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People who know my film tastes can tell you that my favorite movies are those that stray off the beaten path. Film’s that break the fourth wall and involve me as the viewer in the actual plotline always seem to hit the right spot. Chalk up JCVD as another great entry to that style of filmmaking, but also understand that there is a lot more going for it than just being experimental and unafraid to be abnormal. Not only does Jean-Claude Van Damme give possibly his best performance ever—I mean really, really good—but he does so playing a character that is so much like his real life self you would believe this to be an autobiography if you didn’t know better. How director Mabrouk El Mechri talked him into agreeing to this format, I don’t know, but thankfully he did. As an entertaining thriller, bank heist flick it succeeds in spades. However, you should look deeper and see the form of catharsis it must have instilled in Van Damme, finally being able to set the record straight about the women, the money, and the drugs. Complete with a heartfelt monologue that doubles as a prayer to God from JCVD and a plea to the public from Van Damme himself that he has turned his life around, this is just fantastic cinema.

El Mechri has some flair to his work and makes the proceedings exciting. The story is told out of order, with good reason, and broken up with title cards of quotes, (“the stone falls on the egg … the egg breaks” and “the egg falls on the stone … the egg breaks” for example), just remember them because they do become part of the dialogue before the end. And talk about starting with a bang; the entire opening credit sequence is one long take, choreographed to perfection, of Van Damme wreaking havoc on bad guys, kicking them into car windows and saving a hostage. An impressive feat for anyone, let alone a 47-year old action star, it ends very tongue-in-cheek, with a flub followed by an upstart foreign director ignoring his star, wondering why he thinks they are making the next Citizen Kane. Between this moment and the few scenes involving his agent, the satire on Hollywood and its money marketing is handled quite well. Better even than a film like What Just Happened, whose main focus was just that. You really begin to feel for Van Damme and the pressures that brought him back to Belgium after leaving so long ago. A washed up has-been here in the states; he is still the idol of many back in his homeland.

You must give the star a ton of credit for leaving it all out there for this performance. To have to pretty much reenact the courtroom drama of trying to get his daughter’s custody must have been very trying, if not also easy to bring up the emotions necessary to make the scenes work. His utter disgust on how the films he made and the fake violence he inflicted was used against him when it was those same two things that supported his family is there for all to see. Here he is, in a rush to make the post office/bank to wire money so he can retain his attorney, and getting out of his cab still takes the time to pose for photos at a local video store. Despite everything, here is a genuinely kind man, someone who admits to not wanting to have to apologize for his success, for his dream as a thirteen year old coming true. He worked hard and he made it to the top, but sometimes fame can destroy too. A wonderful scene in the cab, talking to the driver shows this very perceptively. Here he is, a tired man who hasn’t slept in two days wanting to rest in the backseat and he gets called rude because the driver is a fan. If he wasn’t a star, his request would have been acknowledged, but for some reason fans feel entitled to a star treating them with “respect”. Maybe there is truth to that, but honestly, it is we the public doing so that makes celebrities so reviled. Our intrusiveness makes them mean and spiteful; we’ve created the monsters.

There is a lot of humor mixed in with the action and suspense. The whole premise revolves around the robbery of a post office/bank for which the police believe JCVD is the perpetrator. As such, the entire city comes out in support of their hero—signs saying “Free Van Damme”—and the police commissioner, played nicely by François Damiens, tries to use the celebrity in his favor. By getting his lawyer on the phone and bringing his parents down to the scene, things start spiraling out of control inside. Things are not always as they seem, however, shown by the repetition of scenes. What is first viewed from the outside of the post office, the start of a robbery while police arrive, becomes completely different when shown again later from the inside, following JCVD as he attempts to get his money wired to Los Angeles.

The medium of film is utilized to its fullest capabilities in this way. We are able to see things multiple times, from differing vantage points; we are allowed a moment alone with the star as he takes himself out of the movie and enters reality in a brilliantly subtle way, raising right out of frame until he’s on level with the stage lights; and we are even shown a scene in Van Damme’s mind, a dream sequence played out before the film rewinds itself and portrays what really happened. Hollywood may love the happy endings of heroes beating all odds and saving the day, but unfortunately real life is never so forgiving. However, despite the cynical way in which the whole ordeal ends, El Mechri does allow for one last moment of heart, completing the film with a sense of quasi-redemption and allowing Van Damme’s catharsis an end he may hopefully see outside of the movies too.

JCVD 9/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Mr. Pierre Morel, you have picked an express train to latch on to—good for you. Something about Luc Besson just works every single time. I’m sad that his declaration of being finished with the director’s chair may be true, however, his scripts are mounting and churning out entertaining action flicks. If you can get the Transporter series to make money from its wit and smart action, you know you are doing something right. I’ve yet to see these two guys’ first collaboration, District B13, but as far as the sophomore effort goes, Taken, I have one more reason to finally seek it out. Released in Europe last year and finally making its way stateside at the end of January, the tale pits a retired US government “preventer” with the Albanian captors that stole his daughter in Paris. His job ruined his marriage, strained the relationship he had with his child, yet gave him the specific skill set to get it all back. All he has to do is kick some butt, kill numerous baddies without a glimpse of remorse, and call in a few favors, while burning some old bridges in the process. Liam Neeson shows the physicality that George Lucas must have seen when casting him as a Jedi warrior, but didn’t utilize. Well, Morel sure opened the floodgates and Neeson does not disappoint.

The European flair shows face right at the start with the film’s opening credits. Sure the star gets top billing, but who do you ask gets second and third? That’s right, the director and writers, then followed by the title. Someone understands the true creativity behind a feature film. Well, not just someone, a continent. Whereas we in the states only care about who we see—“doesn’t that new Brad Pitt film look awesome?” “Oh, I don’t know, I kind of wanted to check out the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson.” “Who?”—cinephiles abroad know the creators, the orchestrators, and the people for whom there’d be no words for Pitt to speak. It’s a shame that the name Luc Besson won’t fill the seats by itself here in America, because I’m sure if you mention a lot of his filmography to a film fan and ask what they all have in common, the answer would be, “all films I really enjoy”. And yet the person answering probably has no idea what the common factor is allowing them to be such.

