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7/10
Anti-Epic Coen Brothers Tale of an Anti-Hero
31 December 2013
There are people in the world who are, quite intentionally, their own worst enemy. This is their story. Alternately, it's about a man and his cat.

Like all Coen Brothers films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a character study. Theirs is a style that takes a trait of humanity, cranks it up to 11, and puts it through its paces. In this case, they take on people who purposely sabotage their own happiness.

The film follows Llewyn Davis who, recklessly and tortuously, destroys his relationships at every opportunity. Time after time after time, he returns kindness with selfishness; responsibility with irresponsibility; support with abandonment. Grossly judgmental, incredibly unsympathetic, utterly foolish, this is a man who brings on his own suffering with an odd sort of sustained glee. He seems to revel in his own misery, constantly making bad decisions, and then getting mad at those who did what he told them to do.

This is an odd juxtaposition with his chosen artistic pursuit: folk singing. Folk singing is all about empathy and connection, but Llewyn can't empathize, and definitely can't connect. This is pointed out to him time after time after time, but he just doesn't pick up on it. At all. Therefore, he fails. He is very similar to his co-star, Ulysses, a cat who (in a very characteristically cat-like manner) seems disconnected from what is happening around him, until it's time to wake someone else up from a sound sleep.

It's not a bad film, there are some quirky, funny moments in it. But I gave it 7 out of 10 because it lacks that characteristic "special heartwarming spark" of a Coen Brothers film. "Raising Arizona", "Fargo", "Hudsucker Proxy", and "O Brother, Where Art Thou" had a heartwarming character or situation to help pull you out of the morass of darkness, intentionally acting as counter-point to the misery of life; but "Llewyn Davis" doesn't really have this. I suppose the cat is meant to fill this role (there is a neat little moment when Llewyn and the cat track each other's expressions quite effectively), but it doesn't really work as well as (possibly) intentioned.

An OK movie. Not the Coen Brothers' best.
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7/10
American Ham
28 December 2013
American Hustle is a fine movie, I suppose. I'm not really sure, to be honest. The problem is it's such a hamfest of a movie, it's hard to focus to know for sure.

This film has a lot going on beyond the characters and the story. It's set in the 70's, and such a horrendously clichéd version of the 70's it distracts you from those characters & story. You've got the red velvet leisure suits; the badly-fitting toupees; the ridiculously over-sized automobiles; the tight-curl perms; the bra-less, droopy dresses (OK, some distractions are worth it). Folks use "ham" to describe over-the-top acting, but here we have undeniably "hammy" use of sets, costumes, props, and locations. It's as if someone said "find me everything 70's and dump it in this movie!".

The problem is they don't just use these clichés for setting and atmosphere (like "The Ice Storm", for example), they just pile them up throughout the movie, right down to hackneyed scenes involving 70's-era mobsters late in the film. It's a cliché fest, and that distracts from the rest of the story. It's hard to take the main protagonist seriously under those ridiculous glasses.

Then again, it is a fairly shallow plot, with a somewhat weak "surprise ending", wrapping up the con inside a con inside a con. You've seen it all before, in movies of the "con man" genre over the decades. I'm guessing the writers wanted to dump all the 70's clichés into one film and wrote tossed together a con-man script to tie them together; OR they had a fairly weak script and felt they needed to dress it up with 70's nostalgia to generate interest.

The movie is OK. It has some funny moments. But it's not worth a full-price movie ticket, and is definitely not worth an Oscar nod.
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1/10
Jackson's a kid in a candy store -- and we get the diabetes
16 December 2013
Peter Jackson's 3-episode interpretation of The Hobbit is turning into a sticky, gooey mess. What a horrid series of films.

This isn't about book purism or Tolkien loyalty or any of that. I understand the difference between writing and filmmaking, and why one can never translate directly into the other (especially when the latter occurs 75 years after the former). My contempt for the Desolation of Smaug concerns filmmaking itself: storytelling, dramatic tension, character development. Even the framing, action and stuntwork do not work in this film.

The root of the problem is PJ does not have an internal filter. He dreams up ideas of increasing ridiculousness, and throws them on the screen whether the story benefits or not. He dreams up wonderful elvish combat maneuvers: they're in the film. He dreams up various orc prosthetics: they're in the film. He dreams up goofy, hammy character appearances: they're in the film. He dreams up immense set pieces and constructs unbelievable battles in the midst: they're in the film. But you can't do filmmaking that way! Good films, even good action films, need to be built on a solid core of character and story.

In fairness, the Hobbit itself is not particularly meaty in those areas: it's a bit goofy, a bit sparse. It was a children's book, after all. But that's what a good screenplay needs to reinforce in such cases. It's what PJ and his writing team did in LOTR! They beefed up the story and added emotional context to the characters to make the audience care about what was happening. When Frodo was confronted by the Witchking in the Two Towers, you were afraid for the guy because the film, up to that point, made you care!

In the Hobbit, however, they are not shoring up the character and story in this three-layer cake at all. Instead, they are slathering on such a heavy coating of empty frosting in the form of goofy action sequences, sticking on gumdrops of forced slapstick comedy, and pouring on a thin crust of chocolate sprinkles in the form of CGI (much of which is poorly done and pulls you out of the film). In the end, you have a cake that's inedible because of all the sugary crud slathered on top. All this "stuff" totally overwhelms the cake in the center, completely obscuring the overall storyline, and smothering the characters of Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the poor dwarfs (who mumble along in complete obscurity for the duration of the film). Even Smaug gets short-shrift (he is a marvel of visual magnificence, but is also reduced to a slapstick fool before too long).

What PJ does not have is a filter. You can tell he's gained so much power as a filmmaker that no one is challenging his decisions. He gets away with everything no matter how ridiculous, no matter how distracting, no matter how smothering. He has no sanity check, no capacity to self-edit. And the film suffers for it: it's so overdone in action and set pieces, you become bored with it. I was praying for the movie to be over by the end.

When you engage in any creative endeavor, it's important you get all your ideas on the table, no matter how outlandish. But then you ALSO need to learn how to edit, how to scrape away everything that is not helping you tell your story or portray the vision. It can be a hard thing, giving up that great idea, but if it helps you reach your goal, you drop it by the wayside, and focus on what's important.

PJ did not do that, and as a result, we have a sticky, gooey, sickly-sweet mess of a cake that will surely give us all diabetes.
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Con Air (1997)
1/10
Awful. Utterly awful.
31 December 2012
What an awful movie. Everything in this movie that makes it vaguely interesting has been done in dozens of movies and with far better results. There is practically nothing original in Con Air. This is a Schwarzenegger/Stallone wannabe. There are far better one-liners in "Total Recall" and far better action scenes in "First Blood" than in this knock-off. This is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy: washed out, unnecessary, and says the same stuff as all the action films that preceded it. Plus it's just badly made. Nicholas Cage is not only a fish-out-of-water here, he's at his hammiest worst. The action scenes & stunts are just goofy. The jokes have been done over and over again. It's just lame.

The only redeeming quality is Steve Buscemi, but even there, he's been in a LOT of better roles. Watch "Fargo" or something.

