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No matter what you say about Pierce Brosnan’s acting talent, you have to give him credit for being able to make fun of the roles he has made a living on. From TV’s “Remington Steele” to his stint as James Bond, Brosnan has always been the suave killer with the serious demeanor and ladies aplenty. Even as of late you see him doing variations of the part like his diamond thief in After the Sunset. With The Matador, however, we see a side of Brosnan that is rarely used, his impeccable comedic timing. Sure he still is an assassin, but the way he plays it is priceless. I never really thought I’d be laughing yet alone laughing as often as I did while watching this film.

The idea of having a hitman losing his edge has been done before, (see Grosse Pointe Blank). What makes The Matador different is that we have someone who realizes how alone in the world he is and the need to have someone to talk with as he globetrots to his next kill. The actual breakdown doesn’t occur until later on and even then it’s just for the taste of blood, not a complete nervous breakdown. Brosnan’s Julian Noble is just normally a guy slightly off his rocker. Every word out of his mouth is hilarious and the sexual metaphor/simile one-liners are priceless. Lines like, “I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning, after the navy's left town,” show how witty the script is. To be able to have as much fun as I did with these characters while also watching them evolve and do exactly what is expected based on who they are is a rare treat. Greg Kinnear is the perfect straight man to have Brosnan play off of and the two have a wonderful rapport. Their relationship starts awkwardly as any would between two men of total opposite poles and progresses realistically to the point where you believe they would be telling each other what they are, (the liberal amounts of alcohol definitely helps as well). Even the clichéd “six months later” device midway was utilized well and intelligently. All in all, The Matador is an entertaining indie comedy well worth your time.

The Matador 8/10

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When you have the sort of auspicious debut that director Todd Field had with his fantastic first feature In the Bedroom, there is a big anticipation to see whether the sophomore effort can bring the same intensity. The trailer for Little Children definitely set an ominous tone with its minimalist composition of frame, the sparse amount of words, and the foreboding train sounds heard throughout. It was a great tease, doing its job to spark interest while not giving too much away. I had hoped to see the film in theatres, but unfortunately Buffalo has not been graced with its appearance, as of yet. Maybe the Golden Globe nomination will cause enough interest to bring a print to a Dipson near you, I don’t know. I will say, though, if it comes to town, run out and see it. Little Children is not a perfect film; it is instead a mood piece slowly building up to a boil until it finally breaches and flows out at the end, engulfing everything in its wake.

Like many suburban tales of infidelity, this movie has all the generic ingredients. A father, that is trapped in a marriage where his wife’s love for their child is driving them apart from each other, making a physical relationship an impossibility, eventually meets up with a mother, who yearns to be independent and takes her anger—for choosing to watch her child alone, thus negating any chance to be by herself—out on the child she should love unconditionally. You mix in the breadwinning spouses with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, along with friends and neighbors heightened to the point of caricature, and we have the recipe for disaster. Through it all, however, lies the x-factor of a recently released from jail, child offender whose role in this play doesn’t quite come to the surface until the powerful climax. His presence is at all times prevalent and yet pushed to the background enough so that the audience can watch each story thread separately from each other and allow the filmmakers to lead us on the path they have chosen.

Little Children is a deliberate and methodical piece of poetic narrative. Todd Field showed an immense restraint with his economical use of the camera in his debut film and seems to have gone even more minimal here. There is never a superfluous object in view throughout the film; each frame has been constructed with the utmost care to show us exactly what it is we need to know at that moment. When it seems about to cross the line into monotony, however, the engrossing characters on screen save it. Every actor brings their best to the table and carries the story in their actions. The juxtaposition of these real people with the overly stylized structure and background players helps bring the idea across that this is a storybook tale gone wrong. Patrick Wilson once again gives a pitch-perfect performance and adds to his flawless resume. He may do few movies compared to most, but he seems to have a knack for picking the best ones, see Hard Candy and Angels in America among others for example. Kate Winslet is wonderful as usual playing the emotional wreck of the story, a woman who never quite allows herself to be happy, and Jennifer Connelly gives a subtle performance as the wife whose controlling nature means well yet accomplishes the exact opposite of what she desires.

