Sunday, December 30, 2012


Tonight I saw Skyfall, starring Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem.

What a fun ride!

I'll confess that I haven't loved the entire library of Bond movies—and the last one left a lot to be desired—but this one brought me back.

The opening scene is nothing if not exhilarating, with 007 (Craig) jumping trains and operating heavy equipment (yep) to bring down his first enemy of the chase.

Behind the scenes, M (Dame Judi Dench) is calling the shots, and unfortunately not calling them too well. There are moments of worry that the entire film may turn into one long funeral, but of course that's not the case. Bond is back, after all.

And even as wonderful as the two of them are, nothing injects the story with more pizazz than the appearance of villain Silva (Bardem), who appears to relish in the art of revenge.

Bardem is in fact so good in this role, it sort of makes me wish he could just pop in to every movie and "be the bad guy" because he brings his characters to life with such dimension. We fear him, we loathe him and we can't take our eyes off of him.

He's sadistic here, but also sad—showing traces of the time when he was once on the right side of the action. That said, our threshold for tolerating gratuitous violence may be exhausted several times as we anticipate the good triumphing over evil.

Aside from the excessive guns and explosions (it is, after all, a spy film), this story twists and turns with sexy scenes and fast-paced thrills that never disappoint.

The running time of almost three hours just flies by.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas

Tonight I saw The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, starring Edward Burns and Anita Gillette.

Jerry (Burns) wants his siblings to gather and celebrate his mother's birthday a few days before Christmas but they all have other commitments, so plan B is to reunite the whole family—including their estranged patriarch—for Christmas dinner.

The youngest of the bunch want nothing to do with their father, still holding onto anger from his abandonment years ago; the older children are more sympathetic, but vow to leave the final decision up to their mother (Gillette).

In the midst of all of the shuffling, one sister is dealing with an abusive husband, while another brother is hoping to propose marriage to the younger girlfriend he "likes a lot." Oh, and Dad announces that he has cancer.

What I love about Edward Burns' films (he wrote and directed this one as well) is that there are always a lot of moving parts, and plenty of characters who we may or may not really get to know. Why do I love this? Because it's just like life.

Every breathing soul in our world is not necessarily someone we know, but somehow in some way, they may have a lot to do with our life. And who lives a life free of drama? None of us. So it's nice to see that dysfunctional existence brought to the surface on screen.

Everyone here feels as if they have an actual beating heart, and everyone here is someone we may like. Or not. None of the members of this family are perfect (though Jerry probably comes the closest), but all of them have redeeming qualities. The beauty is that though conceptually the family is very stereotypical (Irish, Catholic, etc.), the characters are so well fleshed-out, they're anything but one-dimensional.

Location is less of a character compared to past films such as Sidewalks of New York and Purple Violets, but the cozy interiors tell enough of a story to satisfy a sense of place.

My only real criticism of this story would lie in the underuse of Connie Britton who plays nurse Nora. She's an endearing break from the core family drama, and sparks impressive chemistry with Burns. I wish she'd had more of a prominent spot later in the film, but perhaps she's being saved for the sequel?
I suppose time will tell, but until then, I'll wonder about who will be seated at next year's Fitzgerald Christmas dinner.

Les Misérables

Today I saw Les Misérables, starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.

The famous musical is so well-known at this point, I don't feel the need to recount the plot, but I will say that this rendition, sung live by its actors, certainly communicates the sentiment.

Director Tom Hooper thankfully doesn't add flash where none is necessary. Much like its anticipated awards season rival, Lincoln, it feels more like a stage performance than a film at some points, but that's forgiven in the context of the narrative.

Hugh Jackman couldn't be better as Valjean, with his earnest glances and dignified actions; Russell Crowe is equally superb as the rough Javert, nailing every line and mannerism.

Where I cringed a bit was when Anne Hathaway over-acted her part as Fantine, and her beautiful singing was overshadowed by her exaggerated looks of torture and despair. She would have been much more powerful if she'd played it understated. But oh, well. Her screen time is minimal after the first act, and others pick up where she left off—Amanda Seyfried as her daughter Cosette, and the refreshing Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier were welcome sights, as was Eddie Redmayne, who played an impressive Marius.

The aerial shots and meticulous costumes also add a grandeur to the film, which will surely be remembered at the Oscars for its sets and design, if not for its actors.

Overall, this is a satisfying, if not perfect, re-make of a story more often told as a play.


Monday, December 24, 2012

This Is 40

Tonight I saw This Is 40, starring Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Rudd) are turning 40. Pete doesn't seem to mind it's happening to him, but Debbie has real trouble with it.

She begins to reflect on their family life (Mann's wonderful real-life children play their two daughters) and hopes to make positive changes before they get too old to enjoy one another.

Of course the more any of us try to plan our lives, the worse they turn out.

Pete is a cupcake-eating, secret-keeping, unwilling-to-face-reality loser who seems to care more about his record label than his marriage. Debbie is a judgmental, neurotic, worry wart who spies on her daughter's Facebook page and texts. The two only seem happy together when they escape for a weekend away and get high off marijuana cookies at a resort.

Though they try to make a 'deal' that they'll be better about kicking bad habits, and being nice to one another, all bets go out the window when the financial problems worsen and they begin calling their parents out on why they both turned out the way that they did.

I'm never a fan of films that justify adults blaming their parents for all of the problems in their grown-up lives, but luckily this film limits that rant to just a few scenes, so I can forgive it. It also shines a light on the lead couples' children calling their bluffs, so the absurdity is not lost on the audience.

The true-to-life dynamics between the children and the parents were some of the best points of the movie, even when it wasn't funny.

But mostly, it was funny.

I realize from my first few paragraphs, this film sounds heavy, but despite some isolated moments, it's really not. It's actually quite funny. And grown up, if you don't mind all the fighting.

Though I've not yet reached the dreaded age of 40, and don't have children of my own, I can relate to the fears about aging, and the frightening possibility that I may turn into a version of my parents.
Thankfully, this group of characters keeps it light enough to be enjoyable instead of haunting.


Friday, December 07, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Yesterday I saw Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins.

Jackie (Pitt) is brought in to restore order to a community of criminals after some amateurs rob a mobster card game.

His driver (Jenkins) acts as a supervisor removed from the violence; Mickey (James Gandolfini) is the pro Jackie outsources to finish off a guy who knows him.

In between this all, some other men get high (and we're treated to an ridiculously long scene from their POV), while another gets almost beaten to death for the robbery (though he was uninvolved).

There's also a beautiful hooker, a lot of drinks, multiple gun shots, a few driving scenes and even a shot of one of the criminals walking his dog.

I'm not sure if this film was an attempt at Tarantino-style action or just a very confusing episode of The Sopranos gone wrong, but whatever it was, it wasted the wealth of talent within.

Be smart and skip this one.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Collection

Yesterday I saw The Collection, starring Josh Stewart and Emma Fitzpatrick.

Elena (Fitzpatrick) is a privileged twenty-something who decides on a whim to go with her friends to a popular 'nightclub.' Unfortunately, the club has been booby-trapped by a sadistic killer and few will make it out alive.

The story is a sequel to The Collector, which I'll confess to having never seen, but I doubt previous experience with the characters would have made this any less horrific.

Basically, the living demon responsible for all of the murders is big on torture and 'collects' things: body parts, the sanity of his victims, and a few living souls who will wished they were spared life once they realize what he has planned for them.

In films like this, that are primarily 'scary' because of slamming doors and bloody scenes, I find it hard to register actual fear, because the effects are so distracting.

I'm much more interested in why a human being would want to inflict such pain on others than seeing how they do it.

The acting here is just fine, considering the dialog they're given to work with is so weak. Stewart as an escaped prisoner of the killer who is forced to return to the scene of the crime (to rescue the rich girl) is brooding and hesitant (as one would be) and Fitzpatrick's Elena is determined and strong, despite the fact she's probably been pampered all of her life.

There are plenty of great horror flicks out there these days; this is definitely not one of them.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Tonight I saw Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #118, so tune in for our review in a few weeks.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Sessions

This morning I saw The Sessions, starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt.

Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) is disabled from childhood polio and lives most of his life inside of an iron lung. Despite this confinement, he is an accomplished poet with a sense of humor and a desire to enjoy normal things.

When he reaches the age of 38, he decides that he would like to pursue losing his virginity.

As a devout Catholic, he wrestles with the sin of premarital sex, and consults with his priest to see if he can "get a pass," since the chances of him marrying are slim to none. The priest grants him his blessing and soon he seeks the help of sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt).

Cheryl does her best to communicate the boundaries of her role to Mark, but that doesn't stop him from developing a crush on her. After all, he's never been this intimate physically or emotionally with a woman before.

Their sessions to teach him about his sexuality are clinical, yet tender; mechanical, yet arousing. Most people probably don't even know that folks like Cheryl exist (and this, after all, is a true story).

Hawkes is phenomenal as the vulnerable, sweet, scared Mark, who wrestles with so many issues, you wonder if he'll ever be able to give his heart (and body) to any woman; Hunt is equally impressive as a matter-of-fact doctor of sorts, who is brimming with compassion.

This movie is far better than most films in theaters today. The dialogue is witty (and dangerously close to how it really happened, when compared with O'Brien's actual article on the topic); the revealing scenes are treated respectfully and tastefully while not being too sanitized.

It will surprise me if *The Sessions* doesn't receive multiple Oscar nominations, as it deserves several.

Go see it.



On Friday I saw Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field.

The last few months of Abraham Lincoln's life are often overshadowed by stories of his famous assassination at Ford's Theatre. In Steven Spielberg's new film, the months leading up to that event take center stage.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the popular president in the most historically accurate way possible: hunched over, soft-spoken and thoughtful. According to the scholars, Mr. Lincoln was all of those things.

What's so brilliant about this performance is that his humanity, and his elegant simplicity, shines through. Lincoln was a common man from humble beginnings, and his gift for knowing 'real' people is part of what made him a great politician.

The film shows the president's struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed as his son threatens to go off to war and his wife Mary (Field) forbids it, having already lost one son to the country. Field's performance as the 'crazy' First Lady is played less hysterically than one might expect, and that's what makes it work.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a convincing young Robert Todd Lincoln, and the rest of the supporting cast: David Strathairn, John Hawkes and Tommy Lee Jones, all work their magic as the movers and shakers of the time.

The usual Spielberg-ian grandeur is traded in this time for what mimics a quiet stage performance, and that makes sense since the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

If you're looking for a Civil War-era film with action, this isn't the movie for you; but if you want to see some of the most impressive acting of the year, coupled with a slice of history often forgotten, you need to see Lincoln.


Sunday, November 11, 2012


Today I saw Flight, starring Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is an addict. He likes his cocaine, he likes his women and he loves his drink. He's also a reliable, successful commercial airline pilot.

On a routine flight when the weather gets bad, Whip recovers the plane from horrible turbulence. Later, a technical malfunction causes the plane to nosedive and it's the quick thinking and actions of the pilot that result in a crash landing, which only causes six deaths.

When he wakes from his injuries, he's celebrated as a hero as his legal team works fiercely to hide the fact he could also be a criminal based on the amount of drugs he had in his system at the time of the flight.

At this point, the film shifts from being a suspense thriller to a difficult-to-watch, yet can't-take-your-eyes-off-of-it story of addiction.

Washington and Kelly Reilly, who plays his addicted girlfriend Nicole, are nothing short of superb in communicating the silence and sadness that haunt the lives of those who can't stop. Their situations are authentic and their struggles are common—in fact, since *Leaving Las Vegas*, I can't think of any film that's been as good at showing the raw behaviors of addiction.

What's more, it's difficult to determine who or what you should be rooting for as a viewer, which makes the dissection of the story all that more complex.

Robert Zemeckis is one of my favorite directors and I'm thrilled to see that he's crafted another film that's accessible to the mainstream, yet still sophisticated enough to keep the savvy filmgoers satisfied.

I can recommend this for just about any adult, except for those who are perhaps afraid of flying (the crash scene is beyond intense).


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Today I saw Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
It will be the topic of Cinebanter #118, so tune in later this month for our review.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This morning I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower, starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson.

Charlie (Lerman) longs for companionship because something in his past caused him to shut down socially.

Sam (Watson) made many mistakes in her past, but has found solace in her friends and her bestie stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller).

When Patrick befriends Charlie, Sam is the one who brings him out of his shell, which causes Charlie to fall in love with her. Of course, as in any teenage story, Sam already has her eyes on another guy, so they just remain friends.

Charlie loves his new life, though his past never stops fully haunting him. The remainder of the film lets the audience navigate this brave new world with him—and its inevitable road bumps.

What's so refreshing about the wonderful script that Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the novel) has created is that it's painfully realistic.

There are major themes explored in this film—virginity, bullying, homophobia, child abuse, accident trauma and promiscuity, just to name a few. But none of these overwhelming topics ever cloud the story or its progress. The lives of these characters just keep moving along as they would if they were living, breathing souls.

It doesn't hurt that the cast is phenomenal.

Logan Lerman has eyes so sweet, you'll ache for his every setback

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Today I saw the animated feature, ParaNorman.

Norman isn't like other children. 
Kids don't like him because he's different; his family grows tired of his paranormal claims. Basically, he sees ghosts and hardly anyone believes him.
His one true friend, Neil, a chubby kid that deals with bullies of his own, does have faith he's telling the truth and wants to help Norman as he prepares to save their village from an end-of-days curse.
Throughout this film there's a healthy mix of every-day kid situations (obnoxious older siblings; idiot classmates that pick on others because they're not as smart as their victims) and historical/paranormal references including everything from witch trials to modern-day zombies. The balance is good, but I would hesitate taking a small child to see this. Aside from the obvious frightening scenes, there would be a lot of explaining to do on the part of the adult.
The afterlife is a major theme, as is that of bullying and the treatment of social outcasts.
Overall it sends a wonderful message about how we all should treat each other while marveling us with gorgeous animation wrapped into a very sweet story.
A wonderful escape, especially during the spooky fall season.


Last night I saw Argo, starring Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston.

Tony Mendez (Affleck) is an 'exfiltration' specialist for the CIA, which means he specializes in removing people from dangerous situations. Jack O'Donnell (Cranston) enlists Mendez to formulate a way to get six American Embassy refugees, currently in hiding at the Canadian ambassador's residence, home safely from an Iranian disaster zone. The year is 1979.

Though unconventional, Mendez has an idea to coach the six into portraying themselves as a Canadian film crew to get them out of the country. The general consensus is that the proposal "is so crazy it just might work," so the seal of approval is granted by the CIA to move forward with the plan.

Sounds like a great idea for a screenplay doesn't it? The twist is that this story is true. Painfully accurate, as a matter of fact. The events in this film really did happen and were unknown to the world until President Clinton de-classified the operation in the 1990s.

One may assume that because we know the ending the movie's sense of suspense will suffer, but that's not the case. Affleck, who also directed the film, has created a thriller masterpiece here. He's given us a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot, duplicated the physical appearance of the actors to look eerily like their real counterparts and delivered a film full of heart, humor and humility.

Though I knew how the story ended going into it, there were moments where I was actually holding my breath watching it all play out. The casting, the acting, the pacing, the writing—all superb.

It will be hard for another film to surpass the greatness of this one for me this year. Get to the theater right away and take it all in. You won't be disappointed (and do remember to stay for the credits).


Sunday, October 07, 2012


This morning I saw Frankenweenie, an animated feature by Tim Burton.

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) only has one true friend—his dog Sparky. He doesn't really play outside or interact with other kids, but Sparky is always there to star in his home movies and keep him company.

When the dog dies in an Owen Meany-ish accident at the ball park, the world as Victor knows it crumbles.

Inspired by a lesson taught by his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he successfully brings Sparky back to life in what seems to be an homage to the classic Bride of Frankenstein with a wink toward Back to the Future (there's a lot of relying-on-lightning-striking here). The whole process is a nostalgic treat to watch.

