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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Category Archives: 2000s

Down Terrace (2009)

Keep it all in the family. No literally, everything.

Bill (Robert Hill) and his son, Karl (Robin Hill), have been working together for so long and even though it just so happens to be organized crime, they’ve gotten by for the longest time in it, so they don’t get caught up in all the details. But that all begins to change when, after spending a few days in jail, they return home and realize they may have a rat in their midst. This is clearly not something they want to put up with, which is why they try to get down to the nitty gritty of it all and figure out just who the rat in the whole gang may be, or if there isn’t one, who’s the first who could rat on them in the first place. As they try to pick out the informant from a group that includes a corrupt politician (Mark Kempner), an unpredictable hit man (Michael Smiley), and yes, even the annoyed and pissed-off matriarch, Maggie (Julia Deakin), Karl learns his girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) is pregnant and doesn’t quite know what to do with that, or how the hell his family is even going to react. Needless to say, it’s not pretty.

Oops. Out come the guns.

Down Terrace has essentially one-joke going for itself throughout the whole hour-and-a-half, but it’s such a good joke that co-writer/director Ben Wheatley finds himself constantly playing around and toying with the whole time: It’s that everyone is suspected of being a rat and because of that, they’ve got to meet their maker. Of course, the movie may play-off like a very serious and tense episode of the Sopranos, but what’s interesting about Down Terrace is that, besides it being incredibly dark and morbid at times, it’s also quite funny.

Cause of course, British gangsters can’t be too serious the whole time, right?

And that’s why Down Terrace, while not an altogether perfectly put together movie, is still entertaining and interesting enough to watch, because it’s trying something new and bold. Inside of it, is a combination of the kitchen-sink drama, the suburban crime flick, and of course, the black-as-hell comedy, and while it’s definitely obvious when the movie changes into one mood, it still kind of works. Wheatley knows how to film each and every aspect of this story into a manner where we don’t know what to expect, or know exactly where it’s going to lead into, and just watching him give it a try is where most of the fun is to be had.

This is the part of the movie where the subtitles definitely need to be put on.

He and fellow writer Robin Hill don’t forget to give audiences a little bit of everything, but they truly know how to make their comedy crack and their violence, well, disturb. In fact, it’s maybe a bit too disturbing at times; characters that we come to know, love, and grow very intimate with over a very short amount of time, are all of a sudden killed-off in very heinous, in-your-face ways the next second. It’s as if no one’s safe and those that definitely aren’t, are going to meet a very gruesome end. Which once again, is pretty brave, despite it not always working.

But hey, in the film-world, bravery has to count for something.

And that’s basically where Down Terrace works in the end; it’s probably Wheatley’s most cohesive and simple-to-read picture, but in that, also isn’t his dullest, either. You can tell that he’s working out some of the kinks into how to make this kind of material to work, but when you have a first-timer making so much noise, by combining all of these different subgenres, and making something still work, then yeah, it’s definitely worth the watch. If only to see just where Wheatley himself has come, gone, and where he’s going to be heading-off towards in the very near-future.

Let’s just hope he sticks with more movies such as this, and more away from High-Rise. Sheesh.

Consensus: With a crazy combination of different tones and styles, Ben Wheatley definitely takes a lot on his plate, but handles it well with a very funny, surprising, and altogether interesting hybrid with Down Terrace.

7.5 / 10

Cheers, mates. Get ready to die.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Stand By for Mind Control, New York Times

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Two Lovers (2008)

It all comes down to choices. Really, really hot choices.

After his broken engagement left him cold, crazy, and very disoriented, photographer Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) moves in with his parents in Brighton Beach, where he spends most of his days working for his parent’s dry-cleaning service and trying to drown himself in lakes. Both of his parents know that he’s still going through a rough time, so they don’t want to push him too hard, but they also want him to be happy and feel loved, which is why they set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a sweet Jewish girl who also happens to Leonard’s father’s co-worker. They appear to be a fine match, even if Leonard himself is so closed-off, but then he meets his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who absolutely takes his world by storm. But by becoming involved with her, Leonard also realizes that she’s got a lot of baggage to her, too, and Leonard’s not sure whether he wants to stick with that and risk all of the luxury in the world, or play it safe and appease his parents with Sandra.

Baby Goop?

Choosing between Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, man, what a terrible predicament, right?

Obviously, I kid, but seriously, just looking at this plot from afar, it’s hard to care at all; the three involved in this love-triangle of sorts are all hot, attractive people, who don’t know who they want to marry and spend the rest of their lives with. It sounds so terribly boring and nauseating, but writer/director James Gray knows how to frame this story in a way to where it’s not only interesting to watch play-out, but after awhile, we start to feel the same sort of love-torn and sad emotions that everyone else here practically feels. It’s no surprise, either, because mostly all of Gray’s movies work well as mood-pieces, but Two Lovers may be his most impressive, where he takes a relatively simple tale of two possible love-stories and finds a way to make them both sweet, heartfelt, and awfully depressing.

But still, somehow, Gray finds a way to make it all work. All the movies leading up to Two Lovers, for Gray, happened to be packed with action, violence, incest, and Shakespearean-twists out the wazoo, which is probably why something like this was such a breath of fresh air, as stern and as serious as it may be. Still, it’s interesting to see a lot of what Gray does well in all of his other movies, still works well in Two Lovers – it’s just that everything and everyone is so muted, you hardly even notice anything’s actually happening.

And yeah, it’s kind of beautiful.

Or, Vinnie Shaw? (I don’t think she has a sort of nickname so let’s just roll with that, shall we?)

In a way, Two Lovers is a lot like watching real-life happen before our very own eyes, where we see two love stories unfold, as well as the people themselves. Gray never gets in the way of the material and always allows for the actors to speak for themselves and help develop the characters over time, which is why a good portion of the movie feels like a really small, intimate and cuddly stage-play, where people are going to express their feelings for the whole world to see. But it’s not nearly as melodramatic as that, which helps the movie in the long-run; it always feels honest, raw, gritty, and believable, no matter where the story sometimes leads.

And of course, the performances are pretty great, too. It’s wonderful to see Joaquin Phoenix in such a solid role, where he not only gets to play someone resembling a normal dude – with obvious weird quirks here and there – but also a charming dude all the same, too. So often when we see Phoenix now, we know, love and expect him as the wild and insane guy who will literally go anywhere and do anything for a role, but believe it or not, when he wants to be, he can be quite a likable presence on the screen and have us feel some sort of love for him, too. It helps that this Leonard fella is already a strong character to begin with, but Phoenix finds smart, surprising ways to flesh him out to where he’s more than just a confused sad-sack, but a confused thirty-something trying to get on with his life, but just doesn’t know how.

Meaning, he’s like you or I, so it’s way more interesting.

The two ladies that Phoenix has to choose between, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, are both pretty good, too, giving us reasons why he should choose one over the other. But honestly, the movie isn’t really about “will he, won’t he” – it’s more about him finding a way to make himself happy and get past this deep bit of sadness in his life. The movie never tries to make one lady seem better than the other, nor does it have to; Paltrow is lovely to watch, as well as is Shaw, and both have great chemistry with Phoenix that I could have watched for days-on-end. But the movie isn’t all about who he goes home with at the end of the day and even when we do get to that point, it’s surprising and a little sad, but totally and rightfully earned.

Man. Why can’t more romance-flicks be like this?

Consensus: With three stellar performances and an interesting eye to romance, Two Lovers is more than just a conventional tale of two girls battling for the love of one man, and more about a man trying to figure himself out, and the ladies who just so happen to be near-by when it’s all happening.

8.5 / 10

Cheers to the winner!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Reservation Road (2007)

Still though, those little bastards gotta hurry their asses up off those buses!

Ethan and Grace Lerner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are more than happy with the way things have been going for their lives, but all of that happiness ends when their son gets killed in a hit-and-run accident. Even worse, the person in the car (Mark Ruffalo) who caused it, knows who they are, is still stuck with the guilt, and has yet to fess-up to what he’s done. That’s when Ethan decides to take matters into his own hands and figure out just who the hell is responsible for all of this pain and misery that has been inflicted on him and his family.

Even though the idea of watching a bunch of people go through grief and suffer through pain and agony doesn’t sound like the most exciting bit of an-hour-and-a-half I’d like to spend, you can never, ever go wrong with a cast like this. People know Phoenix to be the type of guy who takes rich and hearty-material that challenges himself, Ruffalo is always a guy that’s capable of taking anything the world throws at him and make it totally and completely work in his favor, and having Sorvino and Connelly round things out ain’t so shabby, either. So, the big question on your mind may be, “How the hell did all of this go wrong?”

My answer? “Script, man. Script.”

The main problem with this script is that even though it does pay attention to the problems its characters face on a day-to-day basis when it comes to dealing with their own levels of grief, the movie still feels the need to rush things up and make this almost like a type of thriller. That sounds all fine and dandy for people who want more than just a character-based story and want some action and excitement to go along with their tears and heavy-grieving, but for a movie like this where we essentially know what happened, who did what, and what the only way to end this could be, it’s a little silly and not all that thrilling. We know who killed the kid, who’s responsible, where this could go, and that this can only end in two ways, either death or imprisonment  so what the hell is all of the tension supposed to be there for?

Pictured: A guy who just got done thinking.

“Damn. Paparazzi.”

And it’s odd, because the tension in this movie is supposed to lie in the fact that everything this driver goes through in life, always has him ending up in one way or another, connecting with the kid’s family. For example, his ex-wife just so happens to be the kid’s sister’s music teacher that is totally superfluous to the plot, except to only include the always wonderful Mira Sorvino (more on her in a bit). Then, it gets even worse when Ethan decides to take the investigation into his own hands and get lawyers involved and in case you couldn’t tell where this is going, get ready, because guess what? The man who killed Ethan’s son, just so happens to be that lawyer he asks for help.

Shocked yet?

Anyway yeah, this movie is just chock full of coincidence-after-coincidence and they don’t seem to serve any other purpose to this story, other than to keep the audiences minds awake for when the flick decides to actually focus in on its characters. You could also argue that the flick only added in those thriller-elements to appeal to a larger-audience that wouldn’t really feel the need to venture out to some movie about a bunch of people crying and being sad all of the time, and if that is the case, well then that’s a damn shame because there is a lot of promise for this type of material to work, regardless of if it’s a mainstream, or indie production.

But regardless, it almost shouldn’t matter when you have a cast like this, because they’re supposed to be able to do no wrong. And that sort of happens, but not really. Joaquin Phoenix may seem a tad miscast at first as the grieving simpleton father of a suburban-family, but shows us differently when he unleashes those raw and honest emotions we always see in each and every one of his performances. You feel bad for the guy and you just want to give him a hug and tap on the back, whispering into his ear that “everything’s going to be alright.” It’s not Phoenix’s most daring role, but it was a true sign that he could play a normal, everyday dude.

