You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2008.

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It’s been seven years since Baz Luhrmann’s astonishing Moulin Rouge! Years that included the dissolution of his planned Alexander the Great film, after Oliver Stone beat him to the punch, and casting changes that plagued the long preproduction of Australia, his new sprawling epic in the country’s frontier during WWII. Known for his visual imagery and artistic bent, the trailers and poster materials for his fourth film seemed a bit uninspired. Much like Peter Jackson with King Kong, it appeared that Luhrmann decided to build his film around an aesthetic, a style of filmmaking that has been gone for decades. Like Jackson’s over-long tale, Australia hits the feel on the head, bringing the melodrama prevalent in films such as Gone With the Wind, allowing his actors to ham it up for the camera and play for emotion with the accompaniment of a not so subtle musical score. As such, being a callback to a forgotten era of cinema, Luhrmann really has done something impressive; however, as far as an almost three-hour tale goes, in today’s fast-paced world of consumerism, I’m not sure how successful the story really is. Something about that type of film feels dated and heavy-handed to the point where I think I’d give it higher marks knowing it was made seventy years ago rather than today. As it is, while entertaining, it becomes a tad self-indulgent, going on and on with its predictability, ever so slightly ruining what is good as it continues.

The story, on its surface, pertains to a plot of land called Faraway Downs, the last piece of countryside not owned by the monopolistic King Carney. In a bid to buy it out, the owner finds himself killed, his wife goes on a journey from England to fetch him, unmarked cows are siphoned to Carney, and an overall plot to destroy any profit the land is making so as to make selling the only option occur. That is until a little boy, the offspring of an aboriginal woman and her white rapist, begins to tell the owner’s wife what really has been happening. Lady Sarah Ashley, who first came to bring her husband home and rid them of Australia once and for all, has her eyes opened to the plight of the natives and the malevolent deeds of the men only looking to make money off the war. So, with the help of a Drover, promised work by her late husband to bring 1,500 cows to port, Ashley and her ragtag bunch of cowboys begin a journey to usurp the power of Carney, sell the cows at a reasonable rate to the British army for food, and bring prosperity back to Faraway Downs. It’s not as easy as all that, though, as you might expect given it’s two and three-quarters hour runtime. The profiteers sitting pretty at their galas while the bastard offspring of their lecherous ways are sent to mission camps and the inevitable joining of the Japanese to the war would make any happy ending seem far, far away.

There is so much more going on throughout the mission to sell cows and keep competition alive in the Australian meat business. Even the love story pales in comparison to the issues of racism and tolerance in that land. The aboriginals are little more than animals, said to not share the feelings of humans. Their “creamy” children, those conceived with the white men, are even less, without a home or a culture, neither black nor white … nothing. Because of this, they are shipped off to an island run by missionaries, bred to be slaves and assimilated to their own desires, while also standing as a front to warn the mainland of impending attacks with their radio tower. What about the children’s mothers? What do they think about their children being sent away? Well, as one man states, it’s scientific fact, you take a child from an aboriginal woman and she soon forgets him. There is no bond between mother and child, they are just animals being bred, property to be traded and left behind, worthless remnants of a time of hatred and abuse, of activities the white aristocrats’ wives seem very quick to turn away from, as though it isn’t happening right before their eyes.

Credit is due to Luhrmann and the filmmakers for creating a visually beautiful film, complete with his swooping crane shots, slowed down from the manic speed used in Moulin Rouge! The use of color is wonderful as well as the utilization of dust and smoke to create depth and texture whenever necessary. With these manipulations, however, comes a blatant feel of manufacturing—much of the film appears staged and rehearsed, an intentional stilted feel to add to the melodrama and old-time love-struck good guys versus the extreme villainy of the bad guys. I will admit to enjoying my villains having a conflict inside them, perhaps not necessarily evil, just doing evil things for what they think is right. In keeping with the aesthetic here, however, David Wenham’s Fletcher, the right-hand man of Carney, taking interests into his own heads whatever the cost, doesn’t have a redeeming bone in his body. As a result, you hate him from the start, with help from the close-ups showing his eyes form nefarious slits, and just know he will eventually get his in the end.

As for the good guys … that’s really where the strength of the story lies. Nicole Kidman is adequate as Lady Ashley, especially because she is turning up the over-acting and cheese factor, but her fake lips still make me shudder, remembering her beauty from just a short decade ago. On the other hand, Hugh Jackman is fantastic as the Drover, a man who lives for himself, befriending and making family of the aboriginals, despite how it makes him look to more “sophisticated” society. He definitely turns a corner from the start to the finish, evolving into a human being that yearns for life. I do believe he is the main character here, the catalyst for everything that happens, for better or worse. But the true stars are the aboriginal actors themselves. Both David Ngoombujarra, Drover’s trusted friend, and Angus Pilakui, the mystic King George, are perfect, but yet still are outdone by young Brandon Walters. Playing Nullah, the halfblooded boy at the center of the tale, Walters adds a level of compassion and unbridled trust with his adopted family of ranchers. Not only that, but he also serves as the narrator, telling the tale as it unfolds from his eyes, a young boy on his way to becoming a mystic himself, eyes opened to the whole world with innocence and untainted understanding.