Another classmate who is short on friends soon finds out about this magical result and threatens to tell everyone that Sparky is alive unless Victor shares his scientific secret with him. He complies and soon, despite the promises of discretion, the word is out.

Of course the experiment doesn't work the same way for everyone, and soon they have a catastrophe on their hands (I especially liked the giggling sea monkeys).

This is the only part of the film that I would hesitate to let small children see. Some of the animals that leap out on to the screen are quite menacing and the whole film is a dark black and white, which lays a grim visual landscape from the start.

I wouldn't say this is Burton's best film, as the pacing is slow in a few places and the predictability is very high.

But it is a sweet story about a boy and the dog he loves, and who could resist that?


Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Master

Today I saw The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #117, so please tune in later this month for that episode.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Finding Nemo 3D

Tonight I saw the Pixar classic, Finding Nemo, in 3D.

Though I've seen the film dozens of times, until this evening, I had never seen it in 3D. And oh, how beautiful it was!

Nemo (Alexander Gould), a young clown fish, is angry with his father on the first day of school and swims to a nearby boat. His father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), goes after him but doesn't make it in time and a scuba diver scoops Nemo up.

The young fish lands in an aquarium at a Sydney, Australia dental office; his father desperately sets out (despite his own fears about the ocean) to find him.

Marlin soon meets up with a female fish, Dory, who is voiced by a hilarious Ellen DeGeneres. She suffers from short-term memory challenges, but thankfully remembers the address on the scuba diver's goggles so they can try to get to Nemo.

Nemo meanwhile has made friends with his fellow aquarium fish, as they are busy planning their escape.

Will they reunite? Well, if you haven't seen it by now, you should get yourself to a theater.

As with every Pixar film, there are delightful tidbits for the adults to enjoy while the kids marvel at the visuals. This is all underlined with a healthy dose of heart, delivered sentimentally in just the right places.

I think after seeing the vibrant ocean life pop with new dimension, I love this film even more than I did before.


Friday, September 21, 2012

House at the End of the Street

Tonight I saw House at the End of the Street, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Elisabeth Shue.

Elissa (Lawrence) and her mother Sarah (Shue) are starting over. They appear to have a less-than-perfect relationship, but both are giving this new life a chance. Elissa has enrolled in school; Sarah has acquired a job at the local hospital and they've moved to the country into a beautiful rental house they can only afford because a brutal murder took place next door.

Though the event happened years ago, the property still carries the history of what happened and the town still shuns the one surviving member of the family, Ryan, who happens to be the same age as Elissa.

Ryan (Max Thieriot) seems to be a gentle, sweet guy, so Elissa soon befriends him instead of the neighbor boy that her mother favors.

What Elissa doesn't know is that his disturbed, violent sister did not drown as the community beleives—Ryan is caring for her in his basement.

He keeps this a secret as he and Elissa grow closer and Sarah tries her best to keep the two apart.

Everything after this point is a spoiler, so I won't go any further with the plot, but I will say that Lawrence does a predictably wonderful job as a tough girl with a soft heart put into terrifying situations because of her decisions.

On the same token, Shue is solid playing a mom that is probably not as smart as her girl, but loves her enough to overcome it.

The final sequences are filled with suspense and a few twists that make this better than the average bump-in-the-night horror film.

Just don't go downstairs if you don't already know what's there.


Friday, September 14, 2012

The Campaign

Last night I saw The Campaign, starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Cam Brady (Ferrell) is used to winning—he's been the congressman in a small North Carolina town for years and is running unopposed for another term.

Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is the son of a prominent man who has always desired the approval of his father, though has no experience in politics.

The Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) want a puppet they can control (and develop Chinese sweatshops) to take power, so they move in and groom Marty to beat Cam.

Going into films like this, I'm often prepared to learn that the funniest scenes were in the trailer, but here I was pleasantly surprised. There was plenty of funny to go around.

Ferrell never goes into his signature George W. Bush impression (as I feared) and is just slimy enough to echo an actual candidate.

Galifianakis is sweet and consistent throughout—maintaining his effeminate mannerisms even after his team has "toughened" him up.

The supporting players are there just enough to let the two leads do their thing, and their thing is hilarious.

There is language and sex, but what was thankfully missing was bathroom humor. And perhaps that's why I liked it so much. At least two scenes had me in tears, I laughed so hard.

I love it when a comedy does that to me.


Monday, September 03, 2012

Celeste & Jesse Forever

Today I saw Celeste & Jesse Forever, starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg.

They're not your average divorcing couple—Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) still live on the same property, still go out with friends together and still say "I love you" at the end of each night.

So what's wrong with that? Well, it annoys their friends and keeps the pair from moving on to other people (and signing those every-so-important legal papers). Like the end of any relationship, a major catalyst is needed and this couple gets one, though it's a surprise to both.

How they handle it is very gender stereotypical: Celeste cries a lot, eats a lot, gets publicly drunk and asks friends how Jesse is doing. Jesse finds comfort in intimacy, avoids confrontation and goes on with his life.

The man accepts things as they are (even if he's not 100 percent happy) and the woman can't let it go.

Instead of being bitter about this portrayal, I chose to go with it and was satisfied all the more for doing so. Without over-romanticizing things, Jones and co-writer Will McCormack draw the characters away from a film-friendly unreality and thrust them into human reactions and behaviors.

Although it wasn't as happy as I may have hoped it would be, it was refreshingly authentic, and the two leads did a wonderful job of communicating both their joy and pain.

If more movies were this honest, perhaps none of us would have ridiculous delusions of grandeur in our love lives.


Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Possession

Tonight I saw The Possession, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis.

Clyde (Morgan) is a recently divorced dad with two daughters. He maintains a pleasant, if not awkward, relationship with his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick).

One day, in need of furnishings for his new home, his girls convince him to stop at a nearby garage sale. His younger daughter Emily (Calis) finds a few items to take home for herself—a hat, some gloves and a mysterious wooden box with a Jewish inscription.

People at the house where the box is purchased act weird when they see Emily has claimed it, but say nothing.

Immediately after opening the box, odd things begin to happen in Clyde's home. The family suddenly has a pest problem (though the home was just built) and Emily starts having violent episodes.

At first, Emily's parents blame themselves for her behavior, but Clyde soon realizes it's much more than that and determines the correlation to the box.

He seeks the help of a devout Jewish man to remove the spirit from Em's body, and arrives at the hospital where Emily has been admitted to perform the ritual.

Of course, the film can't help but have comparisons to The Exorcist,  but it's forgivable because the acting is so good and the story is so real.

Never does this narrative dive into ridiculous territory (though one scene with an unlucky teacher did earn some snickers in my theater); the characters remain strong and realistic throughout.

Though I found several scenes to be creepy (just wait for that MRI), I can't say this scared me too much, but perhaps that's my own fault. I've been following the real story of this dybbuk box since Entertainment Weekly did a story on it a few weeks ago. And I can safely say, the truth is far more unsettling than the fiction.

But if you're in need of a few jumps and starts from a psychological romp, I can easily recommend this film.


Friday, August 17, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Last night I saw The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz.

Aaron (Renner) is a spy on the run who is in need of his daily meds. He is part of an elite program of spies who are trained to do just about everything. Among his peers is the missing-in-action Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, who only appears in a photo in this installment of the series).

After a cold, difficult trek through the mountains, Aaron cleverly escapes the wolves who were chasing him, and the bosses who seek to destroy him (apparently everyone in the club must die since they're discontinuing that mission). In the process, he comes to the rescue of Dr. Shearing (Weisz), a lab genius for the group who escaped a mass murder shooting by one of her colleagues only to be turned into prey for her bosses (the same bosses who seek to eliminate Aaron). He is preserving her because she is the only doctor left who can lead him to more meds.

Turns out, the meds are in Manilla, so the obligatory chase scenes begin with their attempt to get there, of course with the government on their heels at each turn.

Everything here on out is very standard 'action' film content, with an especially ridiculous motorcycle ride near the end.

I'll admit I was entertained, and after the slow pace in the beginning, the speed of the story picked up considerably. What made this movie so disappointing was the lack of intelligence.

In the past Bourne films, the heart-stopping action sequences have been built and executed around clever, smart, complicated narratives.