A terrible movie. Shame on you, Hollywood!
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The Master (2012)
1/10
Pointless
31 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I don't even know where to begin. I think it's because this movie really has no sense of direction. It's like waking up in a fog bank: you don't really know where to go.

Yeah, it's a story of the beginning of a cult, so it's not going to make much sense. I get it. But they go beyond that to make it a really bad movie. The big problem is they put the plot focus on the mentally unstable character Freddie Quall, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The problem with Quall is he's not really disturbing (which could be fascinating, see Hannibal Lecter), but just disturbed. You can't make a movie surrounding a character like that! He's not "compelling", he's not "interesting", he's just sad. The writers made a terrible blunder by making this guy TOO disturbed, so disturbed you feel like you're staring at a homeless guy, trying to figure out when he's going to eat his own feces. That makes YOU the creepy one!

This, and other choices by the filmmakers, makes "The Master" a sloppy, unwatchable mess. Besides focusing too much on Quall's lunacy, it skips & jumps around and just when you think it's going to get interesting or deep they skip along to something else. Then it starts this homoerotic undercurrent and then just ... ends.

I wouldn't even call it a good allegory on Scientology or other cults. It is almost worthless in that regard, there's only a few moments that show the malicious intent of groups like this, but then they swoop back to Phoenix acting disturbed again. I suppose I could say Philip Seymour Hoffman does a good job playing cult leader Lancaster Dodd. I wish he was the actual focus of the movie, but for whatever reason, the filmmakers decided not to do that.

Regardless, we spent a good hour afterward complaining about how bad this movie was, and that ended up being the best part of it.
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1/10
God-Awful
31 December 2012
"The Hunger Games" is the amateur film of the simplistic screenplay based on the teenage fanfiction for the highly derivative novel by the marketing major. At least that's what it looks like. It's Awful with a capital "A". I continue to be amazed that insipid, sickly-sweet pablum like this continues to be made with any seriousness.

The whole thing seems like a joke on it's own audience, a twisted experiment by Hollywood to see how bad they can make movies before the audience simply abandons them. Based on this experiment, it seems they can make them pretty damned bad.

Here are some of the plot points in this mess:

-- A world starving so badly the answer is to pit children against each other in battles to the death? -- Rich parents train their kids to fight these battles on purpose? Seems to me rich parents keep their kids OUT of battle :coughIraqcough: -- Computers can create matter out of 3D images? Yet people are starving? Make some, like, you know, FOOD!! -- My Little Pony fashions will become the norm? -- Beard trimming by Mandelbrot? -- Flames that don't burn? -- Magic cake-decorating powers? -- Woody Harrelson not stoned to the bejeezus??

This film is an unwatchable mess. Unless you're stoned, perhaps. That's it, next time it's on the ballot, I'm voting to legalize marijuana. At least then I might not regret watching movies like this.
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Becket (1964)
6/10
Lessons in What Not to Do
31 December 2012
It's hard to write a review of an old, classic movie. Films are crafted in the context of their times. This can be cultural context, political context, technological context, or the context of craft. So it's unfair to write a movie review of a film 50 years old.

Having said that, I think it's still fair to criticize "Becket" on one very important point that applies to all films, regardless of their era. That point is this:

-- It is important to tell the story using elements appropriate to the tone & timbre of the story. --

A corollary would be this:

-- Telling a story using elements not appropriate to the story will distract the viewer from the story. --

And thus we have "Becket".

"Becket" is a tale of political intrigue, set in 12th century England. It involves two very powerful and intense personalities: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English king, Henry II. By extension, it also involves two very powerful and grandiose institutions: the Catholic Church and the English Crown. These are strong elements, indeed, and it would seem entirely appropriate to make this film as they did: as an epic, with extravagant set pieces, wide vistas, and extreme acting. But that's the wrong answer.

The story "Becket" tells is really the story of two friends who grow apart and eventually oppose each other on a philosophical & spiritual level. This is really an intimate character piece (albeit one with elaborate costumes), and not an epic movie! It should be driven by dialog, subtlety, tight camera angles, a soft score, and strong performance; and not by grandeur. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not see this. Their eyes were clouded by other considerations.

This film was made in 1964. What were some of the biggest movies in the early 60s? Big, epic ones. "Spartacus". "Cleopatra". "The Magnificent Seven". "Dr. Zhivago". And, of course, "Lawrence of Arabia", one of the best movies ever created (in my not-so-humble opinion). Unfortunately, the brilliance of "Lawrence" is what actually doomed "Becket". "Lawrence" is a story that demands epicness. It is a vast, sweeping tale of two larger-than-life characters: T. E. Lawrence himself and the vast, desert expanses of the Middle East. It required grandiose sets, spectacular vistas, and a brilliant, over-the-top Peter O'Toole performance. "Becket", on the other hand, is a story that demands subtlety. It's a tragic tale of two friends torn apart by forces larger than they are. It required dialog and subtlety, not bombast and brass. But the filmmakers took the "Lawrence" route with "Becket", and as a result, the former is a masterpiece, and the latter is anachronistic and nearly unwatchable by today's audience.

"Becket" is a story that should be given another go. It's actually a fascinating story. I think it's ripe for a remake, based on the success of other period-piece dramas on TV and in film. Maybe a new filmmaker could create the proper blend of magnificence appropriate to the characters and institutions with the subtlety required by the story.
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6/10
Disappointing
31 December 2012
Going in to the Hobbit, I had certain expectations based on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I expected the film would be beautifully shot, with fantastic art design, intricate sets, detailed costumes, and spectacular scenery. They did not disappoint. The continuity of the art department and cinematographer from those films to this one shows, and it also shows that they still care about what they are doing. I especially love what they did with the dwarven stronghold of Erebor. My only criticism in this area is the make-up on Thorin Oakenshield, especially the facial hair. He does not look like a dwarf. I know it's a starring role and the actor needs to emote through the makeup in order to "sell" it. You couldn't have him buried in extensive hair/bear/mustache pieces (like John Rys-Davies suffered through in LOTR). But Thorin is just not a dwarf in this film. Kili also does not look like a dwarf, but at least he plays the character in an upbeat, youthful fashion so his "5 o'clock shadow" scruff seems appropriate. But Thorin is a dour character, and his look -- which I call "dwarf metrosexual" -- just does not fit. The rest of The Company have great looks, I know they could have come up with something better for Thorin.

I expected this movie to have a great film score. Howard Shore's work on the trilogy was outstanding, and made those films complete. Here, well, there are few new pieces, but most of the score is derivative from prior works. I know it's important for some continuity. The hobbits, in particular, are very set in their ways, so it's highly appropriate to use the same themes for Hobbiton that Shore used in the first trilogy. But they recycled the Ringwraith theme, even though they don't appear in this film, and they used a lot of the same segue music and other cues. There are a few new songs, cues, and themes, but even there, a few fall flat. I remember one specific choral piece simply not fitting with what was happening on the screen. Choral music is used to imbue pathos into a scene, but I don't recall that scene requiring pathos. I just remember the choral music not fitting the mood.

