You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2008.

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If I’m going to see the fourth installment of a film franchise, I should at least check out the one that started it all. That fact brings me to finally seeing the 80’s classic First Blood. It wears its decade on its sleeve with the acting, broad humor at times, and cheesy credit song “It’s a Long Road.” Despite all that, though, the movie lives up to the hype and fires on all cylinders. I had no clue that the story pitted one Green Beret against a hick town of bigot cops. When I thought Rambo and I had visions of one-man wars versus countries or platoons of soldiers, not civilians out with a vendetta. Rambo just wanted a friend in the world that saw him fight for his country with honor and return home to heckling and protest. All he did overseas was spit on by his return and he became a stereotype drifter, an untouchable to society. The truth of that comes out when a Sheriff in Oregon sees him crossing the street and escorts him out of town, refusing to allow him to even have one meal. He kept pushing and pushing, enough so that Rambo just couldn’t take anymore.

As far as the premise goes, this one is quite effective. Based off a novel, I can see where the story would be strong despite the subsequent sequels for which I hear are horrible. To have a man beaten, on the brink of giving up on life, find his way back to the horrors he has been trying his hardest to forget is a clichéd setup for sure, but it is all we need to set this thing in motion. With some nice quick cuts, we are shown the torture he endured in Vietnam juxtaposed with the handling by the local authorities on a trumped up vagrancy charge for looking unclean. They drew first blood and it is up to him to get himself out, with or without taking other people with him. Rambo understands that these people are civilians and decides to only incapacitate them rather than kill all in his wake. These are not the Viet Cong, they are like him, however, they know nothing about what he has gone through in order to allow them to sit back at home feeling free. If nothing else, this film is here to show people that no matter what your views on a war may be, no matter how much one thinks it is not our fight, if our troops are there, they deserve our full support. They are doing a job and a service that we are not willing to do ourselves as we sit and watch tv feeds, shaking our heads that it is all for nothing. If we give even one inch, they will take a mile, you can’t lay down, ever. They fight for us and deserve to be treated as heroes.

With all that said, can one really condone what John Rambo does in this film? No. Not even his old superior Colonel Trautman, brilliantly portrayed by Richard Crenna, can accept what he is doing. He doesn’t come in to set his boy free; he arrives to get him into custody so the fight will stop. The private war that has commenced needs to come with consequences. The punishment just needs to fit the crime. Rambo does nothing wrong except to hope for some shred of decency from humanity. That idealism is what causes all the trouble. Sheriff Teasle happens to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and all hell breaks loose. It is a matter of survival at first, but with the unrelenting pace, it soon turns into a search for justice by a warped mind doing the only job he knows how. I laughed when I heard the stats that the character kills just one person in this film. I mean how can Rambo, the ultimate badass, kill just one person? The laugh is on me, though, because I don’t even count that one as his, it was the helicopter pilot’s fault for jerking the aircraft. Rambo may destroy an entire town, but a cold-blooded murderer he is not—at least not until part two (with the great name of Rambo: First Blood II, a dual title that confuses the heck out of people on what the original truly was called).

First Blood has become so entrenched in popular culture and the lexicon of cinema that even though I had never seen the film, I could swear I knew Crenna’s monologue about Rambo verbatim. I’m sure it was parodied multiple times and probably shown at sporting events or something, but I just knew the entire speech—pretty crazy since I had never seen it before. Besides his nice turn during and after that sequence, we get a powerhouse performance from Brian Dennehy as the sheriff. This guy is good and it is too bad he was never used to full potential in the industry. Sure he did a lot of films, but nothing that he stood out from the pack with. As for the star, Sylvester Stallone shows why he was pound for pound the best action star of the 80’s. Between this series and Rocky, he was stellar. From the charisma and shy modesty with which he begins the film, searching for his friend, to the stoic killing machine on the warpath, to the broken man unable to believe what has happened to the world around him, Sly runs the gamut effectively and perfectly. By far one of the best action films I’ve seen, First Blood stands the test of time and delivers on the cult status it holds. Surprisingly, I am now really looking forward to Rambo (part four) and definitely checking it out in a couple of days.

First Blood 8/10

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[1] Sylvester Stallone is John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood
[2] Brian Dennehy is Sheriff Teasle and Sylvester Stallone is John Rambo in First Blood

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The tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby and his harrowing ordeal of being locked-in his own body after a debilitating stroke is devastating. I can’t wait to finally start reading it—it’s a bit down the queue, but has gone up a few spots after seeing the film—however, after watching the film version, I can’t help but commend director Julian Schnabel. The man is the go to guy when it comes to artistic biopics. From the magnificent portrayal of Jean-Michel Basquiat in his first foray with the media (much help from the brilliant Jeffrey Wright) and the follow-up with Javier Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance in Before Night Falls (almost unheard of for a foreign film), the true star with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not necessarily lead actor Mathieu Amalric, (who is fantastic), but instead the camera itself. About three-quarters of this film is told from the vantage point of Bauby’s one working eyeball, and it is a glorious view using gorgeously abstract framing to help tell the story that went on inside his working mind, almost hidden forever behind his limp, immovable body.