Here, it's merely plot points A, B and C with very little chemistry between the players and over-the-top stunts.

I miss Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass.


Friday, August 10, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Tonight I saw the documentary The Queen of Versailles, directed by Lauren Greenfield.

Jackie and David Siegel are the epitome of the 1%. At the beginning of this film, they're in the progress of constructing the largest single family home in America. Their lives are all about excess: they have eight kids; 15 housekeepers; five nannies; drivers and more. They're active political contributors (David claims credit for getting W. elected for his first term) and are literally modeling the house they're building after the Palace of Versailles in France.

David is a time-share mogul who keeps growing his empire; his wife Jackie is a former model/computer engineer who just might be a hoarder. Of really expensive things.

Their world comes crashing down when the economy collapses and David is forced to halt construction on the mansion as he lays off thousands of employees to save the business. Times are tough—as long as you define "tough" as "flying commercial" and switching from private to public school for the kids.

On paper, they don't seem like a family that the average person would feel sorry for, but through the course of the narrative, you almost can't help but like them. Really, who wants to root against the American dream?

After all, they are self-made millionaires who both came from modest upbringings and were smart enough to build this wealth themselves. They do appear to have married for love, and their children seem like decent, kind people.

Maybe they aren't so bad, but gee it's hard to watch Jackie shop her way through a ghastly place like Wal-Mart for dozens of toys the kids clearly don't need.

One of the most touching scenes shows the family opening presents on Christmas morning and David explaining why a plain Hershey bar is one of his most treasured gifts. At the end of the day, he seems to get what's important but can't stop himself from being a business man.

At that is the moral of the story: watch out for the greed, because it almost always gets you in the end.

This was an incredibly watchable, human look at everyday people who became extraordinary and then normal again. Greenfield stays away from sensationalizing the situation and captures the family instead as they are—lucky for her, they're fascinating.


Saturday, August 04, 2012

Total Recall (2012)

Tonight I saw Total Recall, starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale.

For a remake, it's not as bad as it could be, but as a stand-alone film it has some flaws.

Colin (Quaid) is a factory worker in a dystopian future who is looking for an escape from his less-than-fulfilling life (though his job seems solid and his wife seems hot, but whatever). He decides to take a risk and go to Rekall, where he can have new memories programmed into his brain. Note: this sequence of the film reminded me more of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than it did the original Recall, but that moment soon escaped me.

When Quaid goes in for the procedure, hoping to be programmed as a secret agent, all hell breaks loose and his identity is called into question.

From here on out, the film is a roller coaster of storm-trooper-resembling soldiers, deceptive women and Bryan Cranston, who unfortunately can't come close to being as menacing as his Breaking Bad alter ego, Walt.

Is it entertaining? Sure. Farrell is a solid actor (and more believable as a highly intelligent operative than the role's original Arnold S.) and the chemistry he has with Beckinsale is fun to watch.

But for a sci fi movie that clearly maps out what has become of our world, the scenery is pretty unremarkable, and some of the technologies (phones implanted in hands) don't match up with other props (a good old paperback book—which makes us wonder if the Kindle population was also wiped out in the chemical warfare).

Cool to see? Refrigerator photos and notes that are digital (I can't imagine that doesn't already exist) and hovercrafts that rival those from Back to the Future II.

Not so much? Jessica Biel who really doesn't convince the audience of anything. I'm still not sure why she had to be there.

All in all, you could do worse if you're just wanting some action-heavy, pow-wow entertainment, but if you're looking for substance or sci fi innovation, stay home.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

To Rome with Love

Today I saw To Rome with Love, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin.

This film was just what I needed. Woody Allen directs and stars in this delightful dance around Rome. Using his signature themes of adultery and infatuation, he shows us four stories of life and love—all entertaining and pleasant to follow.

First, there's Jack (Eisenberg), an aspiring American architect living in Rome with his girlfriend, getting to know an architectural legend, John (Baldwin) whom he met on the street. John comes for coffee and then materializes magically (hilariously) for days thereafter to offer advice. Monica (Ellen Page) is the seductress that John is advising Jack against.

Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an everyday business man until he wakes up famous for no reason. The paparazzi hound him, he enjoys the pleasures of popularity and exhibits behavior associated with those who gain fame too fast.

Antonio (Alessandro Tiberian) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are newlyweds who have come to the city to introduce Milly to Antonio's family. She feels frumpy and sets out to find a beauty salon and gets lost. By days' end, both sides of this happy couple will be sexually tempted by strangers.

Hillary (Allison Pill) falls in love and becomes engaged to Michaelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and wants her parents Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) to meet him. When they arrive in Rome, they learn of Michaelangelo's father who is an undertaker with a gift for song. Jerry, a former music man, wants to jump start his career, but needs to come up with a creative way for him to overcome stage fright.

Each story is told with heart and humor, and every path leads to at least one character to root for. This film isn't a masterpiece like Match Point or Midnight in Paris, but it is very satisfying. I only wish Woody would continue this trend of basing his films in European cities.

I can only imagine what he'd do with Dublin.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Tonight I saw The Dark Knight Rises, starring Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway. It will be the topic of our August Cinebanter show, so tune in next month for our review.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Magic Mike

Tonight I saw Magic Mike, starring Channing Tatum and Cody Horn.

Let's be real—none of us were going for the plot anyway.

Magic Mike is the stripper name of Mike (Tatum), who has a lot of 'career' irons in the fire. He's a construction worker, auto detailer and maker of high-concept furniture, but his bread and butter comes from stripping.

Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is a 19-year-old 'kid' who Mike meets on a construction job. Down on his luck, Adam needs work, so Mike recruits him to be a prop guy at the club...which soon leads to him also becoming a stripper. And a drug dealer. And a punk.

Amidst all the chaos is a budding romance between Mike and Adam's sister Brooke (Horn). Brooke is the physical opposite of all the ladies that frequent the club: low-maintenance, sans makeup, real breasts. He's immediately smitten, of course.

As Mike attempts (quite unsuccessfully) to keep Adam on the straight and narrow, Brooke acts as his judgmental conscience, all the while falling equally in love (or lust) with him.

If the characters weren't so devoid of intelligence, it would have borderline sweet.

But Mike thinks he can get an SBA loan with a stack of ones he collected from his underwear, and Adam thinks he can 'lose' a backpack full of ecstasy and not repay his debts to the drug lords.


Yeah, it's not so good.

But the werewolf from True Blood (Joe Manganiello) does do some dancing, and Channing is undeniably convincing as the 'lead' stripper, so there are moments of pleasure here and there (I was personally partial to the 'military' sequence).

And Matthew McConaughey? Well, he's almost too convincing as the slimy club owner.

All in all, for a stripper movie billed as the ingredients for a quintessential ladies' night, I could have done with much less talking and a lot more action.


Hard Times: Lost on Long Island Premieres Monday, July 9

Wednesday, July 04, 2012


Today I saw Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. It will the be the topic of our July episode of Cinebanter, so tune in later this month for our review.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Today I saw Moonrise Kingdom, starring Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.

Orphan Sam (Gilman) and disenchanted Suzy (Hayward) are experiencing first love with each other. They met last year and have successfully run away with each other this summer. Him from scout camp; her from home (in a nearby lighthouse).

Because Sam is stellar camper, they have all they need to survive: a tent, weapons, food (plus the know-how to catch more) and a compass. In fact, by the time the adults in their lives realize they're missing, they're already enjoying an 'independent' life at their destination, full of dancing (they brought a record player, of course), reading and kissing.

Once the adults retrieve them, a new mission begins to reunite the pair.

All of this is very sweet, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy seeing Edward Norton (Scout Master Ward) dressed in camp clothes leading a pack of little guys, but the cardboard way in which Wes Anderson forces his actors to behave takes all of the life out of the love.

His trademark style is there: vintage clothes; dark eyeliner; fun music; bright colors; quick cut-a-ways to things that should make us chuckle. But what's also there is an underlying sense of gloom that doesn't have any place in a film about being young (and smitten).

All the while as you're rooting for the main two (who are admittedly adorable), you're nodding along sadly at how mature they are to know it probably can't last forever.