Shot with a kinetic pace, not quite Tony Scott speed as my friend suggested, more Bourne Supremacy, but even a bit clearer than that, the action excites at every turn. Neeson is a man on a mission; a man with everything on the line to find and save his daughter before the estimated 96 hours are up and she is lost forever, sold on the black market to be used, abused, and most likely disposed. Friends, enemies, strangers, you name it; they are all potential targets to be shot at. Neeson’s Bryan Mills is the ultimate badass working from his heart—using his head, but only to survive, not to censor his actions so as to stay out of trouble. He gave it all up to rekindle a relationship with his seventeen year old, yet I’m sure never thought that the only way to do so would be to use all that training. The flip remark from Leland Orser, calling him Rambo, is more appropriate than you may think.

The supporting cast is definitely a necessity to keep the plot moving, but, in the end, it’s all about Neeson moving forward and bull-rushing his way through extras. Maggie Grace can sadly get very tired, but I don’t fault her as much as casting. She is a 26-year old playing 17, so her overly annoying, girlish tendencies are overblown because she is overcompensating for the age difference. Famke Janssen and Xander Berkeley, two favorite character actors of mine, are solid in small roles, while my favorite supporter is Olivier Rabourdin’s Jean-Claude. Playing a French Internal Government agent, an ex-associate of Neeson, he portrays the duality of wanting to help his friend while still keeping his job and financial influx intact. He knows that whatever is uncovered in the one-man vigilante escapade could potentially harm his paycheck by exposing illegal dealings with criminals on the part of the police force, so he is never completely open. And that guardedness leads to a fantastic dinner scene.

Taken is action-packed and a great showcase of Liam Neeson’s ability to break out of the mild-mannered Brit he sometimes gets relegated into playing. No one is safe from his wrath and no obstacle will get in his way; in fact, those obstructions actually help him hide and kill with even more accuracy and safety. Besson also keeps his streak going of highly entertaining scripts helping to launch the careers of Frenchmen—Louis Letterier going from Danny the Dog to Hollywood’s The Incredible Hulk anyone? If this, and the high praise for District B13, is any indication, the name Pierre Morel may soon be one on billboards stateside as well. As I said, he hitched his trailer to the right perpetually moving train.

Taken 8/10

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photography:
[1] In TAKEN, Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, an ex-government operative who has less than four days to find his kidnapped daughter – who has been taken on her first day of vacation in Paris. Photo credit: Stephanie Branchu
[2] Only moments away from being taken by a vicious band of kidnappers, Kim (Maggie Grace) makes an urgent phone call to her father. Photo credit: Stephanie Branchu

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When I first decided to check out the prequel/third installment to two of my favorite guilty pleasure vampire/lycanthrope films, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, I joked to myself that I’d be shallow enough to say it failed right from the start by not having the beauty that is Kate Beckinsale. Well, I was half right. You need to remember, this thing would never be a real success because of the sheer non-necessity of it. This story is told effectively enough in Underworld as flashbacks and history, to actually need a feature length showing us it all again is just overkill. That said, though, I really enjoyed it. The tone remained, the aesthetic stayed true, but the Beckinsale factor was missed—no, not because of her looks, but actually her acting. Something about her lent a vulnerability to the character, a softness that showed a bit of humanity behind the vampiric power. With Rhona Mitra, you just get the hard-edged badass, leaving the reality of her falling for a Lycan all the more implausible.

One must give credit to the series on a whole for staying relevant and true to itself. I think that if it became anything less, some sort of caricature being churned out by the Hollywood machine, none of the original talent would have bothered to return, no matter what kind of cash was thrown their way. Bill Nighy is the kind of guy that definitely doesn’t need to be doing action films anymore. After reading interviews with him following the initial film, he complained about the sheer physicality of the role and the amount of training he had to experience. Yet here he is, six years later, still getting into the dungeon water with swords and wirework, completing the story that he began. And by his side is an actor who’s star has risen to the A-list, Michael Sheen, bringing credibility to a genre film that usually doesn’t deserve it, let alone contain it. The Lycan leader, Lucian, is the role that brought Sheen into America’s consciousness and you have to think his friendship with the producers and his belief in the material got him to reprise the role despite recently playing Tony Blair and David Frost.

It is that credibility that makes the series so popular, though. Ever since the first film, billed as a horror, gore flick, surprised by being something of substance, the mythology has taken on a life of its own. Its subtle spin on the immortality yarn was fresh enough to intrigue and rooted in reality to be relevant. This installment may actually hurt because of its time period taking place centuries ago. The neat gadgets and garlic clove bullets are replaced with medieval armor and whips, swords and horses. However, it works if you have embraced the complete story at hand. We always knew that the feud began ages ago, these two races do live forever after all, so to see it play out does excite on some level. We were shown a taste of it in Underworld: Evolution, but here it becomes reality. Even though this film was practically written in the original movie, and just expounded upon here, it still keeps a strong enough script to hold our attention and succeed as a fun ride if not adding anything new.

The reason that fact is also a detriment leads us to Rhona Mitra. In my mind I always saw Sonja as this girl who had love and compassion in her heart. Someone who saw beyond the cold, cruelty of her father to realize what combining the bloodlines could do for the peaceful harmony of their races. I thought of someone like Beckinsale, a former human that still held a shred of morality in her body, a softness to see why Lucian would fall for her. What we get from Mitra, and it is what she does, is a pureblood vampire, born and raised to kill. She is so steely-eyed and stone-faced that while her brazen attitude with her father and need to protect her people works remarkably, the moments when she needs to tear down her shield ring false. I don’t necessarily blame her as much as casting. The filmmakers saw that young men wanted to see a hot woman kicking butt and didn’t realize the other layers Kate’s Selene added to the overall tone of Underworld. As an action film she is perfect, but as a story of love and a future above prejudice and civil war, there is just something lacking.

