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This little gem from 1962 has been on my to see list for years. I’ve eyed the Criterion Collection version, almost buying it a couple of times, until finally looking away until I knew for sure it was worth purchasing. I can safely say that Carnival of Souls is well deserving of the Criterion treatment and soon a place in my film catalog. Director Herk Harvey has put together a real work of art and amazingly it was to be his only non-documentary/educational film ever finished. Taking a break from his real directing job, he took two weeks and shot this lone fictional narrative. Harvey definitely had an eye for cinema and it’s a shame no one could persuade him to do more.

Telling the story of a young girl, played nicely by Candace Hilligoss, who crashed into a river with two friends and emerged as the lone survivor. She miraculously leaves the accident scene and continues on with her life, traveling to a church where she will be the new organ player. Along the way she has her first vision of a creepy figure peering at her through her car window. The camerawork is handled expertly as the reflection of her face changes to that of the man. Upon the conclusion of her drive, we are also treated with a nice transition from panning to a black sky that soon opens up to light as we’ve cut to a room’s door. Unfortunately this is the one and only inventive cut, but it begs to wonder whether Marc Forster had seen it before doing transition after transition like it in his masterpiece of emotions, tone, and visuals Stay.

The real question, as far as gleaning goes, is whether David Lynch had seen the film in his lifetime. I have to believe he must have and for that I am eternally grateful to Harvey, because without Carnival of Souls, I may never have been able to see two of my favorite movies in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. There is so much that parallels between these three films that it’s hard to believe there is not a connection. Our creepy man from another plane, expertly played by director Harvey himself, is almost carbon-copied into the Mystery Man from Lost Highway. Also, the main drive of a character on the run from reality and suffering, deciding to instead live inside their own head until they can finally cope with what has transpired is paramount to these Lynch films as well as Stay. Bill Pullman, Naomi Watts, and Ryan Gosling all have to deal with their internal demons and a feeling of no longer belonging in the living, rational world, just as Hilligoss needs to as she runs from the souls in her visions.

Just seeing the haunting vision of zombified apparitions dancing at the deserted carnival amongst hanging streamers reflecting light is worth the viewing time of Carnival of Souls. Anyone who treats this film as fodder for “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”, which rumor has it that a new dvd edition will have a commentary laugh track by its’ star, is sorely mistaken. This is a work of art that has spawned many of our contemporary classics, at least in my mind. Showing the fourth dimension crossing through a person’s consciousness is stunning to behold and think that it was done forty years ago. Even auteurs like Lynch need inspiration, and I have to say he either picked a good one to borrow from or great minds really do think alike.

Carnival of Souls 8/10

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The Broken Lizard comedy troupe are a definite example of you either love their brand of adolescent schtick or you revile it completely. Their fourth feature length film, I discount Dukes of Hazard because it didn’t star them or start in development by them, is no different than its predecessors. Being a steadfast fan of Super Troopers, begrudgingly having to be told to see it numerous times before my filmsnob judgment was assuaged, and a supporter of their inferior, but effective genre film Club Dread, I really enjoyed Beerfest. Its’ trailers perfectly encapsulate what you should expect in the film and it delivers on those promises. You will not learn anything at all, you will be grossed out, and probably offended, but it’s a blast experiencing it all.

Now I am not a drinker and knew of all the games put on display if not their rules. I am used to watching friends make fools out of themselves as they attempt to show their dexterity doesn’t deteriorate as they become more inebriated, so therefore felt at home watching the antics on screen. The five members of the troupe all play their roles nicely; their comradery off-screen once again lends itself to believing the relationship between them and know that they are having fun with us. Special mention must go to Jay Chandrasekhar who has directed each film along with co-starring. He is a brilliant character actor and shows range from film to film: hardnosed trooper general, British tennis player, and here, fallen fratboy, moneygrubbing street whore. He gets most of the biggest laughs when alluding to his prostituting, (the “Oh no, not again” vignette is absolutely priceless). Also, there needs to be mention of Steve Lemme who is almost unrecognizable as Fink with, as the Germans say, a bald “head covered in pubic hairs.” The physical transformation he has undertaken from his island prettyboy in Dread to the geeky scientist here is commendable and effective in helping the audience not grow tired of the troupe. They have always spread the wealth as far as lead roles go and it helps keep all their personas fresh.

