you are asked to beam with joy, that might be kind of easy. Here Damon is asked to be on the verge of beaming, but his personality does not allow him to beam. A 20 second clip featuring Damon in a personal and pure state of joy, breaking out in just a twitch of a smile. Maybe not that important, but made the film for me.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

State of Play

A political thriller where the politician (Ben Affleck) and his friend the journalist (Russell Crowe) engage in a dance of protected sources, divided loyalties and the presumed search for the truth. Hellen Miren tosses off a solid turn as the benevolent editor giving her ace reporter some leeway and we find once again that the journalist is a better detective than the police could ever be. As far as a plot goes, a petty street thief is shot and killed (two to the chest) by a professional and a Congressman's chief researcher on an investigative committee commits suicide in front of a D.C. metro train. These completely unrelated deaths apparently aren't, and Russell Crowe follows them up to find who is the real killer, and what is the real interest (in terms of power and favor) on the congressional investigative committee his boyhood friend chairs. Well played and well written, but not astonishing. Perhaps because I haven't seen a lot good in awhile...
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I like a con film where everyone is working to out-con everyone else and you really aren't sure who is in on the scheme and who isn't. John C. Reilly stars here as a small time con-man who finds a new partner (somehow leaving his past partner without notice), is fighting with his sister and avoiding the cops while trying to sell a fake copy of rare currency to a collector. Of course, the rare currency sale is "the big score" and we watch it play out. We know all of this is happening and there are enough ambiguous clues to keep us jumping from one scenario to the next while working to predict the outcome. I always like to follow the money in watching these since somewhere there must be real money for someone to steal and things are no different here. This is not a big film with grand ambitions. Instead, it is a personal story of a guy, his sister (well played by the always good Maggie Gyllenhaal), desperation and the struggle to be realistic about life. Everybody is on target and in the end I was satisfied, looking back to the clues I missed to see how they could have pointed me in a different direction.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee presents an account of political intrigue and corruption in World War II Shanghai. With the Japanese in control of China, dissidents work to assassinate the Japanese sympathizers who use the occupation as a opportunity to gain power and wealth. I am not sure about his target audience, but Lee seems to be crossing genre's. On one hand, this is an excellent period drama, giving the viewer a vivid picture espionage among the wealthy in the occupied east. We get to see how passion and affection can sneak up on everyone, changing the course of decisions. I would compare this to an eastern version of Remains of the Day. On the other hand, Lee's decision to use sex as the manifestation of that passion will probably make this film inaccessible to many. The sex is not titillating, but a clear display of power. It is disturbing and, while likely realistic considering the circumstances, doesn't fulfill any viewing interest of the "period drama" crowd or the "gratuitous sex" crowd. Perhaps the reason why this film didn't do big box office numbers ... it couldn't find its audience. I wonder why Lee couldn't be more discreet, more suggestive with his passion. It seems that the affair would have been more powerful if hidden in the shadows or a blurry focused, dimly lit shot. Granted, the power differential of the characters would have been also hidden, but I think that the net benefit for the film would be an easier watch and larger audience for a generally quality film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


There are enough films in this initially-divergent-multiple-plot-line-converging-into-single-story genre that they should have their own genre name. Here the ensemble cast pieces together several stories across both geography and time that eventually weave together into a whole. The theme here seems to be that each story develops around a tragic episode that is pretty much random or unavoidable. We see how people deal with tragedy in different ways and we see how relationships hold different value in each scenario. Unfortunately, the premise of each scenario is sufficiently contrived that I didn't buy in to this being a realistic possible sequence. For these films, in order for the stories to mean something as a whole, there must be a sense that the connection/sequence is possible and not just set up to manufacture tension individually to get a "greater" whole. Beautifully filmed and raising issues that are important to think about and discuss is a good beginning, but does not make a great film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Home at the End of the World

Collin Farrell stars in this story which starts with a young kid Bobby experiencing a series of family tragedies. The resulting relationship that Bobby develops with his best friend Jonathan and again with his girlfriend Clare all show how trauma can affect personality in quirky ways. The three friends are all in love and form a family that is not really complete with any two of the three. At the same time, three means that at any one time, there is a relationship between two with one left out. As the family learns how to live and love together, their lives become more rich and full. This was a good film, but in the end largely dissatisfying. There was something missing (dramatic story arc? conflict and resolution?) that left me feeling flat. Perhaps that was the intention, to show that life is pretty regular in even an irregular family. But I don't think so. So we leave disappointed, not that the protagonist life didn't end up happy, but that the protagonist leaves ordinary.
3 stars (out of 5)

After the Wedding

This Danish film focuses on Jacob, a relief worker in India who has championed a local orphanage. He is soliciting money from corporations back in Denmark and when he has the opportunity to land a big donation that will save the orphanage, he travels "home" to seal the deal. What he discovers is that Jorgen, the wealthy potential benefactor, has an alterior motive in setting up this donation. Jacob is faced with answering for himself many of the questions that his orphan family asks on a regular basis. Along the way, we also ask ourselves about the value of family and the role of relationship in a meaningful life. Very well done.
3 stars (out of 5)

Top 5 L.A. films

After watching The Kids are All Right, I began to think about my favorite films starring L.A. By starring, I mean that L.A. has to be a significant part of the film and not just a backdrop. And I will restrict my picks to films that are worth seeing (4 or 5 rating, out of 5 stars). Here are my top five right now, in no particular order...

Blade Runner

10 Items or Less
What's Cooking

The first three utilize the physical space of L.A. while the last two expose the cultural space. If you haven't seen either of these later two, I highly recommend them.

Didn't quite make the cut, but deserve some mention...

Father of the Bride
Dogtown and Z-Boys

I have definitely left out many great L.A. films, but since these are in my long term memory I will trust that they are my Top 5 (for today).