Pictured: Sad actors

Pictured: Sad Actors

The same can definitely be said for Mark Ruffalo who never seems to phone-in a performance, no matter how crappy the movie may be, which is what happens here. Ruffalo is great as the driver that kills this boy and runs away without getting caught, because he makes you feel something for the guy, even though he is totally in the wrong, through-and-through. You can sort of see why a guy like him would run away from the punishment of being arrested, but after awhile, it does start to get a bit ridiculous that it hides this all for so long, and for all of the reasons that he apparently has to himself, as well. Still, Ruffalo prevails and shows why you can give him anything, and he can make it work.

Jennifer Connelly is simply used here to be another grieving character of the whole movie and does that very well. Connelly is always good in what she does and that’s why it’s so weird to barely see her around anymore, but it should always be noted that she’s a good actress, when the material is there. It’s sort of here for her, and sort of not, so it’s hard to fully judge her.

Oh and yeah, I previously mentioned Mira Sorvino and it isn’t because she does anything simply out-of-this-world with this movie (mainly because she isn’t given much to work with in the first place), but, without any type of spoilers or giving-away major plot-points (like it really matters), there’s this one scene with her and Ruffalo that is probably the most endearing and emotionally-truthful out of the whole movie, and it really took me by surprise. Rarely does this movie ever talk about how Sorvino’s and Ruffalo’s character used to be married and a loving-couple with one another, other than when they yell, fight, and argue with one other, but that one scene, that one moment between these two, not only made this movie just a tad better, but made me feel like there could have been so much more had they just dropped the whole death-of-the-kid angle and even went so far as to focus on Ruffalo’s character trying to actually get through the divorce and make ends meet. Sure, it’s not the movie we got, but man, I imagine wonders could have been made going down this road, especially with the always dependable Sorvino who, like Connelly, needs to be in more.

Much, much more. Come on, Hollywood!

Consensus: Even with a solid cast on-deck, Reservation Road can’t get its head together quick enough to where it fully works as a small drama about sadness and grief, or as a nail-biting thriller.

5 / 10

I guess he's going to start taking after his kid. Hayyoh! Okay, I'm done.

I guess he’s going to start taking after his kid now. Hayyoh! Okay, I’m done.

Photos Courtesy of: Focus Features

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

High school sucks so much that, honestly, sometimes you just have to make your own excitement.

Accomplished high school student Ben (Parry Shen) seems to excel at almost everything and it’s absolutely boring him to death. When your Asian, living in the suburbs of California, and doing so well in school, honestly, nothing else really excites you anymore. But you know what does? Not being able to actually win something over, or, in Ben’s case, not being able to win over his dream girl, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). It’s all Ben can ever think about, so eventually, he decides to strike up an unlikely friendship with trouble-seeking tough guy Daric (Roger Fan), where he starts doing all sorts of bad and illegal stuff, along with various other members of the so-called “gang”. Eventually, these illegal ventures start setting their sights toward Stephanie, and her rich boyfriend Steve (John Cho), who has a proposition for these guys that, if they’re able to succeed with the plan, may make them all rich. But for some reason, it may not go as planned, being that Steve and Ben don’t necessarily get along in the first place.

Yeah, fairs can kind of suck.

Better Luck Tomorrow is a surprising film for many reasons. One, first and foremost, because it presents a different, intelligent view of Asian Americans that we don’t ever actually get to see in American movies, or better yet, in American high school movies. See, a lot of the times, the constant cliche with Asians in films such as these is that they’re so book-smart, can’t speak a lick of English, and are mostly used as funny, side-characters to help guide us through this adventure of watching a white protagonist, struggle and get through high school. Of course, this is just a rough generalization of what we’re used to seeing, but if any John Hughes movie is proof, then yeah, Asians have it bad when it comes to high school movies.

And that’s why Better Luck Tomorrow is so interesting, because it turns that whole viewpoint on the side and for once, shows us Asian Americans who are just like the white protagonists in all of those other movies, except in this case, they’re far more real and raw. These kids here don’t just curse, but they drink, they smoke, they have sex, they get naked, they commit crimes, and hell, they could even care less about their grades. Co-writer/director Justin Lin has made quite the career for himself taking on the Fast and Furious franchise, but if anything, he shows us that he has a unique and smart voice that isn’t just something we’ve seen, or heard before.

Or even if we have, it’s way different than ever before.

Choose Harold. Especially if he has a sick-ass moped. 

And in that sense, yes, Better Luck Tomorrow is a smart film that, honestly, doesn’t get made as much as it should. But then, there’s this other side of the movie that’s actually more about the tone, the feel and the actual plot itself which, believe it or not, still works. Better Luck Tomorrow starts out as your typical coming-of-ager where the guy dreams of getting the girl, but slowly and surely, starts to show its true colors; things get dark, real quick, but you actually believe them. The movie could have easily fallen apart trying to take itself more seriously, but Lin keeps it altogether, showing us that sometimes, when you’re young and feel as if you have nothing left to lose, chances are, you’re going to make some pretty awful, life-altering decisions.

The movie isn’t as hokey as I make it sound, though. Lin knows better then to dive into sentimentality, or to get all caught up in the usual cheesiness that comes with coming-of-age high school tales. There’s a certain feel and look for realism that not only makes the movie oddly relatable, but in a way, rather sweet. We get to see and understand these characters for all that they are, not just who, or what they represent, and it makes us easier to identify with them as troubled, confused and bored kids, as opposed to a bunch of types.

Still, the moral of the story? Well, I’m not so sure and that’s probably the movie’s biggest issue.

It’s hard to figure out just why the ending left a sick taste in my mouth, but it probably has to do with the fact that it just sort of ends, and that’s it. Yes, it’s neat that no real lessons are learned, or even, thankfully, taught to us, but there’s still an odd feeling of something missing. It’s as if the story itself wasn’t over, but just that Lin either ran out of money, or lost some footage, somewhere out there in the world. Either way, it makes Better Luck Tomorrow, what is otherwise a very fun, insightful and rather interesting coming-of-ager, feel weird – as if there was more to be had, but we just didn’t get it.

Consensus: By putting its focus on characters we don’t get to see in the spotlight so much, Better Luck Tomorrow opens itself up to a whole new, interesting world and promises of ideas, but also shows us that oddly fun and compelling tales like these are universal, regardless of race.

8 / 10

Guess what? These kids could probably kick your ass. You just didn’t know it.

Photos Courtesy of: Entertainment Weekly, Decider, Tropics of Meta

The Italian Job (2003)

If you’re going to pull-off a cool heist, your whole gang’s gotta be cool, too. It’s a known fact.

After a super, duper tricky heist in Venice, Steve (Edward Norton) turns on his partners in crime, and ends up killing skilled and legendary safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland). Why? Well, Steve got greed and just wanted to keep all the gold for himself, and not try to cut in anyone else. The rest of the team that Steve ripped-off included leader Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), driver Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), explosives man Left Ear (Mos Def), and tech geek Lyle (Seth Green), or, as he likes to be called “Napster”, now all vow revenge. But in order to totally get back at Steve and ensure that their heist goes down without a hitch, they enlist the help of Bridger’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), so that they can get an inside-view into Steve, his life, and just where exactly he’s hiding all of that damn gold. But it’s known that Steve’s a tricky dude to mess with, and it’s why the gang’s really going to have to get their act together, in order for them to not just pull this all off and get the gold, but ensure that everyone’s alive by the end of it.

“Ayo Marky Mark, check this out. I’ll say hello to my motha for me, too.”

The Italian Job is a typical remake that’s modern, which means that it’s “hip”, “cool”, and totally unnecessary. But still, it’s also a bit of fun and when it comes to remakes of old-school classics, having a bit of fun means a lot, because most of the time, they’re just soulless, annoying and nauseating cash-ins. The Italian Job is different in that it doesn’t seem a whole lot of it was made solely for the money, but that it’s still got the same kind of look, tone and feel of all the other “gang-heists” movies.

Basically, think of it a more adult, somewhat smarter version of the Fast and Furious movies.

Which isn’t to say that the Italian Job is all that dumb of a movie, it’s just silly. But in that silliness, there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had, mostly because F. Gary Gray knows that the best way to keep this material interesting, even when it’s silly, is to always be moving, never stopping and never focusing too hard on one aspect of element too much. We have a heist, we have a cast of characters, we have a baddie, we have a conflict, we have a plan, and that’s really all we need; Gray doesn’t get too bogged down in too many senseless subplots to where it feels like extra padding for a movie that does come a tad close to two hours.

But it’s a solid two hours that keeps up its energy throughout, so much so that you also realize that some of the key issues with the movie, like character-development, are left by the waist-side. Now, there’s a part of me that’s fine with the fact that each character sort of has their one characteristic/personality-trait and there’s not much else to them, but for some reason, it’s hard not to expect something a little more, especially from this well put-together cast. For instance, Statham’s Handsome Rob is pure Statham – silent, but scary, and that’s about all there is to him. Same goes for Seth Green’s “Napster”, who is just the goofy tech-y and yep, that’s it. Mos Def is also sort of like the comedic-support with Left Ear, but he’s got such stiff-competition from Green in that department, that often times, it feels like a lot of his stuff was cut.

And then, there’s the core trio of Wahlberg, Theron, and Norton who all, in any other movie, probably would have put on acting-class beyond our beliefs. But sadly, they’re stuck in a silly actioner that doesn’t quite care about how good of actors they are. As long as they are hot enough and can read lines, than it’s all that matters, right?

Honestly, public-transportation has been worse.

Well, yeah, I guess.

In 2003, it’s hard to believe that Wahlberg was still finding his inner-leading man, which is why his performance as Charlie Croker, while not bad, isn’t necessarily the strongest, either. Same goes for Theron’s Stella, who is basically there to be the hot romantic love-interest for Charlie to eventually learn feelings from. Theron was also in a weird spot in Hollywood where they knew she could act, but she was too busy getting these roles where she was just window-dressing because of her absolutely gorgeous-looks. Not that I’m complaining, but it’s obvious she was made for much, much more.

And of course, the same is clearly said for Norton who, even as the villain here, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Still, Norton tries in what is, essentially, a paycheck gig that allow for him to take more risks with the smaller indie-flicks that he had always became so known and adored for. Even in the moments where we’re supposed to feel like this guy is a total and complete asshole, Norton’s not fully there and it’s weird, because it’s like we almost don’t care and just remember how effective he was in another good heist film, the Score.

But still, all of this talk about performances and characters, guess what? It doesn’t matter. The Italian Job gets the job done it set out to do, right. It doesn’t slow itself down and it sure as hell doesn’t try to appear as anything more than it already is – it’s just a fun, sometimes way too silly flick, with hot, talented people, being hot and cool.

And in that sense, yeah, it’s fine.

I just like to complain.

Consensus: Though it’s disappointing to see such a waste of a good ensemble, the Italian Job still delivers the right amount of fun, thrills and humor to have anyone happy.

7 / 10

As usual, the bro’s don’t know what to do when a tall, beautiful and smart woman comes around. Except Marky. He knows everything.

Photos Courtesy of: Cineplex.com

My Date with Drew (2004)

A date with anyone? Where does one begin?

