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Downsizing (2017)
Finally, a Realistic Love Story
8 April 2018
The performances in Downsizing are a joy to watch, and I certainly found the premise of Downsizing interesting, (even if it didn't go in the most interesting direction toward the end). But what was most refreshing about Downsizing was that it's a love story between 2 people (who may or may not end up together) based almost solely in the fact that they deeply admire one another. They're not simply drawn to each other because each finds the other irresistibly sexy and can't keep their hands off one other. We've seen that a million times. These are 2 people who come to have a deep mutual respect for one another by the end. It's a message that we could use a lot more of in today's stories, and might actually inspire healthier relationships between people, instead of the old, boring, "I know he/she is bad for me, but I see the beauty inside, and I just can't quite them" nonsense. But it also leaves you thinking about what is important in life; your connection to other people and the amount of good you can do in the world, or simply a person's obsession with being "important."
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Fences (2016)
Excellent Adaptation!
11 January 2017
Superb film. Across the board, the writing, acting, and directing are top notch in Fences. Of course, it's hard to go wrong when it's based on an August Wilson play--he was among our finest American playwrights-- but it could've been slow and lumbering in the wrong hands. Washington does an excellent job of directing the piece and keeping the story moving. It is often said that film is about visuals and the the theater is about ideas, and there's certainly a number of issues explored here.

The play takes place in 1957 Pittsburgh. Washington plays a larger than life character who is former Negro league baseball star, who never made it to the big leagues, in large part due to racial prejudice of the day. 30 years later, he now works for the Pittsburgh Dept of Sanitation. He has strong opinions on, well, just about everything, but mostly on what a man's duty to his family is, the importance of a strong work ethic and a marketable skill, and how racial oppression damages the soul.

There's a raw, untamed quality to Denzel's character, and though he laughs and jokes and flirts with his wife, you can always see that the rage of not having fulfilled his potential is always simmering underneath the surface. Viola Davis is amazing playing opposite him, as a woman who's whole identity seems to the success of her family and subordinating her own needs to those of her husband.

What happens when a dream is deferred? How do you deal with that disappointment and anger? How does it affect those around you. These are all themes covered in the film. A powerful story that stays with you. For me, if a film can both entertain me and make me think, that's about as good as it gets.
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Really Well-Made Film. Not for the Fast n' Furious Crowd
17 September 2015
Once again, Chandor gives us a well-written, well-acted, beautifully photographed film, on a relatively small budget, that winds up being incredibly watchable. I would say he's done this with all 3 of his films. None of them were action-packed film, but that all had a truth and reality to them, that really pulled me in.

I've read some reviews on here that complain that the film was too slow for them or that it was "boring." Look, despite it's title (which may have mislead a lot of viewers going in), this film is not for the Fast and Furious or Transformers crowd. It's not even for people who loved the blood-soaked Scarface.

It portrays violence and the fear of running a business in NYC in the early 80s, in a very real way. And it captures the early 80s look flawlessly.

This film may, however, be be for people who loved films like The Godfather or DePalma's Dressed to Kill. Not only does Oscar Issac seem to channel bits of Michael Corleone, but the film is lit and photographed in a very similar manner to the way that Gordon Willis shot The Godfather. Also, for those who think there was a ton of action and killing in the Godfather, outside of the final few minutes, there really isn't. Though very different films, what pulls you into the Godfather and Dressed to Kill is similar to what pulls you in here. Tension, honesty, a simple story, well told. No BS. No shooting up a whole town, with dead bodies falling everywhere, and then cutting to the next scene at dinner.

In real life, violence is frightening, finding a gun is frightening, shooting a gun at someone is frightening, having your life savings at stake, and the fear of losing everything you've worked for is frightening. Chandor pulls this all together to build tension, and it results in a very satisfying film.
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Honest, Affecting Movie...That Seems Half Done
14 February 2015
I was really looking forward to this film, as I have always deeply admired the work of both of these lead actors, as well as Ms Tomei, and I had heard positive reviews. Also, I tend to like movies that use NYC as its backdrop.

On the plus side, it's a very, honest, affecting, slice of life story, about two men who love each other dearly, and have been together 39 years. They are forced to separate, temporarily, when one of them loses their job, and they wind up losing their home.

And yet, there was so much about this film that simply felt incomplete. It was as if the screenwriter and filmmaker knew the basic premise of his story, and then...simply didn't know where to take it, or what to emphasize. A few things happen, but none of them are really followed up on. Overall, the story never really takes off.

And the ending, to me, just felt incredibly forced, and a bit dishonest. And really, a bit baffling, due to an apparent connection between the boy and his uncle that we're supposed to accept, but never seemed to have existed. I can't give away any spoilers, but the last 5 minutes of the film felt as if it belonged to another movie entirely.

But in the end, the film is worth watching for Molina, Lithgow, and Tomei, and the wonderfully naturalistic performances they give.
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Ida (2013)
Could Have Been Interesting
22 January 2015
A lot of people loved this film, and I think that's fantastic. I think it's great that people were able to find something in this film that they connected with. Unfortunately, I was not one of them.

The good: The film is beautifully photographed in black and white. The landscapes, the composition, all excellent. It was almost worth watching the film for that alone. Almost.