Michael Sheen then attempts to do it all himself, showing incredible range with just a silent look at a vampire guard abusing one of his kind. Grabbing his arm to stop the whip, his eyes show the seriousness with which he makes the transgression, but also the pleading warmth for this monster to show a little compassion and respect. You can only beat someone so much before they either can’t work anymore or they wake up to the fact they are strong enough to stand their ground and fight. Sheen’s Lucian tries so hard to force those feelings of revolt down in order to keep his affair with Sonja alive, but sometimes the master’s lashings can be withstood only so long. His dynamic with Bill Nighy’s remorseless—although he shows some weakness in abandoning his daughter—bureaucrat is felt. It becomes old school versus the new and a beginning to the long war yet to be forged against the two.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is by no means crucial viewing for the series to make sense, but it also isn’t something to completely dismiss. Showing what we knew fully adds a layer that may or may not effect how you view the other two installments afterwards. If nothing else, it answers some questions about how each character became whom they do. I’d almost recommend seeing it just to experience the origins of Raze. Kevin Grevioux is one of the series’ creators and killed himself off in the first film only to be resurrected here in the past. His history is an intriguing one and probably the only surprise I had watching, unthinking that how he becomes Lucian’s right-hand man could occur as it does. However, it makes perfect sense and actually creates a whole new level about the relationship between immortals and humans. It’s just one more thread to bolster the mythology and add some depth to an already fleshed-out premise.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 6/10
As comparison: Underworld 8/10; Underworld: Evolution 8/10

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photography:
[1] Michael Sheen stars in Screen Gems’ action thriller UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS.
[2] Bill Nighy and Rhona Mitra star in Screen Gems’ action thriller UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS.
© 2008 Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC. All Right Reserved.

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**Spoilers**

Let’s just say that it is good to watch something as potentially inaccessible as Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck with friends who know something about the work for which it is based. As someone unfamiliar with Herzog’s and Klaus Kinski’s film work—this is my first look at their tumultuous yet epic cinematic partnership—and clueless on the story this movie portrays, a post-screening discussion was much appreciated. Especially since the group I watched with is putting on an abstracted, and most likely absurdist, performance of the play, their explanation of back-story was very helpful. You see, playwright Georg Büchner had passed on before his work could be published in any complete way. As a result, his finished pages have been reassembled multiple times by a number of artists and writers. I guess it is a well-known phenomenon to know that certain scenes are unnecessary and others can be moved around, yet still be Woyzeck. This ability to become new with every iteration has caused the work to become one of the most performed German plays ever and, as it is here from Herzog, an often confusing yet captivating piece of art.

Shot very theatrically, from the use of multiple static setups—don’t be surprised to view a scene from an unmoving position while the actors come close to the lens, distorting somewhat, before they move back into frame—to the bombastic acting. Josef Bierbichler is the guiltiest here as the Drum Major our titular Franz Woyzeck’s love Marie has an affair with, but both Wolfgang Reichmann and Willy Semmelrogge as the Captain and Doctor respectively don’t fall too far behind him. The acting works for certain scenes, adding a sense of artifice like an interesting monologue by a drunk outside a bar, waxing poetic about how humanity is evil. There truly is a sense of the beyond as though we are watching an alternate universe with every aspect familiar yet slightly off-kilter. This effect is amplified by the camerawork, allowing for some excruciatingly long scenes depicting the breakdown of the human soul. Even from the opening credits, watching Kinski’s Woyzeck do push-ups while constantly being kicked for way too long, we experience some fantastic acting as a result. No scene is more memorable than the murder of Marie, shot in slomotion while an orchestral piece plays, drowning out all sound. You can get lost in Kinski’s eyes as he goes from love to anger to malice to regret. The tears welling up as we just stare at him in close-up without a cut. It’s just a powerhouse-acting clinic.

Perhaps I should delve into the story a bit. Remember, though, this description comes from both the film and reading an online synopsis of the play because Herzog doesn’t feel the need for exposition. Woyzeck has fathered a child with his mistress Marie, a fact that the entire town knows. In order to support them, he begins to do odd jobs for his military Captain—shaving him for instance—and participates in clinical studies with a local doctor, the current experiment being that he eats only peas. Woyzeck is beaten physically and emotionally until he can take no more. Breaking from reality, he starts to hear and see things; anger boils inside him, unable to stay there as the voices beg him to let it out. Like a trained lab animal, Woyzeck drifts off into his thoughts, but is at the ready when spoken to by a superior officer—posture straight and all “yes sirs”. He is no longer a man of free will; everything he does is either an order, a remark made to plant the seed, or his insanity speaking out to him.

There are many existential aspects throughout with outside forces assailing him without an ability to stop them. He becomes the circus trick so blatantly metaphoric to a dressed-up monkey and mathematical genius horse in a scene that contains the most glaringly strange cut of Marie basically leaving her child and Woyzeck to sit all giggly with the Drum Major two rows back. Used and abused by society, Woyzeck is a stand-in for what stronger people have been doing to the weak for centuries. Made into a parlor trick, an entertainment for those who wield control over him, this man is at the mercy of no longer differentiating between right and wrong. It is an interesting thing done by Herzog in that he doesn’t show us the man before the insanity. Rather, we are introduced to Woyzeck at the cusp of his tipping point, almost saying that we are all there, just waiting to be pushed over. To be human, therefore, is to be fragile enough to allow yourself to be manipulated from emotion, to be led astray. I’d almost even go so far as draw a metaphor to the Holocaust, but that may be just because I recently saw The Reader and have been inundated with WWII flicks for the past few months. However, from the couple anti-Semitic remarks to the fact that Woyzeck imagines heavy smoke and hears voices crying, not to mention moments of calling out a big crowd as being guilty, soon to be punished themselves, I couldn’t help but think of German guilt and a people unable to grasp their role in that enormous tragedy.

In the end though, this is Herzog’s vision of the story: a man lost and left alone by society rather than embraced and brought inside it. Someone so troubled that he would kill the one thing he loved above all else, whose insanity leaves him unsure of how to even dispose of the murder weapon. After throwing the knife into the river, he follows it deeper and deeper, telling himself they might find it. I originally thought this was him going to his death by drowning, (verified when reading a play synopsis), however, when the police are shown at the end, I thought the man at the left was Woyzeck there to identify the body. And the river wasn’t very wide, so he’d have gotten to the other side. Either way, it concludes with written text superimposed over the image speaking of how it had been so long since they’ve had a murder quite like this. Even here, Woyzeck is proven to be the catalyst for a demented storybook ending, the cause of a new spectacle for the people to see. Society has become so lost that rather than see the human tragedy of a dead woman, they just see the excitement of a murder and all that goes along with it. Humanity has decided to sever ties with itself, death just another stage of life to be gawked at by outsiders, the value of the soul all but gone.