Aspiring filmmaker Brian Herzlinger has been in love with Drew Barrymore since he was a young boy. So in love that he even joined her fan club at a very young age, receiving all sorts of letters and pictures that drew him even closer and closer to his Hollywood crush. After buying a video camera from Circuit City, Herzingler and his crew have 30 days to find Barrymore, date her and return the camera for a full refund. Unfortunately, Barrymore is Hollywood royalty, and Herzlinger is just a guy from New Jersey. It will take every ounce of charm Herzlinger can muster to make his way through the minefield of agents, publicists and bouncers to reach his prize. But to make it even worse, Herzingler is constantly finding himself running into roadblocks, whether they be people who aren’t willing to help him out, or the simple fact and reality that he doesn’t have a job, needs money, and can’t do anything else involving this project without it. Needless to say, it’s an impossible mission, but it’s one that Herzlinger won’t stop trying to complete.

Uhm, why?

My Date with Drew isn’t necessarily the kind of hard-hitting, thought-provoking that it sometimes intends to be. You’d think that a movie about a guy trying his absolute hardest to get a date with his Hollywood crush, while not just creepy, would have a little something to say about the Hollywood culture, the stalker culture, and the relationships celebrities hold with their fans, and how far they can go, but nope, not really. It’s literally just a documentary of watching, waiting and wondering when, or even if, this dude is ever going to get a chance to date Drew Barrymore.

And is that okay? Yeah, sure.

Would it have helped to been about something deeper, or better yet, try to make this situation more interesting? Yeah, possibly, but even without any of that here, My Date with Drew still works because it’s entertaining and never seems to slow down. In fact, the idea that it doesn’t try too hard to harp on the hard-hitting, possibly serious issues a situation like this could bring up, actually helps it out in not taking away from the action, or what actually matters: Finding and dating Drew Barrymore.

Considering that the movie was made for a little over $1,000, it’s interesting to see how all of that money is spent, what it goes towards, and just how easy it can be to shoot a documentary on the cheap, even with such a subject as this. It’s an ambitious mission for sure, but it helps that the camera is there literally every step of the way, giving us a better idea of how one outsider could possibly get a date with Drew Barrymore (in the early-aughts, that is, times have definitely changed), and also never forgetting that the sole focal point of this project isn’t just Barrymore herself, or the movies she’s made, but Herzlinger himself.

But even with him, I’m still a little bit put-off.

Not because what he sets out to do is creepy, or even downright weird, because in a way, I kind of respect the guy – he knows that he’s being weird for having this crush and knows that going about this idea is even weirder, but still, he chugs along, trying his absolute hardest, leaving nothing off-screen. The camera is always there and Herzlinger wants it that way, so of course, we get to see a whole lot of him, hear him talk, and try to keep his cool persona, even when it seems like he’s creeping every person out around him. He’s a likable presence, too, which makes it all the easier to watch him in interviews, even when, once again, he’s literally asking random people within Hollywood about Drew Barrymore, and even they know it’s a little weird, but aren’t sure if they want to, or know how to say it.

Once again, why? You’re fine! She was married to Tom Green, after all!

But then there’s this other part of Herzlinger’s that’s odd and nothing to due with the whole Barrymore-aspect – it’s the persona he actually puts-off to the camera. There’s plenty of real, raw and rather genuine moments that Herzlinger shares for the camera, but then there are these other, like when he’s showing his body off to people, working out, having random conversations with needy exes, that it feels like he may be putting on a bit of an act. Or, if he isn’t, then it’s a wonder why he includes any of this stuff in this first place; the work-out/grooming scenes are tedious, and the whole ex-sequence within the film could have been taken out and not have at all changed the film, considering how random it is.

I’m not saying that the Herzlinger we get in the movie isn’t the real guy, but a part of me feels like, possibly, he’s acting a little bit.

Just a little bit.

Then again, maybe that was intended; maybe he wanted it to appear like he was this way-more charming guy than he actually was in real life and maybe, he was just doing it all for the sake of the movie and in hopes that he wouldn’t scare Barrymore away, had he actually gotten a date with her. Makes sense and okay, whatever, I’ll accept it. But still, there’s some weird stuff about him that goes beyond the Barrymore stuff that yeah, threw me for a loop, if only a bit. And then I realized that, “Oh wait, it’s about him, but also this date. So who cares?”

And it all got better from there.

Consensus: My Date with Drew isn’t particularly deep, but then again, doesn’t need to be with its entertaining idea, and likable, if flawed subject in Herzlinger.

7 / 10

My Date with Eric? Make it happen, Hollywood.

Photos Courtesy of: Rotten Tomatoes

Whale Rider (2002)

Ride a bull, ride a whale. Ride life.

Only the males are allowed to ascend to chiefdom in a Maori tribe in New Zealand, which has been something of an ancient custom and never messed with. And for one man (Cliff Curtis), this custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at birth, leaving the twin sister, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), surviving and left to carry the hypothetical torch. The only issue is that the rest of society won’t allow it and it’s something that Pai, even at age 12, won’t back down from. With the help of her grandmother (Vicky Haughton) and the training of her uncle (Grant Roa) to claim her birthright, she sets out to become the next chief of her tribe and stand up for what she believes in is right. The only real person standing in her way is her ultra-traditional grandfather (Rawiri Paratene), who doesn’t believe in Pai at all, and surely doesn’t see her leading the tribe, like her father was supposed to do, all before he screwed it up by leaving the country and taking pictures all around the world.

Costume? Or, just another day at school?

Whale Rider feels like a movie made by someone making their debut. It’s slow, chock full of style, beautiful visuals, ideas, themes, and things to say, but for some reason, it just never fully comes together as well as it should. Which is odd because writer/director Niki Caro, for the most part, has made a good career for herself since this – even if this is considered to be her major breakthrough, it still feels like a movie that’s praised so much because of how different and unique it is, coming from completely out of nowhere, even if there are some truly troubling issues with it all.

And that mostly comes down to the fact that the movie just doesn’t know what it wants to say, do, or even be about. For instance, there are these ideas about new facing the old, or breaking tradition, or hell, even sexism, that actually work and seem like they could take the film in an interesting direction. But as soon as one of these themes are explored, Caro switches gears immediately, leaving her wandering eyes to pay more attention to the beautiful scenery that surrounds her characters, and not really make sense of the said characters themselves. There’s a lot of looking and sight-seeing, for sure, but much else?

Meh. Not really.

And it’s odd, because a lot of Whale Rider just seems to be beautiful visuals, small, almost-too-subtle character moments, over and over again. There’s no real driving momentum behind it – only just a very loud score and a way too quiet narration that’s supposed to guide us, but almost feels like it was thrown in there manipulatively during post because early screenings probably came back confused and abandoned. It’s not as if the movie doesn’t have an interesting style to it, but it’s just that there’s too much of the style; it’s the sign of a first-time writer/director getting their chance to work with everything at their disposal, not having a clear idea of how to work with it all, and somehow, just throwing it all out there.

Of course, some sticks and lands, but most doesn’t. What does stick and land are the actual performances themselves, most of whom are sometimes better than the material. At age 12, Keisha Castle-Hughes became notorious for being the youngest ever Best Actress nominee and with good reason – she’s smart, spunky, and entirely believable as a confused, angry, and eager 12-year-old who wants to impress everyone in her life, but unfortunately, just can’t seem to catch a break. She’s easily the most drawn-out character her and it helps that Castle-Hughes never seems like she’s trying too hard in a role that, normally, would have been way too directed, in hopes that the kid doesn’t go over-the-top or screw everything up.

Thankfully, she doesn’t.

“Don’t leave me daddy. Even if America calls for more drug-dealer roles.”

Another great performance comes in the form of Rawiri Paratene, but his character is also the same one I seemed to have the most problems with. See, it’s this idea that constantly runs throughout Whale Rider, in which we see the old school, not be able to get with the times, and face the new school, and it’s one that Paratene’s character stays solely in, not just coming off like a bit of a stern and stubborn dick, but a total and complete evil asshole. The movie wants to portray him as this broken down, sad, troubling, but yet, sympathetic older dude who can’t seem to get on with the way the world’s turning, but what I see is just an old grump, who’s practically rude and terrible to everyone around him and for what reasons? For the sake of tradition? The tribe? Just because?

Honestly, I never quite figured it out and it seems like just another instance of Caro dealing with something, but never fully realizing. There’s a lot of that in Whale Rider and it seems like a shame, because everything about the look, the magical, sometimes fantastical-feel to it, and even the gritty, raw moments of emotion, work, but when it comes down to everything else, the movie, as well as Caro, just don’t know where to go or what to do.

Oh well, at least it made money and reminded people that New Zealand movies don’t have to just be Lord of the Rings.

Consensus: For a movie with so much beauty and interesting ideas about, believe it or not, breaking tradition and feminism, it’s a shame that Whale Rider is so messy and unfocused to fully get itself together.

5.5 / 10

Whale rider? Or, rock rider?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, NZ on Screen

Into the Wild (2007)

Run away. Far, far away. And piss off everyone you ever knew.

After graduating as a top student at Emory, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) decides to, essentially, throw any idea of a career away. His very wealthy parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) cannot believe this, but they don’t have enough time to digest it all, what with Christopher literally being out on the road the next day, on his way to the Alaskan wilderness. Christopher doesn’t bring much with him, as he leaves mostly everything back in his house, with the exception of money, his backpack, and oh yeah, most importantly, his notebook. While on the road, Chris meets all sorts of wacky and wonderful characters, all of whom make some sort of a difference on Chris’s life, showing that he may truly have something to live for and above all else, may want to get back into society once he has completed his self-fulfilling mission. But, that may not happen for Chris, as he’s already risking life and death in the first place, while everyone back at home clamors wondering just when he’s going to come home, if ever again.

Be one with birds.

Into the Wild is probably the best film Sean Penn has, or ever will, make in his career. It’s the kind of movie that you don’t expect to work, especially not from an actor-turned-writer/director who has something of a shoddy, relatively fine filmography in the first place. There’s a certain bro-y attitude to Penn, the person, that makes him perfect for this material, but also not; to approach McCandless’ the right way, you sort of have to keep an objective view, never letting your own thoughts or opinions, as a storyteller, shine through.

And of course, it helps that the man himself wrote everything down while he was on this never ending trip of his, therefore, it appears as if we are literally watching him go from one adventure, to another. There’s no clear sign that Penn is trying to say how great it is that he got the chance to just let it all go and soak up the scenery, nor is there a clear sign in him saying that it was a terrible decision for the man to make in the first place, for all of those involved who weren’t him; in a way, Penn leaves it all up to us to decide, while he shows us both sides of the argument. Sure, it was great that he got to see the world and really couldn’t have given a crap about material things in life that waited for him back at home, but at the same time, he really did just get up and leave one day, without ever really telling anyone of where he was headed, when he’d be back, or what his reasons were.

In other words, he’s a bit of an a-hole.

