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1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
A Bit of Sweetness to Cut Through the Filth, 31 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"For a Good Time, Call..." exemplifies yet again why female-driven raunchy comedies tend to work better than those that are male-driven. If you think about last year's "Bridesmaids," you might realize that it wasn't only about housewives graphically describing their sexual habits or Melissa McCarthy uncontrollably defecating into a bathroom sink; it was also about its story and its characters, both undeniably crude and yet far from one-dimensional. We could willingly invest in the film on an emotional level, despite the overwhelming vulgarities. "For a Good Time, Call..." follows in this tradition, aiming to be as filthy and as sweet as possible. In the midst of excruciating sexual frankness and scores of four-letter words, we witness the development of a friendship and the beginning stages of a romance. We're actually made to care about what we're watching.

The plot centers on New Yorkers Lauren Powell (Lauren Anne Miller, also one of the writers) and Katie Steele (Ari Graynor). Their relationship in college ten years earlier was acrimonious at best; a brief flashback sequence shows a drunken Katie accidentally spilling a cup full of her own urine all over Lauren during a car ride. To this day, the two have absolutely nothing in common. If appearances are any indication, then Katie is shockingly promiscuous. Compare this to Lauren, who's far more straight-laced. It's a classic odd-couple scenario, their situations forcing them into becoming roommates. Katie is no longer able to pay the rent on her apartment, which was owned by her grandmother, now deceased. Lauren, having been abandoned by her arrogant and unendurably boring boyfriend (James Wolk) for a job in Italy, realizes that she has nowhere to live. Adding insult to injury, she has just been fired.

The two are paired by their mutual friend, the loveably sassy Jesse (Justin Long), who works with Katie at a nail salon. Initially, the animosity between Katie and Lauren lingers, and it only worsens when Lauren discovers that Katie has a second job as a phone sex operator. Things gradually start to change when a stuffy executive (Nia Vardalos) denies Lauren an editorial position at a publishing house; Katie is encouraged to quit the sex hotline she works for, which takes most of her earnings, and go into business for herself on a landline. Lauren would handle the billing. She stresses, rather emphatically, that she will never, ever become an operator like Katie, believing herself to be above that. She also makes it clear that she will do this only for their scheduled summer-long living arrangement. Katie agrees. And with that, 1 (900) MMM-HMMM is born.

Oh yes, the phone calls are every bit as raunchy as you're imagining them to be. "Colorful" is not a strong enough word to describe the language that's used; with gratuitous references to intercourse, genitals, masturbation, ejaculation, and orgasms, this is the kind of talk that would make even the foulest of foulmouths blush in embarrassment. This is true not just of Katie, but of her clients as well. Two of them are Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen making cameo appearances. The former plays a cabbie – with his fare in the back seat, no less – and the latter plays an airline pilot taking a break in the terminal restroom. Eventually, it also becomes true of Lauren, who realizes she doesn't want to be the same old boring person anymore. Katie trains her in the ways of phone sex, going so far as to make demonstrations with word diagrams and sex toys.

As business booms, so too does Katie and Lauren's friendship. This isn't to suggest that it's smooth sailing until the end of the movie. There's an emotional process at work, one that isn't normally associated with vulgar sex comedies, especially the ones starring men. In a surprisingly sweet subplot, Katie has grown close with one of her clients, a young man named Sean (Mark Webber), and the two decide to start dating; their one shot at a successful relationship is hampered by a secret one of them is keeping. Meanwhile, as Lauren struggles to keep her new profession hidden from her wealthy parents (Mimi Rogers and Don McManus), she's once again offered the editorial position at the publishing house and is tempted into accepting it. Needless to say, all this will threaten their newfound friendship.

The most astounding thing happened during a scene where Lauren utters, "I love you," to Katie. A group of young men in the audience, probably in their twenties, started laughing. I think I know why they did this: They interpreted the line as a homoerotic gag. They were probably used to guy-oriented sex comedies, where such words are typically intended to sound or be overtly gay. How interesting that the women in the audience remained silent. Could it be that they had a better understanding of love, that they recognized it as a multifaceted concept not limited to physical attraction? "For a Good Time, Call..." is not a perfect film – certain characters are underutilized, and the subplot featuring Lauren's parents remains unresolved – but it certainly is much better than certain audiences will give it credit for.

-- Chris Pandolfi

7 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
What Are These Kidnappings Really About?, 31 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Tall Man" is a great deal more thought-provoking and complicated than the poster, the trailer, and even the title all suggest. This works both for and against it. On the one hand, it's refreshing that the filmmakers aimed for something a bit more original and stimulating than a routine thriller with slasher overtones, which is how it has been marketed. On the other hand, their aim might have been too high; what's ultimately revealed is logistically implausible, emotionally weighty, and likely to divide audiences in their sociopolitical beliefs. I cannot explain the latter without the issuing of a spoiler warning, but rest assured, it threw me completely for a loop. There's much to admire about this film on a technical level, from the atmosphere to the performances to the pacing to the nail-biting suspense. On a narrative level, however, I find myself questioning the intent and the execution.

