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Orphan (2009)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Look at the snow orphan—snorphan? … Orphan, 8 August 2009

Surprise, surprise, Orphan actually isn't that bad. Who would have thought something that appeared to be a bad rehash of The Omen could truly entertain? I guess the ability to acquire the services of a couple on the cusp of A-list status actors in Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga should have raised an eyebrow, but honestly I still had many reservations. In fact, I knew the "twist" before sitting down in the theatre—something that I believe enhanced my enjoyment rather than lessened it. Perhaps this knowledge made the proceedings appear more comical than they should have been and maybe took away from some of the horror aspects, however, it also invested me in the tale to see how the revelation would be discovered. The acting is impressive across the board and the visuals are enjoyable for the most part. I loved the opening sequence bridging reality and dream, as well as the utilization of black light, (hokily alluded to with the opening WB icon), but the fake scares—and there are many—started to anger me a bit.

This is not the type of horror I enjoy normally; I tend to gravitate more towards the fantastical or supernatural. That said, though, I understand the gimmicks used and the techniques relied upon. Director Jaume Collet-Serra appeared to want to subvert some preconceptions by giving us multiple instances of slow tracking shots towards a blind spot with music swelling louder and louder only to reveal … nothing. I see what he was attempting—trying to get the audience off guard—but all it ended up doing was making me numb to the moments that actually delivered. Rather than be affected from the "jump scares" I was more entertained by the brutal violence utilized. Not many films of this ilk are R-rated these days, so when you do get one, it is somewhat a breath of fresh air. There are some definite pedophilic elements at play, very strong language, (used often to comical effect), and the desire to make what few deaths there are as memorable as possible. I mean, come on, if you have a hammer and a body prone and ready for a whack, why not make sure the deed gets done by smashing away a few extra times? I really bought into the beginning due to the fantastic work on the part of Farmiga. The devastation wrought on her face after a stillbirth is unavoidable. Here is a mother of two that had so much love for her unborn child, she crawled into a shell of depression at the loss, needing an outlet for the pain and bottled up emotions never able to be showered on the child. Her detachment from the family, especially her husband, is evident, as is the pure joy at finding young Esther in the orphanage, thinking that her love could finally be released. Farmiga embodies the role so completely that, if I remember correctly, she instinctively signs "thank you", (her daughter is deaf), when leaving the orphanage. The moment has no need for it as her hearing impaired child is at home, but it is definitely something that character would do unconsciously. She is also very good opposite Sarsgaard and his inability to stand by her when the truth about Esther begins to show through. At times it seems he is phoning the performance in, but ultimately he does a good job; maybe he is just overshadowed by his counterpart.

Rounding out the acting are two brilliant turns from the youngsters. Aryana Engineer plays Max with professionalism and realism. Deaf in real life, she is amazingly able to portray the fear and anxiety that comes with knowing what her new sister is capable of. Unable to tell anyone, both due to her handicap and the threats on her and the family's lives, she must lie and say everything is okay. But her subtle cowering in fright at the sight of Esther in her door is quite palpable. Speaking of Esther, you can't deny the performance of twelve-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman. The most recent example of what parents are willing to allow their children to do for money, (Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno would be proud), she is effectively creepy and dangerous in her lack of a moral compass and instinctual need to survive. More robotic and calculated at the start, it is the final act, where her true identity is revealed, that shines. The malice and rage buried beneath an angelic façade is finally out in the open; a master manipulator and seductress, Fuhrman will turn some heads and hopefully have a career before her without being typecast in the genre.

Orphan begs to memory the slasher flicks of the 90s like Child's Play rather than the psychological terrors I relate to more. I won't let that deter me from recommending the film to those out for some blood because the talent involved cannot be denied. The script can be very generic at times, yet glimmers of surprise come through every once in awhile. With a "twist" that may not be too well hidden, the carnage doesn't stay only with disposable roles like one would expect in a movie such as this. I'll just say that the stars aren't safe from knife work, nor a glimpse at their mortality. In the end, though, it is still nothing more than a good night out for some bloody fun. But, then, when did that become a bad thing?

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
For a gunman, you're one hell of a pessimist … Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 8 August 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The Sting is one of my favorite films and so when the opportunity presented itself to see the first pairing of Hill, Newman, and Robert Redford on the big screen, I had to take advantage. Being the earliest success and having an image of one of the best westerns around, I must admit to being somewhat surprised at the humor tossed about at the start. Did I think this would be a serious film? Perhaps, but never did I anticipate it being a buddy comedy to the core with a witty, dynamic duo at the lead. While Newman and Redford definitely steal the show, Butch Cassidy is much more than just two outlaws having fun. Brilliant cinematography, directing, and a few impressive shootouts help prove why this film is held in such high regard.

The film is dated, for sure, in many parts. A cheesy rendition of the Oscar winning song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" showing Newman and actress Katherine Ross riding a bike through a farm is one instance, (especially since they weren't even romantically involved), as are the silent time-progressing montages set to similar musical stylings. Heck, the movie even drags a bit due to the flimsy plot at its core. The crux of the story involves the end of robbing banks and trains on horse, and how these two men experience this truth. It is a dead artform and the police and hired hands have gotten too sophisticated to just let criminals getaway. Therefore, one can only witness so many robberies, no matter what country they occur in, without hoping for a little bit more. However, that said, you won't be bored because our anti-heroes refuse to let you. Whether thieving, escaping, going straight, or just laying low, Newman and Redford work together as though they have their entire life. The comedic timing is perfect, the facial expressions genuine, and the audience reaction nothing short of laughter upon laughter.