I expected this movie to have a lot of action sequences. This is where Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is actually above LOTR: it has a lot more action sequences. There's a lot here to excite: Smaug's attack on Erebor is brilliantly portrayed, the above-ground warg chases are pretty harrowing, as is the film's climax. But there's an awful lot of goofy crap in it, too. The underground battle with the goblins has some goofy chase sequences that reminded me of a version of Pitfall produced for the NES some 15 years ago. A friend turned to me and said "obligatory video game sequence", so it wasn't just me. The Goblin King and his odd army are brilliant, but the escape scene is just goofy. There's also this encounter with stone giants in the mountains that, although faithful to the book, is so ridiculous it pulls you out of the film. Then there's the Radagast sequence, which is complete "WTF?" I know "The Hobbit" is a kid's book. I know it's not LOTR. I actually like that they had goofy dwarfs and a generally lighter tone than "Lord of the Rings". But some of these action sequences are just so utterly ridiculous they ruin the whole thing.

Finally, I expected the story to be expanded. The writing team said as much throughout the production. I was hoping it would be a good, meaningful expansion (like the Arwen arc in the LOTR films). I was also hoping the expansion would bring depth to the other characters (JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" could not be considered a "character piece"). I found myself not pleased with the results. I found the additional story elements (specifically the White Council/Necromancer backstory) to be irrelevant and uninteresting and not thematically appropriate to the story. "The Hobbit" is a lighthearted adventure, adding in this heavy plot stuff interrupts that flow. I also found the addition of Frodo and "old" Bilbo in the beginning of the story to be unnecessary. Sure, it was cool to do a transition between Ian Holm's Bilbo and Martin Freeman's, but it could have been simpler and to-the-point instead of the exaggeration it became. I know the filmmaker wanted to include his friends from the first production in The Hobbit, and I am a fan, they are all fine actors, but he should have focused on the story at hand instead.

What really bothers me about these additions is they take away time that could have been used to work on the various characters, specifically Thorin and the relationship between and amongst his fellow dwarfs. Adding a bit of interpersonal conflict between the dwarfs would have made it so much more interesting than just adding another storyline. As it is, they are (as yet) undeveloped. We know Thorin is grumpy and determined, we know his dwarfs are goofy and boisterous, we known Bilbo is a fish out of water. Beyond that, there's not much going on with them. Contrast "Fellowship", with it's touching character-driven scenes such as Gandalf & Frodo's talk in Moria; Aragorn & Boromir's encounter in Rivendell; the hobbit bonding experience running from the Black Riders; and all the touching stuff at the end when the Fellowship breaks. These moments don't really exist in "The Hobbit", and that's the biggest shame of this film.

Bottom line: it's entertaining, it's beautiful to look at, but it's overboard on goofiness, camp, and PJ's favors to actors, and not deep enough on character. It's disappointing.
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9/10
An incredibly touching yet difficult film
28 December 2012
Good cinema should take you to uncomfortable places. The Cider House Rules definitely takes you to uncomfortable places: orphanages, abortion clinics, migrant worker camps, war-affected households, and a through a variety of dark personal & familial traumas. But it's so well crafted, so well written, so well acted, & so well directed it's OK. It just shows you the discomfort without preachiness or excessive commentary, and let's you absorb & process on your own. It's a difficult film to get through, but it definitely hits an emotional nerve, like all good movies do.

A very strong film. It had stiff competition for the Oscars in 2000, it definitely deserved the Best Picture nomination if not the award itself.
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Food, Inc. (2008)
8/10
Everything Starts with Food
27 December 2010
Boy, what an important topic for a documentary. Of all the topics that have ever been given the documentary treatment, food is the biggest, most important, most fundamental to our very existence. Kudos to the producers for picking this topic and running with it.

We've gone so far off the rails with the production of food in this country. We've given up local production, we've given up sustainable production, we've given up healthful production, and we've given up nutritious production. In true-blue American fashion, the only thing we care about is economical production. Money is king, whether we save it as consumers or whether we make it as businessmen. And yet we're digging our own graves because of it.

"Food, Inc." does a good job putting all the pieces together: how corn subsidies skew our entire food production towards something fundamentally unhealthy; how corporations and their lawyers are effectively drumming independent farmers out of business; how the mass-produced food lobby (and their enablers, the fast-food industry) manipulate our government to keep this horrendous system in place; and how even such seemingly unrelated concepts as Freedom of Speech, the stability of foreign governments, and the country's immigration problems stem from the food policy choices our government has made.

I see a show like this and I think a) I have to give up eating hamburger; and b) how our nation has become so convoluted and so sour that there seemingly isn't a way out of the horrendous pit we've dug for ourselves.

I advise folks to watch this film.

I do, however, have some criticisms.

First, I stated "Food Inc." does a good job putting the pieces together. However, I'm not sure the average Joe will get it, even after seeing it. I grew up in a farming community and worked on them as a boy, plus I pay attention to public policy and all things environmental, so I entered into it with an understanding of the background. I don't think "Food Inc." will resonate to the average layman. There are too many gaps, too many leaps that have to be filled in by the viewer. Such as "why is corn really that bad for us" and "what happens when everything in the food production stream is fed by the same crop". There's a part early in the film where the filmmakers talk about the spread of e coli that I'm sure won't make sense to most folks. Some of the stuff here is pretty heavy yet only gets a quick treatment that relies on audience knowledge. I understand it's only 1-1/2 hours long, and you can't explain everything, but this film still ends up being an elitist film, and that's a shame.

Second, at the end they proclaim the salvation of organic food, but they don't investigate the high probability that the organic food industry will become just that ... an industry. Another corporate-driven market where profit is king and lying to consumers is standard operating procedure. At the end, they say "Kellog bought this organic cereal company, and Colgate bought this organic toothpaste company", but they brush off the notion that these same conglomerates who enabled the destruction of America's current food industry will also adulterate and destroy the products and values that make organics the solution. Then we'll have an elitist documentary in 20 years pondering the failure of the organic movement.

Of course we might all be dead by complications from obesity by that time ...

I give "Food Inc." an 8 out of 10. Solid overall, but a bit elitist and dishonest with itself at the end.
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Tron (2010)
5/10
Missed Opportunities Make Me Gag -- IN 3-D!!!!!!!!!!!!
17 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
As far as I'm concerned, the time has come where special effects, in and of themselves, are no longer enough to carry a movie. It has actually been that way for quite a while.

Any good film requires a story behind it, a story that interests the audience, endears them to the characters, and involves them in the setting. Tron: Legacy's story, well, doesn't do that. It's not particularly compelling, it lays flat. The hero sort of stumbles into his dad's computer-generated world, they sort-of don't get along, there's a girl who's theoretically important, and the bad guy wants to get to the real world to do ... well, something. Not entirely sure what.

Now honestly, what can you expect from a live-action Disney movie? So few are very good. However ...

OK, look. I've become a stickler for missed opportunities. I'm like that in general with pretty much any topic: politics, economics, technology, and art. In life, there are these moments in time, space, or thought, where something brilliant is THIS way, and something mundane is THAT way. It's that ability to spot those tiny moments where the path diverges from mundanity that sets genius apart from the rest of us. Granted, you still have to take action, but spotting it is the first battle.

So what does this have to do with Tron: Legacy?? To find out, read on, but MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT ahead!