Australia 7/10

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[1] Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) find adventure and romance during their fateful journey across Australia. Photo Credit: James Fisher
[2] Newcomer Brandon Walters portrays a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy adrift in a segregated society that treats him as an outcast. Photo Credit: James Fisher

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Was Transporter 3 really directed by a guy named Olivier Megaton? I mean how perfect is that? In a film, let alone a series, that seems to enjoy using as many accents to confuse the audience as possible and action that diverts us from actually thinking about the thin plot, this guy has it all—European flavor and what seems to be the amount of explosives used on the film. Really, though, what does one expect going into a film like this? Myself, I look forward to the action, the one-liners, Jason Statham oozing cool, and attractive women who may or may not be able to kick butt themselves. Does the third installment deliver on those promises? Of course it does, and, truthfully, does it better than the last one. I will never say that this film is anything close to realistic or believable, but compared to the insane stunts utilized in Transporter 2, this thing is steeped in realism. I think grounding it in some semblance of authenticity helps keep interest without giving the audience those moments of, “give me a break”. But again, you don’t see these films for true-life lessons; you see them to pump the adrenaline and live vicariously through a guy like Statham; the kind of guy you wish you could be, if only you had that commitment to a workout regime.

If you sit down in the theatre ready for a taut story devoid of plotholes, why are you even leaving the house? Honestly, I don’t think you are in any shape to drive yourself anywhere—commit yourself to a hospital and get better. The Transporter series works for me because I know going in that my brain has been left at home and I’m ready to sit back and enjoy some mayhem. I’m not alone either, I’m sure. How do we get a third one if that was the case? And how does Luc Besson, a highly regarded writer/director, stick to his guns and continue writing them? It’s because men do need a little escapism once in a while … and I’m sure the ladies don’t mind a shirtless Statham running around saving the damsel in distress either. Admit it girls, you love him.

With that said, if you don’t know what capacity our leading lady plays in the story after the first second, you REALLY left your brain at home. The “revelation” of who she is and what she stands for around the three-quarters mark should not be a surprise, and shame on you if it is. The real question is how long will it take our man Frank Martin to take down the bad guys and help his favorite French Inspector Tarconi apprehend the bad guys. We don’t need stellar line delivery or emotive faces. Statham is the best actor of the bunch and he just utilizes a stone-cold, blank canvas stare through the entire thing. That stoicism says it all. But I lie, he isn’t the best actor involved, that award goes, by far, to Robert Knepper as the man behind the dirty deeds, Johnson. If you know him from “Prison Break” you should be in for some enjoyment. He takes the evil core from his T-Bag character, strips off the Southern hick mentality and accent, and delivers straightforward villainy. His trademark lip licking stays intact and his penchant for feeling nothing at the hand of random killings shows his true colors, despite calling himself a “Pacifist”.

It all revolves around some conspiracy pertaining to large amounts of waste, toxic garbage that needs to be stored/disposed of. Whose country is the culprit? Why should the Ukrainians take care of it? Why should we as the audience care? I have no clue to any of these questions, and the beauty is, you don’t need to know either. The impetus behind the mission and bloodshed is completely irrelevant, serving only as a catalyst to get high-speed car chases and bare-fist brawling with ten against one odds—always favoring the lone man when Frank Martin is in attendance. The fight choreography is great as usual, even if it seems a tad redundant from the past two. And the car chases? That’s the only reason I even want to see these movies, and I hate the car world. Thankfully product placement reigns supreme and we only had to deal with Audi, Mercedes, and Range Rovers. Even I can keep track of three models.

As for the acting, well the opening scene on a ship transporting the elusive waste says it all. These extras are so bad you have to cringe for them. Not only that, but the next scene introducing Statham and François Berléand’s Tarconi is kind of painful too. It is edited weird; Statham’s playfulness is stupid with his “Please Tarconi? Please?” at the end; and Berléand himself is almost unintelligible. Thankfully it is cut to a car chase to help alleviate the pain. But, as I said, the primary players are up to snuff and young Natalya Rudakova is introduced to the world with success. She really doesn’t have to do much but look sexy, and well, she does. And really, that level of superficiality is what’s needed for a film of this ilk to succeed. All I can say is that the surface was sleek enough to keep my interest and if for some reason the world needs a fourth installment … yes, I will probably be there for the fun again.

Transporter 3 6/10
As comparison: The Transporter 6/10; Transporter 2 6/10

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[1] Jason Statham (“Frank Martin,” left) and Natalya Rudakova (“Valentina,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Transporter 3.
[2] Jason Statham (“Frank Martin,” left) and Robert Knepper (“Johnson,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Transporter 3.

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It’s a little strange to me that it took Pixar becoming Disney’s new animation studio before the Mouse House itself started releasing new animated films of quality. Starting with the highly enjoyable Meet the Robinsons, Disney has carried on the eccentric comedic bent with this year’s Bolt. This is no Pixar film, don’t get me wrong, but it is very entertaining. Trying its best to capture the heart prevalent in each of their films, Bolt succeeds with a marginal surface sentimentality, tugging at the heart-strings without the subtle touch those Luxor lamp guys use effortlessly. However, where the emotion may not be as deep, the comedy is more manic and crazed, bringing the belly laughs with its head-shaking absurdity. That lightness, that ability to never take itself too seriously, goes a long way to making up for whatever shortcomings it has in other areas.

I’ll get the voice work out of the way quick. Miley Cyrus is decent and thankfully not included very much as the film deals with Bolt’s search to find her Penny. As my friend said, she sounds like she’s been smoking twenty packs a day for the last forty years, and she’s only sixteen. I’m not trying to badmouth her, she just has that sultry rasp in her voice and I just don’t really like it. She isn’t asked to do too much and I’m sure her inclusion will help bring people in the doors, so I’m ok with it. Next comes John Travolta as our hero dog. You know what? He isn’t half bad. The fact that this stunt dog believes he possesses all the superpowers his television character has allows for Travolta to do what he does best … parody himself. The unrelenting ego and desire to save his “person” leads to some humorous situations and the guy kinda hits it out of the park.