Butch and Sundance, (Newman and Redford respectively), know they are a dying breed, even going so far as saying they may be over the hill in the business. Their return to the Hole in the Wall Gang Cassidy formed proves this with an attempt at usurping power by another member in lieu of a "welcome back" party. The confidence, or perhaps insanity, in each keeps our leads from ever backing down or giving up. Butch always has a new great idea to make things better and Sundance always has his guns at the ready to make sure those plans can occur. It is a pairing of brains and brawn like any other, two friends living the high life by stealing and spending lavishly, looking for the next big score, the next slice of danger, or, if they're lucky, both. They've been at it for a long time at the point to which we are introduced, and they have a set system that has worked in the past. Sometimes people take things personally, however, and change the rules. You can only knock off the Union Pacific so often before its owner enlists a posse of hired hands to kill his enemies by paying more than they even steal from him. Now that is a grudge if I've ever heard one.

You definitely can't discount the Oscar-winning cinematography from Conrad L. Hall either. His use of blocking and framing is pretty great and the ability to always have the leads in the foreground while still seeing the hunters on their trail in the distant desert is an impressive feat. Scenes like watching the torch lights split up in the nighttime distance, only to see them join up again in pursuit show the kind of planning that went into this production. And Hill also decided to be inventive in his process of editing and progression as well. The movie begins nicely with old silent film footage of the gang stealing from trains on a projection while the credits roll to its right, showing how the medium itself will be utilized to help tell the story. While there are more traditional montages, like the exploits of the Bandidos Yanquis with help from Ross's Etta Place in Bolivia, the most memorable sequence of time-lapse comes from a collage. Yes, the traveling from out west to New York to South America is told through sepia-toned photographs taken along the way. I can only guess that Roger Avary had this moment in mind when he chose to similarly show Victor's European vacation in Rules of Attraction.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is by far more buddy comedy than weighty Once Upon a Time in the West fare, but that is not a bad thing. There are definite themes of time passing and men attempting to grow old, yet, sometimes, seeing that the job just can't be left behind. You don't become career criminals expecting to live a long life; you do it for the adventure and the fun a quick fortune can bring. The film does get a tad serious towards the end, especially when the world begins to fall around them and Ross starts to put into action her promise of following them anywhere as long as she doesn't have to be there when they are killed, but at the same time never loses its comedic edge. These two affable bad guys smile in the face of fear and as a result give us a very memorable conclusion to the adventure. With a brilliant freeze-frame, letting the end occur in the minds of the viewers, Hill caps one heck of a ride with the best action and banter yet. There is nothing like saving one's best for last to leave an impression.

Let's hurt somebody … In the Company of Men, 1 August 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Here we have corporate culture at its worst in the 90s; two men, a decade out of college, going city to city and making their money by giving presentations and telling others what to do. It's a high-pressure job with what appears to be small reward. Both Chad and Howard are slowly becoming fed up as they see younger men rise quicker and with less work ethic; they see their wives and girlfriends leave them without warning, breaking their hearts as their souls are destroyed in the workplace. It has become too much for Chad and he is looking for revenge. What better way to do so than at the demise of a girl, the fairer sex in which he says is composed of women "all the same, meat and gristle and hatred just simmering"? What if they could lead on some poor soul who has reached a point in her life where the prospect of a relationship or a future full of love is unattainable and than destroy her for sport to watch the reaction? Hell, they'll always be able to tell each other afterwards, "They never got me the way we got her".

The writing is cynical and witty; this is one of the blackest comedies you will ever view. I literally felt bad laughing at times, but it is constructed so smartly, you just can't help yourself. Howard is a wormy romantic who knows Chad, the epitome of alpha male, from college and has stayed close through the years. He would never partake in a game such as this if not for the tale of his stronger buddy being cleaned out by his girl, even having the frame around his American Gigolo poster taken from him. If the sort of heartbreak Howard feels can happen to his friend too, well than maybe the female race deserves to be taught a lesson; unfortunately for temp Christine, that exercise will be brought upon her in full. She is the perfect fodder for their six week revenge plan, not only is she attractive, but she is deaf. Handicapped to the point where she wears headphones to appear distracted when unable to hear someone walk by, she is so far removed from the dating scene that the advances of two successful men in the office may just be too strong for her to pass up. Both men work together to show her so much affection that she will have to fall for at least one. Love, however, wasn't anticipated to play a role in the proceedings.

As the weeks advance, the dates become more intimate, the bonds stronger. Sitting and watching the advancement starts to make it tough to discern true motivations. Are Chad and Howard really falling for her or are they that good at pretending in order to make the breakup as devastating as possible? Howard may not be getting as close physically to the girl, but his actions express a longing and need to be with her. Chad, on the other hand, working his magic and getting her in bed, has acquired the phrase he's been working towards, having her tell him she loves him. He responds in kind, but is it real? We will have to wait and see in week six whether the game has gone too far or whether it has gone just as planned. That statement may seem cruel, because the fact the ruse began at all means it went too far—they are playing with an innocent's emotions and heart for sport—but in the context of the film, you do start to buy into it and want to see what kind of fallout will result.