There is a tiny, tiny little plot thread in this film. Almost unnoticeable, almost irrelevant, seemingly nothing more than an excuse to plop a hot, futuristic babe in the film. The writers decided, in what must have been an inspired instant, to include the notion that a special set of programs (ISOs), can be spontaneously created in this world created by Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges). This is truly a remarkable thing, and for about 5 minutes it is treated remarkably by the writers. And then, this truly remarkable event is ... cast away. In weak flashbacks, they show the genocide of the ISOs by the villain. What a way to kill off a great idea! Then we get back to mundane plot (father-loves-son, son-hates-father-until-they-bond, yawn, zzzzzzzzz).

THIS is the big missed opportunity of this film! The writers should have realized "holy cow, what a great idea! And we can have these ISOs have special powers, or they could be unaffected by Flynn's creator-powers, or there could only be a few left who are being hunted down, or they could be the salvation of the Grid-world, or, or, SOMETHING!" Now I will grant you that "saving endangered species" and "fighting for our right to exist" plot line has been done in hundreds of movies, but wrapping a story around a spontaneously-created sentient lifeform living inside a computer would have been INFINITELY more interesting than what the writers roped together to fill out an excuse to make a 3-D extravaganza.

5 out of 10. Decent special effects, a few of shots were spectacular in 3-D, and a good soundtrack. But a weak plot that could have been SO much better, if only someone had grasped that small idea-opportunity and acted on it.
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Zodiac (2007)
9/10
Wow, what a GREAT movie!
30 November 2010
Phew, wow. Just finished watching Zodiac, and I have to say that it FAR exceeded my expectations!

Frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect. "Zodiac" popped up on my Netflix "recommended" list for unknown reasons. I had heard good buzz about the film, although I don't remember it being out. So I said "meh" and rented it.

This film has reminded me of what good, suspense drama is all about. It has literally renewed my faith in the genre.

I don't want to over-analyze the film, because I think that might ruin it, but here's a quick list of what I found appealing about the film:

-- Its pacing and tension is reminiscent of some of the dramatic elements of great 60's/70's crime dramas like Serpico and Bullitt.

-- Yet it tells the story without any great car chases or shoot outs. This is a VERY good thing, for you find yourself absorbed into the story without being shocked out of it by noise.

-- It is even filmed using 70's era lighting techniques. It looks like you're watching a classic, but it was filmed in 2007! This SO suits this film.

-- The characters are gritty and real. No pretty boys or hot vixens. This helps absorb you into the story.

-- The acting is top notch. These folks do what good acting is supposed to do: makes you forget these are actors, even though some of them have big names (one exception: Brian Cox does come on a bit strong as attorney Melvin Belli, but actually, he ROCKS this performance, because it's supposed to be over-the-top). The cast is quite stellar in this.

-- It keeps you guessing all the way through, but it also doesn't lose you in vagaries. The writers aren't TRYING to lose you, they're just telling a complex story and asking you to keep up. Kudos to them.

-- It does not overburden you with heavy detail like some murder mysteries. Instead it portrays the illusion that the CHARACTERS are overburdened with detail. This is a huge plot point and very well played. There are no deus ex machinas here, you can tell the characters earned every bit of their successes (and failures).

-- There is enough creep, gore, and suspense to keep you adequately "wierded out".

I tell ya: I really liked this flick. Makes me have hope for movies again.
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4/10
The-Film-That-Should-Not-Have-Been-Made
30 November 2010
Since we first heard of WBs decision to break the last book of the HP series into two books, we've all been asking "is this required to give full treatment to the Harry Potter universe wrap-up, or is it just a ploy to make the studios more money?" After seeing HP/DH Pt I, I have to say "it's the latter".

I say this because it's a very weak movie.

It is slow. It is ponderous. It is blandly written, blandly acted, muddily filmed, badly directed. It has no heart, no soul, it's just a collected series of vignettes and action sequences strung together by lots of wandering around. This is a phoned-in movie, you can see that the filmmakers have simply stopped caring but do it anyway because they know people will buy it. Or perhaps it's like a parent who has read the same book to their 4-year-old 87 times and has had just about enough of it, but still reads it again.

Purists will probably like this film because it does contain more "canon" than prior films. But this film ALSO explains why you can't film a book beat-for-beat, it ends up bland and lifeless. The screenwriter did not do a good film-to-book translation this time, it seems like he just shoved the manuscript into screenplay software and called it a day. All the various episodes and incidents are simply chained together without much to tie them in. There's very little emotional reason to move this story along from point to point, things just sort of move. This is a lot like JKRs writing itself, she always found some little hunk of trivia to shove the plot along rather than developing a story that grows organically. It should have been the screenwriters job to find the emotional cores of the story, focus on those, and craft a screenplay accordingly. But he didn't. This is like recipe cooking instead of culinary artistry.

The primary actors (the three heroes) didn't help matters much. Either through choices of their own or through poor direction, they woodenly carry on, showing very little emotional range, even during the various argument scenes. And AGAIN they're playing broody, angsty teenagers. OK, OK, we've seen that in the last three movies. Can we move along now, please???? These actors are not pushing themselves and are not being pushed. Again, they're phoning it in, just like everyone else phoned it in. I hope they at least made barrels of cash for the effort.

And where are the rest of this stellar cast? There is some enjoyable stuff from Brendan Gleeson and Imelda Staunton, and Helena Bonham Carter has a far-too-short, intensely creepy scene with Emma Watson, but the rest are absent or nearly so. Alan Rickman only has a cameo, and basically everyone else acts as nothing but window dressing. Even Bonnie Wright, playing Harry's love interest, is given nothing more than a single scene, where in the book she's constantly in his head. Part of the appeal of the HP movies is the richness given by the myriad of characters, but here they're just set pieces. I'm not even a fan of Ralph Fiennes work in this film, he was better in earlier ones. They should have cut back-and-forth between actions elsewhere in the world rather than making us watch the Three Amigos lost in the woods for hours on end.

Then there's the cinematography. Somewhere down the line, someone said "this is a dark film". And that's how it's filmed: dark. Has a perpetual eclipse hit the Hogwarts world? Ugh, it's downright putrid to watch. Guys, "dark" is a DESCRIPTION OF THE FEELING OF THE MOVIE, not a literal description of the visuals. You can have moods and tension and "darkness" in broad, sunny daylight. filmmakers have done this all the time for decades. Watch the ending of "Se7en", filmed on a bright, sunny day in California scrubland, yet is one of the creepiest, nastiest scenes ever captured on film. Dark doesn't mean drab.

What I see in HP/DH Pt. 1 is a full retreat into complacency, pattern, style, and motif that these producers have used for the past two films. They have taken no risks, are making no statements, are doing nothing more than mass-producing HP movies for our consumption. They are phoning it in. The HP franchise has officially become stale and lifeless.

Sadly, they'll make millions making it.
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9/10
Fun, fun movie
15 November 2010
What a great film. I had a lot of fun watching this movie, and the kids in the audience had a lot of fun as well.

The film is endearing, with great dialogue and fun and moving moments. Lots of jokes, both for the kids and for the adults, and lots of action and excitement. Overall, a "must have" in any parents' DVD collections.

