Thursday, June 30, 2011

Freedom Writers

Hillary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a real life teacher in Long Beach a couple years after the LA Riots of 1992. She is young and idealistic about making a difference in kids lives. She is shocked and overwhelmed by the depth of the problems that these kids face and the antagonism she experiences from kids, parents, her family and fellow educators. But Gruwell is a Lone Ranger type who will not accept failure and she ends up actually making that difference in kids life, at huge personal cost (and personal gain). At one point, a discussion takes place to determine if Gruwell's methods are valid and should be allowed to continue. The argument against is that the method (massive time and personal energy input) is neither sustainable nor scalable. And this is true. Swank is observed with her 20 or so students throughout the film. Where are the 130 other students she teaches? The film highlights a tragic shortfall in our education system. One teacher can teach for 4 years and follow some freshman through their senior year and then be done (burnt). What does a sustainable and scalable education system look like that can challenge and support students from any background? Not what we have, of that we are sure.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Sam and Leslie happen on some money. Actually, it happens on them, falling out of the sky and landing on Sam's car. They spend, of course. Then the money's rightful owner (his brother stole it fair and square) shows up to reclaim the money. This is where the film gets weird and probably why it tanked at the box office. The film walks a fine line between good, clean, predictable heist fun and psychotic, slasher, horror. My guess is that neither audience was satisfied. The entire second half of the film, I was on edge wondering if this would degenerate into something unwatchable, since it was clearly not going to be the simply clever heist film. This putting me on edge and wondering when/if it would cross the line was done well. I kept thinking about Misery and, while not nearly that level of quality, it had the same DNA. Unfortunately the total package (acting, writing, depth of character, etc.) did not allow this to be a great movie. But I appreciated the balancing act it attempted and pulled off with some success.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Sabah is a 40ish Muslim woman living with her family in Toronto. As the unmarried sister, she is responsible for taking care of mother while her brother earns the living (and micromanages the finances) and the other sister takes care of her daughter. What unfolds is an immigrants struggle to balance family and family culture while transitioning to the new culture. This is not a new story. But Sabah tells the story well, showing that there is not a simple answer to assimilation and that every individual in the drama is pulled in different directions for different reasons. I like how we are led down the path of finding some characters familiar and sympathetic (while others are not) only to find (like in life) that we do not have the whole story.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Green Lantern

Ryan Reynolds plays Hal Jordan, the fearless but conflicted test pilot who is apparently the most pure human on earth since the ring selected him. This purity is based on an understanding of humanity that we are not perfect and that our strength comes from understanding, accepting and then overcoming our frailty. If that is not classic comic book, super hero schtick, then I don't know what is. Add in the campy, 1960's, cold war infused, source of all power is "will" and all evil is "fear", and this film really hits its mark. Reynolds, who came into his own as a superhero in X Men Origins: Wolverine plays the cocky yet honest Jordan perfectly. Not a lot of depth, and not a lot required. And true to its comic book roots, it left me looking forward to the next installment.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Nicolas Cage plays a centuries old sorcerer, once an apprentice to Merlin, working to save the world from the evil Morgana. Alfred Molina plays the evil centuries old sorcerer, also former apprentice to Merlin, working to free Morgana from her imprisonment and help destroy the world. Of course Cage can't do this alone, so he enlists the help of a young geeky NYU physics student who has enough natural magical talent (unbeknownst to him of course) to be an heir to Merlin and savior of the world. This is just good, clean fun. What I like about this film is that it is really a PG rated magic film. Nothing really scary or creepy. You could actually take your 10 year old to see this, where I would not take a kid to see many of the later Harry Potter films. They are downright scary. By the way, did I ever tell you how much I like Alfred Molina? Check out An Education for another example of his excellent, subtle work.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ken Burns America: Huey Long

Long was a depression era politician from Louisiana who moved up the political food chain from railroad commissioner to US Senator. Along the way, he used his charisma to dominate the Louisiana political scene. His career was built on getting votes from the poor. It was never clear whether Long was a true progressive working to improve the plight of the less fortunate or a power hungry politician who would use any trick in the book. In reality he was probably both. Ultimately his career aspiration of becoming president was cut short by assassination. Burns does a great job of really showing Louisiana life in the 30's as well as the impact of Long on both his state and the nation.
3 stars (out of 5)

From Paris with Love

James Reece is the assistant to the US Ambassador to France and is a low level spy, carrying out important tasks such as planting bugs and changing license plates on cars. He aspires to bigger things, but really has no idea what "bigger things" are all about. This all changes when he is assigned to help out Charlie Wax (John Travolta), an over the top, guns blazing, invincible secret agent. The plot takes a circuitous route to the actual reason that Wax is in town which provides a convenient training ground for Reece. There is no subtlety here. Midway through, you can confidently say "The Butler did it" and then watch the rest of the plot play out without thinking or guessing. I would rate this as a standard fare action film that is carried by Travolta's over-the-top bravado.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I missed this in theaters last year but remember it getting "good for what it is" reviews. I don't think I could say it any better. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the adopted son of the king of Persia. Taken in because of his pure heart, he is also welcomed by his new brothers. A little bit of political intrigue leads to the occupation of a holy city and discovery of a magic dagger that allows the holder to rewind time. There is action, a love interest, wacky desert hijinks and comic relief (by the always good Alfred Molina), and an acceptable story line. The film isn't just a showcase for CG effects, and in fact, could probably have done away with the "back in time swirling sand" effect without too much of a hit on the overall film. A good summer flick and I enjoyed finally watching it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Limits of Control