The not-so-good: It's elliptical filmmaking at its most frustrating. The plot (and dialogue) are minimal, most of which is known within the first 15 minutes of the film. That's fine. No problem there. However, there's got to be something else for the viewer to latch onto.

The story, which moves at a glacial pace, centers on a young woman in a Catholic convent who is having doubts about taking her full vows, and is encouraged to connect with her only living relative before she makes the full commitment. She leaves the convent, connects with her aunt, finds out her background is different than she thought, and the two go on a journey to find out where her parents are.

The film focuses on these 2 women. One is a joyless, depressed middle-aged alcoholic judge with the embittered personality and poor judgement that often accompanies someone who has suffered incredible loss in their life. The other is a young nun-in-training who has had almost no contact with the real world. Therefore, she wanders through most of the film with an almost robotic blank stare on her face. She has been incredibly sheltered in the convent, and therefore adheres closely to the values she's been taught. Now, I'm not in any way criticizing either actress, both of whom gave very honest performances, but let's say that watching these two characters for 90 minutes, was not exactly something that glued me to the screen.

It is a Holocaust story, which are still very important to tell, and yet, unfortunately, I didn't find that it had anything new to add to the long list of heartbreaking Holocaust stories we've seen on film for decades.

But others felt differently, and I'm glad they got something out of it.
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Outstanding Film. Not for the Transformers Crowd.
10 January 2015
Outstanding film. I thought Birdman was a complete breath of fresh air, and not what I was expecting at a good way.

I will say this: If you saw the trailer, and are somehow expecting this film to be a version of Transformers, it won't be.

But if you're looking for a film with some of the best writing of the year, amazing camera work that totally absorbs you (20-minute non- stop takes following the actors through the scenes), a film with an almost perfect blend of humor and drama, and one in which, within 5 minutes of it's opening, proves itself so charmingly odd and unpredictable, that you're not quite sure what will happen next...than this film may be for you.

Birdman skewers everything that's wrong with celebrity culture and Hollywood, while in many ways, embracing what can be great about it.

Michael Keaton (who has been off the Hollywood radar for quite some time) is perfectly cast as a former movie star, who is well known for the "Birdman" movie franchise that was a series of hugely popular comic books films 25 years earlier. (Not all that dissimilar from the Batman franchise the real-life Keaton starred in 25 years ago).

Keaton's character, Riggan, is trying to resurrect his career, but as a serious actor, by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Pulling of this feat, will have numerous barriers, including him taking on a difficult role that many may not accept him in, a co-star lover, and, most hilariously, a narcissistic, unpredictable co-star (played Ed Norton), that seems to be trying to sabotage the production at every turn, if it means staying true to himself.

Riggan is an actor who is desperate not to be forgotten. He needs to feel important again. His character taps into the self-loathing attitude and the need to believe that he is special, that we all feel, all while he is haunted by the voice of his alter-ego, the Birdman, who taunts him that he is a fraud who is making a huge mistake.

Is Birdman light on plot? To an extent. Although I would say the plot revolves around an aging Hollywood movie star trying to pull off a hugely expensive Broadway show, without losing millions of dollars of investors money, all to see if he can salvage his career, and hence his reason for living.

But even if some do feel it's light on plot, who cares? It's a completely engrossing film that follows interesting characters, played by actors who are compelling to watch. That's about you can ask for in a film.
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Scorcese Still Showing His Master Filmmaking Powers
28 May 2014
Wolf of Wall St. is a fascinating film by a master filmmaker, bringing 40 years of skill to the table; from casting, to shot selection, to how he pulls you into that world. And a guy who just plain having fun. The 3-hour film, traces the rise and fall of Wall St con man Jordan Belfort. A tightly constructed film, I wasn't bored for a minute.

There were some people who kicked up a fuss about the film and its glorification of these slimy characters, their materialistic lifestyle, and their treatment of women as nothing but sex objects. Some have said that the film glorifies that lifestyle, but to me, Winter (screenwriter) and Scorcese went out of their way to show the reality of it. The film focuses on how animalistic and primal people can become when greed takes them over. The obsession with money and power becomes a pathology. This, of course, is what many Wall St people will loathe about the film.

As for accuracy, I'm sure Jordan Belfort (who the film is based on and worked as a consultant on the film), embellished a few things, but according to one of the FBI agents who worked on the case, many of the more outrageous aspects depicted in the book and film were accurate.

The sad part is that even though there will will many Wall St workers and finance people who will watch the film and think, "That's a bunch of crap. They're painting with a broad brush. It's not fair," there will be far too many young (and not-so-young) Wall St up-and-comers who will ignore the whole last hour of Wolf of Wall St., and simply look at the first 2 hours as an inspirational tale of the American dream.
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Flight (I) (2012)
Sharp Performances Dulled By a Script That Slips Into the Absurd
26 May 2014
The first 20 minutes of Flight are fantastic and riveting. Denzel Washington gives an amazing performance of an alcoholic airline pilot with incomparable flying skills, who gets caught in a sticky situation. The rest of the cast, including Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood, are rock solid.

Unfortunately, after the first half hour or so, it begins sliding into a color-by-numbers, overly formulaic script that contains more coincidences, improbabilities, and absurd events than any script should be expected to withstand. Then adds quite a bit of schmaltz on top of it.

