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Good film but not for the passive movie watcher, 3 May 2015

By "passive movie watcher" I'm referring to anyone who just wants to kick back and enjoy the ride, not necessaily a brainless romp but an engaging story that you can enjoy with little or no effort like Tim Burton's masterpiece "Pee Wee's Big Adventure". If that describes your state of mind then yeah... no this might not work for you.

This would be more like if Peewee Herman and Citizen Kane had an illegitimate child who got shipwrecked on Gilligan's Island with maybe a visit from Jim Morrison from Oliver Stone's "The Doors". Sound bizarre? Perfect, because that's what you'll get. "The Royal Tenenbaums" does require a bit more work and patience than your usual flick. Not necessarily like a Godard film which requires the cinephilic work equivalent of sweeping up a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 95, but this movie definitely demands a few mental gymnastics.

It is the humorous, satirical story of a 20th century New York City elite family. The narrative is told in vivid, fast-moving, short vignettes which, if you're not paying attention, could easily slip past you unappreciated. In that regard, it reminded me a lot of the film "Amélie", also released in 2001, by our French friends on the other side of the Atlantic. While, to me, not quite as memorable and iconic as "Amélie", this movie delivered a similar visual oddness (saturated colors with a nostalgic tint) and tongue-in-cheek humor (not quite "Airplane!" surreal but in that direction) that, from the first scene, sets it apart from your standard Hollywood fare.

As with many Wes Anderson films, this movie is absolutely carried by an all-star cast of filmmakers' favorite actors. And by "filmmakers' favorite" I'm referring to actors who may not always grace the covers of People Magazine, E! and whatever star-du-jour the paparazzi are stalking, but these are solid, talented actors with die-hard cult followings. Each actor plays an absurdly extreme caricature of a particular personality type, and the meeting of all these weirdos is like a symphony of deadpan desperation. Don't expect laugh-out-loud hilarity, but it's definitely wacky enough to get a few chortles out.

Plot: Well don't really expect a traditional plot-driven movie or you'll certainly be disappointed. The story is set up in the first 10 minutes (about a dysfunctional elite family whose father abandons them and suddenly reappears to re-take his place 20 years later), but from there it hops from episode to episode, quickly, quirkily and almost haphazardly. And that's the "work" I referred to earlier. I have to admit there were several times when I got mildly annoyed, thinking "Well that was totally random" or "That scene didn't really add anything", but I think that's the point. Rather than tell a neat, tidy, "Brady Bunch" tale with a structured setup/conflict/climax/denouement, Anderson gives us something more reminiscent of a J.D. Salinger book, and I'm not talking about "Catcher in the Rye" but instead one of his more obscure family-centered stories like "Franny & Zooey" or "Raise High the Roofbeams" where, if someone asked you what it's about, you'd either spend 30 mins babbling like an idiot or just act like a pretentious snob and say "You just have to read it *puff puff*" (that was the sound of you puffing on your Boccetta smoking pipe)

Ultimately, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a comedy for people who take their films seriously. It is similar to Wes Anderson's other films (Rushmore, Life Aquatic) so if you enjoyed those don't hesitate to check this out. If you're not particularly a Wes fan, that's OK, I think this is his best film of the lot and more engaging than the rest, simply for its visuals. Other films I'd compare this to include: "The Squid and the Whale", an obscure Southern-Gothic dark comedy called "Septien" and, by far my favorite dysfunctional family flick, an obscure Canadian gem called "New Waterford Girl".

The worst movie I've seen in years, 1 May 2015

I can't understand how so many reviewers feel this movie is about "true love" when it is about the exact opposite: hypocrisy and selfishness masquerading under the self- righteous banner of love.

The story begins with a woman who has an affair and dumps her husband 5 days before Christmas (all in the name of love, of course). The man in the affair, a world renowned composer, similarly breaks up his own marriage and family to be with the woman. The two live in wedded bliss with the woman repeatedly making the man promise that he'll never abandon her. But an incurable illness drives a wedge between the two--an illness for which the woman repeatedly and irritatingly blames the man (as "abandonment") while she melodramatically plays the martyred caregiver.