The only flaw with this film, the only reason I'm giving this a 9 instead of a 10, is the inconsistency in design. The main dragon character ("Toothless") is so wonderfully drawn, so sleek and mysterious, so emotive and beautiful, but most of the other dragons are goofy, pudgy, misshapen, and ludicrous. I guess it's in-line with the original kid's book on which it's based, but I found it distracting. If all the dragons were as beautifully and carefully designed as Toothless, the look of the film would be infinitely better.

9 out of 10.
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4/10
Old Plot Told in a New Way Doesn't Help
15 November 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I know "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a film, and quite likely the last film, by noted filmmaker Sidney Lumet, and may therefore cause folks to review it highly. I almost fell into that trap myself. I was going to give it 7 out of 10, but now that I sit down to write the actual review, I find a lower score is more appropriate.

This is a film with an old plot told in other feature films. It's about two brothers -- a smart one and a dumb one -- who plan a "victimless" robbery on their own family business. This crime goes wrong, murder and darkness ensues as everything falls apart.

Unfortunately, this film also tends to fall apart. There are some inherent weaknesses that signify lack of effort on the part of the cast and crew.

Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't seem to try to make the cookie-cutter character of the "evil smart brother" interesting. He's too polished, too obviously slimy, too uninteresting to be a good villain. Good villains require something to connect them to the audience, and Hoffman's character fails to do so. A good portion of the blame rests with the script: the character doesn't have any motivation for his ill deeds for half the movie, and even when we see the ill-contrived embezzlement, it seems like a total afterthought. True, his dealings with the heroin spa (run by a creepy Blaine Horton) add to the character, but in the end he comes across as just rotten, and not rotten WITH A PURPOSE. He's just a jerk, and no one likes a jerk. So the primary villain is not particularly interesting, one of the many flaws with the film.

Ethan Hawke is a bit better as the "subjugated dumb brother". He's so good you actually forget you're watching Ethan Hawke. He's more pitiable: he has a miserable ex-wife, a failed connection to his own daughter, and plenty of financial troubles exacerbated by alcohol and bad friends. But some of his facets are thrown on without any real purpose. There is really no reason for his affair with his brother's wife, it's basically a throw-away, even at the end when it's revealed to the evil brother. Then, to add insult to injury, Hawke's character gets no closure at all in the film. He just runs off screen. He was 1/2 (or 1/3) of the film, and he gets no payoff at all. Terrible decision by the director.

Albert Finney plays the dad of the two creeps. Unfortunately, he spends much of the film walking around in an addled daze, and Finney plays it like the character has a form of dementia instead of grief over his wife's murder. There's some goofy stuff where he badgers the cops (we've seen all of that before), and then he becomes detective, only to be sidelined during the exciting climax of the film. (His role during the big shootout? Parallel parking). He later gets some sort of payoff in a ponderous hospital scene, a scene that seems to be added simply because Lumet realized he missed the potentially bigger payoff during the climactic shoot-out.

I guess that's the real summation of this review: Lumet simply adds on elements because there are elements to add on. There's a blackmail plot, some erectile dysfunction, bar scenes that may or may not be relevant, an "old friend" who pops in for a three-minute scene and solves everything, the stupidest car rental company known to man, and some "you always loved the dumb brother more" stuff we've seen thousands of times.

And to make matters worse, Lumet tells the whole story in time-jump format. "Two days before the robbery" moves on to "three weeks after the robbery" and then back to "four days before the robbery". It's almost as if he threw the script into the Memento Blender to stir things up, and it doesn't work AT ALL. There are very few reasons NOT to tell this story linearly, or perhaps with just one break. Having the robbery-turned-bad open the film is a good choice, but there was no real need to skip back and forth over and over and over. It adds very little to the story.

I guess I was originally going to give this film a high mark because it has a stellar cast and a noted director. But now that I've taken time to write this review, there's no way I can give it a good score.
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8/10
Great little mind warp of a movie
20 February 2010
I'm gonna try to write a completely spoiler-free review of "Shutter Island". Movies like this absolutely demand that you do NOT know what's coming next, and I really hope folks don't read spoiler reviews before seeing SI.

Let me start by saying this is NOT a horror movie, contrary to what the trailers suggest. This is Martin Scorcese's take on the Hitchcock suspense thriller, and a thumpin' good one. It follows a lot of Hitchcockian beats: unsettling beginning, that feeling something isn't quite right, with enough action sequences to keep you distracted from what's REALLY going on. Hitch would be a fan of this movie.

Let me also say that Leo DiCaprio does some really good acting here. He plays a U.S. Marshall dispatched to an insane asylum to track an escaped prisoner. He ends up wrapped in the madness himself, trying to separate madness from reality, conspiracy from banality, truth from fiction. DiCaprio is incredibly convincing even when you're not convinced what you're seeing is real.

The supporting cast is quite stellar: Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, and that master-of-the-creep Max von Sydow. There's even a surprisingly gruesome cameo by ... well, that would be spoiling :-). Now sometimes their acting is flat & unconvincing, or is that exactly the effect Scorcese wants?? Hmmmmm.....

I have to throw in some kudos to the location scouts and set designers. Shutter Island itself is wholly part of the cast and crucial to the success of the film. How they managed to find this place ... incredible score on their part! So now for the negatives, the reasons I don't give this a full 10. The script does have a couple of plot holes, but because the theme is "truth or madness", they're mostly forgivable. There's also a definite sense that you've seen this story before (this is not "Memento", a film that was truly unique). And they did struggle a bit at the end (honestly, I don't know if there COULD be a wholly satisfying end for the story). But even this is forgivable, because films like this are DEFINITELY about the journey, not the destination.

8 out of 10.
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7/10
A Mongolian Love Story
18 February 2010
I wanted to see "Mongol" for quite a while. I saw a trailer before the screening of another independent movie some time ago, and had it in my Netflix queue for far too long. It looked intriguing, it looked like another visual & choreographic extravaganza like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Boy was I surprised when I finally found time to sit & watch it.

Mind you, this is indeed an epic film, with wonderful panoramic vistas (shot in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan), incredible period set pieces, and fantastically realistic costumes. It has sword fights and stunt work and horse chases and cavalry charges, and inspiring music to boot. But what is most surprising about "Mongol", a foreign film covering the rise of Temudgin from the son of a murdered chieftain to Ghengis Khan, ruler of almost the entirety of Asia, is it's a LOVE STORY! And a damned good one at that.

Sure, this movie has treachery, and betrayal, and battle, and rage, and valor, and strength, and grit. But at it's heart, it's very core, is a story about a man who found his true love (or, perhaps, she found him) at the tender age of 10 years old (according to Mongol custom), and how they struggled to stay together while separated through trial, struggle, pain and turmoil. This is an incredible tale, really, quite moving at times. The scenes with Temudgin and his children, which may or may not even be his, are especially touching (the kids in this movie do a terrific job).

Now I'm sure they are propping up Temudgin as being more heroic and kind-hearted than he really is. We do the same thing with our cultural or historical icons. I can forgive "Mongol" for that, because it's a good story shot in a wonderful way (definitely need to add points for technical difficulty). This film may or may not be historically accurate, but it's good nonetheless, and worth watching.