The story is set in the isolated small town of Cold Rock, Washington, which was once thriving but is now destitute following the closure of a mine. Recently, there has been a rash of child kidnappings, all of which have been attributed to a local legend known as The Tall Man, a shadowy figure whose face is concealed beneath a jacket hood. Some residents claim to have seen him roaming the dense forests. Others don't believe he exists. One thing they can all agree on is that, because no one has found a trace of the missing children, it's unknown if they're dead or alive. All this is recalled by a teenager named Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who, despite being unable to speak, serves as the film's narrator. Living with a detached mother, an alcoholic stepfather, and a sister the stepfather in all likelihood impregnated, she communicates through a sketchbook.

The central character is Julia Dunning (Jessica Biel), a nurse. She was married to a well respected doctor, who was said to be the glue that held the community together, but he has long since left the picture. She has a little boy named David (Jakob Davies), who she cares about very much. One night, after unwisely getting drunk with her friend Christine (Eve Harlow), she witnesses David being abducted by a figure wearing a black jacket. Julia makes a valiant effort to get David back; she chases the kidnapper out of her house, climbs on the back of the kidnapper's truck, and successfully attacks the kidnapper while the truck is in motion, causing it to crash. Unfortunately, this hooded figure still manages to disappear into the night with David. All Julia can do is lie in the middle of the road in the fetal position and wait for a car to pass by.

And this is the point at which my review will become annoyingly vague. I will say that Julia, using only her wits, makes her way to an abandoned warehouse, where she believes David is being held prisoner. Does she find him? Does she have an encounter with The Tall Man? Are the police, or any of the Cold Rock residents, trying to help her? All I can say is, with so many parents awaiting news about their lost children, it's understandable that there's animosity and mistrust. Then again, do we really know the situations these children were taken away from? After all writer/director Pascal Laugier doesn't delve into the lives of every grieving parent. For all we know, these children were being abused or neglected. Even if they weren't, Cold Rock is so destitute that their parents wouldn't have been able to adequately provide for them.

Not one but two plot twists lay the groundwork for the entire second half of the film. The first one is actually rather predictable, the structure, pacing, dialogue, and character development all serving as cinematic hints. It could have been satisfying had it not been so routine. A lesser film might have ended at that point. But then we get the second twist, which reveals that there's so much more to the story than we initially thought. On a purely technical level, I must give Laugier credit for successfully employing the element of surprise, especially at a time when twists have become all too commonplace in mystery thrillers. In all honesty, I thought I had become immune to them.

Where makes me wary is a strong suggestion made by the second twist, namely that the events plaguing the town of Cold Rock are actually blessings in disguise. I don't think I buy it. Earlier, I played devil's advocate by insinuating that, by being kidnapped, the children might have been spared a deprived upbringing and a bleak future; in reality, we're talking about boys and girls taken against their will from the only life they've known. Without knowing the full extent of their backgrounds, you still have to ask yourself how fair this is. And then there's the issue of believability, the second twist dependent on complex technicalities and dramatic contrivances. There's no question in my mind that "The Tall Man" is an ambitious thriller. But it's open for debate how compelling it is. That would depend entirely on what you bring into it.

-- Chris Pandolfi

12 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
I'll Bet He Had His Fingers Crossed When He Took the Hippocratic Oath, 31 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The irony of "The Good Doctor" is that its title character is anything but good. This would be Martin Blake (Orlando Bloom), a British medical student who has just transferred to a Los Angeles hospital to begin his residency. His initial scenes depict him as withdrawn from his colleagues and superiors, who aren't hostile but certainly don't go out of their way to make him feel welcome. There's even a slight incident involving a Hispanic patient who doesn't speak English and may or may not be allergic to penicillin. But for the most part, Blake is merely suffering from a bruised ego, believing he isn't getting the respect he deserves. We don't see the full extent of his rotten personality until he's introduced to a teenage girl named Diane Nixon (Riley Keough), who's suffering from a kidney infection.

He quickly picks up on the fact that she's attracted to him and longs for his medical care. He's more than happy to oblige. It's not so much that he's attracted to her physically, even though she's indisputably beautiful; like a rapist, what he's really attracted to is the feeling of exerting power over someone vulnerable. Throughout the film, Diane is unaware of the ways in which Blake is manipulating her. This has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence on her part. She's merely young and naïve, having only her current adolescent relationship with a teenage boy as a frame of reference. She now believes her boyfriend is a jerk, and perhaps he is, although that doesn't much matter. What does matter is that this is something else Blake picks up on. He now has one less person standing between him and his patient. If he ever does try to interfere, Blake is well versed in all the medical rhetoric regarding visitors.

Diane responds well to her antibiotic treatment, and in due time, she's well enough to be released. Surely Blake knew in the back of his mind that such a day would eventually come. But because his self esteem is dependent on being in control of others, he cannot accept her departure on an emotional level. Luck intervenes, allowing Blake to enter the Nixon residence twice. The first time is for a family dinner, Blake having been invited by Diane's father (Wade Williams) out of appreciation. Although Diane isn't present during his visit, the wheels in Blake's head start to turn. The second time is when he picks up a thank-you basket made by Diane's mother (Molly Price). This is when Blake takes action; he excuses himself to the bathroom, retrieves Diane's prescription of antibiotics from the medicine cabinet, and replaces the contents of the capsules with sugar from a packet.