I won't give away any details, but will only say that those improbabilities grow so extreme that by the last 20 minutes of the film, it's absolutely groan worthy. And it's a shame, because Mr. Washington gives such a strong performance, and Mr. Zemeckis is a top-notch director. However, it seems that no matter how much the screenwriter or director wanted to do an edgy movie, they both find a way of cleaning it up and sanding down any rough corners.
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42 (2013)
Competent Storytelling, But Safe, Cliché, and Predictable
26 May 2014
I suppose this film would be somewhat interesting to view for anyone who is completely unaware of the Jackie Robinson story. Aside from maybe 1 or 2 scenes, this safe and predictable film could easily be shown to grade-school kids.

Antiseptic and color-by-numbers, in just about every way (again, except for 1 or 2 scenes). The writing is sometimes groan-worthy, and no cliché is left unturned, including slow-motion running of the bases after home runs and a saccharine, syrupy-sweet shots of Mr. Robinson and his wife. Every scene is played and shot almost exactly how you would expect (but hoped not), and most of it seems to take place on a carefully constructed movie set. Basically it's pretty much a Disney version of The Jackie Robinson story. But it gets the story across.

Mr. Helgeland Oscar-Award winning screenwriter and obviously very talented, but screen writing and directing are different skills. I must admit that I kept wondering what a more skilled and inventive director like Spike Lee would've done with a story like this.
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Don Jon (2013)
Would Have Worked Better As A 30-minute Film
19 February 2014
Don Jon is not a terrible film, it's just not a particularly good one. Similar to an SNL sketch that goes on too long, the story and the characters are far too thin and uninteresting to warrant a 90-minute treatment.

Joseph Gordon Levitt (who wrote and directed) does a fine acting job and gives a solid impersonation of a shallow, ignorant, aggressive, sex-obsessed, porn-addicted 20-something Jersey boy. But he is sorely miscast. Anyone having spent any time with real-life Jersey boys of this type (or even watched them on TV), will have a very hard time accepting the cuddly and slight JGL in this role.

Straining credibility even further, we're forced to accept that JGL's slick character can pull any gorgeous girl from the local dance club, in minutes, and bring her home for sex (this apparently happens every weekend.) But real sex is not nearly as fulfilling to him as watching porn. He can't "lose himself." The premise of the film (and where it will go) is recognized about 15 minutes into the story, but there is nothing deep or interesting enough about any of the characters or plot to merit us wanting to invest in the journey any further.

Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore also give great performances, but again, they can't overcome the script's lack of depth.

In terms of tone and style, it's a bit like watching a well-done, if very unfocused, student film. It's not quite funny enough to work as a pure comedy, and not nearly weighty enough to work as a drama. Visually, it's not particularly attractive or consistent. Unmotivated camera movements occur during the few scenes that actually warrant it being still, giving us no help in connecting to the characters in those moments.

I respect JGL greatly for getting this film done, an it will be interesting to see how he develops, but for now, he is clearly a much more talented actor than a writer or director.

My advice. If you want to see a great film about a young, ignorant Italian-American's journey to evolve into a more substantive human being, put Saturday Night Fever in your queue. Not only is a great film, based on a superb script, shot during one of the best eras of American filmmaking, but you'll get to see some amazing dance sequences.
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50/50 (2011)
A Solid Final 20 Minutes, if You Can Get Through The First Hour and 20
24 May 2012
I feel a bit guilty being a dissenting voice on 50/50, as it tackles such a serious subject matter, and a has a very likable lead character. But in the end, there just wasn't much substance to this piece, until the final few minutes, for me to really invest in it.

Most of the material in the script is dealt with the slack, off-handed "Dude, remember the time you got cancer? Yeah, sucked, huh?" type of way.

The film works so hard to not be serious or over-dramatic, that it winds up with almost no drama at all. When a serious moment does arise for the character, a pop tune is inserted into the soundtrack, to make sure we as the audience don't have to sit with the pain and confusion that the character is feeling. We can simply zone out for a bit, while we sway to the music.

Now, I certainly wasn't expecting "Terms of Endearment", or a super-serious drama, but I also wasn't expecting the topic to be handled in such an incredibly frivolous, predictable, and frankly, sometimes boring manner.

The film doesn't quite work as a drama, and even though there is a few genuinely funny moments, they are certainly not enough to sustain it as a comedy. The plot itself is fairly cliché and predictable. You'd have to have never watched a film before not to know just about every development that will come to pass; other than the eventual health outcome of the Levitt's character. But frankly, even that was tipped off to anyone who saw the weeks of promotion in the run-up to the film where Seth Rogan speaks about the film being based on a true story.

What basically saves the film in the end is Joseph Gordon Levitt's likability factor, and a very strong performance by his mother, Angelica Houston, who unfortunately, didn't get more screen time. Had the film focused on that, it may have been stronger. Seth Rogan's character seems only to serve as a device for comic relief, to make sure we don't get too down.

The last part of the film ends strong and hits all the emotional buttons (it would've made a great short), but the majority of the film is basically another arrested development story, with Rogan's character acting like the affable, 12-year old boy, providing his fair share of penis and weed jokes, that we've grown to love...or at least tolerate. This was surprising, after I'd heard so much talk about how different this character was from all his others.

I'm sure it was very difficult, especially in today's filmmaking environment, to get a film about cancer made. This is likely why the director and writers tried to lighten it up whenever possible. But one can only dilute a potent cocktail so much before it simply gets too watered down to drink.