There is a scene midway where, at her end of her patience, she cruelly crushes his illusion of comfort by blurting out the harsh reality he needn't know. Then she justifies it by saying they swore to always be honest with each other, in the name of "love". That scene made me want to track down the writer and say "By the way, yes, that dress DOES make you look fat!" *facepalm*

Let me say that the illness is one that I have firsthand experience with. The portrayal is quite accurate, and for most of the movie I was impressed with the acting in that regard. But what I found utterly disgusting is the woman's way of handling the illness. Sure, dealing with any sudden illness is tough on loved ones, but this movie came across as simply a pity party for the woman and a justification for her atrocious handling of the situation culminating in an utterly sickening, hypocritical choice even though apparently other reviewers think it's "beautiful". I won't say what it is, but rather I'll let you be the judge if you decide to waste your 2 hours watching this. I'll just say it will undoubtedly offend anyone, like me, who has actually dealt with the hardships of caring for a loved one unconditionally.

Though evidently some have interpreted this to be a feel good love story, I found it to be a sickening glorification of selfishness. It reminded me of similarly disturbing Woody Allen flicks which glorify Woody's sexual obsession of old men and young girls which audiences applaud, perhaps not knowing or caring to know about Woody's real life history of sexual abuse toward his daughter, Dylan. I can bet you that the creator of this film has a similar agenda of glorifying his or her own selfish behavior, passing it off as the spoils of love.

If you want to see a great movie that illustrates true, unselfish love in the face of a debilitating disease, check out "Away from Her" starring the great Julie Christie.

As much as I hate "Song for Martin" I actually recommend that you watch this movie to the end so that some of you can see how NOT to behave in a serious illness situation. This movie took hospice care back 100 years. Two stars out of ten, simply because I reserve 1-star ratings for snuff films like "Cannibal Holocaust" and "Electrocuting an Elephant".

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A movie that makes you want to experience life, 12 April 2015

"Island Etude" isn't a movie with a traditional plot/conflict/resolution like we've come to expect from cinema. The setup is that a young man is riding his bike around the island of Taiwan, and that's where it leaves off. What follows is a series of wonderfully shot vignettes of his 7 days and 6 nights en route, meeting interesting characters, immersing himself in overlooked culture, and the real payoff: soaking in the majestic sights of land and sea as only one can experience alone. So while this film won't exactly give you a dramatic firestorm of "Amadeus" proportions, it'll certainly deliver some quiet, poetic moments that may just change your life.

Our cyclist Ming-Hsang is a young loner, alienated from society by his hearing & speech disability, who embarks on this 1200km (800mi) journey, roughly the distance from New York City to Chicago on bike. The people he meets are always welcoming, hospitable and friendly, without any malice or heavy drama. But, much like with real life travel, we can still enjoy the ride meeting odd characters, even if there aren't any chainsaw-wielding madmen or bank robberies to spice up the pot.

The people he meets include: an aspiring surrealist filmmaker, a fellow cyclist with humorous family gripes, a mysterious European supermodel, a married couple playfully bickering about ex-girlfriends, a somber grade school teacher being forced to retire, and a bizarre busload of jolly old ladies protesting economic hardships, and maybe a juvenile delinquent or two. The cross section gives us a good slice of Taiwanese culture and political issues without beating any particular agenda over our heads. Ming-Hsang remains politically and emotionally neutral, like a stranger in his own country, with the exception being one powerful moment of emotion which I won't ruin for you.

That's where my review ends because there are really no words for this unique experience. All I can say is, as my title suggests, this is the sort of film that makes you want to experience life, whether it's on a bike, in some exotic location or maybe just in your own hometown appreciating the things you've never had the presence of mind to appreciate.