Inevitably, Diane ends up back in the hospital. This time around, Blake takes one extra step to ensure she will stay under his care for as long as possible, namely the discrete replacement of the contents of her antibiotic IV bag with pure saline. Obviously, this can only be done during the night shift; Diane is more likely to be asleep, and the floor is minimally staffed. It's at this point we're made more aware of an orderly named Jimmy (Michael Peña), who doesn't take his job seriously and yet is oddly observant of Blake's actions and behaviors. He will be the subject of the film's final act, although I cannot reveal why. You're probably thinking that I shouldn't bother keeping anything secret, as this review reads as if I've given away the entire film. You're wrong. Let it suffice to say that there's more to the plot that what I've described in excruciating detail.

And what of the plot? Admittedly, it pushes the limits of plausibility, relying on the same conveniences, technicalities, and turns of events one would find in a detective story. The saving grace is that plot is not the film's real focus; this is primarily a character study, and a damn chilling one at that. Blake is a reprehensible human being, willing to violate every ethical standard of medicine just to inflate his ego, which is pathetically fragile. Nothing is known about his background, but then again, nothing needs to be known. That's because his actions in this one story speak for themselves. Although he's responsible for several unnerving moments, the single most frightening scene is the last one, for it asserts that some people are undeservedly lucky in life.

Blake is an intriguing character and is closely examined. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of several side characters that are infrequently featured, inadequately developed, or both. These would include: Nurse Theresa (Taraji P. Henson), who spends most of the film asking about illegible handwriting on medical reports; Dr. Waylans (Rob Morrow), who's always asking Blake about how he's feeling, physically and emotionally; and a police detective (J.K. Simmons), who only appears during the final act and seems oddly detached. If you look at "The Good Doctor" from a technical standpoint, it is noticeably flawed. The thing is, I believe this film works on a purely emotional level. We don't like Blake, and yet we watch with helpless fascination as he cuts away any remaining threads of morality. I'll bet he had his fingers crossed when he took the Hippocratic Oath.

-- Chris Pandolfi

Lawless (2012)
2 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Three Brothers in the Moonshine Racket, 30 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Lawless" is a triumph of tone and setting, the gritty underworld of prohibition-era Virginia examined with meticulous and sometimes painful detail. This is plainly visible not just in the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the diction, and the rural locations, but also in its depiction of violence, which could arguably put it on the same shelf as the works of Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, and Scorsese. Director John Hillcoat does not spare the audience the sight of blood or brutality, and although I never lived during that particular time or place, this seems like the most appropriate approach. This isn't to suggest that the violence is glorified or trivialized. There's nothing fun or entertaining about what we see, as it typically would be for an action film or a comic book adaptation; it's quick, merciless, and cruel, as I imagine it must have been all those years ago.

The film is adapted from "The Wettest County in the World," a historical novel in which author Matt Bondurant drew inspiration from his own family, specifically his grandfather and two of his great-uncles. They were all actively involved in the illegal moonshine industry of Franklin County, Virginia, which continues to this day despite the fact that Prohibition has long since been repealed. "If you probe the back cupboards of nearly any house in Franklin County," said Bondurant in an essay he wrote regarding his novel, "or check in the garage fridge back behind that bloody hunk of venison, you will likely find a half-gallon mason jar of clear liquid with some kind of cut fruit suspended in it, most often peaches." Strange that this side of Franklin County life is considered normal and yet remains publicly unspoken of.

With all the work that went into establishing atmosphere, it's disappointing the filmmakers didn't try a little harder with the story or the characters. The latter are all competently cast and performed, and yet there's the unmistakable sense that they were developed purely on preconceived notions. The three Bondurant brothers – Jack (Shia LeBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) – exist in a gray zone between authentic outlaws and romanticized antiheroes. This is especially true of Forrest, whose misguided belief in his own immortality is unwisely played into by the filmmakers; he survives a number of injuries that would kill most people, including being shot several times and having his throat slit. All the brothers have their roles to play in the moonshine racket, but Forrest is clearly the ringleader, and he has both the brutal survival skills and the fatalistic dialogue to prove it.

The main antagonist is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago who's eager to dispense his own brand of justice in Franklin County. There's absolutely no subtlety to this man. He wears expensive form-fitting dress suits, his hands are almost always protected by clean-looking gloves, and his greased black hair is perfectly parted down the center. His arrogance and cruelty, punctuated by relentless displays of physical aggression and repeated bouts of soft giggling, would make even the most hardened criminal blush. There's no question that he's deliciously evil, the kind of villain audiences love to hate. All the same, I'm forced to wonder if such a heightened character is appropriate for a story like this, which is firmly based in reality. He might have been better suited for a more stylized crime thriller, perhaps something along the lines of an adapted graphic novel.

