Sunday, October 05, 2014


This morning I saw Annabelle, starring Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton.

The year is 1969 and the world has gone crazy. Charles Manson and his "family" of murderers are terrorizing Southern California and Mia (Wallis) just wants to start a happy life with her doctor husband John (Horton).

The couple lives in Santa Monica, near the beach, in an idyllic house with attentive neighbors and a friendly church where they faithfully worship. They're expecting their first daughter and preparing the home for her arrival.

John knows of Mia's fondness for collectible dolls and buys her one, which she immediately treasures, giving it a place of honor in the nursery.

Before long, tragedy strikes and members of a satanic cult get to the couple in the middle of the night. Though not everyone survives, the pair and their unborn baby emerge with only minor injuries ... at least physically.

Strange things begin happening not long after, and Mia attributes the hauntings to the doll, which was symbolic of that horrific night. Determined to make a fresh start, John accepts a position in nearby Pasadena and gives the family hope for a fresh start.

Cue the slamming doors and stereo that turns itself on—we now have a horror film.

Though the directing is quite good (Leonetti is undeniably skilled in creepy shots), the story falls short. While The Conjuring didn't give every surprise away, this one does, and there's much less peril for the stars.

Annabelle is indeed based on a true doll (that now resides in Ed and Lorraine Warren's paranormal museum), but the story here, with few exceptions, is purely fictional.

I would've been much more interested in seeing a documentary of the actual events than attempt to be startled by a plot that's too conventional to be frightening.


Friday, October 03, 2014

Gone Girl

Tonight I saw Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

Remember when Scott Peterson's attorney called him a 'cad' for having an affair with Amber Frey, but implied that didn't make him a murderer? That his wife Laci's disappearance wasn't necessarily connected just because of his bad behavior?

Well, Nick Dunne (Affleck) has found himself in a similar situation.

Without giving anything away about what his character is actually guilty of doing, Nick's wife Amy (Pike) has gone missing and his judgment has been admittedly poor as the small Missouri town where they reside rallies to search for her.

On his side are his hot-shot attorney Tanner (played to perfection by Tyler Perry) and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon); both think he's a certain degree of idiot, but neither thinks him a murderer. Sure, his wife is/was an uppity, cold New Yorker with few—if any—friends to speak of, and he's an out-of-work writer, numbingly co-owning the town bar with his sister, but for all their typical married couple problems, he had no reason to kill her.

And that's about all I can tell you about the story.

Those who were fans of the book for which the film is based won't be disappointed in how the original author, the amazing Gillian Flynn, adapts it for the big screen. The characters gain even more dimension, and smaller players emerge stronger and more visible in the chaos.

I wasn't surprised I loved this film, but I was shocked at how long it was since it felt like it went so fast (it's actually well over 2 hours). I loved being on the edge of my seat, though I knew (generally) what was going to happen. I adored seeing the state where I went to college re-capture all of its small-town charm with endearing cops and annoying neighbors amongst the flood of do-gooders. I relished in the graphic scenes of sex and violence; none of which felt gratuitous.

I appreciated the way the men gasped more than the women did in my theater, and no matter how unlikeable the characters became, I still ended up rooting for them in some weird, warped, dark way.

The world needs more satisfying twisty thrillers like this one.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Love is Strange

Tonight I saw Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Marisa Tomei.

Ben (Lithgow) has loved George (Alfred Molina) for nearly 40 years. When we meet them, it's their wedding day; a joyous occasion celebrated intimately with close friends and family. A short time later, we see them gathered with the same group of people for a more somber reason: George has lost his job.

As a longtime music teacher in a faith-based school, the higher-ups can no longer ignore his homosexuality and let him go. As a result he and Ben have to find someplace to live, but the only one of their loved ones that has a spare room lives over two hours away, so they must split up.

George remains close to their prior home with friends, sleeping on their living room couch; Ben moves in with his nephew and his family, bunking with his grandnephew, teenage Joey. It's not an ideal situation, but they appreciate the kindness they are shown and do their best to be good houseguests.

Life goes on, but the strain is hard on everyone including Kate (Tomei) who can't focus on her writing with her houseguest always around. And poor George, who can't sleep because his hosts like to perpetually party.

At first, it feels like the film isn't really going anywhere, it's slow pace begging to be accelerated, but when it nears the end, your heart is undeniably full.

The touching performance by Lithgow, complemented by the conflict reflected in Tomei's eyes make you ache for a better solution for all of them. It's a cast of likeable, humble characters just trying to get through life's injustices without feeling sorry for themselves.

They're doing the best they can with the bad hand they've been dealt and that's a feeling I suspect all of us have had at one time or another.

It's also a lesson to keep love close to your heart if you're lucky enough to find it.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Guest

Tonight I saw The Guest, starring Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe.

When David (Stevens) arrives at the doorstep of the Petersons, they believe him when he tells them that he's a soldier who once served with their now-deceased son. They welcome him into their home, and their family, with open arms.

Soon he's helping their son fight off bullies, protecting women at parties and helping Mom negotiate a lighter punishment at school for her suddenly violent son. He's a peach!

Until ... he isn't.

Of course, there's soon a fair amount of bloodshed, there's a lot of loud music (warning you of the upcoming bloodshed) and David develops a habit of coldly staring at pretty much everyone.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't love seeing the former Downton Abbey star with his shirt off, sporting a damn fine American accent; but I'd also be lying if I said I didn't know exactly how this was going to end before it was even half way over.

Sure, there's some jumpy scenes, and at one point you may find it difficult to root for the good guys, but above all else, this is just silly.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Forrest Gump

This morning I saw Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright.

The 20th anniversary presentation in IMAX showcases the classic in better-than-ever visual clarity and sound. And somehow I thought my multiple viewings of the film these past two decades would make me immune from the obligatory flow of tears that always accompanies it, but I was mistaken.