It is amazing how even a good concept paired with poor production values identifies a film as obviously made-for-TV. It is kind of like when you are scanning through the radio stations and find a "Christian Rock" station. You know what it is after hearing two or three notes. In Riverworld, I really liked the concept. After death, people are transported to a strange world that is... well, lots of rivers. What I like is the investigation of what happens after death and how different people end up in different physical locations of the afterlife, with different ideas of purpose. Based on this treatment, I can see storylines following things like -what factors cause you to end up in one place over another, -what personalities in life lead some to be questioners in the afterlife and others to live like sheep, -how does one get out of the afterlife, etc. Instead, we get a pedestrian (or should I say riparian) conflict between those who want to destroy Riverworld and those that want to protect it. Enter the caretakers (also on both sides of the conflict) as supreme alien species resembling blue man group that know more than they are letting on (but never reveal anything) and the story gets pretty lame, pretty fast. I guess what do you expect for TV, but the premise has promise. Any big time Hollywood or small time independent writers out there want to pick up the treatment and give it a good story? I would watch a better version again...
2 stars (out of 5)

The Runaways

The story of Joan Jett and her development as a rock star. This film got great reviews when it was in the theaters. I suppose that it is an accurate portrayal of what an all-girl hard rock band had to battle to be considered a serious band in the 70's. If so, it is an excellent expose of the sexist and misogynist world that women lived in. Unfortunately, the result is that we have to watch two hours of sexist and misogynist behavior by men and we have to watch young musicians putting up with that crap just to be a band. So while it may be accurate and enlightening, it is not easy to watch. If you need to be reminded of how not to act as a culture, you may enjoy this.
2 stars (out of 5)

Waltz with Bashir

An animated documentary written and directed by Ari Folman. Folman delivers this autobiographical look at the Israeli invasion into Lebanon in the early 80's from the perspective of a young Israeli soldier. Some 30 years after the events of that war, Folman is discovering that he has no memory of certain portions of the war, namely anything containing violence. A strange recurring dream pushes him to investigate his memory and therefore his participation in the war. Folman seeks to piece together his own memory by talking with friends and colleagues, mining their often reluctant memories for triggers that will spark his own recollection. The choice to animate the story is brilliant since we as viewers are able to see the action of dreams and memories instead of only listen to talking heads being interviewed (see Persepolis for an equally good - but totally different - use of animated documentary). The result is a story of self discovery and an investigation into the trauma of war. We are not pummeled with a point of view about the right or wrong of the Israeli forces entering Lebanon. Instead, we are given a first person look at how our brains work to protect our psyche from traumatic events that would crush us emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps one of the most profound statements comes when Folman is questioning whether any good can come from his opening up of this emotional Pandora's box. A friend/therapist states "We only ask the questions that need to be asked", implying ... "that we are ready to have answered". In the end, there is nothing settling about the memories that return and nothing pretty about war.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Red Cliff

A classic Chinese kingdom epic. Set in the time of emperor Han, the northern warlords have all been subdued by the warrior Cao Cao. With domination on his mind, Cao Cao convinces the emperor to endorse his attack on the southern tribes. The southern tribes ally (under the encouragement of war strategiest Kongming) and put together a plan for defense of their lands while a sub-plot surrounding Zhou Yu's wife and Cao Cao becomes integral to the battle development. This is all pretty standard, with sweeping views of majestic landscapes and formations of tens of thousands of warriors in choreographed battle. What I like about this film is consistent with most Chinese war films (of which Hero is my favorite). The war is not about domination and destruction, although that is a by-product of any war. Instead, life is about balance (planning for war by listening to music or the wind in the trees) and it is clear that integrity of person will result in the desired outcome. The development of the "action" takes a long time (150 minutes here) and along the way, we see some of the characteristics of that personal integrity in play. In the end, we always get recognition of the crap that war is. Here it comes in the form of a parting line "There is no victor here". If only warriors could have that recognition before the war.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ultimate Heist

A French heist film that uses the heist as an excuse to explore a father-son relationship. Milo is the father of an Armenian crime family in France. He was involved in a shootout several years prior to the film where both his son and the partner of a local policeman are killed. We pick up with a well developed grudge between cop and crime family. Add to this the fact that Anton (the second son and in line to take over the family) doesn't have his heart in crime. Anton and Milo have to work it out and both have to decide how to react to the police. I liked the overall feel and pace of this film, even though in hindsight it was pretty traditional. No real surprise in the relationship development (i.e. no real depth of character so everything is pretty straight forward superficial) and no fancy heist tricks. But still enjoyable in that dark, dramatic french sort of way.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going the Distance

Drew Barrymore and Justin Long meet up by chance in a New York bar and hit it off immediately. Fortunately for them, Barrymore is leaving town in 6 weeks and Long is on a rebound, so they can have a good time without the pressure of dating. Six weeks later, Barrymore is leaving and of course, they have fallen in love and proceed to make the long distance relationship work. The two things working for this movie are that both Barrymore and Long are cute and work well together and the soundtrack is a great mix of 80's nostalgia and The Boxer Rebellion. Unfortunately, those two things are not enough make a good film. Predictable and flat, the screenplay seems to have been generated by typing a few keywords into a screenplay writing software. Long's friends and Barrymore's family provide some comic relief, but again, it feels as if it is the {insert joke here} part of the screenplay. If you are in need of a romantic comedy for a date night, it is probably the best we have seen this summer. Low praise indeed.
2 stars (out of 5)

Roman Holiday

In one of my all time favorite films, Audrey Hepburn plays a royal princess on an official state tour of European countries. Gregory Peck is an American journalist stationed in Rome, and he seems to be the class clown - can't quite get it right - kind of journalist. Finally he has his big break. Hepburn sneaks out from under the control of her handlers one night and runs into Peck on the street. He takes her in, recognizes a scoop, and for the next day, they do whatever they want in Rome (as Peck's friend tags along taking photos). Of course, this is a simpler time in film, so no one takes advantage of anyone and everyone is quite respectful. Not exactly the Hollywood ending that you would expect of any romantic comedy produced today, and satisfying in its honesty. Probably worth seeing this every couple of years just to enjoy a great film chemistry that is hard to find in this genre today.
5 stars (out of 5)

The Burning Plain

Here we have a bit different take on a film that weaves together seemingly unrelated stories into a whole. Charlize Theron plays Sylvia, a depressed, self destructive business owner trying to come to terms with her family history, Kim Bassinger (Gina) struggles with finding love and acceptance after a life tragedy, Santiago and Mariana piece together their lives after the death of their respective parents and Maria travels to the U.S. in search of her mother. Each of these stories slowly weave together to form a picture of family struggle and the power of love, even over time. While it is not exactly a cheery, comedic film, I would not categorize it as depressing. In fact, the ultimate message of hope is probably stronger because of the dark path taken to get there. This film is good, and it is sticking with me longer than I expected it might.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dirty Pretty Things