LaBute does come from the stage and it shows here in his first film as most scenes are constructed from long takes and static setups. One moment on the rooftop has Chad almost flub a line, but they keep going, either to keep a sense of realism or save money on reshooting the exchange. Definitely shot on the cheap, it becomes the job of the actors to perform at the highest level, and they do not disappoint. Stacy Edwards is amazing as Christine, both in her portrayal of a deaf woman and in the emotional turmoil she must go through from start to finish. Also remember too, see is deceiving them by going out with both at the same time, selfishly keeping her own happiness above them knowing the truth. But it is Matt Malloy and Aaron Eckhart, as Howard and Chad respectively, that really carry the film. Malloy is a ball of nerves and insecurities, yet when he needs to be, either lying to the girl or venting to his friend, can compose himself to a man of power and force. Needing incentive to be confident, it is in him, but the moments where his insecurities rear their head shine above all else; never able to control the situation, he slowly devolves into a version of Chad.

Chad, conversely, doesn't have a weak bone to his name. He says at the end that he can sell anyone, and it is true. The lines he utters are pure gold and I can see why it was hard for him to get work early in his career. Eckhart played a prick so well, no one wanted the controversy surrounding this role to take anything away from the new work. He is so conniving, so manipulative, yet with a smile that can charm us all. This film exists due to his performance and the revelations at the conclusion only cement him as one of the best screen villains ever. I'd love to see this story on stage, because The Shape of Things blew away its brilliant screen counterpart when I saw a college production, and I can only imagine watching this acted out in front of me would do the same if not more.

Tetro (2009)
5 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
You can't look into the light … Tetro, 30 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Tetro, shows an extremely personal touch and seemingly is more the result of an up-and-comer than a proved auteur. While the film itself may be laboriously slow and somewhat of a chore to sit through its entirety, one cannot deny the craft put in, nor the skillful eye used. Composed of black and white stock—the only color coming in flashbacks or dream sequences—and shot in mostly close-up and skewed angles, Tetro deliberately peels back the layers of secrets making up the Tetrocini family, showing us what really caused our titular character's meltdown as well as how he may still be saved.

It all begins more or less straightforwardly as we see young Bennie arrive in Buenos Aires upon a cruise ship he has been working on. The craft needs repairs and will be docked for a week, giving him some down time to visit his brother Angelo whom he hasn't seen in years. The eldest boy, now going by the name Tetro, shortened from his last name, ran away to go on sabbatical in order to write. Never good enough for his famous father, Tetro hid away in South America and severed all ties to his life in America, including his young brother, who he had written a letter saying that he'd be back to take him away. Bennie viewed his sibling as a hero, someone in the arts that was willing to go after his dream. As a result, he left military school and joined the cruise ship to travel and perhaps write something himself. The collision of these two men—two creatures that are linked with love as well as rivalry, much like their father and uncle—shines the light on what really happened to Angelo. With family thrust upon him, Tetro slowly breaks down his barriers to accept Bennie into his life, until he is betrayed. The newcomer decides that his brother needs a success to turn the corner on his past, so he takes it upon himself to find the coded pages long since put away and turn it into a play good enough to compete for a festival prize.

My true feelings about the film are conflicted. The first half of the tale, leading us to Bennie's planned departure progresses in a linear manner and with a steady pace. It is at the point where the boy decides to save his brother, in effect breaking all trust with him and the elder's need for isolation from Angelo Tetrocini, a man he used to be but has since died in his mind, that the story gets both very intriguing and very slow. The second half drags on and on, sometimes at an excruciating pace, yet at the same time brings some visual flair that is stunning. The colored dreamlike moments, visual representations of the emotions the brothers feel when thinking about the play based upon their lives, are absolutely beautiful. We see the car crash that kills Tetro's mother, (Bennie's is different, a woman now in a coma for nine years), but only when we see the staged version do you feel the sorrow. The line on the road of blood, smearing as the body of the woman is spun around in a ballet-like dance is unforgettable. Scenes like that are followed by massive setpieces drawing you in just as you thought it couldn't get more trying to stay in your seat. A funeral scene, complete with an orchestra surrounding the coffin, a chorus of boys on a staircase, and a gorgeous sequence walking into traffic with cars veering left and right in more a choreography than a true line of cars stuck with me.

These moments had me mesmerized, much like Tetro is by the glares of lights, whether fluorescent bulbs or reflective mountains, calling to memory the headlights coming toward him the night his mother passed away. Helping keep my interest was also some wonderful performances by the cast. Maribel Verdú is perfect as the nurturing voice of reason to counteract the mercurial tempests her love Tetro stirs up, Miranda; Mike Amigorena is just far enough into campiness to effectively portray the actor/playwright Abelardo, setting the bar for other characters to be just over the edge into the hyperreal; and Alden Ehrenreich handles the second lead of Bennie with success, if not a bit rough as any newcomer would be. His turn reminded me not only of Leonardo DiCaprio's role of Romeo, but of the actor in every way. Whether his career follows the same path or not remains to be seen, but being "discovered" by Spielberg at a bar mitzvah isn't a bad way to break into the industry.