From the first moments of the movie, we are placed inside Bauby’s head as he awakens from a three-week coma. All the blurs from inactivity, strong light, and moist tears prohibit our own clear view of the proceedings. What he sees is what we see. Although one could call it a gimmick, it is the only way this story could have been told. His memoirs are about his imagination, his memories, and his thoughts while trapped in his own mind, it is not about the people around him, watching this broken man with pity and sadness. Instead of a eulogy full of sorrow, Schnabel gives us a celebration of a life; a man who realized all the mistakes he had made and would never be able to reconcile, trying to use words to say he was sorry and that he loved everyone close to him, no matter what horrible things he did otherwise. We don’t need to see his still, distorted face because we as an audience are not supposed to feel bad for him either. We have to hear his snide remarks to himself and bitterness at the start in order to really understand his mindframe and evolution into the man that finally decided to do something other than wish for the end. That was a welcome surprise here, the subtle humor brought some good laughs to help break up the solemn tone and subject matter.

Stylistically speaking, the film is profound. It is a completely visual experience, (and don’t be worried that reading subtitles will detract from looking at the scenery, it is all up there to be seen as one), with many instances that stick with you afterwards. The final sequence is probably my favorite as the faces of all his friends that came to visit and/or helped him with his recovery fade in and out, melting into each other as well as the stark whiteout caused by the bright light coming in behind them. Schnabel also does the right thing when it comes to showing the process that went into allowing this man to speak with his eye. At first we must go letter by letter with the characters learning the process and honing it to perfection, but as the film goes on, we are only told the first letter while a montage continues for the rest as the complete sentences are read back to us. It resembles a time-lapse moment with faint cuts and disjointed speech in the background and works flawlessly to help alleviate any boredom that might set in having to see the process over and over again. With that said, though, the film’s main flaw still ends up being its length. The movie feels a lot longer than it is, appearing to have multiple concluding moments only to cut back to a new sequence. While I can think of nothing that would have been ok to excise from the rest, I did feel a tad overwhelmed at times as the story kept on going.

Those lulls have everything to do with the problematic biopic necessity of showing too much to try and encapsulate a life in two hours and nothing to do with the acting whatsoever. Every performance is quite stunning. Amalric is great, although not necessarily seen on screen very often as we mostly just get to hear his voice reacting to what we are seeing. However, the moments when we see his face, in paralysis, fighting back tears, you can’t deny the performance’s success. Both women involved really shine also, full of emotion and compassion for this man that may or may not give it back. His speech therapist Henriette is superbly played by Marie-Josée Croze and the mother of his children Céline by Emmanuelle Seigner. It is through their actions and reactions that we are shown the true weight of the situation with Bauby. When Seigner has to be in the room with her love’s mistress on the phone, you can’t help but feel the pain the words spoken inflict on her. The real surprise, though, is the powerful small role of Bauby’s father played by Max von Sydow. Pushing 80 years old, Sydow shows he still has the goods to carry a scene.

While not necessarily the masterpiece I had anticipated it to be, there are few complaints to be had with this biography of a giant of a man reduced to the memories still intact in his mind. You could take any single frame from the film and create a piece of art with it, it is that beautiful to behold. Schnabel has definitely done something unique with this adaptation and it deserves all the accolades it receives. It’s just too bad that it missed out on getting a Foreign-Language film Oscar; they need to change that rule and not allow just one film per country to be entered in the race.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 9/10

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[1] In Julian Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Marie-Josée Croze is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s speech therapist, Henriette. Photo Credit: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] In Julian Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Max Von Sydow is Papinou (left) to Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby (right). Photo credit: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films.

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With a plot that contains a Nazi war criminal hiding out in New England with his past erased, playing the role of school teacher and marrying the judge’s daughter, all while being on the hunt by an Allied Commission man, you’d think some good things could happen. Then you see that it stars and is directed by Orson Welles…you can’t lose. Unfortunately, absolutes are too misleading because Welles proves here that he is not infallible. In a heavy-handed story, complete with over-the-top performances, caricatures of past roles, multitudes of close-ups to show raised eyebrows and bulging eyes, The Stranger becomes more of a joke on itself than a serious thriller. If it has anything going for it, it is the fact that the unintentional humor is so pronounced and comical that it kind of works.

Welles himself is a lot of fun and plays the part well, completely without any trace of a German accent—tough to do, I would think, if you were an ex-Nazi general that came up with the concept of mass genocide. At least his friend, released from jail to trail him, had a thick gait to his voice giving some of the story authenticity. Welles plays the charmer impeccably, almost just riffing on himself; who could resist the guy? I really just like the fact that he casts himself as the villain oftentimes over the hero, not many vanity chasing leading men today would do that. They all direct just so they can secure themselves more screen time. To those means, it is his directing that has some flashes of brilliance mixed in with bouts of laziness. To show so many lingering reaction shots on himself whenever he gleans the news around town that his cover is slowly being blown is so blatant that it makes the subtle scenes just fade into the background. Scenes like when Welles is telling his wife a tale about who the little man was that came calling, shot in a way to only show her face looking at him while his hands wring around the back of a church pew are so gorgeous that you feel sorry they are apart of such a mixed bag whole. One moment also shows the couple going in for a kiss, so up close that their faces are silhouetted against the back wall—stunning to view.