There are two female characters, both of whom are underdeveloped, underutilized, and apparently included only out of obligation for a romantic counterpart. This is a shame given the talent bringing them to life. One is Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former burlesque dancer from Chicago. Not much is known about her; she claims she wanted to escape the corruption of men like Rakes, and yet she willingly involves herself in the corrupt lives of the Franklin County bootleggers, specifically Forrest, who becomes her love interest. The other is Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher's daughter who naturally takes a shine to an outlaw like Jack and teases him with tremendous relish. It's not that he's enticing her into an act of rebellion; it's that she's enticing him into enticing her. Essentially, the two are engaged in a borderline adolescent fling, one that contributes nothing of significance to the overall story.

So yes, I had reservations about the approach to character development. But considering how thoroughly the mood was established, I find that I cannot so casually dismiss this film. "Lawless" doesn't merely transport us to another time and place, it actually immerses us. We get a sense of geography and social climate. We drink in the rustic architectural details – the rotting wood, the dingy floors, the faded walls – and the period-specific weapons and vehicles. We're genuinely disturbed by the shocking acts of retaliation, such as the repeated use of Tommy guns and brass knuckles, or a man who gets tarred and feathered then propped up on a porch with a sign displaying the word "bootlegger." The film doesn't quite have a handle on a narrative, but when it comes to the technical aspects, there's plenty to admire.

-- Chris Pandolfi

1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Now This is an Action Film, 24 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Premium Rush" is one hell of a ride – an action thriller, a chase spectacle, a mystery, and a tale of international intrigue all rolled into one gloriously adrenaline-hopped package. It was directed and co- written by David Koepp, who proves yet again that, no matter what genre he works in, his flair for outlandish material is his strong suit. To illustrate my point, consider "Death Becomes Her," "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible," "Stir of Echoes," "Panic Room," Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," "Secret Window," "Ghost Town," and "Angels & Demons," all films his name is attached to; there was nothing subtle about any of them, and they each achieved their own brand of success. Here, he plunges headfirst into pure slam-bang, high-octane fun, and never once does he allow anything pesky like plausibility get in the way.

The central character is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New York City bicycle delivery man whose life is nothing if not one huge adrenaline rush. He weaves in and out of traffic with reckless abandon, red lights and crowded sidewalks meaning nothing to him apart from challenges to be faced. He has long since removed the brake on his bike, not only preferring the speed but also believing that that piece of equipment does more harm than good. He possesses an inhuman ability to visualize three possible maneuvers and select one of them only a split second before he has to make it; inevitably, the first two end with him crashing into an oncoming car. These choices are represented, as they are at many points in the film, by an animated line like the ones you'd find on a GPS map.

The plot is constructed around a MacGuffin, specifically an envelope housing a ticket with a smiley face drawn on it. Wilee receives the envelope from a woman named Nima (Jamie Chung), who doesn't delve into specifics and only instructs that it be delivered to Chinatown within thirty minutes. She insists that this is very important. Before Wilee can make his delivery, he's stopped by a corrupt cop named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a compulsive gambler who needs the envelope in order to erase a debt with a Chinese loan shark. Wilee, knowing Monday isn't being straightforward, refuses to comply and speeds away. So begins a frenetic chase up and down the streets of Manhattan. It isn't long before Wilee's dangerous pedaling attracts the attention of a bike cop, who soon turns his pursuit into a personal vendetta.

The film continuously goes back in time and shows earlier events from different perspectives. Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. We learn that Wilee is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who's also a bicycle messenger. We learn that Vanessa was once Nima's roommate; for personal reasons she couldn't reveal, she had to ask Vanessa to leave. We learn of Wilee's rival, a messenger named Manny (Wolé Parks), who eventually gets his hands on the envelope without realizing its importance and turns getting it back into a competition. Finally, we learn Nima's back story and the significance of the ticket in the envelope. Naturally, my lips are sealed. It's all rather convoluted, but it's also exciting and incredibly engrossing.

Some will see the Monday character only as a caricature, given his manic personality and highly exaggerated New York accent. True enough, he is a caricature. But no one could have played him better than Michael Shannon, who has made a name for himself tackling memorable, highly intense roles. As Monday, he successfully walks the fine line between a menacing figure and comedy relief. It wouldn't have been right to make him too frightening, for the story isn't meant to be taken completely seriously. At the same time, making him too goofy would have been just as fatal. That's because the concept, while certainly heightened, is emotionally anchored to reality. Indeed, there is a delicate balance at work throughout the entire film; that the scales are never tipped to one side is nothing short of miraculous.

Going into "Premium Rush" with what I had already heard about it, I expected to be entertained. I did not, however, expect to be kept on the edge of my seat in suspense, laughing and gasping at the story and characters, and deeply admiring the clever camera-work, the amazing stunts, the creative visual effects, and the taut pacing. I was completely blindsided. What a white-knuckle experience this is. A week ago, I had to endure a wretched action comedy called "The Expendables 2," a testosterone-fueled fantasy that was devoid of intelligence, excitement, and a proper sense of fun. I hope the makers of that film see "Premium Rush" and study it carefully. Likewise, I hope audiences give it its due attention. Only then will they understand how the action genre is supposed to work.