The triggers for me are the same as they always have been (SPOILERS):  Forrest can't find a seat on the bus; the kids throw rocks at young Forrest; Jenny says goodbye to Forrest in Memphis; Mama's sick; Lieutenant Dan arrives at the wedding; Forrest talks to Jenny under the tree; little Forrest boards the school bus.

I can still smell the stale room in gritty New York before the New Year. I can still feel the heavy Southern air as Jenny and Forrest dance to "Sweet Home Alabama." I can remember the fear in the world as John Lennon and President Reagan were shot (those historical parts of the story I'm actually old enough to remember).

I grieve for those who lost soldiers in Vietnam; for anyone who was abused by a parent or a school bully; for everyone who has felt that they are not adequate; for children who miss their mothers; for years lost with a romantic love; for all who were lost to AIDS before we knew how to treat it.

For a movie that is so often lighthearted and funny, it really can wreck you.

It wrecked me today as harshly as it did when I saw it as a college student in 1994. And I'm okay with that—it's simply my primal response to the genius of Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks and Robin Wright and tragic music by Alan Silvestri.

Regardless of what the haters might say, it still holds up.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

As Above/So Below

Tonight I saw As Above/So Below, starring Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman.

Scarlett (Weeks) is a woman on a mission to find the philosopher's stone and prove that it's real. She convinces her ex-boyfriend (?) George (Feldman) to accompany her on the exploration, along with a shaky cameraman and some locals she finds to lead the way, who claim to know their way around.

If I forgot to mention, said stone is supposedly buried deep beneath the earth in the ever-creepy Paris catacombs. Hidden far beyond where the tour guides take travelers.

As they descend, the music gets louder and the lines get cheesier. I'm delighted to jump a few times in the name of "gotcha" reveals, but the cues were so obviously laid out there was no way they were ever going to be a surprise.

The 'love' story, if it could be called that, doesn't have time to develop because the camera isn't still long enough to to concentrate on the characters. Except when they're getting scared, or hurt, or discovered for the first time.

And the claustrophobia. If you have it, don't go near this. If you don't have it, you may develop it. Either way, enduring such a directionless, predictable film is not worth your time.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alive Inside

Today I saw the Michael Rossato-Bennett documentary Alive Inside.

Social worker Dan Cohen was commuting to work one day when he heard a story on the radio about iPods. This made him consider that it may be helpful to use the music players with some of his eldery clients in the nursing homes where he was assigned.

Soon, lives were being changed.

Dan began loading the residents' favorite songs onto iPods and saw evidence of the soul waking. Patients with dementia that never interacted with people began making eye contact, singing and dancing. Memories came alive and they began sharing them. The caretakers were stunned by their responsiveness.

Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks appears in the film to help explain why music can ignite parts of the brain that simple dialog cannot. Apparently we begin hearing music in the earliest days of our formation as embryos, and music bypasses other parts of the brain that fail when humans are stricken with ailments such as Alzheimer's.

Music allows patients to connect with the world in ways that may have gone dark for several years prior. Cohen soon sees the depth of positivity this is bringing to the nursing home community and begins a crusade to bring iPods to all U.S. nursing homes.

At first he is met with resistance (how can something considered a luxury be equated as medicine?), but soon transforms several communities and the groundswell for change begins.

The result is a nonprofit he founded called Music & Memory. The organization gathers donations of iPods, then trains students to go into the nursing homes and work with the residents to develop their ideal playlist.

His work reminds us that a little change in our way of thinking about therapy and treatment can make a world of difference.

This film will tug at your heart—and then leave you scrambling to find out how you can help.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Tonight I saw the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

Created by the same team that made the award-winning Paradise Lost series, this film has a similar storytelling style, rich with candid conversations, court transcripts and aerial shots of the star city (in this case, Boston).

The work examines volumes of official documents pertaining to the case against legendary Irish mobster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, interviewing attorneys from both sides as well as witnesses, journalists and family members of Bulger's victims.

At the heart of the argument is whether or not Whitey was ever really an informant for the FBI.

Thought it's been believed for years he was a "rat," there is compelling evidence to suggest FBI agent (and Bulger childhood friend) John Connelly was so smitten with the mobster that he falsified records to look as if he was, but he wasn't.

Truly, the corruption goes deeper and deeper—all the way to a safe at the Boston FBI headquarters that has since been removed (so we think, based on the 82-year-old secretary's testimony). It used to hold documents that were strictly protected with every regime change, but no longer exists. Those documents also illuminated the fact that Bulger was never really an informant, but was protected by the FBI at the highest levels.

Some of the most compelling moments of the film are the phone calls we get to hear between Bulger's defense attorney and Bulger himself. Whitey's voice is as sharp, clear and confident as one may expect. In some sequences, it's hard not to believe the words coming out of his mouth, as they're stated with such conviction.

Whatever your beliefs on the matter, the arguments here are guaranteed to spark questions, and the sadness of the people he harmed will pull at your heartstrings.

One can only hope that with him finally behind bars, justice has been served.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Today I saw Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Stanley (Firth) is a jaded magician brought to a wealthy mansion to disprove the psychic readings of Sophie (Stone), a flirtatious American with a meddling mother.

When Stanley arrives in the South of France, Sophie immediately gives him a reading that is accurate, yet vague. He is unconvinced and determined to prove her con.

Though annoyed by the hassle of the situation, handsome-yet-arrogant Stanley is admittedly drawn to the attractive medium and invites her on a road trip to Provence to visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). On the trip, Sophie gets at some of the most intimate details of his aunt's private life and his belief system is turned upside down. He submits to the unknown and shares a romantic evening with Sophie en route back to the mansion.

And then: A conventional, not-so-surprising, yet-still-welcome,Woody Allen twist.