But Into the Wild does work because it doesn’t always portray him as such, or if at all, during certain times. Mostly, McCandless remains something of a blank slate that has enough personality to matter to this story, but it’s really all about those that he meets on this wild and crazy adventure, mostly all of whom are exciting and charming to watch, bringing a little something extra to this journey. Vince Vaughn gets a chance to shed some dramatic-muscles as Wayne, a dude who gives Chris a job for a short time and may have something tricky up his sleeve; Catherine Keener is sweet as an older-gal who’s finding it hard to connect with her husband; Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, despite playing types, also show some more heart and emotion to said types; Jena Malone plays the sister back at-home who knows and trusts her brother enough to take on this situation with a smile on her face; Kristen Stewart shows up late in the game as a possible love-interest for Chris and shows him that there truly is something beautiful to life; and Hal Hollbrook, in what has to be the most heartbreaking performance I’ve ever seen, plays an older fella who picks up Chris, instantly takes a liking to him, and surprisingly enough, sheds all for him, as well as us. It’s a rich, raw and surprisingly gritty performance from someone who, honestly, we didn’t think needed to prove anything more to us, but here he is, essentially, stealing the show.

Be one with the sky.

Which isn’t to say that all of these people steal the show from Hirsch, either. He’s quite good here, showing that there’s more to this character than just a wannabe-hippy who can’t deal, man. In a way, he’s a lot like most kids who are fresh out of school and desperately need something to do, somewhere to go, and some sort of option/goal in life to have them continue on to live and be happy. Could his decision have gone down better and more thought-out? Sure thing, but it still shows that there’s a reason for what he did, and not just because he wanted to.

Man.

Anyway, Penn deserves the most credit here, taking a very ambitious, long and sprawling tale of one dude discovering himself, as well as the world around him, and never making it seem like it’s wheels are spinning. It’s constantly moving, always touching on interesting characters and points, never harping on any of them too much, and overall, just making us feel closer to this guy and more invested in his journey. We know where he goes, we know how it ends up, and we know how his story ends, but for two-and-a-half hours, Penn allows for us to forget about this all and just revel in the scenery, the people, the vibes, and yeah, of course, the sweet, soulful tunes of Eddie Vedder, in what has to be one of the better soundtracks from a movie in the past decade.

Consensus: While it may not have been easy to take this tale and give it the deserving film treatment, Sean Penn is somehow able to do so with Into the Wild, showing a certain skill for storytelling and character detail that makes this journey all the more compelling and interesting, even if we know just how it all ends up.

9 / 10

And definitely be one with your impeding and foolish death.

Photos Courtesy of: The Mind Reels, Linkedin

True Adolescents (2009)

Grow up, or don’t. Just don’t stop listening to indie.

Sam Bryant (Mark Duplass), for lack of a better term, a bit of a loser. He’s jobless, homeless, and oh yeah, his hopes and dreams of one day breaking it in the music-business seem to be dwindling more and more each day, but for some reason, he just doesn’t seem to know, or understand that just yet. And now that he’s getting up there in his 30’s, it’s time for him to do a bit of growing up, even if he’s too stubborn to ever figure out how. Which is why when he ends up staying at his aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo)’s place, he thinks he’s got it made. He tries to get a job, he tries to clean up after himself, and oh yeah, his younger cousin, Oliver (Brett Loehr), he gets along with quite well, even if there is a bit of an age-barrier and different understanding between what’s “cool”, and what isn’t. Then, they head out on a small hiking trip along with Oliver’s friend Jake (Carr Thompson), who seems to be really close with Oliver, and Sam doesn’t want to get in the way. Until, well, he feels that he has to.

Always stick with the hipster bands.

The “man-child” subgenre of movies, or better yet, indie movies, is a bit old and slowly, but somewhat surely, beginning to die. There is, of course, every few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, it seems like watching a tale about a mid-30 dude not holding down a job, having a place to sleep, and just never allowing himself to grow up is, well, a tad bit boring. That’s not to say that it isn’t true and isn’t definitely the case with most dudes out there, but as far as indie-movies go, yeah, they can tend to be a bit repetitive.

But True Adolescents is a small and somewhat rare exception to that rule, if only because it seems to have a tad bit more something to say about these man-children; instead of getting down on these people and showing why they’re losers, writer/director Craig Johnson does realize that there’s more to these kinds of people than we initially expect. For one, they’re not all terrible people – immature, sure, but definitely not immoral, evil human beings who have no clear mind about the law, or how to exist in a governing society. If anything, they’re just sort of babies, the kinds that need to be coddled and cared for, as opposed to kicked out and thrown onto the streets.

And in a way, this makes Sam Bryant a tad bit more sympathetic, than we’d normally expect.

It does help that Mark Duplass is great in this role and can practically play this character in his sleep, but it’s interesting to watch someone like Sam develop over time, as we begin to realize more and more that he’s just a total tool, and less of an actual baby. Okay, maybe he’s a huge mixture of both, but still, Duplass never makes him unlikable – he’s always someone we enjoy watching and want to see more over time, whether he’s learning a thing or two about the world, being nicer to those around him, or even getting a job. No matter what this character does, or says, Duplass is always there to pick up the pieces and remind us that, oh yeah, he’s one of the most likable presences on the screen today.

Coolest aunt ever? Probs.

In a pre-Oscar role, Melissa Leo is also quite charming as the smart, understanding, and stern Aunt Sharon who doesn’t really take much of Sam’s crap, but also knows to listen to him more and not judge him for who he is, or what it is that he represents. Even the two kids, played by Brett Loehr and Carr Thompson, are good, too, but their characters is where the movie starts to confuse itself and get a little odd. Without saying too much, there’s a small revelation made about halfway through that doesn’t necessarily come out of nowhere, but also doesn’t seem pertinent to the story and what we’re going for, either. Johnson seems to start True Adolescents out in a familiar way, then puts more of a focus and attention on the characters and their relationships, only to then, halfway through, make it about something else completely.

Which is hard for me to say, without spoiling a whole lot about this movie.

It just seems that Johnson was fond of throwing us for a loop, did just that, but also as a result, forgot to keep his story cohesive. It becomes a whole entirely different beast in general and honestly, lost me a bit, almost as much as it seems to lose itself. That said, a solid first and middle half are fine enough, so whatever.

Consensus: True Adolescents loses itself after the halfway-mark, but still keeps itself interesting with good performances and a smart approach to the whole nauseating “man-child” subgenre of indie flicks.

7 / 10

I’d hike for days with Mark Duplass. Maybe not Jay.

Photos Courtesy of: Now Very Bad…., Filmwax Radio

King Kong (2005)

He must protect his house.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker living in the 1930’s, meaning, he doesn’t have a lot of opportunities. And the ones that he does have, don’t tickle his fancy as much as they used to. That’s why, when he catches wind of a mysterious, huge and odd island out in the middle of nowhere, Denham soon gets the ambition and inspiration all over again. So, he assembles a team full of actors, actresses, crew, and handy-men, who know a thing or two about an adventure and are capable of solving issues, should any of them arise. Aboard the ship is leading-lady Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who also is in desperate need of a hit and will do anything for the spotlight, just one more time. Screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) feels the same way, but also finds himself falling for Ann, leading him to make some pretty rash decisions along this adventure, all leading up to finally meeting, once and for all, King Kong – the giant gorilla who practically watches over Skull Island and kills any sort of threat that may come its way. In this case, it’s these humans and needless to say, not all of them are equipped to take him down.

Why would you want a human, when you could have a Kong?

After winning practically every Oscar that he could for Return of the King, it made sense that he would be allowed to make virtually any movie that he wanted. Cause it’s a known thing in Hollywood: Make a lot of money, win a lot of awards, earn respect, and guess what? You can make your dream projects a reality. And oddly enough, for Jackson, it was remaking the movie he grew up knowing and loving, King Kong. Oh, and by “remaking”, I mean making two hours longer and adding on more CGI, special-effects, and story than you could ever imagine.

But trust me, this isn’t a stab at Jackson.

If anything, King Kong is Jackson getting the opportunity to play in his sandbox, where the world is his oyster, sky is the limit, there are no rules, and even better, everyone’s watching. A lot of people may have complained about the fact that the movie is over three hours long, takes awhile to actually get to Skull Island, and yeah, features one too many monsters and creatures, aside from the titular Kong, but in a way, that sort of makes the movie more epic; it shows us that Jackson isn’t setting out to make a note-for-note remake, but bask in every single bit of this material and be as excessive as humanly possible.

Is it a little draining? Quite possibly, yes, but at the same time, watching Jackson having the time of his life is, in all honesty, a beauty to behold. There aren’t many directors out there in the world with the impressive and ambitious scope like Jackson’s, so when he’s given carte blanche to do all that he wants and not stop, it’s nothing if not entertaining. Also, when was the last time you saw a three-hour movie that goes by in a flash? King Kong should have been a slog, but it’s not and it’s a true testament to Jackson’s prowess that allows for him to make a three-hour movie about little humans and a big gorilla, feel a lot less than that.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Jackson directs the hell out of this thing and it makes sense why he wanted to bother with this story in the first place.

And even getting away from the technical side of the movie, and focusing more on the actual things that matter, like story, character development, etc., yeah, it still kind of works. The story isn’t all that different from before, but this time around, Jackson does up the emotion in a way that’s surprising, mostly because while we’re watching Kong up there on the screen, we’re watching something believable and impressively done – almost to the point where instead of being scared by him, we’re actually connected to him. The whole tale about this gorilla falling in love with a short little blonde thing is, of course, silly, but the movie doesn’t forget that sometimes, the seriousness of a tale like this can actually work, so long as you build enough tension and emotion behind it all.

That’s what Jackson does and it helps King Kong move along, even when it gets away from the gorilla beating the hell out of other monsters and dinosaurs. Cause even during those sequences, there’s a fun, crazy and almost hectic energy that’s a lot like the Lord of the Rings movies, but still its own kind of beast. Even when Jackson does dial it down for the characters, the movie’s still at least somewhat interesting, because we’ve spent so much time and energy with them, it’s hard not to understand them, at the very least.

Jack knows what I’m talking about.

Then again, the ensemble involved does help out with that as much as they can.

If there’s one thing that holds King Kong back from being a truly and absolutely great movie that it sometimes comes close to being, it’s that the performances can tend to be a bit bland, which may have more to do with the script and less to do with the actual actors themselves. Like, for instance, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody are two perfectly good actors who can work well when given the material, but for some reason, they just feel underdeveloped; Watts gets some chances to be bright and shiny, whereas Brody is mostly just serious and not all that right for a movie that’s so concerned with everything else that’s going on around him. Others in the cast fare better, like Kyle Chandler, Jamie Bell, Thomas Kretschmann, and Colin Hanks, mostly because their characters aren’t made out to be the leads and can benefit from some goofiness, but with Watts and Brody, who are supposed to be our emotional anchors throughout this whole thing, it doesn’t fully work.

That said, the movie does benefit from having a very good, very surprising, and very dark performance from Jack Black. Of course, a lot of people will consider Black’s performance to be channeling Orson Welles, but if so, it’s still a good performance, because we see him lay down all of the usual trademarks and conventions that we’re so used to seeing, and hating with the sorts of characters he plays. What we get here, is a person we grow to love to hate and because of Black’s performance gets better, taking on more meaning as the movie develops and we start to see more sides to this twisted, sometimes sad little man.