Field has put on film a very original telling of an almost contemporary fable. At every turn it is as if he is reading us a bedtime story to the point where it blatantly alludes itself to literature, closely mirroring the stories spoken of, including that of Oedipus and Madame Bovary. Our tale is even narrated, for its duration, by Will Lyman, yet never feels gimmicky. His voice leads us through the story as each frame is turned as though a page in a book. We don’t, therefore, watch a natural progression of characters evolving due to their interactions with one another. The film has always had a beginning and an end; we are just sitting down to find out what happens along the way. In other words, the idea of cinema telling us a story is literally put to use. Like any good book, eventually drawing its reader into the very fibers of the paper, absolutely needing to see what happens to the protagonists next, Little Children envelops the viewer with the desire to find out whether any of the characters can ultimately be redeemed. The beauty of humanity is that we have the capacity to forgive and facilitate second chances. Nothing could help us understand this fact more than the powerfully raw performances of both Noah Emmerich and Jackie Earle Haley. These two carry the emotional core of this film on their shoulders and are the epitome of how not to allow a mistake to shape your life.

Little Children 9/10

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photography:
[1] (left to right) Kate Winslet stars as “Sarah” and Patrick Wilson stars as “Brad” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming release of Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN. Photo Credit: ©2006 Robert Zuckerman/New Line Productions
[2] Jennifer Connelly stars as “Kathy” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming release of Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN. Photo Credit: ©2006 Robert Zuckerman/New Line Productions

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There are so many animated films coming out a year that it is tough to bring yourself to see any of them. Sure the Pixar brand means instant gold, however, the multitude of studios popping up with computer graphics are really watering down the quality. Especially with every studio releasing the same thing in competition, how many free from the zoo films did we sit through, it is a true surprise when one of these films surprises you. When I first saw the commercials for Dreamworks’ Over the Hedge, I had very mixed feelings. I never quite bought the huge hype surrounding the Shrek franchise and Madagascar was a bit of a letdown, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Although the story isn’t anything original, the parallels to Toy Story are very prevalent as well as multiple callbacks to Indiana Jones, Citizen Kane, and A Streetcar Named Desire, etc., the all-star cast and comic relief do make the film a fun ride to sit through.

I was a bit surprised at the dark beginning. Before the credits role, (don’t get me started here, animated films should not have a prolonged credit sequence, we aren’t watching these names act so don’t try and sell us by name dropping when we are already seated and watching), there is a confrontation between our reluctant hero RJ and a bear named Vincent. While the quarrel does set up what is to happen, it was a bit edgy compared to the clips I had seen in the trailers. Fortunately, the film doesn’t take too long to break the drama and go into the fun atmosphere of our setting, a small patch of green left behind by the suburban sprawl. RJ must recruit the woodland creatures to help him enter his alien world and find food to feed Vincent. Sure we will have the obligatory turning on the leader for the new guy, the antics to get the job done, and the change of heart to save what really matters most in life, but besides the cookie cutter plotline we are treated to some hilarious characters.

Bruce Willis does a nice job as RJ the raccoon and has a good rapport with his equal in leadership abilities Verne, voiced by Garry Shandling. These two are the straight men throughout, doing what they can to rally the troops into succeeding at their tasks for the Spring. It’s really the periphery roles that steal the show. I generally find Wanda Sykes to be abrasive and annoying, but she reins in her schtick for an effectively bitter skunk in one of the few family-orientated jobs she has done. William Shatner parodies himself as usual, doing the pause ridden speech patterns he is loved for and Eugene Levy is also great as the husband without a backbone, agreeing to whatever seems the right thing to do at the time. The best of all the lemmings, however, is Hammy the squirrel, voiced perfectly by Steve Carell. Hammy’s manic energy does wonders to create big laughs and allows for many of the best gimmicks. His fighting with himself in a mirrored bumper and the hunt to catch the laser pointer’s red dot are priceless.

A big reason for many of the new animated successes lies with how original the characters involved are, rather than how fresh the story is. Over the Hedge is a perfect example of this, and while a movie like Madagascar fails despite the crazy penguins, this one is a winner as a result of its quirky cast. By allowing ample screen time for the roles that work, one forgets how derivative the tale is because they are so caught up in the antics. Credit the filmmakers for getting the little things right here and not trying to bog down the fun with unnecessary drama. Even the GPS brought laughs as I wish the real ones would restructure their directions when off course by asking for illegal left turns.