Another example of an engaging portrayal of immigration, following (albeit from a different direction) in the line of Sugar and Children of Invention. Set in London, two immigrants (one on provisional documentation the other undocumented) are acquintances at work and develop a relationship. Their life situations place them positions to observe and participate in an underworld that has potential to destroy them or save them, or do both simultaneously. We see sweatshops, sexual abuse, prostitution, and organ smuggling as well as getting a glimpse of the amazing network of individuals that rally to provide a life of possibility for immigrants. I enjoyed seeing this seemingly continuous spectrum of use of power across a variety of individuals. Ranging from power abusers who know they are abusing, to manipulators who trade good for good but still hold on to power, to those who either don't know they have power or choose to see themselves as equals, to the abused and to the intentionally invisible. How and when different roles choose to assert their power, and the internal struggle that results is a good life story and here that story is well captured on film.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Body of Lies

Political intrigue in the middle east followed by the inevitable blowback. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rising field agent/star in the CIA. He has a bit of a different approach than his superiors in that he believes those who live in the country he is stationed have some knowledge about that country. He is battling the arrogance of empire and is simultaneously sucked in to it. As with most of these political thrillers, there are operations within operations within operations. So it is true to form that you never really know who lies to whom. The one fallacy that continually popped up, and I am sure the average viewer just buys, is that "Nobody is innocent". This becomes the mantra for the powerful as a psychological self defense system when the actual innocent die. I think that this mantra also seeps surreptitiously into our American consciousness when we try to justify our global role. How does one expose the fallacy? How hard it is to change a culture, knowing how hard it is to change even my own individual reactionary thought patterns.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sherlock Holmes

I was sort of ambivalent about this going in (which is probably why I missed it in theaters) and maybe as a result, was entertained. Holmes (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is a detail savant and is able to play this to his advantage in solving mysteries. He also seems to take advantage of this in street fights and in playing mind games with his buddy Dr. Watson (Jude Law). But this is stereotypical Holmes and represents nothing new. The story here surrounds Holmes solving a paranormal mystery, when a bad guy comes back from the dead. We get to follow around trying to figure out who is really a bad guy and what is going on. Fun scenery of London and a nice quick pace (we don't get bored) without resorting to Crank methodology of just don't stop. I rather liked this film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Interesting how a 1996 film just feels like a made for TV movie. I wonder if that is because it is 15 years old, or because it was just mediocre in the first place. In this case, probably a combo. Lawerence Fishburn and Stephen Baldwin star in this classic buddy scenario of two mismatched convicts escaping from the chain gang, chained together. They run, help each other out, secrets are revealed and they end up the good guys in the end. Sorry if that is a spoiler, but you probably would have guessed that after the first five minutes anyway. Do you think someone will watch Avatar on TV in 2025 and write a boring synopsis of it? Probably...
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Last Chance Harvey

Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman cross paths in London while Hoffman is traveling to his daughters wedding. Hoffman plays the role of Harvey, the absent father and bitter ex-husband who is envious of the new husband/dad who seems to fill the role so much better than he did. Thompson is the aging single woman who seems to have given up on love. Can we see where this is going? A by-the-book reconnection between father and daughter along with finding-love-where-you-least-expect-it tale. Both of these actors are fun to watch, but this is not a draw you in kind of engaging film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Written and directed by Emilio Estevez in 2006, with appearances by everyone else in Hollywood, this is a story of the Ambassador Hotel in LA the day before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. So while the entire film is about and surrounding the Kennedy campaign appearance that evening, Kennedy only ever appears in actual footage seen on TV screens in the background. In fact, the story is about all the characters that happen to be in the hotel on the day before and their lives before the assassination. It is a well done film, although the fact that it is actually entertaining probably shows that it is not really just a snapshot of everyday life. That is why they call it historical fiction, I guess. I like the characters, and the character actors here. Not an excellent film, but a worthy diversion when one is needed.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Children of Invention

This 2009 film is another great example of "under the radar" film. I missed it in release last year (as in - didn't even know of it) and was glad to see it now. It is a story of a family living in Boston struggling to survive. The mom immigrated from Hong Kong over a decade ago, but her work visa has expired. Both kids are U.S. citizens and dad is out of the picture. Mom goes from one sales scheme to another and finally gets enmeshed in a pyramid scheme. Having lost their house, they now live in the model home of a soon to be opened apartment complex and for at least part of the story, the kids survive on their own as mom is unavailable. The film is not speedy, but takes its time showing the intricacies of struggle. With the inability to get a "legal" job, what real options does the mom have? Watching mom believe in the next best sales job, the kids pick up on an independent entrepreneur attitude (hence the title) and become inventors themselves. Aside from the ethnic Chinese community, the family does not have any real connections, and therefore any real safety net. This is a hard life and the frustration and futility bubble clearly to the surface for both mom and kids. And yet, there is no depression or giving in. There is optimism and there is family. I liked how all the pieces fit together, giving a seemingly realistic view of life.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Into the Wild

A well done, personal journey film based on a true story. The protagonist played by Emile Hirsch leaves home after college on a journey of self discovery. Partially he is out to do exactly what his parents would despise, partly he is out to find out what it is he loves. His travels lead him to change his name to Alex Supertramp and take him across the US (mostly in the west since his "home" is in the east), with his ultimate goal being to reach Alaska. Along the way, he meets fellow travelers, sympathetic employers and the occasional friendly stranger. I enjoyed watching the chance encounters with people and seeing how friendly they could be. Of course, the cynic in me also thought about how the film is really only showing the best encounters. There were not any dark moments throughout. Instead, it is a consistent positive experience of travel and discovery. There were two scenes which resonated with me. First, as Alex is kayaking through Lake Havasu, I could imagine myself doing that portion of the trip. Several days (weeks?) of just paddling, covering lots of distance without working too hard and having the canyon walls to reflect all your thoughts. I may have just identified my next summer plan. Secondly, when he approaches the river in Alaska and finds it too swift to cross. My immediate thoughts were lining up methods for crossing this river. The challenge of crossing the impossible for this young man who had been for two years living the impossible seemed like a no-brainer. But he went back. Did not even try to cross. Partly this is a commentary on his state of mind, that he was not really interested in crossing this river. But for me, if I ever come across that river, I now have my list of strategies ready to go. I get across that river.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