As for the rest—it’s a Disney movie. They get top-notch vocal talent and it works. No one stands out too much and that’s a good thing because it should be about the story and characters not the actors behind the scenes. With that said, Susie Essman and especially Mark Walton steal the show. True their roles, Mittens the alley cat and Rhino the ball-rolling hamster, are written to succeed on hilarious levels, but you have to give credit to the delivery and timing on the part of the talent. Mittens’ sarcastic wit and stone-hearted façade hiding her vulnerability works wonders as the foil to such a strong, brash Bolt leading the way. She is a con artist always attempting to talk her way out of trouble and it only adds to the story’s enjoyment. Rhino, on-the-other-hand, is the epitome of the wildcard. His manic excitement and hyper-attitude bring the biggest laughs, making him the most lovable and probably biggest commodity marketing-wise this film has. The one-liners, (Bolt: “There will be danger” / Rhino: “I eat danger for breakfast” / Bolt: “Are you hungry?” / Rhino: “STARVING!!!”); the impossibly asinine events like him actually getting a ladder at one point … while in his ball; and the facial/body actions, (swinging and throwing his body into the wall of his ball or his crazed bulging eyes and crooked bucktoothed grin), only add to his absolute greatness. But it is a greatness that only works in small doses as a companion to the real plotline … so please Disney, do not give him a spin-off film.

Maybe I should speak about the story somewhat? It really is all right there in the trailer, but just in case I’ll summarize a bit. Basically a young girl named Penny finds a dog in the pet store and becomes best pals with him. They are such good friends that they end up doing a television show together, (just go with it), and in order for that show to be successful, the film crew and Penny herself must make it seem as though Bolt is really saving the day. By making this canine believe he is risking his life for his owner, he gives the most realistic performance anyone has ever seen in a dog. However, because of this ruse, an episode-ending cliffhanger concluding with the girl being kidnapped by the evil cat loving Dr. Calico causes problems. Appearances must be kept: Bolt believes Penny is missing and, by sheer dumb luck, he escapes, ends up in a shipping package, and lands in New York City. So, in order to save the day, he enlists the help of a cat hostage, Mittens, because cats are evil, vile creatures that do the Doctor’s biding, and a restless, TV-fanatic hamster to make the journey west to Hollywood. If only the Styrofoam peanuts didn’t act as his kryptonite, it would have been so much easier.

It all becomes a very endearing buddy-film as this trio of unlikely friends becomes just that. Everything can be guessed from the start and nothing new or original really takes place. But if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Bolt works on a simple comedic level giving cute characters and exciting set-pieces to enthrall the children while also allowing parents and older siblings a bit of escapism into a world that allows them to forget their troubles for ninety minutes or so. It is so blatantly an amalgam of previous movies that one of its best inclusions comes from three separate groups of pigeons—NYC goodfellas, LA surfer-dudes, and Texas wranglers. Their completely frivolous roles serve as nothing more than comedic relief, not only rivaling those pesky penguins from Madagascar, but I do believe one-upping them. It is the little things like them that make Bolt a success, tiny flourishes that help keep the smile on your face while they distract you from the overall mediocre, done before story at its core.

Bolt 8/10

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Scenes from Walt Disney Pictures’ Bolt (2008) Copyright © Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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It’s a case of which came first for me—Twilight or The Southern Vampire Mysteries? After watching the film Twilight I couldn’t help but think about the stellar HBO drama series based on the latter. For some reason, vampires are making a huge comeback and while the youngsters can’t watch the swearing and nudity featured with Sookie Stackhouse, they can swoon over Edward Cullen and wish to be Bella Swan. And unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately in a purely entertaining, surreal way), the girls at my screening did just that … shrieking as the title came onscreen, clapping and whispering characters’ names once they appeared, and actually having panic attacks when young Robert Pattinson finally graced us with his presence. How can one not enjoy experiencing a phenomenon such as this first-hand, especially when he didn’t know it was part of our youth’s lexicon, let alone this big a chunk? I honestly never heard of Stephenie Meyer’s series until the marketing machine started churning out the trailer for the film. And she’s written four of these things in just the past three plus years? Talk about prolific. Well, while it is no southern belle macabre tale as I’ve grown to love every Sunday night on “True Blood”, Twilight definitely is something. What that something is, I can’t quite grasp yet, however, I will say this … it wasn’t that bad.

One can definitely see why the tweeners love the vampire tales so much. It glorifies the life of an immortal, vaulting it to the status of godlike and virtuous. I mean, we are dealing with “vegetarian” vamps here—they have stifled their thirst by drinking only the blood of animals, thus allowing them to integrate with society, playing human yet never revealing their true identities, (sound like manufactured Tru Blood for mainstreaming vamps? It does to me). Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure these two literature sagas have nothing to do with each other, but it is an intriguing correlation considering they have come into the mainstream almost simultaneously. But Twilight has something on the scale of godlike itself—legions of adoring fans, young teen girls that will do anything in order to have their parents quench the bloodlust for a glimpse at this world, one they dream of living in, to find their own hottie vampire able to save their lives whenever necessary. It is a romantic vision of knights in shining armor and I credit Catherine Hardwicke for keeping it that way.

No one would have been surprised if Hollywood, needing to market this thing to the greatest common denominator, took the tale and made it about good versus evil, the kind immortals against the evil ones. But that would have been too easy and above all else, unnecessary. The millions of people around the world, (yes, it’s been translated in over 20 different languages), wouldn’t have stood for anything less than the love story they have grown to adore. It is about Bella and Edward finding each other and becoming the perfect couple in Forks, Washington. Differences aside, catering predilections forgotten, these two kids truly love each other despite the reality knocking at the door telling them they should get as far from each other as possible. There is just enough conflict, just enough of a taste for the vampire feuds and dormant rivalry with the Native Americans in the region—a none to subtle foreshadowing of werewolves—to keep your interest and not hurt the romance holding it all together.