Over the Hedge 7/10

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[1] Hammy the squirrel (voiced by Steve Carell) has no idea that he’s about to be clobbered by a Trail Guide Girl in DreamWorks Animation’s Over the Hedge – 2006
[2] Penelope (voiced by Catherine O’ Hara), Lou (voiced by Eugene Levy), Verne (voiced by Garry Shandling), Stella (voiced by Wanda Sykes), Hammy (voiced by Steve Carell), Ozzie (voiced by William Shatner) and Heather (voiced by Avril Lavigne) in DreamWorks Animation’s Over the Hedge – 2006

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Here we have Hollywood’s newest addition to the agenda driven film, trying to get people’s attention to the plight of Africa. The trailers had me intrigued, but the press stemmed much of that anticipation as most I heard talked about how preachy the movie was, with its only concern being to show Americans the death and destruction that went into their precious engagement ring. I am a big fan of the three principal actors, however, and I tried to leave all the critic’s words home when going out to see Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Thankfully I did, because if I listened to the hype, while some being true about its’ purposes, I would have missed one of the best directed and acted films of the year.

Similar to last year’s The Constant Gardener, Zwick has given us a story about family and sacrifice to mask the underlying theme of exposing the inhumane activities going on inside, in this case, Sierra Leone. While I felt the former film succeeded immensely in veiling its true purpose with a heart-wrenchingly emotional tale of love and faith, the latter tries to do the same, but at certain moments fails. Between the middle of the film, when the main characters discuss what they know about diamond smuggling—all generalities they both know already but speak aloud for the sake of letting us the audience in on the atrocities—and the tacked on epilogue—which subverts much of the beauty the final scenes before it brought, and serves as what looks like just a means to get Michael Sheen some dialogue—I did find myself shaking my head at how heavy-handed the film was at times. I think these moments stuck out most because the rest of the film, the telling of Solomon Vandy’s search for his refugee family, was so effective that it overshadowed all the message delivery devices. You really feel for the plight of Vandy and for both Maddy Bowen and Danny Archer as they try to put their professional lives on hold long enough to try and do good for their new friend and for themselves.

Leonardo DiCaprio, as Archer, continues to get better and better with each role he gets. An actor that has always impressed me, much of his past work, while effective, has given off an air of boy in man’s shoes. DiCaprio looks younger than most characters that he portrays and as a result comes off as unbelievable no matter how well he encompasses the role. An example of this would be The Departed from earlier this year. True I have Tony Leung’s spectacular performance in the original film to compare it to, but Leo just seems out of his element at times, not quite yet realistic as a seasoned tough guy. His portrayal of Danny Archer, however, blows the doors off that generality because he truly embodies this character and feels like the 31 year old that has served in the military, been kicked around for years, and recently held in prison for smuggling. Between his first scene trying to see the main guy in charge to sell his guns and the powerful speech with Vandy about baboon hunting among other things, I was completely riveted by the job he did. Also, the accent stays solid throughout and seems natural enough to suspend disbelief that this is an American playing an Afrikaner.

There must also be mention of the two other leads that successfully embody their roles. Jennifer Connelly is always solid and one of the best character women working in Hollywood today. Her facially expressions and body language are perfect as the strong reporter looking for the story to break the blood diamond case wide open. I credit Zwick as well for his directing the relationship between her and Archer. The sexual tension is there as well as the comradery needed between them. Their characters never break from who they are in order to enjoy a quick tryst amongst the carnage, they are totally creatures of their past. Our third lead, Djimon Hounsou, carries the emotional barometer here as he usually does. Like DiCaprio, Hounsou continues to grow as an actor and is steadily becoming one of the best in the business. After his debut in Amistad, without yet really knowing English, he had his true breakthrough in In America. He is so real and true in his performances, that you cannot help but pull for him to get through all that the world throws at him.

It is true that the moments of preaching took a little away from the film and at times halted the brisk pace in order to give exposition into the diamond trade; exposition that is ultimately unnecessary in the larger story being told. The film is about civil war and three people caught up in the middle of it trying to find a way out that serves each of their needs. It is their survival that the audience gets caught up in, and not the reason the war started in the first place. Zwick shows a deft hand at filming wartime explosions and chaos. I have not yet seen Glory, but there are many moments here that bring to mind his last film, The Last Samurai. Besides the jarring camerawork and brutality that he is unafraid to show, there is also a parallel arc between our hero there and of Danny Archer here. Both films are about a man who has endured a tough life and learned to build a wall around his heart. As a character in Blood Diamond says though, all men may or may not be evil or good, however, they are all people. It may only take one moment to finally live the life they have always wanted, and the path to that moment doesn’t always end up being nice.