-- Chris Pandolfi (

14 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
A Movie the Ads Haven't Been Promising, 24 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The ads for "The Apparition" tell us it's about how believing in supernatural events can make them real. The finished film, on the other hand, never once says anything about belief or non-belief. There's only a lot of generic talk about summoning some dark, evil force from "the other side." Already, we have a huge problem, namely that people will pay to see a film founded on a premise conjured up by a studio marketing department rather than by the filmmakers. Did they know their movie was being so grossly misrepresented, that the prominent tagline, "Once you believe, you die," does not factor into the storyline as they conceived it? This is the most infuriating display of bait-and-switch advertizing since "Case 39," the long-delayed supernatural thriller about a demonic little girl in the care of Renée Zellweger.

But suppose "The Apparition" hadn't relied on a deceptive ad campaign, that its actual premise had been used to entice audiences. What then? Not much, I'm afraid. Here is a horror movie so narratively tepid, so stylistically derivative, and so conceptually vague that one wonders if it began with anything resembling a screenplay. It has plenty in the way of atmosphere but virtually nothing in the way of plot, character development, theme, or insight. The thrills, while technically competent, are mediocre at best, all drawn from the likes of other, more original, and in most cases more successful horror films. This means that, nine times out of ten, we can see a scare coming long before it finally arrives. Unfortunately, this level of predictability doesn't extend to the overall story, which doesn't even try to be understandable.

We open with Super 8 footage of a paranormal experiment conducted in the 1970s, when a group of people sitting around a table somehow summoned an entity from "the other side." This manifestation, known as The Charles Experiment, was successfully recreated decades later by a group of college students, who had an arsenal of high tech equipment at their disposal. We see their efforts courtesy of their own home video footage; rest assured, the Queasy Cam is utilized, and there's a lot of screaming in the darkness. Flash forward to what I assume is the present day. We meet a young couple, veterinarian-in-training Kelly (Ashley Greene) and tech-company service rep Ben (Sebastian Stan). They begin noticing strange things happening in their new house, such as doors open by themselves without tripping the burglar alarm, lights flickering, mysterious thuds, and large patches of mold growing spontaneously in odd places.

And so continue these "Paranormal Activity"-inspired events until Kelly discovers Ben's connection to the recreated college experiment, which resulted in the disappearance of one of the participants. It's obvious that some kind of supernatural entity is haunting Kelly and Ben. But what is it exactly? Here enters a British parapsychology student named Patrick (Tom Felton), a geeky typecast whose role is to provide the lead characters – and vicariously, the audience – with technobabble explanations of a wild, paranormal nature. The more he explains, the less sense the situation makes; this entity, whatever it is, operates under rules so random and confusing that no potential audience is likely to make heads or tails of it. We know that a doorway to the other side was opened, that it wants to exist in our world, that it lives off of our fears, that it wants to kill people, and that, at least in one instance, it can take the form of the missing participant. But why? What does any of this mean?

Yet again, I turn my attention back to "Paranormal Activity," which worked so well because nothing was explained. How is it possible that "The Apparition" fails for the exact same reason? The answer is simple: Unlike "Paranormal Activity," which was much more psychologically driven, "The Apparition" is completely story driven, and therefore is required to be clear in its intentions. One cannot make a movie on merely an idea. It must first be honed into something comprehensible, something an audience can actually navigate through. Watching this movie is not at all unlike playing a game without knowing what the rules are; as you struggle to make sense of your surroundings, you're open to attacks from the opposing team.

The final act, while visually engaging, is a maddening collection of twists and revelations that clarify absolutely nothing. The last scene in particular seems intentionally constructed to make as little sense as possible – and you should know that the trailer spoils it for you regardless. How could this have become such a mess? What movie did anyone involved believe they were making? It might have helped if the filmmakers had used the plot the ads falsely allude to. "Paranormal events are a product of the human mind," says a small section on the homepage of the film's website, "and ghosts only exist because we believe in them." This is an intriguing idea, and it certainly would have been worth exploring. Apart from not being the film it was advertized to be, "The Apparition" is boring, unoriginal, and nonsensical.

-- Chris Pandolfi (

15 out of 18 people found the following review useful:
An Accident Victim and His Thoughtless Circle of Friends, 24 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Little White Lies" goes a long way – at 154 minutes, an incredibly long way – for so very little. At its most fundamental level, it's about a group of people who come to realize at the most appropriate time that they're more concerned about themselves than they are about others, specifically their mutual friend, who lies in a hospital bed in critical condition. But this discovery isn't made until the final five minutes. Before then, all the lead characters are embroiled in incidental relationship odysseys, all of which are examined at such a distance that it's virtually impossible to become emotionally invested. It doesn't help that the characters themselves aren't that well developed; they're given plenty of dialogue and situations to work their way through, but never once does it seem as if we're getting to know them.

Kick starting the plot is a man named Ludo (Jean Dujardin), who exits a nightclub in Paris high on cocaine, drives away on his motorcycle, and is soon thereafter rammed by a truck. His friends soon hear about it and pay him a visit in the hospital, where of course they do and say the appropriate things. The visit ends, and although it's obvious that Ludo is fighting for his life, the friends decide that they should stick to their normal routine and take their annual two-week lakeside summer vacation. It isn't until the final act that they all watch one of their home movies, staring at Ludo and his larger-than-life antics nostalgically; that, coupled with a very predictable turn of events, finally awakens the friends to the fact that they aren't the most thoughtful of people and made a huge mistake going on this vacation.