One would hope this loss of innocence would be preserved until a much later age and that the emotion they do feel could be allowed to shine, instead of hiding behind false dialog and cutesy one-liners delivered in monotone.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Tonight I saw Prometheus, starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #113, so tune in the last week of June for our review.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dark Shadows

Yesterday I saw Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) is a vampire from the 1700s awakened in the 1970s by construction workers who disrupt his coffin. He's also one of the famous members of the Collins family who built the town in Maine where the story takes place.

Elizabeth (Pfeiffer) is the current matriarch of the household, tending to a bratty daughter, a careless brother and a disturbed nephew. They also have a drunken butler and a live-in shrink. Toss in a scorned former lover/witch who placed the vampire curse on Barnabas originally (yet still wants him) and the film is ready to roll.

But really, it doesn't.

Depp is predictably creepy-wonderful as the fish-out-of-water Barnabas, but they don't give him much to do. Aside from reading Love Story and being mesmerized by a lava lamp (mistaking the goo inside for blood), there aren't too many jokes of the era. In fact, the most entertaining scene is the sex between Barnabas and the witch. It's not remotely erotic, but it's action-packed and sort of funny.

Unfortunately, that's about as good as it gets all around. Burton's styling is good, but not nearly as spectacular as his previous films. All of the actors play their parts well; their dialog just doesn't do them justice.

I'm not old enough to remember the soap opera of the same name, but I had high hopes for this film and its players. The director to be counted on for visual brilliance; the cast permeated with actors I love.

Sadly, the whole production fell below my expectations.


Saturday, May 05, 2012


Today I saw Newlyweds, starring Edward Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald.

Full disclosure: I follow Edward Burns on Twitter and was actively watching/participating in the collaborative Tweets he sent out while scripting and shooting this film.

That said, even if I new nothing of his process, I'd still have walked away from this movie with a smile on my face.

Buzzy (Burns) and Katie (Fitzgerald) are newlyweds. They've both been married before and are determined to get it right this time.

They are close to Katie's sister Marsha (Marsha Dietlein) and her husband Max (Max Baker). Marsha is annoying in an older-sister kind of way; Max is clearly tired of being married to Marsha. It happens, you know.

When Buzzy's younger sister Linda (Kerry Bishé) arrives unexpectedly to stay with the couple until she finds permanent housing, their wedded bliss comes to a screeching halt.

Linda, to put it simply, is a handful. An immature, irresponsible, ungrateful handful. But Buzzy defends her to Katie and vice versa, and soon finds himself embroiled in drama (something he thought he was leaving behind when he married Katie).

As they navigate this storm of external influences, some of the ideals they had about their marriage (as told to us in earlier scenes) begin to dissolve. We see first-hand how fragile relationships really are (not that we didn't know, but...) and how important it may be to define certain "agreements" when making a commitment as serious as marriage.

When you say that you'll tell each other everything, does that include things that you know will hurt your partner?

This is one of the questions the film asks of its characters and it seems like a good one to ask whomever you choose to spend your life with as well.

No union can be perfect, but serious damage can be done by family and friends—even those with good intentions. At the same time, no couple should have to isolate themselves from everyone to enjoy a healthy relationship.

Newlyweds is anchored by sharp dialog and well-developed characters who illustrate this point. Like Burns' other films, there isn't a lot of clutter to get in the way of telling a good old-fashioned story.

There's also an organic method in which the scenes are shot that allows us to feel as if we've just knocked on a friend's door after they've had a fight with their lover. We're there to observe and listen and react as they do in their most raw moments.

Isn't that what great filmmaking should make us feel?


Friday, May 04, 2012

The Avengers

Tonight I saw The Avengers, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

It will be the topic of the May edition of Cinebanter, so tune in later this month for our review.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Tonight I saw The Five-Year Engagement, starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt.

Tom (Segel) and Violet (Blunt) seem to be the perfect couple: they make each other laugh, have undeniable chemistry, and make good use of a strong physical attraction. After just a year of dating, they become engaged and joyfully announce their upcoming nuptials.

Then Violet doesn't get accepted to the graduate program at Berkeley but does get accepted to a program in Michigan, so their plans change. They postpone the wedding and leave San Francisco so she can live her dream. Tom, as a result, has to leave his chef job at a big city restaurant and take a position as a sandwich maker in their new town.

Tom becomes miserable, Violet becomes consumed with her academia, and the years drag on without a wedding. This is pretty much the entire movie.

The two core characters are very realistic and well-written; the supporting characters (a token 'crazy' friend for Tom; an irresponsible sister for Violet) not so much.

What's enjoyable to watch are the scenes that truly mirror life: during one spat Tom says he wants to be alone yet when Violet starts to leave the room he tells her to come back to bed; parents of each manage to tell them they're idiots to put off the wedding; some of the most fun each of them has is at work with their respective peer groups.

While Segel and Blunt make a lovely couple, their struggles do remind us hopeless romantics that life will just never be that good. Partners, no matter how kind, will eventually disappoint us, and perhaps instead of looking for perfection we should realize that if we have anyone in our corner for any length of time that in itself is somewhat of an emotional victory.

After several uneven, silly sequences (don't get me started on the hunting bow), the movie does thankfully end in a satisfying, sweet way.

Kind of like a redemption usually reserved for an ex that wasn't so bad after all.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Today I saw The Cabin in the Woods, starring Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz.

The premise is simple: a group of college-age friends head out to the woods for a weekend getaway. Their destination is a cabin that belongs to the cousin of one of the friends.

As with most horror films, there are stereotypical characters drawn boldly, very early on.

Dana (Connolly) is the innocent one (though there's talk that she just ended an affair with her professor);  Marty (Kranz) is the stoner; Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) is the jock; Jules (Anna Hutchison) is Kurt's girlfriend—complete with bleached blonde hair. Rounding out the group is the brain, cutely named for a famous literary character, Holden (Jesse Williams).

En route to the cabin, which can't be found on a GPS, they encounter a creepy man at a side-of-the-road store who is mean to them. Yes, all of this usual fodder is presented as a big wink to the viewers, in the same vein as the Scream movies. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Once the friends arrive at their destination, things start getting scary... and unfortunately, that's about all I can say about it without spoiling the whole thing.

What I can say: The supporting characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are a lot of fun, and I was delighted to see how much screen time was actually dedicated to them (it's a lot). The big-star cameo at the end is awesome too.

I also for the most part liked all of the main actors' performances (except for Marty, who seemed to be like an exaggerated Owen Wilson minus the charm). The writing overall is clever, if not an intentional mish-mash of about four other movies in the genre.

What I could have done without were the scenes where they're attempting to pay homage to about 20 different horror icons and you get the sense they're presented in chaos only to force repeat viewings (so you can say that you spotted them all). I'm sure I didn't see half of them, but I'm okay with that.

All in all it was an entertaining ride and I would recommend it to folks who can handle a little 'movie blood' and laugh at the end result.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


This afternoon I saw the documentary Bully.

The movie has attracted the most attention so far for its fight against the "R" rating that the MPAA gave it for foul language. Its creators believe that banning middle and high school children (who would be able to go with a PG-13 rating) is defeating the purpose. After seeing it, I have to agree.

Following a handful of students in different Midwestern and Southern towns, we are shown case after case of kids who were picked on to the point of no return; either they committed suicide, snapped and retaliated in a violent way, or have become completely numb to the events of daily life. One victim, Alex, who barely acts like a victim and hides his abuse from his parents, tells his mother he's not sure if he feels anything anymore.

What has happened to our society?

What's more frustrating than the lack of anger from the victims and their parents (they all just seem endlessly sad instead of furious) is the political way the school administrators and teachers 'handle' the problem. Isn't denial the first sign of addiction? It's like these folks are addicted to incompetence.

Put simply, they do very little to protect the victims, and you can't help but wonder if the cameras weren't rolling if they'd do anything at all.

And that's another scary detail—even with the full knowledge that there were cameras rolling, many of the bullies continued to verbally and physically attack the outcasts. But really, why should they worry? There's traditionally no accountability until a victim shows up with a gun.