Blood Diamond 8/10

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photography:
[1] LEONARDO DiCAPRIO stars as Danny Archer and JENNIFER CONNELLY stars as Maddy Bowen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Virtual Studios’ action drama ‘Blood Diamond,’ distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk
[2] LEONARDO DiCAPRIO stars as Danny Archer and DJIMON HOUNSOU stars as Solomon Vandy in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Virtual Studios’ action drama ‘Blood Diamond,’ distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk

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It is that time of the year where all the Golden Globes and Oscar hype hit the airwaves, DVD screeners are sent to voters, and Buffalo gets just the top few contenders. With all the critical acclaim of some films, it is a real shame we don’t get to see them all on the big screen (still can’t fathom how Little Children has not come to theatres here, maybe the Golden Globe nom will get the ball rolling). Karen Moncrieff’s sophomore effort The Dead Girl falls into the category of a great trailer for a movie that may not have gotten the press to catapult it onto top ten lists. It had been on my list of films to see and I finally got the opportunity to check it out. There is an all-star cast and an intertwining narrative, which draws comparisons to a film like Crash, yet presents itself in a different way. The characters are all connected by the titular dead girl, yet never meet each other. We are shown each story separately without the contrived overlap last year’s Oscar winner had. While some vignettes work better than others, the overall film does succeed as a whole. Moncrieff has put some great performances on screen to display the powerful emotions needed to tell this story.

The Dead Girl begins with the discovery of the slain woman in a field. This girl will be the backbone to our tale as her presence in that field commences a chain of events that will be felt by many people. Our first chapter tells the story about the stranger who found the body. She is a mousy woman who is trapped in a life she hates by her overbearing mother, played with razor-sharp viciousness by Piper Laurie, who has made a career out of these kinds of roles. This primary section shows what could be a parallel to the final night of the dead girl’s life, and while effectively acted, doesn’t really add that much to the final story. The same could be said about the third chapter called “The Wife.” While we are introduced to a character that plays an integral role in the final chapter of the film, the overall story is a bit lacking. What the wife does for her husband shows either the power of love or the strength of self-preservation, and that ambiguity takes a little something away from the effectiveness of the action.

Where the movie really shines is with the glimpses into the lives of “The Sister,” “The Mother,” and “The Dead Girl.” These three chapters are heartbreakingly real and emotionally resonant. Rose Byrne carries the film, in the second part, with her performance as a med student who believes the body of a girl she is prepping for autopsy is her missing sister. The mental anguish caused by her sister’s disappearance fifteen years prior has eaten away at her. She never has an opportunity to live her life because her parents and those around her spend all their energy trying to find their missing daughter, instead of trying to show the one they still have the same compassion. When she believes that the search could finally be over, there is a release from depression and a sense that she can finally rebuild her shattered life. Byrne’s performance is rivaled only by chapter four’s Marcia Gay Harden, as the victim’s mother, who is trying to piece together why her daughter left in the first place. Acting opposite Kerry Washington, against her usual type here as a beaten prostitute, Harden shows the love of a mother and the sorrow of finding out that she might have been able to prevent everything had she just looked closer years ago.

After catching small glimpses into the lives of those affected by the death of a hard luck girl, we receive the payoff by seeing the last moments of her life in the final chapter. Played almost too realistically by Brittany Murphy, she looks like she might have starved herself and gotten high each morning before filming, we are given a face to the body. She is a girl with so much life inside her and a motherly joy for the birthday of her daughter. There is a love for her best friend and a favorite “John” of hers that can bring out a rage powerful enough to stand up for them at her own safety’s risk, yet her juvenile glee when things go right show how broken her character really is. She was raised on the streets and never matured into the woman she should have. Her childlike innocence just augments how cruel and random this world we live in is and how much pain one horrible act can inflict on complete strangers.

The Dead Girl 8/10

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photography:
[1] Toni Collette as Arden and Giovanni Ribisi as Rudy in First Look Pictures’ The Dead Girl – 2006. Photo by Ron Batzdorff.
[2] Marcia Gay Harden as Melora with Kerry Washington as Rosetta in The Dead Girl – 2006. Photo by Ron Batzdorff.