The other reason to watch a Broken Lizard movie is to see serious actors cameo to make fools out of themselves. This was shown best with Brian Cox throwing his classical training out the window to have fun with the boys in Super Troopers. Beerfest is no exception as Donald Sutherland has a very funny bit part, along with Cloris Leachman having a blast with her horrible accent and whore-innuendoes. Overshadowing all of that, however, is the performance from Jürgen Prochnow. He plays the tough German badass that he is used to playing and it works well bouncing off the imbecilic grandsons at his call. I do have to express my disappointment in the audience, though, when one of the best inside jokes fell flat, (unfortunately I had to cut my laugh short due to the embarrassment of being the only one laughing), when Prochnow is in the u-boat saying how he had a bad experience in one before. The tongue-in-cheek reference to his Das Boot was a great addition to those familiar with film history.

So, if you’re looking for a movie where you can leave your brain at home, or want to watch others act like fools before your own kegger, I heartily recommend Beerfest. I do reserve the right to stipulate, that if you did not enjoy the boys’ previous laugh-riots, you probably won’t enjoy this one. It is an acquired taste for sure, but fans will be able to rejoice and look forward to when the troupe finally gets the often talked about Greek Road off the page and into cineplexes.

Beerfest 7/10
As comparison: Puddle Cruiser 5/10; Super Troopers 8/10; Club Dread 6/10

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photography:
[1] From left to right: PAUL SOTER as Jan Wolfhouse, STEVE LEMME as Fink, KEVIN HEFFERNAN as Landfill and ERIK STOLHANSKE as Todd Wolfhouse in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “Beerfest.” Photo by Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP

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Junebug was one of those films that came out of the 2005 festival circuit with buzz galore. Unfortunately I never got to see it until randomly passing it by on Starz-On-Demand, in widescreen no less. This was a temptation that wouldn’t be quelled and so I sat down with high expectations. The movie not only lived up to those, but exceeded them as well. You don’t get character pieces as well acted and written as Junebug often. Every performance is amazing and real, and the filmmakers allow the audience to see what transpires as it does, without dumbing anything down or commercializing the family’s life. It’s indie through and through.

Being a former “Upright Citizens Brigade” director, Phil Morrison fares much better here than Peyton Reed did with The Break Up. Between this film and his credits directing the new “I’m a Mac…I’m a PC” and VW “Safe Happens” crash commercials, I see great things in his film career to come. Morrison shows true heart here with a lot going on as city life clashes with the country. He deftly handles the characters’ interactions with each other and the differences that both worlds have on issues such as trust. Whereas Madeleine, a world traveler and educated, successful woman, can have all the trust in the world for her husband’s southern family and artist she is courting on business, they see her as someone wanting something. They can’t trust her because she is an outsider; her kindness must be masking some ulterior motive. Embeth Davidtz, as Madeleine, portrays this conflict perfectly; she is a strong person and outgoing to a fault, however, her touchy-feely attitude is construed as being sexual, having a sense of entitlement and betterment to her lesser, and a devil in sheeps clothing mantra. Her husband George, played with nice duality between old and new world attitudes by Alessandro Nivola, knows she is just a nice, caring woman, but his family is very conservative and not easily swayed to open themselves to strangers. His mother Peg believes her to have tricked him into marriage and not really knowing who her son is, his father is a simple man who just wants the best for everyone, (she is family), not quite picking sides but instead staying back to see what happens, and his brother Johnny is a confused adolescent who has gone into the adult world prematurely and sees his brother’s success as a testament to his own failures.

Even though there is not much in the way of plot, newly married couple go down to the groom’s family’s house while the bride tries to secure a lucrative art deal with a painter. While there, each side turns the other’s life upside down, causing a need for change and compromise that just isn’t as possible as one might think; Chicago and North Carolina are very far apart. This story is just the bottom layer of many as each actor adds nuance and feeling, driving every minute to its final conclusion of the couple going back north to their home. Davidtz is stunning as the strong-willed woman who, while thinking these simpleminded folk will be easy to mold to her needs, discovers it is she who is out of her element and naïve to the ways of love and family. Nivola shows great range as the city man with a physical relationship to his new bride, yet deeply religious when visiting home, and always watching out for his flesh and blood no matter what. The scene where he sings a hymn shows two worlds colliding into each other and foreshadows the notion that people are not what they seem when out of the environment they are otherwise known to be comfortable in. Benjamin McKenzie is powerful as the troubled Johnny who is full of both love and resentment for those around him. He knows his limitations and gets angry when others try to better him, because he feels condescended to. His stubbornness won’t allow anyone to get close to him as any instance of compassion is seen as belittlement. Johnny loves his wife, as seen in the meerkat scene, yet can’t allow her inside his emotions.