The rest of the acting isn’t half bad either. Loretta Young, as the bride, is adequate and shows some nice moments when denying what she knows as the truth deep inside her. Edward G. Robinson is quite good as the government man on the case. With his gangster demeanor and looks, he plays the intelligence card right and his cajoling of the truth from people is impressive and believable. Even Billy House as the shopkeeper—and town clerk of course—is a riot. His name, Mr. Potter, isn’t the only thing resembling the role of same name in It’s a Wonderful Life though, he looks very much like Lionel Barrymore too. The characters couldn’t be farther apart, however, and each time he puts on his betting hat for a game of checkers was priceless. Along with them came a turn from Richard Long as Noah Longstreet, Welles’ brother-in-law. This was the one role that stuck with me as truly good. His naïveté and fear for what he learned about the man he barely knew as well as for his sister in that man’s clutches was portrayed to perfection. Holding his own opposite bigger names, Long was probably the best thing coming out of the film for me.

Welles might have been able to hone things in a bit more and made a tenser film. Instead, it appears he is enjoying the broader approach, allowing his actors to play up the camp, maybe to diffuse the serious subject matter of Nazi war criminals, who knows? As my friend said upon the film’s completion, you know there must have been trouble when one person created the story, two others adapted it, and yet another wrote the screenplay. One would think Welles would have put his own hat into the mix and steered everything down a tighter path, but maybe he felt the need to just go out and have fun. After the production troubles and release debacles for his two previous films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, you can’t blame him for just taking the paycheck to ready another trip into the warzones.

The Stranger 5/10

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Cloverfield is a damn good time at the movies—something that one can’t say very often in January, the month usually utilized to dump films while Oscar-bait from the previous year gets released. Seeing the first teaser attached to Transformers in July literally gave me goosebumps at the potential for what it could be. I will admit that while the hype was high, the past couple months saw it wane. The gimmick started getting a tad stale and the tv spots began to ruin the momentum it carried so well before anyone knew what it was. Producer J.J. Abrams knew what he was doing, though, as the end result exceeded expectations, taking the colossal monster genre as background dressing for the human tale of love and regret which came up front and center. I just feel bad for director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard because it is their film yet everyone describes it as Abrams’. Whoever deserves credit, they are receiving a ton from me. Every detail was painstakingly considered, there were actually some genuine scares (usually hard to come by for me), and the story had some weight and meaning, allowing the fine performances to have something to play for, rather than just running for their lives with egos and self-preservation the only thing worth living for.

My main fear was on whether we would see the monster and how that visual would ruin the movie. Stuff like this only truly works for me if the creature creating all the havoc is something foreboding and unseen, always lurking and able to attack at any moment. Here, though, we actually get a look at the behemoth pretty early. From its tale attack on the Brooklyn Bridge to its full visual on tv screens in a local electronics store, we know exactly what it is causing all the destruction. The beauty of the filmmakers is that they never needed the monster for the film to work. It is a secondary character used only as motivation for our lead Rob to hunt out his love Beth and a means to preventing him from reaching her easily. Maybe the world falling apart around them is the catalyst for their feelings to finally boil to the surface, however, the fight is always going on around them; it’s not about defeating the enemy, it is about living for something bigger then yourself, doing what you can for the people you love in a time of desperate need.

Cloverfield asks a lot of its actors throughout. Filmed on a first-person camera, there are many long takes and unbroken scenes to express the aesthetic choice of this being a real primary account of the invasion found later on after the smoke settles. Emotions run high, death takes a realistic toll on both body and mind, and adrenaline flows forth to keep these heroes on the run to get out of Manhattan alive and intact. Each holds his/her own to make it all seem real, injecting humor so that the bleak moments can break with levity. Death is starring them in the face and, like anyone of us would do in that situation, they try to mask their fear with laughter in order to release some of the tension building higher and higher inside of them. Michael Stahl-David, as Rob, is by far the best of the group. He needs to go from deeply in love to tragically scorned and angry, happily surprised by his friends to scared for his life, and confident to risk his own being for another to devastated as he must explain the death of someone close to him over the phone. His emotions run the gamut and he pulls them all off with grace. Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman hold their own with the immense pressure of their situation weighing down on them as well. When tragedy strikes, and it does often, they must react realistically to every situation. Special mention also goes to T.J. Miller as Hud Platt, our surrogate guide through the mayhem, acting as our camera operator, complete with commentary and comedic relief with every turn.