Unfortunately, I will likely remember very little about this film, except for the end, which was handled quite well. For me, it just wasn't enough to make up for the insignificance of the first hour and twenty minutes.
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Keep the Puppets, Lose the Kid
14 May 2012
I am not familiar with the book, but the film was somewhat of a disappointment. It meanders along, with no real plot and nothing to really pull the viewer in.

But the biggest problem is that the little boy who is at the center of the story is so unbearably obnoxious that the film simply becomes unwatchable. By the end, it appears that the main point we're supposed to walk away with is that the little boy is "out of control" because he's scared and wants to know that "everything will be alright." Well, a lot of kids are scared, but few of them are as grating as this little brat.

But if the the main point was to show the reason for the boy's behavior, there were conceivably more interesting ways to get to go about it. But again, the little boy is so repellent that in the first section of the film, when he falls out of his sailboat and it looks like the sea might swallow him up...I found myself rooting for the ocean.
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Moneyball (2011)
Film Hits All the Bases
2 April 2012
Well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. Sometimes there's not much more that needs to be said. Moneyball is an authentic film, and Zaillian, Sorkin, and Miller don't allow the false notes to creep into the film. With a runtime of just over 2 hours, it flies by.

Based on a true events, Pitt plays Billy Beane, the baseball general manager of the small- market Oakland A's who, back in 2002, realized that if his team was to have any chance of competing against big-market teams like the New York Yankees (with a payroll 3-4 times larger) he would have to change the way a baseball team is traditionally assembled.

Beane discovers a young, stat-obsessed scout-in-training (Jonah Hill) that believes the best way to gain wins with little money, is to carefully assemble a team with the type of players who do one thing well, and are overlooked or undervalued by other teams.

Throughout, Beane must deal with the resistance and skepticism of the team's owner, manager, players, press core, and fans who do not believe that non-stars or players past their prime, can outperform a team of more traditionally attractive players.

Beane also struggles to maintain a close relationship with his young daughter, whom he only has partial custody of, while his job appears to be in constant jeopardy.

Moneyball isn't a traditional "rah-rah, the little team that could" type of story (thankfully, as that is a storyline that's been played to death over the past 20 years in film). Rather, it is a film showing the struggle and failures of one man and his insistence in fighting an entrenched mindset of people who think a the the methods and rules of a 100+ year game cannot be changed.

The crazy ideas of today, often become the acknowledged wisdom of tomorrow.
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Beginners (2010)
Scattered and Unfocused film with Quality Performance
19 February 2012
Beginners struck me as a very well-acted film with a great performance by Christopher Plummer, but just far to unfocused and scattered to really invest in for very long.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 30- (or 40-) something dealing with the recent death of his both of his parents. The film then starts jumping around in time, switching between his boyhood memories of his eccentric mother (though not quite eccentric enough to make you look forward to the next time she appears on screen); his adult memories of his father (Christopher Plummer), a few years before his death; and his current struggles in trying to build a relationship with a beautiful French actress that he (improbably) meets at a party.

Yes, this film adds to the long list of films that includes the somewhat absurd scene (that we keep seeing more of these days), of a gorgeous, successful young woman who basically throws herself at the quiet, sad, ordinary- looking man at the party because, apparently, no one else will pay attention to her. Though I've never seen or heard of this in real life, I'm open to be invited to one of those parties.

But the main problem I found with the film was twofold. First, the Oliver is an incredibly passive character, and we must rely on him to lead us through his memories. Second, the audience here is being asked to engage in 3 different story lines in these 90 minutes, which would be difficult enough, but with the ADHD style in which it was edited, it's difficult to engage in any one of them, or really care what the outcome is.

I didn't find myself caring a bit about Oliver and his new French girlfriend, because I was never given much reason to. Was the relationship there to show how quickly passion can fade, or how dysfunctional people are attracted to each other, or how it's difficult to attach to someone until you feel free enough to be who you really are, or how the more things change, the more they stay the same? I was never quite sure.

But the biggest problem is that the film comes off as a memoir/nostalgia piece; which is fine if you can find a way to take incredibly personal experiences and bring your audience with you on that trip down memory lane. However, at some point, you have to give the audience a key in to those memories, in order for them to engage in the outcome, and I simply couldn't find it here.

There is conceivably 3 interesting movies in this piece, that, if they'd been explored separately, could've worked. But together it just seems like a 100-minute therapy session led by a very passive character.

In the end, all I was left with was the realization that Oliver can't really have a successful relationship with a woman because he had a confusing upbringing. This is a common yet heartbreaking realization of life, but not sure it was told in a way that was worthy of big-screen treatment.
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Pretty to look at....for awhile
4 September 2011
The Brothers Bloom is a well-made film, that shows that this director certainly has a lot of talent, but like his first film, Brick, this film is all a great big (quirky) exercise in style over substance.

Everything stays on the surface. The plot is so complicated and muddled that after awhile, you simply stop caring. None of the steps in the cons are ever explained, or even hinted at, beforehand, none are particularly clear while they're being pulled off, and certainly none are touched upon after they've been completed. I was given so little chance to invest in the movie emotionally, that by the end, I felt nothing. Sometimes a film can try and do too much, without landing any one thing with enough punch to have an affect.