There aren't many films like this, but when they do come along they are very memorable. Along with "Island Etude" I recommend "In the City of Sylvia" (about a young man who returns to a sleepy European city in search of a stranger he met six years earlier), "A Scene at the Sea" (Japanese master Takeshi Kitano's excellent, almost-silent directing debut about a deaf surfer) and my favorite traveller film, "Lisbon Story" (Wim Wenders whimsical and hauntingly musical story of a man trying to track down a lost friend in Lisbon). These films will never be Hollywood crowd pleasers, but for those times when nothing else satisfies your wanderlust, they're just what the doctor ordered.

Stuck (2007)
Ever have one of those days...?, 8 April 2015

From the director who brought us "Kid Safe", an educational drama that teaches kids what to do in emergency situations, comes "Stuck", a movie about grown-ups doing everything they possibly can do WRONG in an emergency situation.

The frightening thing is that this tale is no joke. At the heart of the story is a true event that happened in Texas in 2001 (the woman's real name is Chante Jawan Mallard). But I strongly advise you NOT to look it up until after you've seen this movie, otherwise the fun of this bizarre, unbelievable movie will be shadowed by the harshness of reality. The Texas case has been retold & dramatized several times, but this is the first time I've seen it done with a funny-ish presentation which effectively diffuses its disturbing nature and makes it "entertaining".

I loved this movie. It's not exactly a thriller, not a comedy, not a straightforward drama but a very psychotic mix of all three. The DVD description tries to make it look like a tense thriller while the trailer makes it look like a comedic romp. Yes, it has elements of both, but the best way to take this movie is as a total surprise, no expectations of any particular genre.

So I won't say much about the plot except that it's got a dash of Stephen King's "Misery", a bit of the Coens' "Fargo" and a squirt of Ira Levin's "Deathtrap". It's basically a story about having the absolute worst day of your life. And I don't mean just getting fired or dumped or a speeding ticket. I'm talking about a day so bad that Job from the bible would buy you a drink.

Normally movies like this stress me out, but this one crosses so far into catastrophe that it becomes surreal, detached, and darkly humorous. So you can shut off your sympathies and just watch the fun. Each actor was excellent, beginning with Stephen Rea (keyboardist for Strange Fruit in the movie "Still Crazy"!) playing the role of a schlep who can't get a decent break if it hit him at 40 mph, literally. Then there's Mena Suvari (American Beauty, Caffeine) who plays an average girl who somehow taps into her inner psycho. Her slow, neurotic descent makes the her character more believable and engaging than the real Mallard ever was. But for my money the show-stealer is Russell Hornsby in one of his earliest big screen roles, playing the part of a tough guy drug dealer who, in reality, can't defend himself against a chopstick. Russell's character is what injects the comedic element into this otherwise nonstop tension piece, adding to the film's unique quirky personality.

In addition to the aforementioned classic films, I would suggest this movie to people who enjoyed "Heathers", "Super" and an obscure diamond called "Don McKay" with Elizabeth Shue as the crazy femme fatale. All of these films are memorable for their genre-stretching approach to murder & mayhem, and "Stuck" fits right in with the best.

"Girls" (2012)
3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Ally McBeal but without the creative writing or humor and with butt ugly sex scenes, 25 March 2015

Ally McBeal. The Mindy Project. 30 Rock. The cartoon strip Cathy. The story of the quintessential female with quirky insecurities and mild-to-severe neuroses has been a crowd pleaser time and time again.

And then you have shows like "Girls" which take that story to annoying new depths, degrading women, making men look like beastly predators, focusing on sex to an obsessive degree (and I mean literally "focusing" as in the camera shows everything short of a colonoscopy), and for what... for laughs? No, not even that. For just sheer awkwardness I guess.

That's my opinion and I'll leave it there. For the rest of my review I'll just cite some examples, and you can be the judge if this is the kind of show that you think you'll enjoy. Writer/director/star Lena Dunham plays an insecure, chubby 23-year-old named Hannah whose life is full of self-imposed disasters.

Example #1. Hannah gets an STD because she ritually has unprotected sex with some guy who uses women as if they're toilet paper. When she learns she has the STD, she whines as if she's the victim and we're supposed to hate the guy for not using a condom. Poor little victim Hannah.