With the strong performances and the taut, simple script from Goddard, I have to praise the work of Reeves at helming the piece. With little to work with in order to have the audience relate to and rally behind these characters, we are thrust into the action pretty early on. Goddard crafted a yarn that succeeds from getting the small things right. Rather than go big budget effects, he relies on the human interactions to portray the action. Reeves understands this and allows for a brilliant documentary feel. If you are susceptible to motion sickness, be warned that the camera is very shaky and possibly even handled by Miller while he chases after his friends. The askew angles and amateurish cropping of frame add to this completely, keeping all the action truncated on the edges because if it were real, the viewer would only look when something catches his eye. Turning to see what they think they saw shows off the end result, increasing the fear and anticipation for what might come next. All the monster effects are adequately rendered and the utilization of digital camera tricks—fantastic use of nightvision in the subway, awesome instance of auto-focus confusion with Hud, and precise usage of the fact that this is all taping over a previously filmed event (Rob and Beth’s day out in Coney Island) which shows through wonderfully—shown to full effect. Complete with an ending that truly encapsulates what went on this fateful day in NYC, Cloverfield delivers on all its promises and becomes so much more than just Blair Witch Project mainstream. Every moment is real and touches you in a very personal way. It is an experience, a spectacle; not to be confused with the monster movies that only show you what is happening, this one puts you in the action, making you feel it all yourself.

Cloverfield 9/10

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There Will Be Blood is a staggering work of genius. Paul Thomas Anderson has, if he hadn’t already, cemented himself as the director of the present and future. While his previous work compared to the great Robert Altman, this entry is by all accounts his Kubrick picture. At every turn I could think of nothing else but comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s body of work. The cold, detached artistry of it, the gorgeous visuals bolstered by powerhouse performances, and the patience with which to allow a story of this kind to ferment and show itself, are all characteristics fusing them. Here comes the shocker, though—and it is not more of a shock to anyone but myself—I think it is his worst film as far as my emotive connection to it. Now, I’ll add that even his worst is better than 99% of the films made in a year, but a disappointment is still just that. What really pains me, however, is the fact that it is an almost flawless piece of art. At every moment I can only think of perfection, yet a void to why it is so. It is an issue of brilliant parts whose sum just doesn’t add up. If nothing else, this film may make me change the way I look at cinema. There has been no other film that effected me as much as this, no other that will stick with me longer after my viewing; it should earn movie of the year for just that alone. Hitting on so many levels it unfortunately leaves me in confusion at the end. Much like Kubrick’s “masterpiece” Barry Lyndon—for which I thought of more than once sitting there today—this is a piece of work that will be studied and dissected and copied for years to come. Technically perfect, it has everything it needs except my adoration. Leaving me cold, I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Here is where I wake up and see how personally films can touch a person. There Will Be Blood can and will earn awards and it will deserve every single one of them. I would even venture to say it would have my vote in every category as well…all except Best Picture. If it wins, will it have earned it? My answer is a resounding yes; I just couldn’t be able to bring myself to say it. Anderson has my undivided appreciation for what he has done. Visually stunning, I cannot think of one bad moment. Even with the audience I saw it with laughing at inappropriate moments (I understand those instances had comedic elements and that a character in them saw this levity themselves, however, they should not have elicited laughter) there were no faults. Being able to touch people in that way, making them so uneasy and uncomfortable that it is necessary to release the built up tension with a laugh only strengthens the argument of its greatness. It actually makes me angry that I can’t just say screw it, I loved it, best film I’ve ever seen.

At its core, this is a tale of one man’s complete and utter descent into hell. What once was a man of integrity and hard work becomes one filled with greed and hubris, flying too high and unable to feel the slow burn of his wings. Daniel Day-Lewis is allowed every reprieve thrown his way. The ability he has to embody so completely every character he portrays is astounding. Taking four years off between films is not only acceptable, it is necessary in order for the audience to recover from his brilliance, let alone his own needs to gain back the energy and life left on the celluloid. The devil is most definitely inside of Daniel Planview; unable to trust or love those closest to him, he sees the loneliness and solitude awaiting. Beginning on his own in 1898—falling down a well and breaking his leg without help around for miles—he will eventually find that same detachment in 1927, although he is surrounded by wealth and creatures on the payroll. A family business for sure, it just takes a little while to notice that his family consists of only one member.

The supporting roles are all superbly fleshed out too. From Ciarán Hinds seeing what was happening in the desert wasteland, to Kevin J. O’Connor as his unknown brother, to Dillon Freasier as his son and partner H.W., each plays his piece of the puzzle, helping build to the inevitable conclusion, bringing to mind another Kubrick classic The Shining. One person truly succeeds at attempting to match Day-Lewis’s dedication to the work, though, and he is Paul Dano. Actually cast during production, after the letting go of the actor who had already begun filming as Eli Sunday, Dano is scary as the prophet for the Church of the Third Revelation. His sermons are difficult to watch and powerful beyond belief. When he and Day-Lewis share the screen, you can’t even imagine what might happen next. The spite and hatred brewing beneath both exteriors is palpable, ready to spill over at any moment. Words cannot describe the effectiveness of their relationship, both very much similar in opposite ways, tasting evil and relishing its desserts.