Which is to say that I’m still waiting for that battle between Black and Kong.

Black Kong. What a name.

Consensus: Ambitious in scope, epic in its look, feel, and overall mood, King Kong is the movie Peter Jackson deserved to make and absolutely revels in the opportunity to do so, for the benefit of us all.

8.5 / 10

See what I mean?

Photos Courtesy of: Fernby Films

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

Just watch the X-Files.

John Klein (Richard Gere), a respected journalist, loses his wife (Debra Messing) one night, after she takes the wheel of their car and sees a strange figure attack her. Cut to two years later and John has found himself in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where there has apparently been many sightings/clues of a secret ghost out there, and John thinks he has the answers to all of the clues.

Saying that your movie’s story, no matter how creepy or strange it may be, is a “true story” or “based on a true story”, makes it seem like such a manipulative-way for the filmmakers to have us take the material more seriously. I mean, it did somehow work with movies like the Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust, but that was all because it looked and felt real, and also, nobody really had any idea whether to prove it false or not. However, stories like these where everything dark in the world seems to come up, doesn’t make it more freaky because it’s “based on a true story,” but instead, how about this, just makes it more dull.

However, don’t go up to director Mark Pellington and tell him that this material is, in fact, “dull”, because he’ll try his hardest to prove you wrong with any trick he can pull out of his director’s hat. Every chance that Pellington gets to make us forget what type of lame story we’re seeing, he capitalizes on it and gives us something to treat our eyes and for the most part, yeah, it actually works. The constant barrage of tricks and effects that Pellington pulls off aren’t all stuff we haven’t seen done before, but at least he makes a conscientious effort to really pull us into this state of paranoia and fear. You can tell that Pellington comes from a long line of directing music-videos, and it works for the overall atmosphere and tone of the movie.

The color blue is always a sign that something bad is 'a brewin'.

The color blue is always a sign that something bad is ‘a brewin’.

But just like most directors who have a music-video background, they just can’t quite get the narrative.

See, with Pellington’s direction,  no matter how hard he tries to keep our minds off of it, he still can’t get past the fact that this story is relatively boring. The pace is always off, with the plot constantly starting-and-stopping, and then never knowing how to pick itself back up again. Pellington knows how to freak us out, but to keep our interest is a whole other issue right then and there, and it’s hard to keep total invested interest.

As for the story, it isn’t terrible; there’s an idea of an mystery and having no idea what’s going to happen next, but it happens in such short spurts that it hardly almost matters. We get way too many scenes where it’s just Gere talking to some weird thing on the phone and says something disastrous is going to happen, it does end-up happening, and Gere runs around looking for an explanation by talking to random people as well as that weird thing. You can only watch Richard Gere run around, looking like a bewildered-fool so many times, and by the 45-minute mark of already seeing this 20 times, it’s hard not to be done here.

And oh yeah, Gere is terribly bland as John Klein and even though it seems like the dude should have more emotions and ideas in his because he for one, went through a terrible life-crisis like losing his lovely wife, somehow doesn’t. Instead, you don’t care about him, the paranoia he’s going through, the sadness he went through with his lost wife, and worst of all, you just don’t feel like the guy’s actually scared. Yeah, Gere puts on that scared-expression plenty of times, but it came to a point of where it seemed like the only skill the guy could pull out of his one-note bag of expressions and it made me realize why I have never cared for Gere in the first place.

Something I sure he’s really broken up about.

Generic Richard Gere look #2

Generic Richard Gere look #2

Laura Linney is pretty dull here, too, as the country bumpkin police officer that made me want to give Frances McDormand a call. Linney’s does what she can, but all she really does is put the same expression on as Gere has, try to look scared the whole time, and in the end, somehow act like she’s the one after his heart and can save him from all of this pain and fear he’s had to deal with throughout the past two years of his life. I’d be able to believe that these two would have some sort of a romance between one another, if the film ever alluded to it throughout the whole two hours, but it rarely ever does and when it seems like Linney goes all goo-goo eyes over Gere at the end, it was just dumb and a contrived way for the movie to bring these two together at the end. An end that was, yes, pretty cool to look at, but also, an end that signified that this long movie was finally over and I could get on with my life, forget about Gere, forget about Linney, and hopefully, watch a better movie before the day was up.

Consensus: Mark Pellington is a fine director that does all that he can to keep us awake throughout the Mothman Prophecies, but the script and story think otherwise, and sort of carry everything down with a dead-weight of total and complete dullness.

3 / 10

What I should have done from this movie.

What I should have done from this movie.

Photos Courtesy of: Thecia.Com.Au

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Most cold-blooded killers are, after all, misunderstood.

Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) has been on the run, gun slingin’, robbin’, killin’, and committing all sorts of crimes that have him number one on every person’s bounty list. However, Wade is a pretty ruthless man, to where he can get away from anyone looking to reel him in for justice; it also helps that he’s got the helping hand of his band of fellow thugs, especially his go-to-guy, Charlie (Ben Foster). But eventually, Ben gets caught by the local law and ready for the 3:10 train to take him to Yuma. But in order to get him there, he’ll have to be transported among many lines, where everyone is looking to take Ben down and get a little piece of the reward-money pie. However, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is just looking to do this so that he can get some money, save his farm, and go home to his family, where he can feel like a responsible man again. As expected though, the trip goes through all sorts of bumps, bruises, and plenty of violence, where one thing leads to another, and it’s never very clear if Ben will ever get on that train and behind bars, like he should.

"Hold it! I'm not Batman here, but other places. Kind of."

“Hold it! I’m not Batman here, but other places. Kind of.”

3:10 to Yuma is the rare kind of Western that not only revitalizes the genre, but also proves why it’s so great in the first place. It doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel of the genre, make up new rules, and play by its own game, but instead, take everything that you know and love from all those other classics, bring them together, and let you have a great time. It’s as if it’s own beast, entirely, even if, yeah, it’s actually a remake, too.

Still, even if 3:10 to Yuma isn’t the most original story out there, it more than makes up for it in all the thrilling, exciting and rather unpredictable action-sequences that take place over its two-hours. James Mangold is a perfect fit for this material, because he knows exactly how to make it all crackle and pop, without ever seeming like he’s out of his depth. Even though Mangold sure does love to jump around from genre to genre, with sheer reckless abandon, it seems like the action-genre may be the one he sticks with, not just because he seems to enjoy it the most, but because he actually seems to know what he’s doing with it, as opposed to those like Michael Bay, or McG.

Why on Earth did I just mention McG’s name?

Anyway, moving on. 3:10 to Yuma more than gets by with its action, but at the heart of it all, and perhaps what makes it more than just another fun and exciting romp through the Old West, is that it’s also the tale of two interesting, challenging, and complex men. Both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe put in great work here, going beyond the silly accents, and showing that there’s more to these two guys. Crowe’s Wade may be a ruthless, toothless (not really, he has quite the set of chompers), and almost sadistic killer, but he’s also got a set of morals and he’s quite the charmer. Whereas, on the other side of the coin, Bale’s Dan is a man with plenty of morals, a simpleton, and family man, but at the same time, won’t hesitate to kill, if he ever has to.

Ben Foster. Up to his usual tricks of not taking a shower to prep for a role.

Ben Foster. Up to his usual tricks of not taking a shower to prep for a role.

Both men are different, yes, but they’re also quite alike in many ways, too, and it’s what makes 3:10 to Yuma quite compelling to watch.

Even when the action is gone for a short while and everyone’s sitting around a fire, eating beans, chewing the fat, it’s still entertaining to watch; the cast is so good, the characters so well-defined, and the script is actually polished. And with Bale and Crowe’s performances, we get to see two men who, despite being on opposites of the social spectrum, still respect the other enough to know where they come from, what their ideals are, and why they are, the way they are in the world. It almost comes close to a bromance, except for the fact that they do try and kill each other every so often, but even then, who knows.

Bromances work in mysterious ways, sometimes.

But anyway, aside from both Crowe and Bale, the ensemble’s a pretty good one. A very young Logan Lerman shows that he can hold his own as Dan’s son; Dallas Roberts plays the sheriff who has to take Wade in with Dan and shows that even the scrawniest of men, with a gun, can still kind of be bad-ass; Peter Fonda shows up and brings some class; Kevin Durand is, as expected, pretty crazy; Luke Wilson has a fun cameo; and Ben Foster, as Wade’s right-hand man, is so crazy, so deranged and so evil, that he almost ends up stealing the show. But still, it’s Bale’s and Crowe’s show to the end and when they’re together, their scenes never stop igniting the spark and make you wish that they’d work together more and more. It doesn’t even have to be in Westerns.

Couldn’t hurt, though.

Consensus: Even if it’s still a Western through and through, 3:10 to Yuma is a tense, exciting and incredibly well-acted piece of entertainment.

8 / 10

Look at 'em. Trying so hard not to make-out and measure sizes.

Look at ’em. Trying so hard not to make-out and measure sizes.

Photos Courtesy of: AV Club, Rotten Tomatoes 

Spellbound (2002)

 

If you don’t know the place of origin, just consider yourself dead and gone.

After being sponsored by their hometown newspapers, eight young, bright and ambitious kids travel with their families to Washington, D.C., where they will compete in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Each of these kids excel at spelling and have a feeling that they’ll be able to put up quite the fight, however, with the national spotlight heavy pressure to perform from parents, teachers and their audience, the children struggle to advance toward the championship, as well as everything else that they can get like the accompanying scholarships and cash prizes. Each kid enters the tournament, not knowing what’s going to happen next, or who is going to win, but they do know that if they try hard enough, they may be able to pull it all off and bring home the prize. However, not everyone can win and unfortunately, a lot of hearts and souls will be crushed when it’s all over.

Spellbound takes a very simple approach and doesn’t really try to complicate anything by any means whatsoever. However, by doing that, director Jeffrey Blitz also gives us a sweet, delicate and rather insightful look inside the lives of numerous kids – all of whom, are different from the other in many ways – without ever resorting to cheap, unnecessary tricks. Simply. Blitz puts the camera and the lens on these kids, their families, their lives, and lets the drama all unfold.

"Eeeeeeeeeeeee."

“Eeeeeeeeeeeee.”

And yeah, in a way, Spellbound is pretty exciting and tense, especially if you don’t know the outcome of this tournament. Considering that it took place nearly two decades ago, it’s highly unlikely that you would know, but regardless, it still works. Blitz uses the championship to show how these kids, so young, so innocent, and so sweet, really do battle it out, lose their minds, and put everything on the line for this one honor.

And with it, we do get some truly great subjects.

What’s probably the most astounding element behind Spellbound is that Blitz never makes it clear who he likes the most, who he wants to win, or better yet, made it appear in such a way where we’d know exactly who won right from the very beginning of the flick. No one gets more attention than the rest, and no one really seems to be the heart and soul of what this movie’s all about or trying to say – basically, everyone is a main character.