These opening and closing segments are every bit as routine as they sound, but we can still give writer/director Guillaume Canet credit for having his heart in the right place. Unfortunately, both segments are separated by a long, meandering middle section devoted to subplots involving the personal lives of the friends. Apart from the fact that almost none of their stories have anything to do with the character of Ludo, most of them are coldly developed and disappointingly resolved. A vast majority of the relationship drama happens at the vacation home of Max (François Cluzet), a wealthy restaurateur so uptight and controlling that it's a wonder anyone would stay friends with him, let alone go on vacation with him annually. And don't get me started on the fact that his wife, Véro (Valérie Bonneton), can actually put up with him.

One of the subplots begins when Max's friend and personal chiropractor, Vincent (Benoît Magimel), admits to Max that his feelings for him have grown into a physical attraction. Vincent is aware that Max doesn't feel the same way, is apparently content with being only his friend, and remains tactful during the vacation. Max, on the other hand, becomes even more of a nervous wreck and is driven to extremes that are initially amusing but eventually become cruel. At the heart of the matter, of course, is that Vincent, a husband and father, is in denial about his homosexuality and had clearly not taken Max's mental state into consideration when deciding to join him at his summer home – with his wife and children. It's a compelling idea, but the way this movie handles it, it's one of many subplots that doesn't get off to a great start and isn't allowed to go anywhere.

We meet an actor named Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and a young man named Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), both struggling in the romance department. The former is in a loudmouth and is well aware that he hasn't been able to commit and can't start now. Why then does he get so upset when his relationship with an opera singer named Lea (Louise Monot) suddenly ends? The latter is fixated on a mostly unseen woman named Juliette (Anne Marivin), who, despite her eleven-year relationship with Antoine, is engaged to another man. Antoine hangs on every text she sends him and is so annoyingly one-tracked that he has to tell everyone about them at all times. The biggest enigma is Marie (Marion Cotillard), whose dating dramas are so faintly alluded to that their inclusions are baffling. It's strongly suggested that she was an item with Ludo, yet she's briefly joined at the summer house by a handsome musician. And what are we to make of an early scene during Antoine's birthday party, where a woman enters the restaurant, has a few tense words with Marie, and then exits both the restaurant and the film?

The film, released in its native France in late 2010 but only now reaching American audiences, has been billed in part as a comedy. I'm not exactly sure why; there are one or two obviously funny sight gags, but on the whole, the lighter moments are so subtle and low key that they're likely to go completely over the heads of the audience. Of course, labeling it purely as a drama wouldn't have saved it from being slow and unrewarding. "Little White Lies" is well intentioned but terribly unsure of itself, spending far too much time on secondary vignettes and not enough time on the main story. Before the final act and the obligatory emotional resolution, there came a point at which I began to wonder why the Dujardin character was introduced at all. He was barely brought up during the two-hour middle section, which suggests the filmmakers were just as unmindful of him as his friends.

-- Chris Pandolfi (

5 out of 31 people found the following review useful:
The Most Unlikely Partners in Crime, 24 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Robot & Frank" is a wasted opportunity, the chance to intelligently examine the scientific and ethical notions of robotics disregarded in favor of making a generic sentimental buddy comedy. It has the right cast and the right visual style, but the approach to the story is all wrong; the filmmakers regard its title robot not as an artificial intelligence bound by the laws of hard science fiction but rather as a foil, a sidekick, and comic relief. I see no reason to include a robot character if the idea is to make it think and behave in very human ways. That might play well in a family film or a cartoon, but in a more mature story like this, it comes off as a gross developmental miscalculation. I'm sure director Jake Shreler and writer Christopher D. Ford had the best of intentions, but unfortunately, their vision went astray.

Taking place at an unspecified but clearly not too distant future date, the central human character is Frank Weld (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar in his twilight years and in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. He lives alone in a cluttered, unkempt house nestled in the woods of Upstate New York. Although his memory is slipping, he continues his daily routine of walking to the neighboring town and checking out books from the library. He has developed feelings for the librarian, a pleasant yet solemn woman named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who uses an early-model robot as a way to sort and shelve books. She laments that the building has been bought and will be converted into a library of the high tech, paperless variety. He regularly visits the local knick knack shop, where the owner (Ana Gasteyer) correctly suspects that he has been stealing from her.

He has two grown children. The daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), makes a living doing humanitarian work in impoverished countries and only occasionally contacts her father via a futuristic video screen. The son, Hunter (James Marsden), frequently sacrifices his professional and family life in the city for the sake of his father, who is clearly no longer able to take care of himself. Frank, a real curmudgeon, refuses to let Hunter take him to a nursing home. Hunter, in an effort to compromise, buys his father a caretaker robot (performed by Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which looks uncannily like Honda's ASIMO. Apart from performing general domestic chores like cooking and cleaning, it has been programmed to encourage a healthy lifestyle as well as promote activities that will keep Frank's mind engaged. Frank, a technophobe, initially wants nothing to do with the robot and repeatedly argues with it.