The film fails to show any probable solutions to bullying—perhaps this is its greatest flaw—and instead focuses on sympathizing with the victims.

What I'd really like to see is another film that profiles schools and community organizations that have mobilized to conquer this problem with favorable results. Something that the rest of the country could model themselves after and implement to ignite change.

God knows we need it.


Saturday, April 07, 2012


Today I saw Titanic in 3D, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The story tells of a fictional love between first-class Rose (Winslet) and poverty-stricken Jack (DiCaprio) who meet on the doomed real-life ship, the Titanic.

When I saw the film for the first time as a college student in 1997, and then repeatedly throughout 1998, I was drooling over DiCaprio and immersing myself in the history of the actual shipwreck. To me, every part of the movie was magical. The incredible detail of the sets and props; the uncanny resemblance between the actors and the real people they portrayed; the horror of the mammoth ship sinking. For a running time in excess of three hours, the pace went amazingly fast and not a moment was wasted on unnecessary scenes.

Today, as the 100th anniversary of the shipwreck nears, I found it just as effective.

Sure, it's fashionable to hate anything that is this successful—and even more so to trash 3D versions of older movies—but I could really care less about people with those 'opinions.' There is a reason Titanic is so successful, folks. And as for directors who know what they're doing when it comes to 3D, James Cameron is at the top of the list.

I liked seeing Leo and Kate dance a jig up-close; and loved seeing the ship practically jump into our laps as it drastically sunk, but I'm not saying the effects were overbearing. The 3D portion was done so masterfully, that for most of the movie, I forgot it was there. To me, the less trickery the better, so this was ideal.

It was also lovely to watch the young Leo and Kate shine in their leading roles, supported by the hilarious Kathy Bates and the sneering Billy Zane. It felt like going to a family reunion of sorts.

Though I agree with critics that don't think every movie should be re-purposed in 3D, as far as this one was concerned, it was a good call.

What a treat to have another excuse to see such a great production on the big screen.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Lady

Last night I saw The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis.

The film tells the true story of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi (Yeoh), the Nobel Laureate imprisoned in Burma for her efforts to bring democracy to the country. Her father, Aung San, founded the Burmese Army in 1947, earning the country independence from the British Empire. He was killed that same year by opposition forces, and this is where the film begins.

The story is paced quickly, advancing us to 1988 when Suu returned to Burma from her home in England where she lived a happy life with British husband Michael Aris and their two sons. She went home to care for her ailing mother and ended up leading the pro-democracy movement. One phrase repeatedly comes to mind when reflecting on Suu's life: truth is stranger than fiction.

The series of events that occurred once she declared her political intentions would leave her under house arrest for over two decades (with brief periods of "freedom" to move about within the country), separate her from her family and force her to miss saying goodbye to her beloved husband before he passed away from cancer. Watching this unfold is both heart-wrenching and inspiring; the amazing love and loyalty she and her husband felt for one another, despite being separated for many years is to be admired.

Their story is emphasized and told beautifully here--the two leads communicating with facial expressions how painful true love can be. The striking resemblance between Yeoh and the real Suu also help build authenticity in this elegant, organic looks at of one of the most important historical figures of our time.

As a U2 fan who first learned of Suu Kyi via U2's song "Walk On", which was written about her, I was also delighted to hear some of the band's music in the film, and one of their T-shirts appearing on Suu's young son.

I can't think how the film could have been better--it's riveting from start to finish.

I only hope there will be a sequel showing that her courage and peaceful resolve changed the way people are treated in Burma and around the world.


Back to the Future - Special Screening

On Saturday, I saw Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson.

Since I've reviewed the film before, I will simply say it was a ma night having Lea Thompson in attendance at this special SIFF screening.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Nun Who Used to Kiss Elvis

Hard to believe, but it's true--at one time, sister Dolores Hart appeared alongside Elvis, and other notable stars, in Hollywood films. Today? She's a nun!

See her fascinating story in the new documentary short film God is the Bigger Elvis, which debuts on HBO this Thursday, April 5.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games

On Thursday night I saw The Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

To catch up with the rest of society, I read the source material fast and feverishly (just last weekend) in advance of seeing the film. I'm very glad I did.

1) Because the book was better.

2) Because I may not have understood everything without the details explained in the novel.

For the few people who haven't read it or seen the movie, The Hunger Games explores a dystopian future on the site of the former North America, where 13 districts of people are governed by a Big Bad Capitol. In punishment for the uprising that killed the prior society, they must sacrifice 24 of their young during annual "hunger games" where the kids fight to the death—with only one surviving.

The story focuses on poverty-stricken Katniss (Lawrence) who has become an expert hunter to feed her family after her dad's passing in the coal mines. When her younger sister is chosen to be a fighter ('tribute') in the games, she unselfishly volunteers to go in her place. Her partner in the games, from the same district, is Peeta (Hutcherson) who's family runs the district bakery.

They are soon whisked into a whirlwind of 'training' for the games with their drunken host Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and reserved stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Among their entourage, it's decided that the angle the two will portray to win over sponsors (and the watching public) is that of star-crossed lovers. Peeta is happier about this than Katniss, to say the least.

After a clever entrance, which featured the two fighters literally on fire, they are positioned as underdogs who may actually have a chance at winning, after all. They're both clever, and Katniss has mad skills with a bow and arrow.

Everything leading up to the games is very faithful to the book and well executed. Once the battles begin, the story begins to drag and a few of the details (the only district to 'riot' after a tributes' death is the predominantly black one - really??) stray.

It's still entertaining, but the shaky camera bits I could have done without, and the pure heart of the novel I would've liked to see a lot more.

Nonetheless, the characters were well-cast and the dialog was close enough to be satisfying.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Kid With a Bike

Last night I saw The Kid With a Bike, starring Thomas Doret and Cécile de France.

It will be the topic of our April Cinebanter episode, so stay tuned for that show.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Silent House

Today I saw Silent House, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Eric Sheffer Stevens.

I've decided that from now on I'll see anything starring Elizabeth Olsen. She's just that good.

Sarah (Olsen) and her father John (Adam Trese) are getting ready to sell the family lake house. They have returned to the apparent small town to pack up their things and fix the place up.

Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) is Sarah's long-forgotten childhood friend, ecstatic to learn she's back in town. Uncle Peter (Stevens) is also around, and you get the sense there's a bit of sibling rivalry between him and John.

Everything here happens in real time, and the film is shot in such a way that you feel like an uninvited voyeur. That's not a bad thing considering the tension it subconsciously builds.

There doesn't seem to be any electricity in the home, so everyone carries camping lamps to light the rooms as they pack. The pair is supposed to have been there for a few days when we join them, but some of the rooms look as if they haven't been touched in years.

At night, Sarah grows scared of noises she hears upstairs so she sends her dad to investigate. When he doesn't come back, and a large crash is heard, Sarah knows she's in trouble.

For another hour, we're holding our breath right along with her as she hides from, escapes, follows and runs into what/who is terrorizing her. In classic horror storytelling fashion, we feel a sense of false peace more than once when we think she's overcome the evil, but there's always another surprise or twist around the corner.

I really liked this film, and more importantly loved the amazing performance by Olsen.

Seeing her for the first time in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, I knew she could shine in a drama; now I know she's also mastered all of the emotions necessary for a convincing horror piece.

Go see this—but do better than me, and take someone to hold onto.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Friends with Kids

Today I saw Friends with Kids, starring Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott.

Finally, a film for single folks that's not trying to be Sex and the City or it's blatant opposite.

Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Scott) are best pals. The kind of friends who have known each other since college and get each other through the tough stuff—bad relationships and the general perils of being single. They even live in the same Manhattan apartment building, which makes things convenient.

Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) are their close friends, and represent the couple we all love to hate: the ones who can't keep their hands off one another and show up late to things because they're probably having sex.

Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd) are also good friends, and show a more traditional pair, being the first among their group to take the plunge into parenthood. Soon they're frazzled and frumpy just like so many couples we all know.

Instead of being frightened or repulsed by the thought of parenting, Julie and Jason want to be a part of it. In their thirties, realizing they're not getting any younger, they decide to have a child together—just as friends—and attempt the awkward action of having sex with each other. It's understandably tough at first, but they do figure things out and produce a beautiful baby boy.