Example #2. Hannah, who has never had a job and relies on her hipster parents to pay her rent, insurance, cell phone and food bills, is told by her parents that they are cutting off her allowance and forcing her to earn a living like the rest of us schmucks. She whines as if she's the victim, and we're supposed to hate the parents just because they're rich. Poor little victim Hannah.

Example #3. Hannah finally gets a job where she is very inappropriately fondled by the boss on the first day. She just sits there and takes it with a goofy expression on her face for about 5 minutes. Then later she whines as if she's the victim, and we're supposed to hate the boss (who, by the way, asks her point blank if she's OK with him being "touchy", and she says nothing) because he's a creepy predator. Poor little victim Hannah.

Example #4. Hannah is still smitten by the disgusting man-beast who gave her an STD, and he texts her a picture of his hairy man parts (which, yes, they feel the need to show us on camera). He then texts her "SRY THAT WAS MEANT FOR SOMEONE ELSE". That part was funny, I admit, but then once again Hannah whines like the victim but stays with him because she's too stupid to, I dunno, tell the creep to get lost like a real woman would do. Poor little victim Hannah.

And the list goes on.

You'll notice that I'm dwelling on the character Hannah even though there are 3 other stars of the show. That's because this is basically the Lena Dunham (Hannah) show with only momentary diversions to the other characters who, by the way, can be equally whiney with the same "use me, I'm just a weak little girl" attitude as Hannah. Kudos to Allison Williams who tries to rescue this show admirably, both with her humorous acting as well as by playing a female character who actually can stand up for herself. But not even she can save this mess.

Congratulations, Lena Dunham (Hannah)... you've successfully knocked women back to the 1950s, with the only difference being your character drops her underwear for any man who will use you. And you've successfully made every male under the age of 50 look like a rapist (oh wait, the ones over 50 as well).

I actually urge you to watch this show just so you'll see how disgusting television can be in the 21st century. But for the love of Moses don't pay any money to see this.

Good movie for people who like movies where nothing happens, 24 March 2015

Although my title might sound like a jab, I mean it literally. If you like movies where nothing happens, "New York, I Love You" is a good one to catch.

So if nothing happens, what's it all about? Well, here we have 10 slice-of-life vignettes of people living in New York City focusing on interpersonal relationships, character drama, and in almost every story some sort of quirky ironic twist.

In a few cases the ironic twist is enough to make you say to yourself, "Aha! Good one." Segments in this category include a segment starring Robin Wright & Chris Cooper about a woman & man who meet on the street flirting with the idea of anonymous sex, or in the segment starring Olivia Thirlby, James Caan & Anton Yelchin about a boy who goes to the prom with a girl in a wheelchair, or the opening segment starring Hayden Christensen & Andy Garcia about a petty thief who meets his match. Or an impressive directing debut from Natalie Portman about a man who takes a young girl to the park for a day. Each of these may seem light on story, but there's a nice twist to each.

Other segments are a little less twisty in plot, but they make up for it with charming characters or quirky conversations, like the segment with Ethan Hawke using every line in the book to pick up a mysterious woman, or the segment starring the screen legends Eli Wallach ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") & Cloris Leechman ("Frau Blucher!" in Young Frankenstein) about an elderly couple who go to Coney Island for the day.

And then there's the segment starring Julie Christie as a lonely, retired opera singer who checks into an ancient hotel for a night. That segment stands out for its haunting style and quiet desperation.

"New York, I Love You" is the American version of "Paris je t'aime" released two years earlier, each film featuring a series of shorts highlighting the human love affair with an iconic city. Oddly enough, "New York" features all but 2 directors who were born outside America (including Natalie Portman--did you know she was born in Israel?), so there is a very culturally diverse vibe. This ain't no "Friends" centered around young professional caucasians. It often digs deep into the ethnic perspective with characters who are Jewish (Hacidic), Hindu (Jain...although he points out that Jains are not Hindu because Hinduism is too materialistic haha), Chinese, Iranian, British, and a few I couldn't figure out.