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I never thought I’d hear the horns play the Rocky theme song again on the big screen. When I heard that Sylvester Stallone was bringing back the character that made his career, I couldn’t help but laugh. After a great one, two punch with the first couple films in the saga, he hit a huge snag with the third, redeemed some respect with the fourth, and put a nail in the coffin with the fifth, (I try to forget that one was even made). One must wonder who thought there would be any interest in a new final chapter to the legendary underdog tale, let alone want to put up the money to back it. Although the new film, simply titled Rocky Balboa, is definitely not the best film by any means, it ends the story right, helps us forget Tommy Gunn, and, I’ll admit, gets the blood going with feelings of nostalgia and a long forgotten hope buried deep down in our own basement.

Stallone was a writer first and foremost. He saw a chance to break into the industry by writing a simple tale about a streetwise kid who turns his life around because of the desire to be true to himself. Young Rocky Balboa gets the girl, shows what he is made of, and wins the hearts of a nation. This script was picked up and Stallone was given the chance to bring his words to life. A phenomenon was born, and although he tried to do other things after, Sly was never going to be a great actor. The only way for him to succeed was to be himself and act the truest he could in the part that most closely mirrored who he really was. When we see Rocky onscreen we are really looking into the eyes of the man who created the whole thing. Yes there were some snags, some really bad snags, along the way, but thankfully we have been given the opportunity to finish the arc the way we started it, with a quiet dignity and compassion for our hero.

Rocky Balboa goes back to the roots of the first film and tells the story of a man who has no quit in him. This is not a fight film, but a character study about people who are looking deep inside themselves to find out who they truly are. Sure Rocky has pain inside him and a desire to let it all out, but the beauty of the first three quarters is in the small roles and how they are adjusting to life out of the limelight. Adrian has passed away, Paulie feels remorse for the past and a new found hobby of painting to deal with it, Rocky Jr is trying to cope with the shadow his father has cast on him, and Mason “the Line” Dixon is dealing with the glory of fame without the heart of a champion. Balboa is the glue that helps guide all these characters through the next month or so, to help them with their troubles and to finally lay rest the demons in his psyche.

Stallone once again shows heart and skill in deftly portraying someone not much different than his real life persona. A lug through and through, Rocky always has a golden nugget of advice or an anecdotal speech to motivate. It’s great to see Burt Young back as Paulie, everyone’s favorite cantankerous uncle who can be menacing, (loved the meat plant worker almost running away from him in fear), and than lovingly humorous at the blink of an eye. Tony Burton’s return as Duke is a nice addition too. Even Milo Ventimiglia brings a good performance to the table, as I have been disappointed with his acting in the show “Heroes.” The resemblance in expressions and attitude to Stallone really helps make the relationship work. Geraldine Hughes adds some welcome heart to the mix as well.

Unfortunately, while the beginning half of the film works nicely, both visually and script-wise, it’s the final act or so that brings it down. For one, Antonio Tarver has no charisma onscreen and looks uncomfortable throughout. There really is no malice setup for the guy and therefore no true villain to root against. Where, in the first film, Apollo Creed was also not an evil man to want to lose, he at least had a well-developed and acted character to add to the story and rivalry. Here, Mason Dixon is just a pawn cutout there to drive the plot. Also, the final fight sequence is badly directed. Stallone could have desperately used some help there to rein his vision. The dissolves and camera tricks are many and very distracting. Every change to black and white seemed to contain a close up of Rocky and always made me chuckle at how much it looked like the claymation Lipton Ice Tea commercials. When he tries to spice it up with flashes of color, mixed with the monotone, it just looks like a bad Gatorade spot. Despite everything though, I will say that I loved the get-in-shape montage, as no Rocky film can be made without one. The end doesn’t get too sappy or campy as one would think, and the many parallels throughout the movie to the first Rocky adds to the nostalgic feel and the childlike glee in seeing the Italian Stallion go out for a final curtain call.

Rocky Balboa 6/10
As comparison: Rocky 9/10, Rocky II 7/10, Rocky III 4/10, Rocky IV 8/10, Rocky V 2/10

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photography:
[1] Rocky Balboa (SYLVESTER STALLONE) steps out of retirement and back into the ring, pitting himself against a new rival in a dramatically different era. The final round of the Academy Award-winning Rocky franchise hits theatres Friday, December 22, 2006. Written and directed by SYLVESTER STALLONE. Photo by: John Bramley
[2] Rocky Balboa (SYLVESTER STALLONE), looking fit and cut, steps out of retirement and back into the ring to face a younger and more skilled rival in a dramatically different era. The final round of the Academy Award®-winning Rocky franchise hits theatres Friday, December 22, 2006. Written and directed by SYLVESTER STALLONE.