Frank Hoyt Taylor is great as the link between worlds for Madeleine. He is the real reason she is there, as she wants the rights to distribute his Outsider Art: crude, vulgar, yet emotionally powerful paintings of war. Taylor plays him as a simple man, slightly touched with dementia, yet longing for what he knows. He does not care about the money or the fame, he creates for himself and God, and that is something a gallery director trying to outbid a NYC establishment can never understand. While Madeleine believes she is going to take care of him in the art world, she just can’t see that the only way to do that would be to let him alone and leave him to do his work in peace without prying eyes watching. These southerners live for the land and their families, not material gains, shown most effectively by the father Eugene, played by Scott Wilson. He realizes that people aren’t what they initially appear to be and has the most open mind to the thought of his son’s quick courtship to marriage. Also, he knows that some things are sacred to those he can trust, like his woodworking skills and his wife’s knitting. These are skills on par with Taylor’s painting and he doesn’t want them to be exploited as he is.

The real heart and soul of the film, however, lies inside Amy Adams’ Ashley. She is full of life, naïveté, and love. Her pregnancy is seen, by her, as the act that will save her troubled husband from the funk he’s been in for the past two years. Maybe a little joy is all that is needed for Johnny to once again see the world as good and not a series of hardships that forced him to quit high school and support his spouse. Adams is full of hope and trust for all those that enter her life. She is the only one to see Madeleine as a human being and not a monster trying to ruin what was left of their family. Probably holding the most insight of anyone, she carries the rest of the film on her shoulders, as well as those of her unborn child. That baby will change everyone for either good or bad. George realizes this and knows that he must stick by his family no matter what happens. He also knows that his wife is not quite able to do that as the educated life she lived has made her somewhat cold to the bigger picture of things. Once the climax surrounding Adams’ character is revealed, the viewer gets to see what the real makeup of each person truly is.

Junebug is a revelation of sorts. One cannot leave the film without having been changed in some small way by the proceedings. Emotions run high and family values are tested. Morrison has crafted a lyrical poem of life with a scarce but powerful palette. Even the tranquility of the trees in the North Carolina backyard is a sight to be ingrained in your consciousness. The quiet holds both joy and pain in its silence.

Junebug 10/10

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photography:
[1] Left: Ben McKenzie as Johnny; Right: Embeth Davidtz as Madeleine; Photo by: Robert Kirk/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.
[2] Amy Adams as Ashley; Photo by: Robert Kirk/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.

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I can't even count how many times the statement of how boring Buffalo is as a city comes to my ears. Be it friends, family, or complete strangers, Buffalonians seem to constantly dwell on the depressing state winter instills in them, rather than see the city for the wealth of art it contains. Sure there are the sports teams and the art galleries, but there is so much more to experience. Just this past weekend alone I have had the pleasure of seeing great bands and limited release cinema that few cities can boast.

We must have the best little, big city art scene in the country as we have the venues to attract the big name bands (yeah so we dont get all of them, but there is always Toronto for that minor inconvenience), as well as the club shows for those on the fringe. How can you beat a $15 ticket to see up and coming bands like The Spill Canvas and Mae at Club Infinity on a Friday night? Sure these two seem to have more of a tweener following, but musically are compelling for all ages. Mae unfortunately stuck to its tried and true studio song versions, with success, but the Spill Canvas really went all out for an hour opening set, expanding songs and showing some real guitar flare that I never picked up on the album; they are one to watch out for.

Then on Saturday the music continues with Blue Hippopotamus and Ours at the Showplace Theatre, again for only $15. Blue Hippo blew me away with their string/drum trio playing powerful lounge/jazz that would entice David Lynch to utilize in a film much like Mulholland Dr's Club Silencio scene. Caitlin Jaene's voice is haunting and I am anxious to hear some more once they record some tracks. And then there is the incomparable Jimmy Gnecco and his band Ours. With the vocal range of Jeff Buckley and all the angst at the world coming through the deep, reflective lyrics, you don't get a better show than this. After seeing them six times, (5 in Buffalo), I can truly say their set evolves and gets better each showing. Gnecco's rapport with the Buffalo crowd is also top-notch saying how the Queen City is his favorite no matter what his friend Vincent Gallo says about his own hometown, (and he likes to set it straight that they look nothing alike).