At almost three hours in length, I couldn’t believe it when it had ended; the pace is break-neck. Even more remarkable is the fact that much of the film is told in silence, save for Jonny Greenwood’s haunting and disjointed score, (reminiscent to an episode of “Lost”), with just actions and scenery to progress the plot. With the first twenty or so minutes to be completely wordless and still create a complete background for the Plainview role, I can’t comprehend the genius that is PT Anderson. Sure he owes plenty to the masters that came before him, but one can’t doubt his skill and artistry here. He has my full respect and I will be seeing this film again, most likely multiple times, in the future because there is perfection at work. I give him full benefit of the doubt; it is me who is broken. Nothing this glorious can be any less than the best and if I can’t see it now, it is I who needs to be shown where I have gone wrong.

There Will Be Blood 8/10

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[1] Daniel Day-Lewis as “Daniel Plainview” and Dillion Freasier as “H.W.” star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”. Copyright: © 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES and MIRAMAX FILM CORP. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Francois Duhamel
[2] Paul Dano as “Eli Sunday” stars in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”. Copyright: © 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES and MIRAMAX FILM CORP. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Francois Duhamel

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The DVD box has a quote calling The Rocket, “the Gladiator of Hockey Movies.” I’m not sure I can agree with this, but that is not a bad thing. I’ll admit to not being blown away by Gladiator like most people are. Instead, if I were to compare this film, about French Canadian superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard, to anything, I’d say it is the Cinderella Man of hockey movies. There are many comparisons that could be made between Braddock and Richard as far as uniting a nation against all odds; The Rocket’s start actually happened during the Depression as well. Where this story sets itself apart, however, is in the racial undertones involved. Even in Quebec, the French-speaking citizens were second-class and mocked, slurred, and demeaned without regard whatsoever. To see how the NHL not only allowed it to happen in their league, but also actually allowed other teams to seek out and injure their best player is unconscionable. Richard was not only a hero in his sport for standing up against the establishment, but also for an entire race of people looking for a voice. To work on a sports movie level, as well as a political document of history is an amazing feat, and this film pulls it off with flying colors.

I admit to knowing very little of this story on my favorite sport during the 1940s and 1950s. To see the stuff that went on involving such big names behind the scenes such as Campbell, Conn Smythe, etc. is incomprehensible. How could they have allowed the game to get that bad? Especially in a time period when the coaches had to explain to their players that the league risked folding unless they brought an exciting product to the ice, (sound familiar to the short straw the game has gotten today?). The referees all had an agenda and no one took the time to try and right the ship. Then comes this working class machinist to a Montreal training camp, blows away the competition and even then almost doesn’t make the cut. Without coach Dick Irvin sticking by him, even after an ankle injury that was about to end his career during his rookie season, who knows what would have happened to the NHL, because Richard carried it on his shoulders and made it into a professional sport again. He filled the seats, not only in Montreal, but also in every other stadium of the league during away games; he broke the goal scoring record, being the first to have 50 in 50 games; and he never backed down to a confrontation on or off the ice. If a goon came after him with threats, Richard would throw the first punch, and it usually would be the last.

Stephen McHattie and Roy Dupuis are superb as Irvin and Richard respectively. Despite the tough love relationship, these two would be nothing without each other and their drive—their need—to win would not be stopped. Dupuis pulls off everything asked of him, between the accents, (learning English slowly improves his use of the language), the hockey skills, (watching him roof those backhands after his ankle recovery is impressive), and the emotional courage to stand up for people’s rights, even if it was just a game, (as his barber says, the French Canadians have forgot what winning is and even if it is just on the ice, it’s a good thing to remind them). It is also a very nice touch seeing all the familiar faces in supporting roles. From Mike Ricci to Vincent Lecavalier to bruiser Sean Avery, they all handle themselves well and add a little extra to the proceedings.

Without the solid story being told, The Rocket would be just your standard run-of-the-mill sports bio-pic. I realize this and that is why I like it even more. It took the time to be more than just about a career, but instead to be about a life that changed a game and a country. Despite this fact, though, it is the visual style that I can’t help but remember. You believe you are there in the darkened hockey rinks with the use of soft focus and close-ups. The uniforms are amazing to watch and the old padding, sticks, glove, etc really bring you there. Even the use of black and white to start each transition in time, slowly turning to color worked for me. Clichéd and easy, true, but it just fit the aesthetic perfectly. Call me surprised when viewing the filmography of cinematographer Pierre Gill and seeing the only movie I recognized was the tragic The Covenant. Hopefully he will get some more quality work after people start checking this film out. Completed in 2005, it took two years to finally reach theatres and video. I guess it is appropriate to the story, the “little” French Canadian needing to fight in order to show what it is made of. Thankfully it did finally see the light of day, because there aren’t many sports films I can think of that moved me as much as this one did.

The Rocket 9/10

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[1] François Langlois Vallières as young Maurice Richard
[2] Roy Dupuis as Maurice Richard

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There is something to the marketing of foreign films and the way Hollywood tries its hardest to fool the public into thinking it is an English language movie. By not allowing any characters to speak in the trailers, giving away their secret with subtitles, someone like me, knowing it’s foreign, is able to get a glimpse at the style and tone without really learning anything about the plot to ruin my surprise upon sitting in the theatre. This aspect worked perfectly for Guillermo Del Toro’s production of El Orfanato. I had very little idea of what I was getting into and this film ended up being the best atmospheric horror I have seen since Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, (I don’t count Del Toro’s own El Laberinto del fauno because that was more fantasy than anything else). I now ask what it is that all three of these films have in common? With this—J.A. Bayona’s feature debut—each is helmed by a Spanish director. I can’t think of a better nation making movies right now; the Spanish are doing everything right and this film just adds to bolstering that argument.