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I will preface this review with the fact that I am a big Brian De Palma apologist. I have not seen a movie by him that I didn’t like. Whether mainstream hits like Scarface and The Untouchables, indie favs like Sisters and Femme Fatale, or even the surreal camp that is The Phantom of the Paradise, I love them all. Therefore I tried to disregard all the bad press surrounding The Black Dahlia’s release as I figured no matter how bad people thought it was I would at least enjoy it. For the first three quarters or so I was really into this tale of a city’s underground narrated by one of its’ boxers turned cops. Even though the final act tries to sew up all loose ends of the murder, (that has never been solved in real life), very rapidly and with every character we have met during the duration, I still must admit I enjoyed the ride.

With all the trailers showing footage of the beautiful Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short in her screen tests and the words “Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved murders” I assumed the film was going to be about the crime and its subsequent case. Instead we are given a story around a former boxer turned police detective, Bucky Bleichert. Our narrator is surprisingly played well by Josh Hartnett who has really showed some skill over the past couple years and may not be the untalented pretty boy I first thought; even his young looks are masked at times by a face etched in the pain of life. Bleichert is trying to fix his life by getting a job he is passionate about, finding a suitable place for his dementia-ridden father, and meeting friends that he cares for. These friends are his partner Lee Blanchard, played with nice intensity by Aaron Eckhart, and Kay Lake, played unobtrusively by Scarlett Johansson. The three make an inseparable group, with the boys making a name for themselves in crime fighting. It is the coincidence of an old criminal getting out of jail and the gruesome death of young actress Short that spins their world into chaos as the leads show how fallible they are.

I really enjoyed the subdued color palette and resemblance to old 40’s film style that the aesthetics had. The acting was a bit over the top, especially Hilary Swank, but never went too far except in select cases. De Palma has really spun James Ellroy’s novel into a hard-boiled noir that feels straight out of an old crime novel, dialogue included. With everything going on though, I believe he should have stayed with the insight into Bucky Bleichert’s life. Short’s Black Dahlia plays a small role in the proceedings by really only causing the spring-boarding of Blanchard’s decent to vengeance and Bucky’s need to be with Swank’s Madeleine. By deciding to all of a sudden wrap up the case, after all parts of the main story about our trio of friends had been completed, the end feels tacked on and very rushed. It is also here where the eccentrics come out for some laughable monologues and craziness, (although I loved William Finley’s role and that De Palma still finds a part for him in his new films). When Eckhart and Johansson all but disappear from the screen for large chunks of time, it is the emotions going through Hartnett’s character that keep the plot moving. Once he all of a sudden becomes interested in finding Short’s killer, when previously not wanting to touch the case, it works in regards that he has been in contact with the perpetrators but not to the film we have been watching.

De Palma gets an A-plus for the art design and style he clearly set out to show and run with. The muddled color palette was effective as well as the stark black and white, fullframe screen test footage of Kirshner. This old footage was spliced nicely and utilized as both flashback to her character and evidence to steer our leads through the story. It’s unfortunate that De Palma felt the need to solve the case when the film wasn’t leading us in that direction. Yes I’m sure the novel had that as the ending, however, once he realized how much effort he had put into the characters he should have not done them the injustice by wrapping the film up so neatly and quickly. Because of this, what was at first a nice period piece and moody telling of crime in Hollywood became a contrived murder mystery solved.

The Black Dahlia 6/10

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photography:
[1] Ofcr. Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Sgt. Leland ‘Lee’ Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) in Universal Pictures’ The Black Dahlia – 2006
[2] Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short in Universal Pictures’ The Black Dahlia – 2006

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The hype for this film was huge as far as the places I go for my movie news. There were rumors that Christopher Guest had retired his brand of improv mockumentary, and just the mention of his return with For Your Consideration brought a smile to my face. I will admit I haven’t seen either Waiting for Guffman (if anyone has it please let me borrow) or A Mighty Wind, however, Best in Show is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen and This is Spinal Tap, while not Guest’s, holds onto the same criteria and is a classic of the canon. Although Consideration is not a mockumentary per se, it definitely follows the same rubric as the past films with a loose outline that is expanded upon by the cast to later be edited into the feature that is released. There are some priceless moments here, especially the overall satire of the industry they are a part of, it’s just too bad that there really isn’t anything on screen that’s interesting or engrossing. The joke that this campy, over-the-top movie with hammy performances could garner Oscar buzz is laughable and a great starting point. Unfortunately, once it started, you soon learn that’s the only joke the filmmakers are going to use for its entirety.