The welcome surprise of it all, however, is the deserved top billing of Buffalo-born Vincent Gallo as Tetro. His soft-spoken voice does wonders in keeping the audience off balance, contrasting his strong temper and multiple instances of flying off the handle. But he also succeeds in the quiet moments where Coppola lingers on his face as he thinks or becomes engrossed in the lights or his own fears and inhibitions. The ultimate secret hidden beneath the surface may not be the most original, or the most surprising, but it does fit the story to a tee. Tetro is dark, mysterious, and, at the same time, full of life. It is not a film I will be forgetting about anytime soon, but unfortunately the reasons aren't always good ones. It will take a certain type of person to truly enjoy this offering—equal parts film school exercise of cinema at its basic form and overlong opus serving to unburden the creator more than entertain the audience. Probably worthy of dissection by critics and professors alike, it just doesn't quite cut it as entertainment, not really making a second viewing necessary or wanted.

1 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
I feel like we're going to prom … Funny People, 28 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Judd Apatow is an enigma. He is the idol of all freaks and geeks out there, calling the beautiful and talented Leslie Mann his wife and having a career any comedian would sell his soul for. He has created, in my opinion, a major hit with 40 Year-Old Virgin and a minor disappointment in Knocked Up, while having the time to also produce some gems that may supercede his own work on the side. So, the release of Funny People, (does the poster actually say "the third film from"? Wow, even Tarantino waited until his fourth for that kind of deserved ego), held my attention more for the direction Judd would go—up to his roots or down further into more sentimentality at the detriment of the jokes. Everything from the promotional machine got my hopes up and when it began—commencing with old, grainy, real-life home video of Adam Sandler as a young twenty-something—I started to think, "yes, he is back to the funny". I'd be lying to say the jokes go a mile a minute and the runtime flies by, but I'd also be leading you astray if I didn't say how funny these people really are.

Do not take the trailers as law. In fact, many of the bits in the teases are recut, taken out of context, or deleted scenes. Even when a moment started in which I thought I knew how it would go, I was usually surprised in the end result. Yes, the main plot point concerning our lead as a successful, vulgar comedian turned castrated kid's film star, (sound a little like Sandler himself? How about a dead ringer for Eddie Murphy?), who learns of his impending mortality at the hands of a rare form of leukemia stays intact. And, yes, his experimental treatment does overtake the infected cells running through his blood, as the advertisements so nicely ruin for us. But, for the most part, that storyline is actually the worst part of the movie as a whole. Despite the premise allowing for the situations that bring the big laughs—most dealing with the brilliant stand-up and improv routines, because a man facing death of course goes back to his roots, to a time where he felt truly happy and fulfilled—it is the love lost aspect that derails all momentum and drags the second half into soap opera-y schmaltz.

It is the first hour, pertaining to the illness and his coping mechanisms to get through it, along with the creative evolution of young Ira Wright, (Seth Rogen), that goes so quickly you will literally ask out loud why it all went away when Leslie Mann's Laura, the love of Sandler's George's life, re-enters the fray. The second half has some merit, especially in its creed of, "if you love something, don't let it get away", however, it pales in comparison to the laugh riot that was the start. In this regard, Funny People becomes somewhat bi-polar, not quite sure of itself on whether to continue being a straight comedy or needing to be a dramatic hybrid. This confusion goes on until the end, a conclusion that works with the first ending, becomes contrived in its second finish, and inevitably stops as we all knew it would with the third and last finale, a slow zoom out from our stars.

But let's get back to the jokes, and the personalities, and the flat-out hilarious sprinkling of characters—both fictional and real. There is a great moment with Eminem and Ray Romano, a hilarious bit from Paul Reiser, and even a one-liner that kills from Andy Dick; there's Leo Koenig and Mark Taylor Jackson, two personalities breaking into the big-time while their roommate and friend Ira struggles, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. I'll bet that watching the deleted scenes and all the unscripted jokes told on camera could in fact be funnier than the final result. Despite the plot tying everything together, the film is truly an ensemble piece of clashing personas that riff of each other ever step of the way. Not even Torsten Voges' Dr. Lars can escape the comedic jabs at his Scandinavian accent and large physique.

The reason so much works, and would work whether the underlying tale of one comedian righting wrongs and another learning his way, is because of the second layer present. This is a send-up to the industry itself, for better or worse. There is the ridicule and hatred of commercial success with both George/Sandler's parade of movies with goofy premises and horrid screen-writing and Schwartzman's "Head of the Class" wannabe sitcom "Yo, Teach" and the money it rakes in even though it could be the worst show in the world. These roles aren't just poking fun at the job, but at the actors themselves. Heck, one of the longest running gags comes at the expense of Rogen and his real life weight loss for The Green Hornet. What makes that joke even funnier, though, is that he does look weird as a skinny guy, especially when next to Hill, who appears to have put on all that his buddy lost.

So, my advice to you is that if you choose to see Funny People do it exactly for the title itself. The actors are hilarious and bring gold with every retort. Even the jokes that fall flat actually fall flat, that's the beauty of a majority being set in comedy clubs. You hear the guffaws as well as the crickets; you see the mentor teach as well as leech; you see the karmic ways in which success happens so easily for the jerks but so hard for the good guys. It may be a tale of reconnecting with your life to some, a cautionary tale about fame and money to those looking to break into Hollywood, but for me, it is a well-constructed, if not overlong, vehicle to keep me laughing, long and hard.