The film was all right. As one of the most anticipated films of the summer (for me, anyway), I have do say it did not live up to the hype. Don't get me wrong, this is a good film and well worth seeing. But it wasn't astounding in the "memorable for years" type of way. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple with two teenage kids. They each carried a child, with the sperm coming from a donor. At the age of 18, the kids are allowed (and do) look up the identity of the donor and decide to meet him. Mark Ruffalo plays the donor and is quickly integrated into the kid's and mom's lives. This is a story about family and about marriage. Ruffalo does an excellent job of showing the struggle of instant fatherhood and questions about how to fit in. What is disappointing is that while the dramatic tension in both the family and the marriage is set up nicely in the mere presence of the donor dad, the writers resort to a fidelity storyline to drive the plot. Of course this fast forwards a crisis, but it seems like a cheap trick that was unnecessary given the characters and the abilities of the actors involved. Overall, a strong offering and still one of the best films I saw this summer.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saving Grace

Having just read the Craig Ferguson autobiography, I was reminded about this film that he wrote and starred in. Grace is a recently widowed woman who finds that the estate left to her by her husband is in reality a large pile of debts. Ferguson plays the gardener and has a plan to solve Grace's financial problems. It involves taking advantage of Grace's extraordinary gardening skills and Ferguson's desire to grow a bit of hemp. What follows is a quirky story of coming of age for a 30-something and 50-something in a quirky English town. It reminds me a bit of Irina Palm but in this case, everybody knows the plan, everybody helps out, and in the end financial problems are remedied. This is a good, small film that makes you feel good and is fun to watch but if you have to choose between the two, choose Irina Palm.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Angelina Jolie is an action star, no question. She is tough, quick, smart, sexy and ruthless. Or at least, she is able to play those characters believably. Here she plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who is experienced with undercover operations and is currently on the run having been accused of being a Russian spy. The film evolves predictably (and satisfyingly I will add) along traditional espionage thriller lines. A nice summer film, entertaining and fun. My biggest complaint is the fact that it ended as an introduction to the sequel. No matter the fact that I liked the film, I suppose I am put out that the filmmakers just assume that I am willing to wait around for a year or two (or forever if the sequel never gets made) for final resolution. This is also my complaint about reading series books before the series is completely written. Some part of my brain is still waiting for resolution on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, even though I have not read any of those books for over 10 years. So if you are going to make a film, resolve it and let my brain rest. If you want to make a sequel, pick up the story later...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Maybe the best alternate reality film since The Matrix. Or was it better than The Matrix? Here is what I think, knowing that The Matrix is old and Inception is new certainly colors my opinion. The visual style and presentation in The Matrix wins hands down. This was novel and exciting and integral to the film. The visual presentation of Inception was good, but not dramatic or essential to the film (with the exception of the zero gravity fight in the hotel). Both films raise questions about reality and in the end, I think Inception causes us to question more. The Matrix was basically a one level story (this isn't reality, but that is). Inception says instead that this isn't reality, but that may not be either. So for now, I give the nod to Inception. Why the comparison instead of an actual review? Probably because I can't really tell you much about the film. The protagonists are dream travelers. They can share dreams and, being aware of the sharing, can use the subconscious projections found there reveal information about the dreamer. And since a 5 minute dream can cover several hours of dream time, a brief nap gives us time for corporate espionage. The rest you will have to see for yourself.

One thing to think about. Some people have opted to live for the dream. That is, they share dreams for long periods of time as recreation. Does in fact the dream life then become more real? How would you react if you dreamed a life, then woke up and had to live it all again? Would you go back to the dream life to live again (and again and again...), or would you eventually tire of the Groundhog Day nature of your existence? As my friend asked me tonight, "What is the purpose of life? Why are we here?" and I might add, Do those questions get easier if we are not sure what is real?
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Black Hawk Down

This story of a squadron of Delta Force and Rangers in Mogadishu, Sudan in the mid 90's is in a similar vein as Hurt Locker and Restrepo. Based on true events, the filmmakers aim to offer a look at the side of war that is not glamorous and heroic. However, they still seem to find the glamor and heroism to portray since that is what makes movies enjoyable. The story here follows soldiers who are tasked with extracting some important enemies from the center of enemy territory. During the raid, one of the helicopters is shot down and the rest of the film follows the chain of events to get all American soldiers back to base. This is worth seeing if only for the fact that it clearly demonstrates the grotesque nature of war. With over 1000 Sudanese killed in this event alone and the only resulting message that the place is so messed up that there is no way to help (as if the military solution was sure to help). Even so, the cowboy/soldier shows up and becomes the face that Americans will remember - the rugged individualist. I don't think this did well at the theaters when it was released a few years ago. I wonder if that is because people saw through?
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Damned United

Brian Clough takes over as manager of the highly successful Leeds United soccer club in 1974, following in footsteps of a much loved predecessor. Clough gets the job because he had taken his previous club from the bottom of the 2nd division to the 1st division rather quickly. Now he just needed to maintain excellence. Unfortunately, things do not always work out so well. By trying to change the style and culture of his new club, Clough becomes a pariah among his own players and loses the job almost as quickly as he got it in the first place. This is a fascinating look at the relationship between coaches and players, especially when both are professional. I often wonder why it is necessary for coaches to motivate players. Is there a parallel in "regular life"? In the course of my job as a teacher of physics, is it up to my boss to motivate me to be a good teacher, to practice my craft and work toward excelling? Or is it up to me as a professional to do what it takes to be always improving? Perhaps my personality leads me to the later, but it does seem strange that bosses must continually push employees to do what they have already agreed to do by accepting a job. This film just exposes how prevalent it is in sports and how much of an accepted part of life it is.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The second installment of the Millennium Trilogy is as good as the first (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Here we get another collaboration between Lisbeth Salander (the girl) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist of Millennium magazine. The two work together (actually, more accurately they work in parallel) to identify who has violently murdered two freelance journalists who where working on a sex-trade expose for Millennium. Salander is accused of being the murderer based on a left-behind gun with her prints on it and Blomqvist is the only person who believes in her innocence. As the story unfolds, we get a better picture of Salander's background, which plays an important role in the plot. Again, we can't push every detail from the book into the film, but the texture, suspense and intensity all come through. There are no plot holes that require having read the book for understanding. Overall, Salander's dark, gritty personality drive this film and make it one of the better mystery adventures I have seen. And having just finished reading the final book in the trilogy, I am looking forward to the final installment on film. As individual films, these are good. As a set, they are great.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Drunken Master