What makes films like Best in Show and Spinal Tap so engrossing and funny is that they take a group of people and follow them during a single activity. We learn about them and are allowed to root for and against fully fleshed out people. For Your Consideration has gone away from this pattern and instead decided to mock the industry rather than the people in it. This tactic falls on its face, though, as the characters don’t grow or develop, they just do their thing to further advance the story until the final reveal occurs with the Oscar nominations. Rather than tell the actors’ stories we just see pawns acting flaky and getting their hopes up before we find out the outcome. I think the huge number of characters hurt immensely because each can only be onscreen so much with a running time under an hour and a half. If Guest had stuck to his formula and made a mockumentary following these people around the set it might have worked. By infusing an outside story he ruins the pacing and gives us dramatic scenes that undercut the comedy we should be seeing. It’s a mixed bag overall and the audience can never really settle into a groove and have a good time with it.

While the film ultimately fails, many of the performances do not. Harry Shearer is great as the washed-up neverbeen who is so good at deflecting criticism and insults that his acting with reporters supercedes his acting in movies. Parker Posey steals the show with a small but emotional role. If the film was a straight out comedy like Guest’s others I probably wouldn’t have liked this part, but since the film is so instilled with drama and a storyline, her ability to show both the working and real side of an actor is truly a joy to watch. She plays it real throughout while many of her costars have trouble picking a true path for their characters, whether realistic of cartoonish. Many others have some nice moments including Ed Begley Jr., Guest himself totally transformed, and especially Jane Lynch and Fred Willard, (who is a master at improv here as the celebrity show co-host much like he was as the announcer in Best in Show). I would like to single out Catherine O’Hara, but, by the end, her character becomes very unlikable and campy herself. While funny in her drunken stupor moment, whatever she does to her face for the second half of the film is too distracting, although she could be costar Jennifer Coolidge’s twin as a result.

Overall the film just didn’t have the laughs needed to support the premise; it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. While most of the acting was good, the never-ending list of cameos got old and confusing as the real people we were watching became second fiddle to characters only onscreen for lees than a minute. The filmmakers over-reached too far and could never reign in the sprawling plot to be something I was invested in for the duration.

For Your Consideration 4/10

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photography:
[1] Christopher Moynihan as Brian Chubb, Harry Shearer as Victor Allan Miller, Catherine O’Hara as Marilyn Hack and Parker Posey as Callie Webb in director Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner © 2006 Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC.

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I don’t know how I went 23 years of Christmas without having It’s a Wonderful Life playing during the holiday season. Last year I saw the film for the first time on the big screen at the Screening Room in Amherst. Once again, as it seems to have become a yearly tradition there, I have found myself loving it just as much the second time this year. Frank Capra has put a masterpiece onto celluloid here, and that is quite a feat for a holiday niche film. Never dull, always heartwarming, funny, and true, It’s a Wonderful Life is truly one of cinema’s shining achievements.

Sure there is the whole cliché of seeing the world as though you have never existed; the waking up to show how important life is to so many. It’s a rendition of Dickens yet spun in a way that makes it its own. The entire film could have run with the gimmick and created a complete story from it, as numerous reinterpretations have done—Mr. Destiny, The Family Man, etc—however, that would have been the cheap way out. Instead the filmmakers have started us at the end, a tragedy has occurred and a man’s faith in life is waning. Prayers have been sent above and the Gods have decided to send down an angel to help our hero out of his predicament. Well this angel knows nothing about George Bailey, so for the first three quarters of the movie we go along for the ride to catch up on the life of this great man, just as our angel Clarence does the same. We are shown the life of a man who has given the whole of his being for those around him. With naught a selfish bone in his body, George continues to sacrifice his happiness for the joy to see his friends jubilant. Through his good deeds, he eventually wakes up to the treasures of life that have been in front of him the whole time and really takes a small town from the Depression to a close-knit, successful society. It is almost too difficult to think he could be in so much trouble that he would be contemplating suicide, but once again we see his caring nature come through in that trying, desperate moment. When the story finally catches up to itself we learn that the predicament he is in is actually one of another that he has taken responsibility for in order to see if he can’t solve the town’s problems again.