I’ll admit that I bought into the relationship completely. Kristen Stewart and Pattinson work together as a couple with all the awkwardness of teenagers. I acquiesced to the strange courtship and eccentricity of it all because here is a man afraid of what he might do to his love. It may come across as comical because of the slowness of it all—the overlong anticipation for that first kiss—but it is actually completely serious. Edward needs to know for sure that the kiss won’t turn into a bite, giving him the taste of blood that he won’t be strong enough to fight against. With that said, there is a lot to chuckle about here. The romantic moments may play unintentionally funny, but the rest of the movie is very much intentionally unintentionally funny. That’s correct; wrap your head around what I just said. It’s not “so bad it’s good” it’s “we want you to laugh, but we are going to pretend we don’t, so whether you think we did or not, your laughing or lack of will both be justified”. Yes, they pander to us, hoping that whatever our reaction is, that’s the reaction we are supposed to have.

But you know what? I loved the humor. What new kid in school gets the kind of welcome that Bella gets here? Most films will have stuff thrown at her, the cliques laughing and calling her names, only the geeks giving her the time of day because finally they aren’t the butt of the jokes. Instead, Meyer has made these kids love Bella before they even know her. It was the most surreal thing in the world; I thought I was watching a “Twilight Zone” episode, and maybe, (due to the name), that is exactly what I was supposed to feel. She becomes Miss Popular as soon as she steps foot on school grounds … fantastic. And with the clunky, clichéd one-liners like the title to this review, the lion and lamb metaphor, and Billy Black’s “I’m down with the kids”, how can you not smile?

As for those involved, an admirable job all-around. Hardwicke gets a bad rap sometimes, and it could be justified, but here she does what’s needed. Nothing too flashy and because of the inherent campiness that appears to be wanted, the moments that seem cheesy actually work because they play that way. Everyone is hamming it up for the camera and roles by Ashley Greene, Peter Facinelli, and Jackson Rathbone work great. That’s not even mentioning the crew of kids Bella befriends on the mortal side of the fence. Even the parents, Sarah Clarke and Billy Burke, do well. And who doesn’t love that Hardwicke found room for the girl that jumpstarted her career, Nikki Reed. Probably the most intriguing vamp of the bunch, she’s not given much here, but hopefully the subsequent entries will beef up her somewhat jealous and spiteful mind. Yes, I believe I might actually see those sequels myself to discover if Edward and Bella can truly live happily ever after.

Twilight 6/10

Ps: What is with Taylor Lautner’s teeth (Jacob Black)? I thought I would go blind by the pristine whiteness each time he opened his mouth for talk.

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[1] KRISTEN STEWART (left) and ROBERT PATTINSON (right) star in the thriller TWILIGHT, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo credit: Peter Sorel
[2] ROBERT PATTINSON (left) and KRISTEN STEWART (right) star in the thriller TWILIGHT, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo credit: Deana Newcomb

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**Caution: Spoilers**

It appears that filmmakers have an appetite for Holocaust films these days. I don’t know if it has to do with the political strife occurring all over the world, America’s involvement in the Middle East, Republicans comparing Obama to Hitler, or what, but the constant influx almost has dulled me to the point of avoiding them. How many different versions of the tale can be told before you become numb? A film like last year’s Die Fälscher, while well made and an Oscar-winner, just rehashes the same story inside a concentration camp with Jewish prisoners as they try to survive. But then you also have movies like Adam Resurrected and Das Leben der Anderen, both telling of the atrocities in aftermath—one through flashbacks and psychological effect, the other with a tale of the government after the war ends. So, I will admit to entering The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with much trepidation, unsure of what side of the fence it would fall on. It is adapted from a novel and the trailer makes it look like your run-of-the-mill tearjerker of luck and overcoming the greatest tragedy in recent history, if not ever. Oh was I mistaken. This film is the boldest, most ballsy take on the Holocaust I have seen yet … but maybe I say that only for its powerful ending.

Mark Herman has taken John Boyne’s novel and—I can only imagine—brought it to life with the utmost accuracy. This story never shies away from the emotional toll that the Germans’ decision to kill their prisoners takes on all involved. Characters are constantly having their eyes opened to the truth of the matter or shielded from it by lies and deceit. Right from the get-go, you know you’re in store for something unexpected. When the Commandant throws a party for his promotion and subsequent move to outside a concentration camp, you assume it will be all “Heil Hitler” and that nonsense. Yes, that is there, but it is not unchecked. Instead we are given a glimpse of heart and compassion from the Commandant’s own mother, a staunch and vocal detractor to the cause. She gets in her jabs to head shaking of all those around her, as well as the confused looks of her grandchildren, unaware of what is really happening around them.

As the story unfolds, we are treated to moments of kindness on behalf of the Jewish slaves—yes maybe a bit much at times to counteract the evil insults being spoken about them from the children’s tutor—letting the kids see the humanity that their elders are so desperately trying to hide them from. One of the best characters is Vera Farmiga’s wife to the Commandant and mother to his children. She is aligned with the cause and the call for a return of brilliance for the Fatherland … that is until her world is turned upside-down by the gigantic slip of the tongue from Lieutenant Kotler about what that smell actually is. The drape is released from before her face and she finally sees through the lies of it all; at once disgusted by her own naïveté as well as the realization of how her husband has become a monster. It truly is a devastating scene watching her breakdown in front of her husband, played with stoic perfection by David Thewlis, made all the more powerful that their son witnesses it through the open door. Her reaction is exactly what I believe this film is striving to bring out of the audience. We are to look at these monsters with contempt and disgust, wanting revenge and blood for what they are doing—an emotional state you will need to feel when experiencing the unforgettable finale, needing to decide whether that bloodlust is just as bad once it’s fulfillment is at hand.