Woyzeck 6/10

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This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all, the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …

I don’t know what precipitated 2008 being the year of the World War II movie, but of the 100+ releases I saw, six of them concerned it in some regard. The year saw more than its share of war from all decades with Che, Stop-Loss, Waltz with Bashir, and even Tropic Thunder, however, the Holocaust spent a lot of time on top of the list for movies on the verge of award glory. Only one received a nomination for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, and it was one of my least favorites, The Reader. The two that really impressed me with their fresh take on the psychology of the genocide, Adam Resurrected and Boy in the Striped Pajamas saw no love, but then that’s why I make my own top ten list. A film may be well-made, perfectly acted, and precisely paced, but to me technical genius isn’t the end all be all. No, to me, I need to be touched emotionally somehow, either by the story or the visuals. My favorite films of 2008 were the ones that I left the theatre contemplative and altered in some way. You won’t see many at the Oscars this year, but that’s ok … I can watch and shake my head when lesser films take the golden bald men my ragtag bunch of cinema deserved.

Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Appaloosa; Changeling; Frozen River; Happy-Go-Lucky; Saibogujiman kwenchana [I’m a Cyborg]; My Winnipeg; Surveillance; Synecdoche, New York; Towelhead; Transsiberian

Honorable Mention (in reverse order):
Milk, review: In a genre that doesn’t usually appeal to me, Milk really did it right. Showing just a specific period of Harvey Milk’s life, without boring us in mundane details or glossing over important facts to fit in more life-story, Gus Van Sant tells the tale with love and objectivity. Sean Penn deserves Best Actor; I just hope he doesn’t win it, (but more on that later).
Son of Rambow, review: Garth Jennings shows the heart he infused Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with, only on a more touching scale. It portrays two boys living out their imaginations and a surprising friendship to make their lives meaningful amongst the hardships of growing up. Funny, touching, and inventive—it’s British all the way and great throughout.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, review: A staggering documentary showing that even a planned film can take turns no one could expect. What was to be a story documenting a fallen friend becomes a letter to a son that would never see his father. And then, in a disturbing twist of fate, becomes something completely different. Needs to be experienced firsthand to fully grasp the devastation and hope for the future.
Dark Knight, The, review: Could it be the best superhero movie of all time? Yes, it can, if I could truly call it a superhero film. The Dark Knight rises above those conventions and stereotypes to become a magnificent feat of cinema. And with a stirring portrayal of chaos by the late Heath Ledger will be very hard to top, even for Chris Nolan if he decides to make a third.
Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The, review: Yes, I’ve heard and understand the comparisons to Forrest Gump, but I believe that even if this is a copy, it is a better one. You must buy into the fantasy of it all to enjoy it, however, with the performances, stunning visuals, and incomparable special effects in aging, it’d be hard to not believe it all.

The Top Ten of 2009 (in reverse order):

10. Brothers Bloom, The, review: Rian Johnson follows his stellar debut Brick with something that may at first seem lighter, but ends up being just as taut a suspense thriller. A memorable addition to the “con-man” genre of crime capers, the humor and heavy emotional drama meld together perfectly.

9. My Blueberry Nights, review: People tell me I should not like this film, that it is lesser Wong Kar-Wai and doesn’t even deserve mention. However, despite a couple flaws in acting, I was enthralled throughout. Both mesmerized by the stunning cinematography and the subtle beauty of Norah Jones, it grabbed a hold and never let go.

8. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), review: Complete with possibly the best sequence shot all year—a static frame of a school swimming pool, you’ll understand when you watch it—the atmosphere is so cold and sterile that the creepiness of this vampire film never lets up, especially with the warmth and love attempting to come across between our two young leads.

7. Snow Angels, review: It will land a devastating blow to your stomach as the bottom finally drops after over an hour of tense set-up. A tragedy by the definition of the term, I am so glad this was my introduction to David Gordon Green and not Pineapple Express (although I loved that one too).

6. Seven Pounds, review: I know I shouldn’t have this film so high on my list. I know it’s sentimental and contrived and tugs at the heartstrings. However, I’d be lying to myself if I left it off. Will Smith shines and the story stayed with me well after the credits rolled. And for me, that means so much more than whether it was original or substantial in an artistic sense.

5. Revolutionary Road, review: A powerhouse performance from Kate Winslet, (more deserving of an Oscar nomination than her turn in The Reader), and the supporting role of the year from Michael Shannon if not for Ledger’s sure win, Sam Mendes got the emptiness of suburbia as well as, if not better then, contemporary Todd Field. A character piece more than a plot-based narrative, you will see yourself superimposed in these lost creatures and hope you find a way to get your life on track so you don’t suffer their same fate.

4. Slumdog Millionaire, review: Feel good movie of the year? Most definitely. Danny Boyle can do no wrong as he takes a script that actually uses contrivances and “lazy writing” to make it succeed. A boy’s life had just the right experiences in it to answer the questions on a game show to win a million dollars and find the love of his life. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t take us for an amazing journey, and yet it is all the more successful because it does just that.

3. Rachel Getting Married, review: Was there an accidental family murder caused by drug abuse in my family? No. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see myself, and my immediate family members, transposed over the characters in Jenny Lumet’s screenwriting debut. At times hard to watch and at others tough to get the smile off your face, Jonathan Demme crafts a film so real that you feel as though you just watched your own home movie.

2. Wrestler, The, review: Is the story any more unique than the last down-on-his-luck ex-celebrity clawing his way back into the one thing he’s ever been good at? Absolutely not. But when you watch Mickey Rourke play that part, a mirror image of his own resurrection in Hollywood, you can’t help but believe it is. My hope for Best Actor and a continuation of Darren Aronofsky’s perfect filmography, The Wrestler shows us how we all live in multiple worlds and, while we hope they can all go on simultaneously, we know that in the end one must be chosen. Life is only worth living if you can find love somewhere in it. If it’s from your family, your lover, your fans, your dog, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you learn to love yourself and what you are as a testament to it.