This film is like the lovely young model, who is pleasing to look at for awhile, until you realize there's not much depth beneath the surface.

For a great con-man film, done by a master filmmaker, check out Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men.
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Gorgeous Film
18 August 2011
As usual, Malick delivers another gorgeous film. It may start off quite slow, but before you know it, you're drawn into the world he has created.

However, just like going into a David Lynch film and realizing you're going to get a fair dose of ambiguity, one must also know what they're in for when watching a Terrance Malick film.

His films (which should always be seen on the big screen, if possible), are more of an "experience" than anything else. They're intensely honest, and almost entirely behavior driven, with very little dialogue. As for plot, well I defy anyone to come up with a halfway decent plot synopsis for this film. And nor should they. It's one of those films where all one really needs to say is, "well, you sort of have to see it."

Nothing is explicitly spelled out for the audience member in this film, but unlike some filmmakers, I never got the feeling that he was being needlessly, and pretentiously, obtuse.

Malick is one of the few filmmakers (the very few), who can get away with minimal plot because his images, characters, and music choices are so incredibly powerful; he puts you in a place that is very specific. When I left the movie theater, I felt as if I had just exited a time machine where I'd literally spent a couple of hours living with these characters in the 1950s American South. Everything's authentic, and nothing is forced.

Does the film require some patience? Yes. Is everything explained? No. Is it a film that you would go back to watch again and again? Probably not. But it is one of those films that if you just it wash over you, it'll likely be an experience you won't soon forget.
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Another Year (2010)
Mike Leigh Does it Again
30 July 2011
Once again, Mike Leigh gives us a film with such amazingly honest characters, played by fascinating actors, that you almost forget you're watching a film.

Manville is amazing, and the vulnerability and humanity she expresses in each frame she's in, almost becomes difficult to watch.

No doubt about it, this is a slow moving film, with not much plot, but unlike many of the plot less, Indie, "Sundance-style" films that I've had to labor through, Leigh shoots his film beautifully and stocks the it with the type of characters and behavior you can't look away from.

An honest an entertaining portrayal of the difficulties and disappointments in life as one older and is no longer the young and beautiful creatures we find in most of the film we watch. Leigh and his characters show the need to be there for another when this period comes, and how important those relationships are.
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Compelling Story of a Curmudgeon--Well-Done on Every Level
17 July 2011
Fantastically directed, written and acted. It's a film that balances the tone between drama and comedy perfectly, and proves that a skilled director can pull off both when dealing with a well-written script.

The film is perfectly cast, and they all hit it out of the park. The film is well-paced, and never boring. You grow fascinated by this Barney character with all his insecurities and flaws.

Somehow Giamatti, with the help of the screenwriter and novelist (from which it was based) takes a character who might seem completely unsympathetic and turns him into someone you actually care about by the end of the film. And yet, doesn't do it in a sappy, mawkish way, as many films do (where the lead character suddenly realizes all the errors in his ways and transforms into a completely new human being by the end). The change is gradual, slight, but recognizable.

The film shows that even the most curmudgeonly character can be completely overwhelmed by the act of falling in love.

It was somewhat surprising to me that this film was overlooked here in the U.S. (though, Giamatti did win a Golden Globe for Best Actor). However, with the spectacular box office success of The Hangover II and the third Transformers installment, maybe I shouldn't have been.
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Winter's Bone (2010)
Well-crafted, Yet Not Particularly Engaging
12 February 2011
Winter's Bone is a well-crafted film, written and directed by Debra Granik who appears to have quite a bit of talent. It is well-shot, its characters are clear, and overall, it's a very honest docu-drama. And doesn't quite work.

My first reaction after seeing the trailer was that there was no need to see the film as the trailer told the whole story. And yet, I was reeled in by the buzz of the film and the Academy Award nominations for it's lead actress and the film itself. Supposedly, it was "a shocking mystery that would keep you on the edge of your seat." A few friends told me that I must see it. I figured I'd give it a shot. However, the shock and the mystery never seemed to materialize.

An immediate reaction might be to see Winter's Bone in the same vein as the recent "Frozen River". However, where the two films diverge markedly is that Frozen River had a clear plot, an engaging lead character, and a riveting performance by it's lead actress, Melissa Leo. I couldn't find any of these elements in Winter's Bone. There was very little in the film that reeled me in.

The plot is fairly simple. The story revolves around Ree; a tough, reticent, 17-year old girl, who lives with her dirt-poor family in a ramshackle house in a "white trash" town in rural Missouri. She is struggling to take care of both her catatonic mother and her two younger siblings.

Within the first 10 minutes, we find out that her father, whom the family is estranged from, is a good-for-nothing local meth-user/dealer. He has skipped his bail after putting the family's house up as his bond. Ree now has one week to find him in order for him to appear at his trial. Normally, this is where the plot would kick into gear. And yet, it's more of a slow amble from here on out. About 20 minutes into her search, we are given more information about her father, (which isn't much of a surprise), and then everything seems to slow down from there. By the 1-hour mark, most of the mystery is solved, and all I could think is, "what are they going to do with the last 40 minutes of the film?" The answer was "not much." I certainly did't feel that the one "shocking" scene that happens in those last 40 minutes was enough to carry the last part of the film.