With all these thoughts of politics and German hubris running amok, there is also the tale of the little boy, oblivious to it all, being dragged in both directions at the same time. There is the duty to his father and love of family in direct conflict with what he sees with his own eyes at the camp. He knows in his mind that these “farmers” are not living the life his father’s propaganda film portrays, but his unquestioning love for that man makes his heart play tricks on the truth. Young Bruno never is quite certain about what is happening. All those he loves tells him of the Jewish evil and inhuman ways while he watches those same people commit those same acts on those they accuse of it. How can his friend Shmuel be such a bad person? He hasn’t done anything. Someone must be mistaken about the whole ordeal; it can’t be as bad as Shmuel makes it to be, but it obviously isn’t as good as the soldiers say either. Therefore, what harm can come of going inside to help his friend find his missing father?

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas quickly becomes a blindsided assault on our own sensibilities. What begins as a diatribe of Nazi ignorance and brutality, not told by the Allies, but instead seen through the actions of the German people themselves, soon becomes a journey to redemption of the “eye for an eye” sort. Yes the hypocritical moments strike home, (Thewlis is quick to reprimand Rupert Friend’s misguided soldier for protecting his sympathetic father’s escape to Switzerland yet will not disclose his own mother’s opposition to the cause), but it really all comes down to the two eight year olds playing as friends, hoping to meet in the future once “everyone is getting along again”. Asa Butterfield is great as Bruno, the conflicted boy trying to juggle both worlds, but it is Jack Scanlon’s Shmuel that will truly break your heart. His Jewish boy, with truths being withheld by the adults, afraid of what may happen if he plays catch or is caught eating contraband food, is completely authentic. His performance is so natural and true that you must wonder how much these young actors actually know about what they are portraying. If I was their parent, I don’t think I could let them be involved in a film as strong as this, especially with the imagery at its conclusion. I really didn’t think they’d have the guts to go through with it, but I applaud them for it absolutely. There really isn’t any other way to end it; the devastation and retribution by the hand of fate was the only way to stay true to the tale. It is one you will not shake soon afterwards.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas 8/10

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[1] Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and Asa Butterfield as Bruno Photo Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Film Corp.
[2] Asa Butterfield as Bruno and Vera Farmiga as Mother Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Film Corp.

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Wow, remember when Casino Royale came on the scene and gave the Bond franchise a shot of adrenaline that no one expected? How Daniel Craig brought grit and realism to a series slowly finding its way into parody and gadgetry, trying to make up for the fact its leading man was getting on in age? Not only was it a great Bond/action film, but a great film period—full of quality performances, action, intrigue, intelligent scripting, and plenty of eye-candy for the men and ladies alike. To top all of that, the next installment, Quantum of Solace, brings in a high quality director, (in my opinion at least), in Marc Forster. A visual genius and master of tone and drama, I was very much excited. However, after viewing the finished work, I finally find myself agreeing with the many people perplexed and annoyed by the cryptic title. Granted, not because its obtuse, I actually dig it a lot for that reason, but because it wasn’t as appropriate as Casino Royale Part 2. That is exactly what this film is, a short (106 minutes) story tying up loose ends from the previous one, allowing Bond to get revenge, to get information on Mr. White, to bolster his relationship with the Americans, and to progress him into the ladies man we know him to be, one who doesn’t let lingering feelings get in the way of the job. Yes, the flash is fun, the explosions and running invigorating, but in the end, it all just leads us to the next segment in Craig’s adventures … a bridge to what will hopefully be great and nothing more.

Forster does a bang up job with a script that includes, for long stretches, sequences devoid of language. He flexed some visual flair with Stranger Than Fiction, a bit in Finding Neverland, and threw the kitchen sink at us with Stay; those sentiments are definitely on display again here. The choreography is very intricate and shot clearly despite the quick cuts and shaky-cam kinetic motion. I loved the fall from a roof top onto scaffolding, the depth and length that they fall with the camera following is impressive, and although it hitches, probably showing that it wasn’t a real long take, it still put a smile on my face. Also, the giant fire set-piece during the climax has some great shots, especially those involving breaking glass, which is a common occurrence throughout and handled well each time. I just wish Paul Haggis and company gave him a little more to do with the story itself. It all becomes a way for Bond to get revenge on the man that put Vesper into the situation she was in, making her become a double agent, in effect working for the ever-elusive Mr. White. It’s his story that I desired here, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait a little longer for that one.

So, basically we have a villain in Dominic Greene, (a nefariously good Mathieu Amalric, even though he is for the most part wasted in a thankless role), pretending to investors to be an environmentalist when in fact he is working with third world nations to put a stranglehold on oil … or is it another liquid he covets? Either way, it struck me that, with some snide remarks about the American dollar, the oil business being carved up by the US and China, and the overall “green” theme of Greene’s front, the writers were trying too hard to push a liberal agenda. Maybe they weren’t, though; maybe I was just so bored with the lack of substance in Bond’s search for revenge that what ended up sticking were all those ideas and political sentiments. Unfortunately that is what stuck. Instead of giving Amalric some backstory and structure, he becomes a pawn, a creation put in the middle of Mr. White and Vesper Lynd’s ex-boyfriend who was “kidnapped” in the previous film. He is a token shell of a baddie that gives Bond something to play against until he can move along to the big fish, his quest for blood soon quenched.

Along the same lines comes Camille, the Bolivian Special Forces agent out for a little blood herself. Olga Kurylenko does a good job, balancing the sex appeal with the undercover agent well; being a Bond-girl by not being a Bond-girl. But again, she serves mainly to mirror Bond’s own quest and be the foil to whether he will continue killing prospective captives for information without remorse or if his wits will again be restored. At least Giancarlo Giannini’s Mathis and Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter bring some important plot-points to the forefront in their five minutes of combined return screentime; it’s as though the small roles were more integral to the overall story than the ones we saw every second of the way.