And what better way to finish the weekend off than a little known heart of Sundance film at the local Dipson Theatre. We are literally right behind NYC and LA when it comes to seeing the festival circuit movies on the big screen, and the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine (review here) is no exception.

So when looking for something to do on a slow Buffalo evening, pick up a Spree to check out the calendar, or check out your favorite bands' websites for tour listings, you'd be surprised to see what you can find at great prices to pass your time with.

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Keeping up with the recent buzz-worthy films coming out of Sundance the past couple years, Little Miss Sunshine is a gem of a movie. After loving crowd favorites Primer (2004) and Hustle and Flow (2005), I wasn’t quite sure if the hat trick would be made. Sunshine seemed to have the cast, and direction (the debut of husband/wife team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who have helmed some of my favorite music videos including the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Otherside), but the big question would be if it had the laughs to sustain the quirky indie comedy from not being overwrought and boring. While the film definitely has a couple moments where I was about to be lost, everything ends up happening for a reason; emotions are on a roller coaster ride and the lows always come out with meaning and momentum for the highs. Do yourself a favor and see this sweet, subtle at times and gut-bustingly hilarious at others, perfectly pitched ensemble piece.

The co-directors set us up for what is to come in a very nicely designed opening sequence by going character to character, showing us each person in a small vignette of their personalities. This is the quintessential messed-up family with good intentions. Mom and Dad are bickering on how to tell their young daughter about her uncle’s attempted suicide, while he sits and stares in a strange melancholy next to the mute, troubled son, (on vow of silence in honor of nihilistic mind Nietzsche), while grandpa spews profanities about the lack of dinner variety. I mean this is the epitome of every family function I’ve ever been privy to. There is so much a viewer can relate to in each member, allowing for a certain amount of compassion for the views of all involved and seeing that each really does want the best for one another, even if they have a messed up way of showing it.

Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are wonderful as the patriarchs, proving as always that they are probably two of the most underappreciated actors working today. Very rarely do you get to see them in a starring vehicle, and even though this is an ensemble through and through, they definitely carry it as the driving force. Alan Arkin does his kooky, quasi-angry, sarcastic yelling that he is known for, kind of his role from Edward Scissorhands but r-rated and un-pc. Everything he has done comes to a surprising result at the eponymous beauty pageant for the biggest laughs of the movie, really great stuff subverting the grotesque surrealism surrounding any pageant of this kind. Paul Dano is great as the troubled teen, trying to find a place in the world for himself, and coming to grips with the need for struggle in order to grow as a person, and Abigail Breslin is phenomenal as the happiest girl alive. Once she finds out she has won her regional on default, (those primary school children and their diet pills), she is on cloud nine as the family makes the road trip all for her. She has the acting range of a pro and actually does the Dakota Fanning, but better, as she can act while still being a young child and not an adult in a child’s body. Her emotional reactions are spot-on and she has remarkable presence and a self-effacing nature that allows her to be who she is and not be ashamed about it, which is the main purpose of Olive Hoover.

The real revelation to take from the antics on screen is a career-role for funnyman Steve Carrell. I’ve always liked his naïve, teddy-bear persona used to successfully in the “Daily Show”, “The Office”, and as the only funny part of Anchorman. Here however, he shows that he has the acting chops to not be pigeonholed and typecast in the over-the-top, lug roles his peer Will Ferrell will never be able to breakout of. Carrell has genuine talent and his suicidal, top Proust scholar in America, uncle is the shining moment of the film. He maintains the dejected quality throughout; even when doing something for the family, doing good, he is always a beaten man. That kind of character is what is needed for all his sharp, dry sarcastic retorts thrown about. He barely outshines the prop of the year, though, the family’s yellow VW van. You will not see better prop-gags as the van takes a licking and keeps on ticking although the tick is faint and slowly fading away.

Little Miss Sunshine lives up to the strong buzz that surrounds it. It is heartwarming and funny at every turn. There are some dark moments, though, as there are in life. This film is a slice of reality, heightened just the right amount, for all to enjoy. While definitely in the vein of films such as I Heart Huckabees, Thumbsucker, and any Wes Anderson film—it wears its indie cred on its sleeve—it is still accessible and hopefully with the drawing power of Carrell will garner an audience that would not otherwise see it.