On the basis of what I've described so far, you're probably assuming that Frank gradually lowers his defenses and befriends the robot. To an extent, you'd be right. However, it doesn't have a lot to do with Frank's loneliness or his memory lapses; the more he learns about the robot's programming, the more he realizes he can manipulate it into being his accomplice on a new series of heists. Frank teaches the robot about scouting locations, reading blueprints, and picking locks; in due time, he and the robot are off on two jobs, one to rob the pretentious and arrogant new owner of the library, Jake (Jeremy Strong), the other to steal a rare first-edition copy of "Don Quixote" from Jennifer's safe. It must have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it plays more like an odd couple sitcom episode and doesn't take any notion of robotic programming seriously.

The more we learn about Frank, the less inclined we are to sympathize with him. There's an especially blood boiling scene in which he blatantly and unapologetically uses Hunter as a diversion for eluding the authorities; given his past life, and given Hunter's angry rant, one gets the sense that this would not be the first time Frank has done something like this. Nevertheless, the tone of the film is such that we're supposed to root for Frank, and ultimately feel sorry for him. During the final scene, I knew he was deserving of medical care, but when it came to the love and support of his family, I wasn't at all sure. Even his treatment of the robot was questionable, which is really saying something considering that robots are by definition not real people.

The ending is preceded by a plot twist, and although it's implausible and unquestionably gimmicky, it might have resonated had it been used in a different movie, say a detective thriller or a romantic melodrama. Here, it's stylistically out of place. I think the failure of "Robot & Frank" is fundamental: It applies a science fiction concept to a plot that isn't anything remotely like science fiction. It has good actors, and its overall look is engaging, but its backbone, the title characters, are problematic. This is especially true of the robot, which is developed and treated not as an advanced machine but as a second tier human costar. If you bother to include a robot character in your screenplay, this approach doesn't work. Here is a movie that could have been so much more than it was allowed to be.

-- Chris Pandolfi (

7 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
The Next Chapter in Action Pornography, 22 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Watching "The Expendables 2," I was repeatedly reminded of the Julie Brown single "I Like 'em Big and Stupid," a 1980s synthpop novelty song about the inexplicable attraction to muscle-bound men with low IQs. A sample of the opening verse: "When I need something to help me unwind / I find a six-foot baby with a one-track mind. / Smart guys are nowhere, they make demands / Give me a moron with talented hands." Rare for song lyrics to apply to a film so naturally. Rarer still that they would also accurately describe the audiences that find such films appealing. Just like its predecessor, "The Expendables 2" is pornography for the action film buff – a noisy, aggressive, violent, and utterly absurd testosterone fantasy that doesn't have two gray cells to rub together within its extra-thick cranium. If this is what counts for escapism nowadays, we might have actually devolved back into Neanderthals.

There isn't much I can say about this film that I didn't already say in my review of the first "Expendables." As before, much of the action is an incomprehensible blur of blood, bullets, and body slams, which is to say that, even if you appreciate that kind of filmmaking, the editing has seen to it that you can't distinguish a lot of it visually. As before, much of the dialogue is a pathetic mishmash of one-liners, macho sentiment, and really bad puns. And as before, the plot is weak and has been manufactured solely as a vehicle for scene after scene of people getting shot and things blowing up. I hesitate to call it an homage to the action films of the '80s and '90s, as the word "homage" implies artistry, intelligence, and respect. This movie is more like an extra value meal at a fast food chain; you get plenty to eat but nothing in the way of nutrition.

We're reunited with all of the Expendables, well-armed and well-trained mercenaries. The leader, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, also the co- writer), is the only one who was given a normal name. The others didn't fare as well; there's Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Yin Yang (Jet Li), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), the latter, as his name makes all too clear, being a sniper. New to the film are Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), a young soldier who may not have what it takes to be an Expendable, and Maggie (Yu Nan), a tech expert. Both represent two of the most tiresome action movie clichés imaginable. The former, who has a girlfriend living in Paris and dreams of reuniting with her, gives the Expendables an excuse to swear vengeance on the villain. The latter satisfies the need for a female sidekick and provides the teasing possibility of a romance. As to whether or not one actually blossoms, I leave for you to discover.

The plot, if I can even call it that, involves the Expendables going to Albania and butting heads with Jean Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a heartless kick boxer who schemes to sell the five tons of plutonium stored in an abandoned Soviet Union mine. The mine operates on slave labor, mostly men who have been kidnapped from a local village. Those who fall out of line are not shown any mercy. It's up to the Expendables to rescue the men and help the village women, who know that Villain will soon come after their children. I realize we're not supposed to question the lack of a language barrier, and if the filmmakers had tried harder to make a better movie, I probably would have overlooked it. As it is, I have to wonder how a group of English-speaking tough guys can enter a destitute Albanian village and just happen upon women who know the language fluently.

In the previous film, both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger made cameo appearances. For this chapter, they're roles are only slightly expanded. Both are so blatantly at the mercy of the screenplay that it's almost embarrassing. In Willis' case, he's required to be nothing more than a mysterious CIA agent that talks in a menacing whisper. It's even worse for Schwarzenegger, who's forced to be annoyingly self referential, especially at the most inappropriate times. Rest assured, his immortal line, "I'll be back," works its way into the film several times. He and Willis will eventually argue over it, promoting the former to mutter, "Yippee kai yay," under his breath. At one point, he even says, "Who's next? Rambo?"