The only reason I simply can't give this film more than a 7 is because it does have some distracting flaws in film-making. The story is top-notch, but it does fall apart on many pacing and acting levels. The story slows when it should quicken, and quicken when it should slow. There are times when you can't figure out how much time has passed. A month? A year? 10 years? There are plot points that don't work. Some of the acting is weak (especially from the main antagonist -- it really shows even through the subtitles). And the stunts are mixed. There will be a moment of excellent horsework followed immediately by a cranberry-juice "blood" fest in a battle scene. It's like watching the Battle of Pellenor Fields from Lord of the Rings intercut with a 70's karate flick.

I still think "Mongol" is worth watching, however. Treat yourself to a Kazakhstani flick that doesn't involve some putrescent English comic hack, and watch "Mongol".

7 out of 10
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6/10
A bit poignant, a bit teary ... and a bit disjointed
23 January 2010
First, before I write anything else, let me just say that, as a guy, I'm going to try my best to give a review for a film that really is targeted at women. More specifically, I think this film is targeted at young girls age 12-16, and at women with daughters or who wish they had daughters. I think that good communication, including books, film, music, photography, sculpture, or even Powerpoint presentations to corporate weasels, is built around the target audience. The target audience here isn't the Avatar crowd or the Fast and the Furious crowd or even the Lord of the Rings crowd. This film is targeted at the Thelma and Louise crowd and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants crowd and folks who spend hours making costumes for their daughter's part in the school play. And that's fine, everyone should have a voice at the local cinema.

So here's my best shot at a review for a film out of my particular ... um ... idiom?

The Lovely Bones is a story centered around a young girl who is viciously murdered by a psychopath. However, the movie isn't about that itself, in fact the film mercifully skirts around the harshness of that act. I was very afraid of what the great Monster Director, Peter Jackson, would do with that, and was greatly relieved when the film only eluded to it, but didn't show it outright. Violence against children is an abomination of the worst sort, and if the film reveled in it, I would not only have given the film a "1" but would have flown to New Zealand at great personal expense to kick his ass. As it was, watching a film essentially about pedophiles is creepy. I couldn't help but wonder how many of them were in the audience. Brrrrr, just got a chill there.

Anyway, what the film IS about is how a family recovers from a great tragedy. The point of view is that of the murdered girl herself as she hangs on in purgatory and watches the family ... and the killer ... carry on with their lives. She is caught in a world of allegory and symbolism, images from her life and the lives of others are juxtaposed with those from what her life might have been and what perceptions of heaven she might have. There's a lot of tricky business in there if you pay attention to it, but, like any film heavy on symbolism, The Lovely Bones overdoes it from time to time, occasionally with ridiculous results. This isn't as bad as the horrid "What Dreams May Come" (1998), but still can be trying for those not into that sort of thing.

That part of the film is the visually interesting part. The emotional part of the film revolves around the girl's reaction to her own death and the way she views the lives of her surviving family. She is a 14-year-old girl watching the destruction, reconstruction, and redemption of her family in the wake of a terrible tragedy. There are a lot of poignant and teary moments in this film, either direct or implied. There are also some fine bits of acting by Mark Wahlberg (as the bereaved father).

What's interesting here is the writing: they are trying to write from a 14-year-old viewpoint, which would not necessarily be mature, or broad, or accurate. This is not an insult against 14-year-olds, I've known a lot of intelligent 14-year-old girls, but regardless of intelligence, they do lack the depth and breadth that can only come from living a few years. The writers capture this well, in fact too well, which is why I think this film has received a lot of bad reviews on IMDb and elsewhere. This is the spirit of a kid talking. It may not always make sense. Remember there are plenty of intelligent 14-year-old girls who like the Jonas Brothers or Twilight. The heroine is bright but not omniscient or focused. Remember that when seeing this film.

So now I'm going to explain why I'm only giving this movie a 6. Being a PJ fan, I wanted to give it more, but this film has a lot of problems.

First, the film focuses on the dad (Wahlberg), but gives short-shrift to the mom (the normally outstanding Rachel Weisz). She does have some moments of grief and terror that would be expected, but they really relegated her to a supporting actor role, and that's a shame. This may also be in-line with 14-year-old thinking, in my own observations girls of that age tend to think of their father as their protector, and have less-than-friendly relations with their mother, so maybe it is wholly appropriate for this girl's focus to be on the father. But still, it's discouraging.

Then there's the over-the-top part of the grandmother (played by Susan Sarandon). This character is a caricature seen so often: boozing, smoking, unable to vacuum or do laundry, basically there for supposed comic relief and the big "talking to" moment in the end. I found it out of place, it really doesn't work at all in this film, and great parts of it should have hit the cutting room floor or been rewritten and reshot entirely.

There are also some plot points that don't work, some time syncing stuff that doesn't work (I couldn't figure out whether a week has passed or a year has passed or a month has passed), and there's one glaringly bad special effects moment that spells FAIL (shame on you, Weta Digital!).

All in all, I think The Lovely Bones as a film will end up just like the main character declares at the end, paraphrased as "we all eventually drift away, and life continues without us".
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2/10
I Hated This Movie
23 January 2010
I am writing this after seeing Lovely Bones this week. I thought LB was a good, but flawed, movie, and to make a point, I contrasted it to a horrible film from 1998 called "What Dreams May Come".

I have remembered, 12 years later, how much I hated this movie. I hated it because it's entirely, absolutely, completely, one big symbolic, memetic, allegorical, metaphorical bag of slop. It's preachy and overbearing and selfish. There is nothing to this movie except one filmmaker's bag of "look at how interesting I am" tripe. I relate this film to that vapid clown at a party who spends his whole time quoting things to show off how smart he is, meanwhile people are scurrying away to find something, ANYTHING more interesting to do.

Robin Williams plays a husband who dies to find that his wife, who committed suicide some years ago, is not with him. He then travels like Orpheus to the bowels of hell to find her and redeem her. There's lots of plying through fantastic sets and matte paintings, lots of music, lots of blather from Cuba Gooding Jr. as ... well, you can't really figure out what he's supposed to be until the end when it's revealed to be something completely ludicrous. All the while Our Hero has to figure it all out.

The big problem with symbolism is there is no connection. People -- well, sane people -- don't live in worlds of symbolism. Symbols can be used to represent things, sure, but in the end, we all actually live and experience our emotions, feelings, thoughts, friendships, and loves. If you sit around thinking the love you have for your spouse is a hot-air balloon covered with paintings of carousels or something, then you need mental help. As do the filmmakers of What Dreams May Come.

My version of hell would be sitting through repeated viewings of this movie, perhaps in the form of a Powerpoint presentation narrated by a rhino in drag. The ONLY reason I'm giving this a 2 instead of a 1 is because I do not quite have the bile for this film that I do for Armageddon or The Village, two of the worst movies of all time.