27 out of 43 people found the following review useful:
It's called a Stairmaster … The Ugly Truth, 21 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Do you want to know the ugly truth about The Ugly Truth? Well, besides being obvious and banal cinematically, it made me laugh … a lot actually. Romantic comedies usually have one thing going for them and that is predictability. While this one has it in spades, what surprised me was how crude and crass the humor ended up being. And that's a very good thing because those instances brought on the biggest laughs of them all. One could guess there would be a few moments, especially after watching the trailer and seeing Gerard Butler's character being the epitome of alpha male, however, one would never anticipate a dinner party scene involving vibrating panties and a young child that loves objects resembling remote controls. But I'll tell you, set-ups like that were what kept me invested in the mediocre story, it definitely wasn't the manufactured chemistry between the leads.

Everything revolves around our heroine Abby, played by Katherine Heigl. It is definitely a role that she has proved herself willing to portray, the strong-willed, professional beauty left by the wayside in regards to the other sex. She produces a successful morning show that just can't win in the ratings. Her cohorts are as conservative as she, willing to do a piece about the mayor to try and drive viewership back their way, shaking their heads when risqué ideas are batted around. Her boss, however, decides to hire "shock-jock" of sorts Mike who has been cultivating a following on cable access with his insight into the truth about relationships. His callous nature and unwavering ability to say exactly what is on his mind breaths life back into Abby's show despite the trepidation of lowering herself to the kind of television she has always abhorred. She can be swayed, however, once Butler's Mike agrees to play Cyrano to her Christian in wooing her dating checklist approved neighbor Colin. Like that French film, though, and all its many copies, we all know who is really falling in love in the end.

Legally Blonde's Robert Luketic is behind the camera for this one and I'll admit that he tries his best to use the script in order to keep the audience on their toes. With subtle silent tricks, (introducing Mike's nephew and sister in a way to make us completely believe they are his son and wife), as well as a fearless use of language and sexual innuendo, (bravo to the studio for letting them take the R-rating and run with it), definitely got this guy—as in me—to stay alert while awaiting the next comedic gag. And while I didn't quite believe the romantic chemistry between Butler and Heigl, their relationship as buddies worked swimmingly. The beginning of their pact—to get her Colin and he respect on the set—where Mike coaches her on how to recover from the desperate call for a date is paced perfectly and acted just right. His over-zealous confidence and her naivety to it all becomes a great one-two punch. One that works just as well when she turns the table by proving she can flirt after a very funny shopping sequence where Mike is the one approving her wardrobe.

And it's that aspect that worked for me too, seeing the guy be the relationship guru for the girl. Sure you want to think that he is wrong, you want to take offense to things he is saying as a guy—willing yourself to believe that he isn't speaking about you—but the sad truth is, it's all probably not that far off. He is so right when he says he doesn't understand romance or love, but that he is a master at lust and manipulation. His methods work and they are foolproof, but as we realize towards the end, along with Abby, the bond they acquire is never lasting. If you have to be a generic type to win someone's heart, well, you will never be happy. The ugly truth, therefore, is that dating is hard and relationships take work, but if you aren't honest with yourself or your significant other, it is all a lie that will only end in heartbreak.

I'd like to give some credit to the supporting cast, but, frankly, they aren't on screen very much. This is the Katherine and Gerard show through and through. John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines do their best to steal some thunder, yet, thinking back, their most successful moments are a result of reactions to what Butler and/or Heigl did. If there was one guy that I really enjoyed in the background, and he is very quietly effective here, it would be Jesse D. Goins. His brief seconds of screen time, with either a facial expression or quick quip, are gold. The rest of the movie does rely on the stars and I applaud them for doing an admirable job. Why Butler needed to fake an American accent is beyond me, (his face just looked weird as he tried so hard to hide the Scottish), and Heigl's smugness rubs me the wrong way every time, but I was able to look past those crutches. If I could give The Ugly Truth any words of encouragement, it would be that my girlfriend loved it. So, if it fires on all cylinders for the demographic it's marketed to, and kept me laughing enough to forget how mediocre the actual story was, I guess, when all is said and done, it does do a pretty darn good job.

Knowing (2009)
5 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
What about the uncircled numbers? … Knowing, 20 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Thank you Alex Proyas for not making Rose Byrne into Nicolas Cage's love interest for your newest film Knowing. I'll admit, from the trailers, I thought that was exactly what would happen—pretty young woman somehow falling for the crazy-haired one. It is Hollywood, so it wasn't too far-fetched to believe. But that wasn't the only surprise in this sci-fi thriller. No, the biggest one has to be the fact that it was pretty good. For some reason, despite the pretty great early track record for Proyas, I keep getting worried with each new film before being won over by the final result. Sure, this and I, Robot aren't great films, but for genre fare, such as they are, you can do a lot worse.

I remember seeing the trailer and thinking Knowing would be your run-of-the-mill prophecy-based plot, proving disaster after disaster until our hero can save the day. Then the second teaser came out showing some creepy, dark-clothed men in the woods—perhaps foreshadowing an intriguing alien aspect to it all. But it is with the poster that truly sets the stage for what is about to happen. Yes, the future predicting is there as the whole basis of the story is upon a two-sided piece of paper with dates, deaths, and coordinates, written by a young girl in 1959 and sealed in a time capsule for fifty years; and yes, don't be surprised to witness a spaceship or alien or two either. However, it is the seemingly misplaced image of the Earth at the center of the one-sheet, appearing to be starting on fire at the bottom that alludes to the apocalyptic theme running rampant throughout. There are just too many mentions of the sun or burning to just push them to the side as coincidence. Especially with a script so heavy in Determinism … Professor John Koestler would be so proud.