Here we have a classic English-dubbed, Kung Fu film with Jackie Chan (billed as Jacky Chan in the titles) playing a lead role. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a 1978 Kung Fu film with a 2008 Muay Thai (Chocolate) film, but that is what I watched today. Chan plays Freddy, a mischievous young man learning Kung Fu in his fathers school. His skills are adequate, but his ego and entitlement are gigantic. Eventually, he gets into enough trouble to get sent by his father to be trained by Su Hua, a crazy old man who is skilled in the methods of the 8 drunken Kung Fu gods. More trouble is required before Freddy buys into learning the methods, which come just in time for him to use them to protect family honor. As to the fighting/acting style, it comes across as more slapstick than battle. Chan's goofy on screen personality fits well with the style and makes for a good show. At the same time, the fighting is primarily direct (punch and block, kick and block) with out the frequent feigned first kick followed by actual second that seem prevalent in Muay Thai. I know, this is supposed to be a film review, not a martial arts review, and I am sure my ignorance will show. I am just trying to vocalize what I see. Overall, this is a fun, goofy film that introduces Chan in a form that will serve him well for many years.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It is martial arts fest today, comparing recently discovered (by me at least) Muay Thai and Kung Fu. Chocolate is another entry in the Muay Thai martial arts offerings (see the Kung Fu review of Drunken Master). I really like watching this form as it is much more dynamic than traditional Kung Fu. Unfortunately, good martial arts does not always make a good film. In this story, we are introduced to Zin, who is an enforcer for a local mafia boss. She falls in love with a rival Japanese man, is thrown out of the business and has a baby (Zen). The story focuses on this child who has a developmental problem and requires lots of care, but also has the unique ability to learn martial arts from watching TV and video games. After watching lots of Ong Bak, Zen re-enters the world of her mother in an effort to raise some much needed cash, clashing with her old nemesis along the way. The Zen character is sympathetic in many ways, but mechanical in others. She comes across as a machine that is being used by the people and circumstances around her. She does not really understand or make decisions in the world which she lives. I know that this "child martial arts" critique was leveled by many against the recent Kick Ass as well, claiming the images of child manipulation were abusive and inappropriate, but it didn't bother me there. Here, the tone is different, resulting in the entire movie being a bit uncomfortable.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The filmmakers who bring us this documentary spent a year with a platoon in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan in 2007. This valley was considered of utmost strategic importance and a rugged and deadly place. Early in the deployment, the platoon pushes from the main outpost in the valley (The KOP or Korengal Outpost) up to the top of a nearby hill to set up another outpost. This new post, Outpost Restrepo, in named in memory of Doc Restrepo, a platoon member who was killed in battle during the first month of deployment. The film is the story of the creation and defense of O.P. Restrepo, using footage from the year deployment intermixed with interviews with the soldiers after they have left Afghanistan. This is a powerful film in that it gives a first hand look at what is involved in war. It attempts to be neutral in presentation, and I am sure that viewers from all perspectives will see examples of actions that support their particular point of view. Here is what I saw...

War is about power, even on an individual level. The platoon captain held weekly meetings with local elders to improve community relations. The plan for the valley was to provide jobs to locals by building and improving a road through the valley. The army persistently talked about this road, but it never got traction with the residents. In spite of all the community meetings and discussions about working together, when push came to shove, the soldiers had the power. When the elders came to ask for reparations for a killed cow or to inquire about a missing community member, the captain pulled out his "you're not going to get what you want-next question" card. In war, when an impasse occurs, the powerful win and the less powerful lose. There is really no ability to think about a win-win scenario.

War changes the powerful. Watching this platoon over the course of the year in an extremely hostile environment, we could see the change. Increasingly, anger led to desire for retribution, which never resulted in abatement of the anger. What I wonder now, is how does this war fought far away by people I don't know affect our culture as a nation. Are we also changed, finding a new relationship with anger and retribution, failing to believe that win-win is possible? Am I personally changed by knowing that I am part of the war?

See this film. What do you see?
5 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt makes this movie. As an espionage/thriller/farce with massive amounts of talent attached (Pitt, Clooney, Swinton, Malkovich, McDormand, Jenkins...) it only really works because Pitt is a goofy, 30-something, going nowhere, idiot. Pitt and Frances McDormand are trainers working at the local fitness center. They come across some seemingly top-secret information in the locker room and try to parlay it into some cash. The information is associated with Malkovich's character, a recently fired low-level analyst for the CIA. McDormand is the brains and Pitt is ... well a goofy, 30-something, going nowhere, idiot. As they try to turn their find into cash, they encounter all kinds of wacky responses (remember this is a farce first) from the CIA, divorce lawyers, bosses, and even the Russians. In the end, things wrap up like you would expect them to, if you think the CIA is a bumbling organization that has no idea what is going on anywhere and simply tries to keep any "higher up" from knowing about anything strange. And the beauty is that this part of the film is played straight (enough) to give it just a smidgen of authenticity, leaving any skeptic viewer (knowing it is comedy) wondering how much based in truth it is.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

King Corn

It seems that when someone graduates from college, has no job and no prospects, the thing to do is make a film. In King Corn, freshman filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis move to a small town in Iowa to rent a single acre of farmland and grow corn. Their intent is to follow the path of that corn from cradle to grave. In reality, since the corn goes into a storage/distribution silo, it is impossible to trace "their corn" after harvest. So they go with the percentages and look at where most corn in general will end up. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this in spite of its many flaws. It is a soft critique of the farming and food production system in this country. Interviews with farmers suggest that none of the farmers like the system and most are frustrated with the quality of product they produce, and yet must produce to survive. In addition, they look at the history of the Farm Bill and the changes in the 70's that brought us to the status quo. These interviews along with the farming process are fascinating. However, I say it is a soft critique because the filmmakers don't really investigate the effects of the pesticide resistant "Liberty Linked" corn, don't follow the environmental effects of the beef trail (where 50% of corn is consumed), and don't follow through to the effects using high fructose corn syrup everywhere. Instead, they make suggestions and start the discussion, I suppose leaving the thinking to the viewer. Unfortunately, unless you already have done some looking into these issues (or are spurred to by the film), it ends up being a critique of the system followed by a "throwing up of the hands" and a "what can we do?". I wish they would have suggested some action further research a viewer could do. Oh well, what can you do?
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 5, 2010