But I tell ya, this one is pretty damned close.
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7/10
Part Seen-It-Before Yawnfest, Part Fascinating Socio-Religious Commentary
15 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I have to admit, I don't have any interest in post-apocalyptic movies anymore. They're all the same. The weakened rabble of humanity scraping through bits of dirt and dust for scraps of food. A lone traveler wandering the blasted countryside, single-handedly fighting thugs, rapists and murderers, inspiring the peasantry as he passes. The traveler carries the special secret that will save humanity, and will collect an assortment of ill-fitting allies who will help him on his way to an unknown destination.

Yawn.

Perhaps in the old days, apocalyptic movies were interesting. When times are good, a post- apocalyptic thriller is tense, thrilling, scary, and exciting. Today, in a world with suicide bombers, religious warriors, right-wing zealots, oppressive governments, and failed economies, I'm kinda looking forward to the apocalypse. Hell, when it comes, I'll grab a lawn chair and a 6-pack and sit on the roof and watch it coming. It's hard to be afraid of an apocalypse when humanity certainly doesn't seem worth saving.

Without fear as an element in a post-apocalyptic film, all that's left is the ridiculous. And "Eli" has plenty of that. You've seen it all before. The lone traveler is an uber-fighter of spectacular prowess, able to defeat masses of scruffy, overweight thugs with barely a scratch. How can people in a post-apocalyptic nightmare be obese anyway? There will be beautifully-coifed women to entice the scruffy traveler. Nice to know salons stay in business after the end of the world. There will be strange old people with a mysterious arsenal of weapons. I had no idea grenades would work after 30 years, and their firing mechanisms would still be so accurate to enable precision throwing at moving vehicle. In all these ways, and more, "Eli" is ridiculous.

But there is something special buried in the middle of "Eli". The hero is escorting the last copy of the Bible to some unknown destination. This sounds incredibly weak. "Oh, the Bible is the only thing that can save us!" Pardon me while I lose my cookies in the lobby. But "Eli" does something unexpected: it actually manages to weave some very interesting socio- religious commentary in there. At times, it is very pro-Christian message, how the Bible can bring hope to the masses. At other times, it points out how religion can be used by the shady to control the ignorant masses. This shift weaves in and out of the screenplay, especially in the second half. It's often obvious and forced, but it's occasionally subtle and sublime. And then something very interesting happens at the end: the Bible, that supposed savior of mankind, is neatly bound and shelved in a museum in a fortress on a island. Is this the final commentary of the filmmakers, that the Bible (like the Torah and the Quran and other religious texts) is, in the end, as useful to helping people in need as a glass-cased artifact in a museum? And that it's up to strong willed people willing to wade back into the sloppy fray and help?

You can read more or less into "Eli" than I did. Some folks, I'm sure, will read it one way, others will read it another. Some won't care about any "message", there are plenty of explosions and fights and ass-kicking for those folks. Others will see this as a pure pro- religion message (I could see busloads of Christians coming to see the film a la "Passion of the Christ"). Others will revel in the film's anti-religious message, seeing it as a tool for control and the destined cause of the earth's destruction. I guess that's an endearing part of "Eli", you can probably make your interpretations, or even none at all.

Giving it a 7 out of 10. It would be a 5 if it weren't for these interesting socio-religious facets of the script.
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Avatar (2009)
8/10
Pre-Teen Disney Plot Wrapped in Spectacular CGI Animation
9 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
So this is what all the year-log hype has been about. This is Avatar. This is the Next Big Leap in film-making. Like Star Wars, and The Abyss, and Jurassic Park, and The Matrix, this is the next generation of special effects and science fiction.

I have to be honest: it is a wonderful cinematic experience. The visuals are spectacular, the animation is nearly flawless. This is a movie almost entirely composed of CGI animation. This is indeed a great leap forward in technology, and (being a big fan of animation), I was in awe of the technical achievement. By itself, it's almost enough to carry the film.

I say "almost" because, unfortunately, the film lacks so many fundamentals that have been around since the time of William Shakespeare, fundamentals that, if applied, could have made Avatar a masterpiece instead of a pre-teen Disney flick with stunning visuals.

I'm talking primarily about plot, story, and connection. This is a weak plot, told so many times before you can guess every beat before it happens. You've got a primitive, happy, nature-connected tribe; you've got evil corporations intent on despoilment for profit; you've got their military dogs led by a grizzled Marine vet with anger management issues; you've got scientist-pacifists as their unknown collaborators. Then there's the epic, underdog struggle against a stronger foe solved by a singular plot twist and/or deus ex machina; and the happy tearful ending.

I think what happened is James Cameron had this big CGI vision for this film, but he couldn't invest time or effort on a unique story. Perhaps this is just the way it had to be to make this great technical leap: grab together a simple story told a hundred times before, and use all your effort and energy in design and animation. Perhaps, in the future, we'll see an Oscar-worthy original screenplay told in a CGI universe. Avatar certainly isn't it.

I will spike out the soundtrack specifically in this review. It is AWFUL!! You know what this soundtrack is? It's a conglomeration of music used in Lion King, Pocahantas, and other Disney films. There isn't anything interesting or unique about it, and that's a terrible tragedy. Here we have a new visual experience, and to not couple it with an original, creative, special soundtrack is a damned shame.

I'm still giving it an 8, because it is so stunning it's enjoyable. And I always "mark up" according to level of difficulty.
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Invictus (2009)
5/10
Sadly disappointing
3 January 2010
I'm very sorry to say it, especially because this film was created by talented folks such as Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, but "Invictus" is terribly disappointing.

Nelson Mandela is a tremendously important figure in 20th Century history. His inspiring story affects not just South Africans but all of us. He deserves a film of the same emotional caliber as "Ghandi" was for Mahatma and "Kundun" was for the Dalai Lama. But "Invictus" falls flat and fails to live up to that standard. This is an incredible shame, too, for if IMDb Trivia is to be believed, Mandela himself believed that the world cup rugby story sums up his history, charisma, and leadership quite nicely and would make for a good film.

There are multiple problems with this film. First and foremost is the pacing. This movie is so dull, so lifeless, it clumsily plods along from one meeting to another with barely an emotional center at all. The script and the direction are the culprits here: too much idle chit chat. The biggest problem is the focus on the security detail. Fully 1/3 of the film is devoted to these chaps for no reason! There's little payoff for all that time investment. They should have been relegated to the sidelines, providing their one redeeming quality in this film: much-needed comic relief.

Next is Matt Damon. Now I am far from a Matt Damon basher, I think he's a fine actor and never find him to be an ego distraction like so many other stars. But he adds very little to this story, his character could also have been sidelined. It seems like the producers wanted star power to get this project off the ground so they fished around for a big-name white star to give the film some cred and hopefully an audience.

Then there's rugby itself. This has to be one of the worst sports movies ever made in terms of not engendering interest in the sport itself. I think "MIghty Ducks" did more to promote hockey than "Invictus" did to promote rugby. A sports movie should engage and excite the viewer. This one simply showed the stereotype that rugby is a brutal, pointless sport. I doubt there will be many kids lining up to learn rugby as a result of this film.

Most aggravating is something the film LACKS. One of the most inspiring things to ever come out of Africa is the music. Where are the great African rhythms? This soundtrack, and the use of music throughout the film, is terrible. There's even this full-blown American pop number in the middle of it. None of the great, traditional, powerful, inspirational African music is in this film at all, and that really bothers me.