In the midst of the dance of sarcastic dialogue and fluttering eyelashes, there's genuine heart here, pulled out by the flawless performances of the leads. To say more would commit spoiler crimes, but I'll admit to leaving the theater smiling and satisfied.

I've come to expect no less from Allen's sunshine-kissed, European-set romps.


Deepsea Challenge 3D

Last night I saw the documentary Deepsea Challenge 3D, about the journey James Cameron takes to a deep section of the ocean floor.

The director asks himself on screen whether or not he's a filmmaker who explores as a hobby or an explorer who makes films as a hobby. This film suggests the latter.

After seeing two men journey to the bottom of the ocean on television as a child in the 60s, Cameron held on to the dream of doing it himself until he had the means to duplicate the mission. That chance came a few years ago, when he commissioned the construction of a new submarine that would not only take him to those impressive depths, but also possess the capabilities to film and collect sediment samples during the journey.

A great portion of the film is spent watching Cameron, known for his tough treatment of employees, pushing the engineers and scientists to finish the build and fix the problems that keep surfacing (no pun intended). He can't be blamed for wanting them to get it right (after all, it is he who will perish if they don't); but I'm not sure viewers need such exploration of the preparation. For at least an hour, I was saying to myself "just get down there already."

After personal tragedies and systematic failures of epic proportion during testing are behind them, the trip finally takes place in 2012. The journey is long (over 35,000 feet) and insanely dangerous. It's hard to picture anyone but Cameron with the patience and passion to actually risk his life to do it—lucky for us it is him, and he does a beautiful job of capturing what he sees and experiences.

Though it could be argued that the sea life he encounters at elevations higher than his final mission are more illuminating than the desolate space at the bottom, there's an instant peace you can't help but experience, placing yourself for moments in his pod-like contraption and watching the quiet existence of nothing that is a magnificent something, wide-eyed in wonder.

If you've ever wanted to feel for a moment that you were part of an alternate world, treat yourself to this one-of-a-kind documentary. And enjoy the mysteries of the earth that are still yet undiscovered.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014


On Saturday I saw Chef, starring Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara.

Carl (Favreau) is a chef who is predictably passionate about food. He cares about the flavors, the art, the romance—all of it. And he cares about the review he’s going to receive from a famous critic due to dine in his restaurant that very night.

After he’s visited his local farmer’s market stand, crafted an exciting menu with his team and has his A-game ready to go, his boss throws a wrench into his creative plan and instructs him to cook the same menu he’s been cooking for years. Devastated, he complies. 

Unfortunately, the critic is not pleased and rakes him over the coals in his review. This sparks a Twitter war between the two and Carl is left without a job (or options).

The mother of his child, Inez, (Vergara) has a connection that she thinks can help him get back on his feet and before he knows it, he’s cooking again, making himself (and everyone around him) very happy.

The story is a great illustration of the benefits of following your bliss. 

Sure, there’s a bit of the “corporate big brother” feel in the boss character; and the point of him ignoring his boy is driven home more than it needs to be, but the joy Carl finds in his passion for food is nothing short of inspiring to see.

Let it be a lesson to us all.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

Today I saw A Hard Day's Night, which has been restored for its 50th anniversary.

The 1964 classic, which could have been named for another Beatles hit, "A Day in the Life," shows just that as it follows the four most famous men in the world around on a 'show day.' Though not a documentary, the parallels between the real lives of the stars and their fictitious counterparts cannot be understated.

At this time in their lives, John, Paul, George and Ringo most certainly had screaming girls chasing them around every corner and most definitely made light of their unprecedented circumstances with sharp sarcasm. This, along with a clean grandfather, an important concert gig, a spirited train ride, a dance club and a wandering Ringo round out the main activities in the film, not one of them bordering on dull.

I think what I love most about this movie is the joy.

The men are still boys—barely scratching the surface of their talent—but they're already dominating the world. They've amplified England and cheered up a sad America in the wake of their president's assassination. They've created the happiest, catchiest, music around, and its melodies are infectious.

It's hard not to smile while you watch A Hard Day's Night.

Aside from the clever dialog, the abundance of brilliant music is its greatest asset. Though the live tracks at the end bring the true crescendo of 'happy,' there are several performances sprinkled throughout to keep even the most hungry of fans satisfied.

Seeing this restored version, with digital restoration approved by its original director, is a cinematic feast for the eyes and ears not to be missed.


Friday, July 04, 2014

Life Itself

Today I saw Life Itself, a documentary about the legendary Pulitzer-prize winner Roger Ebert.

When Steve James set about to direct a film about the world's most famous film critic, he knew there was a chance his subject wouldn't live to see its completion. Unfortunately, that prophecy came true.

In some ways, though, it feels as if it was timed just right. Ebert deserved a public coda to that amazing life of his, and capturing some of his last moments and words brings a depth to the poignancy and prestige of the project.

The film begins with the star's birth in 1942 and shares memories from his youth as an only child in Illinois as well as his drinking days as an early "newspaper man." There's no glossing over his alcoholism or his tendency to be pompous, especially after he won a Pulitzer. The man wasn't perfect—but he was refreshingly real.

Much of the commentary is provided by Ebert himself, along with his beautiful wife Chaz; Gene Siskel's widow Marlene; various newspaper buddies; former producers of his television shows; his stepchildren and stepgrandchildren; and a few famous directors. Everyone speaks candidly and from the heart, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking at every turn.

Equal time is devoted to the romanticism of his past and the devastating realities of his last decade of life, which was spent overcoming one medical battle after another. The sheer strength of his wife dealing with all of this pain will leave audiences in awe.

The remarkable thing is that he never felt sorry for himself.

Here was a man who had lost the ability to speak and eat, but was as sunny and happy as ever, offering his trademark "thumbs up" in response to those checking in on him. He became a trailblazer in the social media space and spent his hours doing what he had always done best: writing.