And this allows for the actual tournament to have a little bit of heart involved with it, too. Rather than just watching a bunch of smart kids get up on stage and spell-out words that most of us don’t even know and not really caring, the movie demands our attention. We care for these kids and the outcome of their stories, because there’s more at-stake than just a competition – their livelihoods and bits of happiness are, too. Sure, this may not sound like much, but we’re talking about kids all under the age of 12, most of whom have been practicing and waiting for this moment their whole life. It may not totally matter to us and be everything in our lives, but for these kids, such is the case and it works in the movie’s favor.

"Hmmmmmmmmm."

“Hmmmmmmmmm.”

Where Spellbound does lose some muster is in the whole controversy that surrounded it and unfortunately, seem to be a little understandable.

For one, a lot of people saw Spellbound as, for the most part, a little phony. While the competition was no doubt real, critics felt as if there was a whole lot of acting and incessant dramatization over everything, from the kids, to the families, to the small conflicts that eventually ensue. And yeah, in a way, I can sort of see that; some families are way too goofy and over-the-top, while other character’s interactions with one another seem more staged for the sake of the movie and less like a germane thing that would have happened.

In this sense, then yes, Spellbound loses some points. After all, it’s a documentary that’s supposed to be documenting real life in front of our own very eyes, so for Blitz to take some cheap alleyways and short-cuts along the way, don’t really help. They take away from what is already a very entertaining and sometimes heart-warming flick about kids trying to spell really, really hard words.

That’s all he had to do.

Consensus: With a heavy heart inside of itself, Spellbound is more than just a documentation of the spelling bee and the contestants, but the hopes and dreams of young, ambitious kids who want to do something great with the world. But they’re just not old enough, though.

8 / 10

That's the look of a daddy who's going to have to do some major ass-whooping tonight.

That’s the look of a daddy who’s going to have to do some major ass-whooping tonight.

Photos Courtesy of: True Films

Rocket Science (2007)

Think of it as the younger-son of The King’s Speech. Minus all of the royalty.

Reece Thompson plays Hal Hefner, a 15-year-old high-school student with a minor yet socially alienating (and painful) disability: He stutters uncontrollably. He soon finds a light at the end of the tunnel with his disability when a brainy female classmate (Anna Kendrick) cons him into being apart of the debate-team. Hal accepts, but finds problems when these two actually hook-up and start to question that maybe there’s something more between them, or maybe not. It’s all confusion in a high-school setting.

Oh, teenagers.

Take with it what you will, I was actually apart of the Debate Club when I was in high-school for a good year or so. Then, I switched schools, and ultimately lost my love and passion of debating. I still do it from time-to-time when people want to have arguments like, “Avatar or Hurt Locker?“, “Social Network or King’s Speech?”, or my favorite, “Artist or not the Artist?” Yep, that’s about the only type of arguments/debates I seem to have nowadays, but I don’t think even mentioning this slice of my life has anything to do with this review or this movie, because this movie is as much about being part of the Debate Club as much as this blog is about food.

Although I do make some references here and there.

Most indies that play out in the same vein like this, all try too hard. They have a certain bit of quirks that they are way too pleased with, love to show off, and never stop reminding us of. It can get quite annoying after awhile and that’s what has usually come to plague such directors like Jared Hess, Wes Anderson, and even Quentin Tarantino so much in the years. The last subject I never have a problem with, but for those first two? Eh, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. It all depends on the context of the story and what it brings to the table. That’s the problem that writer/director Jeffrey Blitz has here.

Too focused in on trying to hide that boner of his.

Too focused in on trying to hide that boner of his.

Blitz apparently took a lot of the material for this flick, from his own adolescence and it shows, because the movie rings very true to what the high school life is really all about. Granted, this isn’t really a movie that takes place in high school and shows you all of the cliques, relationships, friendships, clubs, teachers, lunch ladies, so on and so forth, but just shows the type of kids that go to it and what they think about, whether they are in class or not. Blitz nails down what it’s like to start growing-up, starting to realize that there is a world out there, larger than you even imagined, and start to question everything that you’ve believed in, prior to your next chapter in life. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s the type of idea that Blitz captures well.

However, where this movie loses itself in is trying way, way too hard to win you over with it’s crazy and wacky quirks. That’s bad because nobody likes when a person tries to show-off what they can do, how many times, and how well they can do it, but what’s even worse is that this movie was really winning me over. It’s not like I went into this movie, was totally taken aback by all of the quirky-humor and automatically made up my mind that this was going to be shit, but it was the exact opposite. I ultimately fell for it’s quirks and even realized that maybe I could get past it all with a sweet story, and an attention to character. But nope.

The film wanted to have it the other way.

Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes it’s not. But overall, it’s just bothersome to see in a movie like this, especially when you know the movie has so much more promise then what it’s actually giving us. Maybe a bit more drama would have narrowed things down for us, or maybe a teeny, tiny-bit more attention to the plot would have helped, but with a film like this that is so pleased with what it has to say or do, you kind of lose the point. And you can totally tell that this movie was trying to tell an important-fact of stuttering and how a person can get through it with time, patience, and determination, but they even sort of make that a joke by the end. It’s still sweet, but does make fun of the wrong things if you think about it. Okay, enough of this.

Back to the goods, baby.

Evil woman.

The determined eyes of a monster.

Newcomer Reece Thompson is really good as Hal Hefner, and does a magnificent job at keeping up his stutter the whole time. That may sound like a terrible thing to say about a character who has a real problem, that real people have to deal with, but it’s the truth: Keeping a consistent stutter must be a pretty hard job. That’s why it’s so great to see this kid pull it off with flying colors, but he’s not all about losing his train of thought, he’s actually more than that. Hal Hefner is a good character because he reminds all of us, a little bit ourselves. He’s young, rebellious, trying to make sense of the world, falling in-love for the first-time, and will stop at nothing to keep that feeling of love and tranquility in place.

Anna Kendrick is just about a household name by now, but people don’t remember when she was just a young, small girl, in a little indie where she got to not only show off her charm, but her comedic-timing as well. Kendrick is awesome at being able to show us how smart and perky a character like hers can be, but also how sinister underneath it all. You never know whether or not to trust this character and all of the hope that she gives to sweet, little old Hal, but you feel Kendrick’s a presence on-screen, and she keeps you watching the whole time.

Makes sense why she’s the star she is now.

Consensus: Rocket Science is maybe way too pleased with itself at times, but also benefits from smart, funny insights into growing up and high-school life.

7 / 10

Oh yeah, and he's a nerd too. Just adding insult to injury there, kid.

Oh yeah, and he’s a nerd too. Just adding insult to injury there, kid.

Photos Courtesy of: Thecia.Com.Au

Towelhead (2008)

Don’t you just love your neighbors.

Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a 13-year-old Arab-American girl navigating through the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening. When Jasira’s mother sends her to Houston to live with her strict Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi), she quickly learns that her new neighbors find her and her father a curiosity, something that has some positive, as well as dangerously negative effects on them, and everyone around them.

It’s hard to watch Towelhead and not at all try and compare it to writer/director Alan Ball’s other work. For one, American Beauty and Six Feet Under are absolute masterpieces, showing off Ball’s great sense of heart, humor, satire, and thoughtfulness beyond it all. In a way, True Blood took him away from what we all know and love, which is why it’s so good to see something like Towelhead, as mixed as it may be, still at least hit the same notes we expect from Ball.

Like father....

Like father….

But at the same time time, when you’re up against American Beauty and Six Feet Under, it’s a really hard battle to win, which ultimately becomes Towelhead‘s one factor holding it all back.

Ball isn’t really diving into a subject he hasn’t tried before (suburbia), but at least he still makes it feel fresh and inventive just by how hard he pushes this story. A lot of the subject material, as you would suspect, is very controversial, but Ball isn’t afraid to dig in deep. Jasira’s story starts off bad and then gets worse and worse and worse, and it only has some bright spots here and there, but not enough to fully make us feel as if we can put a smile on our faces when it’s over. It’s a ride of torment that Ball involves us in, and if you can handle it and watch, then you may actually come away liking this flick.

Now, if menstrual blood, tampons, underage sex, masturbation, bloody tampons, and dead kittens aren’t your cup of tea, then yeah, Towelhead may grossly disturb you. But then again, it’s sort of the point; Ball is showing that growing up, going through puberty, and eventually, having a sexual awakening, isn’t a very pretty thing. It’s sometimes scary, random, and yes, a little disgusting. But it’s a fact and way of life and it’s kind of great how Ball doesn’t approach any of this in a back-offish way, but instead, showing it all in its gritty glory.

Something he’s done before, of course, but man, he does push some buttons here.

Problem is, something feels missing. Normally, this wouldn’t always bother me, had I not been familiar with the director’s work prior, but with Ball, I love and appreciate his work so much, it’s hard for me not to watch Towelhead and wonder what was here and what was missing. Ball seems to be reaching a bit here, in that there’s a lot he wants to say about racism, about sex, about gender, about puberty, about religion, about family, and about so much other stuff, that he could do to the absolute fulfillment in the whole five seasons of Six Feet Under, but in Towelhead, he has to find a way to cram it all in under two-hours somehow, and it can’t help but seem a little messy. It’s as if Ball himself knew he had a lot to work with, gave it the Freshman try, saw what stuck, what didn’t, and just leave it all there, in one, messy, and rather unfocused piece.

But then again, I’d much rather have a messy, unfocused piece from Alan Ball, than from a lot of other people out there, so it does help.

Like mother...

Like mother…

Really though, where Towelhead does seem to lose a bit of intelligence is in the way Ball himself writes everyone who isn’t Jasira. Either they’re all sickening, mean, or absolutely rude, and it makes you wonder: Is it the point? One adult character in particular is Maria Bello as Jasira’s mother. Bello is great, as usual, but her character is just so selfish, so mean, and so callous the whole time she’s on the screen, that it made me wonder just how the hell anybody would want to stay at her place over a long Summer. Also, Jasira’s dad and her mother seem like total opposites that would never, ever come together in real life, let alone be married for six years and have a kid.

On the flip-side of the equation, there’s Aaron Eckhart as the terrifyingly creepy next-door neighbor that takes a liking to Jasira right from the start. We already know that Eckhart can play sleazy very well, but this is a different kind of sleazy right here. This guy is dirty, uncomfortable to be around, inappropriate, nasty, cruel, and any other bad word that I can come up with now, but would just so repetitive. Eckhart takes control of the screen every time he’s in front of it and the scenes he has with Jasira, just make this film even more tense and bizarre than it already was in the first place. There’s only about two or three scenes where his character feels fleshed out, but Eckhart never forgets to remind us that this guy is a predator, and predator’s are always lurking around every corner.

So yeah, some of the characterization works and some of it doesn’t.

As Jasira, Summer Bishil is pretty great, in that she doesn’t feel like the typical teen you’d get in a movie such as this. She’s smarter, a little bit wiser, and yes, even aware of her surroundings. Still, at the same time, she is a bit naive and silly about the world around her and it’s interesting to see her learn, adapt and grow over the course of the movie, even when it seems like the movie’s pushing her arch so ridiculously far, it’s a wonder how she stays believable and understated through it all. But she does, so good for her.