My only real gripe with this film is that it seemed uneven at times, with the directing styles and stories often shifting gears so abruptly, and without any signals to let you know the prior story had ended and we're on to the next, that you can easily get disoriented. Transitions with characters' paths criss-crossing were inserted to make it more of a cohesive whole, but I think the opposite effect happened. I might've liked it better if the stories were kept very separate, like in the excellent "Tokyo!" featuring 3 very different stories from very different directors. But as far as short film compilations go, "New York, I Love You" is a good solid package that should tickle your nostalgia bone whether or not you hail from the Big Apple.

I can't end without mentioning my favorite film in this genre, "Coffee & Cigarettes" by Jim Jarmusch, featuring 11 short films set in Coffee Shops around the world. If you like this sort of thing, definitely check that one out.

Chronicle (2012)
Outstanding on so many levels, 18 March 2015

"Chronicle" is a supernatural found-footage movie that.... Whoa, wait, where are you going?? Get back here! Oh I see you have a healthy distrust of the phrase "found footage movie", especially in conjunction with "supernatural". It probably brings to mind certain groundbreaking but nausea-inducing films like "The Blair Witch Project" and worse, many a low-lowbudget indie flick that uses "found footage" as an excuse for lazy camera work.

Well, you'll be happy to know that none of that applies here. Initially very skeptical, I ended up really getting into the camcorder approach when I saw how expertly the camera work and special effects really are. Ultimately the cinematography of this found-footage flick ends up being more polished than most Hollywood blockbusters.

"Chronicle" is about 3 ordinary-to-nerdy high school students who stumble on a phenomenon that gives them supernatural powers. Immediately one thing I liked was the way the movie didn't waste any reels of film on trying to explain the backstory of this phenomenon. It was as if to say, "Ok people, we're establishing that this is a supernatural story. But that's not the point so we're not going to waste time dwelling on it." And immediately the story shifts to a very personal and psychological tale about 3 friends, their different personalities, the demons in their closets, and how the supernatural power brings out their latent, often ugly, human nature.

The trailer, as well as the PG-13 rating, may lead you to believe that the story is somewhat tame if not flaky. There's no nudity, not too much profanity, and not much violence... whoa... Wait, actually there is a good bit of violence, but the camera doesn't dwell on it. Instead, even more disturbing I think, the camera gives you just enough to imagine the rest, and that can be pretty chilling. My nails were dug a good 3" into the edge of my seat by the end. "Chronicle" begins at a leisurely pace but begins to pick up speed and tension up to its absolutely spectacular final minutes.

I'm not just talking about the special effects which are quite convincing especially on a big screen if you have one. But the drama between the characters comes to an amazing climax, every bit as riveting as the visuals.

"Chronicle" is a great flick because it isn't stuck in any particular genre. It has elements of "the Dark Knight" and all those superhero type flicks, but it also has a firm basis in a solid teen-coming-of-age story with dark psychological overtones like "The Squid and the Whale" or an obscure favorite of mine "Archie's Final Project". It touches on the serious mind-damaging issues teens face in school like bullying, peer pressure to be cool, high school cliques, abusive parents, and (the whole point of the found-footage angle) society's withdrawal and depersonalization from itself through cameras and technology. This ain't no mindless action flick (although if you're just up for a good time, it can be taken as that), but this is a very critical study of the issues that many young people face. Couple that with super powers and you never know where it'll lead.

Other great films about how humans behave when given absolute power include "Sphere" (1998) and the underrated gem "Special" (2006). Thumbs way up for all of these. "Chronicle" gets an extra thumb for featuring the David Bowie song "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (an excellent metaphor). See it on a big screen blu-ray if you can.

"Cracker" (1993)
Best thing on TV since the remake of Battlestar Galactica, 17 March 2015

...except that the Battlestar remake came 10 years after Cracker. But you get the point.