The acting is good, yet not superb, and it is clear that Miss Granik used a lot of non-actors in the film. Non-actors in a piece like this can be wonderfully useful when the director is trying to add a certain verisimilitude. But you must be careful to make sure they can handle being in front of the camera, so as not to sacrifice the very honesty you are hoping to achieve with them. (For excellent use of non-actors in this year's nominated lot, see Russell's "The Fighter").

The best performance is from a miscast John Hawkes, who does a wonderful job, yet with his diminutive size, is a bit difficult to believe as the rough and tumble character he plays, putting the fear of god into every 6 foot 3 inch, 200-pounder in town.

This film won Sundance, and though it has also become a very surprising Oscar nominee, it's not hard to see a pattern emerge with the films that have been successful at Sundance over the last decade. They tend to be low-budget, gritty docudramas, about poor people living in near-squalid conditions, with minimal plot, and people who are "just like some people I know." Now, I'm certainly no fan of what has been coming out of the studios as of late, and yet I thought the other 9 Best Picture nominees in this year's Oscars, were all extremely well done.

But if you're looking to get some attention at Sundance, I'd say it might be a good idea to start making a low-budget film about a Rwandan refugee who struggles to to bring his family to America by selling trinkets on the sidewalks of New York, while living above a ratty bodega somewhere in the Bronx. I guarantee you, you'll get a long, hard look from the selection committee, and subsequently from the audiences when it comes awards time.

I think there are many good films that come out of Sundance and other film festivals around the nation, but after sitting through almost a decade of them, I can tell you that many are not strong (try sitting through Wendy & Lucy or Old Joy if you don't believe me. Two more examples of well-made, painfully unengaging films about....I'm still not sure, but hits at Sundance).

I think the reason why some of these films like Winter's Bone are a bit more touted than they ought to be, is that after festival audiences are forced to see one sub-par film after another, they tend to overrate the rare film that is halfway decent. And Winter's Bone certainly is half-way decent. It is a well-made film...just not very engaging.
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The Fighter (I) (2010)
Film That Puts Together the Entire Package
6 February 2011
Russel, along with screenwriters Silver, Tamasy and Johnson do an excellent job with "The Fighter". The film was shot on location in Lowell, MA where the story takes place, and being quite familiar with the area, I can tell you that they nailed all the little details.

The performances are sublime, and everyone in the film is perfectly cast. Wahlberg underplays (as the real-life, quiet, big-hearted Mickey Ward), and Bale and Leo take advantage of every moment in their wonderfully-written roles, that are both surely award-winning performances.

It can be easy to forget how crucial proper casting is to a film. Often times, directors are put under enormous pressure to cast bankable stars or supporting players who may not be the right fit for the characters; especially if those characters are the gritty, un-beautiful, working class type (for an example of where this can go terribly wrong, see the lovely Cameron Diaz woefully miscast in Scorcese's "Gangs of New York". To see where appropriate casting is used wonderfully, watch every episode of HBO's "The Wire"). Russell clearly used a number of local non-actors in the film as well, and there isn't one in the film that you feel doesn't belong there.

After Russell made few off-kilter, slightly "unconventional" films, including I Heart Huckabees and having apparently behaved as a Class-A ass on the set of "Three Kings" (if George Clooney's account is accurate), he apparently felt the pressure to deliver a Hollywood-style "hit", and he surely did. And yet, there is nothing about this film that feels "Hollywood" (a pejorative term that tends to be related to something sappy, sentimental, and extremely false in it's feeling and execution).

One who studies boxing might think the fight scenes were a bit over-the-top, but that's the way the real Mickey Ward fought; able to withstand an enormous amount of punishment.

The story is clear, engaging, touching, funny, and honest. Which is proof that you can actually make a gritty docudrama that is entertaining for an audience. You just need a great script, great actors, perfect casting, and a highly-skilled director willing to take some chances. Piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, there's only point where the writers tip their hand that they may not have grown up in the northeast. At one point, Charlene asks Dickie "what's that blue stuff on your arm", to which he replies "(cake) Icing." Now, as any true Bostonian knows it's never "icing", but "Frawstin!"
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Like Being Stuck On The Bus Next to THOSE GUYS...for 30 Minutes
26 January 2011
OK, I'm glad that people like the show. I truly am. Any show that people can find some joy in watching is okay by me; even if I'm baffled as to why. With a mind-boggling user-rating of 9.2, this might not seem like the best place to offer a dissenting view; but what the heck, I'm a rebel.

There's a quote on the home page that says, "Seinfeld on crack." Surely, they jest. The only thing these two shows have in common is that they were filmed.

Now, the main problem for me is that I suppose I've never particularly found crude, uncouth, blatantly moronic characters to be particularly funny (Hence why My Name is Earl never really tickled my funny bone). But the biggest problem I had with It's Always Sunny, was that after watching 1 episode from each season, and 2 from the latest season, was that I found it's so painfully unfunny. But what kept nagging me was WHY did I find it so incredibly unfunny. I mean, I know why I find a lame comedy like 2 1/2 Men so painfully unfunny (a laugh track turned up to 10 for every incredibly predictable, lame joke offered would be my starting point. But I digress).

I believe great comedy is made up of certain elements. Among the most brilliant comedies in recent TV history that displayed these elements would be shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, and 30 Rock, to name a few. Below is what I think those elements are:

1) Top-notch, highly skilled comedians or comic actors in the lead roles.