Although I could watch footage of he and Siskel arguing until the cows come home, I did wish there was more of the love story he shared with Chaz included. Perhaps the DVD will be packed with extras and I'll get my fill.

I grieved the day we lost him and I continue to grieve every time that I see a film and instinctively go to check IMDB to see what Roger thought of it too, only realizing after a few seconds that his reviews ended a year ago.

I'm thankful that Steve James made this moving portrait of his life, as his influence will live on forever.


Thursday, July 03, 2014


Tonight I saw Tammy, starring Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon.

Tammy (McCarthy) is a mess of a woman—both physically and mentally. She's lost her husband, her job and her car all in the course of one day. This trauma causes her to go of the rails and seek escape. The trouble is, the only way she can get out of town is to use the car owned by her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon), and that comes with strings attached: Pearl wants to come along for the ride.

And so it goes, the cliché road trip begins.

I adore both of these ladies, I really do, but their talent is wasted here. After a series of mistakes and hints that these two family members have a more serious past than the tone would imply, some not-so-fun things start to happen.

Thank God Mark Duplass arrives to save the day!

He plays Bobby, the most normal, sane person in the story. He meets Tammy at a bar where his father is shamelessly pursuing her grandmother. Tammy embarrasses herself going after Bobby and then they both bond over embarrassment. It's as if the screenplay said "Just kidding! This is really a heartfelt drama," and picked up in the middle of a different film.

Unfortunately, I liked that other film better.

Duplass and McCarthy have a lovely chemistry, but they barely get enough screen time to explore it. Every time he appeared on camera I'd breathe a sigh of relief and then before I knew it he'd be gone.

Also refreshing are Sandra Oh and Kathy Bates as a wealthy lesbian couple who throws a lavish party that the misfits attend. And I would be remiss to mention Dan Akroyd and Allison Janney who play Tammy's parents. Of course, they're awesome.

McCarthy will always succeed in getting a laugh out of me, but here it feels as if she's trying too hard.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Deliver Us From Evil

Tonight I saw Deliver Us From Evil, starring Eric Bana and Edgar Ramirez.

Ralph Sarchie (Bana) is an undercover detective for the NYPD. He has a knack for sensing harm and an unfortunate habit of putting his family last. Father Mendoza (Ramirez) is a young priest who keeps turning up where Sarchie seems to need him the most.

When a mother loses her mind at the Bronx Zoo and throws her child into a ravine, Sarchie and his partner are called upon to investigate. What they find is a disturbed woman and a mysterious painter who disappears into the night.

After reviewing surveillance tapes, and putting puzzle pieces together from a few other calls they've responded to, Sarchie and his partner (played by an especially youthful Joel McHale) trace the chaos to a trio of soldiers who served together in Iraq.

Though Sarchie doesn't want to admit it at first, their problems run deeper because all parties involved are influenced by a supernatural force.

Reluctantly, Sarchie allows Mendoza to offer his services and the real "fun" begins. The crucifixes come out, Latin is spoken, insects appear and ... welll ... you know the rest.

Though certain shots are definitely creepy and the actors completely "sell" their fear, I can't honestly say I was too disturbed by it. For a horror movie that's "based on true events," I was actually expecting much worse (and of course, once I did my research I realized that the narrative here is almost completely fictional with the exception of the priest and the cop working together to battle demons, which they apparently still do to this day).

There's a lot of gore and children's toys that get unruly, but nothing here will really send shivers down your spine.

If you want to watch a few hot men battle evil for a few hours, you're in luck, but that's about all you'll get.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

22 Jump Street

Today I saw 22 Jump Street, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are back in this sequel to 2012's 21 Jump Street, which was based on the television show.

This time, instead of going undercover at a high school, the partners are tasked with finding a drug dealer at a college. All they have to go on is a photo of the supposed dealer with a girl who died from her actions while on the drug she was sold.

The usual silliness ensues as the pair begin to acclimate to the community. Schmidt hooks up with a beautiful art student and Jenko befriends the primary suspect in the case, convinced that he's not the real drug source.

After their worlds on campus grow too far apart, they decide to take a break from one another, which devastates Schmidt. The whole movie is basically a joke about the rough patch they're hitting in their 'relationship' so there is a predictable amount of parallels to romantic comedies.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh a lot at this movie. Sure, it's formulaic, but sometimes when you just want to be entertained, that simple familiarity is not unwelcome.

Hill and Tatum have enough of a spark in their chemistry to keep the comedic fires burning, so go see this if you're okay with knowing what you're in for at the theater.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The 40th Seattle International Film Festival has now concluded. In its final week I caught five screenings. Countries of origin in this batch include the United States and Ireland.

Head over to Cinebanter for my full reviews of Seeds of Time; Alex of Venice; Calvary and The One I Love, and a capsule review of 4 Minute Mile.

Spoiler alert: I'm a blurry extra in 4 Minute Mile. Watch close for the girl in the bright blue shirt and black sunglasses.


Sunday, June 01, 2014


The 40th Seattle International Film Festival is well underway and I've had the opportunity to see even more fantastic films this past week. Countries of origin in this batch include Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Head over to Cinebanter for my full reviews of It's Only Make Believe and DamNation, and capsule reviews of One Chance and Boyhood.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!


Monday, May 26, 2014


The 40th Seattle International Film Festival is well underway and I've had the opportunity to see even more fantastic films this past week. Countries of origin in this batch include Spain, Georgia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Head over to Cinebanter for my reviews of Family United; Blind Dates; Words and Pictures; Still Life; My Last Year With the Nuns and A Brony Tale.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!


Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Railway Man

This morning I saw The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

Eric Lomax (Firth) was a British soldier during World War II, taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. In an effort to learn what was going on in the outside world, he and his fellow soldiers successfully built a radio, but the discovery of that invention caused him to be severely tortured.

