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Thursday, Nov 20, 2008

As we near the end of the year, and the ongoing glut of award season entries, some smaller films are flying under the radar and into your local Cineplex. For the weekend before Thanksgiving, 21 November 2008, here are a few of the said unsung films in focus:


Let the Right One In [rating: 9]


It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact.

When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life - at least, temporarily.  read full review…


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [rating: 6]


Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.

As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.  read full review…


Splinter [rating: 7]


If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise.

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.  read full review…


House (2008) [rating: 6]


Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma.

It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.  read full review…


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Friday, Oct 31, 2008

Beware of tricks and treats kiddies, for tonight is Halloween. The last Friday in the month also promises from interesting cinematic candy, though some may be a bit sour. For 31 October, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:


Zack and Miri Make a Porno [rating: 10]


With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart.  read full review…



Rocknrolla [rating: 8]


Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should.

It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.  read full review…



Changeling [rating: 7]


Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins.

The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.  read full review…


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Friday, Oct 10, 2008

October continues its mishmash of film and genres. Along with kid vid effort City of Ember and horror romp Quarantine, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:


Body of Lies [rating: 6]


Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter.

Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.  read full review…



The Duchess [rating: 3]


Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined.

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.  read full review…



The Express [rating: 5]


The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy.

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.  read full review…


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Thursday, Oct 2, 2008

Awards Season keeps chugging away. However, many of the films in focus for 3 October will probably come away empty handed, beginning with:


Towelhead [rating: 1]


“Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors.”

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.  read full review…



Appaloosa [rating: 7]


(I)n a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss.

When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.  read full review…



Blindness [rating: 2]


Blindness delivers…30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance.

Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess.  read full review…



Religulous [rating: 8]


Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation..

There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.  read full review…


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Fall finally settles in with a batch of big titles. Of course, some unlikely efforts (Igor, My Best Friend’s Girl) weren’t screened for all critics. Still for 19 September, here are the films in focus:


Trouble the Water [rating: 10]


By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest.

Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.  read full review…


Man on Wire [rating: 9]


As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary…, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane.

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.  read full review…


Ghost Town [rating: 7]


Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise.

Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims. read full review…


Lakeview Terrace [rating: 6]


This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting.

Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.  read full review…


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