The British series "Cracker" is a gritty, tense and often humorous psychological crime drama about a misfit human being ("Fitz" played by Robbie Coltrane) who happens to be a genius at reading human nature. Even though he can't seem to get a grip on his own failing life, he is the police force's best asset when it comes to solving grisly murders.

Bringing to the TV screens a new and quite disturbing sort of realism that had never been seen before, at least nothing I'd ever seen, Cracker was one of the first shows that boldly dove into the concept of the anti-hero. You won't find any lily-white heroes here. There's no John Wayne (although on occasion Robbie Coltrane's character does a pretty good job of impersonating him, along with Humphrey Bogart & Columbo). The good guy doesn't always win, the good guy isn't always right, and most notably sometimes there isn't even a good guy.

Shows today have embraced this realism very well, but back in the late 80s-early 90s you have to remember TV screens were still dominated by the likes of Baywatch & Walker Texas Ranger. Entertaining stuff, but very clearcut good vs. evil type stuff where good always wins with a joke & freeze frame at the end.

Here in Cracker you're more likely to get an ending where the wrong person goes to jail, or someone gets blown up, fade to black, roll credits. Yes folks, this is a far cry from Columbo... although Columbo fans (like me) will be thrilled at the idea of a brilliant criminologist who usually--not always but usually--seems to be just 1 step behind the criminal and 1 step ahead of the audience. This, coupled with the aforementioned moral ambiguity of all the characters, ensures that NOTHING is predictable.

Robbie Coltrane is now famous for his Harry Potter role, but this is the first time I saw him and I was instantly hooked by his funny, self-deprecating arrogance, his cool intelligence on the job while, at home, being too crass & hot headed to hold a 2 sentence conversation with his family, and of course his very anti-heroic vices of alcohol and gambling... which, by the way aren't just thrown in for color; his character actually explains the logic in a lucid way that makes me want to saddle up to the nearest bar and order a tub of whiskey.

Seriously, though, while his uncontrolled addictions are far from charming, there is a certain glamor in it, similar to Bogart's whiskey swilling "Rick" in Casablanca. So if you are possibly offended by a hero who's not just an alcoholic gambler but quite proud of it, then you might want to avoid this. But like I said, this sort of realism is what broke the Baywatch mold.

As my title suggests, the only show I can really compare this to is the excellent 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica which took the same approach of challenging our preconceptions of good & evil. Both of these shows begin with the premise of a "good guy" (the detective, or in Battlestar the human), and then turning everything on its head to the point where you may often find yourself rooting for the "bad guy" (the accused, or in Battlestar the cylons). Maybe it took 1000 years for storytellers to get it right, but I'm reminded of the ancient poem by Omar Khayyam with the greatest line ever written about the human species: "I myself am heaven and hell."

Dogs Lie (2011)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Harold and Kumar go to Deathtrap, 27 February 2015

IMDb estimates the total budget for "Dogs Lie" was $170k which, in Hollywood terms, wouldn't cover the parking tab for most big studio productions. That said, if you're scared off by indie films on a budget then you can pass on this. But if you enjoy seeing low key productions and seeing how effectively filmmakers can tell a story with limited resources, then read on.

The story is really perfect for an indie flick because it's very minimal in nature. Adapted from a play, "Dogs Lie" revolves closely around the 2 main characters "Josh" and "Iqbal" and their quirky banter while working the late shift at a sleep clinic. No, there aren't any car chases or explosions or strippers (oh, wait, actually there are a couple of those), but instead the dialogue of the 2 leads is what engages us. Just don't expect a nail-biting, pulse-pounding thrill ride because that's not the goal of this movie. Instead I would compare it to the classic "Deathtrap" (another film adapted from a play) with its word-based approach to action. Just imagine instead of Michael Caine & Christopher Reeve you get something leaning closer to Harold & Kumar.