Little Miss Sunshine 9/10

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photography:
[1] Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano and Toni Collette in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – 2006
[2] L-R: Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell and Toni Collette in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Photo Credit: Eric Lee

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I am not a big fan of the horror genre. Many of them are just too campy or schlocky to be terrifying, too derivative of each other, or too slow and drawn out while trying to be suspenseful. Besides the first two masterpieces of the Hellraiser series and the original, read only good, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I could do without the genre completely. I don’t mention Hostel here, because as I’ve said in my review for that film, it isn’t as much a horror as a thriller told brutally. A horror film needs to have genuine jump out of your seat moments as well as creepy, dark visuals. Fortunately the buzz surrounding Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is warranted, because going to see this movie allowed for the best time I’ve had seeing a horror flick in a dark theatre since the final fifteen minutes of The Blair Witch Project.

Marshall is definitely a storyteller. He allows time for the audience to get to know each character and facilitate a connection to them so we care about what will eventually happen, much in the vain of Ridley Scott’s opus Alien, which many compare this to. Sarah, played with a real range of emotion by Shauna Macdonald, has suffered a great loss. Her mind wanders often to visions of her manifested grief, (these moments are very effective on the scare level as well as a psychological one). Sarah’s friends decide to continue with their yearly extreme outdoor excursions, this time to a cave system, hoping to get her mind off of the darker areas of thought and into one of companionship and hope for the future. Yes, the cast of characters are pretty much the ones you’d expect: the hotshot, brash adventurer Holly; the vocal leader Juno; the English teacher, self deprecating and looking to the wellbeing of her friends Beth; the young med-student, who you know will eventually need to use her expertise for the cause, Sam; and Sam’s big sister Rebecca, who goes through the entire movie cautious until she must show her strength. All the women do a phenomenal job in their parts making them fully fleshed and real. The beauty of the film is the reality it is steeped in, this isn’t a fantasy with myth and magic; it is just a heightened world where what happens could actually have some possibility to it, as far as evolution and science play a role. Unfortunately, the realism, which caused the most suspense, knowing that maybe this could happen, eventually gives way to blood and gore. It is a shame because the abundance of blood almost took me out of the taut story; it wasn’t necessary at all as it’s not the gore causing the frights, but the conflicts shown. Subtlety works best and thankfully there is more of it than the small bursts of excess later on.

The beginning half of the movie sets up a wonderful sense of foreboding and intrigue for what is to occur. We are shown a story, an almost buddy orientated tale, with mishaps and light moments as well. While the visions Sarah sees are the main focuses for thrills, there are also many instances from nature. Thankfully we are allowed this period before the real horror is revealed, because it builds up the suspense to finally be released. The handling of the second half is for the most part just as effective as the first. Adding in the crawlers ups the stakes for sure, but Marshall doesn’t fall into any traps of the genre where he makes everyone into a hero. Each character pulls from within herself and does what she would do in that situation. What Juno does during her first foray against the creatures is uncommonly genuine. Natalie Jackson Mendoza plays the emotional range like a pro, from fear to anger to hatred to remorse. Her actions are all reactionary and I applaud the writer/director for taking it as far as he did. Mendoza is the star that I will remember most, her character was at the crux of the story; she brought them out there and her reasons for this, as revealed during its course, were not so much selfish, but apologetic. Macdonald also shines as the distraught widow trying to prove to her friends that she won’t be the adventurer that backs off first. She needs to prove to herself that she can be normal again after her tragedy. The visions allow for some mystery as to what she is seeing and hearing in the cave, and whether anything is real. There are many homages, especially with the Sarah role, including a nice Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, rising from beneath a liquid pool, and multiple mirroring of her face and hair to that of the final scream in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Also, the final frame is highly effective; that’s a vision I’m sure she will be seeing for the rest of her life.

In order for The Descent to be successful, one needs to have successful acting, emotions amped, and as many light, humorous parts to offset the brutal shocks following. Marshall seems to be one to watch in the horror rebirth happening of late. Hopefully he won’t shy away into the PG13 crap and instead stay the course to tell the story as it needs to be told. Unfortunately there did seem to be some compromise with the US release, as the ending is not the original one. Hopefully this was a decision on his part and not the producers strong-arming him. It’s a real shame when American producers belittle their own country as not being able to take a foreign film on its own merits, even one in their own language, that its end must be changed. This and Russia’s Nightwatch, which cut thirty minutes and an entire character upon stateside release, are the reasons my next DVD player will be an all-region one, so I can buy the European cuts that Hollywood says I’m too stupid to see. I will also definitely be seeking out his previous movie Dog Soldiers, to see whether this one was an aberration or a sign of things to come.