This is a crying shame. Nelson Mandela's story needs to be told. "Invictus" fails to tell it well.
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In Bruges (2008)
8/10
Very Good Second Work for McDonagh
24 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"In Bruges" is writer/director Martin McDonagh's second film (the first being 2004's "Six Shooter"). I never saw the latter, but I saw the former last night, and it is a very good, very entertaining movie. McDonagh still has something to learn about writing, but he's nearly there, and I think I should have to keep an eye on IMDb for further works by this guy.

"In Bruges" is a great collection of well-crafted sequences. First is the opening exposition on Bruges itself, a doddering old medieval town which Irish felon Ray (well played by Colin Farrell) despises outright. His entire commentary on frumpy tourist towns early in the film is hysterical and quite accurate (I've been to a lot of frumpy tourist towns and thought most of what Ray says more than once).

The film continues on with other hysterical scenes, like Ray's encounter with obese Americans (this film is quite hard on America, actually, but I didn't mind one bit). There's also a botched robbery, where typical tourist-town criminals try to roll Ray for cash, and get far more than they bargained for.

The film then moves on to introspective moments. Here is where Farrell's co-star, Brendan Gleeson, comes to the fore. He plays a quiet career criminal with a conscience, concerned for the future of Ray's very soul. I can't go into detail without announcing spoilers, but these scenes are good, too.

Then there's a great closing sequence where the astoundingly profane crime boss, fantastically played by Ralph Fiennes, catches up to the two hit men for a big showdown in the doddery village.

There are so many great moments and characters in this film, I couldn't really type them all up. But here's a quick list: a one-eyed thief; a racist dwarf; a goofy European movie set; a tourist trap ticket-taker who takes his job waaay too seriously; a beautiful local drug dealer; horse tranquilizers; a vulgar phone message; and a pair of smoke-phobic Canadians.

My one and only problem with this film is the overall writing. As I said, there are a lot of great sequences in this film, and a lot of great dialogue. However, there's something not quite right with the structure of the piece. It has been said that the two toughest parts about writing a story are the beginning and the end. McDonagh seems to have trouble with beginnings, this film is quite fragmented up front and takes a while to build up steam. I found this quite distracting. He also doesn't really segue well. Sometimes you're wondering "why did we move to this scene?", although once you do get there, you love what you're seeing.

I think McDonagh is well on his way, though, for these flaws are something that can be overcome given adequate effort and experience. Overall, I liked "In Bruges", and recommend it for those who like goofy criminal capers with a heart.
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Pi (1998)
9/10
Can you make a good thriller out of mathematics? You bet!
24 February 2008
What an amazing piece of film-making, all on a shoestring budget! And from such odd beginnings, too. The idea that you could make an exciting, tense, and thought-provoking film based around mathematical computations is absurd. But this is exactly what the filmmakers created with "Pi".

Although the math clearly takes a focal point in the story, it's really just a vehicle for investigating what happens when a man gone mad. Paranoia, obsession, aggravation, grief, with tiny bits of joy (as shown by his interactions with a little girl): all parts of a man descending into insanity. So brilliantly crafted by the writer, so brilliantly portrayed by the actor, it's this descent that makes "Pi" so fascinating.

This is a film that uses symbolism to the Nth degree. This is the closest thing an American has ever gotten to an Ingmar Bergman film. You've got science, and religion, and philosophy, and the origins of universe, and the essence of thought, and the stuff of life. The film is just chock-full of suggestions on all of these things.

In the end, we aren't entirely sure what happened to to the main character. Did he suffer a debilitating attack, thereby losing his genius? Or was he cured of his affliction, of which genius was only a symptom? In the end, there is a question on an old adage. If there is a fine line between genius and insanity, is the corollary that there is a wide split between genius and happiness? This film surely suggests that.

Overall, a deep, thoughtful piece. Shot on a shoestring, so don't expect much in terms of film quality. But it's a fine work nonetheless.
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1/10
Garbage. Vile, Sadistic Garbage.
15 February 2008
I didn't think it was possible. I didn't think it was in the least bit possible to make a film that I would forever despise more than that film dreck known as "Armageddon". But somehow, Hollywood manage to produce a filth of a movie called "There Will Be Blood." My title says it all: I consider "Blood" to be vile, sadistic garbage.

I can find practically no redeeming qualities about this film at all. The plot, centering around a success-driven early-20th century oil man (Daniel Day-Lewis), is only vaguely interesting. The first half is just a series of the same, tired "independent businessman tries to make deals" storyline that we've not only seen dozens of times, but is patently boring. I nearly fell asleep during most of it. Then it turns into "independent businessman becomes malicious psychopath" that is so utterly repulsive, I just wanted the ruddy thing to end. I don't think I've looked at my watch more times during any film, ever, just praying for the closing credits! The only thing that kept me seated in the theater was inertia …

The pacing is terrible. This is a film that could use a good 45-minute edit. There's no need to have this movie two and a half hours long, it says all it can possibly say (which isn't very much) in a lot less than that. But it just gurgles along like oil seeping out of the ground: slimy, filthy, and repulsive.

The characters were practically devoid of any interest whatsoever. I can't remember any that had any redeeming qualities. Day-Lewis' character was vaguely pitiable for a while, but then becomes just a sordid pile of hate and intensely unlikable. The son is mildly interesting, more so after a tragedy takes his hearing, but then is cast aside and so mishandled by the writers he almost becomes a write-off. Then there's a preacher, such an insane caricature (even by anti-religious Hollywood standards) he's instantly unbelievable and just ridiculous. I found nothing "fascinating" about any of these people, nor of the actors who portrayed them.

This isn't a case of "I can't tolerate evil characters". I just can't tolerate evil characters who are simply caricatures of evil characters! They aren't Gordon Gecko or Alex from "Clockwork Orange" or the cast of "Pulp Fiction". These are one-trick characters, whose only trick is repulsiveness, something they (admittedly and unashamedly) excel at.

And the music! I don't think I've heard a ghastlier soundtrack on a major motion picture in my entire life. Whomever did the score doesn't understand anything about cues or setting mood or anything that goes into making a good film score. It's a cacophony of ill-timed, poorly mixed, angry themes. This score suits this film like iron nails on a chalkboard suits a memorial service.

About the only redeeming feature of this film are the period set design and costume pieces. There's also a terrific sequence involving an oil derrick fire. It does give the sense of the time period. But this is such a small part of the film, it's not enough to redeem it.

Looking back on this entire, miserable experience that is "There Will Be Blood", I can only say, with all seriousness, that everyone associated with this terrible motion picture, including those who rave about how terrific it is, needs to take a serious look at their own lives. If anyone I knew actually said "this is a good movie", I would instantly recommend counseling for what must obviously be severe depression. I could not even fathom reducing myself to a state so wretched that "There Will Be Blood" would be considered, by me, to be a creative endeavor! This film is a cry for serious, serious help.

I think the members of the Academy have gone completely nutters if they consider any part of "There Will Be Blood" is even vaguely worthy of an Oscar nomination. I consider it pure garbage.
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