What Quantum of Solace truly brings to the table is action, action, action. Daniel Craig is James Bond; the guy is a machine and my new personal hero. Besides all the injuries and partially lost finger during filming, the film itself shows the scars and bruises he must have experienced. This guy is throwing his body against walls, through glass, and running like a mad man. You cannot fault the pace and abundance of chase scenes or the carnage they leave in their wake. It all begins with a high-powered car chase without any explanation at all … and none is needed. You can see the wheels turning behind Craig’s eyes, the last glimpses of emotion and love draining from his consciousness as the job gradually takes over. So, while the film can’t stand on its own, it is a very nice bookend to the tale from a couple years back, one that many thought too long and drawn out, things you won’t be saying upon exiting the theatres this year. Hopefully it’s not a sign of things to come, though, and the next chapter will bring us another stellar story on the journey to find out exactly who Mr. White is and what his organization is capable of.

Quantum of Solace 7/10

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[1] Daniel Craig and Olga Kurylenko star in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure QUANTUM OF SOLACE.
[2] Anatole Taubman and Mathieu Amalric in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure QUANTUM OF SOLACE.
Quantum of Solace © 2008 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Die Mörder sind unter uns is quite the tale, moreso for when the film was made then the actual subject matter itself. Wolfgang Staudte crafted his story to be released in 1946, just a year after World War II had ended. The effects of war and especially the atrocities that occurred in German concentration camps was still very fresh in the minds of survivors and soldiers alike. This film could have been completely polarizing, starting an uprising against those that partook in the Holocaust to acquire revenge. In fact, the original ending was supposed to show one such example of that retribution in blood, but the producers deemed it too powerful and didn’t want the responsibility of creating a mob willing to do it for real. The ending that is used instead, one of discovering that revenge will only make your suffering worse—exacerbating the feelings of hopelessness by making one’s self a killer as well—works more effectively in my mind because of its psychological underpinnings. How that conclusion is handled is another story, but not one without precedence in the movie. It is tacked on and orchestrated so cleanly and quickly that you just don’t believe a word of it. But that is how the entire story plays out, one that is effective emotionally while lacking a lot structurally.

I will grant the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt because they weren’t out to get a character study out to the public, they wanted to show the effects of war and how Germany would need to forever live amongst those that killed without remorse for years under Hitler’s regime. As a result, the characters are well fleshed out individually with all their problems and idiosyncrasies, but their relationships with each other are stilted and false. How some people know one another can never be explained in certain instances and the fast track comradery between others comes from nowhere at times. Take our two leads, Dr. Mertens, (the man who has taken up residence at a former prisoner’s old apartment), and Susanne Wallner, (that returned prisoner looking for home). When she comes back it is with the mindset of residing there again, it was hers. She is not overly possessive as she tells Mertens he may stay until he finds another place, but he will have none of it. This has been his home and since the war ended he has not fully recovered from the Stockholm Syndrome ruling his life. A doctor that can no longer stomach the sight of blood after what he witnessed in the Nazi army, Mertens has found solace in the drink, completely drunk at most times of the day in order to silence the sounds and screams of just a few months previous. So, we go from the two living in separate rooms never to intrude on the other, to he enjoying having a woman around to cook and clean, to the two of them being madly in love with each other. Sure it was a foregone conclusion, but there is no courtship at all, we are just meant to believe it happened behind the scenes.

Now, by having those relationship points glossed over does allow for more time to delve into the meat of the tale. You see, Mertens was a doctor under the command of Captain Brueckner, a man responsible for the deaths of innocent women and children despite his pleas for leniency. Only when the doctor sees his Captain in a field, apparently dying, does he believe the nightmare might be over, God has gotten retribution for him; he will not have to shed blood himself to make up for the loss of those in the camp. In the great coincidental way that movies always seem to possess, the Captain’s death is discovered to have been untrue by Susanne, after she finds a letter to his wife amongst Mertens’ things. She takes it upon herself to deliver this letter, only finding that Brueckner survived and would love to see the doctor again for he was a steady and reliable comrade. This discovery only drags Mertens down deeper and deeper into his drowning soul, doing whatever he can to stay afloat, only to find that murder of the murderer can be the only way. It is a brilliant portrayal of trying to find redemption in a muddled and confused mind and Ernst Wilhelm Borchert is great breathing life into this broken man.

The film’s style reminded me a lot of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in its use of montage and transitions. Maybe it was just the stark black and whites and the use of shadow and sharp cuts, but being only 20 years later, in an obliterated nation, I don’t think one has to go too far to understand a Russian influence here, especially since they backed the financing. Oftentimes there are some stunning visuals on display too. The use of looming shadows encompassing characters like that at the end or close-ups to portray emotion is effectively handled. What a unique way to express flashback by showing only Borchert’s face as his Mertens remembers the killings at the camp. His eyes opened wide, we can only see into his soul while the sounds superimposed express the atrocity he witnessed.

But I also enjoyed the small details of the time period and the authenticity of it all. My friend who showed me the film believes it was shot in Berlin with the real rubble surrounding them as a set. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was correct, because it all felt real and was lingered upon often. A favorite character of mind supposedly showed an occupation of the time also, of a psychic/seer. The Lenin-esque actor performed a service to Herr Mondschein, a man waiting desperately to see his son return home. It is a job to instill hope while also cashing in on the suffering of the weak. An interesting moral compass changer that while nefarious does indeed perform a necessary service.

As the first German film produced after the war, you have to give those involved credit for getting it done, especially with the kind of light it shed on the country. So soon after, they were already attempting to distance themselves as far away as possible.