Bayona creates a mood and tone that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats, anticipating the scares that they know will shortly be coming. I was actually surprised how slow the introduction was and how carefully laid out all the story pieces were. We are led into this world, discovering the relationships between our lead roles and the vague past of the orphanage that once housed our heroine and now is about to become her home for special needs children. Like The Others, the spirits involved here are not necessarily violent or demonic. They have an agenda, for sure, but what may at first glance seem malevolent could be nothing of the kind. The orphans now haunting the establishment are only trying to play a game. By taking something you love, a scavenger hunt is begun. Following the clues is the only way the game can end and if successful, the children will grant you one wish. The rules are simple, except the circumstances are far from easily accessible. One must believe that the game can happen before he/she can truly take part. Without the belief that the spirits are in control, success can never be achieved.

The cast is led by a remarkable performance from Belén Rueda—who, as it turns out, had a wonderful turn in Amenábar’s latest Mar adentro. Her composure and beauty is shattered as she finds her son has been lost. Trying to keep herself together, taking in what the police, her husband, and the mediums enlisted to help on the paranormal aspect tell her, she is given the task to figure out for herself how far she is willing to go to find her son. Always captivating and never out of her element, Rueda carries the story and never looks back. The supporting players around her are all portrayed nicely as well. Fernando Cayo plays the husband watching his wife deteriorate before him while unable to open his mind to the possibility that what she says could be true; Geraldine Chaplin is magnificent as the psychic medium whose trance brings out a puzzle piece necessary to continue the game; and young Roger Príncep plays the child Simón with the right amount of innocence mixed with the knowledge and comprehension of his fate to help keep the bond between he and his mother strong.

Bayona never goes for the cheap thrills either as he builds up the tension with sounds and visuals. His use of the closing doors and the moving merry-go-round add a sense of foreboding that ends up being more important than you may initially guess. Stylistically too, the transition between the house’s current state of duress with the way it shone by the glow of the adjacent lighthouse from the past is expertly handled. There were numerous instances where the film could have gone off the rails to tragic effect, but he holds it steady throughout. More psychological than visceral, the scares are few, but effective. Even when the grotesque rears its head, it is to enhance the story, not to shock for shock alone. The sound work is utilized to the fullest too. What seems to be jarring and loud for the purpose to scare our lead and us is actually very important to the tale at hand. Nothing is shown or heard here that doesn’t have absolute relevance to the film as a whole.

The final third of the film comes quick and fully envelopes you into the proceedings. You are right there with Rueda’s character as she slowly uncovers the secrets hidden behind the years that have past since she last lived in the orphanage. Whereas a film from Hollywood—of late usually being a remake from a better horror film in Japan—would use this tension in order to hide the flimsy and lackluster conclusion it tacks on so as not to alienate those viewers who enjoy leaving the theatre with a smile, Bayona knows how to effectively end his tale the way it should. I was blown away by the handling of the final scene and the way he used the rules of the game to transition us from one reality to another. It is truly a remarkable feat that hits home hard emotionally, but I will actually say also succeeded in me leaving with a smile on my face. Whether you exit the theatre with your eyes moistened or not, you will not forget the beauty and perfection for which it concludes. The tagline is correct, for while it is a story of horror, it is above all else a tale of love.

El Orfanato 9/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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It appears all the critical response I read was true when it came to Neil Jordan’s The Brave One. Derivative, predictable, repetitive, and slow are all words that can be used to describe it. I remember hearing that Jordan himself was never too enthused about the movie either, pretty much saying that it wasn’t his, he was just a hired hand to get it all on screen. Well, it sure felt that way as there is no originality or flair at all, just a very point and shoot style with askew camera angles slowly righting themselves the only visual flourish. Now the acting wasn’t half bad and the story wasn’t that uninteresting, unfortunately it all didn’t mesh well as the script thought we needed to be beaten over the head with the killings going on. This is a revenge flick, we know that our lead will eventually come face to face with her assaulters, don’t bore us with the periphery stuff for so long that we just don’t carry anymore when the good stuff happens. Also, the use of our victim’s radio show and the public’s outcries about whether a vigilante is something the world needs becomes laughable. Don’t try to give us any moral ambiguity as a community; this is about her and her revenge. That is why I like Death Sentence so much—a film with very similar themes handled a lot better. That film knew we understood his bloodlust; here we need to go through the motions as though there is a grander plan involved. Well there isn’t, so don’t waste our time.

The relationship between Jodie Foster’s Erica, the victim vigilante, and Terrence Howard’s Mercer, the detective she befriends, is a very interesting one. They both have the same feelings on the law that the criminals are always finding a way to survive at the cost of innocent lives. However, while she decides to go outside it in order to do right, he will always stay within, because if the law doesn’t work, what is the point? I think that although the ending is very predictable and handled in way to make it humorous (don’t ask me how, but it is) I still believe it was a logical conclusion and worked in the scope of everything that occurs. I could have done without the “shaking hands” observation that came up about every twenty minutes or so, but this thing is so heavy-handed I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how important the filmmakers decided to make that small detail.