1. Fall, The, review: Tarsem Singh creates a visionary epic that he himself says in a documentary on the DVD will fail if the hospital scenes do not work. Without the success of Roy and Alexandria’s relationship to make the fantasy sequences relevant, the film would be nothing more than a long music video. Fortunately, young Catinca Untaru is marvelous and her journey with Lee Pace’s Roy in reality and in their minds envelops you completely. Stunning from start to finish, if it really did take Tarsem three years to complete, I congratulate him for sticking with it, because he molded a masterpiece.

Some films to keep on the radar in 2009 are: Coraline; Funny People; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; The Informers; Star Trek; Taken; Terminator: Salvation; Up; Watchmen

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What is guilt? I believe this is the central question behind Stephen Daldry’s new film The Reader. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, the story asks its audience what a true monster is. If you are doing your job, afflicted by a handicap that others will use against you, can you be held responsible for your actions if your own demise would be the result of standing against orders? Should you be held to blame for not killing yourself once you found out the bigger picture of that small task you were forced to participate in? If you know a secret, one that could exonerate someone from being found guilty of murder, should you help her even though you know she’s accepted her guilt despite being unable to stop it? What if that person was someone you loved? There is some heavy material thrown about in the second half of this film, emotions run high and people must make decisions concerning some very dire situations. One thing is for sure, though, once that decision is made, no matter which side of the fence you fall on, some shred of guilt, some feeling of remorse, is inevitably going to follow you around for the rest of your life. This is what we call being human, because as Bruno Ganz’s Professor Rohl says, “our justice is governed by laws, not morals.” It doesn’t matter whether something was right or wrong, it’s whether it was legal or illegal. Unfortunately our souls don’t work that way.

As said, these moral quandaries crop up in the brilliantly paced and constructed second half of the film. The power involved in the characters’ actions all weigh heavy on those they touch. Perhaps the weight would not feel as palpable without the events of the first act, but either way, that portion of the film is too light and innocuous. We learn about young Michael Berg’s, (a wonderful turn by David Kross, who is the true star of the film), affair with an older woman named Hanna Schmitz. This woman is very troubled and in a state of constant flux where her emotions are concerned. She loves Berg, but can never quite allow herself to fully commit to that feeling, her past continuously nagging at the back of her head, remembering what it was she used to do with those who read to her. Kate Winslet’s performance as Hanna is quite good, but like the film itself, doesn’t come into its own until the second act, when all the secrets finally become uncovered.

It is a good beginning, the unabashed love of a young 15 year old and his first sexual partner. He becomes her orator of stories and partner in romance, but they both know it could never last. School would be commencing and Berg would see the young girls his age, ever comparing them to Hanna, and her manifesting his feelings with her own jealousy, knowing that she must let him go … this time sending herself away rather than those she “befriended” of her past, those she sent off to whatever fate awaited them. Whether this violation became so deeply rooted in the boy, I’m not sure, but when he goes off to law school and crosses paths with his first love again, this time as she awaits charges of Nazi war crimes, he is torn on what is morally correct. It becomes his obligation to let the truth come out, despite the activities she partook in during the Holocaust. According to the law, he must divulge the information for justice, but his moral compass may not be able to do so.

The story truly is wonderfully acted and directed, pulling at the audience’s emotions and engaging them throughout. However, while the second half is the most intriguing and resonant, it also contains the one activity that I found abhorrent. Now older, Michael Berg is played by Ralph Fiennes, a lawyer, recently divorced and with a daughter. His journey back home, to his mother that has all but given up on him as a distant figure unable to open up to those that love him, becomes one of returning memories. Discovering the books he once read to Hanna almost two decades earlier, the guilt of what he didn’t do makes him set upon a mission to right that wrong. But the way in which he does so is really quite wrong to me. He seems to condemn her for what she did still and only creates cassettes of stories to send her to assuage his own selfish need for forgiveness. He never appears to care about her, because if he did, he would have made different choices in that courtroom years before. Berg shows the selfishness that followed him the entire story and really got me thinking that maybe he was a worse human being than Hanna. It’s an interesting dynamic to be sure, one that subverts the somewhat “touching” conclusion the filmmakers seem to want to attempt.

The Reader is an interesting look at German guilt and the people’s need to place blame on others for the Holocaust in order to somehow absolve their own indifference of doing nothing when they themselves knew what was going on. One of Berg’s classmates gets the whole issue correct in a little tirade about the absurdity of the trial. Here they all were, guilty themselves of knowing what went on in the thousands of camps, yet putting on trial only six women because a survivor, (interesting to see Lena Olin play a mother and daughter—the beauty of a film spanning decades), wrote a book fingering them. Just as Germany needed to place blame, so did Michael Berg. Rather than put it on his own shoulders though, like Hanna eventually selflessly does, he decides to side with the masses, sitting back silently and then trying in earnest to deal with his eventual guilt, not to apologize to the person he let down, but to somehow forgive himself. It is quite the despicable act and I’m not sure if that was the filmmakers’ intent, however, that is the lasting impression it left on me.

The Reader 7/10

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[1] Kate Winslet and David Kross star in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. Photo by: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2008 The Weinstein Co.
[2] Ralph Fiennes is Michael Berg in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. Photo by: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2008 The Weinstein Co.

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2008 has become a very odd year for foreign films. I like to think that it is a testament to the quality of movies coming over internationally that has caused this problem of picking those worthy of awards. One of only two Oscar nominees that mirrored the noms from the Golden Globes is Vals Im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir). It’s not much of a surprise that this is one of the holdovers being that it won the prize at the Globes and is probably the heavy favorite to win the Oscar as well. There is something to be said about that, as it is not only a pseudo-documentary, but also animated. Sure the rotoscoping style is like that of A Scanner Darkly and not anything like a children’s film, however, it still intrigues to be such a frontrunner, yet not in the documentary or animation categories. It’s a wonderful feat by director Ari Folman, putting his memories and those of others in the 1982 Lebanon War on full display. The remorse of whatever role they might have or not have played in the Sabra and Shatila massacres is never glossed over. These men either have vivid recollections or strong repressed dreams of what happened in that defining moment of their lives.