Die Mörder sind unter uns 7/10

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[1] Wolfgang Staudte and Hildegard Knef during the shooting of “Die Mörder sind unter uns” (“The Murderers Are Among Us / Murderers Among Us”, 1946).

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Anne Hathaway was all the buzz this year at the Toronto Film Festival. I will admit to being skeptical, never really seeing her as much more than a pretty face. People would say how brave and fearless she was in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain, but does taking your clothes off constitute a good actress? If you ask Marissa Tomei right now, she may say yes, but for me, I need some emotively wrought performances to put on my stamp of approval. However, it was not just Hathaway that gave me doubts here; her director is Jonathan Demme. Besides Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, I’ve never quite been a huge fan of his either. With all that said, Rachel Getting Married seems to have caught all involved at the Earth’s perfect rotational position, because it is absolutely wonderful. Hathaway and company give powerful turns in an emotionally devastating film; wearing its realism on its sleeve at all times with help from Demme’s handheld style. A mix of Pieces of April infused with the few good parts of Margot at the Wedding—this film shows the heartbreak of tragedy even on the cusp of a joyous occasion. It puts its characters in confrontational positions to allow the repressed feelings surface and flow out, as Hathaway’s Kym must make amends with those around her, all while trying to find a way towards self-forgiveness.

The film commences a few days before Rachel’s wedding. She is hard at work getting it all ready with help from her father, stepmother, and friends, eagerly awaiting the return of her sister Kym from a nine-month stint in rehab. Kym is sober for the first time in a long time, coping with her re-assimilation into society by having to deal with a large group of people she is close to (family) and a stranger to (the groom’s family) all of which know her troubles. She goes straight from a controlled environment to a highly volatile and stressful world that she isn’t sure she can work in. Needing both the attention and the privacy to deal with what is going on in her head, she makes outbursts and awkward situations for herself and those around her, taking the spotlight away from Rachel who desperately needs it after a life playing second fiddle to her sister’s troubles. They are siblings that love each other, but they can’t put their own personal issues aside to relate fully to the other’s problems. Rachel despises Kym for what she did as a 17 year-old, in effect destroying their family, and also for coming back right at the moment when she finally had all eyes on her. It’s a misplaced jealousy towards Kym’s explosive lifestyle that, while overturning their world, made her into the center of attention, being worried about for the bad while she Rachel was pushed to the background for doing nothing but good.

Rachel Getting Married is a slice of life that digs into the psyche of a family torn apart and brought back together without time for reconciliation. The wedding is in full swing and there is no time to talk. So, instead, we see the strong pinpoints of devastation rearing their heads at all the wrong times. The sisters are emotionally vulnerable and when things don’t go their way, don’t think before letting those emotions out. Forgiveness takes time, but the high stress involved in the wedding doesn’t allow for it; therefore screaming, hitting, and crying abound as feelings no longer can be kept in check with everyone’s guard down from the toll of long days and nights planning, trying to get the ceremony as perfect as can be. But maybe that is exactly what is needed in a situation such as this. With all inhibitions gone, the truth can come out and hopefully reconcile itself even if its introduction comes from exploding bombs. With no time to candy-coat, Kym sees that her blanket apology at the rehearsal dinner just won’t be good enough. These things must be done from the heart; rehab doesn’t work if you continue to lie, not just to others, but also to yourself.

While Demme may show it all with a genius up-close and personal style, one must credit Jenny Lumet for a fantastic script. We are shown all the mundane and private events culminating into the wedding from the rehearsal dinner filled with an eclectic group of people to the quaint moments such as a dishwasher loading competition between the groom and father of the bride to release of energy and emotion on the dance floor during the reception. This is such a personal film that it almost seems too much at times because of the sheer realism to it all. Anne Hathaway, as Kym, is just superb, proving her worth in Hollywood; she is a revelation. The angst and spoiled, attention-grabbing ego come across great, but it’s the little things that truly shine, the moments when she makes amends with the three people she has been avoiding for too long, namely Rachel, her father, and her mother. When she finally relays what happened, to both drive her deeper into addiction and break her family apart, at a therapy session, you believe every word and every tear. That monologue itself, along with her distant stares and revelations of her own selfishness as the film continues, shows how fearless this performance is. Devastatingly real and heartbreakingly effective, Hathaway deserves all the acclaim.

But it is not just a showcase for this ex-Disneyfied actress; no the supporting cast is just as good. The musically inclined group of people are wonderfully fleshed out, whether it be the groom, (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe’s Sidney), and his family, or Rachel and Kym’s father, (Bill Irwin’s Paul), and his friends, there is music playing and being sung at all times. Adebimpe’s singing of Neil Young at the altar ends a sequence that proves to be the best exchange of wedding vows ever, really powerful and heartfelt stuff. As far as an emotional bundle of nerves, Irwin is mind-blowingly good. Here is a father giving his daughter away, joining forces with a new family, discovering he will be a grandfather, and trying to shield Kym through it all so she doesn’t think they don’t want her there. He is juggling everyone else’s emotions that when his own come to the surface, he becomes a completely beaten man, all semblance of the collected façade gone. And then there is Mather Zickel, a supposed friend of “The State” comedy crew if his filmography is to be believed, as the best man and rock to Kym’s mess of nerves going through group therapy for the first time … a very strong performance as well.

In the end, though, it is all about the three women—mother and daughters—that hold this piece together. I’ve already sung Hathaway’s praises, but mention needs to be made for Rachel’s Rosemarie DeWitt and their mother’s Debra Winger. Much like Kym hasn’t forgiven herself (and is her line saying she hopes there is no God if that God would ever forgive her for what she did not the most amazing sentiment, no matter how uncompromising a viewpoint it is?) Winger holds some definite regret and responsibility as well. Her actions at the wedding help show what real family means; it is not always about whom you came from. And as for DeWitt, she is just beautiful at all turns, inside and out. She portrays throughout how her sister’s life has affected her, how the lives and tragedies don’t only destroy the one doing, but also those being done to. This is as much a tale of Kym’s reconciliation as Rachel finally breaking free to become her own woman, outside of the self-imposed shadow she made of her sister. This wedding is truly about beginnings, not for the new union only, but also the family that has been slowly tearing itself apart from the inside.