Foster is always pretty good and as the victim here she succeeds with regularity. There are many quiet moments where her facial expressions and emotions have to carry along the story. Her reactions to the murders and the wrestling with her own demons about whether what she is doing is right are nicely done. As for Howard, he is the true star. Maybe he goes a tad overboard, but his own tug of war with doing what is supposed to be right instead of what he feels is right is etched on his face. Almost disillusioned about his own job, it is he that has to deal with the most during the course of the movie. Where he goes, as a character, is the unknown factor, even though one can guess where he will end up quite easily, he manages to make the journey stay interesting.

I can’t necessarily recommend the movie because it has all been done before, most times better. The Brave One is a well-made movie, but there just isn’t anything to stick out and warrant a second viewing, or even the thought that the first was necessary. It is an amalgam of clichés and moments slapped together. When you have things like the locale of the beating called Stranger’s Cove and the sage next-door neighbor, initially looked on as a reclusive, anger-filled woman, become a character to impart wisdom and a useful stitching skill, you know you are just being toyed with while the producers make their money, laughing on how they made the audience think this was an original film. The only thing I can truly recommend is checking out Nicky Katt’s brief but effective role as Howard’s detective partner. He is the comic relief and pulls it off brilliantly. He is never used enough in Hollywood, but it’s nice that he can be successful in even the most mundane of films.

The Brave One 5/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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I’m not quite sure what I think about James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment. Here is a film that won best picture at the 1984 Oscars, beating out a favorite of mine, The Big Chill. Everyone I talk to says they love it and here I am feeling a tad lukewarm on the whole spectacle. At first glance, I can’t really comprehend what I saw exactly. Truthfully, the whole thing seems as though it was a device to get us to the end, the one sequence of time that has relevant meaning. By the conclusion, not much really happened, a young couple get married and have three children, infidelity ensues, the woman’s mother hits mid-life and her usual cold self thaws into the arms of an astronaut, the family falls apart and gets put back together over and over again…what’s new? However, the more I think that what we have is the Usual Suspects syndrome—a decent film blessed with a resonant finale—the more I think about how genuine and realistic every moment was. Yes, it all means nothing without the end, but then I guess that can be said for most things. All the relationships evolve and grow in ways that are obvious and others that come straight from left field. One can’t fault any step taken because without the hour and a half exposition the payoff would not mean even close to what it actually does.

The acting is across the board phenomenal, no question. From the screen veterans to a surprising early turn, (possibly his first non-TV credit), by Jeff Daniels, everyone plays flawlessly. Even Debra Winger, as the glue holding everything together throughout all the hard times, who grated on me early on with her annoying Texas country-bumpkin attitude, comes out as a truly profound performance. Her naïveté and her kindness are what make her who she is. That ability to see the good in everyone and the realization of her place as a mother to her children, similar to that which her own mother had with her, but not quite, is the only reason the wheels didn’t fall off much earlier. When you see the vain lifestyle her best friend has started living, coming home as though she is still the country girl she used to be, you begin to understand the honesty for which Emma Greenway Horton has always lived for. Sure she never discloses her infidelity to her husband, but besides that she never was anything but true to herself and those around her. Even the messed up marriage at the end was acceptable because their love for their children and each other was too much to allow the fact they were no longer a couple to ruin any of what was between them. If nothing else, this film shows us a glimpse into values, while not perfect, that one just doesn’t see much of anymore. Family is always first; their wellbeing over your own as evidenced with Daniels’ tough decision at the end.

I was with the whole Winger/Daniels story thread if for nothing else but because I knew it was the central backbone to the whole. Besides a nice turn from John Lithgow, nothing else really stood out above the idea of getting a history of them across. What stuck with me most was the relationship between the matriarch of the Greenway family, played larger than life by Shirley MacLaine, and the astronaut next-door Jack Nicholson. These two have sparks flying from the first moment they share the screen. When she goes over and accepts his lunch invitation from a decade earlier, Nicholson’s reaction is worth the price of admission alone. The treat of that lunch date, complete with his curtsy comment at its finish, is just gravy on top. His character coming back—who really did think he’d be a good guy?—just helps to complete that arc and allow the ending to stand on its own without any outside questioning of people not present. Allowing MacLaine full dedication to her daughter’s illness is the best thing that could have been done. That connection is what makes the film work despite its shortcomings.