Their friends and family are skeptical about how it will all work, but they soon prove them wrong. Their homes stay clean; their bodies look great; their friendship has never been stronger. Most importantly, their ability to work as a team makes them incredibly good parents.

Things only get weird when each finds another partner, and feels the need to confide in the other about the new relationship. There are undeniable feelings on both sides, but they don't go there because they feel it would ruin their harmonious situation.

But why shouldn't they go there?

Westfeldt, not only the star, but the director and writer, makes this question the essence of the film and writes it in such a way that we can't help but root for them... with caution.

The fact that their dearest friends aren't outwardly in their corner only makes them appear jealous, as if they wish they'd done the same thing: find a really great friend with whom to build a life. And if you've ever been in a relationship with someone you primarily found physically attractive but did not have a mental attraction to, or someone who you loved to be with, but didn't feel a strong physical attraction, you may envy those who have somehow found someone to satisfy both.

Regardless, this smart, funny movie will keep you engaged from beginning to end; reflecting on your own life and invested in the characters.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Woman in Black

Today I saw The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds.

Arthur (Radcliffe) is a widower—his wife died giving birth to their son Joseph (Misha Handley) four years ago. He is a barrister now, who must succeed in his casework to stay employed.

He travels from London to a northern town in England to work on a case and is greeted in an unwelcome manner from the townsfolk. It seems that they believe a ghost in a nearby haunted house is killing off all of the children in the area, one by one.

Soon Arthur is swept up into this madness, befriended by the wealthy Daily (Hinds) and his wife. Because Arthur has to search for papers in the spooky home, he realizes that the superstitions have basis.

As far as horror films go, this one is very low on the scary meter. Though Radcliffe does a perfect job of conveying heart-pounding fear with every shadow he sees, there just aren't that many payoffs other than typical jumpy one-offs.

Hinds is also good at his earnest glances and cautious stares, but nothing inside the film made me worry about what was behind me in the theater, or rendered me unable to walk to my car, as other films have.

If this were marketed more as a psychological thriller/drama, perhaps I wouldn't have expected so much.

In any case, I'll see the mesmerizing Radcliffe in just about anything so this wasn't a total loss.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pina 3D

Last night I saw Pina 3D, a documentary directed by Wim Wenders.

Years ago, while on vacation in Venice, Wim Wenders girlfriend dragged him kicking and screaming to a dance performance. Instead of falling asleep, or being bored to tears, Wenders claimed he "cried his eyes out," because the dancers presentation was so beautiful. Of course, he was watching a creation by Pina Bausch.

Soon he became friends with Bausch, a celebrated German choreographer known for her avant garde theatrics and absolute joy for dance. Then, a few decades later, he convinced her to let him tell her story on film.

Sadly, in the early stages of production, Pina suddenly died (presumably of cancer) at the age of 68. Devastated, her dancers and Wenders proceeded with caution (after contemplating abandonment of the project altogether).

What resulted is a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman who had the passion and talent to get to the core of emotion in each of her dancers.

We see how she encouraged the artists to move following their spirit rather than sticking to stringent technique (though their technique is consistently jaw-dropping). We witness how much their beloved choreographer meant to them in a series of interviews paced between explorations of their performances.

About five minutes into the film, we also forget that we're watching 3D and feel as if we're in front of the actual stage where the dancers are performing. It's such an innovative use of the technology, one can't help but wonder why more documentarians aren't employing the same methods (Wenders said in a recent Q&A that he feels "documentary is the future of 3D").

The dance sequences may be too "out there" for those not fond of dance to begin with, but the respect and love demonstrated by all of the dancers is far too endearing not to at least appreciate.

This film is definitely worthy of its Oscar nomination.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

Tonight I saw the Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts.

Rather than review all five, I'll just write three words to describe each of them based on my perceptions.

Pentecost (Ireland)

Funny, Relatable, Clever

Raju (Germany/India)

Depressing, Sad, Long

The Shore (Northern Ireland)

Comedic, Warm, Satisfying

Time Freak (USA)

Manic, Predictable, Exaggerated

Tuba Atlantic (Norway)

Silly, Ridiculous, Unique


Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Separation

Today I saw A Separation, starring Peyman Maadi and Sareh Bayat.

Nader (Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a happily married Iranian couple headed toward divorce because Nader refuses to leave his Alzheimer-stricken father to move to a foreign country. Simin wants to go because she thinks better opportunities will be available for their adolescent daughter elsewhere.

Simin temporarily moves in with her parents as they negotiate, which forces Nader to hire help to take care of his father while he's at work all day. The woman he hires is pregnant and complains after just one day that the work is too much for her. They make arrangements for her currently incarcerated husband to take her place as soon as she can get him out of jail.

Unfortunately, he isn't released as quickly as hoped, so she continues to do the work of the house and take care of the elder.

Things take a turn for the worse with everyone when Nader and his daughter return home one evening to find the woman gone, some money missing and grandpa on the floor, having fallen out of bed despite being tied to it.

He is understandably furious, and when the woman returns he asks her to leave. She tries to explain she had to go somewhere just briefly, but the condition he found his father in shakes him up too much to allow her to continue care, so he again asks her to leave. She doesn't, and he also accuses her of stealing the missing money, which greatly insults her.

Finally, there is a physical scuffle (the audience only sees one side of it) and the next day, Nader and his wife find themselves at the hospital checking in on the woman.

I'll refrain from spoiling this any further, but the rest of the movie is a clever test of morals, religious faith and basic human decency.

It asks a question any of us could be someday faced with: when things escalate due the actions of everyone involved, whose fault is it when someone gets hurt?

The actors are fantastic in this film—if I didn't know better, I'd think they were all just folks from a typical Iranian neighborhood, giving us a taste of what life is like there.

As an American I found myself thinking about how the situation would've been different if it had taken place in an American household. As the daughter of an immigrant, I could relate all too much to the importance of honor, and traditional male and female roles.

At the end of the day, it's not the second-coming of film (as many have prematurely anointed it), but it is a phenomenal slice-of-life exploration in the same vein as 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Tonight I saw Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, starring Thomas Horn and Sandra Bullock.

The title of this film just begs its audience to rename it, so I will happily oblige:

Extremely Annoying & Incredibly Awful

Oskar (Horn) is a kid—possibly on the autism spectrum—who lost his best-friend-of-a-father on September 11. His mother, Linda (Bullock), is a grieving widow who will never be as close to her son as her deceased husband was.

There's also a grandma across the street (who communicates with Oskar via Walkie Talkie) and a possible grandpa shacking up with her, who may or may not have been a concentration camp at some point. And a gaggle of strangers—472 of them, I think—who little Oskar will encounter on his search to find a lock that fits a key that he found in his dead dad's bedroom.

That's pretty much the movie. In a nutshell.

And although that is all pretty straightforward, I came out of the film with dozens of questions:

Who thought it was okay to show a kid (I don't care if he's fictional) freezing photos he finds on the Internet of what could be his dead father jumping to his death on that terrible day?
I may not have lost anyone personally in 9/11, but seeing the real people jumping on that day will be burned into my memory forever. I can only imagine how those who actually lost someone must feel seeing a such a reenactment.

Why did they have to make "The Renter" mute?

If he was from the old country, how could he understand/write English so well?

Why did Abby and William Black have to be actively separating when the already-disturbed boy shows up? And are we to believe his reappearance caused their reconciliation?

If Oskar knows not to mingle with strangers, why is he so comfortable barging into their homes to search for his answers?

How did they talk some of Hollywood's greatest A-list actors into doing this film?

What the hell was the Academy thinking nominating this for Best Picture?

I'm just baffled.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

War Horse

Tonight I saw War Horse, starring Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson.

It's been a long time since I've made it through an endurance test like this. I had a feeling it wouldn't be my cup of tea, and sadly, it wasn't.

Albert (Irvine) is the young son of a drunken farmer who promises his mother, Rose (Watson), that he will train and care for the horse his dad paid too much for at auction. The horse's name is Joey, and he's—of course—beautiful and smart.