Lomax survived the war, but never forgot his hatred and disgust for one of his main captors, Tekashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). Nagase was an educated interpreter who Lomax felt should have shown mercy during the conflict, but instead displayed vicious cruelty.

In the 1980s, after a rocky career and numerous subsequent effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, Lomax met his second wife, Patti (Kidman). He shared his love of railways with her and their romance blossomed. Not long after their wedding, she realized how damaged he was.

Her love for him, and the support of the soldiers he survived with, led him to reunite with Nagase and ultimately forgive his actions. In fact, the two became close friends until Nagase's death just a few years ago.

The film, based on this true story, captures both the horrors of actual prison camps and the psychological pain that echoes decades later from the experience of violence.

Firth is his usual amazing self, exhibiting an aloof nature at first, then revealing his layers of agony for all to witness; Kidman gives her best performance in recent memory as the concerned and curious wife, desperate to bring peace to the love of her life.

It's a story that needed to be told, both to remember the errors of our combative past and to realize the power of healing through forgiveness.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014


The 40th Seattle International Film Festival starts tomorrow and I've already seen cluster of great movies from the selection. Countries of origin in this batch include Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom and Greece.

Head over to Cinebanter for my capsule reviews of 1,000 Times Good Night and Burt's Buzz, and full reviews of Mirage Men, From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines and Standing Aside, Watching.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Heaven Is for Real

Yesterday I saw Heaven Is for Real, starring Connor Corum and Greg Kinnear.

Colton Burpo (Corum) is an adorable four-year-old boy with a preacher, Todd, (Kinnear) for a father. Though the family struggles financially, they cherish what's most important: family and God.

After a particularly rough patch, Colton's appendix ruptures and his chances of survival are in danger. Todd questions his faith and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) does her best to keep it together. Thankfully, Colton pulls through, but after he returns home, he begins talking about the supernatural experiences he had while he was in the operating room, including a visit to heaven.

At first, Todd assumes it's just his imagination, but when Colton begins telling him things about the family that he has never previously known, Todd is understandably rattled.

The town questions Colton's story; Sonja grows tired of Todd's obsession with it and the media descends on their close-knit community.

This is all, of course, based on the true events of the real-life Burpo family. We just get the highlights here, but I can imagine the circus it must have been when the real incidents happened.

Kinnear is easily believable as the sincere, conflicted Todd, and sweet little Corum clearly has a future on the big screen ahead of him.

In fact all of the performances were great—even those of supporting characters like Margo Martindale, who are only there to serve borderline-stereotypical purposes.

The film is enjoyable to watch, especially if you're open to the fact that Colton may really have met Jesus, etc. But aside from the cookie-cutter way the series of events is portrayed, there's not a whole lot to it.

I would've liked to see more "heaven" and explore more of why such a decent, hard-working family was struggling so much.

But for what it is, it was fine.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

Tonight I screened Million Dollar Arm, starring Jon Hamm and Suraj Sharma.

The real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein was at a crossroads in his career, in danger of losing everything when he had the idea to recruit and train the first Indian professional baseball players from a crop of cricket players in their homeland. This film, tells his—and their—story.

J.B. (Hamm) isn't really that nice of a guy. He has a great house and a great car, but as he begins to lose his great career, he's more concerned about maintaining his glamorous lifestyle than he is preserving the integrity of his players. When everything is on the line, he travels to India with a talent scout (Alan Arkin) to host a contest to find a "million dollar arm." While there, he finds Rinku Singh (Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal); neither have ever played baseball, but both have the potential to pitch their way to greatness.

He brings them both back to California and a typical fish-out-of-water story ensues. They stumble over the language, try foods unknown to them and awkwardly acclimate to a technologically advanced world. The movie comes close to furnishing too many of these situations, but is luckily saved by the welcome presence of Lake Bell, as J.B.'s tenant Brenda, who flirts her way into the hearts of the men on-screen as well as the audience.

Jon Hamm is solid in the role (though I'll admit I was puzzled by his hoarse-sounding voice throughout—maybe the real man has a gravely voice?) and the boys who play the recruits and their translator were perfectly sweet.

You can't help but root for them—even Bernstein—as they rapidly make sense of their new world while thrown into a pressure cooker of tryouts.

If you enjoy a good, old-fashioned sports movie, this should be right up your alley.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Today I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, starring Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson.

Captain America (Evans) is as apple-pie appealing as one could imagine a frozen-in-time superhero could be. His eyes glisten blue, his skin is white as porcelain and his body resembles that of a Ken™ doll. It would be really hard not to root for him.

It seems that everywhere we turn these days, us Americans are reminded of our past rivalry with Russia. In this film, it comes in the form of a long-forgotten foe called "The Winter Soldier," a fierce Soviet agent.

When the good guys discover this entity is the cause of their recent drama, Captain, along with Natasha (Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) team up to go get him.

I'd be spoiling it all if I went any further, but let's just say there's an abundance of kicking and gymnastics and throwing the shield around like a Frisbee. Plus, car chases and explosions!

I enjoyed the chemistry and banter between Captain and Natasha, and Robert Redford's time on screen as the powerful Alexander Pierce kept my attention.

Other than that, I wish it had been about 40 minutes shorter.

Still, not a terrible way to kick off a pre-summer season of popcorn films.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

Tonight I saw the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.

Part hoarder, part loaner, part voyeur, part genius—Vivian Maier was comprised of many things. Like the photos that are now making her famous, there was a raw, yet mysterious, aspect to her persona, which she guarded her whole life like a national secret.

The film chronicles how a student hoping to find historical photos for an assignment purchased a storage locker full of negatives and stumbled on a treasure trove of never-before-seen brilliant images. All of the pictures were taken (and hidden) by Vivian, a nanny who bounced from family to family all of her adult life.