The Descent 8/10

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photography:
[1] (Left to right) Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, Nora-Jane Noone as Holly and Alex Reid as Beth in Lions Gate Films’ The Descent.
[2] Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from THE DESCENT. Photo credit: Alex Bailey

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While enjoying many novels that I read during my stint in the public school system, Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird was always one of the most memorable. The story was beautifully told and showed a great example of moral fiber. Atticus Finch is the epitome of class and trust. He sees past age, race, intelligence and instead views the soul. After watching this film you might start believing that people really are inherently good.

Perusing through the list of films that director Robert Mulligan sat behind the camera on shows me that maybe this film was his masterpiece. I have never seen nor heard of the rest of his filmography, (not to say he doesn’t have any other gems in that list, I just wouldn’t be able to tell you their names). He seems to be a very capable director, however, as the movie is shot quite well. The contrast of the black and white during many night scenes is effective and he does a good job framing the actors as they do their thing. There aren’t any effects shots or skewed angles; Mulligan allows his cast to carry the film and that is a good move. The story is strong and the words are what matter most.

Gregory Peck is just as good as everyone says he is here. He embodies Atticus completely, as a strong willed man of the community, a shrewd and moral man of the law, and a caring, loving father. Peck displays the many facets of his character as he treats all with the same care. His children call him by his first name and wander around the town alone. To Atticus, they are just as independently responsible as him—how can he second-guess his own children? Speaking of those children, it is hard to believe that both Scout and Jem are played by first-time actors. The kids, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, are amazing. They act well beyond their years, showing the teaching that goes on at home behind the scenes. Not only are they intelligent, but they can watch out for themselves. Scout is not afraid to pick a fight if she believes someone close to her has had his/her honor called into question, and no matter how much Jem chides his sister for being too much of a girl, he is always there to defuse hostile situations and make sure his sibling is unharmed. Both child actors are very effective in their line delivery and most noticeably in their facial expressions. It sometimes appears that their reactions are about to go over the top, but they have the ability to keep it all grounded to reality. The most fun is their stubborn fear of neighbor Boo Radley, whom they’ve never met. Although shown very briefly, and without a single line of dialogue, Robert Duvall, also making his film debut, (which surprised me as I thought his premiere was THX-1138 since it almost seemed like a collegiate film, but in fact was filmed nine years later), is very convincing as the troubled young man who has come out of seclusion to help resolve the incident which takes place at the movie’s finale. Talk about speaking and emoting through only your body language; one knows exactly what Boo is thinking thanks to Duvall’s performance.

To Kill a Mockingbird never drags throughout its duration. Even for someone who has read the novel, everything occurs with suspense and spontaneity. While yes, the climax in the courthouse is the shining moment, all that bookends the sequence is just as enjoyable. Gregory Pecks’ closing statement to the jury is magnificent however. His powerful performance almost made me want to stand with those watching on screen as he left through the door upon the verdict. Atticus Finch truly is the greatest screen hero of all time.

To Kill a Mockingbird 9/10

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Many people out there seem to have some sort of indifference when it comes to the subject of director Brian De Palma. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I have enjoyed every film I’ve seen by him. In anticipation of his new The Black Dahlia, I decided to revisit one of his earlier films, Sisters. I hadn’t seen it in over five years or so, but always remembered finding it intellectually disturbing and containing one of the most surreal, enjoyable endings I’ve seen. Experiencing it again brought back all the memories and showed that the film holds up pretty well over the thirty-plus years since its release.

A murder has taken place and its only witness will not be taken seriously by the police. Reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) decides to take it upon herself to get to the bottom of the horrific act she witnessed. She enlists a private detective, played by Charles Durning, and goes off to discover what lies in young model Danielle Breton’s past. Does she have a twin that she is protecting? Is her creepy ex-husband behind it all? Grace has her hands full and soon gets in over her head. This is the basic plotline of the film; it seems on the surface to be a slight story, but the great acting and direction make it so much more. Yes, there are many instances bringing to mind Hitchcock; between the score done by Bernard Herrmann, a Hitch vet, and a car tailing scene with shots reminiscent to Janet Leigh’s drive to the Bate’s Motel, you definitely see De Palma wearing his influences on his sleeve. The story is vintage wrong man, whodunit, yet it all culminates into a shocking finale that is unique unto itself.