Consensus: Towelhead is another one of Alan Ball’s take-downs of middle-class suburbia, with some biting, lovely writing, but also an unfocused direction that leaves a lot of loose strands by the end.

7.5 / 10

Oh, and definitely like neighbor.....

Oh, and definitely like neighbor.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Wendigo (2001)

Gotta watch for those deer and rednecks.

George (Jake Weber) is on assignment for his photography job and is supposed to head up into upstate New York and take some pictures. Seeing as how this could be a nice, lovely and enjoyable little vacation for him and the rest of his family, the three all decide to go up and enjoy some times in the wilderness. That is, well, until they actually get there. On the way up, they have some car trouble, run into a bunch of mean locals who don’t like out-of-towners coming into their place and taking over, and hit a deer. So yeah, not the best way to start out the trip, but it gets a bit worse. George’s wife, Kim (Patricia Clarkson), starts feeling more tense the more she’s up there, whereas the young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), doesn’t quite know what’s going on. He’s imagining some weird, horrific things in his mind, but he doesn’t know whether or not they’re real, make believe, or things that just occur when you’re in this part of upstate New York. Either way, the weekend does not go by as expected.

It's okay, kid. Childhood will be over soon enough.

It’s okay, kid. Childhood will be over soon enough.

Writer/director Larry Fessenden does something very interesting with Wendigo, in that he makes a horror flick, that would be played for the art-house crowd. Meaning, he doesn’t just give us all the typical blood, guts, ghosts, ghouls and monsters right off the bat, just as we’d expect from your typical, standard horror-fare; in place of that this time around, there’s character-development, a sense of time, place, and mood. In other words, it’s smart film-making and writing, which isn’t something I can say too often about movies within the horror genre.

Then again, though, there is that final-act where Fessenden himself throws everything out the window.

But hey, let’s not talk about that right away. First, with the good stuff. For one, Wendigo has a very solid first two-acts, in that we’re never too sure where it’s going to end up, what it is, or better yet, what sort of genre is being played with. In a way, Wendigo‘s first two-acts are far more based in the psychological-thriller territory, as there’s some freaky and odd imagery, but never any actual idea that there’s going to be any sort of supernatural presence at play – what we get, is a bunch of random people, acting weird and rude, for almost no reason. It’s like a horror movie, but with real people, in place of all the monsters, which is actually a whole lot scarier if you stop and think about it.

But then, Fessenden ups the ante by actually, believe it or not, giving us characters that we can not just identify with, but actually come to learn to love and grow with, as time goes. Sure, these three protagonists are playing the standard, middle-to-upper-class, cutesy, harmless family, but there’s something heartfelt and interesting about their dynamic; there’s some signs that George may be a bit of a hard-ass and Kim may be smarter than she lets on, but for the most part, they’re a nice, lovely, little family to watch. And that’s why the first-half of Wendigo is spent on them, watching them as they interact with one another, with others, and just in general.

Just another harmless walk in paradise.

Just another harmless walk in paradise.

Once again, not all that groundbreaking stuff in film as a whole, but considering that this is a horror film we’re talking about here, yeah, some shocking and refreshing stuff.

But then, like I stated before, it sort of all goes out the window. This isn’t to say that Fessenden forgets to build up on the tension and suspense throughout, because he definitely does, but when it comes time to get the pay-off for all that suspense and anticipation, well, it doesn’t quite deliver. Without saying too much, Wendigo eventually turns into a full-on, all-out horror flick, that doesn’t hold back on any image and isn’t at all near being subtle. For a typical horror flick, I know that this is something to be accepted, but Wendigo isn’t that typical horror movie – it’s something far smarter and more interesting, yet, ends on a note that could have been mistaken for a Friday the 13th movie.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit harsh to say, but it’s a shame to watch a movie that you’re digging so much and trusting, and then, to have that rug pulled-out from underneath of you. It’s as if, in his head, Fessenden knew that he had a good movie to work with, but only knew at least 2/3’s of it, to put it to paper – the rest, as they say, was sort of made-up on the spot and that’s what seems to have happened with Wendigo. All of his hope, faith and strengths went into the earliest portions of the movie, but when it came to the home stretch and having us leave on a good note, well, he dropped the ball.

Don’t know why there’s so many sports metaphor, but so be it. I’m bummed.

Consensus: Even though Wendigo starts off as a smart, thoughtful and interesting horror-thriller, it eventually turns the other cheek and gets way too crazy and silly, abandoning any sort of hope one might have had for something new, or refreshing within the genre.

6 / 10

Oh, and what's this? Don't ask.

Oh, and what’s this? Don’t ask.

Photos Courtesy of: Horrornews.net

Proof of Life (2000)

Americans, stay home.

Alice and Peter Bowman (Meg Ryan and David Morse), are a loving couple who are now stationed in a nice little house somewhere in South America. Why? Well, because where Peter’s energy company is overseeing construction of a dam, something that is obviously benefiting them, but no one else who actually lives there and has to put up with all of the destruction, construction and rampage. While Peter is out and about doing his job, Alice is at home, getting more and more frustrated and unhappy about their marriage, what she wants to do with her life, and wondering whether or not she actually wants to start a family with Peter, or leave him altogether. Well, Alice is in for a shock when she finds out that Peter has been taken hostage by a bunch of terrorists, looking for more money from Alice and seeing how long they can keep her on the hook, while he’s still alive. Alice, without a clue in the world of what to do, decides that the best way to handle this situation is call up a professional: Enter Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a professional negotiator who has a strict moral code when it comes to hot and heavy situations like these, and won’t put up with any silly shenanigans, especially since he’s kind of becoming a little attracted to Alice and her plight, all things considered.

"Yeah, let's go yell and shoot things."

“Yeah, let’s go yell and shoot things.”

Most of the heat surrounding Proof of Life around the time of its release wasn’t how “good”, or “bad” it actually was, but because of how both co-stars, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, got together, shacked-up and inevitably, ended the later’s years-long marriage to Dennis Quiad. Does any of that really matter? No, not really, but it definitely does help to make sure that a movie, whether it’s bad or not, is talked about in the mouths of many people who probably have no reason to see it in the first place.

They just want the gossip and that’s about it.

That said, Proof of Life is a better movie than the controversy surrounding it, mostly because it’s about something slightly more than you’d expect with thrillers of these natures. Director Taylor Hackford is definitely hit-or-miss, but what he does well here, is that he does find smart, interesting ways to keep the tension moving, even when it seems obviously and abundantly clear just where the story is going, at almost every moment. Writer Tony Gilroy also deserves some credit for trying to make this ordinary thriller about more than just a husband being kidnapped, and more about the issues of big, corporate America coming in and taking over foreign countries for land, oil and money, but a part of me feels like there was a far more detailed script, that went into this a whole lot more and more.

Instead, Proof of Life mostly concerns itself with the fact that Morse’s character may have been up to no good and probably deserves some bad stuff to happen to him, but to die for it all? Well, probably not. And that’s fine; Hackford and Gilroy do come together enough in a way that makes us care about Morse’s character while he’s on this seemingly never ending journey to nowhere, as well as making us care about the characters at home, sitting around, waiting for something, hell, anything to happen. In fact, there’s more character stuff going on here than I see with most other thrillers of the same kind, making it worthy of getting invested in.

Wait, which one's David Morse?

Wait, which one’s David Morse?

And yes, that does mean that Crowe and Ryan are good, however, both seeming to be in different movies.

Proof of Life is by no means whatsoever, a smart, sophisticated film made for the far more prestige-crowd out there, but at the same time, it’s no silly, slam-bang action-thriller, either. It’s just serious enough to be dark, but also fast-paced enough not to be slow. That’s why it’s odd by how cartoonish Crowe is here, showing up into every scene, only to drop some witty line, kick somebody’s ass, or stare long and hard at Meg Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, Crowe is fine with that and can be fun to watch, but when you take into consideration the rest of the movie surrounding him, it seems a little off. Same goes for David Caruso, who is so loud, obnoxious and foul-mouthed, you wonder if he was expecting this to be some sort of Die Hard spin-off.

But on the other hand, Morse and Ryan are both quite great here, showing that this kind of material can work, so long as you underplay as much as you can. Sure, often times, Morse laps into the loud craziness that contains both of Crowe’s and Caruso’s performance, but there’s also these small, human moments that make his character tick a whole lot more and it’s interesting to see what sort of lessons he learns and how he handles said situation. Ryan’s good as his wife, because her character’s also a little complicated, too; she’s the wife who actually got into a dispute with her hubby, didn’t know whether or not she wanted to stay with him and now, all of a sudden, has to really care about him and his well-being, all of a sudden. It’s a difficult role to make sympathetic, but Ryan does and it’s a shame that she never seemed to get enough credit for her against-type roles, because she truly did challenge herself, when push came to shove.

Unfortunately, not so much anymore, but here’s to hoping for a possible return of Meg Ryan.

Even as unrecognizable as she may be.

Consensus: While definitely an odd mixture between being too serious and sometimes silly, Proof of Life is an interesting thriller that tries to be about something, but overall, just ends up being a tense thriller.

6 / 10

"Come with me, Meg. Marriage is so silly, anyway."

“Come with me, Meg. Marriage is so silly, anyway.”

Photos Courtesy of: Rave Pad, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB

The Hoax (2006)

It’s always best to get in the fake company of known-crazies.

Author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) is finding it hard to stay afloat. His latest book was just passed-on, making him feel as if he’s nothing and probably going to be forgotten about some time soon. However, when he catches wind that famed billionaire Howard Hughes is as crazy as can be and barely anyone knows anything about him, well, Clifford concocts the perfect book. In it, he’ll be interviewing Hughes about his life, his business expenditures and most importantly, get all of the latest dish on his deepest, darkest and dirtiest secrets. Clifford feels like he can really get down to the bottom of what makes Hughes clicks and why he is the way he is, something that the publishers absolutely love and go haywire for. The only issue is that Clifford has never met Hughes and probably never will; the security is so air-tight on that man, that not even his closest, best friends can get anywhere near him. But that’s not going to keep Clifford away from getting the book he wants, he’ll just have to talk to everyone but Howard and try to do what he can to get the best story out of imaginable. Even if, you know, there are some lines to be blurred between “fact” and “fiction”.

"Look at me, Hope. Could you hate this face?"

“Look at me, Hope. Could you hate this face?”

It’s hard to do a bad, uninteresting movie about con-men. Whether the tales themselves are real, or fake, it doesn’t quite matter; it’s so entertaining to watch a bunch of sly, smart people act their ways through life, with all the right lies and moves. There’s something truly exciting about watching this, because deep down inside each and everyone of us, there’s that feeling that we wish we were that smart, that brave, and that damn slimy to do the same as they are, get away with it, and walk away from it all with a smile on our faces.

And that’s why the Hoax, despite seeming like it can border on the verge of ringing false, is still entertaining to watch.

Even though it is, oddly enough, directed by Lasse Hallström, of all people. However, what Hallström does best here is that he doesn’t get in the way of the material, or try to force anything down our throats; regardless of what the true stories behind most of these situations may have been, the movie moves at such a quick, efficient pace that it’s hard to really pin point the issues with the facts. The movie may seem ridiculous at points, but at the same time, it’s hard not to have a little fun, watching as this little weasel of a man tries his best to wig and worm his way out of every tense situation possible.