Even though the fact that the conclusion is a total contrivance utilized to get everyone together to “come to terms” with each other, it still works on a raw emotional level for me that I am able to look beyond the blatant attempt by the filmmakers to tell me how I should feel. It is moments like the son and Nicholson in the final scene, as well as the likeable, glorified adulterer Lithgow, that gave me the satisfaction necessary to accept all the fluff on the edges. You cannot argue that each bond is one that can be related to on some level. At times you believe this family is real and you are just catching a glimpse of their lives as in a documentary, that is how honest their portrayals are. Dysfunction is an understatement, but nothing happens that I couldn’t shake my head to and understand exactly where they were coming from. At the end, it was an enjoyable experience on a pure storytelling level. Maybe a tad juvenile and completely structured for full emotional heartbreak, it held enough realism so that the craft didn’t overpower it completely. The end is definitely heartbreaking and while Hollywood in the way everything works out, I have to give all involved credit for allowing the relationship between Winger and her eldest son to play out as it did. Setup from the absolute start, from his putting his coat on at age five to leave the house while his parents made love upstairs, to the poignant farewell, that bond is what will stay with me for days to come.

Terms of Endearment 7/10

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Based on an article that was published in Esquire, The Hunting Party tells the story of three journalists—actually five as the end of the film will explain during its comical “what was true and what wasn’t” montage—who took it upon themselves to find the most wanted war criminal in the world, Bosnia’s “The Fox”. Brought to screen by Richard Shepard, this is a movie that keeps you highly enthralled throughout. It may not be as solid a film as his previous effort, the underrated comedy The Matador, because it tries to push an agenda against all that was working for it. At its best, everything is absolutely pitch-perfect: taut thrills, suspenseful story, and great acting. As for the worst, it becomes a diatribe on how the world’s governments care more about money than safety. Honestly, we all know this and don’t need our entertainment to jam it into our skulls even more. Falling into a growing category for me—one that includes Blood Diamond—the end result here is a great film that just can’t stop from trying to be more than it is, stumbling on its misguided mission rather than allowing its natural momentum to carry it through to the finish.

Stylistically this thing is beautiful to look at. I enjoyed the use of freeze-frames during the exposition scenes and the moments in warzones come across as real, dangerous, and above all else exciting. The joy and genuine laughter emitting from our leads after they narrowly escape death over and over again adds to the code of living life to the fullest that they both follow. Shepard holds some cards close to his chest also, showing us events leading up to Simon Hunt’s breakdown, all but killing his career, however not explaining the entire story until absolutely necessary. Each character’s motives aren’t exactly the same towards the end as they were in the beginning. What’s first a quest for redemption (Hunt), youthful vibrancy (Duck), and an excuse to show his father that he is made of more than a cushy Harvard school lifestyle (Benjamin) soon becomes a mission to do the right thing. These men are fighting for civility and humanity, two things that have left that part of the world and is in desperate need for return, despite the efforts of those that should be helping who instead are only adding to the destruction.

One can’t fault any of our journalistic trio for anything they may find wrong with the final product. Richard Gere is spectacular as the fallen reporter, who we will eventually find has lost more than just his career. The desperation is always true and his actions perfectly played against the more sane members of the troupe. Terrence Howard shows us how great he can be and makes us wonder why he still feels the need to choose some god-awful movies between his good ones. The transformation Duck takes, in just a few short cuts, is rather staggering while essential to his role’s motives later on. Going from an adrenaline junkie cameraman to a stand-in executive whose field work entails setting up outside the White House and Capital Hill almost makes you wonder how he ever could have changed so much. Then you think about the money, the security, and the relaxation time and soon the concept seems too good for anyone to pass up. The taste of danger never left, however, and it is his wrestling with that, by using some nicely timed humor, that helps carry the story to its conclusion. As for the boss’s son Benjamin, on his first foreign correspondence, Jesse Eisenberg epitomizes the book-smartass attitude someone in that position would have. It is his willingness to learn and bullheaded mindset to not let these two guys do anything to make him out to be a wuss that lead him to becoming an integral part to the team and mission at hand.

Along with them, every character that is met with on the journey to find “The Fox” adds just the right amount of infused quirk needed to keep interest. While familiar faces like James Brolin and Diane Kruger play their parts well, it is a guy like Mark Ivanir as Boris the UN executive that shines. He is caught up in this imaginary scheme of CIA hit squads coming in to do that which he wishes he could. It appears he has watched too many American movies and the dream of being a real live Deepthroat seems to appeal to his sensibilities as he attempts to help the trio in their quest to find that which is never found. These bit parts bring much of the laughter and absurdity that counterbalances the abundance of drama and high emotional toll seen at every turn. The Hunting Party does not try and sugar-coat what is going on in the Balkans and pays much attention in showing the truth and not what is read in the history books, both figuratively and literally—the book in physical form during a nice scene of Howard opening the innocent eyes of Eisenberg in a bar, along with the help of four of the real-life reporters on which the film is based.

Shot with some wonderful compositions and blocking of actors to build a sense of suspense and fear, Shepard has crafted a winner. Besides a too-long scene that goes on and on about how the UN and people in power are only out to create good PR without any work going towards punishing the monsters running free, I have little to complain about. I was almost completely removed from enjoyment with the horribly trite and overused joke with the ending subtitled words, but was redeemed with the inventive “what was real” sequence. To see the humor that was bubbling under the surface for the duration stick to the screen even after the story was finished brought the smile back to my face and made me remember all that worked, letting the more wrong than right final act to dissolve into the background.

The Hunting Party 8/10

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