Danielle Breton is played nicely by a young Margot Kidder. She uses a well-executed French-Canadian accent, (at least to my ears), and is believable as the naïve, defenseless woman caught in the middle of it all. She also does a wonderful job in old film footage as her Siamese twin Dominique, showing the disparate emotional states of the two sisters. Besides Salt and Durning, who both play their parts effectively, the other standout is De Palma stalwart William Finley. Finley plays the ex-husband of Kidder’s character, and he is a sight for sure. Creepiness emanates from him throughout the film as one never really can tell for sure what part he plays in the proceedings. The nerdy, coke bottle glasses and classic villianesque smoking brings a foreboding whenever he is on screen. This is definitely perfect casting.

For anyone who enjoys cerebral horror, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing this film. It will seem a bit dated when blood is spilled, (fluorescent, thick red goo), yet when one really looks under the surface into the psychological happenings, he/she will see that it stills resonates strongly. The surrealistic finale is unforgettable with dreamlike, old home movie video grain style vignettes containing all the characters we have come across during the film’s course. It is definitely unnerving as mental patients are shown in their natural habitat.

Sisters 8/10

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If Talladega Nights did anything for me, it confirmed my previous bias that racecar driving is boring to watch. While filled with some great, random one-liners, and some really good performances, Ricky Bobby’s ballad crawls along at a sluggish pace. What’s weird about this outlook is that the slowest talking character, played hilariously by Sacha Baron Cohen, was actually a part that moved the scenes forward. It was flashy, fast-talking, yet ultimately uninteresting.

I will admit to not being much of a Will Ferrell fan. I find his comedy loud and obnoxious, used correctly very rarely. He is usually good in ensemble pieces where he is not the star, Old School for instance, while using one-note performances extended way beyond their limits in his star vehicles like Anchorman, which I hated besides a nice absurdist back street brawl, and the film being discussed here. Ferrell’s shtick seems to always go too long; he seems to revel in killing his jokes, which becomes even more annoying when everyone in America starts to say his lines verbatim in casual conversation. The film had some parts that really worked, however, mostly when it was at its most absurd. There was a subversive sense of comical surrealism at moments that succeeded; they showed that everyone was taking him/herself with naught a shred of seriousness. Most of the slow parts, really the unsuccessful ones, are when we are suddenly spoon-fed sentimentality and new-found moral fiber that is so out of character, one wishes it was gone so as to see more funny instances. The film worked as a comedy and died quickly when it decided to take itself way too seriously.

There were some real shining moments, however. John C. Reilly is amazing. He has always played the low-key, slightly naïve, schlub well, and here he takes low-IQ to another level. The comic timing and delivery is impeccable and I hope that he sticks to these character roles that suit his abilities perfectly rather then try his hand at superstardom as most other “sidekicks” try and fail to do. One thing that he has going for him is that he is established already, (used brilliantly by autuers such as Paul Thomas Anderson), and won’t fall prey to any lucrative deals for crap scripts. Gary Cole is spectacular as Ferrell’s father. The sleazy, white-trash nature he brings is true to the character and provides most of the good laughs. Sacha Baron Cohen was also a revelation to me. I have not seen his ”Da Ali G Show,” so I know very little about him, except for the very funny trailer for his movie starring the titular alter-ego Borat. By being very deliberate and always in character throughout, he has created a working caricature. The accent and effeminate, European tendencies are a great contrast to the boorish Bobby. Most other actors are ineffectively used, mostly because these films need to cram in as many cameos as possible, throwing in totally useless cut scenes that are so random they are more distracting than funny. Amy Adams is involved in possibly the best scene of the movie towards the end in a bar with Ferrell. She delivers a great monologue and Ferrell’s vocal reactions after are priceless. Unfortunately she was abused earlier in the film, just being shot silent with mouth open, looking as though her talent would totally be wasted.

In the end, the randomness and short bursts of real good comedy couldn’t save the film. Its sluggish pace is definitely not helped by its infinite number of product placements at all. I mean, come on, when did Hollywood need to whore itself out that much? I see where some reviewers have a point saying it’s a commentary on the plethora of advertising in the Nascar world, but I don’t give the filmmakers that much credit. It was a low budget comedy that needed money to clear its licensing fees and car wrecks. I will admit that product placement caused the best laugh of the film; just watch for Applebees during the final race and prepare for absurdity at its best. Unfortunately we aren’t treated with enough moments like that, where the creators trust the audience to go for the ride and laugh while the movie laughs at itself. Instead we get more moments where everything is spelled out for us. For instance, a great moment of hilarity when we arrive at Cohen’s character’s mansion and see Mos Def and Elvis Costello. The joke is priceless that they, for what possible reason, could be there. It’s a real shame that Ferrell needs to bring attention to them, for no other reason than to ruin the inside joke for those who actually recognized the singers. Remember to stay and watch the few outtakes during the start of the end credits. At least reward yourself for sitting through the duration for some good, unorchestrated laughs.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby 4/10
As comparison: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy 3/10

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photography:
[1] Will Ferrell stars in Columbia Pictures’ comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Photo Credit: Suzanne Hanover, S.M.P.S.P.
[2] John C. Reilly (l) and Will Ferrell star in Columbia Pictures’ comedy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Photo Credit: Suzanne Hanover, S.M.P.S.P.