I have liked Jim Jarmusch films in the past (see Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation). These films are slow and quiet, but meaningful. They tell a story, even if it is one of depression or loneliness. The Limits of Control is also slow and quiet, but too slow and too quiet. A man gets an assignment to do something, and then flies to Spain to do it. He meets people along the way, exchanging match boxes with messages in them. This fact in itself hooked me. I wanted to know what the man's mission was, what were the messages, etc. But after four meetings, four exchanges, and about four lines of dialogue (in total), I couldn't bear it. I tried a bit of fast forward, a bit of web browsing to pass the time, but still the film didn't go anywhere fast enough to get me to a resolution. The filming of Spain was nice, but not spectacular. The choice of architecture was interesting, but not alluring enough to pull me in. If I could offer a spoiler here to tell you how it resolves in order to save you the effort of watching this film I would. Alas, I don't know since I couldn't get through it.
1 star (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Two Kevin Bacon films in one week -- bonus. This X-Men prequel goes back to the 1940's in order to tell the story of how mutants were first "discovered". Bacon plays the evil Nazi scientist who maintains a goal of helping evolution along by eliminating humans. His first discovery is a boy who eventually grows up to be the Magneto we know and love, and of course psychologically devastates the boy to provide a lifetime of hero/nemesis interactions for Marvel Comics. We are also introduced to Professor Xavier in his pre-professor days when he needed to put a thoughtful finger-to-the-temple in order to utilize his mutant power of telepathy (reminded me of Austin Powers every time). This film does a good job of providing the X-Men backstory, tying it in to crisis in actual history (which is always fun), and showing off some cool action/effects with the mutant powers. So a good solid film, but not great or groundbreaking in anyway. Fortunately, I don't think the film was trying to be groundbreaking. Just fun.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 10, 2011


Annika couldn't believe that I had never seen this seminal film, so we watched it one night. Amazingly, it holds up. Kevin Bacon plays the new kid in a sleepy, conservative town dominated by the local pastor (John Lithgow). Based on a past event, the town has outlawed dancing (since it obviously leads to all kinds of actual sins). Unfortunately, Bacon loves dancing and is a bit of a rebel. Controversy, protest, and rebellion ensue. The dancing is pretty good and the 80's music (that was current when the film was made) is actually pretty good 80's music. The film maintains the appropriate amount of cheeky humor and was enjoyable. A fun little flashback...
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I love a good heist film, and this one is pretty good. The story revolves around a group of partners that commit high end thefts (banks, armored cars, etc.) on a grand scale, but only infrequently. When one of their former associates is released from prison and returns to the group with a hot tip on a new job, everyone has to decide whom to trust. In parallel, Matt Dillon plays the grisled cop with a screwed up personal life and only the job to give him meaning. Like a dog with a bone, Dillon is relentless in his pursuit. So while the story is one of heist and detective work, the real value in this film is the development of the personalities and relationships of the players. Each individual has a little bit of background that plays into decision making and affects the trajectory of the entire group. Two things could have made this film great, instead of just good. Pushing the depth of each character and actually allowing the viewer to have someone to root for. I don't mind not always being able to root for the good guy since some time the bad guys are more sympathetic. But there must be someone who can come out a winner in the end that can give a real sense of satisfaction. That piece was missing.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Blue Valentine

This is a story of love and the drudgery of life when love is no longer around. Or perhaps it is the story of how life becomes drudgery when we forget how to love. Cindy and Dean are working class people in the northeast. Cindy has aspirations, Dean doesn't. Dean loves his daughter and loves the lack of responsibility and intensity that his life as a laborer affords him. But without any forward thinking, he and Cindy have sunk into a monotony that is wearing them both out. The story is well told, with alternating clips between the present life and their meeting and courtship in the past. There is really only one lighthearted scene in the entire film, where Dean and Cindy sing and dance on a date. Otherwise, the tone of the film drops its full weight on the viewer, forcing you to feel as trapped as the protagonists. Not really fun to watch, but a really well made not-fun-to-watch film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Battle of Los Angeles

If ever there was a SciFi B-movie, this was it. I felt like I was watching Saturday afternoon TV in July when the only things on are golf, BMX bike racing and an old alien invasion film. What is surprising is that Battle of Los Angeles was made this year, probably to gain advantage from the theatrical release Battle: Los Angeles. There is not a single thing (acting, writing, special effects, plot line, etc.) that does not say "direct to video". The plot is actually irrelevant enough for you to not really know what is going on for the first 20 minutes or so. I was very close to walking out of this several times, and only the fact that I could be in the kitchen making lunch at the same time while it ran in the background preventing me from bailing out. So, since I did see it through to the end, and since it is an excellent example of B-film making, it gets
2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 3, 2011


I read about a book coming out this fall (sorry, don't remember the title) in the Hunger Games genre about a society in which everyone is matched by a computer for their optimum compatibility. In TiMER, we get a variation on that theme, and a well done variation at that. A company has figured out how to read your biochemistry to determine who your perfect true love will be, as well as to identify how much time will pass before you meet that person. Very SciFi and we don't get the details of how this would work (even as I write it, too many "practical" questions come to mind). Regardless, this is a story that centers around how we live our lives and make the decisions about relationships that we do. What would you do if you knew that you would not meet your true love for another 10 years? What would you do if you knew it was tomorrow? How would you live your life if your TiMER was blank, meaning that your true love did not have a TiMER installed. You could have already met them. So we get a serious and lighthearted (it has to be lighthearted lest it travel toward depressing) look at the difficult decisions made around relationship. And like a true modern romantic comedy, it wraps up nicely. I would have preferred a bit more of a SciFi ending, where you are left wondering about the possibilities, which would have been easy to do. But I am sure it would have been largely unsatisfying for most viewers.
4 stars (out of 5)