The plot: A murder happens early in the film, and Josh & Iqbal happen to be the alibi for one of the suspects who was at the sleep clinic the night of the murder. At first this is just a peripheral event for the two, but over the course of a few shifts they begin to discuss & get deeper into the mystery as they find out more details and divulge a few themselves. As other reviewers have mentioned, what keeps this film entertaining is the humor and natural banter between the 2 main characters. Great job by both actors, Frank Boyd (Josh) and Samrat Chakrabarti (Iqbal), whom I didn't really like at first but they soon had me feeling like one of the gang with their natural chatter.

Also for no special reason I have to mention something I found hilarious, whether it was deliberate or not. Notice whenever they're talking to someone on an intercom we can't hear the person on the other end, but they still carry on normal conversations over the speaker. Sort of a surreal touch... like in the cartoon Peanuts where we never really hear adults speaking. Or maybe it was just a sound goof. Either way I really liked it.

The best not-a-gangster movie I've ever seen, 22 February 2015

This is not a gangster movie.

The above point is so important it deserves its own paragraph. Really, this is as much about gangsters as "2001 A Space Odyssey" is about space monsters and laser battles. So if you're looking for a gangster movie then you might wanna find yourself a nice wholesome De Nero movie where he does batting practice on peoples brains.

So what exactly is this movie? "In Praise of Shadows" (the film's original title before some marketing bonehead changed it to the flashier yet utterly meaningless "Shadows & Lies") is a film for shadow lovers. No, I don't mean goth chicks who sleep in coffins, although those folks are certainly invited to the party. I mean, in the tradition of the Japanese essay "In Praise of Shadows" from which this film derived its rightful title, it is for those of us who choose dark subtlety over bright glitz. As a line in the film goes: darkness allows us to focus on details that would be lost in bright light. And so, literally as well as symbolically, this is a story that's told against a dark, unknown, mysterious backdrop.

James Franco, in his best role ever, is a mysterious drifter with many similarities to Camus' "The Stranger". He is morally ambiguous, neither kind nor cruel, neither good nor bad, but simply what he is. He takes a job as a criminal henchman almost out of curiosity (or boredom) rather than any other motivation. His first day on the job he meets the boss's mistress, and that leads to... shall we say... complications.

The plot is certainly a tense one, and whoever wrote the DVD packaging (probably the same bonehead who renamed it "Shadows & Lies") had a field day ramping up our expectations for a wild thrill ride of Scorsesesque proportions. But, here I go again, this is not a gangster film.

Sure there's blood, drugs, prostitution and a bullet or two. But there's also hummingbirds, trees, prehistoric jellyfish and a frog or two. WTF, you say? Yeah, doubtlessly anyone expecting a gangster flick will say WTF. But I would sooner compare this incomparable film to the works of Japanese master Takeshi Kitano ("A Scene at the Sea", "Dolls", "Fireworks") or maybe even Kieslowsky. If you aren't familiar with those directors, don't worry; I'll try to explain...

Here director Jay Anania (NYU film professor who taught James Franco) takes a deliberately slow and very visually vivid approach. You won't find any jumpy Mtv edits or grandiose camera flourishes to upstage the raw simplicity of the moment. Neither will you find a lot of quippy one-liners or drawn out monologues to express what is sufficiently done with a facial expression. The story being told here is not a flashy, action-packed romp (although, like I said, there are some tense action scenes) but instead it's the story of how one man with no identity, no past and no future, methodically observes his world and forges a sort of identity for himself through actions that can only be described as if he were playing out a dream, one episode at a time.

And dreamlike, this definitely is. With a fractured narrative that jumps back & forth in time and often to odd, seemingly irrelevant characters, it disrupts our expectations of a straightforward story. It becomes a challenging mystery--not necessarily how the plot will play out, but who the main character is. What is his nature and what will he turn out to be? And the same is to be said of the surrounding characters: who will they turn out to be, and will they be guided by free will or predestination?

Well, it's been a long ramble but if you made it all the way through I think you'll enjoy this movie as much as I did. In closing I'd like to say it one... more... time...

Aw hell, why don't I just quote a scene from the movie.

WILLIAM: You're talking as if you're in a movie, Victor. A gangster movie.

VICTOR: Do you think you're a gangster?


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