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If Out of Sight is any indication, I really need to watch more Steven Soderbergh films. This movie is great on many levels. I’ve seen and loved Traffic, The Limey is top-notch, and the Ocean’s movies are enjoyable at times, however I never really jumped on the bandwagon. Maybe it was the boring, mediocre Erin Brochovich, or the fact that he left his indie roots to kick it with the big boys, I always pushed Soderbergh to the side, saying I’d get to him later. Well later has come. Out of Sight has pitch-perfect performances from every principal and supporting character on screen, the cross between drama, action, and comedy is flawless, and the style has just the right amount of flair.

The film starts out by throwing us right into the middle of a heist. Through current happenings and scene specific flashbacks, we learn the back-stories of every character and learn to accept them for whom they are, while also allowing us to believe each one’s evolution. George Clooney is great, as usual, playing himself—a smooth talking, slick ladies man, who gets the girl and the spoils. While Clooney could be knocked for not having much range as an actor, he sticks to his strengths and most times succeeds. His turn as a CIA agent in this year’s Syriana was well-deserving of the Oscar win, and hopefully he will get credit for the work he has put forth throughout his career; that being solid performances full of natural charisma. Ving Rhames shows us why he is one of the best character actors working today. One of those guys that you don’t mind seeing in every film, he doesn’t have much to do here, (a part reminiscent to the one he reprises in the Mission Impossible series), he plays it right and never misses a beat. Don Cheadle also shows us the skill that he has finally been recognized for of late. The guy is great as the hero/good guy, (Hotel Rwanda, Manic), and here equal to the task as the villain. Cheadle shows some real malice here—sadistic malice. You never know what he will do next because you actually believe he is capable of anything.

Another thing this movie does is remind me how actors like Jennifer Lopez and Steve Zahn can really show skill when they have the right part. Zahn’s crazy, naïve, vulnerability is exactly what is needed to play against serious sarcasm, like that thrown around by Clooney’s character Foley. Zahn is seen too often in comedies where he falls flat and becomes redundant. He is the laugh man to any straight man, that is his strength and I wish we could see more of him in movies like this. As for Lopez, she really plays the role nicely. She exudes successful woman sexiness, quietly going through the movie, very low-key. This is before she became jack-of-all-trades, watering down her own image. As far as this film and Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, she can pull off the gritty drama much better than the saccharine coated movies she churns out presently. Also, one cannot forget to speak of Albert Brook’s chameleon-like performance. He is virtually unrecognizable until he speaks in the prison library. Expertly cast in the role, his serious tone lends itself well to the corporate criminal he plays, showing he means business while also letting some of his great comedic timing show through.

Through it all there is a great heist story from accomplished author Elmore Leonard. Whether there are plot holes, I really don’t remember. The brilliant performances draw you into their world completely and you go along for the ride without thinking twice. Soderbergh is an actor’s director for sure. His use of large ensembles always shows off a comradery that is realistic; he allows his cast to have fun and it translates to the screen. He is an artist as well with these quasi-low budget cinematic stabs. Like The Limey, he films with some flair. The still-frame effect is used effectively as a dissolve between scenes. It gets a bit much at some parts where we are shown small hitches, but overall works well for the caper story narrative. When he cuts between Lopez and Clooney at the hotel bar and room, we are given an amazing visceral scene. This is the crowning achievement of the film. With the bar conversation voicing over the scene, we go back and forth between the sexual tension at the bar and the awkwardness of their almost school yard crush at bedside. It is a great sequence to be remembered for its delicate care.

I hope to eventually see Soderbergh’s recent film Bubble and its subsequent digital companions in the future. It will be interesting to see him direct amateurs and if his skills are as good as they seem when handling the egos of professionals. Sex, Lies, and Videotapes along with Schizopolis are entering the queue of movies to see, and hopefully his Ocean’s 13, filming soon, won’t ruin a good thing, especially since 12 came dangerously close to doing so already.

Out of Sight 9/10

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