2) Comedic actors who are not only highly-skilled and have perfect timing, but are incredibly interesting to watch (e.g., Jason Alexander, Alec Baldwin, Larry David, Steve Carrell, Michael Richards). It's Always Sunny at least has the great Danny DeVito, but the poor writing wastes his talent. Which leads me to...

3) Writing that is so damn clever, with plots lines that tie together so perfectly, and jokes that are so unpredictable that you literally laugh out loud. It's not hard to see why all these shows have been nominated repeatedly for Emmys (along with the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Another perfectly-crafted comedy led by a highly-skilled comedian).

4) Characters and subject matter that is instantly relatable. We've all had moments where we felt like George Costanza or Larry David or Liz Lemon or Jerry Seinfeld, or dealt with a Jack Donaghy.

As hard as I searched, I couldn't find ANY of these elements in "It's Always Sunny..." The writing is insipid and reminds you of those two drunk guys at the end of the bar who are convinced they are hilarious after about 12 beers, with punchlines that fall flat. "DUDE! Oh my god, remember that time I farted so loud at that frat party that I set off the house alarm? That was SO FUNNY!"

The acting is uneven, with Danny DeVito and Kaitlen Olson doing most of the heavy lifting. Olsen is quite good. As for Rob McElhenney, I give the guy a ton of respect for creating and getting someone to believe in the show enough to buy it, but let's be honest here, the man does not belong in front of a camera. Acting is not his strong suit. Or maybe it's just the poorly written role, but something's gotta give.

A show can get away with having characters who are not very bright, provided we care about them. Kramer on Seinfeld may have been an idiot, but he was a lovable idiot, with his heart always in the right place; same goes with the Joey on Friends, or Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. But the two moronic characters played by McElhenney are Day are so absurdly dumb (as when they throw a box spring, serving as a ladder, out of an empty pool, leaving them stranded; a joke we see a mile away), are so incredibly unlikable that you can't muster the strength to root for them. And yet, they're too boorish and crude to even be fascinated by them.

But hey, people seem to dig the show, and that's all that counts. But if you're not a fan of lowbrow comedy, completely lacking in cleverness (as opposed to Family Guy and the Farrelly Brothers movies which are lowbrow, but incredibly clever), this show might not be for you. I'm still trying to square in my head how the same people who recognize the brilliance in shows like Seinfeld and The Daily Show, could also find anything remotely funny here.
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Red Road (2006)
Honest Account of Grief and Revenge
21 August 2010
There's a gritty honesty to this film that you don't see very often. Though the script is very spare, and not a lot of information is given to the audience, there is just enough to keep you engaged and wondering what will happen next. And by the end, it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion. It is not exactly a suspense film that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, but more an interesting study of one woman's obsession and barely controlled grief. You continue to wonder why she is doing what she is doing. There is nary a false moment and not one that will make you groan due to an improbable plot turn, which is the problem with so many thrillers, and films in general these days.

Kate Dickie gives an excellent, low-key performance as a private security guard that watches over a panel of monitors linked to cameras placed all throughout Glasgow, Scotland. One day, she sees someone from her past who she did not expect to see, and the story is off and running, or at least trotting. Very well done and well- executed, focusing on a working-class setting we don't see handled well very often.
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Undeveloped Lead with Simply Too Many Holes to Grab Your Attention
7 August 2010
I applaud Keaton for taking his shot behind the camera. However, when I watched the film, I did not know he had directed it. But sometimes, as an audience member, you simply get the feeling about 10-15 minutes in, that you may not in very reliable, or skilled hands. That was the case with The Merry Gentleman.

The problems mainly lay with the script. There are FAR too many improbabilities and convenient coincidences in the story to make it believable, and these start to become more and more noticeable as the film goes on. By the time I got half-way through the film, I still didn't have much of an idea of what the central motive of either character was, especially Michael Keaton, and after awhile, I began to stop caring.

Michael Keaton plays a professional hit-man, though we never know for who, or why, or even anything about his targets. All we know is that he appears to be terribly sad about it. He is suicidal (the way his first attempt is foiled is practically out of a Buster Keaton comedy), but I would think that a character who was a professional hit-man would come up with far simpler and effective methods to off himself than the ones he attempts in the movie. A gun, maybe? Also, if he's so tortured about what he does, wouldn't make sense for him to kill himself BEFORE you completes another job?? We never really find out much about this character as he slowly moves through the film mumbling a word here or a word there. Even in a scene in a hospital scene that appears to be inserted into the film to try and give the audience some idea of who this character is, we still get nothing...and that nothing takes a whole lot of time to get to.

There is a strange plot twist in the 2nd half of the film, where writer tries to tie up the loose end of the abusive husband. All I can say is that it involves yet another convenient coincidence involving a business card to a local hotel.

Kelly McDonald, a fine actress, is really the lead of the film, but even here the writer didn't give her character much logic to work with. The film opens with her leaving her abusive husband after he gives her a nasty shiner. Somehow, within a few days, she is suddenly in a new city, with a new job. Just like that. How this all happened, again is a mystery. Even though the black eye is something she'd rather hide and not talk about, she bizarrely shows up at an office Christmas party where she certainly must know that she'll be asked about it repeatedly (which, of course, she is) . Obviously not wanting to jump into any new relationships due to her abusive past, she rejects the advances of a few of her new co- workers, but then inexplicably falls for Michael Keaton's character after one brief run-in, who, in their first meeting, comes off as a bit, well....creepy. For a smart girl, she also seems completely clueless that a police officer investigating a case she's involved in as a witness, is interested in her romantically. The light takes a while to go on apparently.