It all begins when our lead, Folman himself, meets an old friend at a bar who proceeds to tell him of a recurring nightmare, one that involves his being haunted by the 26 dogs he killed in the war. The rest of his group knew he wouldn’t be able to kill a human being so they told him to take out the animals, and even those left an indelible mark on his psyche. Besides finding out Boaz’s dream interpretation, the exchange really becomes the impetus of the film. Folman, never having any bad dream or memory of that period in his life, returns home and experiences a surrealistic vision of he and a friend, Carmi Can’an, bathing in the water as the flares light up the sky, the two of them slowly exiting, getting dressed, and walking out of the town. This becomes the one incident that Folman can grasp onto about his inclusion in the fight, yet when confronting his friend, finds out that it may never have happened. Carmi, (who at one point tells the filmmaker that he can draw him but not take video), seems to have not wanted to be involved in the movie as someone else voices his character. I haven’t done research on this subject, but from the comment about videotaping, I imagine he declined and hasn’t since passed away.

The fact that Folman has this vision, though, must mean something, even if it never happened, so he decides to speak with his psychologist. This man tells him that while the event never occurred in reality, it doesn’t mean that it never took place. To Folman, that night in the water becomes a way of telling himself that he was there, but not involved. It’s deduced that perhaps his mind, conflicted with the fact that his parents were in Auschwitz and yet he participated in another genocide, only this time on the side of murderer, has covered his involvement with a manifested picture, hiding his guilt from coming to the surface. As Folman speaks with more people involved in the battle, though, that memory begins to come into focus and he finally remembers what happened that night. It’s all shown on screen, along with the aftermath. And it is a powerful sequence watching these men partake in a massacre, never fully understanding what part they played until it was all over.

Being something that depicts events that were not documented visually, the use of animation works perfectly. Events could be recreated and then made into drawings, adding in the special effects and scenery to make it look and feel like Lebanon in 1982. It is a process that saves money from needing to set explosions and dress up existing locales to stand in for Beirut, etc. Also, being that the pivotal moment from Folman’s mind is a dream, we are able to see it just as vividly as any other scene of reality. Don’t worry, though, just because it is animated does not make it any less graphic or true. All the blood is still there as well as the utter destruction the Israeli’s left in their wake. A huge disregard for anything is depicted as tanks just run into buildings as they attempt to turn a street corner or guns are shot into areas not caring what the bullets may hit. One sequence follows the numerous attempts at taking out a vehicle driving down the road. The Israelis or Phalangists constantly miss it, but never stop, bombing everything and destroying whatever is nearby without a second thought.

Some of the firsthand accounts are pretty amazing to hear. I especially enjoyed Ronny Dayang’s account of an ambush and how he was left hiding behind a rock until nightfall when he swam to the opposite shore, only to find the regiment that abandoned him. It is actually quite fascinating hearing all these stories of remorse and guilt being that it is an Israeli film showing the Israeli side of the war. But it is the 19-20 year olds that are reminiscing, the boys told to not only kill, but to also probably die. I think the most obvious moment that shows how planned out the massacre was comes from reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, a man that walked the frontlines without fear as his cameraman crawled on the ground. He relates about how he called a high official about the rumors of the Palestinian genocide, and the response he got was, “did you see anything?” When the answer was not firsthand, he was told, “thanks for bringing it to our attention.” I’d be very interested to hear what lie he would have spun if Ben-Yishai said yes. This was retaliation for the assassination of the president-elect Bashir, the Christian man set to lead Lebanon. His death sparked the destruction at the hands of the Phalangist Christians, using the Israelis as accomplices to get their blood. There was no stopping it.

Waltz with Bashir 8/10

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Photos by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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Well if I was a long time editor of Wes Craven films, I’d want to eventually exit his shadow and make a name for myself too. Why director Patrick Lussier decided to choose a remake to put himself out there, I don’t know, but that is what he is giving us. The man who helmed Dracula 2000 with Craven wearing the Producer cap ends a string of straight to video sequels by bringing some blood and gore back to the big screen. Normally I could care less about a story like this, but there are special circumstances when concerned with the update of My Bloody Valentine and that would be the addition of a little abbreviation that goes by the name of 3D. Only when people I trust started saying that the gimmick was effectively used did I even acknowledge the small interest of checking it out. Since my last foray in seeing real human actors in three-dimensions was the abysmally flat, cardboard-like final reel of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I’ll just say I wasn’t too enthused to give the technique a second chance. However, James Cameron’s Avatar is only a couple years away, so the technology must have improved … right? The answer to that is: by leaps and bounds. I just wish the vehicle utilizing it could have been a bit more interesting.

If I am going to say anything really positive about My Bloody Valentine 3D it is going to concern the 3D. Granted, motion still gets a bit blurred and unfocused, but I believe that will be improved, otherwise, there is a lot to like. I credit Lussier from not shying away from really going for the aesthetic fully. Multiple uses of fences or steel cages obstruct our view in order to show depth; a few of the gruesome deaths contain body parts flying out at us, (the blood spurts could have been rendered better); and the pickaxe which doubles as the prime weapon of choice finds itself in the audience’s face often. What really impressed me, though, was the rendering of light. The sheen that covers glass and other reflective surfaces is quite impressive, lending itself a realistic transparency as well as a tactile surface quality. And the lights, especially that of our killer’s headlamp, are perfect. Even the lens flares have depth to them, superimposing onto what’s beneath them as part of a higher layer. You really do find yourself lost in the screen at times, a round of applause all around.

Unfortunately, one doesn’t go to the movies to necessarily be wowed by effects and lulled into not seeing the numerous problems that shiny toy hides beneath it. The story is very generic—the college-aged son of a small town, (Harmony is such a blatantly tongue-in-cheek name), coal mine owner makes a mistake leaving a group of workers trapped in an underground collapse. All die except one man, found in a coma, who is later deemed to have killed the rest with his pickaxe in order to save the limited air for himself. A year later, on Valentine’s Day—the title isn’t completely unnecessary after having much more meaning in the original incarnation, at least I infer it did from the plot synopsis I read—Harry Warden awakens and kills 22 people before being lost in another cave-in, finally dead after a failed attempt to kill Tom Hanniger, the boy who’s accidental misstep left him there the first time.