As the student dug deeper and deeper into her past, he discovered a tragic soul—described as everything from eccentric to angry. What was so remarkable about uncovering the photos was that none of the people who knew her realized that they existed. Sure, they saw her with her camera around her neck, and the children remember being photographed and filmed, but no one had any idea her catalog boasted thousands of museum-quality shots. Some which Vivian herself never had the privilege of viewing.

The film emphasizes Maier's "stern spinster" status, but she was so much more complex than that. As one of the former children she cared for points out in the film, Vivian probably suffered from mental illness, but that didn't dim her gift for creativity and her technique for capturing wonderful moments on film.

It's a wonderful way to spotlight the legacy of someone who didn't crave fame, but most certainly needed validation.

To view some of Maier's work, visit her official website.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lunchbox

Today I saw The Lunchbox, starring Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan.

Ila (Kaur) feels disconnected from her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). She consults with her Auntie (Bharati Achrekar) who lives upstairs and primarily communicates with her by yelling through their open windows. Auntie encourages her to try new recipes and send a delicious meal to her husband through the lunchbox delivery service that everyone in town uses.

Ila does this, and the dishes come back empty, so she thinks she's pleased her man; unfortunately, the lunches got mixed up in transit and her meal instead went to Saajan (Khan), an lonely widower who works for the government. Even worse, her husband didn't realize his meal wasn't made by her.

Pleased nonetheless that the mystery man appreciated her cooking, Ila sends him a letter in the next delivery, assuming it will go back to him. It does, and he writes back.

So begins an innocent flirtation between two people at very different places in their lives who are desperately starved for attention and validation.

As their letters get more personal and honest, the connection they feel for one another only deepens, leading them to believe they may be destined to end up together.

Kaur is phenomenal as the stunning wife who feels ignored by her partner, and makes every attempt to win him back though it's through no fault of her own that she's lost him. Khan is his usual, appealing self and makes an otherwise unlikable character extremely sympathetic and warm.

Though the reasons for their correspondence border on depressing, it's delightful to watch these two strangers meet in the middle and discover comfort in old-fashioned letters.

A satisfying romance that keeps us guessing to the very end.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

Today I saw the documentary Tim's Vermeer.

Tim Jenison is a longtime friend of Penn & Teller. When they learned that he had developed an obsession for determining whether or not famous Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used technology to create his works, they decided to film the process.

The result is this funny, smart, captivating film.

Jenison, so certain that British artist David Hockney is on to something with his theory that some of history's finest artists used camera obscura techniques to complete their paintings, decides to take the idea one step further and teach himself how to paint with that process.

Using a homemade mirror-on-a-stick contraption, he tests his skills and it works. Next, he decides to go full on and renovate a warehouse in San Antonio to look just as Vermeer's studio would have looked, painstakingly re-creating the windows, objects, floors—and people from The Music Lesson. He also mixes the paints the way Vermeer would have had to in the 1600s for the most authentic match possible.

Then, for several months, Tim paints. He paints every inch of his canvas in the exact way that he proposes the original artist did. What he discovers along the way had the audience I sat with gasping in wonder and delight.

I won't spoil the ending and tell you what his conclusion came to be, but I will say that I never dreamed that watching paint dry could be so entertaining.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Labor Day

Today I saw Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Adele (Winslet) is a single mother to Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and has such severe depression, she seldom leaves her home. Only when she has to tend to Henry's needs, does she depart.

Frank (Brolin) is an escaped convict who takes the two hostage and demands a safe haven as the manhunt for him begins. In their sleepy New Hampshire town, there are only so many places he could be (especially since he was injured during the escape), so one does wonder why there are no door-to-door searches.

That aside, I fully admit that I found this film completely satisfying.

Winslet recalls the pain she showed in Revolutionary Road, but plays it more understated this time. She's terrified of her intruder, but also drawn to what appears to be his kindness. Brolin is brooding, yet tender and Griffith is alternately horrified and curious. They all hit the right notes.

The longer Frank stays at the family home, the more useful he becomes. His handyman skills are put to use and for reasons we never learn, he's also an amazing cook/baker. As the film turns from suspense thriller to love story, we go with it. If someone as damaged as Adele really did receive a dangerous criminal in her home, who happened to be handsome and helpful, she may just fall for him. Hell, I would.

While other critics have nit-picked the obvious flaws (Frank is often outside; the townspeople are nosy but never discover him), the oversights didn't bother me here. I enjoyed spending time in this world; watching them drink Yuban coffee, bake peach pies and play vinyls on a record player while life just kept happening.

I'll be happy to watch this again.

Friday, February 28, 2014


Tonight I saw Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a troubled U.S. Air Marshall, embarking on a flight from New York to London. Jen Summers (Moore), a stereotypical, chatty passenger on her phone, trades places with another man for the window seat next to Marks.

Things are business as usual until folks start relaxing to sleep through the flight. As the plane grows quiet, the chime of Bill's phone goes off as he begins receiving messages from a would-be hijacker. He/she says that one passenger will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to a specific account—which we soon learn is under the name "Bill Marks."

Soon, a passenger is dead and all aboard have to wonder if Marks himself is the hijacker.

From there, the familar-Taken-like-version of Liam Neeson emerges and the film becomes a full-on thriller.

Only Nancy the flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) and Jen trust in his innocence—but are they making the right choice by supporting him?

The script plays a fun game of ping-pong with the audience, allowing them to believe that several different people could potentially be the hijacker and it all leads to a nerve-wracking, if not predictable, ending.

The acting is solid, the effects are decent and the script refrains from too many "catchphrase" quotes.