Rachel Getting Married 10/10

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[1] Anne Hathaway as Kym. Photo taken by Bob Vergara, 2007, Property of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left to Right: Mather Zickel as Kieran, Anne Hathaway as Kym, Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel, Tunde Adebimpe as Sidney. Photo taken by Bob Vergara, 2007, Property of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.

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Is Guy Ritchie back? Has the impending divorce brought back that violent edge we fans have been missing? I guess it is somewhat idiotic of myself, and others, to dismiss Ritchie as though he’s left the playing field. Sure Swept Away couldn’t have been good as art let alone for his career, but besides that and what some consider a bloated mess in Revolver, Ritchie hasn’t imploded. The guy made two great cockney gangster flicks and with his newest film, RocknRolla, continues the tradition, pulling the train back on its tracks if he ever really derailed at all. I can’t stand people saying that he needs to stop writing the same film over and over again … do you like them? Then who cares? If it works, run with it. Ritchie is skilled enough to create nuance to his tales and despite the good ones all pertaining to the seedy workings of the British underworld, they aren’t carbon copies of each other. RocknRolla shows a definite maturity in style with some brilliant visual sequences and the action/humor/violence fills the screen at every turn.

It is always a pleasure to see the narrator gimmick succeed. The entire story is relayed by Archie, played with gritty toughness by Mark Strong—this guy is everywhere now. He treats us to backstories, flashbacks, and observations on the day-to-day dealings working under London boss Lenny Cole, a volatile Tom Wilkinson, chewing massive amounts of scenery. Strong helps explain the interesting coincidental connections that seem to always occur in the crime world; everyone ends up running into each other at some point. I really believe this one line helped me overlook multiple instances of convenient storyline overlapping, something necessary to be invested in the film. Every criminal onscreen will at some point effect the life of the others, whether intentional, unconsciously, or just by sheer dumb luck. In this way, it all becomes a cohesive whole despite the jumping between character point of views and instances in time. Ritchie seems to have carefully orchestrated it all, uncovering every little detail at just the right moment to the audience, no matter if it occurred before or after what precedes it. We’re shown it all in an order that bolsters the narrative, not necessarily the chronological timeline of those involved.

In that respect, certain characters are brought in and out of the story, showing up to enter our consciousness, but held back until we truly need them. It all begins with the junkie binge of rockstar Johnny Quid, a punk kid at once thought to just be a random slacker until his history is slowly peeled back. Toby Kebbell is a true RocknRolla, living the life of drugs, sex, violence, and anything else he can dip his foot in. My favorite character, by far, Johnny Quid meanders through the lives of everyone else as the one connection common to all. The pithiest junkie I’ve ever seen, the nuggets of wisdom he relates to his pal Pedro are astounding and unpredictable. A screw-up that was raised with every opportunity to wealth is purposely sending his life to the gutter, making his psychobabble and cigarette metaphors that much more entertaining, because he spouts the intellect in a completely cynical, sarcastic manner. The kid is too smart for his own good and we all know his mouth will inevitably get him into trouble … setting up a great elevator monologue towards the end with his ex-agents played nicely by Jeremy Piven and Chris Bridges.

It will be tough to explain details of the plot without risk of spoiling the entire thing. So, in a nutshell, it all revolves around property. Wilkinson’s mob boss controls the planning committees and anyone else necessary for a large real estate deal to run smoothly. He has put himself into business with his Russian equivalent to build a new stadium in London. This interaction brings into play an expensive “lucky” painting that changes hands, two transactions of 7 million Euros intercepted by a ragtag group of lowlifes, and the question of freedom as a commodity being ruined by an unknown informant to the police. Ritchie keeps it all going at a breakneck pace, introducing a new wrinkle just when you think it’s about to slow down. Culminating in a final confrontation with everyone bringing forth the truth of who they truly are. I don’t see how you cannot be entertained by it all.

The cast is stellar throughout. Whether a known or unknown, each adds his own flair to the proceedings, keeping the interest level high. No one really stars; it is a very even-handed ensemble with people coming in and out, doing their thing and stepping back to let everyone else do theirs. Thandie Newton is beautiful and intriguing as a corrupt accountant living a life of convenience, but never happy; Nonso Anozie is really funny as Tank (“Think” Tank) finding all the nefarious doings on the street; Karel Roden shows again why he reigns supreme with Russian villainy; and Gerard Butler, Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy shine as the Wild Bunch, hired muscle to do everyone’s dirty work for them, clueless to the big picture, but having a great time nonetheless. The best part of the film concerns them and the second money heist against a duo of indestructible Russians. Ritchie shoots it very artistically with a handheld camera, jumping and shaking. The close-ups of faces cropped on the far right side, affixed to the actor as he runs is breathtaking. The humor never goes stale, the absurdity of the situation never trumps the fun factor, and the slowed to a crawl end to the chase due to fatigue is fantastic—it has it all, blood, violence, machine guns, physical humor, tempo changes, car crashes, and frenetic editing. This one sequence is the epitome of the film, one that will never leave you bored … unless of course the accents give you trouble, in which case, rent it and use closed-captioning, it’ll be worth it.

RocknRolla 8/10

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[1] TOBY KEBBELL as Johnny Quid in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action film “RocknRolla.” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] THANDIE NEWTON as Stella and GERARD BUTLER as One Two in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action “RocknRolla.” Photo by Alex Bailey


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