That line is prompted by the sudden appearance of Chuck Norris, who enters almost every scene he's in with the main title from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" playing on the soundtrack. He plays Booker, a sniper who was rumored to be dead. Not that the name of his character matters; "The Expendables 2" is nothing if not a self-congratulatory exercise in all things action packed, which is to say that Norris' appearance will be appreciated at face value and nothing more. I think the greatest failure of this film is that it could never be a complete entertainment or a complete parody; it exists in a gray area somewhere between the two. Had the filmmakers had the courage to make it one thing or the other, maybe it would have been halfway decent. As it stands now, it's only suitable for those that like their movies big and stupid.

-- Chris Pandolfi (

ParaNorman (2012)
23 out of 38 people found the following review useful:
A Zombie Movie for Kids? Well, Maybe...., 17 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Nine times out of ten, debating a film's appropriateness for children is utterly pointless. But in the case of "ParaNorman," a 3D stop-motion animated film about ghosts, zombies, and a witch's curse, I cannot help but wonder what age group the filmmakers had in mind. With its morbid imagery, its broad and occasionally twisted sense of humor, and its handling of dark issues such as bullying, death, and the execution of suspected witches, I'm forced to conclude that it may not be appropriate for anyone under the age of twelve. You, of course, know your children much better than I do. All I'm asking is that you keep what I'm saying in mind as you buy tickets especially if you decide to shell out the extra cash for a 3D presentation. I should also note that this is the first PG-rated animated film I know of to include a gay joke. If you don't have any children and frankly couldn't care less about the issue of how young is too young, you may find that "ParaNorman" is wonderful-looking, appropriately scary, and a great deal of fun. For someone like me, it represents a purer kind of horror movie, in which the purpose is to frighten and entertain without resorting to tacky marketing gimmicks like sex, nudity, and relentless gore. It's also not limited to craft, although that certainly does play a major role; a real story is being told, and it actually sends a message. I grant you that it's not a particularly original message, but it's good to hear nonetheless. Specific scenes are lovingly styled after schlocky B- movies, while others feature clever insider references. Any dedicated horror fan will be the first to tell you that the ringtone on the title character's cell phone is John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme." Taking place in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, where a notorious history of witch trials are now used to attract tourists, we meet eleven-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a zombie movie fanatic cursed with the ability to speak with the dead. He's surrounded by ghosts, all of which are only visible to him. Because he always appears to be talking to himself, he's an outcast in his community. At home, he's berated by his shallow teenage sister (voiced by Anna Kendrick), patronized by his liberal mother (voiced by Leslie Mann), and completely misunderstood by his overly stern father (voiced by Jeff Garlin), who clearly doesn't believe in ghosts. He has had it up to here with Norman making requests for his grandmother, who has already died. This is true, but her spirit still lives in the house, and she and Norman have regular conversations. Despite being dead, the grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) made a promise that she would always watch over Norman, which is why she hasn't crossed to the other side. At school, Norman is already an easy target for a bully named Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a brute and an idiot. Things only get worse when he begins having visions, which invade his reality like rips in the fabric of time. His only friend is Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), an innocent and portly boy who takes his daily bullying in stride and thinks Norman's ability is the coolest thing ever. One day, they're both approached by the other black sheep of Norman's family: His uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), a hulking bum who lives holed up in a dilapidated house in the woods. He soon drops dead, although his spirit visits Norman in the boys' restroom and explains that his visions are related to a curse put on Blithe Hollow by a witch centuries earlier. This curse will take effect as soon as the sun goes down; the only way it can be stopped is if passages from an old book are read aloud at the witch's gravesite. Norman's sixth sense makes him the only person qualified to do this. Inevitably, something goes wrong, and in due time, seven corpses are awakened from their cemetery slumber. As they lumber around town as groaning, rotted zombies, Norman, Neil, and Alvin team up with Norman's sister and the object of her affection, Neil's teenage brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), a dimwitted jock. Blithe Hollow's hall of records is the scene of the finale, where an angry mob gathers on the steps with pitchforks and torches. The zombies, meanwhile, are inside and slowly closing in on Norman, who's close to figuring out the meaning behind the witch's curse. What it really comes down to is intolerance, ignorance, and the inability to listen to one another in times of fear and confusion. True enough, these themes are far from original, but they certainly add depth and even some sweetness to an otherwise superficial tale of the macabre. For the most part, the film is in the spirit of fun, walking the fine line between more mature thrills and family entertainment. There are select scenes, however, that push the limits of where a PG-rated movie can and should be allowed to go. The most glaring example is when Norman must pry a book from the lifeless hands of his uncle Prenderghast; as he struggles to free the book, the body is flung around like a ragdoll, and eventually, it falls on top of Norman, causing a huge length of tongue to roll out of the head and slap Norman in the face. Had this been a live action film, this scene would have been disgusting and perhaps even offensive. I believe that many kids will greatly enjoy "ParaNorman," but I also believe that some of them will find it frightening. Exercise caution when taking them to the movies this weekend. -- Chris Pandolfi

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