If you just want to get lost in something entertaining for almost two hours, I think you'll like this film.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2014)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

HELIUM (Denmark)

I want to know where Denmark trains their child actors because I have yet to see a weak performance from any of them. In this story, a young child named Alfred is terminally ill. He has a love for balloons—hot air, blimp, etc. so the adults fill his hospital room them to cheer him up. It's not until a hospital worker develops a special bond with Alfred, and makes up a "Helium" heaven that the child is able to accept his tragic fate. Beautifully written and wonderfully acted; a tender reminder of what's important in life.


Familiar actors and an unbelievable situation make this lighthearted entry one of the easiest of the nominees to digest. A psychiatrist is sent to a prison to evaluate an insane inmate who thinks he's a God and is forced to confront the fact that he may indeed be one. Brilliant "what if" that reminds us to be careful how we define "crazy."


The strongest entry (and my pick for the win) comes from the lengthiest of the nominees, with a 30-minute running time that flies by. A woman is desperate to escape her abusive husband and take her children with her in this race-against-the-clock situation. If this film were a book, it would be one of the best page-turners I've ever read. It conveys the fear, the pain, the shame and the hope associated with such a plot and has you wondering if she'll pull it off right to the very last frame.


The horrific dangers of the Sierra Leone are magnified in this brutal, violent look at what can (and probably has) happened in one of the most volatile patches of the world. Two humanitarian doctors are taken hostage trying to cross a sensitive border and the torture that follows is unspeakable. The humanity that emerges from the awful situations they endure is what redeems the images in the end. Still, certain parts of this story will be forever burned into my brain and I'm not sure I'm okay with that.


Women everywhere will cheer and laugh along with this sweet, hilarious take on an over-scheduled family trying to get themselves ready to attend the wedding of their friends. The husband is endearing, the kids are adorable and the mom is—well—super. Delightful romp, without question.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lone Survivor

Last Sunday I saw Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch.

It can't be overstated how damaging a spoiler title can be to a film.

Based on the memoir by real-life soldier Marcus Luttrell, the movie captures all of the horrors of war and combat without an ounce of suspense or hope since we all know that only one man will emerge with his life.

It shakes down like this: an American team of Navy SEALs is sent to Afghanistan to capture and/or eliminate a known Taliban leader. They quickly locate him and then everything that can go wrong does go wrong, all because of some goats.

The violence we witness in the injured soldiers who keep fighting until their last breath is alternately inspirational and gratuitous.

We know going in that we're going to see a lot of blood—it is a war movie after all. But scene after scene, shot after shot only serves to desensitize us viewers in the same way that the repetitive nature of the nightly news does.

I'm thankful that Mr. Luttrell emerged safe, if not scarred, by his experience in Afghanistan, but dismayed by the fact this wouldn't have been a movie (or book) had his fellow troops not given their lives.

I'm sorry for the cause and disappointed in the result.


Sunday, January 12, 2014


Today I saw Frozen, starring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel.

Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Bell) are sisters. Elsa is older and blessed with superpowers; Anna excitedly wakes Elsa to play using those superpowers, which create magical landscapes around them.

One morning when they're having fun, Elsa loses control of her powers and Anna gets hurt. Their parents rush to their aid and are advised to lock Elsa away and hide her powers from Anna going forward.

When they're older, Elsa reveals those powers and her emotions get the better of her as her sister announces her engagement. She essentially freezes their whole village, but doesn't know it as she escapes immediately thereafter.

Anna decides to save the town by finding her sister and asking her to thaw everything out. This, of course, is harder than it seems and true to fairy tale form, we learn it is true love that must save them.

The film is a delightful romp, rich with beautiful, snowy visuals that actually make you chilly while you watch. The strength of Anna's character is refreshing in a female lead (animated or not) and the snowman, who could be obnoxious, is actually pretty cute. I also liked the men (both the dreadful ones and the nice ones).

Sitting next to an adorable 3-year-old boy for the duration, I heard him once reason with his mother, "Maybe one sister can be the cold weather queen and the other sister could be the warm weather queen?"

His innocence speaks to the vibe of the movie, which concentrates on simple justice and the pursuit of happiness. Truly delightful.


Friday, January 10, 2014

August: Osage County

Tonight I saw August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Vi (Streep) is short for "Violet," but really it should be short for "vile."

Her character, the matriarch of a severely dysfunctional Midwestern family, is the verbal equivalent of Mommie Dearest, spitting venom in every direction to her three grown daughters (and everyone else in her path).

Her sainted husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd), has just died and the crowd has descended on her home for the burial and mourning.

In the days that follow, her girls Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) alternately uncover and reveal secrets about themselves and others, which culminates in an eruption of emotion that plays out mostly during one tense, long, hilarious, draining dinner scene.

My favorite person in the whole movie? Chris Cooper, who plays Violet's sweet brother-in-law Charlie. He's the voice of reason—the calm before, during and after the storm—and is also a victim of the poisonous clan. Cooper plays it with such good-old-boy grace, I wanted to hug him at the end.

Meryl Streep is unsurprisingly fabulous in the role. It's a film based on a play and she plays it like a play, but that's not a bad thing. Also endearing is Julianne Nicholson, who I've admired since Flannel Pajamas, and really gets the chance to shine here with her character of several dimensions.

Margo Martindale owns her hilarious and tragic role as Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, and sparkles in authenticity.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thoroughly entertained: laughing, crying and gasping all the way through. But I do wish they hadn't talked about the heat so much (we got it after the first two fan scenes), I thought the Native American jokes got old and there are a few others who probably could've tackled the role of Barbara in a less abrasive way and made her more sympathetic.

But overall, well done. A slice of life that cuts deep.


Sunday, January 05, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Today I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Issac and Carey Mulligan.

Llewyn Davis (Issac) is a 'starving artist' musician in New York. The year is 1961; the mood is grim.

Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) are fellow folk singers who run in the same circles as Llewyn, and Llewyn may or may not have impregnated Jean. This is only one of the apparent many reasons that she hates him.