But beneath all of the facades, gags, lies, deception, and most of all, cons, there’s something to be learned here. There’s this idea running throughout the Hoax that is interesting, because it tries to make sense out of this whole situation in the first place. The fact that someone like Irving was so easily capable of fooling just about everyone around him, for so very long, for all of the wrong reasons, really makes you think – is there such a problem with his lies? After all, the lies and deceptions he was making, were all to really just get himself some money and a little bit of fame – he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, start any wars, and he sure as hell wasn’t hurting Hughes’ feelings.

Wait, who's Leonardo DiCaprio?

Wait, who’s Leonardo DiCaprio?

There are bits and pieces of the Hoax that show that maybe, just maybe, Irving’s little escapades had more of an effect than he, or anyone else had ever expected, but mostly, the movie realizes that this is best left to our interpretation. The movie doesn’t make us think that Irving is a great man for getting away with everything that he was able to get away with (although, he’s definitely ballsy, for sure), but show that even someone like him, can get away with so very much. And when all is said and done, for what reasons?

Well, fame and fortune and for most, anything can happen.

As Irving, the man, the myth, the legend, so to speak, Richard Gere does a solid job because he’s playing very much against-type. Sure, he’s still charming, handsome and yes, the ladies love him, but there’s also something more dastardly about him that makes his performance here the more bearable than some of his others, where we’re literally begged to fall in love with him and adore his beautiful, well-constructed face, chin and hair. Even though Irving isn’t made out to be a perfect human being here, there’s still something sympathetic about him that makes you hope he gets away with all of his lies, even though, yeah, it probably won’t happen.

While Gere’s Irving is mostly front-and-center for a good portion of the movie, there’s others who all show up on the side and remind us why they deserve to be noticed. Alfred Molina plays Irving’s sidekick, so to speak, and has some truly great moments, never letting you know exactly when the man is going to crack under all of the pressure; Marcia Gay Harden plays Irving’s wife, and despite an odd Swedish accent, she’s still charming; Stanley Tucci has a few great scenes that make you wish he was in the whole thing, as is the case with Hope Davis and Julie Delpy. They all add a little bit of fun and excitement to a story that certainly didn’t need their help, but hey, at least they were here to add something.

Consensus: While a good portion of it seems made-up (wouldn’t that be great?), the Hoax still gets by on the charm of its cast, and quick, swift and exciting pace.

7 / 10

Yuck it up, fellas!

Yuck it up, fellas! No seriously, please do. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Photos Courtesy of: PopMatters

An Unfinished Life (2005)

Bears bring everyone closer together.

After she gets in another fight with her boyfriend (Damian Lewis), Jean (Jennifer Lopez) decides that it’s about that time to get her daughter and get the hell out of dodge. They do, however, without much of a destination in mind at all. This leads Jean to her father-in-law, Einar (Robert Redford), and his huge farm that he shares with his best buddy, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who is paralyzed from getting mauled by a bear – the same bear who still roams the streets of this small town in Montana that everyone seems to love and adore. While Einar is accepting of Jean and his grand-daughter, eventually, old memories of his long, lost and deceased son begin to come back, making him fight more and more with Jean, and in a way, basically just resenting her. It’s something that Jean doesn’t appreciate, however, Einar’s relationship with her daughter is fine enough, so she decides to get a job in town, get her own place, and allow for Einar and his grand-daughter to catch up. Eventually though, the boyfriend comes back and wants Jean to come back home with him, or else.

I don't know who's more in love: Me, or them two?

I don’t know who’s more in love: Me, or them two?

An Unfinished Life is, essentially, a Hallmark movie-of-the-week, but it’s a good one that looks great, has a very solid cast, and yeah, is a little sweet and tender in the middle. Sure, it’s corny, sentimental, syrupy and as sappy as can be, but it’s the right kind of sap – the kind you put on pancakes if you’re feeling fun, or the kind you put up with because you’re in a good movie. And yes, being in a good movie could definitely help you appreciate An Unfinished Life a tiny bit more, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it has its charms.

Then again, it is a Lasse Hallström movie, so it’s easy to be a little weary of how far the charms go.

But what’s interesting about An Unfinished Life is that a lot of it, for a good portion or so, really seems to be rolling along, without much of a plot in the mix. There’s some talk about this boyfriend coming back, a bear roaming about the city, and heck, even some conflict between the estranged family-members, but that’s about it, really. Hallström approaches this movie, thankfully enough, with his indie-sensibilities, that aren’t too focused on the bigger, more emotional things that happen, and more in-tuned with human characters, their relationships with one another and whether or not we actually care about them when all is said and done.

And with a cast like this, it’s kind of hard not to. Robert Redford is basically doing Clint Eastwood here, growling and scowling every so often, seeming like a general grump, but he’s great at it; he’s such a class-act that the moments where he’s supposed to appear as this sort of cranky dude, don’t really register as such, because we’re too busy loving the hell out of him in the first place. His chemistry with Morgan Freeman, who is also quite great, makes the movie a tad bit more magical, because you can tell that there’s a real love and admiration between the two. Whether or not that’s how it was in real life, I do not know, but it certainly shows here in this movie and gives us probably the best old-guy bromance I’ve seen in quite some time.

That said, there are weak spots to be found and it’s what ultimately does carry An Unfinished Life down when it was constantly going up and up.

"Duuuuuuuuh."

“Duhhhhhhh.”

Oddly enough, Jennifer Lopez doesn’t quite seem like the perfect fit here as Jean; she’s supposed to be this lean, mean, down, out and gritty gal who doesn’t take any crap from anyone and is her own person, but she doesn’t quite work. Lopez is beautiful and it’s hard to really take her as someone that could be misconstrued as a “trailer gal”. Also, before Homeland snatched him up and Hollywood finally decided they knew what to do with him, Damian Lewis is here and shows that his American-accent wasn’t quite there just yet and definitely needed some time to improve, making his scenes here feel odd and out-of-place.

In fact, after about the first hour or so, the movie does start to roll with something resembling a plot and it’s what takes the movie down a whole bunch of notches. What was originally working as a slow, but thoughtful character-study of many different people who all have a little something in common, soon becomes a melodramatic, over-written, and convoluted tale of lies, deception, anger and violence.

In other words, a Hallmark movie-of-the-week.

Dammit.

Consensus: With a solid cast and some thoughtful direction, An Unfinished Life works better than it should, all up until the final-act and it sort of switches gears, losing any sort of steam it had going for itself.

6 / 10

Keep on dreaming of Sundance, Rob.

Keep on dreaming of Sundance, Bob.

Photos Courtesy of: Vinnieh

Volver (2006)

It’s like Paranormal Activity, but you know, actually good.

Revolving around an eccentric family of women from a wind-swept region south of Madrid, Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman forced to go to great lengths to protect her 14-year-old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). To top off the family crisis, her mother Irene (Carmen Maura) comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends. But is this just Raimunda’s mind going a little out-of-whack, or is her late mother actually alive, well, and not actually dead?

Surely, something that sounds so simple and straightforward cannot be the work of crazy, envelope-pushing director Pedro Almodóvar. Over his long and storied career, he’s tackled subjects like pedophilia, sexual-awakening, incest, crime, murder, homosexuality, and HIV, among many others, so how the hell can a guy who likes to talk about stuff like that, be tackling a flick that seems like it came straight-from-TV? Well, it’s easy, he’s Pedro Almodóvar and he can do whatever he wants and thank the lord that he can.

It's an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

It’s an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

Even though this easy subject may not seem like a piece of Almodóvar’s work, in a way, it still is. The attention to color and detail is absolutely beautiful (as if that poster didn’t already tell you), and his way of capturing the life and beauty throughout the streets of Madrid is eye-catching and makes you feel at home. I heard that Almodóvar decided to film this movie around the area of where he grew up and you can really tell. There’s a sort of love and fondness for this area and it shines through each and every frame.

So yeah, it’s pretty, but there’s also more to it than just that.

Volver is very different though, because it’s not fully entrapped in its own plot conceits, like some of his other work can be/get. Though there’s a few nifty twists here and there, Volver‘s still a pretty straight-forward family-drama that hits the right notes because we spend time with these characters and get to know them. And in doing that, we also get to understand them and see them for all that they are, and who they are. Meaning, not everybody here has a halo around their head, but that’s what makes it more interesting to watch, because they’re real people.

Just a lot whole lot more attractive and emotional, it seems.

It’s also one of those films where everybody talks so interestingly, that you always want to hear them chat about whatever is on their mind. Whether they’re talking about food, family, life, sex, money, death, or ghosts, I was always hooked and listening and payed close enough attention to what they all were saying because they even give us hints about certain plot-points that pop-up later in the movie. Almodóvar’s always done that with his flicks and while it’s definitely a neat little trick of his, it doesn’t, in any way whatsoever, get in the way of his actual movie.

Definitely not ketchup.

Definitely not ketchup.

Another thing that Almodóvar does best, is also be able to assemble an awesome cast and that is exactly what he has done once again here. Penélope Cruz stars Raimunda and is radiant and as believable as she’s ever been seen before. Yes, Cruz is beautiful, gorgeous, sexy, vivacious, and as perfect of a looker as you can get, but beauty aside, she can still act and especially in an Almodóvar flick, someone who seems to know exactly what her strengths are. Anyway, what makes Cruz so great here as Raimunda is that she feels like a real woman that’s going through a lot of problems that gets to her and ends up taking a lot of that anger and frustration out on the others around her, but yet, also has this sweet and kind side to her that shows she cares for the ones around her, even if her character doesn’t always show it. Cruz is a beauty to watch because she commands the screen every single time she shows up, and also shows that she can bring out any emotions in her act and make it all seem believable.

There are others here, too, so I guess I’ll chat about them, too, although it should be stated one more time that Cruz is great here, as she usually is.

It’s been a long, long time since I saw Carmen Maura in anything, let alone a Almodóvar film, and shows that she’s still got the chops and makes her old-lady character a lot more lovable and understandable than you’d expect. Lola Dueñas plays Cruz’s sister and is very funny, but also very realistic in how she seems a bit more grounded in reality and happier with her life than Cruz may be. This provides a great contrast between the two ladies but in the end, you can still that they are sisters that love each other and care for each other no matter what. These three work well together and show that even though they may have some problems here and there, they are still a family and they still love each other no matter what happens to them in their own, respective lives. It’s a nice message to understand and see on-screen, especially when it comes from the guy who’s most known for making a movie about a priest who touches little boys.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a change of pace, I guess you could say.

Consensus: Considering this is Almodóvar’s way of “playing it cool”, Volver definitely does seem a bit held-back from the explosiveness of a story it could have been, but still has enough heart, emotion, beauty, and well-acted performances to make it an easy-going experience that will probably make you want to hug your mommy or sister. As for your brother and daddy? Tell them to hug themselves!

8.5 / 10

"Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar's flicks."

“Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar’s flicks.”

Photos Courtesy of: The Red List