All and all, there's never enough of anyone's life to really dig into, but more a 2-dimensional picture of it all. The look and tone of the film is a bit of a mess. There is a slew of completely unmotivated camera moves and cuts that defy all logic, almost as if Keaton was terrified of having the film look too plain. As a result, it winds up being a mishmash of different styles that belong in a dozen different films. This could also be said of the mind-boggling score and music cues. In the end, it seems like the film really didn't know what it wanted to be; sometimes a gritty drama, sometimes a Billy Wilder comedy, sometimes a teary melodrama, and sometimes a Basic Instinct-type thriller. Though the last 20 minutes of the film do actually do manage to build some tension through proper pacing, the ending is simply befuddling. There's a difference between leaving an ending open because you want to challenge the audience into thinking about what might happen, and leaving an ending open because you simply can't come up with a proper or satisfying one. I can only imagine that this film got made because the writer knew Keaton, Keaton signed on to play the (quite undeveloped) lead role, and the financing followed from there.
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A Slice of Life that Gets Stale Quickly
17 April 2010
This film is actually well-done for the "slice-of-life" style the director seemed to be pursuing. And if you are into hopeless, mundane, and somewhat plot less films with all the classic art-house, kitchen-sink reality clichés (watching people go to the bathroom, clipping their toenails, and washing laundry), than this film may be for you. Now, the proponents of this film will exclaim, "But it was so REAL!" Well true, but then again, so is your morning shower, you're commute to work, or watching your neighbor eat his dinner or mow his lawn. But that doesn't make it particularly interesting to sit through for 90 minutes.

The director is a documentary filmmaker, and certainly does a wonderful job of taking you into the protagonist's world. But, whether it's a world most people would want to spend much time in, is the real question Here, he basically makes a scripted documentary, with professional actors (who, to his credit, are first-rate). However, I can't possibly think of a less interesting subject matter than what he chose to explore here. The script meanders, with no real purpose. Now, it's fine if a filmmaker wants to simply follow characters around, and see what they do (as is done here), but he/she had better make sure those characters are interesting enough to hold our attention. The main problem is that there really is no script to speak of. Potential plot lines are introduced, but then never explored (I'm not quite sure why the sons are in the film at all except to show the additional misery in the protagonist's life), various shots have no real information in them, aside from, "this is what happens in the typical day of a middle-aged woman and her family", and scenes are kept running long after the audience has grasped what little there was to take from them.

It is important for a filmmaker to think, "why am I making this film? What do I want people to take from this?" Personally, what I walked away with was a sense that working-class Brazilian life is full of struggle and sadness (as is often the case with working-class American life), middle-aged people have extramarital affairs when the flame begins to flicker out of their partnerships, and that the elderly are often taken for granted and treated as indentured servants by their own family. Unfortunately, these are all things I knew already. And I'm not sure if there was much else to take from this film.

People talk about how snobby critics are, but after reading the gushing reviews for this film, I'm beginning to think the bar is getting dangerously low. Now, there have always been plot less films (that is practically the raison d'etre of French Cinema), but from Godard to Cassavetes to Antonione to Fassbinder and Bergman, these directors gave their audiences engaging characters to watch, and beautiful photography to marvel at on screen, and something to think about in the days after one left the theater. And I'm afraid that with more films like this receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, we are getting into a level of "reality" where people will not even need to go to the movies anymore. They can simply wake up, grab their video camera, film the everyday banalities of their day, and save themselves a trip to the theater.
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Steel City (2006)
Bleak Docudrama Where Everyone Gets Their Monologue
14 February 2010
Well, the critics loved it, and yes, it's got that certain verisimilitude that the hundreds of gritty, bleak, docudramas have had before it. And yet, there's not a single thing about this film that makes you want to keep watching.

It's got the traditional aspects; the gray/blue washed out color palette, the going-nowhere, stuck in a dead end job lead character, the "I knew a guy just like that in my home town" older brother, that these films always seem to have. The film focuses on endlessly bleak subject matter that it just can't seem to rise above.

The cast of characters are fairly stock, and not particularly interesting, and are the usual denizens of working-class middle America. However, America Ferrera does stand out in a relatively small and somewhat thankless role. Screenwriters write monologues to attract name-talent to their projects, but after awhile the endless sloppy exposition just becomes too painful to listen to (Note: if your characters are launching into "Remember whens.." in every other scene, your in dangerous territory.)

The lead actor does a decent job, but isn't a particularly interesting to watch, and the setting created certainly isn't much more interesting to look at. In the end, you just feel as if the actors have nowhere to go with this script, but they will surely all have a few scenes for their personal reels. There's nothing here that couldn't have been handled just as well in a documentary. There isn't much of a story here, but the events are more or less predictable, with the exception of an especially improbable "plot" twist two-thirds through the film. No one really seems to want anything, except maybe to get through another day. And as the viewer, you find yourself just trying to get to the end of the film.
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