By the time Albert and Joey bond, drunken papa has sold the horse to the Army. Though all signs point to the horse being lost/killed in WWI, Albert claims he will see him again. He's not kidding.

Calling them a series of unfortunate events would be a gross understatement. Let's just say, poor Joey goes through hell. In fact, the only scene that got me misty-eyed was the one where the horse tries to escape the human horrors of war only to get completely tangled in barbed wire. This prompts soldiers from both sides of the fight to take a time out from combat and help the poor animal break free. The bit was wonderful and reminded me of another film where soldiers pause in war to share one another's company peacefully during a holiday called Joyeux Noel. But I digress.

Joey gets passed off to several owners during his journey, and his journey (along with ours) is a long one.

The redeeming moments of the film have everything to do with the beautiful cinematography, the excellent score (seldom does Spielberg ever get that wrong) and the acting from the horse. Yes, the horse.

I'll admit to loving the closing shot—something that reminded me of Gone With the Wind, and was most likely intended to.

It's just a shame that the majestic, amber sunset didn't arrive before I got bored.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady

Today I saw The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent.

Margaret Thatcher is one of the most polarizing political figures in modern history. Her reign as Prime Minister of England from 1979 to 1990 was notable not only because she was the first female elected to the office, but because she lasted so long in the role.

Revered by some and reviled by others, Thatcher is portrayed in a balanced light in this film by the always-amazing Meryl Streep. She shows the passion and conviction of a woman who truly believed in her decisions (as I think Thatcher did), and also the abusive monster she could be toward her staff. Sadly, most of what we see is her present-day self, shuffling around in a cloudy state of confusion.

In fact, that's my largest criticism of this movie. I went into it expecting a run-of-the-mill biography of the politician's life. Instead, I took a—sometimes first-person—journey of dementia, which not only dampened he impact of the story, but added a layer of sympathy that I'm guessing the real woman would detest.

It was almost as if the filmmakers laid the illness on so thick so the Thatcher haters couldn't attack it (or her) too much. It would have been more powerful if they had just told her story in a linear way, start-to-finish, with a title card at the end explaining her current state. Her life was interesting enough to warrant two hours without the last decade even being acknowledged.

That said, there is nothing wrong with Streep's performance. I grew up in the Thatcher-Reagan era and remember hearing the real Iron Lady speak often on television. Streep's diction and accent were insanely accurate, as were her mannerisms and expressions. And who doesn't love Jim Broadbent playing anyone's husband?

The movie was indeed paced well, despite way too many present-day/hallucination scenes, and it may prompt those who loathed the leader to remember her with a little respect, even if her choices for the country are never forgiven.

I will be very surprised if Streep doesn't add another Oscar to her shelf for this performance.


Beauty and the Beast in 3D

Last night I saw the animated classic Beauty and the Beast in 3D.

I loved the film the first time I saw it, became addicted to its infectious soundtrack and even dressed as Belle for Halloween. Seldom does an animated film capture me so.

Belle is a village girl who loves books and her eccentric father, Maurice. Gaston is the macho man of the town who wants Belle to be his wife.

Maurice is a confused inventor who accidentally ends up in the castle of the Beast, a former prince under a nasty spell that can only be broken by finding true love.

The Beast, so bitter about his situation, takes Maurice as his prisoner until Belle finds him and offers herself in his place. The Beast allows the switch, hoping that Belle will learn to love him and break the spell.

His lively staff of servants (a teapot and her young son; a candlestick, etc.) hope for the best (they'd like to be turned back into humans too) and welcome Belle with open arms. In fact, one of the shining moments in the film is the song "Be Our Guest," where the kitchen comes to life with an impressive song and dance as they serve Belle her first dinner.

Anyhow, most know how the story turns out, but just in case there are any left who don't, I'll refrain from spoiling.

Just know that the magic and beauty of the original version of the film is only intensified by this 3D treatment, and the story remains charmingly timeless.

It's not hard to tell why it was a Best Picture Oscar nominee—as you're watching, you sometimes forget you're seeing animation.

It's that good.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Take Shelter

Tonight I saw Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Curtis (Shannon) is a family man. He works hard at his construction job each day to provide for his sweet wife Samantha (Chastain) and their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).

Hannah is deaf and needs surgery to try out a cochlear implant. Samantha is relieved when they finally receive word that the insurance will cover it.

But Curtis begins having terrible nightmares predicting an apocalyptic storm. This takes his attention away from his family and his work. He grows paranoid about the supposed impending doom and decides to renovate the storm shelter in their backyard.

At the same time, he's keeping his elaborate (expensive) plans for the shelter from Samantha and beginning to investigate mental illness (since it runs in his family).

As we watch his obsessive paranoia increase, we feel sorry for his patient wife, and even sorrier for him. After all, he may be bearing witness to his own descent into craziness. Or is he?

Michael Shannon plays this role so convincingly, he's more fragile than frightening. His fear is written on his face, but contained in the presence of those he holds dear. And although he is the least reasonable person on-screen at all times, he has the audience rooting for him in spite of it.

I'll be surprised if Shannon doesn't get an Oscar nomination for this role.

Chastain is also good, as are the rest of the supporting cast. Granted, they have a lot less to do, but they are all very believable as simple, Midwestern folks just trying to live their lives. Kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols for creating 'real' characters.

And I may be in the minority, but I loved the ending. The fact that it wasn't predictable or wrapped up in a big red bow made me smile.

As did the possibility it implied.


Monday, January 02, 2012

The Artist

Today I saw The Artist, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge Charlie Chaplin fan. In fact, aside from the Harold Lloyd comedies I would watch with my parents as a small child, and an especially good version of The Scarlet Letter I caught a few years back at SIFF, I can't say I've ever really 'loved' silent films.

That made the delight of The Artist all the more satisfying.

It's 1927 and George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent film star in the prime of his career. Peppy Miller (Bejo) is an up-and-coming actress he's enamored with, and as a result, helps jump start her career. Things are fine for a split second until talking pictures come along.

George is completely resistant to switching over to the 'dark side' of this new trend and inevitably makes himself obsolete. He sells his belongings and retreats into a terrible cloud of depression. At the same time, Peppy embraces the change and becomes an even bigger star.

Though the supporting cast is easily recognizable (John Goodman, James Cromwell, etc.), it's an added bonus for the American audience that the two leads are French. I can't say I would have been so easily convinced by a Clooney or a Damon in the main role for the simple fact that I know what their true demeanors are like (and hamming it up could've seemed false).

But here, I was won over by the heart and the soul of the experience. The love letter to a Hollywood many of us seem to forget. The simplicity of a love story intertwined with that of a person descending into their own man-made failure.

The various winks to the audience and the perfectly placed loyal dog could have been annoying if not worked into the story properly—luckily they were, and that's a credit to the screenwriter/director (Michel Hazanavicius).

All in all a fresh change from the popcorn action flicks, endless sequels and ho-hum dramas presently permeating our theaters.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This morning I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.

That's the last time I'll see a film without reading the source material first.

It's the Cold War—early '70s. George Smiley (Oldman) is a recently retired British spy brought in to investigate a possible Russian mole. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is the rebel spy, in love with the wife of a Russian operative, convinced of the mole. Bill Haydon (Firth) may or may not be the mole. Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) may or may not be the mole. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) may or may not be the mole.

And... they lost me!

This isn't a typical spy film that features people hanging from buildings or being tortured in heart-stopping, tense scenes. It's a moody, quiet interpretation of what real spy stuff is probably really like. And let's face it, a bit of that is undoubtedly boring.

Amidst the endless conversations and glimpses of what goes down are beautifully framed shots of a soggy London in the past. Once I had completely lost track of the story, I found myself focusing on how lovely the cinematography was and how many expressions Goldman could muster without ever getting excited.

It's really too bad, because fans of the BBC version of the story and the original book seem to be loving the hell out of this.

I can safely say I did not, but that doesn't mean the acting was bad or there weren't clever bits of dialog that woke me up from time to time.

It just wasn't for me—at least not without knowing the story and characters in advance to be able to follow along coherently.