I am a huge David Mamet fan. I guess the reason I missed this when it was in theaters is that I didn't know I was a fan in 2004. But like The Spanish Prisoner and Heist (which is one of the all-time great caper films with Gene Hackman) Spartan provides an intriguing storyline that keeps you engaged by changing directions every so often, without giving you cinematic whiplash. Val Kilmer plays a ranger who is part of the task force assigned to recover the missing first daughter. Her abduction from school is on the start of a weekend, so the team has 48 hours before the news outlets find out that she is missing class on monday. Kilmer follows the trail, noticing the small things that lead him to each next step. I can see how this would be the beginning of a series (a la Bourne) and am surprised that we have not seen any sequels. I guess box office has something to do with that. Perhaps one of the things I like about Kilmer's character (vs. Bourne) is that he is not a superstar. There are no action sequences where he jumps across buildings or falls out of two story windows onto a scooter and drives away. Instead, he is pretty human, just doing his job and trying to interpret his life rules to make sense. I like when people have a very distinct set of life rules that occasionally come into conflict with jobs or events and ethical decisions must be made. The military is an easy target for this since the job rules are so explicit and this is a part of the conclusion that both wraps things up and leaves the watcher thinking.
4 stars (out of 5)

It's Complicated

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin are divorced for 10 years when they meet up again for their son's college graduation. Baldwin is since remarried to a pretty young thing, but all is not well in paradise. By chance, both are staying in the same hotel for the graduation ceremony and both end up alone for dinner the night before. A few drinks later and they find themselves rekindling old passions in the bedroom. What follows is a series of decisions and awkward encounters as the two (primarily Streep actually) try to figure out if the new romance is crazy. Baldwin just enjoys sex and food, clearly reverting back to patterns that a viewer could see doomed the marriage in the first place. Add to the mix new beau Steve Martin (who plays an excellent distinguished gentlemen by the way), and the new son-in-law getting a sneak peek at the ex's shenanigans and we get plenty of opportunity for keystone cop-like routines. This is all rather routine, with Martin being the strongest part of the film. What breaks the story for me is the sheer inability of Streep to resist her ex-husbands advances. One little look, or touch of the shoulder and ... cut to bedroom scene. She seems to have no ability to see her own way forward and has no self confidence, coming across as a whiny, woe-is-me personality. It made me cringe.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Van Helsing

Since a certain vampire film is all the rage right now and I am not participating in the frenzy, I thought I would pull out a creature film that I missed in the theaters from a few years ago. Hugh Jackman plays Van Helsing, a mercenary for hire that works for Rome in the 1400's. His specialty is hunting down creatures that are dangerous to the church, starting with Dr. Jekyll in the opening sequence. With Jekyll dispatched successfully, Helsing is charged with traveling to Transylvania to help an old friend of the church in destroying Count Dracula. As it turns out, Helsing has a pre-existing relationship with Dracula. He then must battle werewolves, Dracula's brides and children and even encounters Dr. Frankenstein's monster along the way. This is a fun little horror/action/drama but I couldn't help thinking throughout that the film didn't quite know what its genre was. It wasn't scary enough to be horror, and there wasn't enough real plot tension or acting to be dramatic. There was a bit of action, but not enough to carry the film. What there was a lot of was primal screaming [camera zoom to full face close up of {insert creature here} with hands to face and mouth open wide for maximum effect]. Most of the time, all I could think of was Craig Ferguson's immitation of John McCain during these screams, so you can see why they were not effective as drama, horror or action. Even so, this was a fun little romp through creature world without excessive blood and gore that is so common in creature films today. So if you like non-horrific creature films with a bit of action, this is the perfect film for you.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grown Ups

I don't think most critics get this movie. Or else I don't get the movie and liked it because of my cinematic ignorance. Granted, this is not a smart movie, or anywhere close to looking for awards from any film group. Instead, it is a fun, family comedy, of which there have been very few lately. The story is set by five buddies who all played on the same basketball team (probably in junior high) for Coach Buzzer. When coach dies, they all get together for the funeral and then spend a weekend back a the old lakehouse with all their families. Here the five guys revert back to their high school mentalities in many ways (much like when adult children return home to visit the parents, the also unwittingly revive old family roles). They also are sorting out what it means to be the parents and spouses, and are learning about themselves along the way. None of this is groundbreaking or unique. However, I liked that the tone of the film was nice. Many critics called this out as a bunch of comics just tossing off mean spirited jabs without much creativity or energy. What I saw was exactly what a bunch of high school friends are like when they get together 20 years later. These five guys all have high school reputations and high school personalities and the guys drop immediately back into this familiar form of relating. They throw around insults and jokes, constantly jabbing at each other, fully expecting a verbal jab back. They know they are not original but laugh together just because it is comfortable being together again. There is no ill will or mean spirited tone, and the comedy is not biting or edgy. I think the critics missed the point that this is probably more realisitic than not, and realism isn't something that Hollywood is comfortable with. I laughed throughout and felt good at the end. What more could you ask?
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

The sequel takes us back 500 years to the time of warlord battles for control of Thailand. Young Tien (Tony Jaa) is orphaned when his warrior father and mother are executed by the new regime trying to consolodate power. Tien is spirited away and begins a new life with the rebels. Here he learns to become a warrior and eventually sets off to avenge the murder of his family. While the first Ong Bak was primarily about hand to hand fighting and really showcased a new (to me) martial art style, the sequel spends its entirety with Jaa demonstrating his mastery of weapons. This is a gory, deadly exercise in revenge, anger and death. There is no redemption, which probably makes it a more realistic movie than most. The strange thing about this story was that I felt like I was supposed to know it already. While all the details were included, it still played like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Having read the books, the film version could skip lots and provide a visual interpretation, without bothering with the minute details that make the story full. Unfortunately, I have not read this book (and don't really even know if one exists). Not nearly up to the high standard of the first film.
2 stars (out of 5)

Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior

In my last post, I was wondering about the existence of good action/romance films. The martial arts gem Hero came to mind this morning, fits the category, and I would like to recommend it again as one of my all time favorites. And since I am now in a martial arts mood, I checked out Ong Bak for a bit of a different martial arts flavor. I had not previously seen Thai martial arts (referred to as Muoy Thai in the film), but it is distinctly different. It is less about hand/foot speed, more about fluidity. Unique and frequent use of triceps, shins and knees instead of fists and feet. I liked the form alot. In this film, Tony Jaa plays the lead character Ting who is sent from his rural village into Bangkok to seek out the return of a stolen buddha head. Along the way, he encounters the requisite bad guys and has to fight himself out of trouble. I particularly appreciated the slow speed auto-rickshaw chase scene through the city. It was not near the beauty of the auto choreography of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but highly enjoyable. I guess I am off to see the sequel then.
4 stars (out of 5)


Surrogates didn't get much traction at the box office last year, but I kinda liked it. At some point in the future, robotic technology has been developed that allows robots to appear and function as humans. The difference here is the the robots do not have any innate "intelligence" (a la Terminator). Instead, they are on a monster wi-fi network and each robot is connected to the brain of their controller, a real human. In effect, most people on earth sit in chairs in their houses and their surrogates travel the world. While originally developed to provide life improvement for disabled folks, the surrogate phenomenon became a way to avoid any disease or danger, as well as a way to travel far and try new things (just rent a scuba surrogate in Hawaii and you experience the vacation - sort of). Of course, every surrogate looks great and some have special powers (police can run fast to chase the villains, etc.). And of course, there is an opposition (The Dreads) who advocate living as a human who walks around on earth instead of sitting indoors safely. A weapon is developed that could kill lots of people through the infallible surrogate safeguards (I, Robot anyone?) and Bruce Willis must save the day. This is a basic action film, no super-duper CGI, but enough simple touches (like the appearance enhancement shop) to be a fun look at this possible future. So far, this was better than any of the summer diversions in theaters this year.
3-stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Knight and Day

Another entry in the Action/Romance genre. I must say that this was more enjoyable than recently reviewed Killers although it is basically the same film. Perhaps because I would rather see Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz than Kutcher and Heigl, but it is still a "turn off brain before entering" film. Here we see a CIA agent (Cruise) come into contact with a regular person (Diaz). The encounter leads to two hours of hi-jinks as Cruise alternately uses, protects and then is saved by Diaz, all in the name of national security. We are supposed to question Cruise's sanity (although we never really do) and be awed by his action hero chops (but are unimpressed by the CGI bulls running through Spain). There is a bit of chemistry between Diaz and Cruise, but it is always interrupted by the next big crisis, leaving us with only the verbal jabbing that surely suggests they really like each other. What ends up happening is that the film gets remembered as an Action/Comedy because of the verbal jabs and cheesy attempts to insert a meaningful interaction when really, it just wants to get on to the next action sequence. There are no surprises with this conventional summer movie and you get exactly what you expect. Surely nothing more, but not really any less either.

Since watching this I started to think about films that I have seen that would be considered great in this Action/Romance category. I couldn't think of any. There are lots in the Action/Sex category (The Specialist with Stallone and Sharon Stone for example) because the sex doesn't slow down the action, whereas the romance must??? And there are lots of Thriller/Romance (Duplicity with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen), Hero/Romance (nearly any comic book based film), and even films like The Brick that have action and romance but are really focused on something totally different (like high school angst) so that it is never considered a romance film. Clearly it is not easy to put together an Action/Romance film but I would be curious if anyone has any suggestions for even good ones.

3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Solitary Man

Michael Douglas plays an aging salesman who is down on his luck. Once the owner of a very successful chain of car lots in New York City, he has recently lost all his social cache (and his cash) after a conviction for fraud. Even so, he is still a salesman and probably the most important, smartest and coolest man he knows. Every encounter with every person is an angle to work, as he tries to dig himself out of professional and personal purgatory, without even realizing that the personal portion is an issue (we are not even sure in the end if the realization comes). This navigation of angst traverses a lost career, failing health, screwed up family relationships, lost opportunities and ultimate self realization that goes along with getting old. All told, there is a lot of angst here. Douglas plays it flawlessly, but so much angst makes the movie get old quickly. By time we are half way through the film, we get it. If only there could have been something else to keep us interested, to mix it up a bit. Alas, there is not.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Russell Brand as Aldus Snow is an amazing character. Having seen him on the late night circuit, you are never quite sure whether the person is the character, or is in character always. Reminds me a bit of Ricky Gervais, both in ability to maintain a persona at all times as well as in his cadence of speech. Unfortunately for this film, Russell Brand does not carry a movie all by himself. Or at least, he doesn't here. As a aging British rock star, Brand (Snow) is making a comeback attempt by playing a 10 year reunion concert at the Greek Theatre in L.A. Jonah Hill is the record label flunky assigned to escort him from London to L.A. in time for the show. Of course, there are hi-jinks along the way, with stops in New York and Las Vegas. Unfortunately, aside from the Brand riff's, there is not a lot funny there and I found myself getting bored. Jonah Hill is a decent side kick, but his character is too annoying to be on screen for long. It has been said elsewhere, but I wholeheartedly agree that a much better showcase for Brand (and writer Jason Segal) is the excellent Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

A sort of rags to riches for a day story for Frances McDormand as the title character Miss Pettigrew. Hard on her luck and looking for work, she finagles herself into a job as personal assistant for Amy Adams Delysia. There is not anything original here, as Pettigrew is another variation of Eliza Doolittle and is able guide/advise Delysia through the complexities of life that she has wound herself in (multiple boyfriends in an attempt to make it big on the stage). It is all pretty predictable and for the first half, I thought I might just not need to see the rest. Maybe it is just me and my need for closure, but by time I got to the second half, I was curious enough about how things would wrap up cleanly that I watched with interest. In the end, there are no surprises.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Mother and Child