Davis seems to have a case of perpetual bad luck, but it's terribly hard to sympathize with him because his demeanor is so unappealing. You've met those people—the ones who whine and whine and act as if they're the only person in the world that has to struggle? That's the type of sad sack that Davis encompasses.

So… light attracts light and dark attracts dark. When you fall into a tunnel of darkness and refuse to climb out of it (or lose the will to at least try), you'll only spiral further down. And Davis, who couch surfs his way though his miserable life, is one big ball of darkness.

Jean is so full of venom that we barely even notice when Mulligan's American accent slips or her character tries to do a nice thing for Llewyn. We're way past her by then, having coated us in such anger.

That leaves the brief (but shining) performances by Timberlake and John Goodman to keep things light, and for a few moments they do. Timberlake leading the best song in the film, "Please Mr. Kennedy," and Goodman a passenger on the road trip from hell. Both brilliant performances that gave great flavor to the film.

I can't pretend the Coen brothers haven't done better. This isn't in the same ballpark as No Country for Old Men or The Man Who Wasn't There, but it's not terrible either.

Just make sure you see it when you're in a bright mood or it might bring you down.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle

Tonight I saw American Hustle, starring Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams.

The Abscam scandal of the 1970s was the inspiration for this David O. Russell film about the FBI's use of a real con man to take down members of the U.S. government. In this dramatized version, we see two clever con artists: Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Adams). They have a passionate personal relationship in addition to their professional collaboration, though Irving is overweight and married.

Enter Riche DiMaso (Cooper), an FBI agent hungry for a big sting, who after catching them in the act, recruits the pair for a bigger operation. They don't have much choice to accept the challenge and do their best to make the most of it. And the audience are the lucky recipients of their sparks.

Sydney flirts with Richie, Richie abuses his boss (played by the always-hilarious Louis C.K.), Irving fights with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and the mayor (Jeremy Renner) acts like... well... a politician.

All of this is wildly entertaining, but nothing is as perfect as every scene-stealing moment that Jennifer Lawrence takes the screen. The whole cast is terrific, but Lawrence lights up the room with her impeccable comedic timing and charisma. Let's just say I wouldn't be too surprised (or disappointed) if she took home another Oscar this year.

Also of note is the director's brilliant use of music. Taking cues from Tarantino and Scorsese, the music is of-the-era (the deliciously gritty '70s) and just as much a part of the script as the dialogue.

The twists and turns, though not complex, are clever and the ending is undeniably satisfying.

Believe the hype about this one—it's all true.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Today I saw Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.

The life of South African leader Nelson Mandela is inspiring under any lens, but actor Idris Elba brings a special spirit in his portrayal of the peacemaker in this film.

From the early scenes of him as a womanizer during his first marriage, to the angry scenes as his activism took flight in his 30s and on to the duration of his imprisonment, Elba nails it. His passion, his patience, his love, his grace.

Alongside him throughout the film was Naomie Harris, playing his second wife Winnie. Harris shows the fire within Winnie that fuels her ability to change the world. She did too, after all, though her tactics weren't always as kind.

The details we see here show more of the personal side of Madibe (as he is more often called); the father who didn't know his kids as they grew; the husband who never stopped loving his wife, though he couldn't physically touch her for 21 of his 27 years in prison. The time he lost will always be heartbreaking, no matter how many times we remind ourselves he had a happy ending (and speaking of happy endings: don't miss the end credits featuring a U2 song over real photos of his life).

In our modern, selfish world it's difficult to contemplate the integrity of someone so morally focused. Inconceivable to imagine the sacrifice of one's prime years in life, though it's painfully refreshing to watch.

As some of the scenes during his imprisonment lingered on quietly, I began fidgeting in my seat, mentally preparing to make a note of the slow pace for this review. And then it dawned on me: the filmmakers are trying to convey a 27-year imprisonment of an innocent man in less than three hours.

Shame on me for even considering a criticism of wasted time.


Saturday, December 28, 2013


Today I saw Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.

If you've ever panicked, thinking you've lost all the data on your smartphone, remember how fast your heart beat in those moments, and then think how much faster your heart would beat if you thought you were losing a relationship in there too. That's what's at stake for the virtual lovers in Her.

Theodore (Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Heartfelt, beautiful letters that get sent the old-fashioned way since our society has given up doing so. He is sadly separating from his wife (Rooney Mara), who we at first only see in brief flashbacks that make us wonder why their love died.

Though his profession clings to the nostalgia of the past, his life revolves around the technology of the future. Though he's barely social with humans anymore, he does sign up for an Operating System (OS) personal assistant and soon develops feelings for Her (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). She goes by the name Samantha. Amy (Amy Adams) is Theodore's closest human friend and she is just glad he's got a thirst for life again.

Soon the feelings between Theodore and Samantha are "mutual" and they become a fashionable couple. They have steamy phone sex, go on double dates with fully human couples—hell, she even shops for him. Though as I write this, it sounds absurd, the dynamic is not so unbelievable when presented on screen.

Aside from Joaquin's overacting (which happens throughout in his exaggerated facial expressions), the story borders on sweet. Theodore is a nice enough guy, and what harm is it doing for him to keep company with his computer, right?

Well, the Big Looming Lesson here is that our world is becoming too disconnected as we try to perpetually stay connected. Nothing can replace human love or interaction; not even an entity programmed to our specifications.

Director Spike Jonze also makes a point of showing countless wide open spaces (both in nature and indoors), which illustrate how hollow our landscape is; certainly meant to be a metaphor for our hearts in this modern world.

Johansson did a fine job with the voice of Samantha, but I have to wonder if the effect might have been greater if an unknown actress (who we couldn't picture so easily) had played the part.

It's an interesting (and timely) concept to explore the obsession we have with technology; I only wish this had been more multidimensional and less preachy.