Speaking of Koestler, at the center of it all is Nic Cage's performance as this MIT astrophysicist. Recently widowed, he is now raising his son alone, allowing his scientific predilections take over his strong religious background. With a pastor as a father and a devote mother and sister, it is Koestler's wife's death that shows him how random and meaningless life is. There is no grand plan; everything is just a sequence of chance chemical reactions, leading more to chaos than any methodical progression. That all changes with the discovery of young Lucinda's cryptic message in the capsule, the lone page devoid of an image of what the future will hold like the rest of the class drew. Her artifact ends up being a literal translation of the future, showing the exact dates and death counts for major disasters around the world. It cannot be a coincidence then that the page found its way into the hands of his son, who subsequently begins to hear whispers like those heard fifty years previous. What is first thought to be a malfunction of his hearing aid, you will soon begin to wonder if those whispers—the jumbled sounds reaching his mind—are the reason he has the aid to begin with.

By no means is this thing a masterpiece. Besides the usual hammy performance we have learned to embrace from Cage, (and he was so good in Leaving Las Vegas, I guess they all become caricatures of themselves at some point), we have the very convenient story progressions needed to allow the tale to play out in a reasonable amount of time. The fact that a piece of paper has dates for five decades, yet the final three all happen within a week is a massive coincidence. But, rather than dismiss it as lazy writing, you could chalk it up to one more example of how everything happening is doing so for a reason. Everything, all the good, (marriage, a son), and the bad, (wife's death, a pretty impressive plane crash sequence), put Cage's Koestler on a collision course with his destiny, or at least onto a path in which he can help lead his boy to his. I actually enjoyed his role, for the most part, and for every cringe-worthy instance, there was a genuine showing of emotion. Chandler Canterbury does well as his son, expressing the rebellious nature of a boy his age, questioning his father's motivations and parenting skills, while also lending a mechanical aspect to instill some creepiness. If you want real oddity, though, look no further than Lara Robinson's blank stares as the young Lucinda and later on as her granddaughter Abby. Why have two actresses when you can have one play both in order to keep the familial resemblance in tact? Heck Rose Byrne does the same as Diana, the woman who believes Cage and helps him discover the true meaning of the numbers, as well as Lucinda's adult form in photos.

Knowing is a fun ride that ends in a very effective manner: giving me the sad ending that I wanted and hoped the filmmakers didn't copout from doing as well as the happy one giving a sense of hope for the future. As a result, the story itself becomes quite strong with it's lecturing on the subject of fate as well as the allusions to God and creation itself. With some pretty good effects—besides the plane crash carnage, also enjoy the subway derailment, something about people being crushed against high-speed moving glass worked for me—you shouldn't be disappointed if you set out to be entertained by a decent action thriller. If, instead, you wanted an intelligent script that would blow you away in its originality … well, you've come to the wrong movie. Sit back, allow your brain to be stimulated ever so slightly, and just have a good time. I just hope those kids don't eat any apples, because we all know how that ended up the first time.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Always go for the gold … The Last House on the Left, 18 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I don't usually get disgusted or squeamish when it comes to horror and gore, but after viewing The Last House on the Left remake, one of the many old Wes Craven films getting reworked, I have to admit, it was pretty harrowing. Does making me tense up and await some scenes' conclusions make it an effective suspense/thriller? I'm not so sure. The plot line is thin, the result obvious, so as far as what will happen, there is very little question or anticipation. That being said, however, the death scenes and brutality are very much shrouded in the unknown. What one would expect to be the usual horror flick kills become methodical, realistic, and unbearable. Fists are thrown, knives are stabbed, and characters are slowed and tired. No one is supernatural, no one is above his own mortality, and, frankly, while that fact may not make it scary per se, it does make you question your motivations to keep sitting there watching it all.

The gist of the story is as follows: a family, (mother, father, and daughter), goes to the lake for a vacation from clients and patients. It is a year since Ben, the older child, passed away, and they are all just looking to enjoy themselves and relax despite his absence and the work that has distracted them and gotten them through the rough time. Daughter Mari is seventeen and looking to have more fun than just hanging with her parents and working on her swim speed. So, on the first night of their arrival, she asks to borrow the car and visit an old friend, Paige. The two find themselves meeting a boy their age that tells them he has some primo weed at his motel. His father and the woman he's sleeping with, as well as his uncle aren't supposed to be back, but of course, that assumption is wrong, ushering in the start of the chaos and carnage. Why you ask? Oh, because, as the opening scene shows, the boy's father is an escaped, murdering psychopath excised from the cop car transporting him by his girl and brother. Let's just say that their arrival to the motel turns the kiddies' party up a few notches.

It is not all about this motley crew's doings with the two young girls who have seen their faces and most likely will tell the police, no, most of the film's action comes afterwards. You see, Mari escapes and slowly makes her way back home to her parents. The catch, however, is that the Manson family has already arrived there, thinking Mari has been killed, and playing house to earn a peaceful night indoors from the lovely and accommodating Collingwoods. So, what starts out as a brutal look into the activities of miscreants and how they treat those in their captivity becomes a revenge flick of epic proportions as the mister and missus decide to achieve retribution themselves for the state their daughter has been left in. Phones dead, power being supplied by a generator, and the sky opened up pouring rain on top of them, the Collingwoods play judge, jury, and executioner with deft skill and precision, or at least as much as can be expected from two suburbanites out to protect themselves and the child they have left.