Full disclosure: I love Annette Bening. In this film, my love is warranted. She is amazing. Here we have a couple of parallel stories all surrounding mother/daughter relationships and adoption. Bening plays a woman who gave her child up for adoption thirty something years ago when she was a teen mother. For her entire life she has agonized over this action of giving her child away, having to live daily with the outcome as well as with her own mother who was influential in the decision. We also see the story of Naomi Watts and her life path which is influence by not having any family. Her decisions seem to lie on the border between high self confidence and self destruction. Finally, we follow the path of a young couple who is trying to adopt. They work through, to varying degrees of success, why they want to adopt and how it is impacting their individuality, their families, and their marriage. Throughout, the writing is true. Neither over dramatic nor apathetic, each character encounters real emotional barriers and is able to display the gravity of those barriers in their life. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (who also wrote several episodes of In Treatment and Six Feet Under both of which I loved), Mother and Child is one of the best films I have seen this year.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 4, 2010


I questioned my decision to see Killers before going. I am not a Kutcher or Heigl fan, it is clearly going to be a wrote comedy/action/romance film and while in the theater I noticed that the majority of attendees were in the 14 year old girl demographic. Besides, I could go to Laemmle and see a good film (I have never seen a bad film there). But I went anyway. And while I am apparently the only one in the world to like this film, I did. Kutcher plays a trained CIA assassin who falls in love with Heigl while on a job in France. Fast forward three years and the two live in suburbia, completely content with their "normal" life. Then the other shoe falls. Kutcher is reactivated, refuses to go back to his old job, and a host of sleeper agents come to try to knock him off. Note: by "host of sleeper agents" I mean that every character with a speaking part in the film is actually a sleeper agent. Heigl gets dragged into the effort to stay alive until everything is nicely wrapped up in the end. Predictable. So why did I like it? Perhaps because it was a Friday night popcorn diversion and at the end of the week I can no long handle movies that require engagement. This required none. Instead, every idea used in assassin/romance films was used in a way that didn't challenge the viewer to move outside the box. I laughed at a few of the jokes and enjoyed the performance by Tom Selleck in particular. He plays Heigl's dad and he plays it so that the appearance of an actor reading lines in a bad movie actually comes across as the characters personality. Overall, brainless summer fare.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

This is a very good film. It carries well the honor of Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film. I like this category of award since there is a huge variety of film genre's that compete against each other and they are generally all good. Imagine that the U.S. would be able to only submit one film for a contest of best film in the world. Anyway, I am not saying this is the best film in the world, but it is a really good crime thriller/romance. Set in Argentina, a state prosecutor (Esposito) investigates the rape/murder of a young woman. Along the way, he befriends and consoles the widowed husband (Morales), trusts only his drunk of an assistant (Sandoval) and dances around his attraction to his boss (Irene). The investigation is intertwined with each of these three relationships throughout and is mostly seen in flashback as Esposito considers writing a novel about the case after he retires. Several things that make this worth seeing. The romance is subtle and at the same time pervasive. Esposito is not pursuing Irene overtly, but we still see the desire and the acceptance of class separation. The investigation of the crime is straight forward, with clues leading Esposito and the viewer down the path together. There are no big surprises here and perhaps I am dim, but by the end I could look back and say "How did I not see that coming 30 minutes ago?" Asking the audience to think about the meaning of justice and retribution and peace, while also allowing them to enjoy a well written story is not easy. But it is accomplished here.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Year One

If movies had to be rated based on expectations, this one met all my expectations. Unfortunately, the expectations were for a pretty low quality, low humor vehicle for Jack Black and Michael Cera. Neither of these got to really show off their chops (see High Fidelity or Juno for these guys in their element). Instead, here we get a mild romp through a time-warped bible, meeting Cain & Able, Abraham & Isaac, and traveling to Sodom. Without the sci-fi benefit of an actual time machine. Black and Cera bumble around, chasing the girls and finally [spoiler alert] get the girls [end spoiler alert]. A little bit funny (very little) but not interesting. So the funny that is there doesn't get enough points to warrant the time.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sex and the City 2

I am a fan of the HBO series. One thing that makes you realize how good a show is, is to see something that tries to be that show, and fail miserably. Here New York, playing the role of "the City", doesn't even show up. There is no room here for the city to participate, so it is basically written out . One of the expendables in Star Trek (you know, the nameless 4th member of the away party that will never return from the planet). As for the sex, Carrie Bradshaw was a relationship columnist who was not afraid to write about sex. Here the character of Carrie is no longer a columnist, but a novelist. So presumably the writing has to be longer and more involved. An in depth look at relationships. But the quippy fun that can push a 22-minute episode (and even the first film to some extent) along doesn't really work here. It is just cliche. Forced "interfriention" for the sake of using the word. While the original series purported to be all about fashion, it was really about relationship, and fashion was a way of tying things together. Here, the movie is all about fashion, and relationship is just a way to tie one scene to another. Faux elegance and excess without real purpose or comment. The "lessons learned" from each column were a nice wrap up on TV, but by time we are done with this film, we just don't care... Yes, I understand that it can't be the TV show. But it isn't even the same tone or style, even though the surface does all it can to make it appear so. With all that said, I will say that the film is worth seeing for one reason... the opening wedding scene is Fabulous...
2 stars (out of 5)

The General's Daughter

I had avoided this a few years ago when it was in the theaters, primarily because the trailers made it seem like a slasher/rape movie. And while the plot does revolve around a rape, it is not explicit or horrific beyond what you might see on an episode of Law & Order. So what do we get? John Travolta is an investigator in the Army who is assigned to investigate the murder of young captain who happens to be the daughter of a retiring general and political hopeful. In unwinding the life and background of this captain, Travolta uncovers the secrets that will lead to solving the murder as well as the secrets that are embarrassing to the general, the army, the politically powerful, etc. So as an investigative thriller, it is sufficiently mediocre and I am not sorry to have only seen it as a late night diversion. What it did get me thinking about was Travolta. He plays a strong willed protagonist with a clear set of ethics that give him a "more moral than you" persona. I only mention this because it is the same persona he plays in so many of his other films (The Taking of Pelham 123, Swordfish, Civil Action, Michael, to name a few). It doesn't seem to matter if he is the good guy or the bad guy. He always puts his ethic to the audience as the one that should be valued, or at least appreciated. Not sure whether this bugs me or not, but it was something I noticed.
3 stars (out of 5)