Ten years go by and the survivors all find themselves back in town and face to face with a restart of the slayings. Tom has returned to sell the mine, his ex-girlfriend has married a jealous rival from the past who is now the town’s sheriff, and it appears Harry Warden is back from the dead, looking to get his revenge once and for all. It is all very convenient and sadly poorly acted in most instances. Even Kevin Tighe, a recognizable character actor, comes off a bit flat, at times hamming it up for the camera, especially at the end when drunk with a shotgun. An almost unrecognizable Jamie King is the love interest of newly returned Tom from his decade-long self-exile and Sheriff Axel Palmer. She is actually pretty good, I was just completely surprised when I saw King’s name in the end credits. Kerr Smith’s Axel is effective if not obvious and Jensen Ackles’ Tom is really quite bland and wooden. Maybe that was a conscious decision in order to undergo a slight transformation at the end—which was acted nicely—but I think the playing it dull was just too soulless.

As for the scares, everything is pretty generic, yet shown in fun ways. A lot of deflection is utilized so that you expect a jump-scare moment to come only to be disappointed. However, in that split second your anxiety has lifted, the scare then arrives. The beat was off just enough to keep the scares fresh and it was appreciated. When it comes to the blood, you will definitely not be disappointed. My favorite bit of gore happens very near the beginning and it involves a shovel and a pretty girl’s face … let’s just say that sets the stage for what can and will occur as the film progresses.

One goes to a genre flick like this to have fun with the blood, gore, and nudity. My Bloody Valentine 3D doesn’t hold back in regards to any of those, so rest assured you’re in for a fun ride. I laughed a lot and enjoyed the effects work with many axe-swinging fatalities. However, the real winner coming out of it is the 3D work. Besides a couple stale moments of a slow panning gun eventually being pointed at you the audience member, it is astonishing to experience. I can’t wait to see the technology as part of a more high-brow feature, but for now, a little horror flick isn’t too bad to give you that first taste.

My Bloody Valentine 3D 5/10

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[1] © 2008, Courtesy of Lionsgate.
[2] Jensen Ackles stars as ‘Tom Hanniger’ in MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D. Photo credit: Michael Roberts

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Non-fiction and me, we don’t generally get along. Not that the truth is something I try to avoid, I just usually find documentaries too much like a school lesson, teaching rather than entertaining. Film to me is a medium that I use to go to different worlds, to be shown something new and exciting. Fiction as a rule, even if based on real events, is usually made more emotionally accessible and shown less analytically, to hit home stronger. However, every once in a while something will come out that truly astounds me, a tale that touches me on a gut level where the story transcends the monotonous narration and still frame photo after still frame photo. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is just that experience. The last thing I want to do is ruin any of the twists and turns taken by this true life account delving into the death of a beloved man, so this review may be vague. On those same regards, though, I also want to recommend not finding out the facts yourself before viewing. If you let the document play out, slowly uncovering its own secrets while you discover them too, the impact will hit so much harder. But, if a swift kick to your heart isn’t what you’re looking for, by all means read up on the case. It’s just that that punch is what makes the film so powerful.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set about making this documentary in order to collect all the memories of his slain friend, Andrew Bagby, before the people he was to interview forgot them. He travels to England to retrieve stories from Andrew’s mother’s family there and then sets off on a cross-North America trip to visit everyone who held a special place in their heart for his friend. Between family, friends, and co-workers, the documents captured are truly moving. It’s a stunning portrait of this man that was loved by all he met. Descriptions range from how you’d feel you could trust him with your life upon first meeting to how after spending fifteen minutes in conversation, you’d feel as though you knew him longer then people you’d known twenty years. Bagby’s was a life cut way too short, and the reverberations of his death literally shook the world, it’s tremors spanning two continents, three countries, and countless people.

A staple in Kuenne’s films from grade school, Andrew was a self-deprecating young man, always striving to be a success in the medical field. He did what he had to do, moving to Newfoundland for medical school, after being rejected from all schools the year before, and eventually settling in Pennsylvania to put down his roots. After finding that surgical medicine was not for him, Bagby stumbled upon a family practice that allowed his affable nature to come through in force. The consummate people-person, he excelled at his job, saving lives and touching them for the better. After only a couple days, one co-worker spoke of, people were already requesting to be seen by him.

Of course, this rosy glow being set around him is an obvious thing to occur. No one wants to say how horrible his friend was after he has passed. The beauty of the film is that one, every account is so genuine that you will believe he was a saint, and two, the course of events that transpire after his murder become so horrifyingly unbelievable that you will be glued to the screen waiting to see how it all ends. Thankfully Andrew had so many friends close to him, because without that line of communication no one might have known the truth of that fateful night. When an ex-girlfriend shows up at his door wanting to meet and talk, Bagby calls a friend to share the news about how “you’ll never guess who showed up at my house”. When that friend warns he should go out the back and call the police, that no one would drive fifteen hundred miles to see an ex without reason, Andrew just laughs and says “why?” He was such a loving and trusting person that he’d never comprehend the horrors living behind some of humanity’s eyes. Monsters do exist and this film will introduce you to one of the worst.

On the other hand, though, it will also usher into your knowledge the existence of angels. Bagby’s parents, David and Kathleen, are the kind of people you wish were in your life. Upon the discovery that their son was about to have a child himself before he died, the two quit their jobs and moved to Canada to try and be a part of his life … especially since his mother was the supposed killer of their Andrew. Watching the events that happen concerning the extradition case to get Shirley Turner back into the US to face criminal charges is impossible to comprehend. The sluggish judicial system and lax care on the safety of individuals, (if someone is deemed not a threat to society, they may walk free because they have already killed the one person they wanted to kill—now that’s sound logic), will leave you speechless. It got to the point to where in order to be a part of their grandson’s life, David and Kathleen had to visit him with his mother. They had to make play-dates and play nice with the woman who murdered their son. How they could have done that is a testament to their love for both Andrew and young Zachary, but once you hear David’s account of their “options” you will see that they did look into alternative methods.