It must be said that this thing is shot very nicely. Straight from the brief opening credit sequence, (no names listed until the end), as we dodge through trees, illuminated one at a time in the stark darkness as we move past, to some gorgeous underwater frames, to some inventive blocking and use of focus changing, the camera-work is intriguing in its own rite. As for the acting, it's pretty darn good for a genre film of this kind. Martha MacIsaac, as Paige, annoyed me a bit, but no complaints otherwise. I really liked Sara Paxton as Mari, especially her cool, collected self as she attempts to escape her captors; Monica Potter is a loving, yet strong mother figure that is willing to do what's necessary for her family; and Tony Goldwyn is pretty badass once he realizes the foursome staying under his roof are the ones who raped and left his daughter for dead. He will always be the bad guy in Ghost for me, but it's nice to see him back on the big screen as he rarely gets to play in a high profile release. And then there is Spencer Treat Clark as Justin, the boy who unknowingly brought the young girls into the path of his violent dad. His vulnerability and inability to do anything to help is hard to watch.

What is really trying to watch, however, besides some gruesome moments during the revenge portion of the story, (claw hammer and garbage disposal anyone?), is the graphically realistic rape sequence. This scene is definitely not for the faint of heart because, as I read in an interview by Garret Dillahunt, he of psychopath patriarch Krug fame here, Paxton told him to go for it and make the moment as brutal as possible. And, trust me, it is. In the mud, clothes ripped, abstract close-ups of body parts unable to move under his strength, and everyone else watching, it becomes even more disturbing when finished as the camera lingers, in slow motion, on Paxton as she gets up—dirty and defiled—the comment by Dillahunt to his son, "you don't know what you missed", the only noise. Aaron Paul as the uncle and Riki Lindhome as the female companion are good and creepy in a horror film kind of way, but it's Dillahunt that adds just the right mix of real life malice. A formidable force, able to smile and bring people in close before pouncing, he is one scary monster making all that follows his opening moment of choking a cop to death while holding a photo of his kids in front of his eyes possible, reviling, and effective horror.

Brüno (2009)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Funkyzeit mit … Brüno, 15 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I highly underestimated America's hatred and fear of the homosexual population, forgetting that while many are intolerant to foreigners, that prejudice is just against one aspect, the gay community has many hurdles to overcome. Not only are they viewed as outsiders to supposed "true blood Americans", but also treated unequally by religious factions, sports industry, and more. While I lauded praise on Cohen's first attempt at uncovering the true underbelly of our country, it is tough to do the same here because the shock value of what he's doing is no longer fresh. The social commentary is there if you can get past the offensiveness and the laughs are huge, but I can't help thinking that I saw it all before.

Much like its predecessor, Brüno, (don't forget that umlaut … even Universal got in on the game), begins in his native country to showcase the reasons behind his journey to the USA. After being shunned from the fashion community in Austria he decides to do what is the next logical step—live in LA and become a celebrity. It isn't as easy as he expected, so after a failed try at acting and a missed opportunity to be a talk show host, he heads to the Middle East to weigh in on peacekeeping attempts. A Kenyan child later, Brüno finds himself back in America, now realizing that to be famous he must be straight. Oh the irony that John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kevin Spacey are the actors he looks upon to reach this epiphany—like they haven't been accused of being gay themselves many times.

You will once again be surprised at some of the people he dupes into believing he is a real person, (poor Ron Paul), as well as not so shocked, (Paula Abdul anyone? How great is it watching her talk about humanitarianism while sitting on a Mexican acting like a chair?). Uncomfortable is an understatement when it comes to describing a viewing session of this film because you'd be comatose not to be even the slightest bit squeamish. Cohen is fearless in his activities and unfaltering in his accent—equal parts effeminate and German, (is there a difference?). To go into the Middle East and recruit former leaders of both Israel and Palestine to sing to and have hold hands is one thing, but to go to a current terrorist group leader and call Osama Bin Laden a "dirty wizard/homeless Santa Claus" and not expect to get backlash is a completely different thing. As for going hunting with three burly Southerners and entering their tents naked … well that's just suicide.

I liked the jokes for the most part even if they were horribly insensitive. Calling Autism funny, Africa a country, etc. does elicit knee-jerk laughs, which turn into feelings of remorse before ultimately realizing that, yes, it was funny. Cohen goes way too far in many instances: a bike-powered dildo; talking penis; and asking a swinger, in the act of sex with someone else, to look into his eyes are just a few. For this reason, I cannot recommend the film to anyone … seriously, anyone. You never truly know how much someone can take and a film like Brüno not only tests that boundary but also surpasses it over and over again. How Larry Charles and Cohen convinced the ratings board not to slap an NC-17 on this thing is unfathomable.

What is by far the most incomprehensible thing, however, is the candid view on America that has been captured. It is not wrong to call Cohen a genius in his methods to manipulate people into thinking they are safe and among kindred spirits in moral ambiguity. Watching parents virtually sell their souls and children's bodies for a quick cash grab is unbelievable. Not only do these adults willingly say yes to any question Brüno asks them, "Is your child okay with being photographed on a crucifix? How is your child with dead animals? Does your child like lit phosphorus?" but they oftentimes pause, think about what has been posed, and still agree. I hope that if these people's neighbors watch the movie and see their faces, they will never let their child go over to play again. And then there are the priests who do "Jesus' work" by converting gays into heterosexuals. The first pastor preaches what to do and not, but it is the second that astonishes with what he says. Speaking as "we" he basically admits to how he is gay himself, but has been living the lie by tolerating women, even though they are so uninspiring and annoying to him. The worst part of it all is that the people Cohen lambastes are real.