James Stewart is a revelation here. The self-deprecating nature is prevalent at all times, and the intellect his character contains juxtaposes nicely with the humor and goodnaturedness. Stewart is George Bailey, as the role fully encompasses his being. Every nuance of emotion is etched to his face as he goes from wide-eyed explorer to smitten lover, responsible adult, compassionate son and brother, loving husband and father, beaten failure, and finally redeemed hero and friend to all men and women he has ever come across. Of course what hero can exist without a nemesis of equal power whose immense strength comes from evil? Here we have the loathed Mr. Potter played brilliantly by Lionel Barrymore. I don’t think anyone who has ever seen this film can have any real compassion for this man who is truly a scrooge to all. People are numbers and figures to him, which need to be conquered and claimed as his own. Barrymore is despicably slimy and true to his character at all times. There must also be mention of the beautiful Donna Reed as our protagonist’s love interest. Her striking beauty and self-assuredness shows why George Bailey could be so taken by her, always getting distracted away from his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls. The sexual tension between Reed and Stewart throughout begins humorously at a dance and after when drenched with water and culminates in a serious and real moment as the love takes over during a phone conversation with an old friend. The relationship is believable from start to finish, portrayed even by the young actors who played their roles as children.

True there is a segmented population during Christmas time containing those who watch A Christmas Story, those with a love for Christmas Vacation, and those championing It’s a Wonderful Life among many others. I must say that I have been converted to Capra’s classic film and would have no problem watching it every Christmas for the rest of my life. The story means a lot of things to many people and has been remade countless times in many forms, (there are chunks of time here which show how even Back to the Future II is ripping it off completely). If you want a perfectly written and acted tale of the joy of giving and the strength of friendship to help show the true meaning of Christmas, look no further than this gem that has endured for 60 years. Yes, I will be purchasing the newly released 60th anniversary DVD—sometimes waiting half a century has its benefits as the first copy I own will be the definitive package available.

It’s a Wonderful Life 10/10

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Being that my only previous knowledge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol came from a rendition done by the muppets and a Bill Murray comedic vehicle, I was quite looking forward to checking out, what many call, the definitive version from 1951. I have never read the book, however, a friend of mine said he had just finished reading it again before our viewing, and that this movie was as close as can be without alienating the audience with archaic language. While the title at beginning and end is Scrooge, many know the film by the novel it’s based off of. We Americans needed to be handheld even in the 50’s changing the name from the original British release so as not to throw people off that the story was Dickens even if it didn’t share the name. Either way, this film is a great success at getting the story about the season of giving through to the audience. An evolution of epic proportions accomplished in one evening of catharsis and rebirth.

Again, being that Bill Murray and the muppets were my barometer for this yarn, I have to say Alastair Sim is the best Ebenezer Scrooge I have seen, (not to knock the great Michael Caine, but he played across from hand puppets and unfortunately the drops his performance down ever so slightly). Sim plays Scrooge with a bitterness befitting the character. His pent up rage against the world that has only rewarded his hard work with pain is boiling beneath the surface, coming up at every opportunity to spread his cheerful Bah, Humbug. The reactions during his ghostly visits are emotionally true, and his pleas that he is too old to change truthful excuses falling on deaf ears. Even after his metamorphosis, while at first appearing to take the glee of Christmas cheer a bit too far into absurdity, his giggles and smile are so genuine and infectious that you can’t help but grin and bask in the humanity on display. When Sim seems to go overboard, it always seems to have a purpose and realism. This can’t be said for many others, but this is an old film and the craft of acting was one to show emotion rather than dissolve the actor into a role completely as today. The overacting was the norm and the theatricality a staple in the field. Michael Hordern does a great job as Jacob Marley, (although, when a ghost, he does have a couple cringe-worthy facial contorts and overreaching moans), and Mervyn Johns is a standout as the put-upon Bob Cratchit who only sees the good in people no matter how horrible they are on the outside.

There must be notice of the special effects, since the film was made in 1951. The way the ghosts were created as transparent composites was very well done, considering. Even at the one point where Scrooge walks through a solid human, (there is a flicker where upon Scrooge becomes see through before turning solid again), is almost a seamless transition. It was also nice how, when during flashbacks and cut scenes of activities during his travel with the spirits, Scrooge is put to the background and the audience almost becomes his proxy, watching the proceedings. We don’t need to see him viewing everything and emoting reactions. We see and feel as he would and his reactions are only needed to progress us to the next vignette.

Scrooge (A Christmas Carol 1951) 8/10

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