Dear Zachary is a story that warrants a viewing. A lengthy court case that I’m surprised I had never heard about—taking place in Canada could be the reason for this—I will not be forgetting it any time soon. You watch a film like It’s a Wonderful Life and think fleetingly about how important one person can really be in the grand scheme of life, but you watch this document and understand the truth. The death of Andrew Bagby touched so many people that it is hard to fathom. Even those as close as can be to him, friends he considered brothers, didn’t know certain things about the man. He was so much to so many that only in his passing was everyone allowed to delve deeper into the life he led. Love, hate, compassion, and violence; this story has it all. When the many twists and turns rear their head, Kurt Kuenne could have easily given up on his work. But the idea of commemorating his friend kept him going and I am very glad he did.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 9/10

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[1] A scene from Kurt Kuenne’s “Dear Zachary.” Photo courtesy of the Slamdance Film Festival.

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I must say that I am always pleasantly surprised to watch a film without expectations, or the tiniest shred of knowledge, and be completely immersed in its world. With the new fantasy adventure film Inkheart, I experienced just that. Iain Softley’s cinematic adaptation of the best-selling novel by Cornelia Funke is a fun and endearing trip. Rather than going for a whole “otherworld” feel that most fantasies have since LOTR, this one stays in our world. Whether that makes this commercially more viable than the influx of new genre entries the past couple years, (Golden Compass and Prince Caspian), remains to be seen, but I for one hope it does. I liken the story to the Neverending Story only inverted. Rather than a boy reading a book and transporting himself into it, the characters here read the book and bring both the protagonists and antagonists to them. There is of course one caveat, for whatever comes through to Earth, something must go into the book to replace it. Said replacement being our lead’s wife shows that there will be a fight for her return and the banishment of those brought over, back to the written word.

A very short prologue-type moment helps orient the audience with the magic that Inkheart brings. We learn that Brendan Fraser’s Mortimer Folchart is a “Silvertongue”, or person who reads the written word and brings it to reality. Unknown to him until he starts reading a story to his daughter, (my one gripe is that he never found out earlier … with the horrible things he lets in later, you’d have to think something more than Red Riding Hood’s cape would have come through in his past), the danger of his power isn’t felt completely until two villains and a street performer from this obscure novel arrive, sending his wife Resa, (Sienna Guillory in a role I wish would have let us see more of her), into the abyss, trapped. The real story at hand begins nine years after with Folchart and his daughter who doesn’t know about that past event and just believes her mother left them. Supposedly taught in boarding schools on the go—why else would she have that accent—young Meggie, played by Eliza Bennett, is an intelligent girl who follows her book repairing father as he searches for a copy of the tale that took his love away. It takes many years, but finally the copy is found; yet with it comes the rediscovery of them by that trapped street performer, Dustfinger, and the realization that Capricorn, the book’s main villain, wants Folchart captured to find him power and wealth by reading aloud.

What I really enjoyed about the film is that the retrieval of Resa is not the only thing it has going for it. Sure Folchart’s motivations are for that alone, but you also have the needs of those people that replaced her. Dustfinger, the ever-brilliant Paul Bettany who owns each and every scene he has here, is just a corrupted man by necessity, not a true villain, only wanting to get back to the family he left behind. This role is the most fleshed out and tragic, trying desperately to get away from the reputation that precedes him from those who’ve read the story yet unable to break free from the selfish coward he was written as. However, nine years on Earth has changed him; his love and need for his wife has made him into something more than a thief who wields fire and as he says to the author of Inkheart, a fun Jim Broadbent, he controls his own fate. Just the fact that he is out of the book proves that the words written are not the only truth; he can overcome whatever end awaits him on the closing pages of the novel.

But he isn’t the only side character needing something. The other is Capricorn, a vile man looking to take over Earth as his own. Brought to life by Andy Serkis, the role exudes slime and nefarious doings, showing the talent of this actor most known for playing computer generated characters in Peter Jackson epics. Capricorn is a villain to the end and his flip remarks and lack of compassion make for some laughs as well as a worthy opponent to Fraser’s manly man hero as he is a professional now at playing. Fraser is probably the weakest link of the film, but he does the part well and holds together those around him as the common connecting factor.

Actually, everything really does end up being pretty well done across the board. It’s a fun story that may be predictable, but the characters like Dustfinger are so well formed that you find yourself needing to see how their arcs end up. Even the special effects are pretty to look at, from the wispy clouds as fictional people come to our world to the smoke monster Shadow that arrives later on. And I loved seeing some of literature’s best “creatures” in the flesh, held captive at Capricorn’s castle. Really, besides some shoddy bluescreen work of Helen Mirren on a unicorn, there is very little to fault in those terms. Heck, the movie even had a fantastic little inside joke for cinema/Hollywood fans with a glimpse at Dustfinger’s wife left alone back home. Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed when her face appeared on screen, but it was a cute surprise.

So, whether the film stays true to the novel, I can’t say. All I can relate to filmgoers is that as a fan of family-friendly fantasy films, Inkheart certainly surprised me with its likeability and warmth. Maybe not as successful as the classics, Princess Bride, or even 2007’s Stardust, Softley still delivers one worth a look. And while Bettany and Serkis may steal the show, deservingly so, it’s always nice to watch Brendan Fraser in a part that doesn’t scream paycheck. It appears to be too few and far between lately, so I do sincerely hope this one becomes a success at the box office.

Inkheart 8/10

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[1] Farid (RAFI GAVRON), Mo (BRENDAN FRASER), Meggie (ELIZA HOPE BENNETT), Dustfinger (PAUL BETTANY) and Elinor (HELEN MIRREN) hide out from the Black Jackets in New Line Cinema’s fantasy adventure “Inkheart,” also starring JIM BROADBENT and ANDY SERKIS. This film is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo: Murray Close
[2] Mo (BRENDAN FRASER) and Dustfinger (PAUL BETTANY) navigate through tunnels trying to avoid the Black Jackets in New Line Cinema’s fantasy adventure “Inkheart,” also starring HELEN MIRREN, JIM BROADBENT and ANDY SERKIS. This film is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo: Murray Close

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