Much like Borat, I have no interest in ever watching this film again. However, that is not to the detriment of the work as social commentary … I just never want to have to sit through the darkness that is likely hiding beneath the surface of some of the people I know and love. The shock value dissipates as the film goes on and unfortunately wasn't necessarily high to begin with. Television being inundated with reality garbage and exposing us to the morons out there we have generally been shielded from has desensitized us. Even watching Borat has desensitized us because the freshness is gone. But, while the film may not hold up as an entity unto itself; the questions it raises, the truth we want to so desperately believe doesn't exist, come through with crystal clear clarity. Sacha Baron Cohen knows our secrets and exposes them. His vehicle for such truths may not be as conventional or enjoyable as some may want, but the message is there nonetheless. I think his Austrian may get the point across best, but it was his Kazakh who entertained more consistently.

303 out of 546 people found the following review useful:
The binding is really fragile … Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 13 July 2009

It's a real shame that I could never give a film featuring Harry Potter the status of a perfect film. Each tale relies so heavily on those that came before or after that one can never be a truly all-encompassing work. Sure, the three-act structure can be utilized, but without the background info, nor the knowledge that more will be coming, watching a middle installment alone will leave you confused and disorientated. The reason I bring this up is the fact that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is good enough to warrant the praise and to put the idea in my head about whether to call it a masterpiece. The tone is perfect, the laughs are many, the darkness is charcoal black—how could this be the same director as the abysmal—in comparison to the rest of the series—Order of the Phoenix, David Yates? Two words … Bruno Delbonnel.

Who is Delbonnel you may ask? Well, he is the brilliant cinematographer behind the camera. I may have blamed the failures of the fifth film on its screenplay as Steve Kloves was glaringly absent, (he being the writer of each other film, including this new one), but a film is a team effort. Therefore I guess maybe I shouldn't put all the accolades on one man now; I just feel absolutely compelled to do so because so many moments linger in my mind due to the beauty of their composition and use of their environments to stay interesting and exciting at all times. Visually, you cannot be bored. It just goes to show that it is never the director alone, but also the team he or she brings along. I like Yates and was surprised at how much I disliked his first foray in the Potter universe, granted, I felt the book itself was sub-par at best. Thankfully, he did not disappoint with his second of three, (make that four as book seven goes to a two-part finale), because, as it was with the novels, Half-Blood Prince is by far the best of the series—until Deathly Hallows of course. And adding the pedigree of a guy like Delbonnel, with films such as Across the Universe, A Very Long Engagement, and Amelie in his back pocket—all stunning works of art—only makes his job easier.

I can't get over the use of close-ups throughout, or the multiple instances of framing used to hide something on screen. Oftentimes, the camera pans or cuts to reveal something in the fringes, to highlight the focal point when it's not centrally located, or literally move our eyes to exactly where the filmmakers want them to be. The blocking is superb with some scenes blurring the edges and keeping only our main object of interest in focus, timing and positioning executed with aplomb. And did I mention the close-ups? (Yes, I know I did.) One sequence, with Harry and Ginny running through a field of tall grass after intruding Death Eaters, is shot with a high speed pan to keep the characters crisp as the foliage darts and blurs in their wake. I'd be remiss not to mention the special effects as well, especially when dealing with the black smoke trails from Voldemort's flying goons as well as the wispy pensieve. Whether completely computer generated or practical dye clouds in water, the effect is pitch perfect, even dissolving each memory in sections, leaving important pieces, like young Tom Riddle, to be lingered on just a second longer than the rest.

As for the leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are solid as usual, (Radcliffe showing some solid comedic chops after taking luck elixir), and Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley gets some room to break free. But it is the supporting roles that deserve notice. Helena Bonham Carter will scare children, so kudos to her, and Michael Gambon's Dumbledore will win even more hearts as his leader finally allows Potter into the inner circle of the plan to rid the world of Voldemort, it now being a circle of two. It is newcomer Jim Broadbent, however, as Professor Slughorn who steals the show. Broadbent is known for his many comical expressions and his rubber face is utilized to great effect here. A blowhard and man with many "friends", his jubilant smile and need to collect powerful and famous wizards for his Slug Club are ever-present, bringing some levity as well as effectively hiding the dark secret that lies beneath.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince succeeds in the details. It is an exercise in minimalism and showing only what is necessary to the plot. Condensing the novel better than ever done before, Kloves has given Yates the tools to make a film and not just a visual representation of the words. What had previously been done best by Azkaban's Alfonso Cuaron, this one works better at retaining more subplots and not stripping it quite so bare. Subtle hints are planted so no longwinded exposition is needed to make us, as an audience, feel stupid and lectured to. Instead Yates and crew allow us to show our intelligence and ability to use our eyes and memories to piece things together, making the experience more enjoyable as we believe we are solving the mysteries and not the director who is skillfully guiding us through. I'd say it couldn't get better than this, but my confidence in Yates has been renewed and my hopes that Deathly Hallows is treated with respect is at one hundred percent, so who knows what the future has to offer?

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